Imagine: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday On Fridays, I join in with the community of those writing at Lisa-Jo’s. We take five minutes and write without editing or over-thinking or needing it to be perfect. We just write because it’s what’s in us to do. And if the timer rings, I stop and if the speakers are on mute, I keep going! The rules are here if you’d like to join in the fun.

His eyes well up with tears as he sits on my lap, holding tightly to my upper arms as he has since he first came into the world, five years and one day ago. He kneaded these same arms while he nursed, later while he slept beside me, later still while he cuddled and “nuggled.” They are home to him. So while he is going to his Mema’s house with the pool and the cousins and the birthday cupcakes and his papa and his precious baby brother, these arms that hold him and convince him he’s home are staying put. This long-awaited weekend, my husband’s gentle gift to an introverted wife for making it through another semester of his graduate school, has me brimming with joy while my boy brims with sadness.

The neighbor’s dog died two days ago. I found him in tears, wondering what it would be like if his brother died. It isn’t the first time. We don’t lie to him and we’ve had friends bury children, so he knows. He knows that there are no guarantees. We don’t dwell on it or manipulate him with fear but he knows that a neighbor boy said goodbye to his mother a few Thursdays ago and she never came back.

And I can see that fear that courses through the generations run swift through him. So he nuggles and kneads and I hold and remind him. “Where will we meet?” We’ve practiced this a million times. If the fire alarm goes off or I lose him at Kroger, he may not know where to go because I fail to be practical at times. But this meeting place, I need him to know. I need this as much as he does. I start at the beginning.

“You will see Jesus and he will throw his arms around you and hug you and welcome you to our new world. And when the time is right—and you will just know when the time is right—you can ask him to bring you to us. He’ll know where we are. He will walk you through a city that will take your breath away with her beauty and over the horizon you will see the tree. She will leap up to the sky with joy, stretching over the river, large enough to grow on both sides of the waters of God. And we will be there, son, waiting for you. Under the tree with the leaves that will heal the nations, that’s where the Peterson’s will meet.”

Just imagine.

View: Five Minute Friday

It is a beautiful thing to write with others. As Lisa Jo Baker says, “it’s like free therapy.” And after the week I’ve had, I need some therapy. And after a year with my husband in grad school, it had better be free.

Five Minute Friday is a community of writers who write without worrying if we are getting it just right. No editing, no over-thinking, just a one-word prompt and a timer set for five minutes. The rules are here. No blog? I actually started this just so I could participate; today is a great day to start!

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, art, civilizations—these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory)

I hung up the phone, shaking. Adrenaline was coursing through my body and I felt waves of nausea. Did I really just say that? Did she really just say that? Who was that talking? That did not feel like the “me” that I regularly experience, the me that is married to Joel, mother to Isaiah and Asher, sister to Doug, friend to some, acquaintance to others but very rarely enemy to anyone.

Did I really just get into a fight over the phone with a woman I never met? A woman who was not in customer service at Verizon, that is? I’m in a daze. It has been years since I’ve experienced something like that. Yes I sin. I use words that are harsh when gentleness is the true answer. I opt to count myself first in line when I should step behind in service. I do selfish and stupid things daily and I confess with the church: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

This was very different (although likely very much the same). The details don’t really matter. A friend’s words ring through my head: “It is much easier to take offense than to pause for self-reflection.” So I breathe and I pause and I ask, “Was that really me? Why was I drawn out in that way? What exactly just happened?” The answers are a mile long. But the keystone in the answer is that I forgot what Jack taught me. (Disclaimer: I have no personal relationship with C.S. Lewis (who died when my mom was 13 and I was 17 years away) but I still like to call him Jack.)

That woman, her attitude, her unwillingness to be honest, her name-calling and inability to hear me, her defensiveness, the ugliness that came forth from her is not in line with who she actually is. At least as far as knowledge is available to me, she is the embryo of an everlasting splendor. I had a chance to draw her deeper into the love of God and, while I pray that some of the difficult truth I spoke will do that, I missed that boat. Or perhaps it’s more true to say I kept one leg on the shore of having the last word and stretched with the other leg to the boat of love setting sail, splashing uncomfortably in the ocean of sinfulness as the boat gentled away from the coast.

And me? I’m guessing that the future phone conversations she will have about me will not reveal that she saw me as the beginning of an everlasting splendor. (One of the things I did without gentleness was point out that these phone conversations that were previously had do, in fact, fall under the category of gossip; my best friend said as I shared the wrong I had done, “Wait, wait, did you just think that or did you actually say that?” Her head was in her hands as I nodded yes to actually saying it.) I was a horror to her and without the work of God in her heart, I will remain so in her mind.

So I choose to intentionally put this woman and these words and the whole situation in the hands of Jesus, who graciously receives such a terrible gift. He holds her for me; he holds me; he holds all the brokenness that spilled out from two daughters.

My eighteen month old screams “Zay-yah!” with disgust. He runs to find me in the kitchen pointing and repeating his version of his brother’s name. He rubs his head and the injustice of it all pours forth from his tiny face, those precious eyes. I don’t laugh even though I want to. I call to Isaiah and ask what happened. Offended at the unjust accusation, he defends himself. It all comes into view. I’m sad that they are fighting, not experiencing one another in love. I’m also amused a bit at the righteous indignation of a very adorable 18 month old who still speaks in mystery. I see us both from God’s view: these two women, both partly right, both wholly wrong, both holding tightly to Jesus only to find we are gently held by him. Lightly cupping his hands, he holds us, wounding and wounded at the very same time.

[Confession: I used more than my five minutes. I needed more free therapy than five minutes offered today.]
Five Minute Friday

Big Enough

There was a time when I could only read the Psalms. Not a week or two—over a year I deliberately avoided Paul, Moses, Jesus and John, among others. I went to church most of the time so I’m sure I heard the Christian Scriptures read aloud, printed on bulletins. But when my Bible cracked open, I could only find myself at home in the Psalms. In retrospect, it was a great mercy visited from outside myself that I managed to open a Bible at all. St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul remained untouched on my bookshelf; the title description was apt enough to do me good without reading it.

These days every Sunday afternoon, a deacon stands in front of a gathered people of whom I am a part and says, “The Psalter is the prayer book of the Bible. Join me in praying responsively by half-verse Psalm fill-in-the-blank.” And then in stark contrast to the beautiful prayers I’ve begun to pray in the Book of Common Prayer, we together intone the most alarming words.

Why do you stand afar off, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you.

O my God, I cry by day but you do not answer; and by night but I have no rest.

It doesn’t stop there with feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. A former colleague ridiculed me when I confessed that the imprecatory psalms bring me relief. I have seen injustice crack its rod on the bent backs of the oppressed, in Africa and America and I join the psalmist praying:

Requite them according to their work and according to the evil of their practices; Requite them according to the deeds of their hands; Repay them their recompense. Because they do not regard the works of the Lord nor the deeds of His hands, He will tear them down and not build them up.

I pray that not because I am vindictive or unmerciful (although I can be) but because voicing that plea gives me hope for the future without recklessly needing to force my own justice with these often misguided hands. I can plead with God for his good justice to come because I know my justice is as venal and oppressive as what I am watching unfold.

Real life surges through these songs and prayers. These words heave and pitch with raw pain, with the fragile, lacy foam of hope tipping the edges of harsh waves, with honest sparring with a God who seems to disappoint, even abandon. It isn’t a hatred of mercy that makes me find a home in these words but a love of honesty.

Betrayal. Sin. Depression. Loss. Grief. Lament. Abandonment. Joy. Confusion. Loneliness. If you have felt it or can name it, you will find it there: fully sanctioned by a holy and friendly God, inspired by his Spirit, ready for your hottest feelings to find a voice before him.

It can be a little embarrassing. In some way our honest calling, our pleas laced with anger, hurt, disappointment or our all-out, shaking-our-fists-skyward hollers for help find their way to this:

Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you and you will honor me.

God chooses to relate to me in a vastly different way than I relate to my own children. These prayers that are as likely to start with a complaint or question as with a word of praise are welcomed. There is no divine “If you don’t have anything nice to say, just say nothing” mandate apparent in the Psalms. His command to call to him isn’t limited to when we can call nicely; his promise to rescue us isn’t dependent on our humble and grateful praying life, if the Psalms are any indication. These prayers are what I don’t often pray: a conversation, an honest expression of self that remains grounded in the truth of God’s character, that doesn’t lose itself completely in the wretchedness of its overwhelming emotions, even when all hope seems lost.

The human desire to clean ourselves up and present ourselves to God and others on our own terms, hiding behind as many leaves as we can hold, remains. The honesty reflected in these pleas and prayers can make me shudder because they most honestly reflect me and the state of my heart. This me is not at all what I would like to show the world, less still the God who has the final say in my life. I prefer a little more control, a little less mess.

But in the Psalter I find with God’s people all of the mess. The shouts and silence, the joy and fear, the anger and sense of abandonment. And when I join my voice in these prayers uttered by saints through the ages, I find exactly what I need: the paradox that “the seeming absence of God could be countered by recognizing the actual presence of God in what [the psalmist] had experienced as God’s absence.” (Scot McKnight, Fasting, on Psalm 77, pg. 55)

The beautiful gift of God in the Psalms is the truth that he is big enough. For my grief and my sorrow. For my questions and my anger. For my loneliest sense of abandonment. For the dark nights of the soul. He is big enough to receive my song, to sanction these songs and give me voice.

Song: Five Minute Friday

It’s Friday again! Time to set the timer and see what happens. This one didn’t fly out of my fingers like normal so if it feels a little sloggy, it isn’t just you. It’s me.

The melody floated in the windows, soaring ahead of the dusty wind. In months of living in that neighborhood, with those friends, I had never heard it. The music was other. Different. Holy even. My husband nudged me and told me to go outside and see. The voices were female; his presence would silence them. I slid on a floor-length polyester slip and a large shawl to cover my hair, curly from the unlikely desert rain.

Mariam and two others were sitting on a poured concrete house foundation, with rebar sticking up and a variety of holes that made the platform slightly better than an obstacle course. They sang. They stopped a little with the sound of my metal door scraping across my tile entryway, then continued. I made my way down the dirty road a bit, hiked up my skirt and in truly American (read: extremely unladylike) fashion, took a seat with them.

What were they singing?

My question embarrassed them. A rain song. But one that was haram, forbidden. Although I don’t know much of orthodox Islam, my friends explained that their religion practiced correctly forbids music. They may chant, they can read their book, they can pray and call to prayer but no music. Not the music they were singing. Of course, they belong to a nation of poets and playwrights, of singers and songwriters. In this way, their faith does not enliven them but reduces them. This rain song—the most beautiful song I have ever heard—came from their inner most being, their very God-created hearts. I am certain of that.

I grieve for people who have lost their song.

I think of my own people: Western, modern or post-modern, Christianized. How we have lost our songs. How we allow Facebook and Spotify and iPods and someone else’s playlist drown out the music that is in our innermost being. How our discomfort with grief means that we have put away our dirges. How our inability to accept death means that we wash our hands and scurry away from the elderly who might teach us some new songs. I grieve for us, for myself, for the brokenness of this world that touches entire cultures, not just individuals. I grieve for people who have lost our song.

Five Minute Friday

Comfort: Five Minute Friday

I’m writing with the encouraging group of writers at Five Minute Friday today. If you need an injection of creativity or reflection in your life, I invite you to join us!
Five Minute Friday
I’m watching the string from my Venetian blinds blow in the cool morning breeze. The gaping, aching hole is still there this morning. My four year old says as I cuddle him, “It’s like we’re in a nightmare.” He doesn’t even know what he’s saying but he’s right. It is like a nightmare.

This neighbor that I knew well enough to wave but not well enough to sit down and drink tea with, the one I’ve watched dozens of times load her infant carrier in her car, whose husband I know well enough to stop and greet, whose little three year old boy makes me slow down as I turn by her house, she’s gone. Twenty-four hours ago she was here. By all accounts a beautiful, loving wife, mother, daughter, working with pregnant teenagers to find a way to enrich lives, theirs and their babies. Gone.

I decided a long time ago that no matter what medical scientists say, there is no such thing as instantaneous death. There must be a few seconds, maybe a few moments before the ambulances come, before the coroner arrives to pronounce death and I can’t even think of it. I just can’t. My mother’s heart aches and wishes I still had milk to share. That I knew them well enough to stop by and gather up dirty laundry. That I could do something. In that supposed instant she must have been thinking of them, crying out for the baby she would never nurse again, for the husband she would never kiss again, for the boy she would never tuck in again. And that instant has turned into a nightmare for those still living.

Last night I couldn’t speak for thinking of who would tuck that boy in. For what it would be like when she cried her infant cry for the mom that was her rock, her very life, giving her sustenance. So I pray and I weep and I hold my boys tight and I hug my husband as he leaves. And he says what I know our neighbor would have said if he had only known it was his last day to embrace his wife. But he didn’t. And now she’s gone.

The fundamental brokenness of this world creeps in slowly through cancer. It seeps down deep in our psyche as the foundations of our stability crumble in depression and mental illness. Sometimes it just sucker-punches a whole community as they gasp with the news that a woman was killed, no warning, no goodbyes, just gone.

The candles flicker at the prayer vigil. Voices break, sobs are muffled. We sit and kneel and cling to the altar. I look at the stained glass portrait of our God on the cross, intimately acquainted with suffering. I ask him if he can truly bear this load, if he can come in a way that will hold these children who miss their mother’s arms, if he can bring any comfort to this wound, this rending of a whole family, a whole town, a whole seminary community. My eyes flicker to the left, to the other image in stained glass, his hands are raised. Is he praying? Is he ascending? I’m not sure but those hands look strong to me in that instant, strong enough to hold the broken. To comfort the living.

I remember again that it is Ascension Day. I remembered this morning and promptly forgot; I’m only a fledgling Anglican, still learning the rhythm of liturgical living. I think of him, ascending to heaven in his resurrection body. That he knelt down from heaven yesterday to receive her soul out of her broken body but that her broken body is not the end of the story. That she will be raised in a resurrection body. That she will hold that child, that baby and that man again. I have no idea what their reunion will look like in many terms but I know it will happen. Yet here we live: in the in-between. Where, O death, is your sting? Today it is in the motherless children. Today it is in the driveway where only one car sits, not two. Today it is very real.

Comfort, Lord, comfort your people.

What About My Legs?

Today her face haunts my memories. Her face was peculiar, holding in tension age and innocence, experience and a mental disability that limited her experience. The desert sun had weathered her face to an appearance of elderliness even though she was probably much younger than my mother. Being set by family outside in a wheelchair to beg had weathered more than her skin. She now lived on the streets, meeting up with an unlikely family of street children and their mothers.

Every year it seemed an epidemic of eye infections hit the city. Local friends explained that it was the desert wind. I had to wonder whether it hadn’t reached epidemic proportions due to the tendency to wipe one’s eyes with the same cloth that had just wiped another set of pussy, infected eyes. At any rate, local hawkers sold massive numbers of sunglasses, I washed my eyes out with salt multiple times a day (I’m still convinced that’s what protected me) and friends without enough disposable income to purchase antibiotic eye drops came knocking. The eye medicine was inexpensive and I longed to do my part to help protect my city from any more oozing eyes than it already boasted.

One day at the height of eye infection week, I walked to the school where I trained local teachers. She waved me over to the shade next to the locked cage holding propane gas tanks for sale where she was seated in her wheelchair. Her eyes were obviously the next casualty of the desert wind-eye disease. Her disabilities rendered her speech a challenge to understand but I got the gist of it: she needed eye medicine. And I had what it took to get her some: a little money and an easy trip to the pharmacy on two healthy feet. Yes, I affirmed, next time I came to school, I would come bearing medicine.

I did. Knowing me, I probably bummed some off of a Western doctor friend for free (I don’t quite remember) but I got what she needed and remembered to bring it. In my second language I explained to her how often and how long to medicate her eyes. Did she understand? Yes, yes. But. But? Her hands rested on her knees, below them withered feet dangled on her wheelchair footrests. There was something more she wanted to say. She looked me full in the face and said, “But what about my legs?”

What about her legs? Those legs that hadn’t walked for years? Those legs that very well may have come into the world twisted and unusable? What about those legs? I have actually laughed uproariously when I’ve thought about this question. It was so stunning to me, I just stammered. I have no idea what I told her but I do know that I wished Jesus himself were walking around the Horn of Africa rather than me, a pitiful emissary. Because he could have (dare I say would have?) answered that question with a touch and a command and she would have walked. I retreated to the school’s office.

Even if it weren’t Jesus but Peter, I can hear him. “I don’t have silver or gold but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” But it wasn’t Jesus or Peter, it was Elizabeth. I didn’t have silver or gold but US dollars and local francs and enough to provide eye drops. While I long to believe the words of Jesus that the one who believes in him will do greater works than he did, I just don’t see it in myself. Which is both a terror and a relief to admit. I don’t see it because she got some Western medicine that helped but no word of power that healed. What if she could have walked? What if God was prepared to heal her, had I asked? How did Peter do that? What I do have, I give to you.

I guess I did that too. I just wish that what I had were different.

At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says to those he is teaching to pray, a group I consider myself a part of, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” I ask, I plead on my knees. I don’t want to have only US dollars and local currencies to give. I want to give like Peter did, not so I can be accomplished or noticed or special but so that chains of brokenness fall away and captives walk free. So that men and women born lame walk. So that hungry people eat and hurting people are healed and weary people rest.

Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Brave: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday I’m feeling brave to try to write a post after such little sleep but here goes.  Today I am writing with a great fun bunch of women at Five Minute Friday, hosted by Lisa Jo Baker.  For the rules, click here.

Today I celebrated these brave women who moved with their husbands to a new country and stood with them as they learned and studied and wrote and defended until there were finally more letters at the end of their names.  They moved from Nigeria and Korea and Tanzania and around the globe to a rural county in Kentucky where most residents aren’t what ESL teachers call “sympathetic interlocutors.”  They learned new ways of living and cleaning and cooking and greeting and speaking and loving and worshiping in this big act of bravery that almost no one sees.

They aren’t the ones who get the extra letters.  No new diploma will grace their walls.  They do not walk across a stage in velvety robes, declaring to the world that they have labored and pained over a graduate or post-graduate degree in a second language.  The receptions and parties and welcome homes shower gracefully over them too but they aren’t really the intended recipients.

So today in our ESL class we celebrated them.  With cake and fruit and candy and love.  With stories and learning and blessing and prayer.  Women who will leave us now, who have changed us, who have added new words to our lives, who have graced us with new ways of seeing.