callings and temptations

Today FaithND is running a reflection I wrote on this Sunday’s Gospel, about Jesus’ forty days in the desert and the words of Scripture that he falls back on in his hour of temptation. As I worked on this piece, I was captured by the idea that the devil preys on Jesus’ deepest callings and twists them just enough to pervert the true meaning of the Scripture he cites:

Jesus came to be bread for the world—why not zap stones into manna? Why not feed all the starving in one fell swoop, multiply the miracle by a million, transform every pebble of the earth into food for the hungry?

Jesus came to rule over the world with justice and compassion—why not become king in an instant? Why not seize the glory of all the nations, watch all the citizens of the world bow in honor to him in a single second?

Jesus came to model complete trust in God—why not hurl himself down into the arms of the angels? Why not prove exactly how it looks to fling oneself into the unfailing care of the divine?

I wonder how my own callings are confronted by temptations that look good on the surface, but deep down are distortions of the truth.

Take the calling to be a parent, for example. I find myself inundated by images and ideas and advice and assumptions about what it means to be a good mother. I’m still so new at this gig, just a few short years into a lifelong vocation, that I often find myself wrapped in doubts, worrying whether I’m doing this right, wondering if there’s another (or better or easier or righter) way.

I’ve never thought to consider these temptations as evil – I tend to reserve the term for large-scale horror, violence and destruction – but I wonder whether the weaseling of worry, the twisting of fears around my deepest loves, the perversions that prey on my keenest sense of calling, are nothing less than the power of darkness at work in my own mind.

We can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, but can this be calling? My belief in a God of goodness, who calls us in love for love, who longs to bring about fullness of life for the world, whispers no.

Perhaps, like Jesus, I need the words of others to remind me, to strike at the heart of truth:

There is no real occasion for tumult, strain, conflict, anxiety, once we have reached the living conviction that God is All.

All takes place within God. God alone matters; God alone is.

Our spiritual life is God’s affair because whatever we may think to the contrary, it is really produced by God’s steady attraction and our humble and self-forgetful response to it.

It consists in being drawn, at God’s pace and in God’s way, to the place where God wants us to be.

- Evelyn Underhill, The Soul’s Delight

 

the real wise women

The joke regularly circles round the Internet and church bulletins this time of year:

What if the three Wise Men had been women? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts!

But beyond the silly stereotyping, the harmless joke always rubbed me the wrong way, though I could never put my finger on exactly why.

Until I was musing about what to give for a dear friend expecting a baby, and I realized I didn’t feel like buying her anything practical. I wanted to give her something beautiful, something lasting, something lavish.

Thoughtful folks always offer diapers and wipes when a wee one arrives. Bibs and burp clothes, toys and teething rings flow as freely as advice at baby showers. But the wisest women in my life were the ones who brought me impractical gifts. Handmade blankets. Tiny knitted sweaters. Wee white booties. A shiny silver cup.

Nothing for the day-to-day messes of babyhood. Everything for the wonder of welcoming a new one into the world.

When I look around our home’s endless kid-clutter of ever-changing clothes and once-loved toys, I realize these gifts – the impractical ones, the indulgent ones, the ones never found on a registry – are the lasting treasures.

In my youngest’s room, the rocking chair is draped with a quilt handmade by a dear friend. IMG_6494Propped on the floor by his favorite books is a pillow from my sister, stitched with his name and birth date.

In my oldest’s room, a warm white blanket from my husband’s aunt rests on his trunk. Keeping watch from atop the dresser stands a small statue of a mother cuddling her baby, a present from my sister-in-law. Gifts from mothers wise enough to know that babies deserve to be welcomed with beauty.

And lavish impracticality.

So every time I hear Epiphany’s Gospel of the Magi, and someone snickers about the impracticality of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I think no, the wise men got it just right.

And maybe it was the women they loved – the ones they left behind to journey so long and far, led by a star’s strange stirring – who were the ones that whispered in their ears bring something beautiful, something rich, something lasting. Maybe the women beside the wise men were the ones who knew just what a birth deserved, especially a sacred birth like this one.

Not the practical help that a young couple with a newborn needed. But the lavish gift of honoring a new and noble life in the glint of gold, the scent of frankincense, the perfume of myrrh. All the extravagance they could offer for such a child as this.

The wise men got it right. And wise women would have done the same.

a not-so-silent night

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes.

But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

It wasn’t my cheeriest Christmas thought. But pacing the back of church with my baby screaming in my arms, wailing and wrenching whether I put him down or picked him up, reeling back and smashing his head against my own, all I could do was roll my eyes while the congregation sang “Silent Night.”

Give me a break, I grumbled. A silent newborn Jesus?

Perfection is annoying in the face of a tired toddler, anything but tender and mild.

. . .

Childhood is full of tears. Rare – if not impossible – is the hour that goes by without a cry. So every single day since my first was born, I have heard wails and dried tears. Tears for falls and fights, tears for tantrums and tiredness. Crying defines childhood more than any emotion. When else in life do we wail in public with reckless abandon?

So perhaps it’s because my second throws more tantrums than my first: crying in the car seat, wailing in the high chair, screaming on the changing table. Or perhaps it’s because this December has been dark with sorrow, plastered with pictures of public grief. But this Christmas I find myself frustrated with the image of a Christ child who didn’t cry.

Crying is our first form of communication. It is how we learn to be human. We raise our voice and let feeling burst forth in the hopes that someone will respond.

It must have been the same for Christ.

. . .

Jesus wept. It’s the shortest sentence in the Bible. But it carries a depth of emotion: the love and compassion Christ had for his friend. Jesus’ tears at the death of Lazarus were not a moment of weakness, a wimpy stumble or a private sniffle. They were an outpouring of grief, wet and wailing proof of his deepest humanity.

Crying comes from a desire for things to be differently than they are. As a child, we cry out of our desire to have a snack or a toy or to go to sleep when we are too tired. As an adult, we cry out of our desire for a situation or relationship to be changed. Christ’s crying for Lazarus meets us there, in that most awful human moment of losing someone we love. And since we know how to be as an adult because of how we were as children, Jesus must have wailed as a baby, to be able to cry as he grew.

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Crying makes us human. The bursting forth of emotion when facing the most basic needs of existence, when dealing with the rawest of our desires. We cry not just for food and drink, shelter and warmth, but in the hopes that if we cry out, someone will respond. Crying teaches us comfort, dependence, compassion and humility.

And even though Emmanuel means that Christ was fully divine from the start, the mystery’s flip side insists that he was always human, too. That he could not have been immune from the tears at the heart of the human condition. That like us he cried for warmth and food and sleep and love. That his first night in human flesh was not free from tears.

. . .

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild.

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Despite being Christmas, yesterday was full of tears like every other day. I don’t remember which cry I confronted, whether the tears over the stolen toy or the forbidden cookie or the forced trip to the potty. I don’t remember which child I comforted, whether it was the oldest who wails “I feel sad!” when tears spring to his eyes or the youngest whose frustrated frown quivers wordlessly before he dissolves.

But yesterday I remember holding a child close to my chest, his tears darkening my shirt as he sobbed. And as he struggled to breathe through his heaving, I felt Christmas songs of quiet nights and silent babes slip away into a darker, wetter image: a sweat-soaked girl in a filthy stable filled with the piercing shrieks of a newborn.

And I realized that what matters most about Christmas is not that Jesus didn’t cry, but that he did.

mary of the third trimester

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I wonder how she felt in the final weeks.

Whether she was tired of carrying, exhausted from the extra weight and the swollen ankles and the restless nights and the ceaseless kicks. Or whether she loved wondering about the mystery of this babe, watching the strange, sudden stretch of skin across her stomach, limbs pushing out into every corner of their shrinking room, hint of the him they would become.

I wonder if she knew the time was coming. Even if hers wasn’t the customary calendar to count by, could she feel the readying, both the baby’s body and her own preparing for the passage ahead? Or perhaps she was surprised to find the end drawing near, one more shock piled on the growing heap of expectations set aside for another’s plan.

I wonder how she spent the last few days. Whether she sought the wisdom of women who knew, her cherished circle of a trusted few who hadn’t fled when the rumors flew. Whether she drew strength from their stories of passage, their steadying counsel and sage advice. Or whether their tales terrified, her body still so young itself, barely strong enough to survive what was demanded of her. I wonder whether she wanted to be alone or whether she confided in companions. Whether she prayed to her God in the darkest moments, or whether she spoke softly to the stranger-turned-spouse now strong and silent beside her.

I wonder if she loved being pregnant. One of the lucky few who glow as they grow, who glide easy through the months, who marvel at the wonder. Or whether she struggled with the weight and constraint of what was asked of her, to sacrifice so much so young – her plans, her love, her reputation. Maybe she was restless for the end, waiting for what’s next, wanting to be free of the burden of bearing. Maybe she was ready to push.

Or maybe she sensed, deep down, deeper even than dropping baby ready to birth, what was being asked of her. That she would have to give him up, her child, her baby, her precious only baby, give him up to more than the world outside the womb or the darkness outside her door. That she would have to birth him into the beginning of the end, a pain that cut deeper than pangs of birth, a wound that would only grow until the most terrifying transition, the final contraction of her heart and body wrenched in two as she watched what the world would do to him, wailing and weeping for God, screaming as mother-son both suffered – all according to a plan she herself set in motion with a whispered yes.

That redemption itself would rip him from her arms.

And bearing all this along with the baby weight, knowing just enough to hold all these truths, treasure them in her widening heart, now and ever-after beating for two, maybe she wanted to cradle him close, keep him safer than he could ever be again.

For a few weeks more.

God of the hosting

On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.

Isaiah 25:6

Let’s see. Days’ handful still
to go and so
much left here to be done.
The gathering of food and drink,
the trimming up of yard and home,
final invites, last sweep and mop of floor.
Making ready for a feast always demands
all that I have to give
and more, late nights spent
making lists, too many turns around dark kitchen
puttering and putting house to rest
only to rise again with to-do on my mind.

Endless preparation — do they ever guess
the time it takes,
those I welcome at the door,
embrace with kiss and laugh
and can-I-take-your-coat?
Behind the scenes is where the spread
takes life: the quiet rolling of the silverware
in napkins and the careful press of linen
wrinkles smoothed by iron’s steam.

Sometimes I wish that I could be the guest:
the ones arriving eager, ignorant
of sweat and hours poured into the party,
those who taste and savor,
do not spy undusted shelves
or frown at pie that browned too long.
I envy innocence
of answering and not inviting.

But over years hosting became a life,
the way to keep heart widened
like door creaked open in the winter cold,
wet snow stamped in
on boots piled high to dry
while party swells and spills
into the basement, front porch,
following wherever wine and laughter flow.

I love a crowd, the jostle
welcoming unlikely crew –
friends and in-laws, uninvited 
stragglers perched on couches
balancing full plates on napkinned knees,
squeals of children weaving between legs
of grown-ups clustered in the kitchen,
heart where warmth and good smells always grow.

Right here’s the rub that hosting brings
each year when holidays ring round again:
the joy of drawing close, of living for a night
the way we ought to love all year –
with beauty, generosity,
all energy on evening, no worry of tomorrow.
Just the small sweet joy
of many underneath one roof,
tired satisfaction sharing
all the good my life can give.

God of the baking

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21

Here’s why I love to bake:
You start with nothing –
an idea, ingredients
of possibility, a plan and hope.
You slowly start to mix
measure and pour,
the transformation stirring with your spoon.
And suddenly it starts to look
and smell and taste alive –
creation sticky in my hands,
smeared between my fingers,
streaked across my hair.

The baker’s art takes patience,
planning, careful watch of
oven’s heat, directions’ time.
Forgiveness, too –
for cake that falls, deflated;
recipes that failed to rise.

Baking’s best as company affair:
Sometimes I cook with children –
grabbing cups and spoons to spill,
enthusiasm trumped only by sugar.
I sit and watch the wise work, too –
laughing, telling stories while they bake
with wrinkled hands,
forearms strong from years of kneading dough.

I ought to say that sharing is the best part –
breaking loaf and offering steaming slice in love.
But secretly I like to chew in silence:
taste alone the crunch of crust,
sink of teeth in softer middle’s heart.
Because creation’s sweetest in still morning
before the rest wake round me
greeting day with yawn and groan.
I love to feed their bellies,
but I need to rise alone.

God of the dishes

Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;

wash me, make me whiter than snow.

A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Psalm 51: 4, 9, 12

Dirty dishes stacked so high,
porcelain towers on my right and left.
I take the sponge in hand,
wring out the water, squeeze on soap,
and crank the faucet hot.
Steam rises as the stream heats, steady
I plunge plates and cups
into the bubbles swirled below.
Swish, wash, rinse, repeat;
the stack grows smaller as I go,
plates now neat and nestled
drying silent in the rack.
My hands turn pink and bright in sink's hot bath;
my fingers pruned and white by end of night.

Long ago I ate alone:
the solitary rinse of single
spoon and knife and fork.
These days I’m elbow deep in pans,
scrubbing steel pots ringed
thick with soup, browned casseroles
of dinners passed with family, friends
all those who gather for my meals.

Cynics see the stubborn cycle
of the grimy, gooey junk
caked hard on dishes left to sit too long
(pardon my love of lingering one last glass)
as dirty proof of life’s depressing rut:
the endless drag of meals and mouths to feed,
a plate’s only escape the break
that sends it swiftly to the bin.

But I delight in dishes,
love the dirty and the clean:
how they slide in slippery hands
before I scrub in circles swift,
how they flash with water’s drip
each time I lift them up to rise,
inspecting both sides slick and sheen,
then dry them satisfied.

For dishes prove that someone shared the meal,
that there was food to pass,
safe time to spare.
Companions, plenty and a pause
are no small good
in world of loneliness, 
want, rush and fear.
And if I'd none to wash,
that would mean no one took the cup.
What a tidy, terrible mistake
that empty would have been.

God of the sweeping

Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.” In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Luke 15: 8-10

Every night I take the broom in hand,
both of us worn and tired
but still working.
As I stretch out arms
to reach the bristles’ brush,
the steady rhythm comes back easy,
drag of dirt across familiar floor.

Every day it slides the same:
crumbs, hair, dust, food 
all piled into tidy heaps
left waiting for the bin.
One swift dump, then goodbye.
But making clean is holy work –
refreshing for another day,
forgiving what is past and gone.
To gather, to release 
and then repeat
makes way, always
for one day more.

I know the time it takes,
the pattern of the pulling
corners into center,
how to turn and switch
the broom’s direction when the grit is stubborn.
Sometimes I even do my sweeping in the dark
when all the world’s asleep.

Only when I lose the precious
slipped under couch,
rolled into corner dark
or simply disappeared –
then only do I blaze the lights,
look steady as I clean, search
focused on the finding,
knowing work that will not fail.

But if I did not sweep each day,
memorize these floors,
their stains and scuffs,
then I could not seek what’s lost
when it’s the coin that matters most.
So thus it was and always must it be:
pull creaky closet door to find old broom,
swish brush, brush swish
reach pull, pull reach
and then again to rest.

God at work (and the rest of us, too)

Growing up, I never imagined God sweeping.

Or baking. Or gardening. Or helping deliver a baby.

For the past few months I’ve been writing a new program on work and calling for small groups in congregations. Since we keep learning that people’s challenges with vocation often stem from a lack of understanding about how God calls, I’ve been weaving in lots of Scriptural passages that broaden our image of who God is. So lately I’ve been living and working closely with God as worker: farmer, potter, metalworker, baker and midwife, to name a few. 

These biblical images of God at work are so rich and so relevant that I’m amazed to realize how easily we skip over them, so stuck is the white-bearded Father in flowing robes in our minds and in our churches.

Had it not been for graduate studies in theology, I might have missed many of these facets of Scripture’s portrait of God, too. I grew up with loving images of God – a tender shepherd, a caring father – but no one told me till I was much older that Scripture held more pictures of the divine than what I saw in my children’s Bible or the stained glass windows at church.

I love these images now: God as artist, molding us like clay. God as blacksmith, forging us in fire. God as gardener, planting and watering and waiting to harvest.

These are images of God that fire my imagination and make me believe differently – with depth, with creativity, with fresh eyes.

So now that I’m nearing the end of this writing project, I want to explore in a new way what I’ve learned and loved about these images of God at work. Especially as we begin bustling around the house, hurrying into the holidays, preparing for guests and feasts, I want to slow down and ponder images of God we often overlook.

The domestic ones. The feminine ones. The everyday ones.  

(And because I’m mentally preparing for Advent, my favorite season of the year for soaking in poems and psalms, I’m inching out on a limb and playing with poetry in this space, too.)

So till tomorrow, I’ll borrow a line from Lake Wobegon country:

Be well and do good work.

ordinary time

It was an ordinary moment, during an ordinary day, in an ordinary week.

(Which, in the midst of life with littles, means complete chaos.)

Ordinary is never boring, never dragging these days. Our ordinary is unexpected, our mundane is a mess.

With each new dawn, schedules get shifted and plans get changed. One boy rises early, the other sleeps late; one naps like a dream, one wrestles like a nightmare; one gobbles three plates, the other shoves the spoon away. The next day they switch roles and everything changes again. Never a dull moment.

It was one of these everyday-crazy moments that I paused, my attention caught by turning leaves on the tree near our window, flashing orange in afternoon sun. Ordinary, I thought, such an ordinary day.

Even in the midst of mania – one child spilling CDs from the cabinet, the other pulling paints from a drawer – my thoughts tended theological, as they often do.

I thought about ordinary time, where the church spends most of its year. I thought about all of Jesus’ ordinary time, the years before his public ministry. So much of what matters is ordinary – the regular season, the everyday work.

In a season of life when so much seems ordinary, preparation for what’s ahead or maintenance of what’s right now, I sometimes think about all the ordinary years that Jesus spent. Scripture goes silent on the subject; the Gospels skip from twelve-in-the-temple to thirty-in-the-desert in the flip of a page. But those long lost years must have held quiet growth, careful learning, hard work, cultivated relationships, deep prayer. It made all the difference how Jesus lived his ordinary years.

So many days I dream, amidst the cries and chaos, about the years to come. When the house is finished. When my kids are in school. When I have more time to write. I often wrestle with the waiting, the reality of so much ordinary stretching out in front of me.

But when I stop, seized by an extraordinary ordinary like autumn leaves in October sun, I realize how much God must love ordinary. Because all of life is wrapped around it.

The sacred ordinary of every day.