Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finding Due North

The sound of the watch hitting the wall ricocheted in Scarlett’s memory. It was louder than all the memories she had of Chuck telling her he loved her, or promising he would always be there for her. After seven years of marriage, he had chucked the watch across the room in disgust, then in short order, he chucked their vows and all the promises he’d made as well. Then he packed his things and left.

Scarlett found the watch in a box she was packing to donate to the Thrift Store and decided to wear it. The watch was a sundial. Not extremely practical, but when she’d spied it in the Fossil store several months before, she’d believed she was acquiring the perfect anniversary gift for Chuck. Once, when they were dating, he’d told her a story about the sundial in his grandmother’s garden. Back then they used to talk for hours, and tell each other stories about their childhood treasures. They used to share their hopes and dreams for the future. Scarlett loved the story about the sundial: she could picture her husband as a young child, playing amongst the wild poppies and the scarlet red salvia. When Scarlett envisioned a garden, she almost always saw red.

Noticing the “For Sale” sign in the front yard had been over turned by the wind, Scarlett walked outside to put it to rights. After separating they’d realized they could no longer afford to keep the house, so Scarlett had been looking for an apartment close to Chuck’s. Initially she thought it would be good for the children to be close to their father. She stood in the driveway assessing the house they’d purchased together. Scarlett held her left arm out in front of her and began to rotate slowly, until the shadow on the dial reached two o’clock. At three o’clock her son would be up from his nap, so she really shouldn’t be wasting her time trying to ascertain something she already knew. But the February sun felt warm on her face and arms, and regaining her sense of direction felt momentarily empowering. She stood still for several minutes hoping to see the shadow on the dial move. Once her arm grew weary, she gave up on the idea and went back into the house.

As she entered the porch, Scarlett stopped to snap a dead bloom off the lone potted geranium on the porch. She’d always hoped to fill the porch with pots of geraniums, like the ones she’d seen in Italy on her honeymoon. And red poppies. Scarlett would have loved to have had a field of wild red poppies in her back yard. She thought of the view from the train they’d taken from Rome to Assisi - the wild poppies were everywhere. Scarlett remembered feeling as if she had come home, even though her honeymoon had been her one and only trip outside the United States. Chuck had never been fond of flowers, and in Arizona it was so hot that it’d seemed more practical at the time they bought the house to just buy one with the front yard already rocked in, a sea of beige. The back yard was covered in decking, weathered to a musty grey from years of neglect. It was a far cry from Scarlett’s dream house, to say the least.

Scarlett looked at her watch to check the time, and immediately realized her mistake. Maybe it was a silly idea, the sundial watch. You had to be in just the right place to use it. The sun had to be shining. It was of no use indoors, or during inclement weather or in darkness, not unlike Chuck, who plowed through each day in a cloud of self absorption that rendered him almost completely useless as a husband and father. Even with no lawn to care for, Chuck refused to help with any household or childcare duties. Those were Scarlett’s responsibilities. As were tending to her emotional needs and her loneliness. No matter how hard Scarlett worked to make their home nice and appease his temper, Chuck was always tired or angry or frustrated. She glanced at the half packed boxes in the family room, housing remnants of the family she’d tried to create, and realized she had always been a single parent. Looking once again at the sundial on her wrist, she began to tidy up before Chuck Jr. woke from his nap.

With the boxes packed, labeled and transported to the garage so they wouldn’t become steps stools or launch pads for her four year old son, Scarlett used her remaining few minutes of peace and quiet to catch up on her emails. She responded to her mother’s usual worried query. Her mother was a wonderful woman, but she had the ability to make Scarlett feel guilty even in print. She missed her though, and wished she wasn’t so far away. She missed her mother’s love of color, and the chaos of a busy household, and laughter. Even when they disagreed, they somehow ended up laughing eventually. Scarlett hadn’t laughed in a long time. She reluctantly checked the email from Chuck. It was his night to have their son, but once again he wasn’t up to his three hour shift. Scarlett sighed and closed the browser.

It was three o’clock and she hadn’t heard a peep from her son’s room. Scarlett realized she should have taken a nap while Chuck Jr. was down. At almost five months pregnant she was past the nausea, but still needed more rest than usual. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She thought of her mother’s garden and spring in Colorado. She thought of going to church as a family on Easter Sunday. She really wanted to go home. She wanted her children to grow up with her family and color, even if it was the whitest snow.

Chuck didn’t like spending the money on travel, so she didn’t get back home much. He certainly wouldn’t have liked going to church on Easter Sunday, or any Sunday for that matter. And color, Chuck hated color. When time had come to choose names for their first child, Chuck let Scarlett know in no uncertain terms that he did not care to have a daughter of his named after a color. Scarlett preferred names of full hue; Ruby was her favorite. She relented when she realized she was having a boy and let Chuck pass on his name to their son. She didn’t mind, but she would have preferred to call him Charlie, it sounded so much friendlier. She hadn’t told Chuck about the new baby, he left before she knew she was pregnant. She was barely showing and it wasn’t as though he ever looked at her when he came to pick up their son. The longer he was gone, the more she hoped this baby would never have to meet her father. And she hoped it was a girl.

She opened her eyes and the Google browser and began her search. Flowers in Colorado, red flowers in Colorado, and then she found something new. Scarlett studied and bookmarked her favorites until Chuck Jr. woke up. He noticed the sundial watch right away and was fascinated with it, so she gave it to him. They went to the driveway and she attempted to show him how to use it to find due North, but he was content to spin in circles until he was so dizzy he had to plop himself down on the pavement to regain his bearings. His joy was infectious. Scarlett eventually joined in, thrusting her arms out and spinning until she could no longer stand. Mother and son rolled on the warm pavement laughing until their stomachs hurt.

“Charlie, I think it’s time to go in for dinner.” Scarlett said as she pushed herself up from the driveway. Her son gave her a quizzical look.
“You’re a big boy now, and I’m going to call you Charlie. It’s a big boy name. Is that okay?” He made his adorable, “I’m thinking really hard face” before he responded.
“Then my name won’t be the same as Daddy’s.”
“No, you’ll still have the same name as Daddy. Both Chuck and Charlie are short for the name Charles, and that’s your name. But you are you, and not him, and I’d like to call you by your own special name.”
“Okay,” Charlie said as they entered the house. In the time it took to spin in a new direction, Scarlett had chucked the moniker and was glad she’d kept the watch.

After Charlie fell asleep for the night, Scarlett went back to the computer, where she chose to download a photo of a field of violets named “Johnny Jump Ups” that grew well in Colorado, and made it her screen saver. She emailed an old friend from her hometown and asked for names of good doctors for herself and her children and emailed her old boss to see about reapplying for her former job. She called her parents and asked if it would be alright if she and Charlie moved in with them until she could find a job and get settled. She knew it would be, but telling someone made it official. While talking to her mom, Scarlett gazed at her screensaver, which now reflected a sea of purple and yellow flowers.

“I’d like to get a place of my own, Mom, one that has a bit of a yard, when I get back on my feet. I’d like the kids to have somewhere to play and to have a small garden.” Scarlett felt hopeful as her mother rattled off neighborhoods she could investigate. She practically had the children enrolled in school before Scarlett could get a word in.

“And Mom, what do you think of the name Violet for a girl?” Scarlett tensed for just a moment: it was a reflex, waiting for her husband’s condemnation. But Chuck wasn’t there, and she was looking at a field of violets and imagining them bordered in red poppies with a fence of red tinted sunflowers that Charlie would love.

“Scarlett, I named you for the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and you fit the name perfectly. I’m sure my granddaughter will do the same.” Scarlett accepted the statement like a hug and said good bye. On her way to bed, she found the sundial watch on the floor where Charlie has discarded it. As she picked it up, she rubbed her finger along the stationary dial. When you live by the mountains, you can always find your bearings. The watch would prove useful after all.

As she headed up the stairs, she felt the baby kick for the first time. Instant exhilaration was followed by a stab of heartache - that residual loneliness that creeps to the surface when you realize you have no one to share the moment with. With a deft hand, Scarlett headed the thought like a dead bloom. From now on she would see her garden in an explosion of color. At the center, she would put a sundial for her children to enjoy and to remind herself that sometimes it was necessary to stop and reorient yourself, to once again find due north.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Listening For the Roar

Carolyn and I have been friends since we were twelve years old. We met in seventh grade study hall. Carolyn was much cooler than I was. She could chug chocolate milk faster than anyone, and I mean anyone, in the school and if we could make her laugh while she was doing it, she would snort milk out of her nose. Enough said. You can understand the attraction.

Three and a half decades later, Carolyn is probably still cooler than I am, but usually I don’t admit that. She is more than a friend now, she’s family. We grew up together, and her family took me in as one of their own, as if with four teenagers they needed one more, and she is without a doubt one of the rocks in the foundation of my world. She’s one of the few people that knew I wrote poetry in Jr. High and would still hang out with me. She didn’t advertise it, but she stuck by me.

When you grow up in Tornado Alley like we did, spring thunderstorms and tornadoes were no big surprise. Oklahoma has the most incredible electric storms in the spring, and one night when we were about 18, there was a big one. Tornado warnings were blasting over the sirens and the television news. Carolyn’s house didn’t have a basement, so we cleared out a centrally located coat closet and stood at the back door, where we could see the T.V. and watch the sky at the same time.

Tornadoes don’t come while it’s raining, so as the sky cleared and the eerie yellow cast loomed over head we began to get scared. Carolyn was really frightened. We listened as the weatherman listed all the warning signs of an impending tornado, most notably the roar. Carolyn was intent on listening for the roar. The sky had her complete attention. So we stood there, poking our heads out the back door, waiting.

I think it must have been a tornado siren. I’m not sure exactly what she heard, but suddenly we heard Carolyn scream “It’s the roar!” She pushed us out of the way and dove into the coat closet, slamming the door shut, leaving her entire family to perish in the tornado. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t recover. It took several minutes to convince her to open the closet door. The suggestion of a roar had been enough to engulf her in fear. I, of course, will never let her forget it; what are friends for?

Two weeks ago I got a call from Carolyn’s mother. It was one of those calls you never expect. Not on a Thursday night when you are packing your family to head out for spring break, or doing anything else for that matter. You always remember what you were doing when you got those calls. Carolyn’s 25 five year old daughter, Jessica, had cancer -Invasive ductile carcinoma in the breast, the bad kind, triggered by three different hormones. I thought of Jessica, a young wife and mother, and Jessica, the adorable little blonde baby girl, and Jessica, Carolyn’s only child. It was definitely, without a doubt, a roar. Now I was the one diving into the closet, slamming the door shut. I couldn’t bear the thought of our Jessica losing any body parts to cancer, or having to undergo chemo therapy, or any of the other unthinkable possibilities. I didn’t want to come back out. I pray daily for a list of people in our community battling cancer and I didn’t want to add one more to the list, especially not this one, not another one I loved.

It was Jessica who stood firm, who didn’t cower in the face of the potential threat. Her stance was clear. After the initial shock wore off her position was simple, “Cut off whatever you need to. I am going to be here to raise my son.” I spoke to her the day after her surgery, and she didn’t have a complaint. She was grateful to be home and survived the surgery with flying colors. She is the bravest woman I know. Like me, she had seen the example of strong faith lived out in the lives of her grandparents, and the steadfast devotion to family lived out in her parents and extended family. She is already encouraging nurses and friends to go and get mammograms. We talked about how God could use this hardship in her life to bring light to others and she was already aware of that. Jessica wasn’t listening for the roar: she was focused on the light.

Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus allowed his disciples to learn to follow him by letting them experience life threatening circumstances. He knew we would need an example to follow.

“The boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter said to Him, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." And He said, "Come!" And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind stopped.” Matt 14:24-32

Peter had the faith and enthusiasm to ask Jesus for a miracle, but he let the roar of the waves around him drown out his faith. He took his eyes off Jesus and he sank. Roars come our way in all shapes and sizes. Cancer, unemployment, and emotional wounds loom over our hearts and minds intent on distracting us from the source of our salvation. We must help each other take courage, and not give in to fear.

Today is March 25th, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the remembrance of the Savior’s first appearance on this earth. It is Thursday; two weeks after Jessica received her diagnosis and two days after her surgery. It is three days before Palm Sunday. For some of us, it will be the day we hear a roar. Let us pray for one another on this day, and every day, to have the courage to stay focused on the light as we pass through the wind and waves battling around us. And let us give thanks for those people whose love and encouragement has formed the foundations of our lives, who remind us to open the doors we slam shut in fear, who become our family. Amen

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Day Time Stopped: A Children's Story

"Jonathon, Jonathon, feet in the air,
He rolls and he rolls
But never gets anywhere.

Jonathon, Jonathon, first north, and then south,
Content to roll nowhere,
Once his feet find his mouth."

The baby giggled on the blanket as he heard the Angel sing his name.  His mother heard only the sound of June breeze, as it rustled through the leaves of the large oak tree.  His older brothers, busy playing in the yard, heard nothing at all. Jonathon, still young enough to recognize an Angel's voice, chuckled in delight. 

Donald had been the Mother's Guardian Angel for what seemed to him to be an eternity.  He was young, as angels go, and longed to be assigned to a racecar driver, military pilot, or some other daring individual. So for amusement, he sang poorly rhymed jingles that annoyed the other angels, and tussled the boy’s hair as they blew through the trees. Being all of seven and five years of age, Jordan and Justin were too old to hear the words, but felt the tingle of a giggle dance across their cheeks each time a rhyme sailed by.

On this morning Jordan did not give the breeze a second thought.  He had a mission.  As he followed his older brother Justin up the ladder of the jungle gym, he knew this was the day.  Jordan reached out for the first rung of the monkey bars, dangling for what seemed to be an awfully long time.
            His mother smiled, and stood up to help him down.  Donald shrugged, and slumped over so far forward that he did a front roll off the tree limb he had been sitting on.  To baby Jonathon's delight, the Angel trust his arms into the air, in an Olympic dismount fashion and exclaimed, "Jordan, young Jordan, so bravely he climbs, stuck on the first rung, for the thousandth time!"  Wearily, Donald followed her to the jungle gym.  But to their surprise, Jordan reached for the second rung, dangled a moment, and dropped to the ground.  "I did it myself, Mom!”  It was the first time Jordan had not needed assistance.  He ran and threw his arms around his mother's neck, as only a young boy will do.
"Jordan, I am so proud of you!"  His hair smelled like the outdoors, and felt soft and downy against her cheek as she hugged him.  "Watch me do it again!" Jordan called over his shoulder as he ran back for another try.
Jordan's mother felt the same pang of joy and grief all jumbled together she often experienced as the boys gained independence.  Even baby Jonathon was rolling over, striving to be free to explore on his own.  How she wished for just one minute that she could freeze these moments; that her boys would not have to grow up, and to leave her.
As Jordan's mother lay back on the blanket, she drew the baby close to her side, and closed her eyes tightly.  In her heart of hearts, she called out to God with a brief prayer, full of longing.  "Please Lord, let me keep all of them, just as they are.  They are so beautiful.  Thank you for my boys, Lord."

The breeze stopped blowing.  Donald grimaced, he was dumfounded. "She can't be serious!  They are just getting interesting!"  Somewhere in the place where Guardian Angels see both man and God, Donald turned to the Lord with a puzzled shrug.
 "Oh, Heavenly Father, what will you do with this one?" 
"I will grant it",  responded the Lord Most High. 
Now, it is important to note that Guardian Angels are responsible for interceding on the behalf of God's children, and Donald had become almost blasé' about the "Mother's Prayers" he received daily.  Actually, the prayers came hourly, if not more frequently.   
You see, since the Mother had brought forth three sons, her prayers were constant and almost always pertaining to their welfare.  "Lord, please keep him safe", "Lord, please don't let him fall out of that tree.” "Lord, grant me patience."  Donald had become accustomed to swooping below swings and padding falls off tricycles, sofas, and stair steps.   In fact he had even found himself a fairly cozy niche in the corner of the emergency room with a few of the other Guardian Angel "regulars". But this prayer not only asked for something seemingly impossible, even to an angel, but it came from such a tender place in the woman's heart.  It touched Donald as no other prayer had.

Embarrassed that he did not understand the response, Donald bowed his head as he asked, "Lord, I know that all things are possible through your mercy, but I do not understand how to grant this request.  How can you give the woman what she longs for?"
  "For the moment she will sleep, as she sleeps give her this message, and then cause her to awaken."  With those words, Donald found himself to be no longer in the place where God and man were both visible, but on the blanket, under the large oak tree.
            The angel gently rested his hand upon the Mother's eyes. Just as the Lord promised, she slept soundly.  Donald leaned down and gently whispered in her ear, "The Lord your God has heard your request, and shares the longing of your Mother's Heart.  He too had a son.  In each moment of his son's life, he looked down from heaven and knew all that is good in humankind.  He too longed to keep his son safe and protected for all eternity.  "You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” echoes throughout the entire universe and all that is beyond: a testimony of the love of God for his son.  In his mercy, God has answered your prayer.  No longer will your sons grow, they will remain as they are until such time as the Lord sees fit to restore what is destined to be".
In an instant, the Guardian Angel was gone, and Jordan's Mother awoke suddenly.  She was startled that she had fallen asleep in the middle of the day, and all through her being she felt the oddest sensation.   A warmth she would someday describe as a glow seemed to radiate from deep within her.  She looked to see Jordan happily falling once again from the second row of the monkey bars, and Justin playing catch with his baseball.  Her few minutes of sleep hadn’t caused her to miss saving her boys from some lurking peril. 
"Haw!" sighed Donald, "She thinks she saves them!"

The next day was just as perfect as the last.  The boys enjoyed the beautiful weather, spending the morning once again in the backyard.  Jordan continued to practice his new found skill, each time yelling, "Mom, did you see that?"  Justin practiced catching the baseball, and the baby continued to roll happily from side to side on the blanket under the oak tree.   Jordan's mother once again lay back on the blanket, and as she closed her eyes, she thanked God for her sons.

The days passed. Even though the boys marked each day off on the calendar, something was different. The sun never moved in the sky, and the days never grew any warmer.  "This is a perfect summer",  thought Jordan's mother.  But as the days strolled by, she noticed something was missing in her home.  The boys continued to enjoy the beautiful morning play times in the back yard.  Even though nothing changed, something was missing.  Jordan's mother couldn't put her finger on it, but it concerned her to the point of requesting God's help with the matter.

"It's about time!" gasp Donald.  You see, ever since God granted her prayer to stop time from passing he had been charged with the tedious task of guarding the family outside of ordinary time.  In his hands, he tenderly held a gleaming sphere, more fragile than a bubble.  Inside that sphere, Jordan's family remained unknowingly suspended from the passage of time.  No longer was the Angel needed to pad falls and find car keys.  He missed his emergency room friends terribly, and there was no one to listen to his rhymes.

"That's it!" Jordan's mother exclaimed as she glanced around the yard.  "They aren't changing, or learning anything new.  No one is curious, or testing their boundaries."  Now, somewhat confused, Jordan's mother wasn't sure what to pray for.

"Heavenly Father, is it time to restore what is destined to be?" the Angel interceded on the Mother's behalf. 
"Yes, but once again you will deliver a message, and this time she will treasure it in her heart of hearts".
Seated on a blanket under the large oak, Donald once again placed his hand gently over Jordan's Mother's eyes and caused her to sleep.  Gently, he whispered this message, "The Lord your God has once again heard the cries of your heart.  He knows the conflict of your soul.  He too knew the joy of watching his son grow and become more like Him each day.  He also knew that growth would cause them to separate.

           At the end of his life on earth Jesus cried out to his Father from the garden, asking to be spared from his fate.  The Lord, in his all-knowing wisdom, denied the request. For growth and change are the only paths to heaven, and the perfection and joy found in the moments of each age are swiftly replaced with those of the next.  Sometimes, they are replaced with moments full of sorrow. Some moments are quite ordinary.  Know that in heaven, these moments are not lost, but exist eternally with God outside time.  One day you will know God, and you will see those precious moments as He sees them.  Go in peace, and know that God loves you." Donald lingered for an instant on the blanket, just long enough for Jordan's Mother to see him as she awoke.  As she caught the kind gaze of the Angel, she understood something very special had happened.

Just then, Jordan's hand reached for the third rung of the monkey bars, slipped, and he fell with a terrified shriek to the ground.  The baby pulled to his elbows and crept off the blanket in his first successful attempt to crawl.   Justin, laughing heartily at Jordan's accident, forgot to catch the baseball he had just tossed several feet above his head.   "Oops!” exclaimed the Angel, too late to avert the impending collision between the ball and Justin's forehead.
            The sun shifted in the sky, and temperature began to rise. The boys didn't feel like playing outside anymore.  So Jordan's mother, gathering up the baby and the blanket, went inside to tend to the boys newly acquired scrapes and bruises.

And in the place where Guardian Angels can see both man and God, a resilient chuckle could be heard, as Donald exclaimed, "Thank you Lord, I am back in business!"

The End

The Price of Admission

I knew Disney World would be crowded. It was spring break after one of the coldest winters most of the country could remember. I’d hoped the downturn in the economy would keep a few folks home, but no such luck. The economy at Disney World appeared to be flourishing. After nine years away the theme park hadn’t changed much, but the number of visitors had increased significantly. Disney will sell you a ticket even if there isn’t an inch of space for you to stand on, but the staff will pleasantly direct your attention to something else when you complain - Disney magic at its finest.

As I watched parents with very young children wait two and a half hours in the line for the newest attraction, I saw grim determination on their faces. There is a psychology at work when seeking something that is coveted by others, where the price of admission is steep and the demand is near frenzied. The park was so crowded that many rides had up to two hour waits. People in line were mostly patient and if you had the energy to spark a conversation, friendly. Once committed to the line having fun was no longer the point. Nothing that lasts three minutes could be worth a two hour wait. No, these folks were there because they had paid the price in advance. Once they paid, they were going to get their monies worth – memories, thrills, maybe a bit of that Disney magic? It’s hard to say, but it was certainly food for thought.

Disney does many things extremely well, which explains the appeal. The nightly “Fantasmic” show at the Hollywood Studios was worth staying to close the park down at 11:00. We got to the early show an hour before it started and it was already full. By our unofficial bleacher count, the outdoor auditorium holds at least 5,000 people sitting and has room for 1,000 or so more standing. So we made due riding the Tower of Terror and went back to the late show, which was full, but no one had to stand. If you like fireworks, Disney nostalgia and animation broadcast on illuminated fountains, you’ll like this show.

5000 is a lot of people. As I looked around the packed auditorium, I tried to imagine what Jesus beheld as  5000 families followed him late one day. They came seeking healing. They didn’t need tickets - admission was free. It takes a huge space to hold that many people. I wonder if once they all sat down they could hear him; he was one man speaking with no microphone. And if they couldn’t hear, and couldn’t see any place to get food or drink, why did they stay?

“Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself; and when the people heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, "This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!" They said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." And He said, "Bring them here to Me." 

Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. There were about five thousand men who ate, besides women and children.” Matt 14:13-21

This process had to take some time: there were only twelve disciples distributing food. Have you ever tried to get the lemon-aide guy to come your way at a game? Jesus must’ve had something these people really wanted. They were willing to wait and they trusted their needs would be met. I wondered as I watched the parents gut through the lines at Disney World holding exhausted toddlers and pushing strollers packed to the brim with souvenirs, how much of a line Jesus would draw if he showed up today. It wouldn’t be glitzy and I doubt there would be much of a light show. Would we be willing to shell out the price of a ticket, or race over to get a fast pass?

Lent is drawing to a close. Our time of liturgical waiting is almost finished. Walt Disney, with all his insight into our human need to believe in magic and happy endings, can’t hold a candle to the glory of Easter morning. Will we seek it out with grim determination, or wait patiently in the assurance that ultimately our needs will be met? Would we covet a few minutes with Jesus even if the admission was free? We would covet it if no one else seemed to want it, if we were the only ones in line?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Widening the Porch

Introducing my friends to my blog has been similar to introducing my children to ethnic cuisine. They’re intrigued that I’m pursuing something new, but a blog sounds like something that potentially requires clean up afterward. They don’t know how to use one; there’s a reason they’ve never tried one before. Blogs are scary. Not just green and potentially not pleasing to the palate scary, I mean total cave darkness scary. Like walking past that really large teenager lurking around the food court in the mall, who managed to find jeans that were even larger, adorned with holes and chains that reflect the shiny skull design on his hoodie, not to mention the ski cap, in June. Yes, even though we know that there’s probably a nice young man in there somewhere, we just walk by, fast. Some things are better left unknown.

So it’s been interesting watching my friend’s reactions as I respond to the innocent query, “What have you been up to?” with an unexpected, “Well, I’ve just launched my blog.” This is often followed by “Really?” and awkward silence, or “Wow, I’ve never seen a blog. Good luck with that. See you later.” I completely sympathize with their response; mine was similar last November when I was introduced to the concept of blogging at a workshop at the Heart of America Christian Writer’s Conference. As I listened to the speaker inform me that I needed a blog, and a social networking venue and I needed to start blogging, seriously, fear welled up. I felt nauseous. New is scary. The internet, with all its possibilities and unknown quantities, is the ultimate “black hole” of things that could be bad. Asking people to view my blog, and leaving comments on stranger’s blogs - also cause for trepidation.

Change is always difficult. Jesus and the disciples must have met people with similar fears when He came with the message of repentance and salvation. Jesus challenged the Israelites to look at their relationship with God in a new way. He brought together familiar truths to empower them: that "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5), is demonstrated by the way in which we love our neighbor. (Lev 19:18) Legalism was out, and the definition of what it means to love God was forever changed.

Jesus came to fulfill the law, to bring a new covenant. He didn’t meet their expectations of a Messiah, and they were challenged to look for God’s kingdom in a spiritual realm rather than a physical one. For people who struggled just to survive and meet their daily needs, this was a drastic change in perspective.

His ideas were radical, they still are. To love sacrificially, to die to “self”, how can this bring us happiness? And while we are giving our “selves” up for the sake of the kingdom, who is going to make sure we’re taken care of? Without a true belief in God and His unconditional love for us, this is a scary prospect. But each day, we pray and we hope. We tentatively take that step toward heaven, by trusting, by practicing works of mercy, and leaving our fears at the foot of the cross.

For me, part of that walk now includes a blog. They way we experience community is changing, and as intimidating as the prospect of the internet can be for my generation; it’s also full of opportunity. We spend more time in front of our computer screens then on our front porches visiting with our neighbors. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, but it’s a reality. Hopefully, I’ll be able to balance both. Nothing will ever replace the affirmation we receive from eye contact and face to face interaction, but the opportunity to meet a wider variety of people through the internet is a blessing too. We have the ability now to widen our porches, to put out more chairs, and get to know neighbors we wouldn’t have had access to before. Blogs are the places where we tell our stories, laugh at each other’s jokes, and walk through hardships with one another.

I’m so appreciative to my extremely brave friends who have ventured out to visit the blog so far. Thank you all for the encouragement! May we each be challenged this Lent to ask God for the faith we need to reach out along the way and try something new, to stay and visit when we find ourselves with new neighbors, even when we’ve ventured onto an unfamiliar front porch.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What Lurks Behind the Altar

Recently our church was renovated. Marble walls and flooring were installed on and around the altar. An artist was commissioned to create a custom crucifix to reflect our parish name, Holy Spirit. Jesus is shown pushing up against the nails in his feet and hands to receive his last breath on the cross. He is looking toward heaven. It is quite remarkable and very moving. Although I’m a convert I always find the image of Christ on the cross inspirational, comforting and convicting. I feel a bit disconnected in churches that don’t have one over the altar.

The marble panels provide a beautiful canvas to reflect light. During Advent and Christmas, the altar lined with pine trees adorned simply with white lights: the marble walls sparkled. With the lights dimmed Christmas Eve, the effect was peaceful and magnificent, a fitting setting for the liturgy. The altar seemed quite stark after the season ended, but no one in the parish was prepared for the shadow that would be cast during Lent.

In years past, the front of the altar has been decorated with rocks and clay pots, symbols of our Lenten journey in the desert. This year there were no pots to be found. A large vase with long, thin, wavy branches and a crude cross made of sticks was the sole adornment. Honestly, it's a bit too artsy for me. I miss the sand, and the earthen vessels. I’m a pretty literal gal when it comes to religious art. But the vase was fine, until the spot lights were turned on.

Somehow one very innocent looking branch cast a shadow. It bobbed and swayed under the heating vent, as if it were a snake – a cobra, poised to strike at the crucifix. It was the only branch that cast a shadow, and it didn’t matter what time of day it was, as soon as the light hit it, it came to life. Ominous doesn’t really do justice to the feeling the image evoked. Parishioners began to complain, the school children whispered during weekday mass, and eventually someone told the priest and the branch was adjusted. It’s still in the vase, but with repositioning we can’t see the shadow of the serpent anymore. The change was so subtle, but the effect dramatic.

The message of the shadow was a good one for Lent, one Jesus emphasized in the parable of the “Sower and the Seed”, 

"The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. "Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.  Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great." As He said these things, He would call out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Luke 8:5-8

Lent is a time to cultivate the soil, to do what we can to remove the rocks and weeds. We come to the altar to receive Christ, but temptation is always lurking around the corner to snatch it away. Our hearts must be nourished, watered with the truth of God’s word and His presence in our lives. We need to be careful with the gift we have received. In order to grow, we need to stay in the light, so temptations aren’t disguised by a simple repositioning of our perspective.

Some people were really upset about the shadow, but I saw it as a gift; a message. I am thankful this Lenten season for the light God provides, and I pray to have the courage to remain focused as I pass by shadows along the way. As much as I appreciated the message of the shadow, it would be just fine with me if they brought back the rocks and the sand next year. As an altar decoration it might lack the drama, but for inspiration, I could always stub my toe.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On Either Side of the Journey

We start out trips, whether they’re vacations or work related, with expectations and return with memories to process. My recent trip to a Christian Writer’s Seminar was no exception. My journey began standing outside the Atlanta airport, waiting for the hotel shuttle. It was cold, really cold. My hopes of escaping the relentless, frigid weather that has blanketed the Midwest for the past two months were dashed. At 9:00 pm it was 27 degrees and the shuttle was nowhere in site. I met a man named Larry, who’d been waiting quite awhile before I arrived. A native Californian dressed in a suit jacket on his way home from Bermuda, Larry was none too happy with the circumstance. Eventually he commandeered a shuttle from another hotel to take us. After a long cold wait, Larry was our hero.

I tentatively entered the hotel restaurant to order a sandwich to take back to my room. I rarely travel alone, and didn’t feel comfortable eating by myself. Larry, who was already seated with his meal, flagged me over. I reluctantly joined him. He was a nice man. His youngest children were recent college grads, like my oldest daughter. We discovered we were both Catholic, and had educated our children in catholic schools and Jesuit universities. Larry reminded me of my father in law, a successful business man with a deep interest in his catholic faith. It didn’t take long for my discomfort to dissolve.

I enjoyed hearing Larry’s stories. He and his wife have traveled extensively with bishops and priests throughout Rome and the Holy Land. Due to his connections he has had the opportunity to enter into the tomb in which Jesus was laid to rest, to touch the mound where the cross of Calvary stood, to visit with visionaries and enter the room where St. Thomas Aquinas prayed and penned his many works. You don’t meet people with his perspective often; in fact, I may never do so again. I had a million questions, and he was gracious in accommodating me. It was a fascinating conversation. He really encouraged me to travel, study the history of our faith, and to pursue new adventures. And I thought I was doing good to make it to Atlanta.

The conference was another good learning experience, as well as an opportunity to meet people and broaden my horizons. By the time I boarded the airplane two days later at 9:00 pm, I was tired and full of ideas. I sat next to a wonderful woman named Gail. She lives not too far from me and was on her way home. Gail works full time in a law office and has raised two children, mostly as a single mother. She now has teen-aged grandchildren. Like Larry, Gail had a wealth of life experience to share with me. Her faith and values really shone brightly in her humble and kind demeanor. As we laughed about some of the common frustrations we share as mothers and wives, she turned to me and said, “I know you won’t believe me, but one day, you’ll miss that.” Her words contained a truth that permeated, and gave me as much to ponder as the great historical truths Larry had shared.

On either side of the journey, I was presented with a challenge. At the onset, it was to have the courage to seek Christ in the rich history that has been left for me. Likewise, I was challenged as the trip came to an end; to seek Christ in the everyday, in the circumstances God has allowed me to experience. I was reminded of the Lord’s words to Micah:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
         And what does the LORD require of you
         But to do justice, to love kindness,
         And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

I’m grateful for these challenges and for the mentors God provides me. During this season of Lent I’m praying for the discipline to explore what I’ve learned, to in some spiritual sense look into the tomb or touch the foot of the cross.  I’m also praying for the discipline to open my heart to gratitude, especially when my circumstances fail to meet my expectations: to walk humbly with those who bring God to me, along the way.