Prayers in the Margins; a reflection

In her book, An Altar in the World,(1) Barbara Brown Taylor begins with a poem.

“The tender flesh itself

will be found one day

–quite surprisingly—

to be capable of receiving,

and, yes, full

capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.

Go figure. Fear not.”

Dear God, today, to whatever extent my tender, broken flesh is capable of receiving your energies, may I extend them toward the reconciliation of man and Maker; that reconciliation which invites mystery: the mystery of Gentile as neither inferior nor superior, but as ‘same’.

Mystery, indeed…

Sear, they do, these mysteries; lining the walls with question in the cathedral of one’s brain. Sear, not seethe, I implore thee. For I surmise that seething, unremitted, comes to a common, bitter end… Surely, I am not worthy to seethe, in this body of broken flesh.

May our skins look neither anemic, nor aged, alongside one another, but rather illuminated by fiery contrast, hands folded against one another. And I will love my color…and hers. I wonder if our pain is not that we sometimes hate our hue; Oppression’s ‘ other’ face.

May the tendrils of incense, one pale and one burnished prayer; entwine as they climb, reaching toward your wisdom.

May brother’s glaring weakness be bridged by my strength, and my blind spot navigated by his story’s light.

May your mercy weld the two together into faith weightier than our differences. Weighty, wise, whole in wisdom. For we ARE weak, and spoiled of flesh, without both the wisdom, and the mercy…

And , then:

“Therefore, the flesh

is not to be excluded

from the wisdom and the power

that now and ever animates

all things. His life-giving

agency is made perfect,

we are told, in weakness–

made perfect in the flesh.”

These lines taken from Scott Cairns (2) adaptation of Capable Flesh by St. Irenaeus

I am convinced that I have not the answer, and neither do you. We must go searching the answer, together. For the prisons of color and gender are not the only oppressions we bear; nor poverty, nor pain. The oppression we bear, is ‘human’; and unless we bear this cross  together, this same one borne by Christ, it will be but a ‘beating stick.’

And from the middle of the poem:

“For even at its beginning

the humble clay received

God’s art, whereby

one part became the eye,

another the ear, and yet

another this impetuous hand.”

 

And so, ‘life-giving agency’ becomes our quest. Are any of us capable, then, without first being given breath? And can we deny the life that presents right in front of us, the breathing broken… and not wonder also at its source.

jfig/11-15-2016

 

1) Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper Collins, 2009)

2)Scott Cairn, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007)

 

Lest you be snXlowed by Lent, or other seasons of life

Great Aunt Ruth…I call her that because it’s fitting, even though she is officially just, “Aunt Ruth,” by the branching of the family tree. I called her this morning to ask how she was getting along, given that she lives in a retirement community and I hadn’t talked with her in awhile. By some over-inflated sense of my place in the planet, I thought it might cheer her to hear from me…given that she lives in a retirement community, and per her calculation,has most recently celebrated the 5oth anniversary of her 39th birthday. I wanted to make sure she was doing okay, given that she lives in a  retirement community – ALONE – and travels with a walker.

On first try, I missed her. She was out to lunch with her book group, which was attended by the author of their latest read. When she returned my call, she informed me that she had been compelled to be on her best behavior because she disliked the book. Immensely. The chairman of the book group had exacted the behavioral promise days before, given that the author would be in attendance. But I got the full story when she returned my call. The book choice, for this group of octogenarians, was one in which the heroine (there are no main characters for Aunt Ruth) had been a lesbian who had attempted suicide but been kept alive for the birth of an ill-conceived child. Aunt Ruth found the author interesting, and not one to judge prematurely, will now have a  friend at the retirement center save his newspaper so she can read the author’s weekly column. She got right down to that, and the first column featured zombies. I called her because she lives in a retirement center, and I though she might be feeling a little, out of touch….

The next conversational topic was the projected family reunion, which she assures me is on her calendar. (I don’t have the dates yet.)

The third topic was the paring  down of her schedule, which has been hindered by an invitation from the activities director  to join the education board of a summer theatre program. This is not at the retirement center, but for school aged children: “I just could not say, “No.” They have, upon you-know-who’s suggestion, named the program, Gettin’ the Show on the Stage, since the program focuses upon the staging aspects of theatre production.

She has also thinned her schedule by going to inactive status in a parish ministry. (She still gets together twice a month with her most recent client, for lunch or an outing – she just doesn’t do meetings or paperwork anymore.)

Her taxes aren’t in yet…she has about 1.5 hours prep work remaining. She is admittedly dragging her feet due to frustration with current policy.

By this time, I was beginning to feel ‘updated.’ She asked about my children. We voiced concerns over the demands on another family member.

And last but not least, in true Aunt Ruth from, she brought up Lent: “When a friend asked me the other day if I had considered giving something up for Lent, I told her I had given up thinking about, giving up chocolate for Lent. Furthermore, it is working very well.”

With a shared round of laughter to bolster our quiet  ‘I love you’s, we said good-bye. Updated + cheered: Aunt Ruth is more than  ‘okay.’

jlf 2/13

Loaves and Fish

This week offered the privilege of meeting  ‘Sunshine’, the founder of Special Friends Day Camp at Warm Beach Christian Camps and Conference Center. One of the summer’s goals was to help Little Miss Sweetness experience a camp. In the past, many summer programs have come with the tag, “Can she provide her own assistant?” While that has not been impossible, it is another accessibility hurdle, both from a human and a financial resource perspective. To be honest, I have usually chosen to muddle through on our own.

So, I was excited this spring to have one organization say, “It looks like she will need a one-on-one volunteer,” and be prepared to provide that. As the scholarship to pay for the program followed from another community agency, my excitement for what she would experience grew. But, for a variety of reasons, that opportunity fell through, and late June, we were left scrambling to fill the void. It was then I e-stumbled onto Special Friends Day Camp. We had to hula our way through a single hoop, and they said, “Come.”  They even fixed her lunch – all I had to do was get her there, swimsuit and horseback helmet and vaccination report in  hand. It was way too easy…

Through the course of the week, as Little Miss Sweetness swam, rode horses, and made a slew of new friends, I hung around just enough to learn that most of the staff were volunteers, and that the director founded the camp six years ago in the twilight zone of raising a special needs child. What’s that have to do with loaves and fishes? Well, for starters, she didn’t raise a special needs child in a vacuum. But that’s her story. A week ago, I was wondering how to cope with the fact that I often feel I don’t have ENOUGH: not enough hands, when the 4 kids were all under age 8; not enough time when there is such a diversity of interests and opportunities;  not enough energy, when each of the 4, plus spouse, have needs that seemingly require my attention, not enough time, period. And not enough will, when there is still a voice inside my head saying, “What about me???” (yeah, on the worst days there are 3 question marks). We haven’t even talked about the fact that outside the invisible box of our own family is a world plethoric with needs; needs next door and down the street, needs on native soil and in a jungle across the planet. Needs that scripture points to with the indication, ‘This matters…’ So I had gone to God with the question of loaves and fishes, and the horrible sense that mine were mold-pocked and ‘fishy’ instead of fresh and filling; and this week I meet the woman, who in the midst of all that similar mess, founded Special Friends Day Camp. With the support of a few disciples at Warm Beach, she brought one special needs son and a pocketful of energy to God, and He blessed it to feed  hundreds of campers and their families. Six years later, she still wears the camp name Sunshine. On her face, where it counts.

I guess the short version (now that you’ve waded through the long) is that I feel stuck in a roiling cauldron of needs pulling at me: 1) from the perspective of being a wife, mother, daughter (of recently aging parents,) and friend; 2)I feel compelled as a disciple to serve and to trust, in both God’s provision and his strength; and 3) to be frank, I feel weighted by occasional discouragement, honest grief, and transient, but momentum-stealing fatigue and distractability – the need for sustenance. BUT…I do like bread, and fish.

So, after wrestling for a couple weeks with the swirling questions of Energy Conservation toward Vital Ministry in the Face of Overwhelming Need, here’s a reflection compiled from the ‘loaves and fishes’ gospel accounts in Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9 and John 6.

The NEED to feed the 5000 did not come at a convenient time. According to the Mark passage, the disciples had been launched in ministry, and had come back to Jesus over-full of all that had happened, such that he called his disciples, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Mark 6:31 NIV. And per Matthew 14, this was shortly after the death of John the Baptist; a time when Jesus and his disciples would  seemingly have had grief of their own to process. But the needy followed them to a solitary place, and “Jesus had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Matthew 14:14 NIV. According to Mark 6:34,” …they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” Some were sick…some were wandering aimlessly,dangerously…down the street, across the globe. Inconvenient. So many coming and going that the disciples “did not even have a chance to eat.” Mark 6:31  “What about me??” is down to 2 slightly less whiny question marks.

Jesus already knew what he was going to do when he asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread…” John 6:5.  Jesus had fed the people eternally when he asked Philip to feed them temporally. Admittedly, there are times when God asks us to participate in the spiritual formation and discipling of others, particularly our children. But he does not ask us to feed everyone, in every way. Nor does he ask us to do the task alone. He invites us to join him in making God known, a felt, real presence in the lives of others. And sometimes he tests us, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” And sometimes, like Philip, he walks us through, step by step: masses, loaves, baskets, pieces.

Jesus, God himself, thanks his Father for the bread. Could be wrong, but I don’t think this is just a demonstration for the people’s benefit. You know how when you are trying to be a good example, you occasionally slip up – self control falters, and kindness, goodness and patience go AWOL? That never seems to happen to Jesus.  The One most entitled to “It’s all about me..” is genuinely thankful for bread, and the privilege of serving – on a hillside, and on a cross.. In John 17, he pleads for the chance to share his glory –  as in,  give it away so you can have some, too. Thankful for bread, and the needy who need it. One less question mark in “What about me?”

Jesus had the people sit down. It is not entirely clear how many disciples were there that day to help with crowd control, but I’ve read enough history to know that the crowds of the day could sway. There was only one Jesus, and in every one of the four Gospel accounts, it includes that Jesus instructed for the crowds to sit down. To wait for their hunger to be met, even while others received the same. (Trying to keep this to a small volume, Friend,  so I will leave  the application to you.)  And…just the dot .

Jesus broke the bread.  When the disciples suggested that he make the people go away to fend for themselves, Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” Mt. 14:16 In their minds, the disciples saw the  escalating temporal need, compounded by impending darkness. From our humanomic perspective, don’t we do the same? My kids are whole eternal beings in the eyes of a loving God, but for them, I can panic about the most mundane things…or not so mundane. The impending darkness has me running scared at times. But Jesus took what they collectively had-meager as it was, organized them in community, (it sorta sounds like church), gave thanks to his known loving Father, and BROKE the bread. In more than 5 thousand pieces. And they were all satisfied.

There are countless times that I have felt broken, crumbled to the end of myself, in caring for special needs, in being a loving wife, in managing toddler x 3. Jesus took the only physical provision at hand-and he broke it. Sometimes it feels lonely to be so ‘only wanted,’ but Jesus took those carefully packed staples, and fed  not one , but thousands.

Passages following the feeding of the five-thousand indicate that the people still did not recognize Jesus for who he was. In Mark 8 and Matthew 15, he feeds the people again, out of compassion. This after healing the lame, the blind , the crippled, the mute. Needs…in my house, out the door, down the street, across the world.  Jesus began to introduce himself, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35.   

“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

See God, please see God in me, even in the broken way, I lift these loaves to thee.

God of the storehouse, will you extend your broad reach of compassion in me, even in the midst of my own need for rest or solace. Will you nurture an unwavering trust that you know what you are doing, a thankful ‘unentitled’ heart, and the courage to ask the needy to sit down, and near me. Will you give me eyes to see the loaves and fishes that you have so carefully placed with the brothers and sisters around me. And will you guard against the mistake of seeing you for merely temporal provision, and missing that You Are God.

Selah

jlf 8/12

 

Entertaining the Holy

I’m finally getting around to my Christmas letter. I’m not the only one… I’ve received them from friends as late as Feb 14th.  But a thought that rolled around during the Christmas season, is now coming to fruition. It’s raw, but real.

Entertaining the Holy

Most of my life’s journey has been travelled at least in view of pleasant landscapes. It has not been difficult to be hopeful or generally optimistic. This Christmas, I feel hope wearing dangerously thin. After twelve plus years of caring for a special needs child, the threat of other trouble on the horizon leaves me filled with doubt as to how we will carry on. Is that my quota – one trouble per lifetime?  After reading countless patient histories listing multiple tragedies per family, I should know better.  And so I find my faith shallow, and my mind wrestling with angels over having to bear more. “Really, is this you, God, standing guard, yet letting trouble fall near?”  I had not realized my hope was so circumstantially defined. Oh, shallow soul that I am, only interested in investing where there are guaranteed returns.

 I did not win the wrestling match, so here I am; chief caregiver, charged with imagining and developing entertainment for one who is easily delighted, but too-soon disengaged. One who may rarely speak a publicly intelligible word or bear a job title. As I wallow in the sloooo-w progress we sometimes make, the calendar marches through Advent, and on toward Christmas, and I am supposed to be welcoming a Savior, preparing to entertain the Holy One….but instead am occupied with doing the same things over and over again, repeating the same simple guidances. 

How, in heaven’s name, does one entertain the Holy, with sufficient reverent pause…in the midst of persistent daily chaos (of my mind , if nothing else)?  Then I am reminded, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers…  My sweet angel, somewhere in the malformed taxonomy of human achievement, you will be called , ‘one of the least.’  The slowest pace, the lack of speech, the vague response. How slow am I , to realize that I am in the presence of the Holy; the holy intent to love one another, entertained in the daily give and grapple to take one step forward? The holy intent, ‘to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things…”A crushing thought deflates my frustrated agenda-o-meter: this, God, is what you have done for me: repeated the same simple commands, given cues, reviewed directions, gently guided me through the same steps of discipline, over and over again…You have borne my sin, and my propensity to stupidly repeat that sin. You have believed, expanding your breath of faith inside of  me, when mine was too small. You, God, have invented hope.

And you, too, dear one, are saddled with one of the least of these…slow wanderer that I am in the desert of misguided self-importance, here to walk you through your days. In a gross paraphrase of Joshua 5:13-15, the Israelites are poised on the plains outside Jericho, after much wandering to find their spiritual way; poised, to live inside the richness of God’s promise. Joshua encounters the ‘commander of the Lord’s army,’ who gives the message, “Take off your shoes (sandals), for the place where you are standing is holy.”

We too, or two, or six…,are poised, to live inside His promise. And on every occasion , whether the advent of something new, or something reviewed,  in which  we embrace with love, his intent in the struggle, we dance in entertainment of the holy.                                                                                                         JF12/4/11;3/14/12