Blest be the Synergy

We gathered under the trees and around salads and grilled kebabs and before prayer, our host said, “Be thinking about how to answer this question: why did God put you here in this place and time? What were you born to do? We’ll talk about this later in the evening, so this is your heads-up.”

Then we ate wonderful food and cuddled the baby and stirred the fire and talked on high for hours. We were seven people joined by common experiences and passions, and there are always stories to re-tell and howl about, and new parts of our lives to share, and there is never silence between us. When the darkness settled and the children were put to bed, and the coals glowed, I thought it was time to wrap up and leave, but our host brought up his question: “What were you born to do? We’ll go around the circle and hear from everyone, and I’ll start.”

The fire became an altar, and the circle a sacred place, and time stopped while we heard each other’s dreams and goals and affirmed what we heard.

“Yes, you ARE a shepherd. Hey, I want to tell the rest of you about the time he was a shepherd to me.”

“The way you love on troubled children is the way you show them Jesus. You WERE born for that!”

I was the only single among the three couples, and they prayed for a husband for me, and we prayed for each other’s visions and unanswered questions and quests. Sacred is the only word I can use to describe it, and even the next day I still felt hushed in wonder at the beauty and power I’d witnessed.

This was one of several small groups I’ve been part of. Various times and incentives shaped the groups. Similar interests. Common training. A work team. Sitting at the same table for supper in the cafeteria.

The synergy that rises out of asking questions and brainstorming and bringing one’s whole self to a group energizes me for several reasons.

  • It is an adventure, because there is no predicting what will happen.
  • It is empowering to be heard, to be given space and time where your voice matters.
  • It provides shared experience that becomes a reference point for further interaction.
  • Life and death are in the power of the tongue.

Sometimes a group has to wrestle with a dilemma that has no easy way forward. If one person were alone in a room wrestling with the sticky problem, they would get tired and despair and make a bad decision. But in a group, with more ears tuned to what’s being said, and more than one heart engaged with the issues at hand, good and beautiful things happen.

What happens in group is not limited to the time in the circle. Sometimes Often I perceive or say things in the moment that I would see differently if I had time to mull over it. But it gives a starting place for more thought and change. Group work also pushes me to ask God for the most pressing need of my whole life: wisdom.

Here are some life-giving words I’ve heard in group:

“When you said that, I got this picture of…”

“I really like that idea!”

“Can you tell us where those tears come from?”

“You’re being quiet over there. What are you thinking?”

“What would happen if…?”

“I see your point, but what about…?”

“That took some courage to say.”

One group was so sacred that I can’t talk about it here except to say it involved snowballs in the dark, and honesty and courage shimmered around us in a way that would hardly have happened had we stayed around the table in the dining room.

So setting is important. A bonfire helps. Or a chalk board. And snacks–at least chocolate.

There are no guarantees for resolution, and there is always risk.  Risk that my words will be misunderstood. Risk that I’ll fall apart. Risk that I’ll walk away with fewer answers than I want. Risk that my heart will break.

But risk is the price you have to pay to keep walking toward wholeness and a full life.

I am deeply grateful for the groups I’ve been honored to be part of. They shape me into a person I could never become if I would try to wing it alone.

We Are Too Easily Satisfied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This prayer by Wilbur Rees keeps coming back to me.

I wept when first heard it read about a month ago.

I don’t think it needs commentary.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,

but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk

or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man

or pick beets with a migrant.

I want ecstasy, not transformation.

I want warmth of the womb, not new birth.

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

 

It’s Not Fair

One student makes straight A’s without trying, and another does everything she can to pull a C.

One sister has stair-step babies, and the other can’t conceive in twenty years.

One friend’s parents thoughtfully encourage their children’s strengths. Another set of parents disregards or disapproves.

One lady has a husband and a respected degree by age thirty. Another has neither at sixty.

One girl is wooed by the man of her dreams. Another girl is invisible except to a mental patient.

One friend has money to vacation in Italy while another can’t afford a $20 concert ticket.

One couple celebrates one year of marriage and pronounces the year fun. Another couple fights three kinds of deadly cancer in their first year.

It’s not fair.

You shake your head at the balance scales. You whisper the words to a friend because for some reason you’re not supposed to say them. Or you sob into your pillow until you snort, and the universe keeps on humming, and friends never mention the disparity, and  the scenario keeps on not being fair.

To the one with a grim diagnosis. To the single bridesmaid at the eleventeenth wedding. To the bereaved and wrecked and poor: it’s not fair.

This is reality when the sun shines or when the rain blows. The Almighty and Omnipotent Father sits on His beautiful hands and does nothing to level the balance scales. There is no justice. You can do everything right and be a good girl and do what you were always told to do but there are no guarantees and it’s a fallacy to believe that everything will turn out like it should.

Part of my journey to wholeness includes being honest about the injustices I observe and experience. It seems much more wholesome to be able to call a spade a spade than to act as if it’s something else.

So: it’s not fair.

There are things I weep and howl over, dreams I ache for, friends I hurt with, prayers I beg God with the most persuasive words I can find.  To do otherwise would be to deny reality and be a flippant, chirpy, hollow, obnoxious voice in a cavern of unanswerable questions.

While maturity acknowledges that things aren’t fair, wisdom doesn’t stay there. It’s a child who mopes and sits outside the game and whines that it’s not fair. An adult who does that for days and weeks and months is pretty ugly, in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no easy way to do this, but when that forty-leventh bride has been whisked into the sunset, you sometimes have to take yourself by the scruff of the neck and turn yourself 180 degrees toward the east and make a list of other things that aren’t fair.

This is part of my list:

  • I sleep on a dry, thick, super-comfy Tuft and Needle mattress while refugees sleep on blankets that hang out of their tiny, squished-together tents.
  • I have a job that enabled me to buy a car, while a friend can only afford to drive a borrowed car.
  • I’m lonely and long for companionship but it’s not fair that another woman’s loneliness is infinitely, agonizingly greater after her husband abandoned her and their three little children, the baby with Down Syndrome.
  • I had major surgery in a foreign country and had the best of care and no complications and have been given a new life but my friend battles incurable illness and huge medical costs.

It’s not fair.

I’m stupendously, staggeringly, unreasonably rich and spoiled and comfortable, and it’s not a bit fair. It’s not fair that my friends and the rest of humanity walk through crazy amounts of pain and tears that I never do. I’m not being glib or flippant about this. I cry often about sad things and injustice and longings on my behalf and others’. I experience hard, hard, things about each of my list entries.

But the great and grand and shining reality is that the present injustice is not all there is. It takes the long view to see more than is apparent to the naked eye. The long view is the truest view.

It’s ok to say it’s not fair, but it’s not ok to stay there. Because at some point–after about an hour or a day or a week–wisdom and grace and the presence of Jesus are waiting to turn us to the east and see light and hope and a far green country under a swift sunrise.*

*That last phrase is what Gandalph said.

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Home Goings

I had already cried quite a lot that day. Easter night, I had walked around my old haunts–the fountain, the Palace, the little pond. Walking down Warszawska, tears kept falling out of my eyes. Tears leaked into the pillow that night, and into my coffee the next morning in the place where I had always had coffee and watched the light coming in the windows. I cried to Lolita in the van, and when our friend met us at her door, she said, “Oh Anita, are you sick?”

I said no, I’m just sad. I’m so happy where I am, but so sad not to live in Poland anymore. Then we drank coffee and ate chocolate blok, and who couldn’t be uncheered with this on Easter Monday?

Then Lolita and I took the train to Warsaw to revisit more old haunts and imbibe the atmosphere that I miss so much. We lingered long over lunch and E. Wedel drinking chocolate and stories and joys and worries, and were nearly ready to leave. When she came out of the restroom, she was crying, asked me to pay while she goes outside to call someone, because she doesn’t want to tell me in here. So I did, when the waiter finally brought the check.

Out on the sidewalk, she could hardly get the words out: Our… sister Beat…is home.

Incredulous. Stunned. Shaking my head. We cried on each other’s shoulders, and I kept shaking my head. Then it occurred to me: she’s healed, she’s healed, she’s dancing. But why was I shaking and crying?

There was no point in looking at sights. The shock had suddenly chilled us, so we found a coffee shop, warmed up a little, read the terse news article. Beat’s car had hit a horse and she was killed instantly. We got the next train, went to friends of Beat’s, and talked and cried and prayed together.

The next day, my friend and I returned to the US as planned. It was hard, hard to leave, and harder to come back to a surreal atmosphere. All week, a fog seemed to cover the place and I kept pushing through jet lag and emotional numbness. Thursday my mom had surgery to remove lymph nodes for analyzing and determining treatment for stage 2 breast cancer. It was a yucky week, all around.

Saturday was the funeral. Finally, I could let myself be sad. Even though it was still surreal. The form I saw in the casket wasn’t Beat. I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t around a corner somewhere, chortling and chatting. Someone so alive can’t be gone for always. Singing “Under His Wings” in a Faith Builders group helped me feel I could DO something with my grief. Telling my favorite story about her at the open mic at dinner helped take some weight off my heart. But it still felt surreal.

It seems to me that this fog of grief is two enormous things: loss and shock. My heart can’t accept what my ears are hearing. Yesterday all the staff and students gathered in the chapel for a memorial time to remember and celebrate her life.  I knew I wanted to be there, but I kept thinking this is just a weird kind of exercise because we all know she’ll show up again and we’ll laugh together at how ridiculous and impossible it was that we thought she died. I cried when we sang “safely in His bosom gather…such a refuge ne’er was given,” because I’m sooooo glad she’s safe and healed and radiant.

I remember Beat’s soft heart and gentle love. How could she possibly remember everyone’s favorite food and make sure I’d gotten my favorite bar that last week? Her irreverent, shrieking howls were part of the reason I loved her. Her honest tears were beautiful to me, not weakness.

In the memorial time, it was fitting that there was more laughter than tears. We ended with some little howls ourselves. I did, anyhow. My favorite story recounted is this: Someone complained to her, the head cook, about the food. “Just put more Ranch on it,” she said.

The layers of complexity and wisdom and understatement in that line is priceless and howl-worthy and so Beat.

She was a queen in God’s Kingdom, and in the kitchen, and she is a hero.

An Epiphany at Easter

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This is a rerun from the archives of 2 yrs ago. These days, I’m reliving those memories: grainy, zingy zatar–the stinky camel ride and my breathless laughter–glorious Dead Sea swim–Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee and eating a lunch of humus beside it–the ache of the Wailing Wall on Good Friday–the shine of one man’s eyes telling another “He is risen!”–the walk to Emmaus with sunshine, friends, songs, and a turtle. I will never be the same.

Last week I flew from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in order to spend Easter with my friends in Jerusalem. Sound exotic? Yes, it was. I’m still floating.But this is not a travel blog, though I dream of that. This is about an epiphany I’m still living with.

The plane was filled with Polish Jews and there was a beautiful, exquisite atmosphere with the families mingling and smiling and comparing notes. “We’re going for Passover in Jerusalem then rent a car and travel further. What? You too?” Polish Jews have suffered so much in this country, and I could feel the pulsating home-coming atmosphere and was so happy for them.

Wedged between two pleasant gentlemen, one wearing a kippah and editing his movie of a rabbinical school, I opened my Bible to Luke’s account of the resurrection. I wanted to enter into the story as much as possible in the next several days. I wanted to hear and see and smell what Jesus and His loved ones did. (As it turned out, it seemed that I could only see the same sky they did, because not much else is the same, but that’s ok. The journeys of the heart are what really change us, I think, not a physical pilgrimage.)

Luke says the women found the tomb empty and heard the angels say that Jesus was no longer dead, and then went back to tell “all the others” about it.

You know how women are when they get to be the first to tell someone their exciting news.

This was the best news that could ever happen, and to the disciples, Luke says it was idle tales.

Empty words.

Jibberish.

Jesus had repeatedly confided in these men. He’d told them He would die and rise again. He’d done what He could to prepare them for the devastation they would feel, but it did not compute for them. Now this morning they were so crushed that they couldn’t let themselves believe what the women were saying.

Do you know how blankety-blank hard it is to sustain hope? It’s easier to write it off as nonsense and foolishness and tell yourself not to care anymore.

Mark says the disciples didn’t believe the women nor Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus who had walked and talked with Jesus that day. It’s pretty much impossible to believe news about a miracle when you watch all your hopes dangle on a bloody cross in an earthquake.

When everything you counted on is gone.

When you don’t even have the remains of what you loved.

But Peter ran, Luke noticed. John’s version includes himself in the running. Peter had loved Jesus the most boisterously, the most rashly, and he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard but he had to check, just in case, and the men couldn’t wait or walk calmly.

They ran, and I weep over their eagerness and their stunning bravery. They ran head-long into the situation that held the potential to break their hearts even more–if it’s possible to break a heart that’s already pulverized. There was no precedence for what Jesus did, and they had no proof of the women’s words being true.

Except they had Jesus’ words earlier, which is life and power in itself.

Wedged in a tight airplane seat, I tried to surreptitiously wipe my tears on my scarf because I didn’t want the men to get worried about me crying.(“No, no, I’m ok–I’m not scared of flying–everything’s ok!” I would have said.) But I can’t stop crying about it even now. There is maybe no other scene that speaks so powerfully to passion and longing and life than this one–of the men running toward what they couldn’t believe.

There are half a million things I hope for myself and those I love. Sometimes I get a tiny glimpse of how things could be. How a miracle would change things for them or me. How we could enter more fully into what we were created for.

But it feels so impossible, so far away, that I write it off as pish-posh. Or I believe the lie that I don’t deserve these miracles. Or I’m not one of the lucky ones and God is handing out miracles to others but forgot about me and my people for awhile .

And lies and fanciful tales don’t sustain and don’t give life. In fact, they starve me. Poison my system. Shut me down. Keep me from running.

With the power that woke Jesus from the dead, I want to run toward the things He wants to show me. Not wait around and see what happens. Not discount it as excitable women’s words.

The best thing that could happen had just happened, and Peter couldn’t believe it, but he still ran, and by the Lion’s mane,  I will too.

Makoto Fujimura: Silence and Beauty

“When you feel overwhelmed with the enormity of your assignment, give yourself boundaries. Limitations are wonderfully clarifying. So when I started thinking about illustrating the four Gospels, I gave myself a boundary and started with the shortest verse: Jesus wept.”

Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ) “Tears of Christ” Makoto Fijimura

This was how Makoto Fijimura began his speech,  and the painting that started the evening. His intent in the painting was to start with a dark background (the backdrop of the voids and traumas of our world) and illumine it with prismatic colors.

The painting fit his speech, “Silence and Beauty,” as Mr. Fijimura unpacked the story of John 11 and 12. I wanted to study the painting for a long time. There is depth, darkness, movement, passion, and light in it. I watched the world-renowned artist shuffle gently back and forth on the stage, talking softly–so softly that I couldn’t catch every word, smiling, peaceful, confident, gentle. He showed us a picture of his simple painting called “Silence,” which he is giving to movie director Scorsese who directed the recent movie with the same name, based on a novel by the same name. “This is painted on mulberry paper, using ink that’s a hundred years old. It’s easy to transport, compared to my other works that are harder to take from place to place. And with their colors, when you take pictures of them, they just disappear. So you just have come see them.” Gentle tone. Shrug. Beaming eyes. Smile.

Fijimura is uncommonly equipped to critique the movie and the novel Silence because of his extensive knowledge of Japanese thought, culture, and art. His speech last night was uncommonly ambitious, moving from a nod to his art, to “Jesus wept,” to Silence and our own unanswered questions, and back to Jesus.

An aside: I was glad of how candidly Fujimura spoke when he showed a picture of the carnage in Nagasaki. He said more Christians died that day than had ever died as martyrs in that country. He didn’t dwell on it, but he put it out there. It is right for Americans to hear and see images of that unconscionable trauma that often gets glazed over.

I haven’t read Silence yet. I’m trying to decide when I’ll have the fortitude to read what I understand to be a harrowing, deep story. But Fijimura was doing more than providing well-informed commentary on Endo, the novelist, and talking to more than those who have read the book.  “Do you know what it’s like to talk to God and to hear nothing in return?”

In John 11, Mary and Martha say the same words to Jesus at different times. They don’t understand His silence, His inaction. Their faith is not an issue. They know He could have kept their brother from dying.

To Martha, the busy CEO of the house, activist, organizer, the one who makes the party happen, Jesus responds with left-brain answers. To her He gives the shining proposition: I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE. He speaks her language, meets her where she is.

Mary is the artist, impractical, intuitive, inefficient. She says the same words Martha did, words of questions and bewilderment. For Mary, Jesus has no declarations of truth. He is silent. Instead of declarations and explanations, He weeps. He speaks her language, meets her where she is.

The Gospel is not about fixing things that are broken in a shattered world. The Gospel is about the tears of Jesus and His presence. 

Because He is the answer. His silence is not distance. He is present, and His presence heals what is shattered.

Then in chapter 12, Lazarus is the only one is the story who does nothing. He’s not fighting a culture war to prove that he’s on the right side. He just stays with Jesus, confident,  knowing reality of the Resurrection. They can’t do anything to him because he’s already died and knows death won’t have the last word. What is there to fear or be defensive about? There is nothing to defend and get worked up about. The resources he draws from have no limit. I think Lazarus’ confidence was akin to Makoto’s gentle invitation for us to come look at his paintings. A shrug, a little grin, nothing to prove or defend.

Mary, the artist, pours on Jesus’ feet the perfume that would have pleased her husband on their wedding night. Artists rebel against the bottom line because they know that their resources are infinite. Mary, extravagant, intuitive, lavish, gave the best she had.

How to respond to trauma and betrayal? What if Jesus’ artists would spread His aroma, the Gospel, extravagantly, wastefully, because we know the resources will never end? What if left brains and right brains would meet in the amygdala, the brain’s center, and be Lazarus, and not fight culture, but stay with Jesus?

Mr. Fujimura’s speech moved me deeply. I wept again this morning, remembering Jesus’ response to the women, and I know the message will stay with me always. The speech itself was profound, with ambitious themes covered masterfully in a most understated way. His words were like giant brush strokes that at first appear disconnected but eventually paint a stunning design of emerging light, space, and color.

Matthew - Consider the Lilies “Consider the Lilies” Makoto Fujimura

 

 

Ruminations and A Little Adventure

Yesterday I was ready to walk out the door after attending a women’s conference in Holmes County, OH. One lady told me goodbye and said, “I’d like to sit with you awhile because I think you have lots of stories behind you.” I told her she can read the stories on my blog, but right now I live a very normal life with no exciting stories. I was shaking my head and chuckling, surprised at how odd but fine it felt to say that.

For so long, I was the girl who lives far away and has Adventures. Now that girl lives in the sticks of gray PA and has no sweet little grandmas pressing money into her hand for fish for Christmas, and doesn’t fall into (many) atrocious language mishaps. Her car shimmies badly and gets dirty, and her orchid is pushing buds. Every day, she has very honest discussions with God and quiet, deep chats with people , but none of that stuff is story material or blog-able.

She has a lot of Thoughts and wonders about a lot of things.

  • Someone needs to write a Mennonite philosophy of the body.
  • What is to be done with songs with lines like “send grief or pain” or “I’ll trade sunshine for rain, comfort for pain–that’s what I’ll be willing to do”–when no sane person would say any of that.
  • What does it mean to mirror God’s image of creativity in us?
  • We can observe the ripples of traceable influence from Amy Carmichael to Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, but who’s next? Who will the next Christian heroes be? Are we walking among them now? How will their stories be preserved to influence and shape the next generation?
  • How can we come to understand more deeply the profound impact of words, and how they give life or death? How do words exercise man’s dominion over the created world, which includes the spirit world?

But none of that translates into stories. Hence the silence here.

But something funny did happen to me this weekend, and it makes a story to laugh about, and it was a little adventure.

The conference I went to asked me to speak in one session, and reserved a room at a nice hotel–one much nicer than the kind I reserve when I’m paying. The girl at the desk gave me the key and instructions, I found the room, swiped the key, and stepped in.

I saw lights turned on and clothes  and an open suitcase and I knew there would be a body on the bed. In the half second it took to assess the situation, I backed straight out, walked downstairs, and told the check in girl. She had no idea what was going on, and looked terrified and bewildered. She said someone had checked out of that room earlier in the day, didn’t know why someone was in there, and had no extra room to give me because they were booked full that night. I knew (but didn’t say) that we had an Agatha Christy plot on our hands. She gave me the employee’s restroom and I changed and left for the evening session. I couldn’t quite relax all evening. I knew a reputable business would take care of me, but still.

When I returned  hours later, the same girl was still there, falling over herself with apologies. The conference organizers had made two room reservations for two of us speakers. The check-in girl had given the other speaker the room with my name. That girl had already left when I came, so there would have been no body on the bed, but oddly enough, she said it went through her mind that she’s always a neat freak, but this time someone will come in and see the mess she left.

To compensate for the mix-up, the hotel gave me a $25 gift card for a local business I’ll probably never patronize, but it was awfully kind of them. Human error can happen anywhere, and happily we could laugh about it.