Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying, old pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in that wonder.

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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Come to the Feast of Love

You pass by this scene every day on your walk to work:

Candles flicker on the stone step outside the door. String lights swoop toward the center of the ceiling. Waiters place hors d’oeuvres onto tables sparkling with goblets and silver. You catch whiffs of expensive cologne, alfredo, lemon, basil, coffee.

You peer into the banquet room and linger in its fragrance for a couple seconds. But you never step further because you know you could never eat there.

It’s way too expensive.

I’m alone and it’s a place for couples.

I wouldn’t know what to do with all those forks and spoons.

My clothes smell like work.

This banquet and this hesitating is the setting for George Herbert’s poem called “Love.” The poem is a story recounting the exchange between Love and a soul. Each of us can read it in the first person, first placing our souls at the banquet door. (The words in parentheses are my responses.)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
 (My clothes smell like work.)
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack  
From my first entrance in, (He saw me every time I lingered outside the door.)
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.  

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
 (Me? No, you can’t mean me.)
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,  
I cannot look on Thee.’ (You are very kind, but I don’t belong here.)
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made thine eyes but I?’ (Hmmmm. He made this banquet—He even made me.)
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’ 

‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’ (He says He made me worthy of this feast. He wants me here!)
‘My dear, then I will serve.’ (No, no—I won’t eat. You are my master. I’ll be your waiter tonight.)
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my Meat.’ (‘Says’ is present tense: He is still speaking!)
So I did sit and eat.

As we read George Herbert’s lines, we see that he knows how to be proper, dutiful, and fair. He knows about protocol and propriety to maintain at all costs. When Love pronounces him as the worthy guest of the feast, Herbert is incredulous and gives reasons why he can’t possibly accept. Sounds familiar, right?

When Love invites us to His feast, we learn, like Herbert did, that love is not a place, or a feeling, or a flavor. Love is a person, and His name is Jesus. Hearing His voice and seeing His eyes is the best thing that could ever, ever happen to us. And the banquet never, ever ends.

*****This is the final in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday from now on!

Love’s Posture

I wonder if you’ve seen how you’re surrounded by love this month. I wonder if you’ve been surprised or disappointed. I wonder how you’re responding to that surprise or let-down.

When we open our hearts to ahava, we risk loss, misunderstandings, and even heartbreak. One human response to this is anger and a commitment to avoid ahava in the future.

But the posture of ahava is an open hand. I’m here to serve you. What do you need that I can give?

Alternatively, the posture of anger is a clenched fist. I can’t wash my neighbor’s feet with my fists, and it’s hard to ahava (give to) someone if their hands are closed. There are a lot of clenched fists around these days. And sometimes the fists belong to me.

John, who found his identity in being the disciple Jesus loved, pointed out that love casts out fear, and he added that fear possesses terror. Apparently, he believed that the opposite of love is fear. Let’s contrast more words connected to love and fear.

These lists demonstrate love’s enormous power to transform, heal, and free. Like the sun shining on a cold day inviting you take off your coat, instead of the wind that makes you hang onto the coat even tighter, love melts open a clenched fist and a stiff exterior. It invites dialogue and a smile. It gives a cup of water, the simplest of gifts.

If we would love like Jesus did, generously and winsomely and in hidden ways, we could change the world! We can live in love and not fear when we embrace our deepest reality—that we are deeply, outrageously, undeservedly loved. It seems John knew how much Jesus loved him, and he never got over the wonder of it. It shaped how he saw himself, and influenced how he spoke and taught.

The ahava God pours on us is our endless supply to share with our world. We can approach the difficult person and the stranger with open hands, and mirror His warmth and comfort. In doing so, we help to soothe the crippling, damaging fear that keeps people from living with open hands.

If the posture of ahava is open hands, it means that love has nothing to defend and no personae to keep polished. It is genuine and honest, simple and frank. It is not driven by the destructive, irrational fear of criticism or failure. Living with open hands is possible by a power far beyond human limitations, and its results reach further than we can know or dream.

Will you move into this week with open hands, giving and receiving love?

*****This is the third in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

God So Loved That He Gave

One of times I felt most alive was when my friends and I swam in the Dead Sea. The buoyant water let us do gymnastics we could never do before! The clear, turquoise water, briny with salt and minerals, made my skin silky smooth, and soothed the sunburn I’d gotten a day earlier.

An Israeli company takes the salts and minerals from the Dead Sea and produces a beautiful line of skin care products, choosing the name Ahava for their brand. A friend gave me a tub of lovely Ahava body sorbet that I love using.

Ahava means love. It’s the same word God used in Leviticus: You shall ahava the Lord your God, and your neighbor, and the foreigner among you.

Why did God command a condition of the heart instead of action with the hands or feet?

The root word of ahavah means “to give.” To ahava the Lord and our neighbor is an act of intentional giving, serving, focusing on another. Love is far more than a warm feeling deep inside. It is action and generosity, sacrifice and service.

In this week of masses of pink and white fuzzy animals, red-foil balloons, and heart-shaped chocolates, it is normal to focus on what we might or might not get, and what makes us feel loved. Romantic love is beautiful and life-changing, and carries enormous power to heal and restore. Valentine’s Day is often the most noticeable, accessible form of love, but ahava is far bigger than a special day on the calendar.

God modelled ahava for us when He loved us so much that He spared nothing and gave His Son. God’s call for us to ahava is a call to the shape of a life, the deeds and habits of a heart that gives and serves the neighbor and the family member and the stranger. Ahava is not expecting to receive nice things or to stay comfortable. However, in a beautiful paradox and a curious exchange, when we ahava God and others, we receive stupendously in return.

In this week of pink and white and red all around you, how will you receive and give ahava?

*****This is the second in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.

Farther Along

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It’ll be hard, they said.

Give yourself at least a year to adjust, they said.

So I gave myself a year, and July 1 marked the day, and most days since then, I’m not sure that a year did any good in helping to adjust. I’m still fragile enough that tears are usually simmering just under the surface, and I would happily board a plane tonight to go back to Poland. 

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That strike-through option shows me that a year does something more than I’ve realized. I couldn’t freely board a plane to leave because it would mean tearing up the little burrow I call home and leaving work I’m coming to love and people who have come to mean a great deal to me.

But if I’d have known how harrowing the year was going to be, I’m pretty sure I’d never have had the courage to start.

“There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.” That’s what Sarah, plain and tall, said. Her words have helped keep me from feeling completely insane in this crazy mix of being happy and sad in the same second.

I miss simple, flavorful European food without sauces that disguise whatever it is. I miss living in town and walking wherever I want to go. I resent needing to drive everywhere. I miss taking the train or bus to the next town or across the country. I miss elegance and stately city designs. But I love how easy it is to drive away for the weekend, and how stores are air-conditioned and how customer service agents laugh with me on the phone.

I always hesitate when writing the date–is it month or day first?–and I feel like a deviant either way I write it. I push down the anger when people talk so LOUDLY in public places because it feels terribly invasive and indecent to me. I shudder at the shocking amounts of artificial coloring in food. I’m agog at how effortlessly church fellowship dinners appear and I did nothing to contribute. I still hate answering the glib question about where I’m from. I still feel like a foreigner, an oddity.

But I know my address by heart now, and that feels like a huge accomplishment. I have a PA driver’s license and a local library card. I know my way around town without a GPS. I walk around campus with this incredibly rested, relaxed spirit, singing, instead of feeling the tight, nervous, nameless fear of a year ago. And most delightfully, there are people with whom I share inside jokes and confidences, and I didn’t even know them a year ago.

hmmmm.   Maybe a year makes a bigger difference than I thought.

Maybe I’ll always feel like an oddity. Maybe it’s deeper than feeling European and a “returned missionary.” Maybe it’s part of the human condition, which is why I talk about it here. I’m not that eager to dump my feelings on the internet, but maybe someone else feels like a forever transplant. Maybe another human out there feels odd and mixed up. I’ve met more of those this year than I ever knew existed. We’re a weird bunch, puzzled and dazed and mystified at how it’s possible to function in this world while feeling very attached to another place.

There may not be compensation for the losses sustained in our fragmented hearts, but I’m slowly, slowly coming to see that what’s behind us gives us more to go forward with. It’s possible there’s a largeness of soul gained from our experiences that gives us something more to offer our world than we could have otherwise.

These ideas are just tentative. Maybe in another year I’ll know more about it.

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The Water is Wide

I call her my Polish mom, though she said she’s more like my big sister. She’s a grandma and has lived lots of life, so that’s why she’s like a mom figure to me. The drama and the dreams she comes up with are like no other, and forces to be reckoned with. By her own admission, she has ADHD, and it’s a standing joke and explanation for how crazy and boisterous it gets when she’s around.

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But she’s not just loud and wild. She cries and hurts and agonizes. What’s more, she hurts with other people’s pain. She has this enormous heart that she spreads over me and those in her world. I don’t have to say anything (and often I can’t because we don’t speak the same national language) and she knows what’s going on inside me. Is that because my eyes reveal so much or because she’s so incredibly perceptive? Probably some of both. Very often, she would ask how I am, and I couldn’t wiggle out of the direct question, so I’d be honest, and she’d say she knew it already. Then she’d cry with me and tell me it’s going to be ok.

It was an experience that’s hard to describe–how two verbose women who didn’t share the same language could talk or be silent and still understand each other. Tears and laughter are their own language. And God’s Spirit in both women is a perfect translator.

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We talked food and people and traveling and teaching. Having taught school for decades, she’s a master at handling children and teenagers, and winning their hearts. Her big heart wraps around them and they cannot stay untouched.  She asked me to be her English teacher, and it was delightful.  I especially loved how she praised me to the skies for my teaching ability even though she constantly lapsed into Polish and I couldn’t tell if I helped her English. I think the biggest benefit was just that our lessons were meetings of the heart, and probably that’s more beneficial than retaining language.

She knows heart break and the ravages of a devastating divorce. She knows ache and poverty and dreams that never come true. That’s why it’s so beautiful to see the power of Jesus’ transformation shining out of her. One of my favorite stories about her is here.

I left Poland last July 1, and she told me when she’d be at the school to tell me goodbye, but she never came. I was sorry, because I need closure. I don’t love pain, but not saying goodbye is worse than saying it. But clearly it was going to be too hard, and this was the easier route for her.

There is no right way to walk away from a vibrant, life-giving relationship. It’s impossible to cross an ocean, live among English-speaking people, and go on as if nothing happened.  My heart strings are still raw and dripping. Tears are always shimmering under the surface. Always. It’s different with my family even though they’re far away. They’ll always be family and we’ll always be in touch. Ela is FAR away, in another language, separate from anything here, involved in her own world, even though I know she’ll always love me.

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Yesterday I Skyped her for the first time since the time we didn’t say goodbye. She’s the same Ela, full of smiles and exclamations and wild dreams, pouring out so much love. She read me, as always, and observed that I’m doing better than when I left. But she didn’t see the quaking, shattering in my heart that went on the rest of the day and made it hard to concentrate because her voice and grin kept coming back to me and yet were so far away.

Sometimes I hate the globe and limitations of space.