Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What lasts

I wonder if my biggest trouble in seeing God in the poor is because I have a hard time seeing God.

And I wonder if I have a hard time seeing God because I am confused about what he looks like, about who he is.

I have these unspoken, unconscious, deeply felt senses of what is preferable, of what signifies blessing, of who is good.

If someone dresses in a certain way, carries themselves in a certain manner, uses a certain kind of vocabulary, smells a certain way-- there's a hidden, unconcious or barely conscious and never admitted telegraphing that goes on-- "I like that..." "They are good..." "They are well-off..." "They are ...impressive... "

I have this deep sense that those who have certain particulars-- a style, a type of church, a bearing, a giftedness, even a cleanliness and order-- that these people are some how God's blessed ones, God's favorites.

I have this other barely voicable prejudice that God is not so much with those who I feel less comfortable with or less impressed by-- sometimes it is those who have less education, perhaps less social standing, less commonality with me, maybe those who don't go to the churches I think are right on, maybe those who are desperate and in need.

I have realized how much I have a picture of what I think a blessed person looks like--but these pictures are not so much based on the truth of the Bible--on the goodness and graciousness of God-- they are based on my prejudices, on my background, on what the media and my personal history tell me is desirable, comfortable, and good.

James says... "let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low."...

It seems to me when he says this, he's telling us that there is nothing about being rich that signifies blessing and there's nothing about being poor that signifies distance from God.

This is easy to say. But it is a big deal. We live with constant bombardments of messages that say wealth and privilege and the comforts and help they confer on our lives signify our value, our worth. A very rich person is impressive to us. A beautiful person is impressive. A well-educated, well-dressed person seems blessed. A wealthy church seems blessed.

But any simple understanding of the basic message of the Bible reveals that this is not how God sees things. This is simply not truth. And if I don't know truth, then how can I see the one who is Truth?

If I want to see God, I have to examine my eye-sight. I have been using the distorted lenses of my culture and this world's value system for so long, I imagine that is the only way to see.

There are a few remedies I can think of, and every single one of them requires the Grace of our merciful, humble King if they are to be effectual.
-- Be honest about about what I value, prefer and desire. Tell the truth about myself. And by grace, repent.
-- Steep myself in the Bible, in worship and prayer. Seek to know Truth.
--Begin walking with, looking at, and making friends with those whom I once imagined were not the blessed ones. Seek to know Truth with them.
--Unplug in intentional ways from this culture's incessant messages about what is good, beautiful and blessed.

As I think of this-- it looks like Lent... which gives me hope. Maybe I have been in a long, messy, up and down season of Lent for the last six years. If so, Easter lasts longer and cannot be that far away.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Children's Book

For the past six years, I've spend most of my reading time in picture books.

My son who loves all action, and regularly asks me to tell him a story that includes him, his best friend Stevie, and light sabers... is content with almost anything I read him. I would say it soothes both of us, and brings us into rest. Maybe we've found our niche, he and I, in the rythyms of my voice, the turn of pages. I suspect that much of the time all this book reading is nothing but any easy conduit for a connection we often feel challenging and difficult. But sometimes for me, and I'm sure for him, there's a magic in these picture books that is as true and beautiful as any poet I could chose to read.

Today we read The King in the Garden, by Leon Garfield and Michael Bragg, a retelling of the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness from the point of view of a little girl who found him in her garden. He had been eating her flowers and gulping water from her fish pond.

"I hate you!" cried Abigail, seizing the king by his hair and pulling with all her might. "Go away back to your home!"

Up came the thirsty king's head, gulping and dripping at the end of Abigail's arm.

"Home?" he mumbled, in a voice that was as rough and ugly as the rest of him. "What's that?"

He turned and stared with huge shadowy eyes that were like rooms with the candles blown out. Where was the king? Was he really inside all this dark?"

I have wanted to write and meditate on seeing God in the poor. I find I have little to say and much brokenness. Maybe it's truer to say I have simply much brokenness and guilt and the confusion that comes with trying to cover those things up.

But I loved that description of the king. The candles blown out. Don't we all see a lot of ill and broken people who have become so unmoored that a self, much less a home, are almost beyond desiring.

And this little girl was able to see the broken, homeless king and minister to him, until he could see himself and remember.

"A king may leave his kingdom, even for seven long years, and nobody need notice that he isn't there; but if God leaves a man, even for a single minute, all the world sees that he's become less than a beast!"

.... "Why are you laughing?" asked Abigail, rubbing her ear. "And why are your eyes shining as if candles have been lighted in them?"

"Because God has come back to me," answered Nebuchadnezzar, "and the darkness has gone."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

seeing God in the poor

It's one of the more unsettling invitations of the social justice movement, the hospitality movement and the Catholic Workers movement-- this invitation to see God in the poor.

My friend remarked: "I can see the need for God in the poor," she recalled droves of homeless on the streets of San Diego, "but to see God himself in the poor. That's something else."

I've thought a lot about that conversation, about that question. How do we see the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe, the Sinless, Guiltless, All Good, All Sufficient, All Powerful, All Knowing One, in anyone of us?

This question is important to me for two reasons. First, I want to see God. Second, I live among the poor. My community does not have the desperate poverty of third-world countries or even this country's worst neighborhoods, but my neighborhood is full of folks who don't have much in the way of financial resources or power, and that this lack has an obvious affect. I will say more about my beloved community later, but let that stand for now. I want to know how to see God in the poor because I know the poor, and most of all, because I want to see God. If he is to be found in the poor, that's wonderful news for me, and yet, I've found, when it comes to seeing God my eyes are often clouded.

So how do we see God in the poor? I want to take several blog entries to unpack that question. But my first disclaimer is to say that I have seen God over and over in the friend who posed it to me. She has put up with me, and she has loved me, and she has shown me again and again the grace and gentleness and wisdom and love of God. If I answer this question and sound like a know-it-all, I would have to beg her forgiveness and say how grateful I am to her for having the true heart (so characteristic of her) to ask the question, to wonder it out loud, to work at it. I am confident of her depths--they go far beyond mine--if I ever reach a wise thought as I ponder this, I'm sure she has been there before and gone deeper.

Still, she let me start my own exploration, and for this I am grateful.

How do we see God in the poor? How do we see God in any of us, hounded as we are by hungers and loneliness and the stalking of our own death always at our backs... ?

It must be the most beautiful, the truest thing about God-- even if it is a Sunday School answer-- it's the Advent season, and our God actually, literally became the poor--the lonely, the hungry, the tear-stained, death-hounded poor. Mary and Joseph were wandering around Bethlehem desperate for a place to stay; they were in a crisis, about to give birth, and they were turned away again and again until finally they set up camp, struggled through labor and birth, in a stable, in a rude, unlit, dirty cave. Take away the romance and the story book images and you have a couple that was simply and utterly poor--lacking in money, they had no worldy power.
And there with them in a way unparralled in the history of this universe was God-made-flesh.

I count amont my friends and neighbors those who have been desperate for a place to stay, desperate for a place for their children to stay. They have called on family members and landlord after landlord hoping to avoid a shelter. I know friends who have been thankful when they found a shelter, and have ridden the bus back to that cot each night after a day spent looking for work. God decided to become one of them.

I know friends who are refugees, who have travelled across impossible distances and differences in culture and language to be safe... just as Mary and Joseph and Jesus did when they became refugees in Egypt. God was willing to be one of them.

This is simply the truth of Christmas. This is what Mary was crooning about when she sang out to Elizabeth--"He has looked with favor on the humble state of his servant."...

So maybe the bigger question is why do we not see God in the poor? But that is for another night. For this night my friends, be well.

May you and your children rest in comfortable beds this night. May doors swing open to welcome you. But most of all, may you see God in all you meet.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Last Post

Dear reading friends,

I'm going to take my Blog off the air for now. I feel the need to simplify--so I can actually figure out how to get a little writing done, and more importantly, hopefully simplifying might also lead in some fashion to more simplicity in the fabric of my life and days. This seems like one tiny step in that direction--perhaps misguided, but since i write so rarely anyway, it seems very low risk.

With much much thanks for all of you who read, commented and encouraged me.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Remembering Pete

Around 4 a.m. on this dark rainy morning of December 30, Peter Sobek died.

Not one of you know Pete. I am sure of this. Not many people did. For about 4 years I lived in his neighborhood, where he lived on a little cot in the living room of a tiny condo he shared his grown daughter. He was lonely, sick, isolated, often worried. As far as I could tell in the last couple of years he had no interactions with anyone in this world but his daughter and health care professionals and my family. And yet, whoever knew him loved him and even more--he loved them. He always spoke words of love, of appreciation--to hear him tell it, his daughter, as well every cleaning lady, every physical therapist, every orderly at every convaslescent home was a saint-- "good people"...

He was an ex-drinker, completely estranged from one son and almost estranged from a second. And yet he called my son "Smilely," and gave him candy and played little games with him and showed care for Luke every time we were together--no matter how sick he was feeling.

He was "not a very good Catholic," who had not been to a church in many, many years. And he told me Jesus was with him, and comforted him and answered his prayers. Once I came over and he was reading the Bible--the book of Mark-- he said, "look here Jenny. I thought this was going to be prayers--but it's all this that Jesus did and said. It's just wonderful."

Often at the end of our visits I would say, "Pete, can I pray for you," and he would agree and then start praying the Lord's Prayer. Yesterday, by God's generous goodness to me, I was able to visit him for the last time. He was too weak to do more than open his eyes for a second, but he held my hand for a little while and before I left I prayed --and I sincerely believe he prayed with me--the prayer Jesus gave us.

Once he said to me, in thanks for some extremely small thing I had done for him,
"you are just like a mother to me." It was the kind of extravagent grace he always showed--but to be compared to the mother of a man in his 80s really struck me. I keep thinking about how my own son will some day have to travel this same route--and I likely won't be there as he travels it. I trust that God will bring him friends then. And I think how unspeakably horrible it is to imagine that my son's gloriously beautiful and perfect body will someday wither and fail him and he will gasp for his last breaths and then die.

But this Christmas God has reminded me that he has sent his own Son to take on flesh as weak as ours. He allowed his own son to walk into death, to gasp for breath and not to find it. That is the gift he has given us. He has met us in our unspeakable weakness and he has redeemed it, transformed it....brought out of it resurrection and life.

I was trying, in some small way, to talk about this with Luke. He summarized it beautifully, better than I could ever have said. He said, today, when we were talking about Pete's passing-- "Jesus died before Pete. He went before him. So he can show him the way."

A few years ago, when Pete had his first heart attack, Luke and I went to visit him in the convaslescent home -- and when we returned I wrote this poem. I'll publish it here again (I know I have before as well) with profound gratitude to God for allowing our family to know his friend Peter Sobek.

Returning From Visiting The Convalescent Home

In the dark wind, husks
of seed pods rustle; grasses
leaning, knocking into one another
a soft and brittle chiming.

Tomorrow in the morning, I’ll walk
among the careless, amber weeds
full of their wet, jeweled light.

See how it was--the keening
then the kneeling--
and how they too have flung
their last bruised kernels away.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Supernatural Love

I stumbled on this poem by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (and I sincerely and deeply hope I never am called upon to pronounce this name).

The poem is so PRETTY and such a delight--the word play and meaning and sound just thrilled me and it was so happy. I wanted to pass it on.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Building cathedrals, being a mother and bad (or not very good) poems

A friend's mother sent her this little essay or poem, and she forwarded it to me. Apparently it's from Nicole Johnson's novel, The Invisible Woman. I think that there's a lot of beautiful, loving intention in this, but I personally don't like it. And it's so easy to rant and I don't like it when I do that either.

Read it before you read the rant--

I'm invisible.

It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I'm on the phone and ask to be taken to the store.

Inside I'm thinking, "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"Obviously not. No one can see if I'm on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all.

I'm invisible.

Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? Some days I'm not a pair of hands; I'm not even a human being. I'm a clock to ask, "What time is it?" I'm a satellite guide to answer, "What number is the Disney Channel?" I'm a car to order, "Right around 5:30, please."

I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated summa cum laude -but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again.

She's going ... she's going ... she's gone!

One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself as I looked down at my out-of-style dress; it was the only thing I could find that was clean. My unwashed hair was pulled up in a banana clip and I was afraid I could actually smell peanut butter in it.

I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, "I brought you this." It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe.I wasn't exactly sure why she'd given it to me until I read her inscription:"To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees."

In the days ahead I would read - no, devour - the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work:
* No one can say who built the great cathedrals - we have no record of their names.
* These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.
* They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.
* The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.

A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, "Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it."
And the workman replied, "Because God sees."

I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, "I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you've done, no sequin you've sewn on, no cupcake you've baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can't see right now what it will become."

At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride. I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on.

The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree. When I really think about it, I don't want my son to tell the friend he's bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, "My mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table." That would mean I'd built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want himto want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add,"You're gonna love it there."

As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we're doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.

I do know we are called to die to ourselves, to find our lives by losing it. I do know that this is not just some heroic intention, some dramatic call to martyrdom so that we forever find a pathetic way to get sympathy and admiration. This is a real call to love, and it's hard and feels like death and it does sometimes play itself out in making peanut butter sandwhiches, in sleepless nights with children, in giving up pursuits of fashionable clothing or other, in creating a home that is welcoming, loving, nurturing. But this essay feels like it falls a lot further on the side of martyrdom in a way that is not healthy for anyone in the family. As if it is important for mothers to become invisible. I don't believe that creates healthy children. And I don't believe that is "cathedral building."

On the other hand, I am very drawn to the idea of building cathedrals--and of that metaphor as a way to understand being a Christian artist. That is what I want to learn. How can we, as Christian artists, go against a long culture of artists that says the ultimate for the artist is self-expression and instead grow a conception of ourselves as in a community that is building something beautiful and grand and far far beyond ourselves and yet coming from our very selves. I am so grateful to be part of a family and a church--to be in a community where I am not the center of the universe but where I give what is me to what is bigger than me. And still, I am still longing to find myself and other artists creating more within that community.