Oh, perfect mystery.
How rumbling sound of never-stilling waves,
can rock my soul to peace.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
If you have never sung or heard this hymn, take a few minutes and look it up on youtube. (This is a nice version). It has become one of my favorite quiet, soul-stirring hymns. This preference is not because of the aching, soaring arc of the melody, hauntingly beautiful as it is. Nor is it a response to the poignant images it holds before my mind’s eye with slow, insistent repetition. My heart is pulled by this song because of one simple word:
Sometimes. Not Always. Not whenever I turn toward God or train my mind to properly spiritual things. Sometimes.
That one word is probably one of the truest things I ever sing about my own spirit. Much as I love to sing in worship it can be hard to really claim the feelings the songs ask me to name: feelings of desperation for God, or a love that supersedes all other loves, or complete and total trust. On an average Sunday morning I am more likely to be experiencing heart-stopping love for Princess Imagination as she cuddles up to share the hymnal and sing a little off-key; or I am battling distracting questions of whether to trust the Gigglemonster to come straight back from his second bathroom run. Even before I had children, maintaining total focus on God for even the length of a simple praise chorus was not a foregone conclusion.
It’s not that I have never in my life experienced the relational intensity described in the many wonderful psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It’s just that, in the midst of normal life, they feel like such an unattainable ideal. Life is full – full of responsibility, and activities, and far too little sleep. I simply cannot maintain a perpetual emotional high no matter how hard I try.
Plus, I thought that I had moved past the try harder orientation of my evangelical roots. I have embraced grace and rejected performance Christianity. I have found God in the valley in ways that are far more relevant and palpable than God on the mountain top. I know better than to try harder at being the perfect Christian.
But perfectionism is a hard master to shed. In these very early stages of my candidacy for ordination, perfectionism has been dogging my steps and flicking my ankles with the whip of shame.
Do you really think you can be a spiritual leader?
Is it really that hard to spend 10 minutes a day in silent meditation?
Does prayer time really count if you are still curled up under the covers?
Did you notice how you just FAILED to treat that rude driver like a beloved child of God?
Performance. Expectations. Perfection.
That is what I find so beautiful about the one word Sometimes. Sometimes means it does not have to be all the time to be real. It means that the holy trembling that does happen – sometimes – is a precious, not an inadequate, experience. It means those moments are a shared reality with the whole cloud of witness for whom the trembling is also sporadic. Sometimes is a wonderfully reassuring word.
That word was hanging in my consciousness for the whole drive home, and my imperfect, easily distracted mind was hoping to get the kids in bed quickly so that I could sit down to this computer and work through the learning that I knew was trembling inside my deep exhale as I sang about sometimes.
But the Gigglemonster can always sniff out any sense of urgency to leave him and it triggers an even greater sense of urgency in him. Tonight it elicited tears, and fierce, insistent hugs, and hiccuping, vague stories of school bullies, and the desperate declaration that “I want to cling to you because I never want you to leave me.” I stayed much longer than I had planned. We talked, and I offered reassurance and cuddles, and I finally extricated myself with a promise to come back in 20 minutes as long as he stopped screaming and practiced his self-soothing.
Of course, when I returned 20 minutes later he was fast asleep, curled around his stuffed animals and not apparently scarred by the trauma of having a Mommy who refuses to sleep in his bed with him just because he clings.
And that peaceful slumber in no way makes me question his love for me. The intensity of his declarations of devotion are not somehow diminished by their limited duration. They are not even tarnished by my consciousness that they are part totally genuine and part master manipulation (there can be all kinds of imperfect dynamics to trembling love). They are sweet and beautiful glimpses of true closeness – a self-opening love I couldn’t even have dreamed of before I became a parent. They are real.
And thank goodness they are only sometimes.
As I left his room with the image of his sweet sleeping cherub’s face, I wondered whether God feels the same way about me? The moments of ecstatic adoration are wonderful, but they couldn’t possibly be always. That wouldn’t be a good thing even if it were possible. The Mother-Father heart of God knows I need those moments of closeness and trust, but I also need moments of play, and learning, and falling down to discover the pain and healing that comes with growth. A God who hangs on the cross to show what love really is does not look for perfection. My God doesn’t look for a love that is all emotional highs and total, focused devotion.
Clinging is a part of love, but only sometimes.
This year my experience of the Lenten season (the 40 days + Sundays period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) has been unlike any other. It has felt less somber, and more energizing. I feel a simmering sense of anticipation that will not let me stop in the stillness of reflection on my need for God’s grace. That grace already feels too present, too alive, to even be able to contemplate what life would be like without it. I don’t know if I am really experiencing Lent as I am supposed to, although I can’t really complain.
An important element of this difference has been the recent development in my own life. After a long (very long) process of discernment, I have taken the first steps toward pursing ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church. These steps have had a more profound impact on my faith than I had expected. My relationship with Jesus has always been central to my identity, and I have always seen my professional life as an expression of my vocational calling, so I suppose I expected the most recent movement to be just another stage of the journey. In some ways it is, but it is also profoundly different.
Growing up evangelical, my faith was first and foremost personal, even when it pushed me to action on behalf of justice and care for others. Suddenly I have this whole new perspective on my faith as being For Others. When I interact with a given text or encounter a new theological perspective I can’t just wonder what this means for my faith. I feel both a responsibility and an opportunity to move past the question of “how does this speak to me?” and into the much less certain query of “how can I make space for others to hear what speaks to them (even if it is different than what I hear)?”
For a woman who still often craves certainly, this new perspective on my task can feel unfamiliar and destabilizing, but I think it is also an essential part of the grace-filled way that I am experiencing Lent this year. There is space for so many experiences of Jesus. It is frustrating but also beautiful, and I get to be part of opening up those spaces, rather than defining and controlling them.
That is what happened when I sat down to write a reflection on the story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet in John 12 for my church’s Wednesday service last week. I found space.
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John 12:1-8 [Translation: Common English Bible]
“Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Can you smell the heavy scent of nard? Inhabiting the air with a call to pay attention. A scent that will not be ignored. Evocative. Pungent. Compelling. Can you feel it swirling around you like a clinging veil? Can you close your eyes and let your mind melt into the mist of memory?
They say that scent, more than any of the other senses, is tied to memory. An ephemeral hint in the air – a familiar spice, a food, a flower… a perfume – they all can pull us with tremendous power. They can transport us back into a different time and place that captures our attention because it is important to us. Whether that association binds us in irrational fear, or explodes inside us with unconstrained joy, the scent is what moves us, pulls us, brings us back into a moment that lives forever in our sense memory, because of its importance.
But what makes the moment important, what that memory means? The scent alone does not tell us that. We bring the meaning with us.
So, when the strong scent of nard invades our memories, what meaning does it bring?
To some this is a scent of Waste.
If I had only offered my tribute in a reasonable proportion,then it could have been acceptable. After all, I had much for which to thank the teacher. He was the one who had restored my brother to life after days in the grave. It was quite natural for me to seek some way to demonstrate my gratitude. We were a family of some means, and so some small extravagance was understandable.
But three-quarters of a pound of pure nard? – poured out with no limit, no consideration of the other uses to which it could be put. A year’s wages in value. Just think what could be done with such a resource. There are real needs – the pressing kinds of needs that should take priority over sentiment and extravagant demonstrations. In the face of real, practical uses for such wealth… to spill it out in such a profligate way is shocking.
Yes – to many, focused on the scarcity of resources, this pouring out of scent smells like a waste.
To others, this is a scent of Shame.
This may be the version of my story most familiar to you. Luke told the story this way, and for some reason it seems to fire the imaginations of many gospel readers of later generations.
The sinful woman. The woman so weighed down with the shame of her life that she could no longer hold it in. The rules and social niceties meant little to her anyhow, so she laid them aside as she had long ago forsaken any claim to moral living. Abandoning discretion, she poured out her perfume as she poured out her tears. Nothing else mattered. The pain of her sin broke all constraints and her shame spilled out – an uncomfortable display to scandalize the watching judges.
Yes, to many, focused on the binding up of sin, this pouring out of scent smells just like shame.
But to others, this is a scent of intimacy.
This scent means stunning closeness. For in scent, which must be near to be perceived, which never can be shared at the safe distance of the heavenly throne, we find a whole new meaning of Emmanuel: a God so truly with me I can touch him. I can pour my precious offering not just at his feet, but on them. A can let down my hair, a private, vulnerable act and touch him in the tenderest anointing. A touch that speaks of total trust, assurance that my God will welcome me just as I am.
And so, to those who long for closeness with their Lord, this pouring out of scent smells sweetly of intimacy.
And yet to others, One at least, this is a scent of death.
As I sat near, the nard still clinging to my hands, He named my act. “This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”
It was an affirmation of my right, a declaration that I’d not transgressed, but rather done the prophet’s and the mourner’s work in one. And yet, how hard that was to hear. I wanted to anoint my Jesus as my prophet, priest, and king. I wanted to pour out my extravagant offering as a pure witness to his unlimited worth. A worth that could NOT die.
But, perhaps I knew. Perhaps I had understood somewhere below my conscious thought what was to come. Perhaps the Spirit worked in me to recognize the frailty of this body I could touch – the painful, wrenching consequence of incarnation. Perhaps, my soul did know my act for what it was. As I slowly rubbed the burial balm into his skin, perhaps I knew the grace of offering this small comfort to my Lord.
Hard as it was to hear, I understand.
To the One who knew all of the roles for which he was anointed, this pouring out of scent smelled strongly of death.
But I too can smell the nard, can feel it dripping from my hair, can see it shining on his skin. I close my eyes and breath and am transported back into a golden, shining moment of pure love.
For Love is what the scent of nard communicates to me. The meaning of that powerful scent memory takes me back into a moment where I knew the heart of love.
Love that is unrationed
Love that is unashamed
Love that is uninhibited
Love that is oh, so very alive.
That is the Love I felt beneath my fingertips, and dried with my hair. That is the Love at whose feet I sat to learn, and the Love whom I followed to the cross. That is the Love who stared his own death in the face, and still smiled at me as I poured out my offering of nard.
Can you smell it? I know that I will never forget.
[warning – do not plan to enjoy thanksgiving leftovers while reading this post. It involves plumbing problems…]
The last few days have not delivered the Thanksgiving break I was planning on.
I suppose I had some warning. This past Sunday, when a load of laundry flooded the basement due to a blockage in the pipes, it was a foreshadowing of the dangers of home ownership. But an evening visit from the Joe the plumber (his real name), and a few hundred dollars later, it was supposed to be fixed.
Three days later Joe was back. More laundry. More water all over the basement. He diagnosed a blockage in the septic tank. That would be a few hundred more dollars, and we couldn’t get anyone out until Friday, but it was still a manageable crisis. It seemed that only large amounts of water were a problem. We could still wash dishes, flush the toilet, even shower. We could make it a few days without doing laundry.
And I really needed that to be the solution because I didn’t have time for any more significant disruption of the household routine. Work has been so overwhelming lately that I regularly have to fight back panic tears if I let myself think past just the next urgent task. And then…Thanksgiving.
I love Thanksgiving. I discovered fresh turkeys and focaccia stuffing when we lived in Italy, and I am now embarrassingly proud of my Thanksgiving spread. I wasn’t cooking for a crowd this year – just my own little family and a dear friend from church – but still. It’s Thanksgiving, and that means The Works.
And I was already facing one challenge to this plan: a pesky little degenerated disk in my fifth lumbar region. It has been acting up off and on over the past few months. In recent days even the minimal exertion of 5-10 minutes standing on the hard tile floor in the kitchen prepping the kids’ school lunches leaves me with lower back spasms that take my breath away and make the task of holding back those stress tears a whole lot harder.
I defy anyone to successfully prepare a full turkey dinner without spending significant time on their feet. So, I bought a second gel-cushioned kitchen mat, said a few prayers, and started basting.
A couple hours in I could tell I was going to be hurting pretty badly by the time we sat down to eat – but that wasn’t the worst part of the day. That came when Princess Imagination yelled up from the basement. “Mommy! You need to get down here right now, there’s a big problem!”
I hobbled down as fast as my gimpy back would allow. This time the backflow was from Tyler’s shower. Ugh! I guess this problem is bigger than we thought. At least the septic people are coming tomorrow. Tyler might have to rinse the conditioner out of his hair with the garden hose (thank God for the unseasonably warm weather), but the septic flush would fix everything.
Looking back, I’m glad we were still under that delusion during our Thanksgiving celebration. We had a lovely meal with our friend, and we even washed up all the dishes – cautiously – without catastrophe. My back was definitely hurting, but I hoped that a good night’s sleep with good supportive pillows in strategic places would do the trick.
Then came Friday. I woke up to intense pain. And by pain, I mean that it felt like a metal clamp was slowly tightening on my lowest vertebra. Even sitting completely immobile hurt. But try telling that to two enthusiastic little bundles of love hopped up on no-school-holiday-weekend-time-to-decorate-for-Christmas excitement. The fifth or sixth time one of them jumped on me in an overflow of glee there were more than a few angry words.
And then the septic company came, flushed the system, and concluded that “No. There was no blockage in the tank. Your problem is in the pipes.”
Re-enter Joe the Plumber (I swear that really is his name). Some trained listening, some experimenting, and we had a third diagnosis. Somewhere between the exit from the house and the septic tank, the pipe was compromised. As in – it will cost $3,000 to replace it.
But not until Saturday. It was a full-day job and it was after 3:00 in the afternoon.
I was very aware that it was after 3:00 in the afternoon, because I hadn’t used the bathroom since the night before. We were in a strictly no-flush situation and our two little ones needed the full remaining toilet capacity.
Now, in the long-term the $3,000 is going to hurt a lot more. But in the moment, my bladder was competing with my lower back for which could crack my pain threshold first. Which meant that I needed to venture out to find a public bathroom…on Black Friday…with a spasming back…not having showered since Wednesday morning.
As I tottered to the car, I was not in the most thankful mood.
Then I turned on the car, and NPR was on the radio with a story about Syrian refugees.
I was suddenly aware of the relative irrelevance of the hardships of my week. But more, I was suddenly also aware of just how hellish life is for the millions of people living for months on end without modern plumbing.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees there are more than 4 million Syrians registered as refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and North Africa – 4 million mothers, fathers, aunts, children – most are in refugee camps.
I have been hearing these numbers for months, and the numbers are overwhelming, but also a bit emotionally deadening. My mind and heart can’t grapple with the concept of so many people fleeing for their lives. The pain of that imagined fear is too much. I can’t simultaneously think of them a people with the same kinds of physical needs that I take for granted being met everyday.
Until just a few are not met. Until my dishes pile up in the sink because I can’t put any water down the drain. Until I have to plan my bathroom breaks around trips out of the house. Until I am conscious of the grease in my hair walking into a coffee shop to buy an over-priced latte as an excuse to use the facilities.
Then I am aware just how quickly we humans can feel dehumanized by the loss of running water. Just water. I still have heat, and shelter, and a freezer stocked with ice packs for my aching back, and every other comfort money can buy. All I lost was water for a few days, and I feel just a bit subhuman. A day that I have been looking forward to – the decorate for Christmas day that was supposed to be a special togetherness time for my family – was marred by stress, and snapishness, and impatience. A little physical pain, and a disruption of our domestic conveniences, and the spirit of patience, love, and joy that is supposed to characterize this season was palpably missing from our house.
Just one, temporary thing can make such a difference.
And more than 4 million people have lost everything. Perhaps permanently.
The moral of this story is supposed to be how I have been reminded to be thankful for all that I have, but honestly that feels rather shallow. If all I learn from the devastation visited on 4 million of my brothers and sisters is to be more grateful for the incredible bounty in my life, then I am a callous and self-centered beast.
Their suffering is not about me. It is about them. I don’t know what I can do about it, and that is a heart pain that weighs heavily on me. But I do know one thing.
I know I can think of them as fully human. I can recognize that the relative safety of a refugee camp is not a solution to their problem. I can reject any narrative that says I shouldn’t care. And I can keep caring until every man, woman, and child has a home again. A real home, with running water.
Her open, glowing face pulls on my soul, insistent as the tide, compelling
honesty. A truth that whispers safely in the darkness of the night.
This light’s illumination is the gentle kind that blurs the lines and shadows,
beauty, in the ambiguities. A soft exhale of grace.
Thank you sweet Creator God, for moonlit prayers.
Like a fault-scarred landscape,
I’m braced against the tremor that foreshadows instability.
It matters not who made the scars.
not who is to blame.
It matters only that the shaking could –
whenever that inevitable lurch arrives –
And then, oh then I fear the shaking will not stop until it’s broken all the fragile structures I have built upon the surface,
ways to hide the scars.
And if these decorative lies should crumble into dust,
What is my silent fear beyond the quake?
From that dark chasm deep within what do I fear?
From out the depths, do I believe will come some molten pain that could deform me even more?
Is there life?
A spring of living water that – like Balm of Gilead – will soothe my soul and wash the faults away in blessed baptism of grace?
if such a spring is there
won’t it be worth the shuddering wrench
to set it free?
A few nights ago the Gigglemonster was having a rough time with the whole sleeping-when-the-lights-are-off thing. I can’t really blame him. He was dealing with a perfect storm of sleep-impairing factors:
Given all that, my little not-quite-six year old just couldn’t seem to settle, or stay asleep once he did. I was called into his room again and again, a call made difficult by Mommy’s own sleep-impairing reality of a looming deadline on a major grant application. Needless to say, it was a hard night for both of us.
At around 2:00am, when I had finally shut down my computer and dragged myself to bed only to be wakened by child cries, we were curled together on his bed as I tried to soothe him. He was beyond exhausted, but that made it all the harder to calm down and fall back to sleep. His legs hurt, and he was overwrought, and he just couldn’t take it anymore.
With his sweet little faced scrunched up against the ALL of it, he half-cried his hopeless protest.
“I’m just having a really HARD night, Mommy.”
As I cuddled him closer and told him I understood, I knew that this was true.
I also knew that there were so many little ones that night whose “hard” was unimaginably worse than the “hard” my little boy was fighting. The image of little Aylan Kurdi, and the knowledge of all the millions fleeing the terror that ultimately took his life, has been draining my soul all week. Lying on a soft bed, in a safe house, with all our physical needs met and no fear that they will ever be threatened, I was rocked by the recognition that even here “hard” can be too much. Hard can overwhelm, and leave a loving mother feeling helpless to give my child what he needs and desperately asks me for.
What must it be for a mother to not be able to even give her child safety? What must it be to not even have a bed in which to cuddle your terrified son?
Reflecting on these contrast I felt grateful for all that we have, but more I was devastated for those who don’t have safety. Comparisons like this can too easily become a sanctimonious sermon about looking at what one has instead of what one lacks, but that take feels very selfish to me. Feeling grateful for what I have is wholly and utterly inadequate when facing the refugee crisis. The comparison that struck me while I comforted my son wasn’t about me. It was about all those who can’t comfort their children because the “hard” they are dealing with is just too hard.
For a five year old, missing his Daddy, and dealing with the first day of school, and waking up with nightmares and growing pains… all that is genuinely hard. And it’s as hard as it should ever be for little boys and girls. As hard as it should ever be.
If you haven’t done so yet, please join me in doing what you can to help. Links for a few reputable organizations providing direct aid to the crisis are below. It’s can’t fix everything, but it will help parents who don’t have what they need to comfort there children tonight.
Ox Fam is also working to generate support for refugee resettlement. You can join that effort here