Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Praying for God’s Senses: Day 5 of the April Poetry Challenge

As you may or may not be aware, the Christian church is more than halfway through this year’s Lenten journey — the space on the church calendar reserved for contemplation of the human need for forgiveness in preparation for Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

Growing up, Lent is something I knew very little about as I was raised in nondenominational evangelical churches. I more or less discovered the practice in adulthood, and quickly grew to love it. The practice of contemplation, of sitting in the silence of my soul and not just rushing on into the celebration part of my faith, is something I have found deeply meaningful. It is a chance to confront not only my own darkness but the transforming joy or knowing that this darkness is both known and loved by God. I know from experience that it is worth the pain of really knowing myself to know that kind of love.

This year, above any other in my life, I have experienced an embarrassment of riches in terms of opportunities to explore the quiet reflection that Lent encourages: opportunities to lead reflections and adult forums at our home church back here in New Jersey, mid-week Lenten services (that the kids can almost sit through without squirming) as well as Sunday worship, and most of all time that I could commit to quiet prayer. I’m not yet working, and the kids are in school from 9:00-3:00, so I have as much open time in my day as I have ever had.

And yet…

This Lenten season, above any other in my adult life, I have been struggling with the discipline, with the silence of sitting and listening. It’s almost as if there is too much time, too much silence in my life at the moment and I want to run to fill it… with books on tape, or music, or podcasts, or Facebook feeds… not with the silence of waiting for the Lord.

And so, today’s poem is my feeble prayer for the grace to listen.


 

citofono

So much easier to speak than to listen

 

Praying for God’s Senses

 

God who hears, teach me to listen!

God who sees, give my soul sight!

Through life’s blessings or its challenge

fill my weakness with Your might.

 

Far too often I have shouted

to make sure my voice you heard.

When, instead, I should have listened

for the Truth beyond all words.

 

Or I’ve tried to paint a picture,

bright and bold so you’d attend,

while my fractured, warping lenses

blurred my sight — that you must mend.

 

What I need is not to capture

the attention of my God.

Rather what I need is wonder

that can bear the grace of Love.

What I need is to surrender,

to receive what’s offered me.

Ears that hear a voice beloved.

Eyes to see Christ risen indeed.


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Love in the Balance

Apparently, the emotional turmoil of moving inspires poetic rather than prose responses in my soul.

There are so many things that I could say about my impending return to my home country. Even more that I could say about the consequent departure from the city and country that have become my loved, if sometimes uncomfortable, home. I could reflect on the sometimes humorous, sometimes hand-wringing challenges of culture-crossing. I could expound on the idiosyncrasies of the Italian language that continues to enchant and frustrate me. I could reminisce over sweet memories and mourn the imminent changes to dear friendships. I have feelings and thoughts on all of these elements of this incredible experience, but these are not the truths that welled in my soul as I walked to the kids’ school this afternoon (for one of the last times).

Instead I reflected on the ways this experience has changed me, and as often happens these thoughts brought me back to the faith that is at the core of the “me” who has changed. There has been a lot of change in me, that is clear, at least to me. And I suppose my faith has changed as well, but not in some linear sense of conversion from one form to another. Rather, these years have brought a new sense of synthesis. This is not a direct consequence of one or another element of my experience. My years in Europe have, on the one hand exposed me to much more variety within Christianity than even my seminary years, at least in terms of lived experience. But on the other hand they have in some ways left me on a spiritual island – isolated from the friendships where I feel most free to talk honestly and openly about my faith, marooned with my faith and my God to try to work out for myself what I really believe.

And I am emerging from this experience with a new sense of balance, an appreciation for the life of “the now and the not yet” that was academic in seminary, but is now experiential. In describing this, however, my prose escapes me. Instead, I share the poem that evolved from a prayer walking through the rare autumn sunlight of a crisp November Milan afternoon.

This morning's view of the Basilica in the sunlight.

This morning’s view of the Basilica in the sunlight.

Love in the Balance

Constancy that’s ever changing

as I shift my point of view.

Your face can ever bring me wonder,

every morn Your love is new.

*

First I knew You as a savior,

hung for me up on that tree.

Oh, the breathless love of sinner

called by One who welcomes me.

*

Then I knew You as a Father

firm, though loving, in command.

My call, I knew, must be obedience

always submit to Your demand.

*

I’ve also known You as my Abba:

Daddy, dear, who holds me close.

Nestled in Your sweet protection

perhaps this face I love the most.

*

A mother’s longing You have shown me

when I hold my children near;

a love that yearns toward my potential

balanced between hope and fear.

*

In blessed moments I have known You

as the Lover of my soul,

igniting passion for Your presence,

for only in You am I whole.

*

More often You’re the still small voice,

so hard to hear amid the din

of life that presses with demands

so urgent, as I am worn thin.

*

But other times Your voice seems absent

even when I call in pain.

Your silence deafens me from shouting

leaves me hopeless, Spirit drained.

*

Until I learn to sit in patience,

let the silence fill my soul,

find the peace of true surrender,

choose my faith despite the toll.

*

Your words are sometimes those of comfort,

sometimes challenge, sometimes call,

hope, rebuke, forgiveness, wisdom.

At different times I’ve needed all.

*

Such contrast can all seem disjointed,

“Who is the true Word hid beneath?”

But Truth can hold them all in tension,

each is true, just incomplete.


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Why It’s So Hard to Love My Neighbor

I’ve recently been using a new book in my morning devotional time. I’ve turned to it in part because it offers a very simple formula that I hope may help with my consistency, and in part because it is based on the writings of Teresa of Avila (a contemplative, spiritual author, and Carmelite reformist), whose life and writings demonstrate a deep and transformative understanding of prayer in the Christian life. The formula that so appeals to me is as follows: 1) a morning reading, drawn from Teresa’s prolific writing, 2) a “mantra” from the day’s reading to write down and repeat to myself as a guide for meditation throughout the day, 3) an evening prayer that draws from the reading and focuses me on seeking God through whatever truth has been germinating in my daily reflection. No formula is perfect, but I have been finding Teresa’s words inspiring and the task of day-long meditation very fruitful.

Particularly today!

I won’t reproduce the full morning reading here, but the theme it explored is the teaching that is commonly referred to as the first and second commandments. Stated most simply in the opening of the reading, “Our Lord asks but two things of us: love for God and love for our neighbors.” It is an imperative so familiar to the lifelong Christian that it is sometimes hard to take in the full import of those words. They are formulaic instructions that do not often take active root in the routines and responsibilities of daily life. This day’s reflection, however, managed to give them new life for me. Teresa makes the point that it can be hard to evaluate how genuinely we are loving God, but it is much more obvious how we are doing with our neighbor-love obligation. What is more, this neighbor love, although “second” in priority can actually be the means to factually, concretely loving God. As summarized in my mantra for the day:

If we possess a true love of neighbor

we will certainly attain union with our Lord.

I found this argument compelling, but hard to really grasp. I’ve had the experience in my Christian life of what has felt like quite the opposite — where love for people (whether they be within my own family or disadvantaged groups for whom I have advocated) has felt like it is in competition with my love for God. Not that God doesn’t approve of the love and devotion I show to these others, but it is too easy for me to misprioritize and leave my devotion to God in the shadows of my more practical, visible loves. How then can my practice of neighbor-love be actually the route through which I achieve the union with God that manifests true, committed love?

As I began my day, I was wrestling with this question, unsure what answers I would find but sort of vaguely asking God for revelation. My morning agenda offered little opportunity for really exploring the concrete practice of neighbor love. There was some casual chatting with other moms at school drop-off, and a few facebook posts to respond to, but mostly I had a solitary morning of working on my book. I glanced at my post it note a few times, trying to internalize the message, but that was about it.

Then, 1:00 hit and I went to grab my shoes. Wednesday is an optional half-day at school from Year 2 and up, and I had promised Princess Imagination that I would collect her early for a little special Mommy-Daughter time without the Gigglemonster. Perhaps it was the morning spent perched sideways on the couch typing away; perhaps it was the final devolution of that knot in my back that has been bugging me for days. All I know is that I reached down to fasten my shoe, and I suddenly saw stars. The pain was like a micro explosion in the center of my back that radiated pulsing pressure in every direction and temporarily stole my breath away. I couldn’t move. Even just inhaling hurt.

As the minutes ticked toward the 1:30 pick-up I imagined my Princess’s shining face as the gates swung open, searching the crowd of maternal faces for mine. I can’t let her down! I have to be there. On a slow, relaxing inhale I used my hands for support as I eased back against the wall. Once my back was vertical it felt a little better. The stabbing pain disappeared as long as I didn’t try to move. That left only the pressure of an elephant compressing my spine. But I could manage that. I had to! I closed my eyes and breathed a prayer for miraculous healing, but added grudgingly at the end “not my will, but yours be done.” Apparently, sudden miraculous freedom from pain was not God’s will for the moment.

So here was my first chance to practice neighbor love – to go pick up my daughter instead of calling the school to cancel and then lying on an icepack for the next two hours. When I pictured her desolation if I failed to show I didn’t feel like I really had that much of a choice, but still it was a chance to see what Teresa was talking about.

The problem is, Teresa was talking about true love and that goes beyond making the painful drive to pick up the eager 6year old. That requires actually focusing on her needs over and above my own. I tried. I let her pick the art activity of her choice, and once I’d finished my 20 minutes of floor-bound ice packs I joined her at the table and happily made play dough spaghetti for the next hour. I know from her glowing smile and the energy exploding out of her for the rest of the day that this was a really special time for her. But…

This wasn’t really the neighbor love Teresa was talking about, the love that brings us into union with God. I knew that when each stab of pain made me wish I hadn’t promised her this afternoon together. I knew it when her enthusiastic pull on the purse slung on my shoulder ejected a verbal slap from my lips (“Don’t pull on my purse. My back is hurt!!!“). I hadn’t elected the most selfish option possible for my afternoon, but neither was I really putting her first.

As the afternoon progressed, and the ibuprofen and ice packs did their work, my pain relented to a reasonable degree and we went to pick up the Gigglemonster. After homework and a few books and cuddles the kids involved themselves in independent play, so I went scrolling on Facebook. What I found there was a Sojourners post about a Rick Warren controversy of which I hadn’t been aware. I won’t belabor the details, but apparently the well-known pastor (or his staff) had made an ill-advised post on twitter and Facebook. It was an image drawn from a propaganda poster for the Red Army and it was supposed to present a picture of the kind of motivation and commitment displayed by their church team. The blog post offered a strong (though I thought reasonable) critique, not only of the use of the image, but primarily of the justification that was posted after the image was removed. The critique argued powerfully for why the excuse of irony and joking displayed a failure to understand how hurtful and inappropriate these posts had been. (To see the blog post: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/09/25/dear-pastor-rick-warren-i-think-you-don%E2%80%99t-get-it).

I nodded my head vigorously, though figuratively (unnecessary spinal motion is still severely curtailed). The post exposed how unloving it is to ask an oppressed group to “take a joke” and I found a connection to the mantra I had been contemplating all day. However unintentional or uninformed the original decision to post the image had been, the real damage was done by the failure to take responsibility for causing pain or to even ask forgiveness. This was a key element to this love of neighbor that Teresa was describing. Love of neighbor requires humility, the willingness to respond not just to others’ physical needs but to their emotional needs as well. And sometimes, others’ emotional needs might require us to accept that we don’t always have the right to make a joke. By being vulnerable to another’s pain, even a pain we can’t really relate to, we make ourselves more open to union with the God who took on all our pain.

Feeling pretty good about my spiritual insightfulness I scrolled through the comments following the blog. Most of them were “like-able,” applauding the author’s clarity and message. Then I came to a response that rebuked the author for not offering enough grace to Rick Warren.

Wait a minute! I wanted to scream into my tiny I-phone screen. Did you even read the article? Warren’s the privileged white guy who does something really offensive and then whines that he was just trying to be funny. He’s not the victim here! If he won’t look for the truth in the negative feedback he gets, then he needs more negative feedback, not grace!

And then my eyes fell on that little post it note. If we possess true love of neighbor we will certainly attain union with our Lord. Well, I wasn’t feeling terribly unified with my Lord at the moment. Not that God never expresses righteous anger, but the thing with God’s anger is that it really is utterly righteous. There is no shadow of pomposity or strident self-justification. If God is angry it’s because the Source of perfect goodness has been violated and that demands justice. My self-righteousness, on the other hand, has a lot of personal ego and defensiveness and other less-than-savory ingredients added to the mix. I can’t really agree with the comment that rejected a valid critique because it lacks “grace,” but I’m not loving my neighbor when I compose scathing responses to his ignorance, even if they are just in my head.

With that stinging conviction on my brain I got dinner on the table. As the kids sat down I asked the Gigglemonster to pick a prayer. (The kids have a few books of children’s prayers on the dinner table and they take turns selecting prayers at meal time). Here is the gem he picked out for tonight:

Dear God,

People are all different, but you love them just the same,

Please teach me how to do this, Lord — to love them in your name.

Amen!

Stated here so clearly, in the language of young children, was the truth about love that I had been struggling toward all day. Loving my neighbor, and thereby drawing into union with God, is not about me! Love that builds unity is about understand God’s love for others that transcends all our differences. That kind of love doesn’t fall back on excuses for how I’m in pain and I really need to put myself first. That kind of love doesn’t ask others to understand my point of view. That kind of love doesn’t get defensive and self-righteous when faced with difference. It loves “just the same.”

I think I am starting to understand how Teresa can claim that true love of neighbor can draw us into union with God. I am very, very, far from that kind of true love, but I am starting to understand it and to at least want to be able to practice it.

Please teach me how to do this, Lord. Amen


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Ocean Empiphany

401I have always loved the places where the ocean meets the land. I love the sound of waves; I love the tang of salt on the air; I love the perfect clarity of the horizon; I love the slow descent of my bare toes through shifting and embracing sand; I love both the warmth of radiating sun and the chill of enveloping fog. My senses rejoice and my soul relaxes when I sit on the beach and stare out at the water. There is something beyond the sensory experience that speaks to me. There is something about that point of connection that focuses me. Simultaneously my soul is stilled in response to the vast blueness, while the fact of solid land offers me safety and comfort. I can encounter my incredible smallness in the world in a way that doesn’t diminish me. In many ways, the beach is my holy place.

Not that holiness really describes much of the past three weeks of Mediterranean vacationing. Put aside all the topless sunbathing (I can mentally recognize that the practice actually desexualizes women’s bodies in my current host cultures, even if it still feels scandalous to me). I’m not offering any cultural commentary here. The lack of “holiness” in my vacation is more a reflection of busy schedules, and clashing priorities, and frequent obligations to redirect my children’s behavior or to intervene with sibling bickering. This time has been a wonderful time for our family, but with intense togetherness rough edges get exposed and the results can be wearying.

397And the days set aside for “relaxing” on the beach are not quite a blissful escape. There’s still sunscreen to apply (and re-apply), and arguments over whose turn it is with the water gun, and fruitless efforts to preserve a sand-free zone on the towels, and efforts to get progress with independent swimming, followed by motherly anxiety about keeping a vigilant eye on my suddenly flotation-free child, and generally not much time to just sit and absorb the crashing of the waves and the profundity of existence.

Thankfully, my wonderful husband is universally proclaimed to be the “fun” parent in contexts like playing on the beach, and therefore the kids generally prefer his company on the rare moments when they both want to swim at the same time. So, on Wednesday, I had a few minutes to relax on my beach chair and read my book.

The book that has captured my attention this vacation is one I mentioned a few entries back: Ben Patterson’s Deepening Your Conversation with God. I think perhaps it is not a coincidence that on Wednesday I was reading a section that describes what it means to address God as Father. Patterson’s point, intimately illustrated, is that God as Father is both a frighteningly powerful Other and a shockingly intimate source of tender care. It’s a theological point I have always assented to, but that day it was real to me in a new way.

484You see, as I was reading the words, I was also glancing up regularly to check on my two little children playing in the surf. It’s not that I don’t trust my husband who was officially on parent-watch, but much as I love the ocean I am also aware of its power. The Gigglemonster and Princess Imagination are still just so small. One unforeseen undertow when Tyler’s attention was focused on the other child, and one of them could go under forever. And so, every 30 seconds or so, I would just dart a glance to check that I could see them both and that neither was venturing too far away from Daddy’s strong, protecting reach.

In one of those glances, my vision focused with sudden clarity. I saw the huge, limitless expanse of blue water, and my two children’s tiny heads gleefully bobbing on its edge. I felt, in one instant, two truths. First: that the ocean, however huge, was small and powerless in reference to the one who made it. Second, that this same Creator is also a loving Father whose attention can never be distracted from my two precious little ones.

There really are no words for the stunned wonder and humbling gratitude I felt in that moment. It was almost too overwhelming in the moment to fully register, and so I have been processing it since. I will not pretend that, over the last two days, this epiphany has constantly invaded my mind, but the echo is there. It has reverberated in my soul whenever I have given a moment’s silence to listen for it, and those quiet echoes have produced a new expression of awe that I offer now. If you feel even a sliver of the wonder of my moment on the beach, you will be blessed.

Ocean Epiphany

Rolling blue that stretches out / numbs my mind through vast expanse.

Each azure drop is known to You / and each wave’s movement in advance.

The Word that spoke the water’s life / is echoed by the murmuring tide.

Infinity of sea and sand / is dwarfed by You, who will abide.

Enormity, You still my tongue. / How can I speak to such a God?

You are too big, too strong, too whole / to speak to you reveals my fall.

497

And yet, each drop of sparkling blue / that eddies round my children’s feet

obeys your Word and leaves them safe / to dance in wonder less complete.

They cannot grasp the awesome truth: / Creator God, so very near.

Not do I, in most moments, know / as EL-ELYON that voice I hear.

For this one moment focus snaps / I see in intimate relief

How you are one, both far and near, / deep love from One beyond belief.

Then I must pray as ne’re before / I cannot stand and yet I yearn

You are my terror and my Lamb / and give me love I’ll never earn.


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My Running Prayer

Running routeToday’s run wasn’t my best. That probably goes without saying considering that I was running outside in Milan in August, but the cognitive understanding that heat and humidity and heavily polluted air make running more difficult offered no comfort to my body as it labored under this three-pronged assault. After the first mile I felt more exhausted than I had felt at kilometer 7 of my last 10K (and that had been the hardest interval of the race ). I consoled myself by mentally composing a Facebook post that would be my futile revenge on this awful exertion.

Then, however, I remembered a new discipline I has planned to start this morning. The idea had come from a blog entry on prayer and stress that I had skimmed the night before (http://work4christ.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/too-much-stress/). It had offered the familiar encouragement that daily prayer is an important practice for spiritual and even physical health, advice that I know and strive inconsistently to follow. It also suggested some guidelines for the best ways to structure this daily practice, including the advice that you should NOT plan your daily prayer time at a period of the day when you are “tired and exhausted.” Well, that knocks out the very beginning and end of the day. And with the kids home all day for the summer, what does that leave me? Thankfully the post had another suggestion in passing: “perhaps time during your morning or evening walk will work well for you.” Well, the luxury of an evening walk is not something I have, but I do have my morning run 3 or 4 times a week…

And so the idea was born. Prayer first thing in the morning is usually a struggle for me, at least any version of meditation that extends beyond a whispered “thank you for this day God. Please help me to live in a way that shows your love.”  Attempts to be still before my God, or to focus my mind on the four pillars of praise, confession, petition and thanksgiving, tend to dissolve into blurry-minded distraction. I’m just not alert enough in my first 30 minutes of consciousness to give God my best. One of the things I love about running, however, is how it heightens my awareness, as though the rushing of blood through my veins rinses the cobwebs out of my mind as well. The immediate aftermath of this invigorating activity could be the perfect time to focus my awareness on the Truth that is so real it can be difficult to see in the haze of everyday.

So this was my plan. I would run the half mile to the neighborhood park that is my usual destination and add a few extra twists to my circuitous laps around this urban green space to bring my total distance to about 2.5 miles. Then, rather than racing home, I could walk the return journey and use the time to calm not just the beating of my heart but also the rushing of my thoughts. It would be the perfect time to focus my mind on the glorious Creator who has blessed me with a functioning, relatively healthy body and a beautiful (if polluted) city in which to run.

This fountain borders one edge of the normal park route... it starts to look really appealing by the 2nd lap

This fountain borders one edge of my normal park route… it starts to look really appealing by the 2nd lap

That was the plan… but as I heaved my way through mile two I was feeling anything but worshipful. I was over-hot and aching and not in the mental space I wanted to be to approach the One to whom I owe everything. But, another exhortation on prayer that I read recently wouldn’t let me abandon the plan: “Prayer is a discipline before it is a joy, and remains a discipline even after it becomes a joy” (Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation with God: The Life-Changing Power of Prayer, Bethany House Publishers, 1999, p. 51). Prayer has often been a joy for me, but that wasn’t a prerogative and I needed to find a way to engage in prayer when it didn’t feel joyful; to embrace the spiritual discipline even when the physical discipline intended to prepare me for it had instead done the exact opposite. And so, for the last mile or so, I prepared. I didn’t try to pray, but I intentionally rejected all the negative thoughts that were crowding into my head and screaming up from my muscles and lungs. I might not be enjoying this run, but I wasn’t going to let that steal my gratitude for it. I was going to feel each wheezing breath as a reminder that I am blessed with life, and a life that does not bear the scrutiny of complaint. Not from a Sovereign who fought for each pain-wracked breath as he pushed whip-torn skin across the splintering wood of the cross on which he hung out of love for me.

And so, I finally slowed to a walk with aching lungs and a pounding heart, but also with a well-spring of gratitude re-opened in my soul. The prayer that flowed up from this inner renewal gave me a refreshment that I hope can bless others as well.

Running Prayer

Sweet Creator,

Thank you for the summer day,

even when it breaks too early on my drowsy bed;

Thank you for the shining sun,

even when it’s sharp heat assaults my sweating head;

Thank you for the air so full,

even when its weight cloys at my gulping throat;

Thank you for the solid stones,

even when their angles try to trip my toes.

Thank you for the spinning world that slides beneath my pounding feet,

Pushing.

Resisting.

Propelling.

stumbling blocks

Thank you for my churning legs,

even when they tremble at the distance still to run;

Thank you for my well-shod feet,

even when they murmur protest, longing to be done;

Thank you for my heaving lungs,

even when they gasp for air and then for rest;

Thank you for my pumping heart,

even when it beats a deafening rhythm in my chest.

Thank you this struggling body that moves against inertia’s pull,

Pushing.

Resisting.

Strengthening.

light through dappled leaves

Thank you for these wakened eyes,

to see your light refracted through the dappling leaves;

Thank you for these sharpened ears,

to hear the music of your breath refilling lungs that heave;

Thank you for these softened lips,

to whisper praises so soon after tasting of complaint;

Thank you for this opened mind,

to comprehend the weight of glory witnessed by the saints.

Thank you for your Spirit’s breath again, in sense and will reborn,

Pushing.

Resisting.

Finally resting in this grateful Peace.

 

(And thank you also for my little runners in training – such a joy and inspiration to seek health)

Gigglemonster running Princess Running


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Chaos and Comfort

This will be a short one, I promise. It is basically just an introduction and then a short piece of writing I completed for a completely different purpose, that has since been hanging with me.

So, first the introduction. I have previously mentioned my small but wonderful Thursday morning bible study group, which has become a source of learning, inspiration, and friendship over the last 8 months. The format is fairly standard, but for those for whom this form of religious practice is not familiar I will briefly summarize its two elements. First, each participant completes the study preparation, which includes reading the text for the week and answering a number of questions about it that range from basic summarizing to deeper interpretation to personal application. Second, the group meets to share and discuss their responses, as well as to pray and just share our lives. It is an enriching part of my weekly routine, but nothing very unusual for those in church circles.

Last week, however, there was an unusual task included in the preparation section. We were reading Acts chapter 27, which tells the dramatic story of the shipwreck experienced by the Apostle Paul and over 270 other people during his transportation as a prisoner from Caesarea to Rome (If you’re interested in the context, here’s a link to the online text http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2027&version=NIV). As part of our reflection on this story, the study participants were asked to write a description of the emotional experience of one of Paul’s companions on the ship during the more than 2 weeks that they spent buffeted by a hurricane before being marooned on the island of Malta.

At first I hesitated at this task. In past reading I have thoroughly enjoyed some imaginative retelling of pieces of the Biblical narrative (The Red Tent comes to mind as a wonderful exploration of the feminine world that lies mostly obscured by the Biblical account of the patriarchs). I think it can be appropriate and illuminating to start from the limited information provided in Bible accounts and then try to “flesh out” the story with the human experiences and emotions that can sometimes be difficult to find in the theologically driven original texts. Nevertheless, I quail at the thought of attempting such an exploration myself. While I thoroughly enjoy the process of character development in my fiction, to engage in this process with actual historical events, and more than that with events that are part of the revelation of God, seems too far beyond my ken. How could I endeavor to achieve the necessary truth in such an enterprise?

And yet, the assignment was there, and after initial hesitation I couldn’t just completely rebel (I am a consummate rule-follower, after all). Once I capitulated I found that there were actually several points of contact to help with my engagement. The fact that the scene involved a ship-wreck helped provide a sense of background. I know from my seminary studies how in ancient middle eastern cultures the sea was associated with primordial chaos: the ultimate evil that is contained or restrained in creation, but which always threatens to break free. That would have possibly given a special terror to the prospect of death at sea. My own personal experiences of sea sickness also offered an entry point for my imagination. If I don’t take chemical aids to fight it, I am bent double within 20 minutes of riding even the gentlest swells — even the thought of two weeks of being buffeted by a hurricane makes me nauseous.

I had those two concepts in my brain as I set pen to paper, but not much more. Unlike my normal writing process I had no outline, no sense of where I was going. I just started writing. The result stunned me. It also reawakened in me a sense of awe about the power and deliverance in my faith; an awe that can sometimes be hard to hold on to in the tides of daily life. I hope it can offer a sense of anchor for you as well, or perhaps offer a sense of the screaming of the wind. So, with no further adieu…

This is worse than a nightmare, because it just goes on. Day after night, night after day, week after week. It starts to feel like this is the only reality there is, and all memory of land, of stillness, of quiet, of happiness, were all just a delusion.

I have vomited so much that I feel utterly empty inside. The smell of my own bile is part of my skin now; eating at my teeth; matted in my hair; I cannot imagine ever being clean again. The sickness is so painful I begin to long for death… until I look over into the water and I recoil back from its churning, gaping mouth. The salt stings my eyes as the wind lashes a wave into my face, and something in me screams, NO! I don’t want to be eaten up by that bottomless chaos!

The power of the smashing waves terrifies me, but it is the icy stillness beneath that grips my heart with a fear deeper and more paralyzing than I have ever known. How deep will I sink? Will I die before I am pulled out of reach of all light? Or will my last moments be the terror of total darkness and the scaly touch of unseen creatures as my lungs fight helplessly to draw oxygen from the water filling them? Even this current hell of sickness and fear is better than that fate.

Then I see Paul, that prisoner who somehow seems to gain respect even from his captor, the centurion, Julius. He has… peace. Somehow in this chaos of howling wind and biting rain… somehow despite the incessant creak of the boat’s timbers that cackle to my fears of the imminent cracking and tearing that will throw us all into the sea… somehow none of it affects him. He even smiles at me as he moves past and reaches out a hand to stroke the vomit-flecked hair out of my face.

His touch is miraculous. My stomach quiets. For the first time in weeks pain is not pulling my insides into a riotous ball. I turn and follow him, captivated, and see him take up a loaf of bread before turning to the mass of hopeless men strewn across the deck.

He doesn’t have to yell. Despite the despair that pulls each man in on himself, gnawing on his own misery and fear; despite the cracking, crashing noise that had battered our ears for days without end; when he speaks we all can hear. He speaks with total confidence of reassurance, of the promise of his God to save not just himself but all of us. It is unbelievable.

But I believe him. I feel myself mysteriously filled with the same stillness I see in him as he breaks bread and tells us to eat. I have seen him and his friends do this before, speaking words about remembrance of this Christ they follow. As I take a hunk of bread from Paul’s hand the words come back to me. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

I don’t yet know what I am remembering. But I will find out.


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Love and Pain

Various experiences this past Tuesday combined to confront me with the fragility we must embrace when we become mothers (parents). To bear and raise children opens our lives to a kind of love that empowers us to do things we never could have done before, but it also leaves us vulnerable to the hurts we cannot fix for our children. I am so grateful that, so far at least, my children’s pains have not been shattering. They are young enough that Tyler and I can protect them from most dangers, and the unavoidable ones have not targeted us for devastation. I know, however, that security today offers no guarantees for tomorrow. They are growing; their worlds are expanding; and there are so many, many ways that they could be hurt.

When I confront those dangers, my first instinct is to hold on tight. To try to gather my little ones to my breast and hold the evil world at bay.  When my spunky little Gigglemonster banged his head jumping onto his bed, I jumped to snuggle him into a little ball of comfort on my lap, offering kisses and ice and soothing sounds as he cried. But he didn’t want to stay there. He wanted to jump again, and hit his head again! I stopped that particular activity, of course, and other than a temporary goose egg on the top of his head there was no lasting harm to my little adventurer. But the jolt of panic when he let out that first scream left an echo in my soul. An urgent imperative that I have to protect my child.

Then I met Madonna on the street in the course of my morning, the young mother who begs on my street and whose struggles with deep poverty I have discussed in an earlier post (see Encountering My Privilege: https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/encountering-my-privilege/). I could tell something was wrong just from her face, and as we talked she explained that her daughter was sick. Madonna’s two children are back in Romania with family while Madonna and her husband try to earn money in Italy to send home. The family caring for them allowed the kids to play in some dirty water during a heat spell, and now the daughter had pneumonia. I can only imagine the panic that must create for Madonna – unable even to stroke her hand across her daughter’s forehead to impart a momentary coolness against the pain of fever, she must somehow find money now for medicine, not just food. I did what I could, and she was effusive in her thanks, but the encounter left me a bit shaken. What must it be to lack the resources to buy your own child medicine when they are sick?

Then I followed a friend’s Facebook link to a moving music video. It shows a young man, Zach Sobiech, performing his song “Clouds”, which he wrote about his experience of approaching death from cancer. The video cuts between shots of him singing and playing his guitar, short descriptions of the path his cancer journey has taken, and brief moments of his interactions with his family, including his mother whose adoring smile at him is an eloquent testimony of her love and pride in her son. The link that led me to this heart-breaking video explained that he had finally “found the clouds” after his long struggle. Watching his mother smile up into his face as the video played, I can only image the pain in her heart as she deals with that loss.

That afternoon, as I hugged my two healthy, happy children whom I get to see and love every day, my heart was broken for so many mothers who don’t have that joy today; so many mothers whose children face dangers they simply cannot protect them from. I offered prayers for Madonna, and for Zach’s mother, because I believe in prayer and I believe it can heal. But I also know that too often the promise “I will pray for you” becomes a trite and shallow offering that we can use to insulate ourselves from the pain another person is suffering. I don’t want to insulate myself from the pain. Every mother in the world is my sister, and I don’t want even one of them to feel that she is crying alone.

So I dedicate the poem this day’s encounters inspired in me to every mother who is crying today. You are not crying alone.

“Mommy, my head hurts!”

The joyful play

of yesterday

has left a painful bruise.

So, I kiss, give a rub

and a warm, gentle hug,

reassured, this brief pain he will lose.

“Mommy, it hurts to breathe.”

Her ears can’t refuse

the frightening news,

‘Your daughter is sick in Romania.’

With cupboards bare

and nothing to spare,

How to cover the cost of pneumonia?

“Mom, there’s not much time.”

A young man’s song

pulls my heart along

on the painful, ending journey.

He’s now found the clouds,

but his song still plays loud

for the mother he left, now in mourning.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

How can I explain

the bittersweet pain

of holding my own children tight,

when I know of the loss

and the fear and the cost

for those mothers who face pain each night?

“Sister, I will cry with you.”

When love meets with pain

that can rend and can stain

all the joy that your child inspires,

may a chorus of voices

discard other choices

to give sympathy that never tires.

And may all of your tears

and your doubt and your fears

rest in love that flows now to you.

You are not alone.

My hearts hears you moan.

And my prayer seeks the God who renews.

 

(For now – I am relishing the laughter)

bubble rolling new haircut photo Princess Imagination