Sunday, April 08, 2012

Snapdragons and Alleluias

I quit watering them when life went dark. 

It was more than I could handle in the middle of a life unraveled. I walked around the big empty house and drank too much; felt sorry for myself, went on regrettable dates with people completely unsuited to me, turned the music up loud when the pain got too unbearable.

I’d go down the front steps and look at the containers that should have been overflowing with flowers. The dried up husks of the snapdragons seemed infinitely better than an artificially cheery bouquet. I busied myself in my work and ignored the yard. Inside the house, I sanded the floors, choking on great quantities of poison-laden dust. I painted over the bright yellow walls with soft earth tones that felt somehow more honest, more real. And every day, the snapdragons seemed to wither a little more.

Spring collapsed into summer and summer into fall. The trees began to turn and the air grew cooler. The afternoon shadows were darker than I remembered and the nights colder than the temperature promised. And each day through the winter those snapdragons just sat. Weeds had sprouted in the containers, green against the shriveled stalks of broken promises. I let them grow.
Nature was unmoved by my self-pity. The winter rains came and what I couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, it did without my help. One cold winter day, I noted the snapdragons were green. 

By then, I had hardly even noticed that I had learned to breathe again on my own. The soundtrack had changed too—the dark and furious chords of Wagner and Pearl Jam had faded into Tony Bennett and the Beatles.

Life wasn’t merely death delayed after all. My dog’s muzzle was still soft and warm and her yellow lupine eyes still gazed at me with love. A new relationship put the old into perspective. Winter gave way to spring. A year-long Lent became Easter.

The snapdragons bloomed. And I had nothing to do with it. It was grace, pure and simple. It was resurrection. It was music and dance. It was flowers and springtime and hope. 



Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday: Stuck in the Middle

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?  
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
—Isaiah 58:6-7

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.—Matthew 6:16-18.

Well, you started off with nothing
And you're proud that you're a self-made man
And your friends they all come crawling
Slap you on the back and say
Please, please--Gerry Rafferty, Stuck in The Middle with You

It’s a funny thing about Religion. You believe what you believe because that’s what you believe.—Mickey Spillane (in an interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, November 22, 1989)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Ordinary Miracle of Christmas

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, * praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’  

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.-Luke 2:1-20

We are still amazed at what the shepherds tell us, amazed even that we are amazed at this story. For the dirt-poor pregnant unmarried teenager who brings a child into the world upon whom she lays her nation's hope for salvation is not really so different from any young mother in poverty and oppression across the ages and around the globe. Young mothers always believe in the possibility that their child will be the one who ends the war or finds the cure for cancer or makes the streets safe again or sends the occupiers packing. And it is not really so miraculous that a child could be born apart from the usual way. For it happens every day in fertility clinics across the planet. 

It is in fact, the very ordinariness of the story that fascinates us. The ordinary hopes of an ordinary mother. The ordinary recklessness of ordinary young people taking chances with life and ending up struggling against poverty, pain and panic. In the ordinary face of a baby the story calls us to see a God incarnate in the ordinary. 

We can demythologize the Nativity story, chalking angels, shepherds, mad kings and magi up to  the myth-making of the religious enthusiast. We can find all sorts of ancient stories of Gods come to walk among us, of grand and wise prophets misunderstood by their contemporaries who meet sad and untimely ends, of mothers' broken hearts and the unfulfilled hopes of people living in darkness yearning to see a great light. But demythologizing this story will not rob it of its power. For it is our story and that is its power. 

The Jesus story is not true because of its miracles. It is true because its ordinariness. It is true because in the deepest part of our hearts we know that every mother fears the sword that may pierce her own soul, that every night angels sing, and that shepherds tell tales of music that echoes off the stars, and that every baby's face shines with the image of God. 

The ordinary story of Jesus, Lord and Savior, Messiah and Martyr, is the story of love, of hope, of goodness, faith and sacrifice. The human story. The Word made Flesh. Our story.