post script, or shattered glass and scratched eye

Tonight I was washing dishes, and I reached to set a dish on the towel where the other dishes were drying, and I knocked my French press right onto the floor, where it shattered into a thousand tiny shards.  This is unusual because after several years of waitressing I got pretty good at catching falling dishes.  Above average catching skills, I would go as far as to say.  Preternatural ability, even.  Normally I could have caught it.  Somehow.  Or normally I wouldn’t have knocked it in the first place.  But somehow it toppled right down, and I stood there and started sobbing.  (Julia and April, if you’re reading this, I am so sorry I broke it, and even though John is ordering a replacement glass to go in it, it will never be the same, and part of why I was crying was because you gave it to me.)

And this Saturday I was putting on sunglasses while making a left turn and my fingernail or the tip of the glasses nicked my eyeball.  My cornea wasn’t scratched, thank goodness, but my eyeball was, and so ensued a doctor visit and $70 worth of eyeball medication.

And I’ve gotten mean– I mean, mean— with some of the kids at school this week.  One little girl– one of the kindergardeners, the worst one, bless her heart– was eating her granola bar by pulling off small pieces and sucking on them or licking them or something, getting crumbs everywhere and granola bar slime all over her hands and face, and I let loose on her.  In front of everyone.

So tonight I smashed my beautiful French press.  It’s as though everything I touch or look at gets shattered into tiny pieces.  Now, I don’t know why I am writing this out for all the world to see.  But after the glass broke I sat there on the kitchen floor and cried.  For the broken glass and my scratched eye and most of all for the invisible fragments of little children that I have scraped away with my harsh words.

And I had to think to myself: do I believe the (badly written and incoherent) words I wrote this morning?  Is there any real life to be wrung from Romans 4 for me on this kitchen floor?  So I picked my way through the glass (which John swept up, and tossed the pieces of my beautiful friends’ gift into the trash) and started thinking of barren Sarah, barren and old (the 4 year olds guessed my age was 80 yesterday during our lunch conversation about my age– which, if I had eyes to see and ears to hear, every moment with them is so precious, like little Grant who hardly talks ever at all but the last few days has been coming up to me and singing about 6 words from some incomprehensible song and then turning and walking away abruptly. Precious and beautiful.  But 80 is about how I feel, 80 and barren, and not melodramatic at all).

So I pulled out old dried up Romans 4 and read past where I read this morning:  “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver considering the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (Romans 4:19-21)

And God has promised (well, not in these exact words, but he has), that “the healing has begun.”  Or that he will be (is?) “Like a sweet bird of youth, like a sweet bird of youth/ In my soul, in my soul, in my soul.”  The wrinkled body and dried out womb, the ones who must have scratched their heads and wondered where they went wrong, what happened to the promise of sons as many as stars, the promise to all appearances shattered like glass on the floor.  But Abraham believed, and it was counted to him as righteousness. And I have to believe, not that my flesh and bones are capable or some marvelous humanistic feat of supreme excellence in the face of trial, but that God did birth from this barren world some good thing, and through that good thing, our Lord Jesus Christ, God is bringing to life the brittle bones that clatter, the helpless fragments and the empty wombs.

words for lent: gift

The New Testament reading this week is from Romans 4.  (p.s. If you’ve been a Presbyterian too long like me and Romans has lost some of its vim and vigor for you, try Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  It’s one of the most gorgeous books ever written.)

“For what does the scripture say?  ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due” (4:3-4)

Abraham worked.  He left everything.  But he also was a big coward and a liar and he was one of the most royally messed up people in scripture.  And one of the most loved by God.  Why?  Because God loved him as a gift.  Which is called grace.

Paul continues: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David…” (4:5)

Abraham had works.  David had works.  Abraham left Ur and David danced almost naked for joy.  We all have works.  We are proud of something, our little garden and compost or home or grand career or great mind or that paper we once wrote or what we gave to the poor that time.  We all say, “God, look what I’ve sacrificed for you.   Look what I’ve given up.  See how I’ve loved.  See how much more I have given than that person over there.”  But that is not the place where the gift is.  We must trust “without works.”  Our works must be nothing to us.

Because we have also been adulterers and liars and cowards.  The gift (grace) is where we trust that God makes the cowards and the liars and the messed up ones holy and righteous and clean.  As we trudge through the slow days on the way to Good Friday we practice fasts, but really, we practice fasting from our goodness.  We give up our daily dance of perfection, of appearance, and of self-loathing for our constant failure to appear perfect. The scales must be clawed off (cf. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) They must be clawed off every day.  When the scriptures say that his mercies are new every morning, it means that we need mercy new every morning (Lam 3:23).

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void” (4:13-14)

This gift does not pass on automatically through blood or tradition or the best rule-following.  It is given new each day from the hands of a person, from Jesus.

“For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants… (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:16-17).

So it depends on faith, so that the promise (God’s love) may rest on grace.  The grace that does not leave us to ourselves.  That does not leave our identity, our legacy, our perfection to our frantic striving but bestows on us from heaven the worth we could never patch together through all our days of dishes and laundry and working behind computers with crazy people or tying little shoelaces or however we pass our days and hours.

So God’s favor remains a gift, remains grace (charis).  So that we remain joyful (chara).  So that every day we can let God claw off our impenetrable scales and call us again into life, and so that every day we can again give thanks (eucharisteo) for the gift.

words for lent: from country and kindred

The Old Testament reading for this week is from Genesis 12:1-4.  (Find lectionary readings here.)

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you….’  So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.”

The Lord called Abram out of Ur.  Made him a nation by exiling him.  And isn’t it always the same.  Leave your nets and come with me.  Put your hand to the plow and don’t turn back.  Looking back turned a wife into salt, all those years ago.  The gaze must be single and whole upon Jesus, a joyful gaze, a complete and total gaze.

The trouble we can’t muster a single gaze and pure heart.  If Israel, who had pillars of cloud and fire, who had wafers rain down from the sky, if they turned their gaze back to Egypt or to golden calves, shall we do better, we who have not seen the fire by night or tasted actual bread?  We trust in Pentecostal fire and Eucharistic bread, but the fire doesn’t appear to our sight, and we don’t lick honey-wafers from the grass like dew.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the stale stuff in the plate on Sunday mornings.

So the Lenten resolutions may be broken, the chocolate eaten or tobacco tasted or television watched.  Our attempts at sacrifice fail.  The leaves wither, our self-coverings wither and fall.  I have been tricked again by a smooth magazine cover that promises realness and simplicity, and all I get is ads and something about a scented tassel that costs $40.  How is that simple?  I have again spent more hours watching tv shows than reading the Bible.  Eaten a whole roll of thin mints in 10 minutes.  The ideals of simplicity, fasting, emptiness, scripture memorization, holiness… As hard as we try they crumble in our fingers.  Yes, “our love turns to rust.”

This is why we cling to Jesus.  The total surrender, the leaving behind of home and kin, the selling of all for treasure in the field, the having no place  but God to lay one’s head, was only accomplished by Jesus.  Our only hope for holiness (wholeness, fullness, joy, comfort) doesn’t lie in our fasts,  however perfectly or imperfectly we keep them.

Yet knowing this we do not turn back to the flocks and fields of Ur or the meat pots of Egypt or the fishing nets in wooden boats.  We don’t succumb to the magazines or mint cookies or television shows.  We still leave.  We try again not to turn our heads back.  We let our identity again and again be stripped of certainty, and we come to dwell again and again in the place outside the camp, the place of reproach, and we remember again that we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:13-14).  We come to the cross, and the place of sacrifice becomes a home (Ps 84:3).  Here, we sit and feast.

words for lent: ash wednesday

“Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace)

And this, from Shunryu Suzuki, his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. (Beautiful book. Go. Buy. A. Copy. Right. Now.):

“We have to go through the gate of emptiness…

“As long as we have some definite idea about or some hope in the future, we cannot really be serious with the moment that exists right now. You may say, ‘I can do it tomorrow, or next year,’ believing that something that exists today will exist tomorrow… But there is no certain way that exists permanently. There is no way set up for us. Moment after moment we have to find our own way. Some idea of perfection, or some perfect way which is set up by someone else, is not the true way for us” (Suzuki, Zen Mind, 111).

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:8)

What do we cling to besides Jesus?  What, other than him, constitutes our heaven?  What prevents us from going through the gate of emptiness?   May our possessions, our glories, our proud moments, our trophies, along with our lost dreams, failures, embarrassments, all of it, be burned to ash and fall at His feet.

lent meditation: good friday

“To receive into me the One who was sacrificed for me means to grant him space in, and power of disposition over, my whole existence, both spiritual and physical, and thereby to follow him….” (Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 100).

He also speaks of Jesus’ pierced side and the out-pouring of blood and water. He says, “The account of the lance thrust and the flowing forth of blood and water must be read within the continuity of the Johannine symbolism of water, spirit, blood, to which there belongs the key-word of ‘thirst.’… The opening of the heart is the gift of what is most interior and personal for public use: the open, emptied out space is accessible to all” (ibid, 131, italics added).

Julian of Norwich also writes about Christ’s wounded side. At one point during the Lord’s revelation to her she sees this: “Very happily and gladly our Lord looked into his side, and gazed, and said these words, ‘Look how much I have loved you’; as if he had said, ‘My child, if you cannot look at my Godhead, see here how I let my side be opened, and my heart be riven in two, and all the blood and water that was within flow out. And this makes me happy, and I want it to make you happy.’ Our Lord revealed this to make us glad and joyful” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text 13).

Later in the book she talks about Christ’s wounded side as the space in which Christ encloses all those he loves. Julian conceives of our relationship with Christ as a physically intimate one wherein we are drawn “through his sweet open side” and partake of his nourishment poured out for us.  Yet for many of us Jesus has become an idea, and a stale idea at that. Many churches downplay the Eucharist, serving it only every several months and calling it a mere “remembrance.” Jesus, in our mental pictures, becomes something of a lawyer or a banker. The one who, well-dressed and quite professionally, argued our case or paid our bail. Clean transactions. The crucifixion narrative shatters those ideas and calls us to the real body and the real blood of Jesus, and we must ask: Are Jesus’ wounds the very space where we commune with him (Thomas!) or do we stand at a respectful distance and avert our eyes from the torn flesh? As we become unified with our broken savior, do we allow ourselves to be broken, emptied? As we are crucified with Christ and bear our cross do we experience the “lance thrust” to the side? Are we emptied of our personal space, our rights to physical and emotional security? Do we pour ourselves out for the hungry (Isaiah 58) and do we act as ones who “water and will ourselves be watered” (Proverbs 11:25)?


It must have been a strange night. Those sun-darkened men with calloused hands drenched in blood, smearing a precarious banner of hope on rough wooden doorways. Blood dripping down their sleeves. Getting splinters. The peculiarity and the violence of grace. The women inside bouncing babies on their hips, trying to pack some bags and bake flat bread in the fire. Smears of blood no foreign thing to them, the women whose days and years are marked with blood and milk and sweat. Yes, blood on the posts and on the lintels. It makes sense to them. Spread it thick to make sure it works. In the confusion and mess, blood dripping on the floor and bread burning in the fire, they are all waiting for God to show up. Waiting for who knows what.

lent meditation: crucified with Christ

For those of us who aren’t Catholic, we sometimes cringe at their crosses that still bear the body of Jesus, their theology of the Eucharist, and peculiar customs like fasting during Lent and the stations of the cross. But in all of these things (though, granted, this perhaps does not play out in the hearts of all Catholics) lies an obsession with this: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Perhaps the sight of Christ on the cross reminds us that we are crucified with him, that our lives as we know them are GONE. That it wasn’t maudlin or insane for a pastor to preach Judges 19 at the baptism of the little girl of one of my professors from Divinity School. That to live really is only Christ (Phil. 1:21). It isn’t having intellectual stimulation or deep emotional connections or kindred spirits (ok, so I’ve been missing college like crazy recently….). To live isn’t to live in style. To live isn’t to be titillated with movies and youtube videos and the lives of other people as they appear on facebook. To live isn’t to travel and be well read, to know all about wine, to be cultured. To have adventures. To live isn’t to have fancy perfume, the right shoes, the best makeup, the least wrinkled skin for our age. To live isn’t to have the right job, the right car, the right house, the right amount of money in well-chosen investments. To live isn’t to ensure that our lives really mean something on our terms. To live is Christ. Full stop. We are crucified with him, but most of us do not look or live like crucified people. We look just the same as everyone else, not as though “we are always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10). I have been personally convicted deeply by this truth recently, so if you’re reading this and wondering who is this crazy girl and why is she ranting at me, just know I’m ranting at myself. As much as I love the Protestant reformation, and as much as I believe that we are saved by grace alone,  sometimes I wish we had kept the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, and maybe a few crucifixes rather than bare crosses. Not that we crucify ourselves in order to earn our salvation or enter into some morbid focus on death. No, we are crucified with him. We must not emphasize the crucified and forget the with Christ of Galatians 2:20. We don’t hop on some self-contrived cross to prove our worth as Christians. We just come to Jesus on his own terms, which means that we give up everything to follow him (Luke 14:33) and to be crucified with him so that he might live in us (Gal 2:20).

Oh, Karl Barth, who was a professor of Reformed theology, protestant par excellence, etc., had this painting hanging where he could see it as he read and wrote and worked (Grunewald Isenheim Altarpiece).

lent meditation: darkness

“…be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand. You will travel in darkness in which you will no longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men…. Having given up all desire to compete with other men, they suddenly wake up and find that the joy of God is everywhere…” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)

Reminds me of these lines from a poem of Wendell Berry’s. (How about when Wendell came to Duke and had a hugely publicized and attended talk in the Chapel with the pres of the Div school, and old Jones asked Wendell what the Div school could do better, and Wendell basically said, “Shut it down & send the kids to learn how to lay bricks or dig in the soil or do something useful.” Ha. Or ouch.) Sorry, the poem:

“The forest is mostly dark, its ways

to be made anew day after day, the dark

richer than the light and more blessed

provided we stay brave

enough to keep on going in.”

lent meditation: everything

Part of the emptiness of following Jesus is going with him to the place where we need him to be everything. Julian says,

“Our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love. I saw that for us he is everything that is good and comforting and helpful. He is our clothing, wrapping and enveloping us for love, embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us. And so in this vision, as I understand it, I saw truly that he is everything that is good for us” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text 4, italics added).

This seems to be the heart of giving things up for Lent. We all have things that we turn to that are “good and comforting and helpful.” Our clothing, so to speak, so that we don’t feel naked and exposed to the world. (When I quit smoking, the most striking thing is that I just felt naked all the time, like someone had ripped my skin off.) We don’t fast or abstain to make God love us more; we do it to open up some space in our frantic, buzzing, facebook, twitter, cell phones with internet, television, netflix, radio filled lives. I so desire for Jesus to be “everything that is good” for me. But I still want a new car, new clothes, new shoes, some fancy cream that will ward off wrinkles for a few more years.  I desperately want to go back to school, to have a baby, to be popular and funny and beautiful, not truly believing that Jesus is everything that is good for me. Not believing that he is my “clothing, wrapping and enveloping [me] for love.”

Julian goes on in this section to say,

“And in this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand… I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear… In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what does that mean to me? Truly, the maker, the lover, the carer; for until I become one substance with him, I can never have love, rest or true bliss; that is to say, until I am so bound to him that there may be no created thing between my God and me. And who shall do this deed? Truly, himself, by his mercy and grace, for he has made me and blessedly restored me to that end” (ibid., italics added).

She ends the section with echoes of Augustine: “This is why those who chose to occupy themselves with earthly business and are always pursuing worldly success have nothing here of God in their hearts and souls: because they love and seek their rest in this little thing where there is no rest, and know nothing of God, who is almighty, all wise, and all good, for he is true rest… And this is why, until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest” (ibid, italics added).

These are harsh words. Those who occupy themselves with and pursue worldly goods and success “know nothing of God”? But maybe she’s right. Maybe the ones who know God are the ones who have set all at naught to be bound most closely with Jesus. Maybe when we give up sugar or drinking or tv or facebook or shopping other sources of goodness, comfort and joy we get a little glimpse of spiritual rest. The road of following Jesus and being united with him in his death (2 Cor. 4, Gal. 2:21, etc.) is the road of emptiness. The road of counting all other things as loss. The road where Jesus is everything that is good and comforting and helpful to us.

lent meditation: emptiness

We went to an Episcopalian service this Wednesday night for Ash Wednesday. The church we’re going to now, which is AMAZING, doesn’t really follow the church calendar at all. Which is fine. But sometimes you want a musty, ornate place with candles and the BCP and kneelers. We had the ashes put on our foreheads and were reminded that dust we are, and unto dust we shall return. I’ve been trying to make sense of the season of Lent: where did it come from, why do we celebrate it, what does it mean for us to fast during these 40 days? I am going to try to spend Lent meditating on the theme of emptiness.

This idea came from Shunryu Suzuki, actually. (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind— favorite book. Go. Buy. A. Copy. Right. Now.)

He says:

“We have to go through the gate of emptiness…

“As long as we have some definite idea about or some hope in the future, we cannot really be serious with the moment that exists right now. You may say, ‘I can do it tomorrow, or next year,’ believing that something that exists today will exist tomorrow… But there is no certain way that exists permanently. There is no way set up for us. Moment after moment we have to find our own way. Some idea of perfection, or some perfect way which is set up by someone else, is not the true way for us” (Suzuki, Zen Mind, 111).

There is a way of reading this text that accords seamlessly with the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. We are grass, which will wither (Isaiah 40, etc.), dust returning to dust, and there is no permanence in our establishments or security in our plans (James 4:13-17).  Abraham was not allowed to stay in the comfort of Ur, the Israelites were not allowed to stay in the permanent security of Egypt. They were cast out into untrodden paths. Their existence, to paraphrase Barth, was never self-enclosed, complete or permanent. It was always, as he says, “open to the front” (Dogmatics III.1, 275).  The ideas of perfection, the ways that are already set in stone (cultural mandates, denominational certainties, political agendas), are not the way for us. We are called every single day to follow Jesus Christ anew, to be led out of Ur, out of the lands of monuments and meat pots. Out of our self-assuredness and life plans, into the discomfort and uncertainty of the desert. Into emptiness, but the emptiness where he meets us.

Of course, Suzuki does not believe in Jesus Christ, who is the certain way, who does exist permanently. Yet his words still expose almost exactly where we are; we have to journey on, never assured about tomorrow, dependent every day again and again on his mercy. We never possess or control the pillars of fire and smoke. We never know where we will be led tomorrow. All we know is that we must go the way of emptiness.