patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Friday, December 2, 2011

God’s purpose for us, if he has one

Last night on the phone with my sister Sharon, she told me, “God’s purpose isn’t for people to be happy. Everybody thinks it is, but it’s not. God’s purpose for us is that we do the right thing.”

It seemed a grim way to go about doing God’s work—that is, believing in the One God Sent—but I left it at that. I didn’t want to get in a fight. I’ve been thinking about that sad conclusion ever since, though.

It was my first thought this morning, as I dithered around the house, reluctant to go down to my mother-in-law’s house to wash and dress and feed and spend time with her. (Mamaw’s caretaker’s sister-in-law died yesterday, so we’re without our morning help for the next few days.)

Perhaps Sharon are right, I thought. Perhaps it is God’s purpose for me, this doing the right thing. This reluctance.

When I think about Mamaw, though, I know it’s not. She is someone who has always done the right thing, as far as I can tell. Sure, she has her faults. Back when she used to leave her house, she never failed to point out to me that any person she met or saw anywhere was “large,” as she put it. She herself has always been tiny. And there were other things.

But, in the main, she has been always selfless and kindhearted all the years I have known her. Motivated, it has always seemed to me, by a keen desire to be helpful. And always cheery about it. Nonetheless, her prayer at meals—the prayer she will pray at breakfast when I go down there in a minute or two—is for forgiveness:
Dear Lord, please forgive my sins and help me to do the right thing.
And even now, her brain frayed by Alzheimer’s, she seems, above all, happy.

God’s purpose for us, if he has one—Do I have a purpose for my daughters?—is to be like Mamaw, I think. Helpful. Sweethearted. Aware of our own failings. Doing the right thing, but happy.

That’s God’s desire for us, anyway, in everything we do. Certainly it’s my desire for my own children: that they do the right things and that they be happy.

And to resist believing this, I’m thinking this Advent morning—to supplant God's desire for us with some heavy imagined duty or undesirable purpose—is to resist the coming of the One God Sent to teach us otherwise.

My yoke is easy, my burden light, he tells us. If we strive for anything, I think, it should be for the fulfillment of that promise.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

it's all about blood

I’ve been telling everyone who appears in my office doorway about my family’s health crises over this Thanksgiving break. The worst: my dad was officially diagnosed with really bad lung cancer (for which I entreat your prayers: he starts chemo on Monday). 

Then, my husband Kris came down with this dramatic version of vertigo—dizziness, falls that bloodied his poor face, and the inability to get out of bed, walk, bend over, or even move his head without throwing up. It’s called labyrinthitis—not because it makes him lurch around like a drunken old man lost in a labyrinth, although it does, but because it involves an infection or blockage in his labyrinth, a part of the inner ear that is like a little level in which calcium stones roll around on top of the hairlike receptors that tell the brain which way is up. So he’s laid up.

And we took my mother-in-law for her yearly check-up to be officially told what has been clear for some time now—she can no longer be left on her own for eighteen hours a day—so that we could start making plans for what to do next.

Kris resists his mom’s diagnosis—not because it isn’t true but because telling her he’s taking her to a nursing home is unimaginable. But we can’t afford 24-hour in-home care, and, even if we could, we could never get the quality of care she’d get in a nursing home. Caretakers for the elderly—at least out in the country where we live—are largely untrained young people working for hardly more than minimum wage. Desperate, in other words, with no other options. Having gone through a number of caregivers, we feel very fortunate to have now an uncommonly capable and kindhearted woman about my age who’s in it, she says, because she loves old people. Saint Betsy, I call her. But she can only work 33 hours a week. We need 168.

So it was that, when my colleague Jennifer appeared in my doorway, we got to talking about how, dying on the cross, Jesus consigned his probably widowed and possibly ailing mother Mary to the care of his best friend John: 
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:16-27).
“I love that he did that!” Jennifer told me. To her, it contrasts favorably with another scriptural story where Mary and her other sons show up and Jesus asks,
“Who are my mother and my brothers?”
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
According to Jennifer, Jesus’ audience—and even modern day audiences—would find that passage shocking. To them, as she put it, “It’s all about blood.” But to Jesus, it’s about something else. Nevertheless, he looked after his blood.
I have nothing but questions about Jesus’ giving away his mom to John, though. Was Jesus taking care of his mom before that moment? Why don’t we see any of the details of that? And where are Jesus’ brothers? Why aren’t they at the cross? And why aren’t they taking care of their mom? Where, especially, is James, the brother of Jesus who biblical scholars say authored that scary eponymous book in which he argues that “people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)?
And what, for Pete’s sake, is the right thing, the loving thing, to do with an elderly mother with dementia who wants to keep living on her own in her own house long after she has become a danger to herself? Jesus is silent about that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a simple sentence

I just sent my student Sam a paper back all marked up in tracked changes. It was a powerful little essay on the subject of Sam’s regret over never having shared the good news about the One God Sent to a friend who died an atheist. “[P]erhaps a simple sentence could have changed his fate,” Sam concludes.

A simple sentence. It is so interesting to me, as a teacher of writing, how resolutely we resist simple sentences. Most writers will do anything to avoid them, complicating them with clauses and qualifiers and all manner of rhetorical hesitations and joining them to other sentences in every way possible, habits that land them in the myriad punctuation errors that are the pests of college writing instruction.

Case in point: Sam. Though only in his first year of college, he already has a strong voice as a writer. He’s insightful, funny, genuine, interesting. Occasionally even concrete. He has an overwhelming aversion to periods, though—an aversion to which many of my brightest students are prone. In lieu of periods, Sam loves the old-fashioned semicolon. (An idea: Figure out some way to force him to read Sartor Resartus or some other Victorian monstrosity over Christmas break. That will surely cure him.) He also joins sentences together with commas—a punctuation error called a comma splice that plagues many beginning writers. In a nineteen-sentence essay, Sam joined four sentences unnecessarily together by semicolons and four incorrectly by commas. Goodness me.

In any case, I spent thirty minutes or so of my breakfast hour trying to convince Sam to embrace the simple sentence.

“[L]earn to love periods,” I summarized at the end of his paper, after commenting on semicolons and commas all down the right margin in track changes before emailing the paper back to him:
Consider the powerful sentence in John 11, “Jesus wept.” Would it have been better if John had said, “Jesus hung his head and cried long and loud, making the Jews think he loved them”? Or if John had written it this way: “Jesus wept; then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” No. Instead, John separates these sentences, not merely with periods but with paragraph indentations. You need to separate your sentences more, not join them.
I love that simple sentence, “Jesus wept.” In two words—an unadorned subject and verb, the most essential sentence there could be—John encapsulates the whole story of the One God Sent: God sent himself as a human like us. Knowing the whole truth of existence and capable of raising others and himself from the dead, Jesus nevertheless cried, as we do, to lose a friend. Wow.