patty kirk

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

Sunday, December 30, 2012


About to leave for Albuquerque this morning to visit my friend Carla. It’s the tail end of Christmas break. The girls, home from college, are at loose ends, and the house is a mess but I can’t clean because the Christmas stuff’s still all up, and I have eaten all kinds of stuff I don’t generally eat for the past couple of weeks so I feel crappy, and all I can think of is home. Home the way I like it, clean and orderly and quiet. With Kris and me on our usual schedules, so that time is parceled up into pieces I can do something with—grade a set of essays, wash dishes, watch the birds, run, write.

So I thought I’d look into what there is of the story of Mary and Joseph and their baby as refugees—living a life without order and a regular schedule. Without a clear notion of what would happen next. Without—in all probability—a place of their own to stay in.

But there are few details of Jesus’ family’s refugee years. Just that they fled. That they went to Egypt. Then, to “the land of Israel,” Joseph having been told in a dream to go there. But, though Herod was dead, they were still afraid of his son Archelaus, but Joseph was dream-reassured to go back to Galilee. How glad they must have been to be back home!

Refugee stories always move me, probably as a result of my own years abroad. Fleeing, although I didn’t know it, didn’t know what I was fleeing. Certainly I wasn’t fleeing the terrors that Jesus’ family and the countless other biblical refugees fled and that refugees all over the world flee still today. Murderous rulers. War. Famine. Their houses and towns destroyed, many have no home to return to.

Jesus, in adulthood, once lamented, describing the house to house life he led, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 NIV).

What a blessing it is, after the chaos of Christmas and airplane trips, to have a place of order and peace to return to, to have a home. I look forward to that.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


For Mark “the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”—that is, the One God Sent—begins with the one God sent before he sent Jesus—namely, John the Baptizer—to prepare Jesus' way. Mark substantiates his claims about John's being this intended way-preparer from Isaiah, re-envisioning Isaiah’s original bodiless voice’s demand that his listeners “prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3 NIV) as a direct promise from God:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

As always in the gospels, the writer’s scripture quoting is inexact. If you’ve ever tried to translate something from one language to another—especially something in verse—you know why. Translating’s hard, languages are very different, and the ancient writer’s audience (intended and inadvertent, contemporaneous and current) and intentions—neither of which, of course, can be known with any certainty—may might not be the same as the translator’s. Isaiah’s purpose was to inform, I’m guessing. Mark’s, clearly, was to substantiate his claims from the prophetic writings of Christianity’s Hebraic precursors.

You need to keep in mind, too, that you are reading these two quotations from scripture in yet another translation—in this case, the New International Version—and that the Old versus New Testament translations were almost certainly executed by two entirely different groups of linguistic and literary experts, who have their own intentions and audiences operate under their own linguistic and theological constraints. (We believers often avoid thinking about how dependent our understandings of scripture are on the murky intentions of possibly fallible writers and translators, but those on the margins of believing don’t avoid thinking about these matters, so I think it’s important, rather than relying solely on the Holy Spirit to smooth things over, to take them up ourselves.)

Somewhere in the midst of all these potentially conflicting purposes and audiences and constraints and fallibilities lies this change from Isaiah’s call to prepare the way and Mark’s confirmation that this way was being prepared through John’s desert baptisms. And since my own purpose is to discover in scripture new ways of growing my own faith in the One God Sent, my discovery today is that we are all called, as John was called in Isaiah and as Mark was called in Jesus’ own generation, to prepare Jesus’ way. To “make straight new highways in the desert for our God.”

If you’re like me, “highways in the desert” make you think of Texas. I’m sure, though, that there are others besides Texans—my spiritually evolving daughters and students, for example—for whom I am called to aid in the preparation of Jesus’ incarnation in their lives—his embodiment in their dry flesh—as well as his fleshing out of my own faith.

So, I guess that means God's work entails (and I'm guessing this is obvious to anyone reading, but I am a slower reader than most) evangelism—the assignment, that is, of Deuteronomy 6:7: talking about the good news when I get up and lie down and sit at home and walk down the road as a means of helping others and, most especially, myself to believe ever more genuinely in the One God Sent.

Friday, December 28, 2012


I’m moving back in time today—back to the weeks after Jesus’ birth, at which time he was circumcised and presented in the temple—to consider Anna, one of the first believers in the One God Sent.

Here’s what we are told about her: she was “the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher.” She was married to some unnamed man for seven years before he died, and she had lived in the temple ever since, fasting, praying, worshipping, giving thanks. She was “very old” for those times and even for these: eighty-four. “She never left the temple,” we’re told, “but worshipped day and night.” She was, Luke writes, “a prophet.”

Others would have seen her every time they entered the temple: ancient, mumbling all the time, skinny, always wearing the same unwashed clothes, probably smelly. How can you wash your clothes or yourself if you never leave the temple? How, for that matter, can you relieve yourself?

And where did the food come from that she had to have eaten, her fasting notwithstanding, in order to stay alive? Perhaps she begged. Or perhaps the rabbis brought her bits of food. More likely, if the churches I have attended and the stories of Mary and her sister Martha provide any clues, she was on a meal list maintained by the women of the temple. Perhaps one of them brought her a clean change of clothes on occasion and, in some hidden temple sideroom, helped her change into them.

She would have been seen as a burden by some and, by some, a pest. A homeless, foul smelling bag lady. A prophet only in retrospect, and even then only from the point of view of the kind-hearted doctor Luke probably was. Indeed, Luke is the only biographer of Jesus who remembers this woman in his account, though even he gives no details of her prophecy beyond that “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

There are many such prophets, I reckon. Not least among them my skinny, long widowed mother-in-law Anna, who died earlier this year. She spent her last couple of months in the only temple open to old, mumbling, bad-smelling prophets like her these days: the nursing home, where impersonal hands wash and dress them and force globs of pureed food between their lips. The women there hunched in their chairs. "Help me!" one woman prayed, over and over, day and night. Another prayed, "Get me out of here!"

Every time a child entered that temple, the widows—visit a nursing home and you’ll notice it’s populated almost entirely by women—jerked up their heads and babbled their thanks to the God who would redeem them.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

assassin's creed

I’m back in John 1 again, where I have found the answer to one of my questions from yesterday. The Pharisees (and Sadducees, presumably, although they are not specified) have not gone out to hear John because they were wanted to know anything or even because they wanted confirmation of what they already knew but because they were sent by someone in charge.

Just as Paul was sent on “the authority of the chief priests” to persecute Christians (Acts 26:10 NIV), which led him to hear Stephen’s powerful retelling of the story of the Jews culminating in the murder of their long awaited Righteous One and to witness Stephen’s vision of “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Paul, himself a Jew, would soon come to believe in this Son of Man too, and no doubt Stephen’s account and subsequent murder were instrumental in Paul’s conversion.

And among Stephen’s audience were also many others antagonistic to what he had to say: those who had brought him before the Sanhedrin to blaspheme and be legitimately stoned to death as well as the Sanhedrin themselves. Whatever their intentions, they too heard Stephen’s message and witnessed what must have seemed his divine inspiration: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). It seems ironic that, in order to stone this messenger of God to death, they first “covered their ears” (Acts 7:57).

Which leads me to Lulu’s new video game, Assassin’s Creed, which appears to be about someone from the future going back in time to kill Crusaders.

(Forgive any inaccuracies, here or in what follows. I hate video games—the grunting killing noises, especially, not to mention the obsessiveness with which people who do like them play them—so my only experience of Assassin’s Creed is what I witness when I go in to deliver meals to Lulu so that she does not succumb to malnutrition while she’s in the throes of New Video Game Syndrome.)

The thing is, while Crusaders appear to be the enemy in the game, as far as I can tell—as, in my view, is appropriate to their murderous behavior—their Christian message is nevertheless openly and, as far as I can tell, accurately displayed. Various of them stand on street corners preaching key messages of Jesus. And the assassin-hero of the game—that is, the incarnation of the player herself—is impressed with their dedication and apparent true belief in their own words.

Whatever else I may think of this game, I must say that I like this about it: It speaks scripture to a bunch of empty-headed NVGS sufferers, many of whom may never hear it in any other place.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

the day after christmas

So, if Jesus is now among us, as I have just celebrated, how are things different?

I went to Matthew 3 this morning to study that question, thinking, Okay, Matthew’s account of Jesus birth is in Chapters 1 and 2, so what comes next—in the story, in my life—must be in Matthew 3.

Imagine my surprise to find myself with John the Baptist baptizing his cousin Jesus, both already grown up, talking about repentance. I had patently forgotten what I had already written about this Advent: all the miserable bad news that accompanies the good news of the birth. The killing of all the little Jewish boys Herod thought might be the king the magi were searching for. Poor Joseph’s many nightmares. Jesus’ family’s flight to Egypt as refugees of terror before settling down in Nazareth upon Herod’s death. I had forgotten, in the excitement of the gospel of Christmas, that meanness goes on all around us and in us. That we are all, still, messed up—whether or not we believe in the one God sent.

One line, in what Jesus’ cousin has to say about the matter, confused me. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” he preaches specifically to the Sadducees and Pharisees.  He calls them a “brood of vipers” and seems enraged that they have joined the crowds who “went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (3:5). I didn’t stop to wonder, as I do now, why the Sadducees and Pharisees—religious experts who would have surely have known, or thought they knew, answers to people’s questions about God and the future that John was answering in his sermons (as I also often think I know)—were there at all. What did they want from John the Baptist and, later, Jesus? Confirmation? Validation? But why would they need it? Could it be they were secretly insecure in matters of faith—like the others in the crowd, like me?

Instead, I wondered—as those religious experts may have wondered—What does he mean? What does fruit have to do with repentance?

And so begins the assignment I have given myself for the coming spiritual year, to sort through the specific tasks involved in the only job God has given us of believing in the One God Sent. Believing in the One God Sent means bearing the fruit of my remorse for my own inherent, inescapable meanness.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

the birth of light

I was rereading the beginning of the first chapter of John this morning—about how “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and how this Word turns into first “life” and then “the light of mankind” and so on (John 1:1-9 NIV)—with the hope of reseeing this mystifying string of metaphors not as the philosophic conundrum it usually is for me but, as a former student of mine recently referred to it in a very moving Facebook post, as one of the three versions of the story of the birth of Jesus.

I became convinced of her reading—that, in essence, the light is the baby Jesus—when I got to this line: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18 NIV). Jesus' birth, in other words, provided the concrete evidence of our unseeable God as a means of helping us to know him. That Jesus had not only seen God the Father but that that he himself was seeable gave “those who believed in his name . . . the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 NIV). I like that!

(PS: I would love to make a link to my former student's very moving Facebook post about John's nativity story—it's MUCH better than this one—but I can't figure out to do a hyperlink to a Facebook post and anyway I'd feel I needed to ask her permission and, since she's kind of self-effacing in such matters, she'd probably say no. So, if you want to try to read it, you'll have to friend Lee Ella Oglesbee and, if she accepts your friendship, go to December 14 in her Timeline.)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

the other problem of christmas

I write about Christmas a lot, so I frequently find myself searching for a verse I know I saw in the story of the nativity. Unlike my Christian students, who, drawing on years of Awana, can spit back Book-Chapter-Verse at the mere mention of a phrase from the B-I-B-L-E, I—having read the Bible for the first time in my thirties, when I was already on the falling slope of the memorization peak—have to rely on concordances and Google and to find what I need and even then often end up going page by page through an entire book before I finally arrive where I know I’ve been in Scripture.

So, every year I leaf past a little set-in passage from Jeremiah quoted in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth:

"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more." (2:18)

Ramah. What’s that? I ask myself as I speed past to the frankincense and myrrh. Then I zoom in for a closer look and am again surprised: Women weeping and mourning and refusing to be comforted? What’s that doing in there among the good news of great joy? And every year I have to remind myself again of Herod’s vicious jealousy after the magi’s visit that resulted in the murder of all the little boys he thought might be the King they were looking for.

Right on the cursed heel of the Christmas story—or right in the midst of it, for those who eclipse the whole story to include the visit of the magi when Jesus was a toddler in with what happened on the night of his birth—this consideration not of the good news of great joy but the misery and loss that preceded it. The Israelites’ repeated loss of a place to belong to. Their loss of their children in war after war. Their loss of God himself, who, as it must have seemed during those generations of suffering that preceded the coming of the Messiah, had forgotten all about them.

Where are you, Lord? the psalmists and prophets wail, and the word Ramah leaping out of the page before me sounds like a lament, echoing their plea. 

What’s this Ramah business doing in the Christmas story? I wonder crankily, briefly, as I speed on to the happier verses.

All this to say that sadness and suffering seem incompatible with Christmas, so much so that I can hardly think about one in terms of the other. Even though I often read accounts of people with the Christmas blues. And even though, as the victim of crime once many years ago during the holiday season, I fight, on the anniversary of the crime, a yearly attack of post-traumatic stress symptoms that amount to just such weeping and mourning and refusal to be comforted. Indeed, for me and many others—those recently widowed, for example, or others away from family on this family-oriented holiday and just simply those who are, for whatever reason, lonely—sadness at Christmastime is often inescapable.

Today, I’d like to consider Ramah with a bit more reverence and attention. Matthew is quoting Jeremiah 31:15, an ominous verse in the midst of passage full of promises emphatically from the Lord. (Jeremiah repeats words like “This is what the Lord says” or “declares the Lord” twenty-two times in Chapter 31’s thirty-eight verses.) “I will come to give rest to Israel,” the Lord promises (31:2). “I have loved you with an everlasting love” and “I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt” (31:3-4). Here’s one I especially like: “your work will be rewarded” (31:16). And how about this one: “there is hope for your descendants” (31:17)?

In this single chapter of Jeremiah, the Father promises his children a new covenant of forgiveness—“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (31:34)—and he assures them, “I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning. . . Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight?. . . my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (31:18, 20).

Listen to the joys God has planned for us:

“Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.’” (31:4-6)

Dancing! Joyful! Enjoying the wine, the fruit, the excitement of being with God! And there’s more! Hear it:

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
and they will sorrow no more.
Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” (31:12-13)

Joy! Rejoice! Wine! Dancing! Comfort! An end to sorrow! Gladness! In response, the Lord urges, we are to “Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations” (31:7). Our joy will be so full, so big, so complete, says the Lord, that there will no longer even be a need to spread the good news of it:

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. (31:34)

Nevertheless, all these promises notwithstanding, the part of this Jeremiah passage that Matthew takes us to in his account of the Christmas story—in his account of the realization of all these promises in the form of the Christchild, the Messiah—is those women’s mourning and weeping. 

Right from the get-go as we enter the Christmas season, Ramah is a reminder to us, as it would have been to any Jews among the gospel writers’ original audience, that the coming of the Messiah is not going to be anything like what the Israelites expected and hoped for. The Advent of the Messiah, the good news of great joy, does not mean the end of sin or sorrow or suffering—at least not immediately. Indeed, it would occasion an increase in suffering for many believers in the generations that followed.

Jesus’ own circumstances at birth evidence this continuance of suffering. A very pregnant woman, perhaps already in the throes of labor, consigned to a barn to give birth. A manure-crusted feed trough for the newborn’s bassinet. From his earliest years Jesus was the victim of a death threat that turned his family into refugees. Where are you, Lord? had to have been often in the minds of Jesus’ own family as they moved from Bethlehem to Egypt and back to their hometown.

Rereading the Ramah passage this year resonated especially with an interview I recently heard on NPR with Hilary Mantel, the most recent winner, for the second time, of the United Kingdom’s highest honor for contemporary novelists, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Perhaps it was the mixture of hope and pain in this woman’s earnest, compassionate-sounding voice—she sounds a lot like Mrs. Potts, the lovable animated teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast—that moved me. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that her particular loss and hope resonated with my own from decades ago, before my advent as an adult believer. Mantel spoke about her most recent historical novel, the second in a series about Henry VIII’s reign, and her decades-long struggle with endometriosis, an unremitting menstrual flow for which there appeared to be no medical solution.

She’s just like that woman who, after twelve years of bleeding, touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed—only she wasn’t healed. I thought as I listened to her tell it. And the yearning in her voice took on a new dimension.

Then she told the story of her loss of faith. When Terry Gross asked her why she had left her childhood religion as a twelve-year-old, she said simply, “I no longer had faith. I lost my belief in a day or two. Not just in Catholicism, but, in the whole thing.”

For many years she didn’t miss what Gross referred to as “that presence” because, as she said, “Other things came in to fill the gap.” But when Gross asked her if she still felt the same way, she responded, with heartrending hesitations and gaps of silence, “No, I don’t feel the same way now. Uh, I, I know, I envy people who have faith, and I think it’s possible I may regain it…”

Her words—her envy of those with faith, her hope in the possibility that she might regain hers—and the gaps between them and the raw longing in her voice at that moment captured exactly how I’d felt throughout my decades of atheism. Bereft but, somehow below and around the feeling of abandonment by God, hopeful. On some level, despite my conviction that it couldn’t be so, I hoped for the promises of the ancients to be true, for God to return.

Where are you, Lord? Mantel’s voice prayed its groan of a prayer, surely the prayer of those poor women at Ramah.

Advent is a time not only to celebrate the promises fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah but to remember the loss and suffering—the almost hopeless hope—to which these promises respond. To consider that hope and, as those who have already received what has been promised, to rejoice all the more sincerely.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

the problem of christmas

The other night on the way home from my evening course, I was surfing the radio stations for something Christmassy and happened upon that most beloved of holiday traditions among us Christians, a rousing reason-for-the-season lecture.
The host had already introduced his invited expert, who launched into an explication of the complex mishmash of history and tradition that comprise Santa Claus—a fiction, he railed, of store owners, Washington Irving, and the Dutch. It’s important, he argued, to deconstruct this material for your kids and extract from the materialistic frenzy the true and worthy stuff of Christmas: the real Saint Nicholas of yore—a kind-hearted, unicefy sort of guy there was nothing wrong with admiring, even if we don’t agree with the whole business of calling people saints—and, of course, the real Reason-for-the-Season, Jesus himself.

Here and there in the course of the lecture, the radio host interjected the story of his and his wife’s attempts to deal with the “problem of Christmas” in their own family. Despite their holiest efforts to make the holiday about Jesus, though, he confessed, by early October their kids were already magneting lengthy Christmas lists to the refrigerator door. And with this confession, the wholesome jollity of his Christian talk radio host voice broke open for me, for an instant, upon the sad question underlying all such discussions.

“Am I a bad parent?” he asked his expert plaintively.

The expert was too caught up in Sinterklaas and the Reformation to respond, but, once the question was out there, zinging through radio reality into the ears and minds of parents all over the world, I could hear nothing else.

It’s a question all too frequently present in my brain—not just at Christmas but throughout the year. Often I pray it. Occasionally, I say it out loud—to my husband or to a trusted fellow parent. (I have learned, over the years, never to ask this question of childless friends, who—having had no parenting trials of their own—are all too eager to confirm my worst fears.) I’ve been asking this question, with increasing frequency, ever since my two daughters were born, and, though Charlotte and Lulu are in college now and will soon be out on their own, I suspect I will be asking it for some years to come.

And, unless I’m abnormal (another question often in my brain), Am I a bad parent? is a question probably in some, if not most, other parents’ brains fairly often as well.

It was surely in Mary’s brain with fair regularity as Jesus was growing up, although the biblical writers shrewdly omit that mystifying part of Jesus’ human biography from their accounts. In any case, all that pondering Mary did in her heart early on has, for me, the familiar tenor of parental worry.

We do know that later, when Jesus was long since an adult, his earthly mother was concerned enough for his sanity that she enlisted her other sons’ help in trying to fetch him home. I envision her thinking of him and his brothers—as I am certain I will keep thinking until Charlotte and Lulu have children of their own and can take over the job for me—Did I do the right thing? Are they going to understand this world the way I want them to? Will they love God and their neighbors as themselves—or at least try to? I spend a good part of my conversations with God pray-worrying the bigger question beneath these questions: Will Charlotte and Lulu be romping with the dogs and arguing at the dinner table and assembling gingerbread houses with me and Jesus throughout eternity?

The burden of parenthood, it seems to me, is weighty enough without adding the impossible requirement that we turn happy holidays into tricky history lectures and expect our kids to value only the pious truths of the nativity story in lieu of the popguns! bicycles! roller skates! drums! of the popular versions of that story that have evolved since Jesus lived among us. And, in my view, attempting to dissociate children’s experience of Christmas from the jolly jingle-belling going on all around them misses the point of the Christmas lists and hoped for presents and tree-trimming and bright colored lights on the houses and songs sung and money spent entirely—not to mention the Reason for the Season.

Christmas is, and should be, a celebration! Jesus’ birth is good news of great joy—the gospel of gospels—the best news the world has ever received in its complex and ugly history. I love it that the coming of God to our world has become, over the centuries, across the nations, a big party—such a big deal, so glimmering with promise, that even nonbelievers celebrate it!

Helping our kids celebrate this good news, in whatever ways engage them the most, is good parenting, in my view. And the yearnings evident in those lists on the fridge followed by the mad ripping open of presents under the tree on Christmas morning offer us a rich and rare opportunity to help our kids experience the important spiritual connection between longing for something good—the best thing they can think of—and receiving it from the best Parent of all parents: a way out of our own miserable meanness. A Savior, who is Christ the King!

Kids are, as Jesus points out on occasion, the best theologians. They get it about God. We do need to draw their attention (and our own) to the reason for the celebrating, of course—the story of God sending his Son to our world—and we should do it not just during the Christmas season but throughout the year and throughout their lives.

Stopping or even slowing the festivities to parse the party and eradicate its heathenness is counterproductive. As the believers among the celebrators—as those in the know about what it is we’re actually celebrating—we Christians
need to up the excitement, not put on the brakes.

Monday, March 19, 2012

ich liebe dich

Last night I was Facebook texting with my daughter Lulu, who’s away at college. We communicate mostly via texting nowadays, our relationship devolving into an exchange of quips, symbols, commands, and the briefest of news updates. Upcoming tests. Dinner plans. Arrival times. Did you floss?

Facebook is so stressful! An onslaught of pictures, news, that 55-year-old mom perpetually regressing into a 25-year-old, in-jokes between people I’m not connected with like that.

I’m not connected “like that” with most, since I accept whoever friends me. It seems unfriendly not to. In addition to my daughters and their friends, there are my own friends, friends of theirs, current and former students, their friends, even total strangers who’ve read my books and tracked me down. A nightmare of names and faces, as if I’m at a massive party where everyone knows everyone else, but I know no one.

Compounding the confusion, Lulu and I text in German, so she can practice. Though my German is rusty and hers still developing, we lapse into English only for emergencies.

Last night our conversation went like this:
Hallo Loopers. Wie gehts?
Gut. Du?
OK. Wir haben gerade The Descendants gesehen. Es war gut. Jetzt gehen wir ins Bett.
OK. Ich liebe dich. Gute Nacht.
Ooooooooooops....Come back!!! I just now posted Ich liebe dich and a heart on a former student's wall!
Hahaha. No worries tho. You can delete it.
How???????? Tell me quick. People’ll think I'm in love with her or something.
By the time I figured it out, it was too late. The former student had already responded, in the ambiguous way of former students, with a smiley face.

In bed, I reflected on how few people I exchange the word love with. My husband. Charlotte. Lulu. A few siblings. My dad. Never with even my closest friends.

Not so Jesus, it occurred to me. He uses it, repeatedly, in a conversation with his buddy Peter.

“Do you love me…?” he asks. Three times.

Peter responds—hurt, we’re told—“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”

It was so hard for me to get there, to the intimacy of this relationship between two friends. It could be a cultural difference—like how my male students in China used to walk around completely intwined in one another's arms. Or maybe that business of there being three Greek words for love. But I suspected that wasn't it.

Kris lay half-reading, half-dosing beside me.

"Could you ask a friend if he loved you, like Jesus did?" I asked him. "Like, could you use that word? Could you say it to anybody besides me or the girls?"

"My mom, I guess," he said after a while. His voice sounded wobbly and remote, the way it does just before he falls asleep.

So, having, as usual, not gotten to the bottom of this scriptural mystery, I clicked off my bedside light and then reached over him to click off his, and we hugged each other to sleep.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

we are but dust

Today is Ash Wednesday. Yesterday, my university’s online devotional had the headline, “Remember That You Are Dust.” I automatically translated the phrase into the wording of the last Ash Wednesday service I attended after an ash-smeared childhood of Ash Wednesdays: We are but dust.

I searched for the phrase online and finally found it, in the King James Version. It was Abraham, wheedling God not to destroy the city of Sodom because there might be a few righteous ones in it: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?” (Genesis 18:27-28 TNIV).

Who am I to speak? I am nothing but the dust out of which you made me. Nothing but the ashes I will someday become but for your intervention. Nevertheless, I will speak.

Later in the day, my daughter Charlotte called me up from her college in faraway Boston, and we got to reminiscing about that Ash Wednesday service. It was the only one she’d ever attended, during her last semester of her last year of high school, the last year she’d lived at home.

“Maybe I’ll go to an Ash Wednesday service again tonight,” she said on the phone. She sounded wistful.

We had gone that time to the Episcopal church, she and I. It was not our usual church but one Charlotte was finding increasingly attractive. I have always been skeptical of churches founded by people who had murdered their wives—who, in fact, founded churches in order to get rid of problem wives more easily—but I was supportive of Charlotte’s choice. I was supportive of anything that might boost her interest in the faith in which I had attempted to raise her. Indeed, what church she attended didn’t matter to me at all. I just wanted her to love the God who had made her and to recognize and appreciate the One God Sent as her way back into God’s presence.

The Episcopal church was better than any other, Charlotte told me on the way there, because they believed that taking care of the less fortunate was more important than fighting over gay rights. It seemed as worthy a cause as any I could come up with. And as astute an assessment of any church’s central aims. And so we got dressed up—another part of the appeal of church for Charlotte, I suspected—and we went, she and I.

I think Ash Wednesday must be the Episcopalians’ favorite holy day. The service, in any case, murmured and chanted on. And on. I felt nothing. Thought nothing. This happens to me a lot during church services these days, despite my love for God and deep desire to share it in worship.

It doesn’t matter what you feel, I scolded myself. It just matters that you’re there. Obedient. Present. Available to God, however inadequately.

Several times during the service, we echoed Abraham in a repeated choral response: “We are but dust.”

“We are but dust,” I whispered to Charlotte at one point. Instantly, unintentionally, the words became “butt dust”—We are butt dust!—and we ducked into each other’s necks to muffle our laughter.

“We are butt dust!” Charlotte repeated on the phone today, two years later, laughing. And it occurs to me that this, too—the humor, the boldness of it—is what faith is about: sharing the words of scripture as we would a box of malt balls. Feeling them implode in our mouths, then melt into our tastebuds. Enjoying them together.

Monday, January 30, 2012

it's a lesson in something

We don’t have TV in our house because, if we did, I’d be watching it all the time and never get anything done. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to do self control: 100% avoidance.

Anyway, we do have a television, which my husband and I use to watch movie videos. And, recently, the first season of a TV show we watched while out in California visiting my dad: The Good Wife. In the episode we watched last night, “Boom,” a pastor praises the eponymous heroine—a cuckolded wife who stays by her (imprisoned) man—for the Christianness of her behavior:
“I’ve respected the way you’ve stood by your husband,” Pastor Isaiah tells her. “It’s a lesson in Christian forbearance.”
“Well, it’s a lesson in something,” she responds.
I was struck by this word forbearance, clearly intended as a synonym for forgiveness, although it’s not a word I’d ever use for that. Forbearance is a decidedly different word to me. Not so much about genuine the acceptance of another’s repentance and resultant relinquishment of rancor or hate that I call “forgiveness” but rather something more like having the stamina to put up with something unbearably noxious. Although the Good Wife is probably not a Christian—she rolls her eyes at husband's newfound faith and mocks the Good Pastor at every opportunity (Might this foreshadow some future misdeed on Pastor Isaiah's part? If so, don't tell me! We're not there yet.)—the “Christian forbearance” Pastor Isaiah so admires seems to be that she can stand to stay with her creep of a husband after learning the increasingly salacious details of his adulterous exploits.

Anyway, I felt that the fictional pastor, here, was clearly initiating a scriptural discussion with me, so I went to the Bible to find out where all this forbearance business was coming from.

According to The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, the word is used only once in my usual translation: in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, where he writes that “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (3:25-26). The Greek word in the passage—ἀνοχή, anochē—is used only twice in the entire New Testament, translated here as forbearance and in Romans 2:4 as tolerance" and in both cases praising God for not punishing believers for sins committed before their conversion to faith.

Not much to go on here, so I decided the Good Pastor—and, his seeming sexism notwithstanding, he is a refreshingly “good” guy for a preacher in the popular media—must be using another translation. The word had a King Jamesian feel to it, so I tried the KJV. There, too, the word only appeared twice, for the same Greek word, exclusively in reference to God.

In a few of the other translations I looked at, ἀνοχή in these two passages is traslated as righteousness.

The word forbearance is, in short, rare in scripture and only ever occurs in reference to God’s not punishing us for sins we committed before coming to faith. I find it curious, then, and disturbing, that this fictional TV pastor (speaking for many, I reckon) not only uses the term prescriptively for humans but seems to understand this business of forbearing to be synonymous with unconditional forgiveness: staying with an adulterous spouse who would probably never even have repented had he not been publically outed. In other words, a “good wife” will forgive her man and stay with him no matter what. (I was going to say a “good spouse,” but I don’t think the expression “good husband” connotes anything like forbearance.)

"What," the pastor later in the episode sermonizes, "does Christian forbearance mean?"

What indeed? What is this perplexing feat of forbearance so esteemed over real forgiveness, the kind accompanied by honesty and occasioned by genuine repentance?

Surely it's a lesson in something. I'm just not sure what.

Monday, January 23, 2012

it's like poetry

The past couple of mornings, my husband Kris and I have been talking about that first, theologically gigantic sentence of John’s gospel: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.

I have a love-hate relationship with language like this. I love how it makes me feel to read the sentence aloud: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Just the sound of the words—the repetition of the word word and the same plain syntax (three reversed was statements joined by and)—operates as an invitation into mystery. John’s sentence is the only passage of scripture—except maybe “Jesus wept”—that I have memorized without expressly setting out to do so. Something about it is fundamentally appealing and simple. Indeed, it’s so straightforward that, unlike most of scripture, it's is pretty much identical across the translations. Somehow, the words just seem to want to be said and kept.

That said, the sentence has always frustrated me. The way philosophers often frustrate me. And some artists. And many theologians. Just say what you mean and be done with it, I want to tell them. Or don’t say it at all.

I mean, if John was talking about Jesus, why didn’t he say Jesus? It would make things so much clearer. Jesus existed from the beginning and was with God and was God. Done. No consideration of the various permutations of the word logos in biblical Greek. No long discussions of the timeless Greek form of the repeated was, as compared to the poor simple past tense in which we must house it in English. Instead, a clear-cut declaration of Jesus’ participation in the creation of the universe.

Or maybe it doesn’t mean that at all. Maybe, as some suggest, this is just John’s way of introducing the big story of Jesus on time on earth. Forget the sentence’s reverberations with the first words of scripture: In the beginning… Focus, instead, on the vagaries of John’s next words—“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (TNIV)—where weird preposition use (how, exactly, does one make something through someone else?) and passive voice call Jesus’ actual participation in the creation into question. The word, here, seems not to be the Creator himself but merely a vehicle of God’s efforts. But then, if that were so, how could it be that the word also was God?

Kris likes the ambiguity of John’s opening sentence.

“It’s like poetry,” he told me. “It’s not so much the meaning that matters as how it makes you feel.”

The students in my poetry workshop are of the same opinion about poetry. I told them the other day that part of their job in responding to one another’s poems was to report if something didn’t make sense. 

“But why’s that a bad thing? I like poems that don’t make sense,” one of them remarked.

I tried to differentiate bad lack of clarity from good ambiguity—with my usual lack of success. This fight happens in every poetry workshop I teach, and it only gets worse as the semester progresses. Often, those who write the clearest and most concrete and best poems are the ones most steadfastly dedicated to everyone else’s right to be vague and abstract and meaningless.

I had my students' upcoming first poems in mind as Kris went on about the poetic quality of John’s sentence.

“Then you’re saying it doesn’t mean anything?” I asked him.

“No, I think it means something. That God’s message existed from the beginning. His plan. That Jesus was God’s plan all along.”

“And that Jesus was there with God the Father. At the creation.”

“Well, yes, I guess. After all, Jesus calls himself the Word.”

And the Bread, I could have told him. And the Gate. And the Shepherd. And the Vine. Fodder for generations of theologians and songwriters.

Monday, January 16, 2012

at first I didn't see anything

Just got back from visiting my dad out in California before his chemo starts up again. We spent many hours alone together—longer than I remember ever being alone with him—roaming the Irvine Ranch’s strange and wonderful expanses of wilderness, still nestled in the midst of suburbia. Bommer Canyon, miles of hilly desert grown over in cacti, grasses, sage scrub, wild artichokes, and fennel and dotted with decaying working pens and other cattle equipment. Various parks and natural areas of Turtle Rock, the community where my dad lives. The marshy San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, an estuary sporting numerous ponds and a local chapter of the Audubon Society. Crystal Cove, a 1930s movie set on the sand just south of Newport Beach that was squatted by well-to-do beach bums until the 1970s, when it was acquired by the State of California and has, in addition to its old beach huts—some of which have been renovated for use as hotels—tide pools and a thriving wildlife refuge.

Needless to say, we saw lots of birds, and I was in birdwatcher heaven the whole time I was there. We saw ospreys on two different occasions, a tern dive-bombing into a pond not ten feet from us, every kind of duck, sanderlings and yellowlegs, stilts and avocets, house finches and goldfinches, black phoebes and other flycatchers in abundance, Western jays and bluebirds (so different from the eastern ones I’m accustomed to), kites and hawks, and two of the four local species of hummingbird: Anna’s (green with a brilliant magenta hood) and Allen’s (orangy-glinted green with a thin white collar and vermilion throat).

My dad was, at first, only mildly interested. He couldn’t really see differences between them, he said, and he had never been able to use binoculars to his satisfaction. He liked the ospreys. They are large and easy to recognize, and one of them sat on top of a pole eating a flopping fish. But the tiniest birds of all, the hummingbirds, when I pointed them out to my dad—sitting motionless, as hummingbirds do for long periods to digest, atop reeds and the upthrust limbs of small trees—were the ones that finally enthralled him.

“At first I didn’t see anything, but then there was this hummingbird with a purple head, just sitting there!” he reveled to my stepmother later. Never mind that their backyard is buzzing with them.

We did not talk about the Bible, didn’t talk much at all, but I thought about it. Especially that where God displays his sovereignty and power to Job—Who are you to question me?!—by cataloguing, at length, the great variety of his creation. Mountain goats. Wild donkeys and oxen. The ibis and the rooster. Hawks. Eagles.

God’s funny celebration of the ostrich came to mind several times, as I watched the phoebes loop out from sprinklers and the sanderlings skitter drunkenly back and forth, like miniature Charley Chaplins, after the tide.
The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully,
though they cannot compare
with the wings and feathers of the stork.
She lays her eggs on the ground
and lets them warm in the sand,
unmindful that a foot may crush them,
that some wild animal may trample them.
She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers;
she cares not that her labor was in vain,
for God did not endow her with wisdom
or give her a share of good sense.
Yet when she spreads her feathers to run,
she laughs at horse and rider. (Job 39:13-18 TNIV)
I tried to imagine God thundering these words, as I usually think of his doing in this speech to Job—“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” (38:2 TNIV), it begins—but I can’t. God has, by that point in his diatribe, softened, so much so that soon he is imagining putting whales on leashes as pets for his daughters.

There is something so healing, so joyful, about nature. Even God can’t help being thrilled by it.