Category Archives: Randomly me

Come as a child: Return to the memory of harmony with God

“Truly, I say to you,
unless you turn and become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
— Jesus in Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

I am thankful my childhood home life included a lot of music. My father sometimes played his old guitar and my mother was often singing a snippet of a tune. My siblings are all musicians. I latched on to singing like a life jacket, I think. Floating with the harmonies was like a return to Harmony, itself.

 a child in joy

When Jesus gives the profound teaching, above, which no one ever forgot, I think he is drawing his disciples back into that Harmony —  just as he demonstrates how to live in harmony and is, in fact, an expression of it. So often we go with many translations which read “turn” as “unless you are converted,” or “unless you turn yourself around and go a new, better direction,” or “unless you repent of your sins” you’ll never get into heaven. The word does imply “turning one’s back” and can be used in all those ways.

However, the older I get, the more I think the simple word “turn” is probably the best way to get at the meaning. Turning is the basic skill of spiritual development. And when Jesus attaches the word to becoming like children, I think he has to mean it more in the sense of “return.” As in, “Unless you return and keep returning to what you knew as a child, to the experience of knowing God’s presence you had, you’ll miss eternity.” Part of what Jesus forever represents is the Son of God, the child of God, even God identified with the lost child of Luke 15, returning to the loving embrace and extravagant care of the Father, who has been waiting and watching for the sight of that lost and longing child coming up the path.

The right brain has a memory of harmony

We tend to read the whole Bible with the left brain. That’s not surprising, since language resides mainly in the left hemisphere and, if we don’t watch it, that part of us can end up fencing off the words from any influence other than themselves.  In that context we could easily think this Bible verse provides a principle for how to get into heaven: one must become like a child, having the traits of that abstraction – trusting, humble and forgiving. This is true as far as it goes. But I was already a child. I don’t need an abstract child to become, I need to return to being myself in harmony with God. That is where I think we start out.

The experience of oneness and harmony for which I keep looking is not only an ideal, or a promise of something I have yet to see, it is also a memory. Before I had language, I lived in the presence of God. I did not know any better. My parents may have contributed to that sense or not. But I wanted them to. I wanted to attach to that trust, truth and grace forever. My parents were my first shot at experiencing such harmony consciously. For most of us, it was a bit of a shock that what each of us needed at the core of us was not fully realized. [Attachment theory explained in the NYTimes].

a child in the tall grass

I am not among the many people I know who cannot remember much of their childhood. I remember a lot. I think I gloss over the troubles of it and retain the goodness — sometimes to a fault. What came to mind just now was laying in the tall grass that had grown up in a housing development that went bust not far from my childhood home. I thought I was the only one who had thought of doing this. Invisible. Ignoring that I was not supposed to be there. Staring up into the sky for I don’t know how long. Feeling secure in the embrace of the earth, entranced by clouds in an endless sky, returning to the presence of God. In harmony. I later attached that feeling to the songs and lessons I learned when I got dropped off at Sunday school. I think I can safely say I learned all I needed to know about God by the time I was in kindergarten.

Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary gives me some exhaustive science and philosophy to validate my experience. He reminds us that the right brain was the  first hemisphere to develop. It is not an add-on to our more scientific left brain, it is the part of us that developed the left brain and feeds it.

In childhood, experience is relatively unalloyed by re-presentation: experience has “the glory and the freshness of a dream,” as Wordsworth expressed it…Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity). It was this authentic “presencing” of the world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture.

The Romantic acceptance that there is no simple “fact of the matter” – a reality that exists independently of ourselves and our attitude towards it – brought to the fore the absolutely crucial question of one’s disposition towards it, the relationship in which one stands to it. This emphasis on disposition towards whatever might be rather than the primacy of the thing itself in isolation or abstraction, explains the often contradictory accounts of what Romanticism “stood for.” (McGilchrist, 359)

Prayer is returning like a child

When I turn to centering prayer, meditation, even the left-brainish “mindfulness,” I am returning to childlike thinking, just as I think Jesus is encouraging. Meditation is the older sibling of science. When we move into the silence, we still the left brain and experience the holistic, right-now, apprehension of the right — including the longstanding memories of what it was like to know God and feel one with the earth, full of boundless hunger and curiosity, before we were constrained to find our place among others and compelled to consciously turn and turn into harmony.

McGilchrist quotes Wordsworth as a prime example of someone who is good at returning to the wonders of childhood. The art of the Romantics is a conscious turning into the presence of God (at least for many of them). Some are turning into the presence of “presence” itself, which I think is mostly just moving to the fringes of left-brain domination. Their movement, as short-lived as it was, is a good example of how humanity never really forgets who we are. Here is part of the poem to which McGilchrist refers above

But for those first affections,
……………………Those shadowy recollections,
……………Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
…………….Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
……………To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
…………………..Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

— From Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood William Wordsworth by William Wordsworth

I think Wordsworth is embellishing what Jesus is saying. We have all experienced the “fountain-light” of all our days. It may be dimmed by the messy attachments we have made, but it still has the power to reveal eternity when we turn into it. The enemies of joy may threaten it, but it can never be destroyed.

Oak Trees

Just me? Don’t the oak trees seem happier?
Haven’t they soaked up extra green from the earth?
But isn’t that their roots communicating
about this strange, over-cool July breeze disturbing their wet leaves?

I appreciate their lack of worry,
though I can’t be sure of how they’re reacting
to their cousins roasting in British Colombia
or to the tiny whiff of smoke they must smell from California.

I suspect they leave the worry to me
and just grow, taking the best the summer offers
and savoring it; pulling the sun right out of the air,
just swallowing it whole, wearing it, defiant of the future.

They rest in glory, immortal glory.
I’m the one who can block out the sun with a mood.
I can smell imaginary smoke or fear a possibility.
I know I must turn into the green of the morning and feast.

So the trees and I are writing this praise,
sitting together in your forest, in your gift of today:
this sun, this air, this love in which I have always lived,
this endless potential present in each drop sailing off every leaf,

present in me, present in us,
present in grandchildren skimming across the lake,
present in the stumbling church and diseased country,
present when the next disaster or betrayal occurs,
as you well know, Lord, as you well know.

Flowering Overwhelm on Memorial Day

The Overwhelm comes upon us,
an angel of death coursing
through the streets like an oily snake
invented for the screen by Cecil B. DeMille.
We can’t tell if it’s real or not.
But we feel it sucking the life out of Spring.
We shut down and cower in our darkness.

Memorial Day tries to jump start Summer
but it’s another rainy day
taunting us with our dashed hopes of
a maskless picnic in the sun.
The Overwhelm rises up like a pool
of sewage in the basement.
We turn the air freshener in the socket
up to high but soon just go to sleep.

In the dark of night I rise with
outrage stuck in my throat.
I imagine ancient Roman wives with flowers
skulking out to the graves of their husbands,
his death day guarded in a private brain cell,
matrons in Charleston fighting for the honor
of inventing her son’s Decoration Day,
women wearing poppy pins from Flanders Fields
and Seeger asking where all the flowers have gone.

I have many reasons to dissociate.
The face of Trump rises like a blood moon
in the nighttime of the Empire,
the church crippled by the pandemic,
and our wan faces blearily, bravely,
weakly attending to one another on screen.
We can barely find the energy
to try a vacation on our one day off,
much less move with the impulse to be
outraged over Armed Forces Day,
Veterans Day, and Memorial Day
tromping around the calendar.

God help us, it is George Floyd Death Day!
At the same time it is San Jose Death Day,
which followed Palestine Oppression Day and
Jews beat-up-on-the-streets of New York Day,
not long after Asian woman pummeled-on-screen Day,
and police killing-filmed Day, killing, killing
at the same rate as this Day last year.
Even the Underground Railroad masterpiece
can’t shake us out of the stupor of the Overwhelm.

Oh Lord, stoke my outrage!
What a colossal waste of flowers!
My God, we are still making weapons!
The police are armed to the teeth
trying to protect our right to carry
and still formally killing the caught killers
not informally executed in the streets.
O my God, how much did they spend
in Afghanistan and on the Israelis
for rockets targeting Gaza apartments?

Jesus, I need to be flabbergasted
and all I can do is throw a poem out there
on a day when people would rather rest in their grave,
avoiding the feeling of death inside,
and just try not to remember for a moment.
Oh God, the Overwhelm is snaking through the streets
and no amount of flowers can mask the smell.

The cross in the night

I needed a new taste of your cruciform love
as I lay awake feeling at home
but entertaining all those homeless thoughts of loss
which are always looking to move in.

I received a word from the poet, C. Day Lewis,
pondering the day his son left home.
Oh, he would be at dinner, but gone, nonetheless,
finding his way among friends. He said:

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How self-hood begins with walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

At every table I eat a bowl of letting go
and feel hungry as I find my way.
On your icon across the room you are loving,
vulnerable in your passion.

I have a lot to learn of the cross in the night
as others feel free to sleep away —
or so my piece of broken heart often tells me
as I resist learning love from you,
as I hear the voice of love in me.


C. Day Lewis poem in full.

Trail in an unknown forest

an unknown forest

Off a road we never travelled,
the empty lot for the trailhead parking
seemed eager for a visitor
on a mild day in March.

Bits of snow lay untouched on the path
and painted the forest floor in patches.
The sunshine felt as new as the trail
after months locked indoors.

The rocky way relied on blazes
and our old feet relied on memory
of many hikes over many years, those
with less expectation of falling.

There are wonders to be seen.
Inside and out there are vistas.
Now the tree growing out of a rock
seems like a personal statement.
Now the stone like the Stone Table
has a deep spiritual history.
Now the slab like a stage
is pondered from erotic to sublime.
Now the muddy flats speak of
foreign places and mysterious art,
while the destination creek flows
with thoughts for the future.

It is always striking how the way into
the unknown of a new forest seems long.
How far is it? Should we keep going?
How can we gauge the effort this takes?

Yet the way back through the now
familiar landscape, dotted with experience
like patches of snow, seems short, soon to
embolden an unknown route back home.

Just a bit of courage to try
a new path and the interior landscape
feels the breeze of a spring thaw
where it is frozen with fear and doubt.

Though the pilgrimage of Lent seems long
in a year so hard and fraught,
so many days it seems like a short way
back to the home You make for us.

And even when my courage seems so small
and the mud of spring annoying,
You move me to stay on the way of the heart:
that old unknown end, always a familiar new end
marking the trailhead of hope.

We must bring the Now to now

Image result for valentine on a melting glacier

I suspect Valentine was a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in his ways and position, 
when the authorities made their new law 
and thrust him into his new, secret obedience to Love. 

He once handed off his cross to the younger ones. 
But it quickly came around the track to him again. 
He was no longer the future but the now — 
the eternal now he knew so well beckoned him Home. 

And he brought that Home to his home. 
He brought that Now to now. 
He lived Eternally in the face of the powers 
who pretend to have the power of death. 

I know my Valentine is a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in her ways and position. 
Yet the authorities still make their laws 
and thrust the young into choices which question all their love. 

What will You have us do with this baton we see, 
coming quickly to us across the melting glaciers 
in an age of lies when the evil go free 
and the machines bind the hearts and minds of the children? 

We must bring our Home to our home 
and bring our Now to now, 
and love Eternally in the face of the powers — 
prove they do not have the power of death 
over those who listen to the Spirit’s voice and follow. 

The Last Christmas Eve of the Past        

“Maybe it was not such a good idea to meet for Christmas Eve,” he thought. The virus still raged. Everyone was told not to fly. He flew anyway. Then there was a nor’easter and his rental car had to plow through the last few miles to Grandmother’s house in Western Massachusetts. The “GPS knows the way to carry the sleigh,” kept running through his mind as the wipers tried to keep up with the downpour. When he finally burst into the house he expected his sister to already be there. Now he was worried she’d never get there at all, even though she was just coming from New York.

There was still a bit of evidence of the funeral meal they’d hosted in August. They had made an incomplete job of cleaning up the house they had inherited — and the caretaker kept it warm, not clean. As he put his gym bag on the dining room table, he looked around and realized he had made an incomplete job of saying goodbye, too. He slowly took in a very empty house, something like the body one sees in a casket at the viewing. The spirit just wasn’t there. This was his first real visit to the past.

The best part of his past, his sister Mary, was yet to arrive. His parents had named their only children, the twins, Joseph and Mary. It was never as funny as people thought it was. And their parents did not think it was funny at all. They lived a very serious life. They had died during one of their mission trips to South America, studying on site so they could translate the Bible into yet another indigenous language. They were in the back of a pick-up, their kids were told. It was too big for the burro track it was on and the cliffside gave way. It took months to retrieve and ship their bodies. Now they were buried — inseparable in death as in life, in the ancient family plot behind Grandmother’s house, now the twins’ house.

Joseph loved the inside of the house. His sister loved the outside, every part of the ten acres. But they were not really sentimental about it. The property felt like a burden for the most part. It mostly reminded them of being teenage sojourners with no place to stay — it had been one of their stops. Their parents had not expected to die, for some reason, since they spent an entire adulthood risking their lives. And they made no provision for their young teens should it happen. The twins were surprised with the bad news by the headmasters of their respective boarding schools. They spent the rest of their teen years going from relative to relative, mostly in New England. Winter breaks were spent with Father’s mother in the big Victorian farmhouse. So Christmas belonged to Grandmother. It was always Grandmother and Grandfather just as he was always Joseph, never Joe, never Joey — and certainly not Jo Jo!

Grandmother attended to propriety, but she was never a very attentive caregiver. The same year as their parents, Grandfather died and she became even more distant. Her last fifteen years were spent deteriorating with her house. It was like her cell membrane dissolved and she merged into indefinition. The men in her life had apparently been in charge of faith, because she realized she did not have any. She did not say anything about it, but the Christmas ornaments were slowly culled of angels and manger scenes and the exiled pieces were replaced with glass balls designed to reflect light without having any meaning of their own. They once found a box of lonely pieces in the attic.

As he waited, Joseph gravitated to his favorite room in the house where he had spent many hours alone — nursing his attachment wounds and avoiding his grievances. The dusty library was all his after Grandfather died. Grandmother barely touched it. He loved the novels, shelves of them.

But the book that probably made the most impact on him was an old hardback he found of not much more than 100 pages called Joseph the Dreamer. It was a short book because it had a small point: We all have a dreamer in us and the two Josephs that figure prominently at the beginning of the Old and New Testaments represent how primary this energy is in us all. Our dreams are the well-evolved capacity in us for spiritual experience. They are the doorway through which everyone can enter into their inner dialogue with God.

In the Bible, both Josephs are on a journey of becoming. They are both led beyond their ordinary sense of self — the sense of “I am;” I am myself, which is just the shoreline of the ocean our true selves. The dreams of the first Joseph lead him away from the shadow his brothers represent and into the darkness of his prison where he wrestles his desires and realizes his capability. Later, when he again meets his brothers, he does not use his power to get even, but teases out their confession and restores their relationship. He realizes he has always been serving a deeper calling than he could see in his pits and prisons and productivity.

The dreams of the second Joseph are often seen as bolts out of the blue given to direct salvation history. No doubt his parents interpreted their own dreams that way. But, chances are, like the little book claims, the second Joseph’s dreams represent a well-developed spiritual capacity, a deep connection to the Spirit. Joseph knows how to listen deeply. He’s not just a reluctant security guard for the Savior.

The second Joseph’s dreams also have an interesting parallel with the first. Like the first Joseph had unusual dreams that made his brothers furious, there is a good possibility that the second Joseph was always a bit more dreamy than most people in Nazareth. Other men were kings and warriors but he was more a magician and lover.

There is a good possibility that his furniture did not sell well because it often had an impractical flourish that made it look odd or look Roman. While other workers held their noses and did the job, he probably liked working on the restoration project of Herod Antipas in Sepphoris because it was the only interesting thing going in Galilee – beautiful new houses needing new furniture and new rooms decorated with elaborate mosaic floors. Sepphoris was a city on a hill to which he walked with his sons, a city which could not be hidden.

His neighbors in more homespun Nazareth were not in the market for imaginative carpentry skills and liked to think their practical, simple tastes were exactly what the Torah prescribed. In truth it was exactly the opposite. Their narrowness revealed their lack of basic self-awareness. Their self-protective legalism revealed their lack of appreciation for the transcendent qualities resident in Moses, whose law was like a veil blocking the view of his face burning like the bush from which God called him. So the second Joseph was a good partner for God in his plan to share the spiritual bounty imprisoned in the fallen creation. Jesus came to bring it all out of the pit, to welcome it back home like a prodigal child who needed to be blessed with a multicolored coat.

When Joseph found his second wife to be with child, he was tempted to let the engagement go and find a way to save her dignity. After all, there was only so far he could afford to stretch the sensibilities of his main sources of income. And one could never know how people might get whipped up into a murderous fury by some angry young man, of which there were many in Galilee. Mary might be sold off as a slave, or worse.

But after years of planing down the bark and imperfections of his soul as he patiently planed his finely imagined furniture, Joseph had a receptive awareness that only needed a whisper in the night to gain his attention. After the angel gently spoke to him in his dream, he shuttered his business, defied his relatives, and ended up in Egypt like the first Joseph, nurturing the Answer to the riddles of life. From that place of shadow an even greater salvation was given as a gift to the new remnant of God’s people, the people who change their minds about who really manages creation.

Joseph loved this book and had read it many times. He hid it high on a shelf where he expected no one would ever look. He climbed up to that shelf now and found it again, just to make sure it was still there. A flood of memory hit him as he held it in his hand. He had just had a dream of his own. In it was a woman a lot like his sister Mary. She was relying on him to reveal things to her since she never remembered her dreams. She attended to him like a companion. He was painstakingly teaching her things and she was taking them all in without fear or jealousy. It was like they were having a spiritual meal together.

In this way, the woman in his dream was much like Mary in the Bible, he thought. She could listen too! As soon as she got a message she understood exactly how it applied and she put it into practical or poetic form. She was always on her donkey visiting an Elizabeth and regularly came up with a Magnificat. His own sister was a bit like this. She could not stand church or silence, almost the opposite of him, since he could hardly stand anything but smoke and prayer. He admired his sister’s pragmatism, the shadowy, turbulent yin to his airy, light yang. Like her namesake in the Bible, Mary was more political, angrier. Her angel was a shining man, Gabriel, while his angels were all women.

Some people think the angel Gabriel oversaw the Galilee territory, and he was the one assigned to contact Joseph like he had Mary. But no one says who appeared to Joseph. It was probably a woman angel. No doubt his parents thought that was impossible since the Bible always talks about angels appearing male, even though angels don’t have the same kind of earth-bound, gender-bound duties as humans. Having been connected his whole life to a Mary, he just couldn’t see it. Joseph needed something more than enough spine to stand up to his brothers who were considering stoning his betrothed. God had always met him in the dreamy places and his companion woman must have carried the word.

Joseph was so deep in memories, dreams and grief, so far away from the library, lost in his thoughts, he was not really present until snow began to fall on the book cover. Mary had gotten up the drive, through the door and clear into the library without startling him until now. He jumped out of the reading chair, looked up at the ceiling before he turned around and saw her ready to shake the rest of the snow off her coat. Before any word was said, she came around his womb of a chair and embraced him. He set the book on the cushion and let the snow melt through his shirt. “My dear brother,” she said.

She let him go, brushed the flakes off her shoulders and shook snow out of her knit cap. “You must put your shoes back on and find your coat. It is already 10:15. The ride up here was a beast and I am surprised I am not dead. I would be if the snow had been any deeper when I fished that woman out of the ditch.”

“You stopped the car?”

“We can talk about that later. We need to get over to village for the vigil.”

“They are having a vigil?”

“This is the middle of nowhere. Wear your mask if you must. We never miss the vigil and, virus or not, I intend to be there.”

“Wasn’t it hard enough just to get to the farm? The road over to the village is no more than a lane. I’m sure it won’t be plowed until the 27th!”

“Then we can walk. We have those snow shoes somewhere. Where do you think they are?”

Joseph stood back and looked at her. She had begun to pick up stray utensils and plates on her way to the kitchen. He followed her to the sink where she began to sort and rinse and admired her bustling. She didn’t want to go to the vigil; she just wanted the dangerous journey. What she liked about the story was Mary traveling to Bethlehem pregnant. She secretly imagined birthing her first child in the barn. “You are amazing, you know,” he said.

She turned off the water and turned to look at him smiling. He smiled too. And then they laughed like only twins can amuse each other.

“I know you don’t want to go,” she said. “But I also know you don’t want to miss the vigil.”

“Let’s create a stable in the barn and you can give birth there.”

“How did you know that? Did one of your angels tell you?”

“She did not need to. It only makes sense.”

“Well. I suppose it will be hard enough to get to the barn, at this point.”

They started in the attic and found the box of repressed figurines and were glad to spot an old advent wreath with some used candles still in the holders. Mary overturned a frame and there were their parents, just married. They decided to let them join in. As a whim, Joseph grabbed a very old stick horse, since an animal needed to give witness.

When they left their inn for the stable the snow had stopped and a cold, round moon gilded the scattering clouds. A noiseless barn owl leapt through the missing board in the hay window door and flew through the light. They both gasped as they watched it move through the silent night in the clouds of their breath. If the nesting were late, they might meet the rest of the family up in the rafters.

There was no need to talk. They got to work like missionaries making do with what was available. An old milk crate could be a manger. A milking stool had been sitting in a corner for decades waiting for its chance to be an altar. The witness horse was propped up between two cinder blocks. Mom and Dad sat facing it on the other side on a block of their own.

Mary sat on the ground, determined to get quite dirty. Joseph lit the candles slowly and deliberately named each one: the hope candle, the peace candle, the joy candle and the love candle. And they waited.

The waiting allowed Mary’s exhaustion to catch up with her and she slowly rolled into Joseph’s shoulder. He put his arm around her as she dozed.

They had not thought about what to do at the appointed time. The rector would ring the bell in the village; maybe they would hear it across the field. They knew the organist would be playing Silent Night and everyone would have a candle. Mary said, “Oh Joseph, we have forgotten the baby! What will we put in the box?”

“Shall I go find a doll?” he asked.

“Oh no, you can’t go anywhere. You are my blanket.”

“Then God will have to provide the baby. If no other way, I can imagine you acting like a baby right here in the barn. Remember when we were about ten years old and I would not let you swing from the loft? Father heard the argument and said we would not be able to come back if we did not get along.”

“I would like a do-over with Father,” she whispered.

“I am glad we had each other when were growing up, especially when Mother and Father died. I felt so left alone. If it were not for you…”

“Maybe that’s it,” she interrupted. “We could claim Joseph and Mary once and for all and let them produce the baby. Our parents and grandparents tended to send the baby into cold storage for much of the year. But we kept welcoming that poor child.”

“I love that,” he laughed. “This gets better all the time. How about if we joined Joseph and Mary in the scene, even became one with them, and swaddled the newborn king ourselves?” He thought, “In some sense it is like I have been here in a dream and God was telling me what was going to be born. It is a whole new day. The earth is clean with snow and somehow we got here.”

They both got up out of their spectator seats on the floor and silently moved beside the manger box and knelt there. Joseph saw the cradle light up. And somehow the word came to him, “Do not be afraid.” He spoke it. “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

She began to sing, “O, holy night! The stars are brightly shining.”

The next morning a hush was still over the house. They did not speak until breakfast, but then they marveled at the parts of themselves they gave to each other in love — and how it all came together in the barn like it came together in the Bible: man and woman, dreamer and doer, past and future, old and new. God was with them like in a dream — candlelight and the mystery of tragic circumstances touched with glory. It was a story of improbable, willful, scared people  welcomed into their own birthing process. They could hardly remember it all. They couldn’t be sure if they ever needed to have Christmas Eve in the same way again. It was quite enough for now and surely something else was ready to fly into the moonlight.

The Innkeeper’s Wife

This is the second Christmas story I ever wrote for public consumption in 1990. I presented it to the Riverside Brethren on the Sunday before. I hope the lack of factuality does not bother you too much, since that’s not the point of this little fable of hope for the hopeless.

Pin on Bible: Jesus & His Birth

Miriam set down the tray of dirty bowls and greasy bones she was carrying so she could tuck that always stray strand of hair out of her eyes. But when she caught sight of her dirty hands she didn’t want to touch it, and her apron didn’t have a clean spot left on it after a day of seeing to the needs of the crowd in their busy inn. Quirinius had everyone travelling all over the country to be registered in their home town so he could keep track of them and tax them more effectively. The Romans were very good for business. Her husband’s inn was packed. But her hair was clinging to her wet forehead, and that one strand! She stuck it behind her ear with a sigh.

Across the smoky, crowded room, her burly, loud, husband laughed with a boom and slapped a man’s back. He picked up his glass and raised it to the young girl who was dancing in front of the fire. She had come with her father and brothers to Bethlehem and now she closed her eyes and felt the beat of the tambourines in her hips and the whine of the flute in her arms. The innkeeper’s eyes glowed.

The innkeeper’s wife was beyond being angry. It was just another girl. How many more would there be to take her place? She picked up the tray to move on to the kitchen where she couldn’t see, but then she made the mistake of taking one last look just as the young girl reached for the cup her husband held out. He grabbed her arm and swung her to his lips. The music stopped, the brothers jumped to their feet and the room burst into laughter. The innkeeper could be heard above them all booming and yelling again and again, “I mistook the little morsel for dessert!” And the wine poured again.

Miriam no longer had the urge to rush over and claim her rights. She had heard the joke too many times since the first night, long ago now. Then, she had danced before a younger innkeeper. He seemed handsome then and alive. The inn was new and he seemed rich and rich with love. The innkeeper loved everyone, for a night, at least. Years later he loved everyone but her, it seemed.

What had it been like to dance? She could hardly remember. It seemed like another life when he had taken her out into the field that night when her father was stupid with wine and spoken words she never forgot. “You are more beautiful than Miriam the sister of Moses when she danced before the children in the desert. You are more precious than the myrrh for which you are named.” And he even kissed her, which she never told her mother. Her hand felt the necklace beneath her blouse. Three amber beads he had given her on their wedding day. His own mother had worn them. There was one for him, one for her, and one for God in the middle. But God seemed as far away as the past. And kisses like that one stolen in the moonlight were distant memories.

Now there were so many guests and so much work to do — and not even a child to comfort her and give her worth, just a kitchen to clean up before she could finally go to bed. There was no room in the inn for fond memories or anything else tonight. She picked up her tray and started for the other room.

But as she passed the door, which was already bolted for the night, she heard a knock. Naturally, her husband was too involved with his new-found friends to notice. But she didn’t want to answer. She was too busy and there was not an inch left. The knock came again, louder. “Why do I do these things?” she thought, and drew the bolt.

Before the man even had a chance to speak she said, “People are sleeping on the benches in here tonight. We’re charging two denarii to lay out a mat on the floor.”

“But my wife.”

“You should have brought your wife earlier. There is no room, now.”

“But here is my wife.” And he gestured toward a figure on a donkey in the darkness. Miriam peered out the crack in the door. She almost shut it in his face. But as she stepped out with the lamp and held it up to see more clearly a door seemed to open inside her. What piercing, pitiful, knowing eyes on that young girl, pregnant, on one of the hungrier donkeys she’d seen lately.

“What is your name child?”

“Mary,” she answered.

And yet another memory flooded her thoughts. Her own mother had called her Mary which is just another way to say Miriam. She used to play a game with her when they sat carding wool. “Miriam, always be a Mary, not a marah,” she’d say — marah being the name of the bitter water Israel found in the desert. “Myrrh is for worship and healing, but without hope it is a bitter taste and a dying smell.”

Tonight was a night for myrrh to heal, she decided. Let her husband clean up the bones. Let him beat her if he even noticed she was gone at all. Tonight there was another Miriam on a donkey with a husband who loved her and a baby who needed a place to be born. So she took them to the stable.

She had been right. Her husband did not even notice she was gone. She left most of the mess in the kitchen, telling herself she could face it all better in the morning. Staring at the rafters in their room she heard his drunken stomp on the stairs. When he collapsed on the mat with a snore it seem to squeeze a tear from her eye for all the nights she longed for a tender word, even a small, “Thank you,” maybe even any word at all except, “Get me this,” or “I need this,” or some angry “Why haven’t you?”

“To what have I lost my life?” she cried inside, and she tried to stifle her sobs because she would have to explain to her husband. “What has become of me? Lonely, like my own mother looked before she died. About ready to die from loveless work myself. Just a fat, dirty face who no one knows. My own children, if I ever have any, will grow up just like me with a father like him and a mother like me.” And she winced from the pain of letting herself long. “Oh God. Where are you?” And she laid her hand on that middle amber bead, the only precious thing in her life.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep before she awoke to shouts out near the animals. She gently slipped off the mat and crept beneath the window covering. There in the brightest moonlight she had ever seen were some men who looked so scruffy they could only be shepherds acting so excited they were either dancing or fighting. But before she could wait to find out, her husband whipped up the shade and screamed into the night, “You idiots. Don’t you know decent people are sleeping?”

“We have seen the baby in your stable,” one shouted back. “The angels have told us about our Savior.”

“More drunk shepherds,” the innkeeper grunted. “They’re worse than wolves. Then he bellowed, “Go back into the fields before I come down there and beat you myself.”

“Come down’.” another shouted. “See for yourself!” And then they hurried off, still looking like they might be dancing.

“Tired as I can be, my head splitting off, and the riffraff wake up my guests,” he grumbled as he stumbled back to bed.

“Go back to sleep,” Miriam said soothingly. But he needed no encouragement. With a grunt and a snore he was gone. But Miriam threw on her shawl and quickly and quietly hurried down the stairs, over the bodies in the dining room and out to the yard.

The night seemed so alive with strange light that she almost forgot to wonder why she had bolted out the door in her night clothes. Everything looked a little different, as if she had never really seen it before. It felt like the look in that young girl’s eyes — deeper than it ought to be. It drew her like the shepherd’s dance — unusual enough to make your heart beat faster, like when you wonder what will be behind the secret door you’re about to open. Out of her husband’s bed in the smelly inn, out in the moonlight in her night clothes, she felt a surge of excitement – and the fear that came with her freedom. The shepherds were right, a baby had been born that night.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus did not return to Nazareth right away. There was no sense travelling with a new born. Even though her husband objected on financial terms, Miriam managed to move them into a little house they owned. She had taken quite an interest in the family. They were a mysterious bunch. Mary so quiet and serenely religious. Joseph a bit nervous and cautious about visitors — and many came, because those shepherds had started some extravagant tales going around about the baby Himself, who was treated like God’s gift to humankind. The inn practically fell apart because Miriam spent a lot of time making sure her guests were all right and making sure she didn’t miss out on anything. The fact is, things happened to Mary and Joseph that never happened to her. Just being around them promised something. It was a welcome change to looking forward to dying in a greasy apron!

Her husband did not like her new interests one bit. On the way out the door one day he caught her arm and dug his heavy fingers into it. “It is bad enough that you have become Marah to me,” he said. She had made the mistake of revealing her mother’s game to him. “But now you will not even keep the inn. You have duties as a wife. You work for me, not your freeloading friends,” And it was no good to fight him when he had made up his mind. Others had crossed him and she saw the results herself. So on that day she kept the inn and he kept an eye on her. She kept herself, too, happy on the outside, but full of longing on the inside. Suddenly the chains on her ankles seemed visible for the first time. The ropes around her heart were so tight she expected they might burst. She made up her mind she would escape that evening.

It wasn’t hard. She just kept filling his cup and he felt well cared for. The less he felt responsible, the more ignorant of her he could be and the better he liked it. Soon his head was on the table and she was flying down the street.

Strange things were happening at the Child’s house. Camels and servants were outside and richly dressed men were entering the door just as she arrived. She was afraid to crowd in so she stood outside the window in the shadows and listened with barely a breath to break the silence. Many things were said by the strange visitors but the last one spoke so clearly she could not mistake his words: “For the King of the Jews I bring myrrh to anoint Him as a king should be. May He be the healer the stars have promised us.”

When she heard “King of the Jews” the blood rushed to her cheeks and the warmth made her dizzy. She put her hand to her heart and there were her amber beads. “What has come upon us?” she wondered. But she knew. It was God. She sat down in the dark and stared into the night as the visitors talked inside, laughed and prayed. “Behind this wall something is happening that is so amazing,” she thought. But here I sit outside again, left out, uninvited. She knew that soon Mary and Joseph would leave with this child and she would face the rest of her days unloved and struggling to keep her desires locked away where they didn’t hurt so bad.

She was the last to leave the house that night. The door was slightly ajar and she meant to pull it softly shut as one last piece of help she could give before her husband locked her away forever. But, instead, she opened it up to get a last look at the Child who was worshiped, who made news all over the countryside, of whom angels were said to sing, whose birth made her leave her bed and risk the wrath of her husband.

Mary was dozing in the firelight. The baby quietly moved in the cradle. Miriam crept up to his side and knelt there. She could have sworn he looked at her, but whether He did or not, something seemed to open up the locked places in her heart. Into her mind flowed such a bitter flood of sorrow that she was ashamed to be near such an innocent child. She knew she had to leave. How dirty she was. How jealous. How unworthy. How afraid to be sneaking in to stare at someone else’s beautiful, special child. She straightened up to leave, “Just one touch little Jesus and I will return where I belong and you will go on to whatever wonderful life you are meant to live.” When she reached out her finger the tiny hand grasped it and hot bitter tears rolled down her cheeks for all the days yet to be that seemed already lost to loneliness.

She woke Mary up with her sniffling. But she did not seem anything but welcoming. “He’s going to save us all, dear Miriam. Don’t cry. Dance. Let your heart dance again.”

Miriam reached around to untie the cord around her neck and without a word placed her gift at the newborn king’s feet: three amber beads, one for her husband, one for her, one for God, but it was really her heart. Because deep within it Mary’s words planted a bit of hope that it was all true. She could dance again.

We are all Miriams in our own way, aren’t we? Locked in our despair or hoping that what we expect will never happen to us. May the Mary in you grow and the Marah disappear. May the Lord touch you in your deepest longing and promise you dancing. And may He receive that precious hope from you. Let it go. Lay the treasure of your heart at His feet and learn to be free.

The Crèche — Three Days Before Christmas       

For the Family, 1998…

Kurt Adler 9.5-Inch Musical LED Nativity Set with Figures and Stable — Out of stock, Wal-mart.

This may seem a little disjointed, I just finished jotting it down for you upstairs. It isn’t a very well-crafted story, as I wish you could expect from me.

Let me just start with this. Many times I have heard the adage, “Be careful what you pray for” from people who think it is funny that we try to control prayer. Today, I know better what they are speculating. But I’ll try not to be careful, nonetheless.

This is hard to explain, but a lot has happened to me in the last three days.

As far as I can tell, I was flopping around restlessly in my bed about 1 am Tuesday morning, alternately cursing AAA for not coming to change my tire and worrying about what I had left to do and buy for the holiday, when something extraordinary happened. As far as I can explain, my soul began to slowly lift from my body. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to your mom. Before I knew it, I was staring down at her in the bed, breathing her little sleepytime zephyr. Next to her was my body, still writhing like a fish on the deck.

But my soul was strangely mobile, and strangely drawn. I squeezed under the closed door to our bedroom, rose to the ceiling of the hall and floated along it until I reached the dark stairwell. I was drawn down and down until I reached the third floor. I wasn’t drawn down the stairs themselves, I descended through the middle. Like an elevator, I paused at the second floor and floated toward the light coming from the illegal late-night gathering in the TV room. You men were screaming at the screen and periodically beating on each other. I screamed, “It’s after one in the morning, go to bed.” But you couldn’t hear me. When a commercial came on for the softer side of Sears everyone ran out of the room for Cheezits and passed right through me. Without my permission, the pull began again and I continued my descent.

The Christmas tree lights were still on in the living room, empty candy bowls were on all the tables, pine needles were all over the floor. But I began to float toward the mantle, toward the crèche – the one with Joseph half-melted from an errant tree light and the place on the stable roof where the star had fallen off. I’m not sure how this happened, but I began to compress. It was like a little tractor beam was pulling me into a very tiny spot where only a spirit can fit. I conformed until I was back in a body. I was looking up at a gold ceiling. Bits of straw were sticking out over the sides of it. Although my body couldn’t move, my sight could, and I saw a huge plastic faces staring down at me in my peripheral vision.

Just then the lights went out on the tree and I heard footsteps clomping up the stairs. I was terrified. I had no idea what my body was doing upstairs. I had no idea how my soul got where it was. That’s when I remembered my prayer: “Lord I don’t have time for Advent.” I’d prayed it twice, but it seemed like a long time ago, now. I prayed it once when I was trying to find a hotel room for our anniversary trip and I realized I hadn’t thought about Christmas yet. And I prayed it once when we were writing Christmas cards and watching TV feeling like half these people needed to fall off the list. There must have been an angel backup on the heavenly Schuylkill, because the response to my prayer had come with just three days to go until Christmas. Now that I look back on it, maybe it was all I could take, and God knew that all too well.

I was stuck in Jesus. Little plastic swaddling clothes covered my naked little plastic body. Outlines of plastic animals and Mary and Joseph made shadows on the roof of my little stable as headlights passed the house. I couldn’t move my head or my arms or even wiggle my tiny toes. Only my eyes could see and my ears could hear and my little plastic nose could smell. But I had no voice to tell you, “Whatever-is-Dad-about-Dad has moved to the mantle.”

Maybe it all came to a head on Monday and the Lord just got fed up. “That’s it!” he must have said, “You are wasting your protoplasm.” I was getting sort of dazed, as I do sometimes. I had these huge projects sitting on the agenda at the office. I was toying with the idea of them eating up the whole vacation. Then Mama and I went to Wal-Mart and we got stuck behind innumerable large-bottomed ladies wrestling for gifts like the Eagles trying to recover one of their fumbles, all for the privilege of standing in line for a half-hour to buy things that would likely go underappreciated. That was an out-of-the-soul experience. Then, to top off a disgusting day, the AAA didn’t come to rescue the car. I suppose I could say I was effectively driven out of Jesus. But more likely, I just wasn’t trapping time. Time has a life of its own. One should capture it, not just chase it around. It takes some strategy. Had time been wild game on Monday and I was the hunter, I’d be starving. I was starving.

When I woke up on Tuesday after my first night over the fireplace, I was ready to get out of Jesus. I had slept on my new revelation about myself and now I was a reformed ignoramus. But when Ben clomped down the stairs and woke me up I still could not move. All I could do was listen to what was happening in my house. Ben bellowed up the stairs for Joel to hurry up. The telephone rang five times. My body came shuffling down the stairs and read the paper. Mama clicked down and kissed my body and was quickly out the door. Later on, my body left without even a word and I was alone with all this time. The only distraction all day was Bu, the cat, sticking her nose way into the crèche. I didn’t know she could get on the mantle and I assume she wanted it that way. She seemed to be the only one who knew someone was there. All I could see was her little nose sniffing the air over me.

I got lonely. I wished I had a friend who noticed that my soul was distracted somewhere else. But no one had the time or energy or interest to notice, apparently. At least no one called the posse to search for me. It reminded me of the time I hid in the closet as a child and waited for someone to find me — for three hours. I finally had to come out and tell my mother I had been missing. She frowned sympathetically and then told me she’d talk to me when she got off the phone. But she forgot all about it. So did I, until I was stuck in Jesus.

My first full day drew to an end. The light in the room was changing to ghostly gray. Before long it was a dark Tuesday night and the college boys arrived. Luke unveiled his tattoo. At dinner my body joked and yelled with the rest. I began to get nervous.

Early Wednesday morning, two days before Christmas, it happened. It was the early light of dawn and I was still sleeping. Bu had managed to stick her head clear into the crèche until she was eye-to-eye with baby Jesus. Even in my senseless sleeping I could tell someone was staring at me. I flung open my eyes, our pupils met. Bu leapt back like a startled cat. Her head caught the roofline. Cat and crèche flew off the mantle, one landing with a crash and one with its usual graceless thud. Bu went skittering up the stairs and I went skidding across the floor. It seemed like I was rolling forever. It seemed like I was propelled. I rolled and rolled like a smart bomb until I seemed to find a small hole in the floor about which only mice knew and headed right through it. I landed in the dark, between floors, right under the living room. I heard Mama clicking across the floor and discovering the crèche, “Joel David!” she yelled. The stomping and clattering and sweeping was soon over, the crèche replaced with a finish-scarring screech. Doors finally slammed. Big men still slept. I was alone in the dark.

I wanted to yell. “Hey everyone, I’m under the floor!” But no one was there. I wasn’t even there. And I had no voice. I began to wonder if anyone else was really there, either. Maybe they’re soul was stuck in the St. Francis statue or somewhere less descriptive, like one of college boys’ old shoes. I decided I shouldn’t worry about whether you all were going help me get reconnected. You might be having your own problems. I thought I might be getting a lesson about what it meant to actually live. Living doesn’t happen when people notice me. I happen whether anyone notices me or not. I wondered how I could happen in plastic. It tested my faith.

Here I was stuck in Jesus in the dark. It was embarrassing to be there and embarrassing that no one seemed to notice that either of us was gone. Then I was lonely. No one was tromping around looking for each of us, either. “So OK,” I thought, “I always go those places whether I am a figurine or not.” I began to talk to myself, although it was a little confusing. “OK, uh, Jesus, what would you like to tell me?” In other words, I finally had enough time to have at least one day of Advent.

Talk about being “in Christ!” I used to say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me!” Now it was, “Christ is under my living room and I live in him.” So we talked. What else was there to do? “Are you showing me what it is like to be ignored? Are you showing me what it is like to live in someone who pays you no mind? Have I really been this plastic all season? Are you just trying to immobilize me and get me in the dark long enough to change me? Am I thinking deeply enough to please you; can I go back now? Are we done yet? Can I get back to normal? How long are you planning on this going on? How long have you been planning this? Was this a spontaneous thing? Do you lay awake at night devising these things? Do you have a night?”

With that question the questions began to change. “How do you experience ‘day?’ How do you experience your relationship with me? What did it feel like to be born?” In the back of my mind I realized — “Oh yeah, this is what it is like to think of someone but yourself. This is not being self-referencing. This is exploring the life of the Spirit.”

I finally stopped thinking about that, too, and just thought about Jesus. I finally stopped thinking and just sank into the new warmth of the darkness and the pleasant sensation of my confinement. I finally went into a deep peaceful sleep. I slept and slept.

I awoke with a start. A mouse was nibbling on baby Jesus’ nose. But I was not there long to find out what happened. My soul began to squeeze through that little hole like Casper appearing in Wendy’s house. It was like I was being taken on a retrieval mission. In the basement I got a little art from my notebook and some strength from the tools. In the kitchen I filled up a little on the warmth of food lovingly served. Back in the dining room I soaked up the tears of laughter. In the living room I incorporated the din of many friends and important conversations. Up the stairs I got back the lessons of hard knocks. On the boys floors the men gave back some beautiful examples of development. On the fourth floor I remembered the years of love and growing and happiness with my good wife. And I took a long stop at the prayer room. I rested for a moment above my journal and luxuriated in the confidence that God has been with me. I drank in the joy of having an adventurous life of failing and following along the right way.

I hovered over my body sitting in front of the computer trying to write a Christmas story at the last minute today. I asked one more question. “Do you really need me to go back? — I am hard-pressed. I love it. But I struggle so with time. Am I up to the challenge?” But I didn’t hear a direct answer. I just settled back into that time-worn body, still struggling to find enough minutes to actually live.

I’m telling you the truth. My body came to its senses right in front of the screen. I just wrote it all down. Make of it what you will, if you have the time.

As for me, I’m still trying to figure it all out. But one thing I’ll remember for next year when the crèche comes out is this:  the scene is suspended in time, and there is something eternal for me in it as well, especially when I’m in it myself.

Lament for the climate

Trees Clapping by Brenda Bogart

There’s Wendell Berry writing,
quill plucked from a wild turkey with thanks,
sitting in his Kentucky cabin
voting absentee for Amy McGrath.

“When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Take a deep breath

Because among us normals,
ballpoint crushed into the back seat rug,
sitting on 95 smelling fumes,
we’re sipping sodas with plastic straws.

When despair grows in us
and we wake in the night to gunshot pops
in fear of what our lives and our children’s lives may be,
we go and lie down where the AC
hums with a restful buzz in the night air, while the great sirens blare
to disturb to pieces the silence
that might settle on the neighborhood
of grief. They come into the presence of street trees
feeling above the light pollution
for a twinkling star. For a time
we listen for them to leave our block, and we sleep.

Take a deep breath.
Yes take a deep breath.

Because over all the world
prophets fill up reams of webpages;
they ponder and sip imported wine,
pen warnings under pics of burned pines.

The despair grows in the world
when we see another shot of a seal
chewing on a plastic bottle on a littered beach
while powers dash to sign the first lease
on a wild Alaskan landscape, elk breath groaning into cold air,
snorting clouds up like morning prayers,
their bodies sensing the immanence
of grief. And we too buy a window with better seal,
hoping a child doesn’t breathe the air,
or hear the dire prayers. For a time
we watch them sleep, then order a tree. We’ll plant it.

Take a deep breath
a breath of the world’s breath,
and dream of God’s future in that tree.