What Time Is It?

My husband and I recently went to Detroit, and toured a powerful art installation called The Heidelberg Project.

In 1967, 12-year-old Tyree Guyton watched his city burn. In the aftermath of the Detroit riots, thriving communities rapidly became segregated urban ghettos characterized by poverty, neglect and despair.

In 1986, Guyton took a stand against the decay, crime and apathy in the neighborhood where he was raised. Using discarded objects from everyday life, he created a festival of color and meaning that has been described as a “Ghetto Guggenheim.” Using vacant lots and abandoned houses as his canvas, he transformed an entire block into a world-famous outdoor art environment and a thought-provoking statement on the plight of inner city communities.

As we walked around the couple of blocks, my attention kept being drawn by all the painted clock faces: different shapes and sizes, each with a different time painted on it, some alone, some in groups, nailed up to and painted on and leaning against every kind of surface, right-side-up and sideways and upside-down.

clocks against a wall at The Heidelberg Project
clocks against a wall at The Heidelberg Project

My husband walked up to the artist and asked him about it. Being an artist, Guyton answered in more questions.

What time is it? Where are you in time?

3 clocks at the Heidelberg Project
3 clocks at the Heidelberg Project

Guyton has been studying Plato and Albert Einstein and their writing about time.

Time is energy. It’s all about energy. What has time done to you?

clock at the Heidelberg Project
clock at the Heidelberg Project

As we walked, the same phrases played over and over in my mind:

It’s always time.

The time is now.

The time is now to do whatever it is that you so want to do. The time is now to seek change, whether personal or societal. It’s always time to do something that needs to be done.

And on a more personal level, the time is now to put in the work to realize my writing dreams. I need to put in the time.

God clock at the Heidelberg Project
God clock at the Heidelberg Project

And this one. This one cuts me to the quick.

Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
(Psalm 13:1-2, NLT)

Because this is/was a forgotten neighborhood, and represents all the other neighborhoods abandoned by the powers that be. When will it be their time?

So, for me, the clock faces were rallying cry and lamentation, plea and accusation.

What is it time to do in your life? In your corner of the world?

Finding myself in Joseph

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1631

I recently heard a sermon about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife that focused on how Joseph dealt with his sexual desire for Potiphar’s wife — he refused to act on it because it would be a sin against God, and when pressed, he fled. A fine message about how to deal with desire for someone you shouldn’t have sex with. With one problem. Nowhere in the passage does it mention that Joseph felt desire for Potiphar’s wife.

True confessions: instead of listening with my full attention to the sermon, I was thinking about how I’d characterize what the story was really about.

This is the first story of Joseph after his brothers faked his death and sold him to slave traders, who sold him to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s palace guard in Egypt. Joseph quickly became Potiphar’s favorite, because everything he did succeeded. So Potiphar gave him more and more responsibility until Joseph was running the entire household, and Potiphar “didn’t have a worry in the world, except to decide what he wanted to eat” (Genesis 39:6, NLT).

After Joseph started running the household, the Bible tells us that Potiphar’s wife began to desire Joseph, and “invited him to sleep with her” (39:7). Oh, to have more details. Is “invited” the best translation of whatever that ancient word is? An invitation takes place between equals. It’s a hospitality word. It makes me imagine it as part of the day’s rundown of household work: “I’m craving fig cakes, so make sure we have enough. My favorite tunic is getting thin, so I need more flax. Get me some purple thread. I have a palace event to go to and my robes need more embroidery. And, if you have time, take care of me in bed, as well.”

Whether it’s the correct translation or not, there remains the fact that Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are not equals. She owns him. He may be spoken of as Potiphar’s slave, and he may be running the entire household, but the fact remains that Joseph belonged to the household, and as the woman of the household, she owned him. As a slave, he had no right to determine what happened to him. His owners got to dictate everything about his day and his night. And you better believe that Joseph never forgot that fact — he used to be free to do as he wished, even more so than his brothers, since he was the favorite and coddled son, and now he was a slave. God was blessing the work he did, but he was still a slave, subject to the whims of his owners.

So Potiphar’s wife’s “invitation” had the weight of her power over him behind it. Which makes it terrifying, not attractive; an occasion for fear, not desire. This isn’t a pleasant seduction, and it doesn’t really matter how attractive she may or may not have been. If he does what she demanded of him (let’s drop the whole “invitation” charade), then he’d be violating the trust of his owner, who would then be free to do anything to him — throw him in jail, cut off the offending member, kill him. So he refuses. She continues to pressure him, day after day, and he tries to avoid her. Until one day, when nobody else is around, she grabs his shirt and demands that he do the deed. He runs away, leaving his shirt behind. She cries rape, and Joseph is thrown into jail without a chance to defend himself. All his responsibilities and all his success gave him no advantage, because he was a slave.

I have another reason for recognizing that the situation is not one of desire on Joseph’s part: I’ve been Joseph. Not so dramatically, thankfully, but with enough resonance that I could empathize with him.

In my 20s, I worked for a stockbroker. I started out as a temp, doing basic data entry, but when they discovered the depth of my administrative skills, I was given more and more involved tasks to do, until I was working as an assistant for a newly-hired stockbroker. He was less than ten years older than me, fairly established in his career (or as established as anyone in that highly volatile field can be). He’d been fired from his previous employer, under some kind of cloud, and the previous employer was trash-talking him to his clients and trying to make sure his clients didn’t move with him to the new firm. Things were in flux, so I had a desk in his office. I ghost-wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters to his clients that helped convince them to move with him to the new firm. Anything he gave me to do, I did it, quickly and very well. He could count on me, so he gave me more and more responsibility. I was hired on full-time.

And then it started. If he had to show me something, he’d pull his chair up right next to mine until our arms or legs were touching; if I scootched away, he’d pull my chair back until we were touching again. If he had to pass me in a doorway or hallway, he’d brush up against me. He’d talk about my hair or my clothes in very flattering ways. After one letter that meant two extremely wealthy clients would stay with him, he kissed me on the top of my head. He called me endearing terms with more affection than he exhibited when he spoke about his wife. He made a point of mentioning that he had an empty apartment on the upper east side. He was attractive and fit. He praised my work effusively. He was rich.

Did I feel desire for him? No.

Discomfort and anxiety, yes. Sure, the early compliments were nice and I was flattered by his praise of my work, but once the rest of it started up, even the compliments made my stomach twist. His actions towards me were expressions of his power over me as his employee. I experienced them as coercion, not invitation. I was not remotely tempted to take him up on his implied offer.

I tried what Joseph tried, just keeping away from him, keeping my distance. But he was my boss, and I wanted to keep the job, so there was only so much I could do. I put up with it for not even 3 months before leaving — letting them know exactly why I was leaving and getting some “severance” pay for my troubles. Because I was an employee and not a slave, I had rights.

Joseph was not so lucky. God used it all for glory, but those weeks (or however long it was) when Potiphar’s wife was hounding him had to be full of anxiety, if not outright fear. He was not fighting desire for a woman — he was fighting to keep his position and his life. In some ways, though, Joseph was lucky: he was a man. A female slave in that situation didn’t have the option of “no.” She’d be raped and tossed aside when she became inconvenient — think of Hagar, “given” to Abraham and then cast out into the desert with her young son. Heck, even wives didn’t have the option of “no” — think of Sarah, told to masquerade as Abraham’s sister and entering the households of a couple of foreign kings (and what was asked of her there?) because Abraham was afraid they’d kill him if they knew she was his wife.

So I submit that the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is only about sex on the surface. Underneath, it’s really about power and powerlessness, coercion and fear.

 

Why would they come to the water?


John the Baptist Preaching, by Giambattista Tiepolo

I’ve been telling the Baptism of Jesus story in children’s worship for years. It’s one of my favorites, with the cool flap in the blue felt river that lets you dunk Jesus and have him come up in the middle of the water. But until recently, it had been years since I read the actual biblical account.

There was something unexpected in the “grown-up version” in Matthew (3:7, NLT): Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist to be baptized.*

Not to interview him to complete their committee report on New Religious Movements. Or to hang back and gather evidence to convince their colleagues to start a committee to investigate religious extremism.

To be baptized. Why?

The Pharisees and Sadducees, as we know them from the New Testament, are debaters of minute differences in the law and purveyors of punitive interpretations. John the Baptist certainly lays into them when he sees them in his crowd:

“You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed, “Who warned you to flee God’s coming judgment? Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say, ‘We’re safe — we’re the descendants of Abraham.’ That proves nothing. God can change these stones here into children of Abraham. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10, NLT, my emphasis)

So why would those Pharisees and Sadducees come to be baptized by this man who eats bugs and lives out in the wilderness? We think of them as so sure of their own righteousness that they are bossy about everyone else’s. Why would they heed the call? Wouldn’t they be more likely to be suspicious of such an extreme character as John the Baptist?

I went to my handy New Bible Dictionary and to the Jewish Virtual Library, to see who the Pharisees and Sadducees were. And what I discovered surprised me.

As an average reader of the Bible, I pretty much equated them. But to each other, they had deep theological disputes. General consensus seems to be that Sadducees were upperclass political and religious conservatives. They only took as authoritative the laws written in the Torah and they took them literally. They focused on maintaining Temple rituals and serving in the Grand Sanhedrin, the group that interpreted civil and religious law for the Israelites.

The Pharisees also served in the Grand Sanhedrin, but were theologically looser than the Sadducees (even writing that seems funny). They took not only the written law as authoritative, but also oral law — things they believed God said to Moses about how to apply the Torah (these were later written down and form the Talmud). Unlike the Sadducees, they believed in an after-life that rewarded the good and punished the wicked, and in a messiah who would bring about world peace.

The main thing that connects them, and connects their negative treatment in the New Testament, is their obsession with the law, as if keeping the law in and of itself would make them right with God. It reminds me a little of when a person hears about something bad happening to someone else (robbery, cancer, physical attack) and they want to know all the details of how it happened — mostly so they can determine that they don’t do any of those things, and can therefore believe they are “safe.” As if doing X and avoiding Y or being a child of Abraham is guaranteed to keep you “safe.”

So what would draw these legalists to the waters?

Did they think John the Baptist was one of them? That he was a fellow strict applier of the law who was taking the rules about the need for ritual purification in fresh/running water more seriously than even they did? That what he was doing was one layer of conscientiousness above praying loudly on the street corners, so they needed to step up their game and come out to be baptized? Did they come out of fear, thinking that if they didn’t cover this base, they wouldn’t be right with God? Or was going to get baptized by John the 30s equivalent of slapping on a WWJD wrist band (1990s) or talking about “back-masking” and burning your rock and roll albums (1980s)?

But wait, there’s more. There was a third group around at this time, the Essenes. Here’s how the Jewish Virtual Library characterizes them:

A third faction, the Essenes, emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.

We don’t know whether John the Baptist was an Essene at any point, but there are enough similarities between them that the Pharisees and Sadducees may have associated him with the sect. So why would a Pharisee or Sadducee come penitently to a Essene-like person?

I think the simplest answer is the most plausible: they were not all the same.

While the cultures of the Pharisees and Sadducees each seem homogeneous, some individuals probably knew that God wanted obedience more than sacrifices, knew that the wise person was the teachable person, and could recognize God nudging them to change, even if that nudge came in an unexpected package. These keepers of the law could not all be religious bullies.

Think for a moment of any group that espouses a doctrine you disagree with hot-heartedly. Are all the members of that group the same? Is there anything redeeming about a particular individual you can think of in that group? Is there something you can learn from anyone in that group? I think of a minister who, in the early 1990s, published a number of articles and letters against women holding all church offices in the Christian Reformed Church. I was saying unflattering things about him one night when one of my friends noted that her parents either knew him or went to his church, and that this man had a powerful prayer ministry. She had specific examples that are lost in the sands of time, but I remember having to stop on a dime and realize that someone I vehemently disagreed with could have something to teach me.

So what can we learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees?

My humble suggestion: that it’s important to know the Word of God and to let it permeate your life. After all, Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-20). Knowledge of the Word is not sufficient to keep us right with God, but there’s a world of richness in the Bible that even a life-long believer can be continually discovering and being changed by. I’m certainly finding that.

Without wanting to seek knowledge of the Word for myself, I never would have read that some Pharisees and Sadducees came to the water to be baptized. I’m glad I know that. I find it hopeful that the urge to listen to and to follow God goes deeper than our theological arguments, deeper than our theological assumptions, and did even way back then.

 

* Matthew is the only one to identify those men as coming to be baptized. Luke records the same “You brood of snakes” speech that Matthew does, but says that it was given to “the crowds.” I should also note that my print version of the New Living Translation is one of few translations that makes this positive claim. The Biblegateway.com NLT has the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch John baptize; the NIV has them coming to where he was baptizing; the NRSV has them coming for baptism; The Message has them coming to be baptized because it was the popular thing to do. Fascinating, the difference word choice makes.

On saying goodbye

This post was originally going to be about jealousy and stupidity and a long-overdue apology. You see, I like to think of myself as supportive of my fellow writers. If you are a friend, and you have a blog, I will not only read it, but most of the time, I’ll let you know I read it. I try to encourage my writer friends, commiserate with them. But I’ve been in possession of a slim volume of short stories for over a year, stories written by one of my favorite cousins, Rodney Hart. I bought it as an ebook the first day it came out, so at first my excuse was that I didn’t like reading on my iPad. But then he gave me a physical copy. Still nothing.

What’s worse is that it wasn’t accidental. I avoided them. Out of stupid jealousy. Because here I’d been writing with the dream/goal of publication for years, submitting work and getting rejected over and over, and he quits his job and within several months, self-publishes a collection of short stories.

I’m not proud of my jealousy, but I can’t hide from it, either. So I apologize to Rod, here in public: sorry I was such an idiot.

And then this week I got sick of myself (this is so often my motivator) and finally read RockNRoll Shorts: Tales From a Local Musician’s Road. Most stories are vignettes from the lives of gigging rock and roll musicians, with band fights and money woes and grimy bars and the transporting community-making power of music. There are some great moments, like in “Rednecks and Soul,” about an African-American singer-songwriter playing in a redneck bar; Marceau’s interactions with a bar customer he calls “Party Naked” (because that’s what it says on his shirt) are really great, both funny and classy. The story made me want to hear Marceau play. This is a great description from “Lost Dead and Saved”:

They grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a sludgy river town Mark Twained to death with no music scene and coffee shops as the only venues.

Love that. And this reminds me of a hundred similar conversations with musicians, from “Lost Dead and Saved”:

“You know, ‘Reeked of Death’ would be a great band name,” Vinnie said, and Benny smacked him upside the head in honor of Mush.

But then there’s the story that hijacked my planned post about writerly jealousy, “Beautiful Night to Relive.” It details several days Rod spent camping on my parents’ beach a few months after his mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. My aunt was a bright spark of a woman, genuinely delighted in so many things, a writer of stories for her grandchildren, an encourager extraordinaire. She was only a few months from retirement and the freedom to visit her kids and grandkids as often and for as long as they all wanted. And he never got to say good-bye.

In the story, he’s sitting on the deck when he first hears her voice:

“Is this the place that’s going to save me?” she sang, and the wind was her mirrored symphony, and for the first time since her funeral, I wept.

The next time, it’s when he can’t sleep, and he’s counting “the seconds between the waves”:

“It’s a beautiful night to relive,” she sang.

I opened up the tent to look around. I started back toward the steps, and there she was, slowly descending without walking, a light behind her and a sound of a symphony in front of her.

“It’s a beautiful night to give back what you get,” she sang. She got near the bottom of the steps, and her face had a wide goofy grandma smile, and her arms were extended. “Beautiful,” she sang, and the chorus behind her intensified.

I started to walk toward her, and she held out her arms, and I was just a few feet from her.

Then she was gone, and the silence thundered in my ears, and I stood motionless for what seemed like hours.

I can see this.

There are more sightings, more singing, some words of wisdom. There’s a conversation that I loved between him and my brother. Even some humor at the end about her directional impairment. But mostly, it’s a deep and good story about grief and loneliness and facing loss — and how amazing a place a Lake Michigan beach is.

The thing is, he’s not the only one in the family who’s seen a loved one after they died.

Given that we grew up in the rather heady Christian Reformed faith and, as a clan, are not generally given to emotional displays, we’re not who you’d think would be open to seeing those who’ve passed on. But we are.

When I was 9 or 10, I saw my Opa (Dutch for grandfather) who’d died the previous year. I was sleeping over at my cousin Esther’s house and woke up some time in the very early morning, when there was a haze of light coming through the curtains — her pink curtains, in her pink room, with the pink shag carpeting. And then there was my Opa, standing at the foot of my bed, canted forward slightly at the waist, as was his way. He made a calming gesture, not quite a wave. It was weird, but I wasn’t afraid. I was comforted.

I mentioned it to Esther in the morning, and when she said she’d seen it, too, I got huffy about her wanting to be a copycat, and not wanting me to have an experience she didn’t. (Those of you with a same-gender cousin almost exactly your age might recognize the competitiveness that can coexist with cousinly friendships.) I hadn’t even been particularly close to my Opa. I’d been living in Australia for the 3 years before he died, although I’d seen him the month before when we’d flown back to Canada for Christmas.

In fact, I forgot about the Esther-aspect of the story until she was sick with cancer and started talking to others about having seen Opa. We were much better friends as adults, so we could talk about it as a shared experience. A warm and loving experience. Made extra poignant because Esther was, herself, dying. This viewing became so widely known and openly discussed in the family that just a few weeks ago, Esther’s father was telling a story about something else that happened at that house, and my dad said, “You know, that house where you and Esther saw Opa.”

At least one member of my father’s generation has seen a departed loved one, as well, but that person hasn’t told me the full story (although I’d love to hear it some day), so I can’t detail it here.

And I know that at least one person was hoping that Esther would take inspiration from her Opa and visit those who ache from missing her. But to my knowledge, she hasn’t.

While I’m not generally into paranormal stuff (I didn’t even go through a ouija board phase as a teenager), I can’t deny my experience. Nor can I deny Rod and Esther’s experiences. Sure, one could say that my aunt’s appearances were manifestations of his need for closure after her death, but plenty of people say belief in God is irrational and ridiculous, and I believe in God with my whole heart and mind.

So I’m left loving that story of my aunt on the beach, encouraging her grieving son, and I’m glad he could be with her one more time.

How about you? Any good ghost stories? I’d love to hear them, whether comforting or confusing.

Also, I would like some kind of credit for not using the phrase, “I see dead people,” anywhere in this piece.


 

 

sometimes I want to break up with the Bible

So I’ve been participating in these Five Minute Friday posts (prompted by Lisa-Jo Baker), and today’s word is broken. I want to keep up with this habit, this community, but I also have something else that’s been bugging me, so bear with me as I go a bit past 5 minutes.

Sometimes I want to break up with the Bible.

I come to the Bible a broken person. I have a sinful, selfish mind that can grab onto technicalities and blow little things out of proportion. More than that, I’m a specifically broken person, with my own experiences and my own hang-ups (as a result of those experiences), my own expectations. Even more than that, I’m a hurt person, a hurting person. I bring those hurts and (sometimes secret) fears to my reading.

This is partially why I’m reading the Bible through from beginning to end: no more picking only my favorite parts, no more focusing only on the fun passages, the passages that support what I already think and believe. This has meant dragging myself through Numbers (why, oh why repeat each set of numbers twice?!?), but also meant discovering gems of passages I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Right now I’m reading Ezekiel. That is one weird book of the Bible. God really puts some of his prophets through the ringer. It starts with a fantastical vision of strange beings with wings and wheels and multiple faces and God giving Ezekiel a scroll of funeral dirges and pronouncements of dooms and making him eat it. Actually chew and swallow it (don’t worry, it tasted as sweet as honey). But within the weirdness is this:

“You must give them my messages whether they listen or not….And whether they listen or not — for remember, they are rebels — at least they will know they have had a prophet among them” (Ez. 2:7, 5, NLT).

I am not a prophet and I have no plans to ever go around calling myself Prophet Natalie. But God puts things on my heart to say, to write. And that passage tells me to say and to write them whether people respond or not, because my responsibility is to give the message that God has given/does give/is giving me, to use the voice God has given me. It’s not my job to fuss about how many readers I have or to despair because people don’t seem to be listening. It’s my job to speak. I am encouraged by this. It sets me free.

Ezekiel has to pull some crazy stunts (although God goes back on his request that Ezekiel defile his food by cooking it over human dung patties). I tend to approach these as God doing the equivalent of making a viral video: he’s having his prophet pull a public stunt that people will see and just have to talk about with people at the market, at the threshing field, on the roads (see Ez. 5 & 12).

“Did you hear what Ezekiel did this time?”

“Can’t be crazier than when he shaved his head and beard and divided it into thirds and burned part, scattered part, and slashed part.”

“Why did he do that again?”

“To show what will happen to Jerusalem because we’re ‘so rebellious.’ What was it now?”

“He packed his stuff, dug a hole in the wall, and walked away with his hands over his face. Says we’ll all be in exile, never to return, even Zedekiah.”

God will use anything to get his people to listen, even our love of gossiping about something crazy that someone did. I can appreciate that.

But then Ezekiel 16 has a disturbing metaphor about Israel as an abandoned female baby that God cleaned and cared for and raised and then married, but the wife/Israel trusted in her fame and beauty and gave herself as a prostitute to every man/country that came along. The wife/Israel used the gifts God gave her and turned them into idols and gifts for idols and gifts to all her lovers. The story gets quite graphic about how God will turn over the unfaithful wife/Israel to her lovers for them to destroy.

Israel as an unfaithful wife is a common metaphor in the prophets, and I’m trying to take to heart the message that my relationship with God is an intimate one, that God feels my betrayals as personally as a spouse who’s been cheated on. As a result, I’ve been trying not to skimp on the confession part of my prayers in my rush to get to the assurance of pardon. I can also approach the story as historical, as describing the history of Israel and saying how it will be for Israel in exile.

Still, this story sits in my gut like a gas bubble and I’m not sure what kind of foulness will result it it bursts.

And then I read on. Ezekiel 23 is about the repeated adultery of two sisters (aka Samaria and Jerusalem) against their husband/God. The story starts with this indictment: “They became prostitutes in Egypt. Even as young girls, they allowed themselves to be fondled and caressed” (v. 3). As if a young girl makes that happen because of her lust. As if a young girl being fondled is her fault.

There’s more stuff in the chapter, but that’s what really got me, what sent a lick of flame to one of my fears: that the Bible is a book by men for men, where what I am (female) is repeatedly misunderstood and misrepresented and used as a metaphor for what is wrong.

I know, I know. There’s more than that to God and more than that to the Bible. But it’s easier to keep that assurance going when I don’t have to read stories like the above. It is, in fact, what kept me from a regular devotional practice for years: fear that I’d meet a God who challenged my beliefs about him. But stories like that are in there. And I have to deal with them.

Here’s how I do it. I will keep reading the Bible, and I will find something amazing, something that gives me hope, something that tells me how much God loves me, how radical and countercultural God is, and the bubble will deflate. The bubble will still be there, because the Bible has some disturbing stuff in it that’s hard for this woman to deal with. But I also know that God is bigger than any culture’s language or stable of metaphors about him.

So even though I kind of want to at this moment, I won’t break up with the Bible. And I definitely won’t break up with God. I’m going to be uncomfortable for a little while, no doubt about it. But God will love me through it. He always has, and he always will. That is my faith.

 

Beautiful Isn’t Doing Us Any Favors

There was a post this week on Brain Pickings about how looking at beautiful women can make both men and women judge the attractiveness of non-gorgeous women more harshly. About how focusing on beautiful women, in essence, makes us all unhappier. (Beautiful men did not have that effect.)

Which made me wonder, in general, whether the focus on beauty in general does us no favors. Yes, beautiful things / people / landscapes / moments draw our attention. And, yes, they are a wonder.

But they are the peaks of existence. The freaks of nature. The fleeting moments of perfection.

Which throws everything else into contrast. Most of life is not a peak. It’s not remotely perfect.

So part of my wondering about “beautiful” is how always looking around for and exclaiming about the peaks / freaks / fleeting perfections makes it difficult to settle into all those other 99% of moments of life.

“Beautiful” also irritates me: it holds an exterior standard of attractiveness above all other valuations (like interesting, deep, healed, useful, touching, strong, tender). And the dominant culture is the one that gets to determine what’s beautiful, which is so limiting. And it’s addictive, as in, focusing on beauty over time requires even more intensely beautiful things / people / landscapes / moments to even register as beautiful.

Beautiful seems like it goes deeper than pretty, but is it merely “more intense prettiness”?

I love the beauty in a sunset, a smile, a child’s profile, a piece of furniture. But I’m left with a suspicion about beautiful — it’s nice, but I don’t think it helps us flourish, or helps us invest in the things that should be invested in, or helps us love people any better. So, for me, beautiful gets a shrug. It’s very nice. But so what?

* This is my participation in Lisa-Jo Baker’s Five Minute Fridays.

** I know I’m not supposed to add anything after the 5 minutes, but I’ve been reading a bunch of other FMF posts, and that crystallized what I’m talking about here. I don’t want to redeem “beautiful” from the world, I don’t want to expand the definition to include imperfections. I mistrust it as an adjective. I want to use better words for how a thing/person/landscape/moment makes me feel.

We Are A Mixed Bag, All of Us

I recently returned from a family reunion that left me with a lot to think about. Yes, we caught up with the present of our lives, we watched the kids form their own little societies, we cooed over the babies, and sang songs late into the night around the campfire. But we also received a tremendous gift.

Two of my cousins had conducted interviews with the generation above us — the six boys and one girl who were children of our Oma and Opa. Just in time for this reunion, they distilled 21 hours of footage into a one-hour story that led us through their parents’ early lives in the Netherlands to their own years shortly after emigrating to Canada. They built on (and used photos from) the year-long project of another of our cousins to scan all the old family photos and documents and organize them into a CD that she then distributed to us ten or so years ago.

The film even began with a video none of us had seen before (and many didn’t even know existed) of the oldest uncle (now 78) as an 18-month old, toddling beside a canal in his short pants, babbling and crying until his Opa takes him for a boat ride. Like I said, a deep and tremendous gift.

One that spawned a great deal of storytelling and conversation afterwards.

The thing is, very few of those stories (some familiar, some new to me) and very little of the conversation was flattering to my grandparents, as parents.

My aunt and uncles grew up in what was probably a fairly typical upperclass home. Father’s study was the Holy of Holies, where you dared not enter unless you’d been granted permission, and woe unto you if you were sent there, and left to twist in agonizing anticipation while he made you wait to confess. Displays of emotion were unseemly, even positive ones, even within the privacy of the home. They were minister’s children, so their public behavior reflected back on their father, and violations were often dealt with harshly. There are stories that would break your heart and make you angry, but I won’t tell them here. They’re not mine to tell.

What’s mine to wonder is how I see this man who raised my father’s generation. One of his children worried about that and wanted some of the stories never to make it to light, so my generation wouldn’t think too badly of him. Which led me to wonder. How did I think of him?

My Opa died when I was 9, and I’d lived an ocean away for the last few years of his life, so I have just one memory of him, with his head back, shaking with silent laughter at a family party. What I have are his children, each one a prime product of intermittent reward.

Think of a squirrel at a birdfeeder that’s hard to reach, either ten feet down a rope or with a pressure-sensitive feeder bar. Watch it make its way to the food, only to be tossed or to fall off. Time after time after time. But it can smell and see the food; it knows it’s there. And every now and then, it manages to snag one seed. It knows food is possible, so it keeps working harder and harder to merit that one occasional seed. In squirrels, it makes for an entertaining show. In people, it makes for highly accomplished, hard charging, hard working risk takers and experts in whatever their chosen field; in other words (whether in academia, politics, business, church, or the nurture of people), my aunt and uncles.

I want to know the man who made them possible so I can better understand them. I admit it, I’m greedy: I want to know it all. The worry that he will seem like the villain of the story is a real one. But if I see him in the whole of his life, I think he’s more of an anti-hero. There is much that he did that was out-and-out heroic.

If an injustice was involved, he sprang into action. When his children were victims, he would march down to the school and demand justice. When his children were perpetrators, he could take calm and imaginative action, such as taking them to the police chief to confess and receive a lecture, and then negotiating restorative justice for the neighbor wronged. During World War II he worked in the Resistance, at considerable risk to himself and his family (including an awesome story of German soldiers coming to the house to search for him; he was home; so one of the aunts popped him in a nightgown and frilly cap and plunked a baby in his lap to successfully fool the soldiers and keep him safe). After the war, he moved his family of 9 to Canada in part so his sons would have more opportunities. He had studied literature before theology, so always wrote well (articles and sermons as well as poetry), and even did literary deconstruction on biblical texts (or so I’m told). He was proud to have played a role in the forward-thinking decision for the denomination to purchase land to increase the size and scope of Calvin College. And although I’m sure Oma frustrated him in other ways, he admired her more childlike and less anguished faith.

But.

And here’s where the stories I won’t tell would go. Trust me when I say they are not heroic.

So how do I see him? Hero or jerk? As with many either/or questions, I answer, “yes.”

Think of King David. God called him a man after His own heart. David was the king all other Israelite kings were measured against. He took tremendous risks and showed astonishing courage because he trusted God. Yet he was an adulterer and murderer. God wouldn’t let him build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. Yet he could recognize when he was wrong, when he’d sinned. He was concerned about justice for the vulnerable in his society. He wrote poetry whose truth and beauty have endured for thousands of years. Yet he let his kids run amok to rape their siblings and kill each other and foment rebellion against their father. He is one heck of a mixed bag.

But if I can look at King David, if I can delve into his story and still wind up admiring him, if I can see him as simultaneously a good example and a cautionary tale, I can do the same for my Opa. After all, I do the same for myself all the time. We are, each of us, a pretty mixed bag.

I hope my aunt and uncles aren’t afraid to tell us more. I think we can take it — not so much to understand him as to understand and appreciate them more.

How is truth handled in your family? Buried or blabbed? Fought about or trumpeted?

 

Helpmate, Schmelpmate

Alternate title: When something is both awesome and infuriating.

There is a Hebrew word in the Bible that is translated as “strength” or “help”: ezer. (All verses from the New Living Translation, unless noted.)

There is no one like the God of Israel. He rides across the heavens to help you, across the skies in majestic splendor (Deut. 22:26).

But as for me, I am poor and needy; please hurry to my aid, O God. You are my helper and my savior (Ps 70:5).

I look up to the mountains — does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps 121:1-2).

I was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So I myself stepped in to save them with my strong arm (Is 63:5).

In the majority of its uses, ezer refers to help from God or from a mighty military leader (who may or may not help you): someone powerful helping someone less powerful. The helper is the savior who comes from a position of strength.

So why the &^%$ does it become, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him'”? There is little impression of strength here. It makes me think of helpers I’ve had over the years in children’s worship, some are just right for me, others require too much work — but I am clearly in a superior position to my helper.

The prior verse was from the Biblegateway.com NLT; my printed NLT says, “I will made a companion who will help him.” The Message, “I’ll make him a helper, a companion.” Although few translations use helpmate, the tone of that word infects the conversation because of the King James’ “help meet for him.” In historical fiction, a companion is a woman with lower social standing who is paid to accompany a woman in higher standing. A companion certainly isn’t a partner.

So when ezer is used about God or national leaders, it refers to a powerful helper. When it’s used about women, it is given a “lesser-than” connotation. That’s infuriating, because this section of Genesis has been used to justify teachings about the “lesser-than” position of women in marriage and in the church.

I didn’t know about this issue of the translation ezer in Genesis 2 until this week, when my minister mentioned it in a sermon about marriage. A visit to my friend Mr. Google, and I found other Christian thinkers who’ve noted it and argued for a better translation. Bruce Harkins suggests, “I will make a power [or strength] corresponding [and equal] to man.”

That’s not bad, but I think it’d be fun to play with the verse a bit, to use the connotations of contemporary language to better reflect the fuller implications of woman being an ezer to man.

There’s a really fine line to navigate here, because I don’t want to get all essentialist, saying that Woman balances out Man in ways that he needs that only she can provide and then go on to suggest that it’s nurturing or gentleness or some other typically feminine virtue — the union of man and woman that doesn’t include nurturing, strength and gentleness from both parties is not a union I want to be a part of. Yes, my husband and I each balance out some weakness in the other, but I think that’s due to personality as much as gender.

Also, this is a weird little story. God sees that the man shouldn’t be alone, that he should have one of his own kind, so what does God do? He parades all the animals in front of the man for the man to ooh and aah over and give names to. That doesn’t make any sense — unless God knows that the man won’t appreciate a partner of his own kind until he’s been confronted by his own aloneness. (I’m going avoid being sexist by expanding my next question to include all of us.) Is God saying, in effect, “People, you don’t know a good thing when I give it to you. Let me distract you with a bunch of stuff that isn’t the gift so you can recognize the gift when it comes”?

I actually think the key to the story is in verse 20b, “But still there was no helper just right for him” (NLT).

Anyway, here goes:

Flippant

“I’m creating someone with some serious skillz. Don’t be stupid about her.”

A Little Less Flippant

 God looked at the man he had made. The man was good. Really good. But he was going to need some help. Big help. And he wasn’t going to like the idea that he needed help. Better ease the man into it.

So God  showed the man all the animals He had made. The man was fascinated by all the different kinds of creatures with all their colors and shapes and sounds. Eventually, the man noticed that the other animals not only came in pairs, but there was no animal like him. Indeed, there was no one strong enough to counter the man. So God made the woman and presented her to the man.

“At last,” the man said. “Here is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Maybe even a little tender

God looked at the man he had made. He loved the man, but He knew He wouldn’t be enough for the man. The man needed someone strong, someone like him, to be with.

Then God brought the man all the animals He’d made, in all their variety. Some of the animals made the man laugh, others intrigued him; he even felt affection for some of the animals. Some of the animals could help him with tasks, but none of them were right to be his partner.

The Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and then took a part of the man’s side and made a woman from it. He brought the woman to the man.

“At last,” the man said. “She is like me. We will be one.”

What do you think? Was this a crazy exercise? Was I too flippant about God’s Word? Did you already know about the ezer issue or was it new to you, too? Got any other translation frustrations you want to share?

 

 

 

Jesus the Toddler

This is not going to be about what Jesus was like as an actual toddler (although it’d be fun to imagine what a prayer to Jesus-as-toddler might be, a la Ricky Bobby’s prayer to Jesus-as-baby, “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air.”)

Instead, this is about flipping the usual parenting analogy. Most spiritual analogies that involve parenting have God as the Heavenly Parent and us as the unruly, slightly stupid, and really stubborn children. Here, we’re the parent and Jesus is the toddler.

Let me set it up.

I was reading Isaiah last week (in my 3-year-long journey to read the Bible from beginning to end, yes, I’m only up to Isaiah) and came across this from 59:9,10,12:

So there is no justice among us,
we know nothing about right living.
We look for light but find only darkness.
We look for bright skies but walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes….
For our sins are piled up before God
and testify against us.

And the image of our sins piled up before God struck me. I imagined a tower of blocks — childhood toy blocks. Probably because those are the kinds of tall piles I’ve made, over and over, while playing with children, both mine and others’.

I stack the blocks and the kid knocks them down — gleefully. And cries, “Again!” I race to build as much of the tower as I can before the kid knocks it down. And then we do it all over again, and again, and again. The kid has endless energy for knocking that tower down.

Isn’t this like Jesus? We’ve got this tower of sins that blocks us from God and Jesus knocks it down. That’s what Christians celebrate at Easter.

I have a vivid mental image of a particular little boy I had in children’s worship last year who’d let me build a tower of blocks as tall as him before he’d bust it down with the most delicious belly laugh and victorious jumping up and down. I like this image for Jesus scattering my tower of sins because it punctures my angst and navel-gazing with a KAPOW!

But I’m not done.

Here’s where the analogy stretches a little, because it isn’t Jesus begging us to build up the tower of our sins again, it’s us. We take the things we’ve already been forgiven of, things that are laying scattered on the floor, and stack them back up. We cannot give them up.

I guess I’m assuming things about you, but I can tell you with full confidence that there’s a lot I have a hard time giving up.

  • Any stupid or unkind thing I’ve said.
  • Confidences I failed to keep.
  • Plans to help someone that I never acted on.
  • Disciplines I haven’t been able to keep up.
  • An unwise decision I made in college that I asked forgiveness for several times because I kept forgetting whether I’d done it.
  • Excessive use of sarcasm with my children.
  • Irritability with my family.
  • Anger and bitterness that I can leave on the floor for months before letting them sneak back up into a wall.
  • Crippling disappointment — I say “crippling” because there’s plenty of fleeting disappointment, but I’m talking about that Job-level of complaint, “I’ve done so many things right. Why isn’t X going like I want it to?” Which is really this in disguise: “I’d run my life so much better than you, God!”
  • The need to both be right and be acknowledged as right. About way too many things.
I ask to be forgiven and Jesus knocks down my tower, KAPOW. Then, while we’re laughing and gleeful, I scoop a few blocks back and stack them. Jesus knocks them down with a karate kick this time. I try to hide the tower, to prevent him from knocking it down, so I build it behind me. But he finds it and body slams it. Even while I’m smiling at some of those blocks that flew all the way across the room, out of my reach (for now), my fingers scrabble for other blocks and…. You get the picture.
In real life, I, the adult, get tired of this game long before the toddler does. Loooong before. Similarly, Jesus does not tire of knocking down my tower of sins. He’ll do it every time I ask.
What kind of difference might it make to pray, “Jesus, I’m tired, so tired of building up this particular tower. Help me keep that block on the floor”?
My prayers are getting simpler as I get older. And I tend not to dictate as much to God exactly how things should look or go, at least as far as my spiritual life goes. Because I don’t want to limit God’s creativity. Maybe, if I notice the tower I keep rebuilding and admit my exhaustion and ask for help, instead of just knocking it down, Jesus will shrink those blocks, a little more every time I ask, until they’re so small that I go to rebuild it and can’t find them. There may be new blocks, but at least Jesus will have taken care of those old ones.
What’s in your tower? Are you as tired as I am of rebuilding with the same $%*^ blocks, over and over again?

 

Ask the tough questions and then get to work

Last month, I was singleminded about getting my physical house in order, and only seven of the original 50some bulleted tasks remain. I did it. But I didn’t do it for its own sake. I took the month off from all my other obligations so I’d be set free to throw myself into my writing as I haven’t in several months.

So yesterday, I was terrified.

I’d had the build-up. Now it was time for the pay-off. And I choked. I retreated for the entire day in laundry (9 loads, no joke), groceries, bill paying, household filing, and kid wrangling. My heart thumped hard and I was as jittery as if I were about to go on stage to dance. All day. Because I had to return to normal life after my big task was over. No more complete focus on one thing; now I have to negotiate all the needs and schedules and emotions and move ahead.

I have a number of friends going through something like this, but on a far deeper level. They are past the intense period of caring for a dying loved one, which has such a purity of purpose that normal life can’t hope to compete. They’re past the all-consuming period of public grief, when family and friends gather around and cry and laugh and hold each other up. They are at normal life. Without the woman they love. They’ve got to go back to negotiating a variety of needs and schedules and emotions, all while being constantly reminded of who is missing, because she was part of normal life, too, once.

That’s hard. Way harder than my task.

But none of us can avoid it. Oh, we can. There are all kinds of ways to avoid how hard it is. Let’s use the 7 deadly sins as an organizing factor:

Lust, gluttony, and greed: throwing yourself into an other (whether person, food, drink, or thing) to distract you from what you’re feeling.
Sloth: this one can be either checking out and retreating, or becoming so busy that you flit on the surface of everthying.
Wrath: it’s easy to let everything feed your sense that the world has wronged you, especially when you have been horribly wronged; anger at yourself fits here, too.
Envy: after all, it’s so easy for all those other people (is it?).
Pride: the temptation to act as if everything is fine, that you’re handling it all, that it isn’t hard so everyone will look at you in awe and wonder.

I can check the “done it” box in each of those categories. The flitting busy-ness version of sloth, oh, just yesterday. I’ve even consciously embraced some of them as a temporary coping or reward strategy, and encouraged others to do the same — temporary being the key. They don’t work as long-term strategies.

All of which keeps bringing me back to the homily given at my friend’s funeral last week, in which we were encouraged to ask the tough questions, and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

In my anxious state, what are the tough questions?

What am I so anxious about?
Am I afraid that the work will be hard? That what I produce will suck beyond my ability to fix it? That I’ll never be published? That I’ll never validate all these years of working at my writing? That my husband’s stress as the sole breadwinner will have been in vain?
That if I decide to self-publish, nobody will buy it?
That my discipline won’t be enough?
That I’ll drop right back into the spiral of discouragement and frustration and self-recrimination I wallowed in this fall?
That I can’t untangle the lack of concrete success from my sense of self-worth?

Now I’m getting somewhere. That last one brought tears burning at the back of my eyes. What makes me worthy? Is it publishing success? Number of page views on this blog? Acclaim as a school volunteer? A clear sidewalk and driveway, even though I shovel by hand? A well-run household? Thriving children? Financial stability? Following through on my intentions? All of the above? None?

I’m a religious lady, and I know the “right answer”: I’m a child of God. That is enough. Should be enough. Also, I’m not worthy. I cannot earn what is most important: it’s all grace.

But how to get to a point where the above answers feel inspiring and freeing? The only strategy I have is to not shy away or distract myself from asking those questions. Repeatedly. And then to roll up my sleeves and get to work. To do Barbara O’Neal’s 20-minute win. To keep the momentum going. To look for places to go deeper with my characters and my writing. And myself. To trust my vision. To keep up my spiritual practices. To talk over these things with friends, family, fellow writers.

And, right now, to make dinner so we won’t have to eat at Wendy’s after my daughter’s volleyball game this afternoon (a too-regular occurrence during my son’s soccer season). I’ll do a 20-minute win while I wait in the school pick-up line later this afternoon. I hope to get back to work this evening. That’s my negotiation today. Tomorrow’s will be different. That’s normal life.