fear, love and the jesus i follow

I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. No, this isn’t normal. Yes, I’m a churchgoing Catholic, but I am not that holy. Lately, however, I’ve been envisioning my Lord and savior slumped in the kitchen over his iPhone as he scrolls through the news: xenophobia, Islamophobia, fear of the immigrant, fear of the Other, loathing of all, so much of it fomented by those who call themselves Christian. And as he reads, he’s yanking at his hair and yelling, DIDN’T THEY LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAID?!?!

Backtrack a week or so to my participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where I met this guy holding a sign intended to bring people to Christ. We didn’t exchange names, so I’ll just call him The Evangelist. He was hefting a sign emblazoned with scripture: “Jesus Said ‘Unless A Man is Born Again He Can Not See the Kingdom of God.’ John 3:3.”

jesus-signHmmm, I thought. That won’t do. That won’t persuade anyone to leave their nets and follow Him. Not in this crowd.

So I went up to the guy.

ME: Hey, there.

THE EVANGELIST: Hello.

ME: I’m a Christian. A Catholic. And it’s good you’re here. But I gotta tell you, you won’t be making a lot of converts with that sign today.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: The translation. You should have used a different translation. One that doesn’t use the word “man.” Especially today. (Gesturing at the crowd.) Here. Now. At the Women’s March.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: I’m just saying you might want to find a Sharpie and scratch out the word “man.” Replace it with “person.” Or add “woman.” Or something. Because you’re at the WOMEN’S MARCH, right? Which is about including people, not leaving anyone out. And the translation you’re using leaves people out.

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

ME: No no no! I’m not offended! I’m trying to do you a favor. I told you, I’m a Christian. But the thing about Christ: His didn’t leave anyone out. His message was meant for everyone, right? Isn’t that the point? Everyone? So, look, if you can just find a Sharpie, and. . .

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

And that was that. I gave up.

Afterward, I wondered about these habits of exclusion, small and large — not just the one guy, with his one sign, but all the myriad ways that people of faith can wall off entire populations. When my fellow Christians do it,  it drives me bonkers. Jesus was really, really, REALLY clear about this: He came as a messenger, as a reconciler, as a literal, physical embodiment of God’s love — and he came for every last one of us broken people. We’re all broken. We’re all loved. We’re called to love each other in our brokenness. It’s that simple.

And yet this simple truth gets twisted in service to — what? Self-righteousness? Tribalism? Nationalism? Fear? Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Neither Jew nor Gentile. Nor Muslim. Nor refugee. Nor Mexican.  Nor anyone or anything else.

Or consider the parable of the good Samaritan, the stranger who came to the aid of a beaten traveler. Imagine how unlikely — outrageous — that story must have seemed when Jesus first told it. Samaritans and Jews did not get along. They did not chit-chat about football and kids over the backyard fence. In fact, they loathed one another. But that was exactly the point: human boundaries and prejudices don’t matter, in the end. Anyone who helps and carries another is a good neighbor. Jesus razed barriers. He didn’t build them.

I’m no theologian, and I’m certainly no saint. But the Jesus I follow calls me to love, not hate. To include, not exclude. To see the light in others, not deny it or ignore it or disparage it as darkness.

Jesus didn’t wall people off. Christians shouldn’t, either.

the view from here

view from hadley

Today, for Mother’s Day, my two youngest and I hiked up Hadley in the lower Adirondacks. It’s not a big mountain, not a long hike, not at all difficult or dangerous. But it was enough of an expedition to make us feel as though we’d gotten out into fresh air and sunshine, and it was enough of an exertion to work up a decent sweat. It was also plenty windy. At the summit, buffeted by wild, chilly gusts, we stayed just long enough to snap a few photos and peer up the fire tower (nope, no climbing that, not today, not without flying away like gum wrappers in the wind) before skedaddling back down the trail.

We last hiked Hadley as a family of five several years ago, back when my youngest was wee, my oldest was home and my husband was still among the living. To say I recalled him — and the family we once were — as I hoofed up and down today is to state the obvious. Of course I remembered him. I see him everywhere we ever went together. And of course I remembered our children in their younger days. How could I not? Being a parent means seeing children with eyes that view the past as well as the present, flashing back through earlier incarnations (baby, toddler, kindergartner, middle schooler) while regarding the fully formed creatures before us with love, admiration, worry, gratitude and something close to shock. How the heck did that happen?

My oldest daughter couldn’t hike with us today, because she’s about to graduate from college. That statement is so outrageous, I have to re-type it in all caps. SHE’S ABOUT TO GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE. How the heck did that happen? My younger daughter just came back from volunteering in Australia. How the heck did that happen? How the heck is my son about to finish his second year of high school? How the heck did I give birth to three such colossally spirited, resilient, interesting, good, compassionate, loving, intrepid souls?

It’s a mystery, just as every gift is a mystery. So is every loss. God only knows why anything happens to anybody, and I mean that literally.  All I know is this: I loved their father. Because I loved their father, these three people sprang into being. Because they sprang into being, the mother I am sprang into being. Every fumbling step I’ve made through parenthood sprang into being, too. Every decision I’ve made. Every mistake. Every moment of pain, frustration, insight, joy. Every piece of who I am now, who they are now, who they might be next week or next month or next year. All of that transcends time, transcends space, transcends any comprehension of the cosmos as finite or linear or in any way confined by my puny capacity to understand it.

My kids embody all of that. They give shape and sense to things too misty to grasp: the love of God, the looping movement of days, the sense of blindly hiking through a thickening fog to an unknown summit. I can’t and don’t know squat, really. Who does? What can we know in this life beyond the value of the people walking beside us?

Looking out from the top of Hadley, I saw the rolling peaks, the bundling clouds, the elbowing curves of the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Looking over at my children, I saw love.

 

 

not alone at being alone

prairie pano
I often feel alone. And not just when I’m writing, which is usually, and which must rank as one of the most isolating occupations devised by humankind, right up there with oil-rig roustabout and Byzantine hermit. I can feel alone even when surrounded by people I love, and I’m blessed to have a lot of those. I can be having the bestest time with the wonderfulest friends and family — I can be gabbing, and laughing, and thanking the Lord for all the gifts in my life, fully in the moment and profoundly joyful — and all the while, deep down, a little hidden piece of me feels an awkward disconnect. Feels adrift, insecure, unsure, invalid. Alone.

As a former introvert turned “ambivert,” whatever the heck that means, maybe this is my natural state. Maybe I’m always beating back a sense of isolation. But who isn’t? Who doesn’t feel alone? And wouldn’t it be weird if we didn’t?  Look at us, steering through life in bodies as self-contained and alienating as cars with tinted windows, unable to see behind the windshield and fretting that no one can see us, either. How easy it is to grumble with resentment — nobody understands me! nobody knows me! nobody cares! — and fire off middle fingers into the darkness.

As a person of faith, I believe I came from a Somewhere without boundaries and misunderstandings, where I’m known and know and loved and love with clarity, transparency and ecstatic peace. I believe that I’ll return to that Somewhere someday, and I believe that when I do, I’ll reunite with a fine horde of loved ones who unfortunately arrived well in advance. I also believe I’ll shed any nagging pang of solitude or separation — from them, from God, from creation at large.

You know that pang, whether you believe in a creator or not: It’s that ache you feel when you encounter the sublime. It’s the rift that hurts — the impassable gap that we all yearn to cross and become one, at last, with beauty. We want to crawl inside it. We want to know it, merge with it, be with it, whether it’s a breathtaking vista, a swell of Beethoven or an immortal beloved.

This is the strange pull of our lives, longing for a union we can’t quite achieve. We brush tantalizingly close. We make love and babies, love our babies into adults, say goodbye and squat in our emptied nests. We bury spouses and sisters and parents and friends.

The truth of being human plays out like a lie. We’re called to push ourselves outward, to share ourselves wholly, to embrace without judgement, to know and be known, to love and be loved, to do all of that perfectly, fearlessly, generously, completely, divinely, repeatedly — all while knowing we’re bound to fail. Fail we do. What choice do we have? The game is rigged, right? But then we turn right around and do it again, beating back loneliness the only way possible: by tempting its onset. In an effort to assuage it, we risk more.

Fun paradox.

So here I am, squirreled away in my attic on the last day of 2015, busily isolating myself at my chosen profession, counting my multitudinous blessings and the bounty of love in my wee world. I have so many causes for gratitude, so many beautiful reasons not to feel alone. The fact that I do anyway doesn’t mean I’m wrong; it just means I’m human. Happy New Year from across the abyss.

things unseen

36th floor
Periodically, someone suggests that my faith is a comfort to me, and I find myself explaining that, no, it isn’t. And I wonder why. I wonder whether I would feel any differently about anything that’s happened to me so far in this rather eventful life of mine had I experienced it from an angle of atheism — an outlook I last took as a kid. By the time I’d reached my teenage years, I believed in Someone. By the time I graduated high school, I was generically Christian. In my 20s, I felt bound for Catholicism, finally converting in the spring of 1990.

I am not sure, at any point, whether my faith gave me comfort. It gave me a way of seeing the world, maybe, a practiced mode of regarding both the good and the ill. The world was of God, and so was I; that I saw. I also saw that it, and I, were flawed, that everyone is, that all are capable of wreaking horror and beauty both, that tragedy can strike any little life at any time, and that none of us, no matter how closely we look, can ever understand why. Understanding why means understanding the mind of God, and we can’t understand that. We can’t even understand each other. If that were possible, I could crawl inside your brain case and peer outside, blinking at the suddenly altered perspective and suddenly changed light, seeing and thinking and feeling all that you see and think and feel.

But I can’t do that. I can try to do that, and the trying amounts to empathy; and the empathy amounts to love. Maybe that’s all we can manage, the love. Maybe that’s all we can know of God, too. Maybe that’s all we need to.

When I look out from my shortish vantage of an aging mother with whitish hair, I see everything I don’t and can’t possibly know. That’s what my faith gives me: a grasp on the vastness of God’s creation, not just the cosmos, with its order and forces and distant, starry masses, but everything betwixt and beyond it — something darker and less-knowable than even the dark matter and energy that fill most of the universe. From this great Unknown and Unseen comes the joy of loving and the grief of losing, for neither has logic in the known and seen. What I know most of all, in loving God, is the realization that I don’t know anything at all, really. But God does. That’s the essence of my faith, and it doesn’t make burying a loved one any easier. It doesn’t give me comfort. It gives me a posture of alertness, a reason to pay attention, a way to face the agonies and the ecstasies of life so I can move on to the next one. I see so little when I open my eyes. All I can know is that I can’t.

tonight at the table

On this blustery Holy Saturday, sun fighting with clouds, warmth fighting with wind, I’m thinking about what a holy human mess I am. How I always was and always will be. And why, 25 years ago, I became Catholic at the Easter Vigil service in a now-shuttered parish in Cambridge, Mass.

I became Catholic not because of the Church, a human structure built on faith but prone to error. I became Catholic because I’m prone to error, too, and because of that, I need the Eucharist. I became Catholic because I believed in God — something I started doing as a kid — and because I believed in Christ — something I started doing a teenager — and because I had come to believe that the Eucharist was the singular, unchanged, inclusive and binding force between Jesus and every messy child of God born before and since.

The Lord’s supper drew me. It’s not that I felt worthy of it; I felt as unworthy as anyone. But I was convinced that the gift of Jesus, by Jesus, at the table with Jesus, was meant to make things right for all of us, whether we choose to pull up a chair or not. “Christ died for the ungodly,” Paul wrote. Also: “In Christ there is no East or West.” Or gay or straight or poor or rich or imprisoned or free or black or brown or white.

How easy to forget this in our passion for pushing away anyone who doesn’t fit our notion of right, normal, acceptable, traditional, perfect. I’m baffled and angered by the behavior and beliefs of Christians who cast others as Other, as though Jesus ever left anyone out. As though any kind of Other wasn’t loved by him. As though any of us is anything but.

I don’t think much about sin, but I know we’re all full of oddities and imperfections, and I’m pretty sure that God made us that way. He’s the omniscient one, right? He knows this about us. He knows we’re odd. I’m also pretty sure we aren’t expected to be perfect, however one might define such a thing. We’re called to try our best, to aim a little higher and love a little better, to offer a hand when someone stumbles and hold on gratefully whenever that someone’s us. This is the body of Christ, the literal and metaphoric corpus at the the table, the grip of love and unity designed to heal us all.

Christ was perfect; that’s enough. We’re not, so he is on our behalf. He represents! God sent us Jesus to handle that end of things, to be faultless because we can’t be, to be the ideal love that shows the way. Jesus came because we’re broken, not because we’re whole. He’ll be there tonight at the table. Twenty-five years later, so will I.
tree sky

re-re-re-re-re-re-re-birth

photo (45)
We dogged Judeo-Christians like to think of ourselves as linear. IN THE BEGINNING! AND THEN THERE WAS LIGHT! AND ON THE THIRD DAY! Even if we don’t take all that calendar-progression stuff literally (seriously, how long IS one of God’s days, anyway?), the Bible still piles on the highlights from one sequential event to another. So when we read about alternate, cyclical conceptions of time in other cultures and religions, we tend to think: Oooh-ee, wooh-eee, now THAT’S exotic! Just imagine! Time looping around for a re-do!

And then, lo and behold, Christians celebrate Christmas same time each year. Over and over, an unmarried teenager gets pregnant in the Middle East. Over and over, her boyfriend marries her anyway (a true miracle), and over and over, the impoverished, homeless, faithful couple wind up giving birth in a barn. And that’s not all that happens. When I attend midnight Mass, I can bank not only on Jesus’ birth but his entire Passion, too: the prayers that lead to the Eucharist mark his suffering, death and resurrection. Every Eucharist is a little Easter unto itself. And so, in the course of a single Christmas Mass, Jesus is born, eats his last meal with his friends, dies on the cross and rises again. That’s quite the life cycle.

Sometimes, sitting in Mass, I fall into a moment that feels like a snatch of timelessness, not a turn of a wheel, not a ticking second, but something illumined and profound. Believing, as I do, that God joined us and healed us in our brokenness the only way God could — by walking among us, drinking wine at our weddings and scraping his sandals in the dirt next to us until he bled and died — then why wouldn’t I also believe that he’s still here? In this very moment, and the next one, and the next? We’re still broken, right? We’re still walking. It’s not like we’ve perfected this mortal-living shtick of ours. We plod ahead with our blinders on, trying to see too far ahead and not pausing to feel the present. Why wouldn’t the God who’s always back for more just plod away beside us?

So Mary’s about to give birth. Jesus is about to arrive, howling for milk and warmth and love, finding it in the arms of his parents. He lives. He dies. He lives again. Amen, and Merry Christmas.

believe it or not

I had an interesting conversation with an atheist the other night. Where, when, who, what circumstances: doesn’t matter. What matters was the shared conclusion we drew concerning the nature of and extent of the human capacity to believe. Which, again, boils down to: doesn’t matter. I believe it doesn’t matter. She believes it doesn’t matter. What anyone believes only matters to the extent that it affects how we treat one another in this convoluted, sometimes painful, often beautiful, always-taxing world we live in.

I believe in all sorts of things. She does not. But I also believe that what she doesn’t believe doesn’t affect my beliefs one whit, nor do they prevent her from being a decent and loving person.

She believes that many believers don’t believe everything they’re supposed to believe. And I believe that she’s correct. I don’t always believe everything I’m supposed to believe. Sometimes I’m incapable of believing. But I believe anyway, because the struggle itself is a form and expression of belief. I believe, yes, but I also realize that sometimes I can’t. This realization is itself belief.

Let me explain myself.

I didn’t always believe. I was once an atheist, too. My late parents were initially non-believers, my father devoutly so. I grew up believing only in the miraculous vastness of humankind and the need to drill down deep inside one’s core for moral guidance. Jesus was a good man, my mother said. She believed that. We all did. We believed his message of love, of serving the poor. But that son of God business? Dying into eternal life, blah blah blah? I didn’t go there.

Even when I began to believe, I understood that my own belief can never depend on my credulity: i.e., my faith can’t be pegged on whether This Actually Happened or That Actually Didn’t. So if I can’t wrap my head around, say, transubstantiation, I don’t sweat it, because no one can wrap their heads around transubstantiation. Our heads aren’t big enough to wrap around transubstantiation. Wouldn’t it be strange if they were?

Part of what I believe is that my brain is too limited, too small, too confined by this pressing and solid world, to grasp the things that span beyond it. That’s a major element of my faith, this belief in my own cramped capacity for belief. I believe that I’m more than the neural squishiness within my cranium. I believe that I’m not well-equipped to comprehend, much less believe, the infinite and complex wonder that is the unseen Other. I believe that I’m incapable of true belief, and that’s the basis for my belief.

And whether I or anyone believes that a piece of baked good literally morphs into the body of Christ doesn’t affect how I carry that chunk of God into the world. Because I believe I should be carrying it anyway.

And if I’m not? Then everything else I believe just doesn’t matter.

the broken one

Every year around this time, those of us who try to walk the path first walked by a rabbi from Nazareth are faced, again and always, with the oxymoronic wounded God that we all follow.

By definition Jesus was divine. By definition he was human. And because he was human, he had to break; he had to die; God had to do what we all do. And before he died, he did what we all do: he agonized.

Most people regard Easter as the holiday that sets Christians apart from others. If we remove the miraculous conception, Christmas is easy to comprehend: A baby is born! Yay hurray! Bring on the chocolate Santas! But Easter? A man, put away to rot inside a tomb, waking and rising and walking again among his friends? That’s a whole lot of supernatural stuffy-stuff to swallow, and yet I swallow it each and every time I receive Communion.

But I think of Easter as the great and unifying narrative arc that speaks to our grubby mortal essence. Imagine a God who chooses to die in sympathy with the entirety of humankind: What would that mean? It would mean a birth, and a life, and tears, and a wound, and a death, but it would also mean something more. He is God, after all; the bar is set rather high. And what means more in the wake of death than life?

I don’t believe that Jesus came to save the lucky few who see and worship him as I do. I believe he came and saved everyone, past or present, from well before his time to long after ours. I believe that we’re always saved, always broken, always doomed to die and yet always touched by the divine. I believe that God’s Now is forever, and that if, as Paul wrote, “Christ died for the ungodly,” then that means every last blooming one of us, from devout believers to utter atheists with every conceivable subset and gradation in between.

Who isn’t broken? Who’s not ungodly? Who isn’t pained by life and its burdens? This brokenness is one big reason I converted and one big reason I still believe: because I am sloppy mess! And so I follow the one who gets my sloppy-messiness and feels my pain. The dude lived it.

So tonight the kids and I head off to the Holy Thursday Mass —
the evocation of Jesus’ Last Supper, which was, quite possibly, a Seder on the opening night of Passover. Do this, he’ll say, and break the bread. Tomorrow he’ll die on the cross with a gash in his side. On Easter, he’ll rise.

And then he’ll start all over again, and we will, too.

…and all I got was this awesome t-shirt

tell me you don't want one

tell me you don’t want one

Here we have an item that has nothing to do with anything — death, woe, gnashing of teeth, shoveling of snow — other than my lovely daughter Jeanne and her recent, oh-so-fabulous school trip to Italy and Greece. (Yes, she went there. And NO, SADLY. I DID NOT.)

In Rome she ate lots of pizza and visited the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican, where she ooohhhed and aaahhhed at masterworks of the High Renaissance (I wasn’t there to hear her, but it’s a safe bet) and, even better, purchased this t-shirt, which I very much heart. The coolness of Catholicism’s latest pope is a matter much discussed elsewhere, and I won’t go into the specifics of his coolness here except to observe that, you know, it’s kinda nice having a dude in charge who apparently reads the same Gospels I do. (Love and forgiveness! Rock on!) It makes me feel warm and mellow and groovy inside, like all of a sudden I want to wear patchouli and crowd surf at a Phish concert, and I don’t even like Phish.

The point is, in 24 years of being Catholic, I have never owned, much less worn, a pontiff fan t-shirt. I have never before even idly considered such a thing in hypothetical terms, as in, “Oh, my ‘Hard Rock Cafe Vulcan’ T has holes in both armpits. Crud. If only I had a Pope Benedict v-neck to replace it.” But this one? I’ll keep it. And I’ll keep Pope Francis, too.

love won’t do that

love never fails
You know how things you see every day can smack you in the kisser in a new way? That just happened to me the other night. And how.

I’d bought the li’l framed knicknack at a dollar store years ago. Stuck it on my dresser. Looked at it every day. Absorbed its message, or so I thought.

“Love never fails.” If I were a biblical scholar, I would have realized that this is often translated other ways. If I were astute, I would have remembered hearing these other translations now and then. If I were only fractionally less spacey, I would have noticed that the remainder of that passage makes a big big big point of the ephemeral nature of prophesies, tongues, knowledge — basically everything in the world besides love.

But, well. I’m not any of those things.

“Love never fails.” So I had always interpreted this line as a testimony to the illuminating power of love, its ability to prevail over darkness. I believed this even though my own love hadn’t prevailed against the darkness that took my sister and my husband. I loved and loved and loved them. I tried and tried and tried.

And yet.

Suicide tests our faith in everything, most of all the force and gift our of own love. The guilt that slams the living in its aftermath springs from a sense of personal failure, impotency, inadequacy. What we could have done but didn’t! How we might have loved but failed!

“Love never fails.” But we’re not called to be successful. None of us is. We’re only called to give it our best shot — to love and love and love, to try and try and try. To hold out our arms when we see someone falling, even if we don’t catch them. Even if we fall, too.

I held out my arms for my sister and husband. Though I failed to catch them, I loved them as well and as deeply as I could, and I still do. My heart still fills with wonder and gratitude at the thought of them both — at the joy of being Lucy’s sister, Chris’s wife. The love I feel neither fizzles nor fades; it only waxes, never wanes.

This is what smacked me, one night at my dresser. It was so ridiculously obvious. I wondered how I’d missed it, all these years. It’s not that love will always heal a wound or stay a final restless act. It’s not about power. The eternity of love — the way it stretches from me to you and us to them, wherever we are, wherever they are, whatever seen or unseen fabric lies between us all — that’s the miracle.That’s the point.

“Love never ends.” It doesn’t.