Yesterday was all about the space shuttle in our house. The littlest boy jumped up and down when he saw the rocket poised for takeoff on television. The older boy zoomed around the house with his own plastic space shuttle. The husband kept his eyes glued to the live feed from NASA.
The daughter and I watched them for a bit and then decided it was a good morning to replenish the refrigerator with a visit to Costco.
Later, as I carried warehouse shopping odds and ends from the car to the kitchen, I could hear from the television and the three boys on the couch that the shuttle was finally beginning its journey. I walked outside for another load and spied the southern stretch of sky where we've watched other shuttles speed away, chased by their fiery tails. Because of the low-lying clouds, we could only watch this historic takeoff on television. The husband and I are both glad that he took the time, months ago, to drive our two oldest down to a beach where they could feel the rumble of space flight deep in their bones.
Perhaps it was the tantalizing thought of "right there but unseen" that prompted my thoughts. I knew exactly where the shuttle's flight path arced over my neighborhood, but I couldn't see it. I wondered if God was watching. What did he think of it all?
I imagined his delight as his tiny yet magnificent creatures explored a little patch of space.
I've always given space exploration little value, both with my political self (I'd rather see tax dollars spent on teachers and healthcare) or my spiritual one (shouldn't more of that innovation and energy go to helping AIDS orphans?).
For a moment, I let go of my usual practical mindset and glimpsed the joy of our creator when he watches his people. Creation isn't comprised only of stars and trees and rivers. It is also everything we add to it with our minds and hands and hearts: our work, our play, our praise.
I won’t try to convince you that washing dishes is holy. It may be, but I’m afraid if I begin to argue that point I’ll find myself typing out bitter phrases like unending cycle of futility. It is summer, after all. My kids are at home and eating all day long, and I loaded and unloaded my dishwasher four times yesterday. I think some bitterness is understandable.
Still, I’ve begun to think that we sometimes needlessly complicate our lives by insisting on purpose and meaningfulness in all that we do. Surely that can lead to a whole lot of dissatisfaction. For the born-evangelist who spends his days trying to build a small business. For the one called to be a teacher who must spend more time mopping floors than instructing. And for me, who has a paper on the wall that says PhD but picks up stacks of academic journals only because the youngest needs a booster seat.
I’m sorry, but washing dishes will never seem meaningful to me, and yet, I think I can begin to understand how even this menial work contributes to some bigger, some more glorious creation. From the perspective of vast, unexplored space, the effort of this space shuttle flight also appears very, very small. Inconsequential, even. And it may be exactly that. But I don’t think we should measure our work by the weight of it or by its duration. There is a perspective that says the just-cooked meal and the space shuttle’s flight are both a blink of an eye.
I think we can take our cue from the mind of the maker. The one who made redwoods that live thousands of years is the same one who makes mayflies. He has given his effort to both. He isn’t a God who sifts his creation into worthy and unworthy, like a man sifting gold from rock. He’s a God who delights in more, more, more. Especially the small more of our own contribution.
“How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
(Psalm 104: 24)
I've had the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy sitting on my nightstand for six months. Both of my sisters told me that once I started I wouldn't be able to put it down. I believed them and so I saved it, and then I think I just forgot about it. I got used to seeing it there, unopened by my bed.
Feeling a little desperate for reading material, I grabbed it on my way to my daughter's swim meet yesterday. In between races, she played with friends, and I read. After the meet, my husband worked the early evening shift in our try-to-keep-the-two-year-old-in-bed night job, and I kept reading. I'm an early-to-bed girl, but by 10:30 I was calculating the cost/benefit ratio of staying up to read till the end.
It took an act of will, but I eventually went to bed. Instead, I let my kids watch two hours of cartoons after breakfast so I could finish.
It's been a while since I last fell head-over-heels into a great story. It made me think about reading as a kid (the most perfect, magical books will always be the books we first loved) and all the reading I've done since. A lifetime of words and stories. A lifetime of living other lives, of seeing the world through other eyes.
Growing up in a family of six, I was the only reader. These days my mother and sisters troll my shelves like the local library and even my Dad can't get enough of his Kindle, but, back then, I was the butt of many jokes. They couldn't really understand my insatiable appetite for books.
I think their favorite joke (at least, it's the one I remember hearing the most often) involved the fact that I read while at our Grandmother's west Texas farm. Thinking about that farm, I remember jumping hay bales and making mud pies in the barn, but I've no doubt I plowed through quite a few books during those visits too. My family loved to say, "Look at her! She'd rather read about a farm than enjoy one!"
I suppose there's some truth to what they said. I could read about the hardships of Laura Ingalls' long winter again and again, but I'd never want to live them. Still, I don't subscribe to the assumption implicit in this joke: that books give second-hand experience and thus lead to a second-hand, perhaps even a second-rate, life.
All this has recently come back to me because I've been reading my way through a stack of books on bee-keeping, chicken-raising, and other farm pursuits. Lately, my small Florida vegetable patch has seemed like nowhere near enough, and I've been dreaming about raising (at least a little) of our own food. I may be planted in the suburbs for now (no chicken coops allowed), but a girl can dream.
The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals may be a far cry from The Hunger Games, but, today, I'm feeling a little sorry for all the non-readers out there. Day-to-day, I may walk a fairly narrow path, but books like these have always set me in a wide-open place. Here, there's adventure. There’s heroism and triumph. There are even a few bees and laying hens. Just don't tell my community association. I'm sure their bylaws wouldn't approve.
We've spent a lot of time in the pool this holiday weekend. Even the two-year-old has joined in the fun, thanks to an outgrown flotation vest passed on to us by our neighbor.
For some reason, I've always avoided things like vests and water wings. I imagined that those devices prevented children from learning to swim on their own, and I took it in stride every time I had to fish my toddler out of deep water. Watching my littlest boy in the pool this weekend, I'm grateful to be proved wrong. Wearing his vest, he loves to maneuver across the pool, looking for all the world like a tiny member of a retirees' aqua-jogging class. He pumps his arms and legs and shrieks with utter happiness: "I'm running! I'm running!"
This is also his cry when actually running. I'm afraid it's a sad commentary on the highly circumscribed nature of childhood in our society today, but whenever the two-year-old is set free – whether in our small backyard or the grassy lawn of our neighborhood playground – he streaks around yelling, "I'm running, I'm running!"
My own attitude toward running has always been very different. Watching someone else run is enough to give me an asthmatic wheeze and a stitch in my side.
Even running as metaphor makes me tired. "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." Just reading those words in Hebrews is enough to send me to the sofa with a good novel and a cup of tea. To write that this verse has always been uninspiring for me is to put it very mildly.
Recently, I heard a similar Scripture read aloud in church, but it sounded entirely new: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3: 13, 14).
Forgetting what is behind. Straining toward what is ahead. For the first time, those words didn't strike me as another unpleasant item for my spiritual chore list. Rather than a charge to be disciplined, to work hard and push through the pain (ideas that motivate me not at all), I realized the hope contained within these words.
Forget yesterday. Run! There is good stuff ahead. Go and claim it!
The idea of running away from one's problems is rightly suspect. If I've wounded someone, I should go to them. Many of us have also learned that we do ourselves no favors when we run away from grief. However, I'm not talking about running away. I'm talking about running, as quick as we can, right on through.
There are days when I know that this may be my only hope. There are enough mistakes and disappointments in my past to keep me mired in a slimy pit for the rest of my life. I can't clean up the mess, whether or not I made it. Fortunately, I hear Philippians telling me that I don't have to: "Forget about it! Just run! Run for your life and every day you're moving closer to light, to joy, to rest."
Suddenly, running sounds very, very good. I can imagine running with the same joy and exhilaration as my young son: "Lord, I'm running! I'm running!"
Our lives might demand that we keep running the same tedious laps around the schoolyard, but God calls us to "run heavenward," a race that sounds, even to me, like sheer joy. Like freedom.
No one likes to wait. Still, there is a general acknowledgement within our culture that waiting isn’t exactly a bad thing. Good things come to those who wait, we say.
Christian teaching kicks it up a notch. Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord. Blessed are all who wait for Him.
Still, I don’t think there are many of us who, if given the chance, wouldn’t choose to fast-forward through the waiting. If there existed some cosmic remote control, I would be strongly tempted to hit that button.
Why does God make us wait? Why does Scripture link waiting with blessing? It’s hard not to feel as if waiting has been devised by some strict disciplinarian. Where is the love in making us wait? It seems more than a little cruel. Especially so when we are waiting for relief from pain, for healing, for hope, for a miracle.
However, if I am honest, I have to admit that I know how good waiting can be.
When we first moved from Chicago to northern Florida, I imagined that the long, hot summers would be hardest. I expected the worst and was pleasantly surprised. In the Fall I was surprised again, but the surprise was less pleasant. It turns out that hot, humid days were easy to take in August. Roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving Day when the outside temperature was in the 80s: that was not so easy to take. There may have been tears.
Apparently, I was okay with a hot summer but not okay with seasons that seemed stubbornly stuck. I missed colorful fall leaves, apple-picking at the orchard, and wearing sweaters to the pumpkin patch.
During the first week of December, we had our first freezing temperatures, and I watched as the maple tree just outside my kitchen window suddenly turned scarlet. It was beautiful but, coming in December, also strange. By Christmas the tree had shed its leaves, and the view outside the window began to look just a little bit wintery. A very little bit. And then January arrived and ushered in sunnier, warmer days. Sitting at my kitchen table eating breakfast one morning, I noticed small buds beginning to grow on my maple. By the end of January, small, green maple leaves were once again dancing in the breeze.
I felt as if I had been watching one of those nature documentaries, slow changes effected over time had been sped up by a time-lapse camera. Only there had been no camera. Three seasons really had come and gone in the space of two months.
I hated it. It turns out that the changing seasons brought me little joy when introduced at a sprinter’s pace. Midwestern winters may be long and dark, but there is nothing like the rush of feeling that comes after spotting the first tiny buds.
I still don’t think that waiting is easy. I don’t think that it’s enjoyable. But, I also don’t think that waiting is like green vegetables or exercise; God the stern parent doling out what’s good for us. Rather than good for us, waiting, it seems, is simply good.
There is a prayer for the one finding it hard to wait, a prayer whispered for generations: “O Lord, come quickly to help me” (Psalm 40:13). And the voice of the Holy Spirit responds: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come” (Isaiah 35: 4).
I was raised in a church that didn’t have much to do with the traditional Christian liturgical calendar. I don’t think that this was inherently a good thing or a bad thing. I do think it was probably inevitable that I would grow up and move in a different direction.
I began to love stories when I was tiny (my father told a serial tale about a little girl and her many exotic pets), and that love has only grown. It makes perfect sense to me that I would want to measure my days with the Story. Walking through a year with the liturgical calendar is, essentially, living the story of my faith from its beginning to its triumphant end.
Right now, we are in the season of Ordinary Time. As has happened to me before (and likely always will, for this seems to me the point of living the story), my own spiritual life has recently mirrored the spiritual life of the larger church, at least as it is expressed in the calendar.
To put it plainly: my days are ordinary.
Ordinary Time seems somehow outside of story. There is no drama, no central narrative. It isn’t Advent, Lent, or Easter. The meaningful intensity of those periods is lacking. Though time passes, it doesn’t feel as if we are on any kind of journey. The days simply are.
I find it easy to wish these days away. I like the excitement of storytelling. I like to know that I am quickly moving from point A to point B, from introduction to conclusion. I like that in books, I like that in church. I like that in life.
I suppose I could make an argument that we are never, truly, outside of the story. We never actually pause in our journeys, as humans, as communities. However, it doesn’t feel right to me to push these days into the narrative mold. It’s dishonest, I think, to dress these days up as more meaningful and significant than they are.
Perhaps they aren’t significant in terms of the story. But could it be this lack of significance that makes them so amazing?
They are gloriously excessive. They are like the galaxies, the uncounted stars and planets that have been created yet remain unseen by our eyes. What are they for? Why did God make them, anyway? For the joy of it?
These ordinary days don’t matter all that much, but they’ve been given to us. God gives the extraordinary – the birthdays, the graduation days, the holidays, the days spent on the mountaintop, and the days endured deep in a valley. As if these weren’t enough, God gives us more. He gives us the ordinary.
The blue-sky day in a month of blue skies. The hand-holding day in a decade of holding that child’s hand. The sunrise and the sunset, always and again. My husband in the kitchen making breakfast for all of us, not because it’s Mother's Day, but because it’s morning.