I keep a book of quotations. It looks exactly like any other journal, but it’s for a different kind of journaling. Journaling with the words of other writers, if you will. Here I scribble down quotations from all kinds of books: poetry, theology, memoir, literary theory, fiction, you name it. I write down anything I want to remember.
Sometimes I use these quotations later, in my own writing or maybe just in conversation. But, it isn’t really about utility. It’s about beauty. Language can be so beautiful it stuns. However, I am generally reading so much, so quickly that I need a way to hold on to those beautiful bits that I just can’t bear to let wash down the stream of words, words, words.
Over the weekend, I added a new quotation to my book. It comes from the spiritual memoir Take This Bread by Sara Miles. Writing about her conversion as a “process” rather than a “moment,” she says that she struggled with belief: “It was tempting to rely on a formula – ‘accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior,’ for example – that became itself a form of idolatry and kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the complicated flesh of others. It was tempting to proclaim yourself ‘saved’ and go back to sleep.”
I’ve placed these words near a quotation from Annie Dillard. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes: “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery.”
I cannot say comprehensively what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus who is fully awake. I do think that it has more to do with the mysteries of relationship than the certainties of formula. By mystery, I do not mean, doubt. Or, not exactly. I mean something closer to a journey of discovery that will never be finished on this side of life.
Over the years, my views on so many things have evolved. Actually, “evolved” might be putting it too delicately. In many cases, I have simply changed my mind. I’ve changed my mind about everything from politics and theology to whether or not I like blue cheese (turns out, I do). I’ve also decided that the number of questions I cannot answer far outweighs those that I can.
To be wide-eyed awake is to know that this life is not about having the right answer for everyone else’s wrong. Fully awake, I am aware of all that defies explanation. Bread and wine that is body and blood. My own self being made new. A divine love saying, rightly, that I have nothing to fear even while the earth is quaking.
Embracing mystery, I know that only the living Word is capacious enough to hold (in fact, to be) Truth. In humility, I accept that the little boxes in which I hold my little answers are only first steps toward a Maker who is more loving and more good than I ever dreamed. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, it is the waking life that is colorful, beautiful, and strange. Only the dream is black and white.
(photo by yours truly)
Yesterday, I turned 34. My son turned 5. So far, we’ve shared six birthdays, and I hope we share many, many more.
When people discover that we have the same birthday, I tend to say that this boy “is the best birthday present I’ve ever been given.” This is true, but it sounds silly and jokey, and I feel as if I am speaking in code. Most people will never know the depth of meaning these words hold for me.
(collage by yours truly, photos by, well, I suppose my husband was probably behind the camera for each of these)
Thinking of my boy, I think of grace. Not big-picture, heavily theological, grace-with-a-capital-G. I’m talking about God’s grace made small, sweet, and sized-just-for-me.
Like so many of the best things, this gift-of-grace began in pain and fear. Infertility. Failed treatments. Insurance complications. Many tears. And then the news that we would have a second child in late June. My prayers had been answered. I was being given a miracle baby. I also knew that I’d done nothing to earn or deserve this gift, and so I began to be afraid.
My heart (without ever informing my mind) believed that the spiritual economy is one of favors given and favors returned. Deep within, I believed that I would have to pay God back for this miracle. As if life proceeds through barter, and I was in God’s debt. And so I listened to the whispers in my mind that said my son would be sick, handicapped in some way, a challenge to care for. I accepted these fears, believing them to be the price for this blessing.
With two months still to go in my pregnancy, I heard God say to me that my son was “a gift.” Better than that, “a good gift.” I stopped being afraid.
When he was born on my birthday, perfect and beautiful, I laughed, understanding, finally, that God had really meant it. My son was a gift with no strings attached. Utterly undeserved. Utterly good. All God asked of me was that I receive, and enjoy, year after year.
I had a different post planned for today. I was going to write something cute and sweet about the parent/child date nights we have planned for our summer. Monday was the first: a date for me and my oldest boy. It started well and ended horribly. Actually, I suppose it ended well, but the middle was truly bad.
I can’t write it out in detail (it’s too recent and too raw), but the condensed version is this: a quick and terrible allergic reaction, a mother who forgot to bring the epi-pen, a stranger standing next to us who hands me her own child’s pediatric epi-pen, an ambulance and a crowd of paramedics. The epi-pen did its job immediately and thoroughly, and the boy who couldn’t swallow or talk to me ended the night playing a wild game of cops and robbers all throughout the house.
This morning I used a stain-remover stick to dab a pair of size-4T shorts. The shorts are marked with chocolate sorbet (it was labeled dairy-free) and blood (those epi-needles are serious things). I don’t know if the stains will come out. I’m not sure that I care, but I do wish I had a stain-remover stick for my memory. At breakfast, my boy said, “Last night was scary.” Then I wished I had a stain-remover stick for his memory too.
A year ago, just before we left Chicago, two dear friends prayed for me and for my boy. It was the first time that I actually believed that my son might be healed. I also felt healed, no longer so afraid. For one year I have continued to monitor my son’s food, continued to carry his Benadryl and his epi-pens, but I stopped carrying the fear.
Last night, as I tried to fall asleep, I kept hearing this question: “Are you afraid?” I thought about it. This year I haven’t been afraid because I believed that my son was healed. I believed that food couldn’t hurt him anymore. Now I know that his allergies are worse. Now I see (again) that I am incapable of taking perfect care of him. Am I afraid?
I am tired, and I am sad, but I do not think that I am afraid.
I know that my son was made by a God who loves him even more than I do. And I know: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed” (Lamentations 3:22).
In this life, there will always be something to fear. I cannot work hard enough or be vigilant enough to erase every cause for fear.
The only antidote is love. I know that nothing can happen to me or to my child that is not filtered through Love. Nothing touches my life that Love has not allowed.
This doesn’t mean that my worst fears won’t be realized. I do think it means that my worst fears are not worth fearing. Death, for instance. From this side, it might look like the end, but, really, it’s a door. And I know that Love lives on the other side of that door.
What is the very worst that can happen? It might happen. Or, I might make a terrible mistake and forget the epi-pen, and find a stranger standing by my elbow with an epi-pen in her hand. No matter what, we will not be consumed.
“For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear.”
(Isaiah 41: 13)
Most (perhaps all) experts would advise aspiring writers to “just say no” to exclamation points. They are abused and overused. They make our writing appear amateur. There is seldom a good enough reason to use an exclamation point.
And yet . . . I choose to believe that the story I am writing today deserves an exclamation point. The title of this post may have unleashed sugary visions in your mind, but I’ll tell you here at the beginning that this isn’t really a story about sugar. It’s about bread. And it is exclamation-point worthy.
On Saturday, my almost-five-year-old boy tasted his first doughnut. One taste and his eyes were shining. Like this:
(photo by yours truly)
This boy is allergic to a handful of the most basic ingredients of an American childhood (dairy, wheat, eggs, and peanuts). Thanks to a recent discovery (the phenomenal vegan, gluten-free bakery cookbook Babycakes Covers the Classics) my son tasted a doughnut for the very first time.
Even better, we all tasted them. We all loved them. In fact, the leftovers are calling to me from the freezer drawer right now.
It’s a far cry from our usual breakfast routine. My husband makes dairy-free, wheat-free pancakes and waffles, but they will always taste just a little funny to anyone accustomed to bleached, all-purpose wheat flour. Most days, the boy enjoys his breakfast, while the father begins making something else for everyone else.
Strictly speaking, our family never breaks bread together. We break bread alongside one another. The good loaf for the four of us, the not-quite-right imposter for our oldest son, the middle child.
In our family, we often say ruefully that if we only ate like this boy we would all be so healthy. Some meals, this is true, but, deep down, I have always felt as if my boy’s diet has no heart. Something essential seems missing. I love the smell of yeasty bread baking, and I definitely prefer homemade pizza crust. The bread-like lumps that sit on the shelves at Whole Foods, heavy with ingredients like tapioca and bamboo (I am not kidding), strike me cold.
My son rarely complains. Some of those lumps, he actually likes. Only occasionally, does he seem to mind. “Isn’t there any bread for me?” he might ask as his sister dunks a baguette in her soup, and I try to pacify him with a few rice crackers.
In my head, I know that my son doesn’t need bread. His body seems to be growing pretty well without it. In my heart, I’m not so sure. What I want to give him, what I long to give him, is the thing I gave him on Saturday. Bread made with my own hands to nourish him: body and soul. Factory-made bamboo substitutes need not apply. They cannot do the job.
I am about to make a leap here (from nutrition to religion), but, honestly, I don’t believe it’s that much of a leap. I love symbols and metaphors, but this is more real than those. Our pastor reminded us this weekend that the Hebrew word for bread is also used to speak of God’s presence. And that is what I hunger for. That is what I want to give my son.
Depending on our culture, we might discover it in a corn tortilla or a yeasty baguette, but I know it’s available for all of us, whether we are breaking bread at home or in a church. It’s Life. Body, heart, mind, and soul. All of it.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Maybe when he spoke these words they were only a metaphor. However, when Jesus walked all the way through death and out into life, his words became much more than that. And if we’re wondering what to do, how exactly to access this life without hunger and thirst, the answer, I think, is so much less complicated and exclusionary than we often make it: Eat! And after, maybe a simple thank-you.
“He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.”
Trees are dying, fires are burning, and I’ve been praying for rain. On Monday, it rained. A good, soaking rain. I went to bed and imagined the smoke being scrubbed from the air.
On Tuesday, we woke up to find that the smoke was much, much worse. “What happened,” we wondered. Hadn’t the rain done its job? Throughout the day, the smoke seemed to grow denser, heavier, and by the late afternoon our car was coated in a fine dusting of metallic ash.
It turns out that a neighbor of ours is something of an amateur meteorologist. While we traded complaints about sore throats and burning eyes, he explained that the rain had been part of a low-pressure system. Where air pressure is low, new air rushes in. The rain that seemed such a good thing was like an invitation to the fires. The rain stopped, and the smoke poured in.
Lately, I’ve been thinking I may need to be more specific in my prayers. I prayed for rain, but I didn’t intend to pray for smoke. In another example, I’ve lately been praying that we could live nearer our families. My sister, a military wife, then shared that they would be moving to northwestern Florida, only (only!) a six-hour drive away. They had been asked to prioritize three choices for their move, and Florida wasn’t one of those choices. I realized that I’d imagined God moving us out of Florida in order to be near family, but, instead, God moved my sister and her family here. I’m grateful, but it isn’t really what I’d hoped for.
My prayer for rain, and the unforeseen consequences of that rain, remind me how limited my vision is. Prayer is such a mystery. I’m glad that we are able to participate in God’s work in the world through prayer. I could tell beautiful stories of answered prayers in my life and the lives of my family and friends. But, I’m also glad to know that the God who created the universe isn’t some sort of mechanical robot: I push his buttons with prayer and wait for the expected result. He’s so much more alive than that. So much more dangerous. So much more loving. To use C. S. Lewis’s word, he isn’t a “tame” God.
And yet . . . sometimes my hopes, dreams, and desires feel like fragile little birds. They don’t seem able to withstand the force of some fierce, lion-God stomping around on them. Considering these dreams, I feel like both the mother and the baby bird. I am tender and nurturing toward these parts of myself. I am also very, very vulnerable. Can the God who holds the Big Picture be trusted with hopes that are so small and easily crushed?
“Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”