We married young and hit the road. All we wanted was Texas dust in the rearview mirror. The rumble of the El was our siren song.
We weren’t afraid because we carried this around like a turtle shell: Church.
Baptist, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Church of Christ … ours was a messy family stew that had finally deposited us both in a non-denominational box.
The box was what we knew. The box felt safe.
But boxes, it turns out, don’t travel well, and we were wanderers now. D.C., Chicago, Jacksonville, now this little country corner of the Philadelphia burbs.
Church has been a constant, but it’s been anything but safe. Anything but predictable. Not really a turtle shell, after all.
We thought there was one right way to do church. One right way to be the church. The way we were raised, of course.
But God kept us moving, and he kept our ideas about church moving, too. What had been small and safe became big and wild. Beautiful but unpredictable.
I’ve been thinking about those first Christians. They were “scattered” by persection, made wanderers for God’s own purposes. They wandered, and the church grew.
As we wandered, our understanding of church grew, too. Always bigger, always better than we knew.
I’ve sat in a Catholic mass and realized that the Eucharist might be more than the sum of its parts. Much more than the saltines and grape juice of my childhood.
I’ve stood in a gathering of Vineyard women when the doors of our meeting-place burst open with a loud wind. I watched that wind sweep around the room but I knew those doors didn’t open to the outside. What I saw and felt was no earthly wind but Pentacost miracle.
I’ve sat in an Easter morning service when the procession of colorful vestments and golden cross was so beautiful, so celebratory, I could have wept.
I once sat in an old wooden pew. A choir lifted its voice, and I suddenly knew what heaven sounds like.
I’ve seen adults baptized in Lake Michigan.
I’ve seen babies baptized with a cupful of water.
All of it so good.
Recently, we’ve taken to driving a long, long way to get to church. It’s something I’ve always said I’d never do. Join the imperfect neighborhood church, don’t go chasing “perfect” miles away. Perfect doesn’t exist.
But I don’t think I’m chasing perfect. I think I’m searching for home. The place where this wanderer can find rest.
Maybe this will be my church for a season. Maybe for a long, long time. Only my second Sunday there, and I was fretting about it instead of worshipping. I could hardly hear the music because I was listening to thoughts like these: Is this the place? Are we right to come so far? Will we make friends here? Or wil we set off searching, again?
The music finally broke through, and I realized what we were singing: Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.
I have been given so much more than one day. I’ve been given a lifetime of Sundays. A lifetime of small groups and youth groups. Of church retreats and coffee hours.
We pile the kids in the car and drive and drive. We do it because we need that soft brown bread. We need that sweet red wine.
We do it because one day in His courts really is that good.
My father likes to say it’s a good thing our country isn’t any bigger. If it were, he jokes, our family would live even farther apart.
It always makes us laugh. Then sigh. Because it’s painfully true. From western mountains to eastern beaches, southern swamps to midwestern plains, the members of our immediate family have spread across the miles to create a kind of star map, the lines of our constellations drawn with automobiles and airplanes.
This past week, quite a few of us (we never do seem to gather the whole) met in my Florida home for a week of beach, pool, and grill. A family reunion. A family vacation.
The parents of a toddler and infant buckled their weary selves into the car, along with the bottles and sippy cups and squeezable applesauce, for the two-day drive to family. The mother whose husband couldn’t leave his military duties dutifully packed the minivan and buckled the three kids into carseats. The grandparents drove two days (or was it three?) to help us hold babies, take photos, plan multiple forays to the grocery store.
We talked long and late over the noise of eight grandchildren. We fixed snacks. We changed swimsuits. We packed picnics. We fixed more snacks. Sometimes we remembered to feed ourselves.
At least once each day we’d look at one another with half-smiles to say that vacations with young children are more work than work. In other words, going back to work, returning to our everyday, would offer more rest than this vacation.
And that is as it should be. We don’t vacation together for the rest. We do it for the fun of it. We do it for the memories. We do it for each other.
Despite (or because of?) the chaos and messiness of a family vacation, my thoughts this week often turned toward the theme of rest. Maybe the adults in the house weren’t resting (though, I admit to doing quite a bit of reading by the side of the pool), but the kids certainly were.
No, they weren’t necessarily sleeping in or taking long naps, but they were enjoying rest.
True rest, I think, looks a lot like this: all is provided (watermelon and grilled cheese appear, as if dropped from the sky) and you have no control (mother decides if it’s pool time or movie time, quiet time or monopoly time).
The only tasks on the to-do list are to receive and to let go. Receive the good gifts, let go of the need to plan. The worry about tomorrow.
“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
(Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
I’m a lover of stories. I’m a writer of stories. Increasingly, I understand my life and I understand my God through the lens of story.
There’s one story I can’t escape (though I have often wished I could leave it behind or move past my need for it): the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert. This story is tribal: it’s about those particular people, at that particular time. It’s global: refugees lost and searching for home. It can also be deeply, achingly personal.
It’s a story of living in between …
I’m honored to be telling my story here today. Will you join me?
I encourage you to explore Angie’s website Woman, In Progress. She has a great deal of wisdom to share, and I am blessed to call her friend.
I live in Florida, but my inner calendar has been tuned by the north. In other words, no matter what I see outside my window, January means cold and snow and spring never shows up until after Easter. I suppose ten years living in Chicago did this, although I think it may go back even farther.
Growing up in Texas, I felt cheated by February heatwaves. I have always had an idealized version of the seasons; one more rooted in classic literature for children than in lived experience. Late winter meant sugar snow because I read Little House in the Big Woods no matter that late winter in Texas looks like fields full of bluebonnets.
In Chicago, Lent was appropriately dark, cold, and gray. A fitting backdrop for contemplating dust to dust. The right atmosphere for remembering the cross.
Last year, Lent in Florida surprised me with its very different rightness. The hot pink azaleas and vivid blue skies could not be reconciled with the grey smudges on our foreheads. They simply could not. But I decided that this was best. To practice Lent in such a place is to say, “I will not be distracted by youth or beauty. I will remember that death is ever present. I will not be seduced by sunshine and forget to pick up my cross.” How can we truly celebrate the resurrection power of God’s kingdom if we’ve forgotten how and why Jesus suffered?
Last year, I determined always to make an effort for Lent. It was necessary whether the fruit trees were blooming or not.
This year, I didn’t even make it to my church’s Ash Wednesday service. I was too tired. Too sick. Which says it all, I’m afraid, about the past few months of my life.
I thought about making an effort in some other way. What would I give up? Could I read through a special book of devotions? Make some goal for prayer or good works?
If only I weren’t so tired. If only my asthma would go away. If only I didn’t already feel crushed and weak. If only I didn’t already feel like dust, I might be able to make some effort to remember that I am dust.
Of course, If I had phrased it to myself just like that I might have realized sooner how foolish, how hopelessly circular my thinking had become.
Now I know that if Lent is about making some effort then the end result must always be gratitude that I need never make that effort.
With no effort on my part, I am loved.
With no effort on my part, I am redeemed.
Having made no choice, I might be led through a wintery, Lenten wilderness. Whether my calendar says it’s time for that or not.
Having done little but wait and rest, I will be led out again.
That in itself, I’ve learned, is a kind of discipline. God did tell his children, “It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves” (Leviticus 23:32). Would he have put it like that if rest came easily and naturally?
What, then, is my Lenten discipline for 2012? Merely to rest in the shadow of the cross. And wait.
I didn’t discover the poetry of George Herbert until graduate school (my undergraduate education in literature had more than a few gaps, I’m afraid. This due, mostly, to my own indiosyncratic course selection criteria: what time is the class and who is the professor?).
Thankfully, I did find Herbert, and I still remember my shock that we could actually discuss such Christ-centered poetry around a University of Chicago seminar table. Who says there’s no Jesus in higher education? Though, to be honest, there’s a lot more of Freud in my dissertation than Jesus. A lot more. I blame Virginia Woolf for leading me astray.
However, with the job market in the humanities being what it is, I have a good deal of time for Herbert these days. And, my love for the modernists notwithstanding, that’s a very good thing.
Without further ado, a poem on rest (one I’ve recently been feeling the truth of deep in my bones):
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us” (said He) “pour on him all we can;
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honor, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should” (said He)
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in nature, not the God of nature:
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
– George Herbert