Black Beauty

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So noiselessly he came,

this blue-black swallowtail, to sip

lantana on my deck, his stillness

echoing for me the tender silence

of eternity amidst the noise of inner

fears, against the din of ugly tweets,

of cries to build a wall, to slam our doors

against the tide of people orphaned

from their homes, their loved ones, tossed

into the chaos of a coarse and raucous world.

*

His soundless beauty whispers me

a blue-black grace that flutters silent

in the anxious corners of my mind;

his quiet presence reassures;

grace wings its way into our lives,

at times so unexpectedly.

Who Am I? And Who Are You?

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my sofa nook

          Who am I?  And who are you?  As I sit or lie in my sofa nook with a chronic illness which limits my activities and cuts me off from a busy world, I often ponder what it’s all about.  What is the meaning, the purpose of a life such as mine?  In a busy world that judges us all by what we achieve, that counts the number of trophies we can place on the shelves of our minds at the end of each day, my sense of self-identity can so easily slip away.

          It’s very tempting for those of us with chronic health issues to compare our lives with the healthy lives of those around us.  Unfortunately, when we do this, we all too often come away with the feeling that we are “lessened,” that our stories are curtailed, incomplete, deficient.  With so little to show for our lives, it’s easy to wonder who we really are.  

          After his resurrection, Jesus warns his disciple Peter that a time will come when he will no longer be in control of his life. Peter’s response is immediate.  He points to another disciple and asks, “and what about him?”  Jesus tells him rather sharply that that is really none of his business.  Don’t compare your life and your destiny with his, Jesus tells him.  Just “follow me.”  Just live out your own story, and let him live out his.  A challenging directive.  To Peter…to me…and to all of us. 

          Henri Nouwen in his little book Discernment tells of a friend who discovered in his 50’s that he had cancer.  He had been a very active man, and he had always defined himself by all the good things that he was able to accomplish.  Who was he now with his body crippled with cancer and exhausted from all the treatments?  Nouwen and his cancer-ridden friend puzzled together over this. 

          As we might expect from Nouwen, he offered his friend some profound insights.  He suggested that he should see that his vocation as a human was to be fulfilled not in his activities and accomplishments but rather in his ACCEPTANCE of his situation.  In his WAITING to discover what God was about in his life.  In his deep AWARENESS that God, not his activity, was the center of his life, and that God is always the one at work to define our lives and to help us determine just who we are.

          To live out such a vocation is truly a challenge.  I would so much rather define myself by what I accomplish.  I want my activities to be the center and focus of my tiny universe.  I want to control my possibilities.  I want to see who I am in the row of daily trophies sitting on my mind’s shelf.  

          A character in Anthony Doerr’s short story “Mkondo” tells a lost soul who’s searching for his life, “the only way to find something is to lose it first.”  Along with countless others who live with a chronic illness, I have lost many of the trimmings that I once relied upon to define my life.  But I do believe that in my losing I have also been finding.  It’s a slow finding, to be sure, and it’s a finding filled with many questions and many doubts.  But it’s a finding, nonetheless.  The finding of a growing stillness within.  The finding of a deepened attentiveness to the layers of life around me and within me.  The finding more of God’s life burning within my own, even in those moments when I feel so unsure of who I am.

          A challenge, yes.  But when all is said and done, perhaps this is the challenge not just for those of us who live with “chronic.”  Perhaps this is the challenge for the healthy as well as the not-so-healthy.  To let go of old self-definitions.  To learn the way of acceptance, the way of waiting, the way of awareness.

          Who am I?  And who are you?  And what’s it really all about?  We’ll probably never, in this lifetime, know the full answer to all the mysteries of our lives, but perhaps we may come closer to knowing who we really are as we lose more of our “trophy” selves and find ways to live into patterns of a quiet openness to our innermost selves and to the God who lives and breathes through all our doings.  Through all our not-doings as well.

 

A Craggy-faced Christ

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          A craggy-faced Christ.  Not exactly the image of Christ with which I grew up.  The Christ of my Sunday School pictures and church wall hangings had quite a different face, a gentle face, a kindly face.  Granted that face was very much a handsome Caucasian face, and not a first-century Jewish face, but there was a certain sweetness, a certain tenderness about that Christ. 

          This craggy-faced Christ is so very different.  This Christ stepped right out of Isaiah 53:3.  He is truly a Christ “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (KJV).  He knows about life.  About its hardships.  About its pain. 

          This Christ is part of a beautiful wood-carving of the Last Supper that our daughter gave to us, a gift from her trip to Croatia a few years ago.

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          In this carving, this very craggy-faced Christ sits in the midst of his disciples.  And as this Christ holds out his two burly arms, his hands are clenched around two chunks of bread.  “My body,” he says, knowing full well that his body was soon to be broken for them.   

          And for us.  There’s certainly a place for a smiling, gentle Christ on the picture-walls of our minds.  I like to imagine such a Christ laughing and playfully joining with us in all the fun adventures of our lives.  Like to imagine him dancing through our joyful days.  Like to imagine him sipping a cup of tea with me from time to time. 

          But there are times, many times, when I need and when I can relate more easily to this craggy-faced Christ from the Croatian wood-carving.  This is a Christ who speaks the language of loneliness.  A Christ who knows my deepest sorrows.  Who knows the sorrows of our broken world.  Who knows the pain and fear of refugees.  A Christ who weeps for the chaos and loss when guns tear lives apart in our country and in countries around the world.  Who aches with children and women and men whose lives are curtailed by illness, by hunger, by poverty, by war, by discrimination. 

          This craggy-faced Christ will never offer trite platitudes to ease the pain that so often intrudes into our lives and into our world.  Instead, this Christ offers us the bread of his body broken for us.  Broken on what seemed at the time a God-forsaken cross.  Broken in his descent to hell before God raised him to new life from the darkness of the tomb. 

          This bread is a precious gift.  It’s bread that offers us a measure of peace.  Bread that gives us hope.  Bread that strengthens us.  Bread that keeps us ever in God’s grace.

 

Requiem for Two Oak Trees

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stumps of two oak trees beside our yard

 

Earth to earth and dust to dust; I bless them for

their carpeting of summer skies; bless them for their solemn

sighing through our lives; bless them for their quiet

presence, gentle strength.

*

Ancient of years, rings circling round

and round, whispered tales of winter’s

ice, of lonely hearts that sometimes leaned

against their strength; rock-hard solid,

tough and sure, even as terror, wars and hi-tech

revolutions rocked our world, churning

and spinning our lives this way and that;

the oaks ever unmoved.  Unmoved until

a growing weakness in the agѐd marrow

of their bones; until the trumpeting of stormy

winds threatened a fall like that of Jericho;

so branch, alas, by leafy branch, saws

whirring in the summer heat, they now

are shriveled to mere stumps.

Farewell, dear friends.

*

Life will move on, I know, new circles rise,

as acorns burrow deep to rough it out beneath

the stars, the sleet, the wind; life renewing,

life insistent, life relentlessly determined

always to begin again; but you forever gone;

your stumps a portrait of the mystery of life.

 

Shadowy Faith

Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  (John 7:50-51)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

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          He was an upstanding citizen, this Nicodemus.  A member of the religious Council of the Jewish people.  Respected.  Probably envied by many for his position among the leaders of his time. 

          But he was very much his own person.  A quiet man, it would seem.  Not one to make a big brouhaha about his position or about his faith.  Yes, he was part of the religious Council, and he probably kept all the laws and rules that were on the books.  But he had his questions, too.  And he wasn’t afraid of those questions.  A bit afraid, perhaps, of letting his fellow Council members know that he had questions, but not so afraid that he didn’t take himself to Jesus for that midnight conversation which is so well known and has been celebrated in numerous sermons and works of art down through the centuries.

          He doesn’t seem to have had all his questions answered in that conversation, however.  He did not become an open follower of Jesus.  He rather remained a member of the Council that was always suspiciously watching Jesus’ every move, always plotting to find a way to get rid of this Upstart who was undermining their dignity and their authority.  “Why didn’t you arrest him?” they asked the Temple Police after Jesus had stood in the Temple one day, inviting any who were thirsty to come to him and experience living waters flowing through their lives. 

          “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Nicodemus speaking, in response to the Council’s chiding of the Temple Police.  He wasn’t exactly proclaiming his faith in this Jesus, but he was certainly defending Jesus, even though it meant putting his own reputation at considerable risk. 

          Then came the cross.  We don’t know where Nicodemus was when Jesus was hanging on that cross, but my guess is that he was standing somewhere on the fringes of the gathered crowd, sifting through his conflicting emotions about this death.  Had the other Council members maybe been right?  Had this Jesus been merely a hoax and not really a teacher come from God as he had once believed—or at least wanted to believe?  Would God have allowed one of his prophets to die in such a cruel manner?

          Whatever his thoughts.  Whatever his questions.  Whatever his disappointment and grief, John tells us that Nicodemus teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to help in the burial of the body of Jesus.  Made sure that this Jesus, whoever and whatever he might have been, was given a dignified burial.

          An interesting man, Nicodemus.  A man with a shadowy kind of hopeful faith in Jesus, but a faith filled with a myriad of questions.  A man with a deep longing for something more than what the Council and its religious observances and explanations offered.  A man who stood up for justice.  A man with profound human compassion.  A man who deserves our deep attention and respect.

          I have some dear friends whose middle names might well be Nicodemus.  They long for God and for a close and meaningfully deep relationship with this enigmatic Jesus of the gospels.  But they have so many questions.  So many deep questions.  So many profound questions.  So many questions, in fact, that sometimes their faith feels blown away by all the riddles that life presents.  Yet, like Nicodemus, they spend a good bit of time searching for Jesus, sometimes in the darkest nights of their lives.  Like Nicodemus too, they usually stand by and stand up for those who are being unfairly treated by others. And also like Nicodemus, they will often be found caring for the needs of others—visiting those in distress, serving at soup kitchens, loving a very difficult adult child, passing along gift cards to strangers, sitting with a dying neighbor.

          I don’t know if Nicodemus ever became an “open” believer.  I don’t know what happened to him after the night of the burial of Jesus’ corpse.  I don’t know if he ever learned about the resurrection.  I don’t need to know.  What I do know is that I wish there was more of Nicodemus in all of our lives.  More of his questing.  More of his courage and integrity in standing up for the just treatment of others.  More of his compassion. 

          In an age when so many seem so sure they have The Truth, Nicodemus and his questing spirit are so welcome.  In an age when defending The Truth seems more important than caring about justice and tending to the needs of others, Nicodemus’ words and actions point to a more humane way, a more Christ-like way, of being and believing in our oh-so-needy world.

          Jesus honored Nicodemus in that long night conversation.  John honored him in his stories of his later life.  I think we would do well to honor him as well in the way we live out our lives, in the way we live out our faith. 

Yellow Leaf: in memory of those massacred in Orlando

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Yellow leaf in late June,

set apart from

all the rest, but taken in,

surrounded by the common

greens; folded into family

of tree; a oneness,

an embrace, a clapping

of their rainbow hands

as summer winds meander

random through the branches;

as raindrops gentle tap

each leaf—the green, the yellow,

the whatever shape or color

it might be.