Sunday, October 29, 2006

Failure To Obey

A few weeks ago, I took my youngest daughter, proud holder of brand new driving permit, to the Goodwill in Santa Cruz to buy a Halloween costume before a doctor’s appointment. We finished our errand, climbed into our recently purchased car and I looped around the block. There was a sign posted with the stop sign, “Right Turn Only.” I did not want to turn right. I wanted to turn left, to head back the way I’d come so I could drive across town to the doctor’s office. If I turned right, I’d be forced into the maize of one-way downtown streets that I’m not familiar with. I wanted familiarity. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.

“Argh,” I said contemplating at the stop sign. “I don’t want to turn right.”

“Then don’t,” my daughter answered.

I looked around, no cars to be seen in any direction. I could make a left turn and be on my way. I turned left, made it one block to the signal to the right turn lane that would take me across town and saw flashing lights in my rear view.

“Oh no,” I said. “Are they after me?”

The motorcycle cop pulled up alongside me, gestured and mouthed “Pull over.”

“They’re after me,” I said.

The light changed. I pulled into the first driveway and parked. I rolled down the window, cut the engine, grabbed my purse from the backseat and fished out my wallet. He asked for my license, registration and proof of insurance. Hands shaking, I slid my license from its plastic sheath and gave it to him.

“We just bought this car,” I said and don’t have the registration yet. I handed him a DMV form from the old owner. I shuffled through the car paperwork. “I don’t have the proof of insurance yet either.” I offered him my insurance card.

“This doesn’t have an expiration date,” he said.

“I’ll see if I have anything else.” I fumbled through all the cards in my wallet. Nothing else.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he demanded.

“Because I didn’t go right through the intersection,” I answered, too embarrassed to admit that I'd turned left.

“You made a left turn,” he said. “What else was posted at the stop sign?”

“A right turn only sign.”

“Is there any good reason why you didn’t go right?”

No, I thought. There’s absolutely no good reason. “Just that I didn’t know where I was going if I turned right.”

My ticket says “Failure To Obey Sign or Signal.” It’s my first ticket in nearly thirty years of driving, and I totally deserve it. That’s the humiliating thing. I’ve accidentally run stop signs, red lights, and have driven the speed everyone else is driving that’s above the speed limit. But, I have never before so willfully broken the law. My daughter learned a valuable driving lesson. And I’m struggling with my life lesson.

My father was a sheriff until retirement and I like to think of myself as a law-abiding citizen, a person who will do the right thing. I like to think of myself as a person who will follow God’s laws as well. Even if I don’t know exactly what I’m being called to do, there are the 10 Commandments and other scriptures that provide the guidelines for right living, for staying out of trouble. But I wonder if I really will follow them. I didn’t follow the law; I didn’t turn right because it didn’t serve my purposes. How many of us are like that? It’s a whole lot easier to follow when the path leads to where you want to go. I don’t want to be lost, confused about where I’m headed, on the road or in life.

In his famous prayer, Thomas Merton wrote, “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.” That’s true for most of us most of the time. We think we have an idea, or a plan, we think we know, but we’re not in control. Merton continues, “I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire [to please you.] And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”

Odd as it seems, we have more freedom to live full lives, to discover who we really are and who God has intended us to become when we follow the rules, when we try to please God. We have a structure, a grounding, a guidance for our lives that allows us to move beyond the dos and don’ts of behavior to discover our unique gifts and passions. When we ignore those guidelines for life, we spend a lot of time and energy running into trouble and trying to get ourselves back on track. We’re saddled with broken relationships with people and with God.

The law, as I understand it, will allow me to attend Traffic School and the ticket won’t show up on my record unless I get another one within 18 months. There is some grace there, and I appreciate it. Thankfully, God’s grace comes without restrictions. For that, we can echo the words of the arcade game creatures in Toy Story, “You have saved our lives and we are eternally grateful.”

©Cathy Warner 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Harvesting the Abundance in Our Lives

Fall is here and the harvest is on! The squirrels in my backyard are going at it, scampering down the hillside and into the garden, the pair of them snatching up stray acorns. Stuffing the acorns in their cheeks, they bounce away looking for the perfect spot to bury their treasure, which based on the multitude of sprouts last spring, is under my fledgling Japanese maple.

Most of the time, most of us are like my backyard friends. We want that acorn, whatever it is––monetary success, school excellence, athletic acclaim, workplace recognition, home d├ęcor worthy of House Beautiful––clenched tight in our hands, or between our teeth, up close where we can touch and taste it. We grasp that nut and squirrel it safely away because we don’t believe there’s more where it came from.

In the Christian spiritual tradition, Jesus told his followers, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body is more than clothing…Instead strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Read Luke 12:22-34 for the whole story.)

We might say that’s all well and good, but what did a guy in first century Palestine know about mortgage payments and stock market crashes and economic downturns and layoffs, unemployment and endless shopping at the mall? How can we trust in goodness and provision when we live in a culture that thrives on lack and spending, when even if we have enough money, we’re told we can never be truly happy until we buy the right car, the right clothes, the right zip-code, the right lifestyle?

Maybe there’s a lesson in my backyard. I want to believe the reason that so much of the squirrel’s stash turned into seedlings last season was that they paused in their frantic activity long enough to notice that everything they needed and more was available to them through the generosity of our Creator.

I hope that when I wasn’t looking they bounded closer to the house risking an occasional encounter with my cats and found the hundreds of acorns littering the ground just off my deck. Enough acorns to feed a squadron of squirrels or a small band of Ohlone there for the taking because, (1) unlike the Ohlone, I didn’t have the time or inclination to become intimate with acorn mush, and (2) I was too lazy to rake everything into my yard waste bin.

Depending on your point of view, that acorn pile is either (1) a royal pain––when you’re trying to pull up seedlings by their scrawny foot-long roots––or, more accurately, (2) ABUNDANCE!

Believing in abundance, believing there is a stockpile of goodness and grace can be risky, especially when the material evidence around us suggests otherwise. From a squirrel’s perspective, acorns are scarce in the outer limits of my garden. But, for the squirrel willing to venture beyond the familiar and comfortable perimeter into the heart of the garden, evidence of God’s extravagant generosity is littered everywhere.

I want to be one of the brave squirrels, willing to trust the unknown. I want to be like Rocky (that fearless squirrel of cartoon fame), flying planes and seeing the world from a new vantage point. I want to look up from my hectic scramble of transporting children, folding laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, paying bills, grooming pets, typing, filing, and all the other daily activities that conspire to keep me at a distance from God and abundance.

I want to be the consummate Zen squirrel, schooled in the art of prayer, squat on my haunches, front paws in the air, neck craned, nose to the wind, sniffing the chill in the autumn air. I want to breathe in and out and notice the joy and beauty that is as others have said, “the sacrament of the present moment.”

This harvest season is as good a time as any to take stock of our lives. As we rush from office to errands to commute traffic to school play to post office, let’s squeeze in time for quiet and reflection. What do we really need and do we have it? If we seem far from God and abundance seems lacking, perhaps it’s time to change our choices.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Temptations

We had our first rain of the season last week, and the first rain always fills me with a bit of trepidation. What is that wet stuff falling from the sky, and am I really supposed to go out in it? I can avoid the first rain, but in Boulder Creek, where our annual rainfall is often well over 60 inches each year, I have to learn to live with it.

In that way, the first rain of the season reminds me of baptism; there's something different going in our lives after we've been rained on and we have to deal with it. In Matthew’s gospel, the first thing Jesus does after being baptized is set off into the wild for prayer and fasting. In The Message translation Eugene Peterson titles this “The Test.” Other translations call it “The Temptation.”

In my mind, the story takes life as a music video with the band, The Temptations cast as the devil. The Temptations wear white tuxedos and holding pitchforks. While Jesus is fasting, praying and hiking, they sing with dance routines. “I’ll give you an easy way to get what God promises, just follow me,” they croon.

Then Jesus is taking a final in a classroom of students scribbling essays and bubbling answers to multiple-choice questions. They look nervous, doubtful, tapping pencils on desks, erasing answers. Jesus finishes in record time, leans back with a confident half-smile and scratches his ear with his pencil. He’s answered all the questions correctly receiving 157% for counters to the Temptation’s selective scripture quoting.

The scene would move to a garden, and the Temptations would shrivel like weeds sprayed with Roundup when Jesus finally shouts, “Beat it!”

The angels would come, floating in a bubble, like Glenda in the Wizard of Oz. The angels would be the band The Fifth Dimension. Age of Aquarius would be reworked with lyrics like, “Do not be afraid,” and “God will be there through all the good and bad, joy and grief.”

The angels would disappear, and Jesus would wake up on the beach and hear a seagull squawk, a message that John the Baptist had been arrested and he’s needed now, to pick up John’s banner. Jesus would march through a forest with animals surrounding him, like in Snow White. The animals would wave goodbye as Jesus stepped onto the asphalt of a rural highway into a waiting bus. When it reached the big city, he’d jump off and stand in the median on a busy street, stretch out his arms and yell, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is near!”

How do tests show up for us? I’m always making choices from the mundane––which laundry detergent to buy, to the life altering––where to live. Am I asking the right questions, do I know the best answers? What if, like in multiple choice there’s more than one right answer? We’re each unique; won’t the questions and the answers be different for me than they are for you?

What about tempations? I have difficulty identifying devils. Other than no-brainers like addiction and adultery, what constitutes temptation? I simply can’t believe carbs are evil incarnate. Rather than specific temptations or tests, I can see the Scripture pattern applies to you and me as well as to Jesus. The devil, or political systems that promote injustice, or the consumer culture, or whomever is at odds with God’s plan for whole living, continually taunts us with promises, or with threats, and dangles whatever it might be that appears to fulfill all our needs and desires.

We like Jesus, have to continually say we won’t take that offer of superficial happiness, the easy route to success, power, fame, love. We must tell the temptations what we value, and in doing so we remind ourselves that nothing is gained by compromising our souls. Our lives won’t be easy. We’ll always our motives, asking whether a choice will lead us closer or further from God and a whole and healthy life.

There are days when I’m tempted to stay in bed and sleep until it is over. “It” being anything I feel inadequate to cope with. Then angels come, ordinary people like you and me, and I remember that there is room for joy and hope.

I wait for a sign, like the seagull flying over Jesus’ head, to tell me what God wants done with my life. Most of the time, the signs are like shuffling forward in a checkout line. I just have to trust I’m headed to the right counter.
We can stand in line together, you with brown rice and tofu, you with chocolate chips and celery, me with French bread and cheddar cheese, wearing my Goretex rain jacket, all of us preparing to feast with God, each of us bringing something different to the banquet.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Potato Vine

I held hands with my grandfather. His hand firm and warm, his hair white and wavy, his weathered leather Bible in the hand that wasn’t holding mine. My grandmother held my other hand, walked in heels that clicked, her slender fingers entwined with mine. She wore her hat pinned on her red hair, like Lucy Ricardo, only not as whiny.

We walked across a parking lot, rapidly filling with Buicks and Oldsmobiles and couples in their 50’s. We walked across the sidewalk, across a campus that was bigger than my elementary school, into the largest room I had ever been in, filled with rows and rows of wooden benches. The sounds of organ music and hushed voices floated in the air, like an aroma one breathed. Church.

Church was a cavernous building with a man in a suit far ahead of me, thundering in a voice that made me climb into my grandfather’s lap. The booming voice, the tops of heads, those are all I remember of that sanctuary.

And of the Sunday school my grandmother walked me to midway through the service? I remember the classroom was upstairs. I remember the aggregate stairs, the small rocks felt in relief against the worn soles of my Sears catalogue shoes. And in the room? I remember the potato vine. The half-potato, balanced over a clean peanut butter jar filled with water, its white roots extending into the jar, while above, a vine traveled up the wall, over the windows, past the bulletin board, large and green, sending tendrils in tight circles around whatever was in its path.

If the teacher had said, “This is the nature of God, it creeps everywhere, it will find you and wrap its love around you no matter where you are,” would I have understood it then? Instead, they told me something else, and for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was.

©Cathy Warner 2004