Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Jesus and a Quart of Milk

Jesus walks through the neighborhood Sunday morning calling us from our homes and our cares. We follow behind him dragging our worries like shopping bags and red wagons, jangling our woes like pocket change. He’s the Pied Piper and we can’t help but fall hypnotized by his flute.

Strange that we hear him over the buzz of power mowers, the hiss of cappuccino makers, the roar of TV sports, the pounding bass from car stereos. Odd that he appeals to the High Tech V.P. with shrinking stocks and irritable bowel, and to the single parent on food stamps renting a room in another family’s house. Strange, that we would gather at the corner church, like he is Quik-Stop and we need a quart of milk, a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket.

We are freshly showered, fresh from cancer, fresh from divorce, fresh from college, fresh from Iraq. This Jesus makes a place for us, we crowd next to him on the pew, or in the folding chairs, take refuge under the shelter of his wings, gathered up, gathered in. Free in the moment, from the uncertainty of what comes next. We pray, we sing, we listen.

We watch the sun stream through windows, maybe stained glass, maybe not. The shafts of light teem with dust motes; life abundant suspended in the air all around us. Funny that before he gathered us, we shared the illusion we were alone.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Regarding My Grandmother

We talked about the things we remembered, the things that happened when I was young enough to be completely self-centered, the things that happened when she was completely healthy and whole, married and happy.

The week spent each summer at her house going to Vacation Bible school, riding in her red Mustang, my sister and I taking turns on the hump between the crème colored leather seats pointing the half-egg air conditioning vent straight at us, its refrigerator cold blasting up our cotton dresses and cooling our thighs.

We talk about how Lisa and I swam in the backyard, clad in our flowered cotton underpants and undershirts, splashing in the square cement fountain, the statue of a chubby legged cherub above us, pouring water from a jar. Swimming, if you could call it that, with hands padding along the bottom, as though we were in a wheelbarrow race, our legs buoyed by the water.

In the evening after Grandpa came home from work and tended his cactus garden, we’d walk through the cut in the wall at the end of the cul-de-sac, past Von’s and to Baskin Robbins for an ice cream. He always ordered pistachio, cool and green, a friendly ice cream. I don’t remember what she ordered, or what I got either, but my sister liked bubble gum, a mouthful of candy coated balls squirreled in her cheeks to chomp open and work into gooey matter on the walk home in the evening heat, asphalt and sidewalk still singeing from the day’s sun.

What I carry, the things I remember, the coolness of the air-conditioned house. The unyielding stiffness of the quilted bedspread in the guest room, ugly brown on the double bed I shared with my sister, bickering over who crossed the invisible line dividing the mattress, who was hogging the covers, and which statues of horses would grace the shelf behind our heads. They weren’t for play, but we could arrange them, each eschewing the black Stallion for the dainty Palomino.

My grandmother and I talked about small things, the spools of thread in our memory boxes, because that is what we had given each other over the years. That thread gently wrapped from my sturdy fingers to hers, bony and shaking, and eased its way around us, binding one to another, testifying to what made us grandmother and granddaughter. And when she dropped her spool, it spun across her death, and beyond keeping me fast to it.

This post dedicated to Reverend Erika and her grandmother.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Have You Ever Been Paralyzed?

Have you ever been paralyzed?

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the evils of the world, so overcome by feelings of powerlessness, that you’ve been unable to move, unable to cope, gripped by fear, plagued by nightmares, and day-mares, the evil playing in your mind like a never ending horror film fest? Have you ever been devoid of hope?

Have you ever staggered under the weight of a 200-pound man on a stretcher, like the four friends mentioned in Mark’s gospel? What was in your stretcher?

Have you ever gathered up all the terrible things that have happened to your family, your friends, strangers you read about in magazines, or saw on the TV news and carried those stories around as if they were your own? Have you ever spent all your time trying to fix life for someone else, someone who was paralyzed? Have you ever given them all your resources, your money, your home, your heart, your hope, only to find that they remained in the stretcher, still breaking your back with their weight?

I have, and I can tell you from experience that when you’re paralyzed, or when you’re carrying the paralyzed, you aren’t doing real work in the world, you’re not working for true peace and justice, and you can’t bring hope to those in need, because you don’t have any yourself.

During my last two years of college, I worked in the campus police department, educating students and staff about sexual assault. My boss had me read dozens and dozens of books and articles on the subject, filled with grim statistics and first hand accounts. I knew more than any person ever should about the subject, and the scenes filled my head. I was afraid to walk across campus, afraid of encountering a lone male anywhere, afraid to be in my house alone, afraid to ever have a child, lest she become a victim. If I hadn’t already married Kevin, I never would’ve gone on another date.

I did everything to avoid being the next victim. I walked with my keys protruding between my fingers like little daggers. I took self-defense classes. I got a license to carry mace. I locked all the doors and windows at night, even when it was 90 degrees inside. I did everything I could to “empower” myself, but it was no use. I was paralyzed by fear and I gathered up the stories from women I met, women who came up to me after the programs and said, “It happened to me.” I didn’t consider the fact that they were here, walking and talking, and telling me their stories a sign that there was hope for healing. No, I took their stories, and added them to the stretcher I carried around, the stretcher of all the awful things in the world that were my responsibility to make right.

I can look back and give the right advice, “Turn it over to God! Lay it down before Jesus.” I can say this like it’s easy, no problem, ease the stretcher to the floor at Jesus’ feet, watch him wave a hand, and presto chango, everything’s fine. But the fact is, when you’re paralyzed, you can’t get to Jesus. You can’t get anywhere. You have to lie there shouting for help, until Jesus comes to you. Or until, who knows when, four good friends or some complete stranger will be moved to help you. And these people who help, the ones who aren’t going to own your problem for themselves, the ones who aren’t going to carry you around forever, they will be smart enough to understand that all they can really do is to deliver you to Jesus. And they’ll realize it’s not always so easy to get to him, so they’ll come up with a plan, they’ll drag you onto a roof, cut a hole in it, lower you down to get his full attention.

It takes resourcefulness, it takes planning, it takes knowing your own limits and gifts, to do what those friends did. Maybe you’ve been in a position to be one of those friends, to act with the power you have and trust God to do the rest. I believe that when we know ourselves and our limits and when we turn the rest over, that’s when we ourselves become the resources the world needs to bring about peace, justice and hope.

When you’re paralyzed, you’re hopeless. When Jesus’ empowers you by lifting your sins, pushing you out of your fear, out of your dark, dark place, it changes your life. It changes your life, but you still have a lifetime of patterns and fears that don’t magically disappear. They are there, waiting to grab you, waiting to paralyze you again with their doomsday predictions. They are there, offering you the handle of a stretcher, asking you to pick it up, and hold it, just for a little while. It can take all your strength to refuse.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Morning You Ate Cinnamon Rolls in God’s Kitchen

It’s the middle of the night and you’ve been awake for hours, tossing in bed. There are layoffs at your company. Your daughter eloped and dropped out of college. Your wife’s mother broke her hip and is moving in with you. Your mind is on overdrive. You plump your pillow with a fist and sigh as loud as possible on the chance it will bring your wife to consciousness. But she’s deep asleep.

You slip out of bed, pull on your ratty bathrobe and slippers then pad downstairs to the kitchen and boil water for herbal tea. You rest your chin in your hand, elbow on the Formica table, close your eyes and wait for the kettle’s whistle.

The room seems brighter from behind your eyelids and you squint as the teakettle begins to steam. You fill your cup, glance out the window, and see the neighbor’s light on. The neighbor is looking out the window right at you. A hand beckons. You open the kitchen door and hear a voice saying, “Come on over.”

“Be right there,” you answer. Cinching your sash, you walk across the damp grass between your houses. You step into the neighbor’s kitchen, alive with the smell of baking bread.

“I’ve been waiting along time to meet you,” God says.

“You have?” you say, and take a good look at God. God is tall, taller than you, more wrinkled than a raisin, and thin.

“Make yourself at home,” God says.

“Thank you, this is lovely.” You sit in an overstuffed chair next to an antique table.

“I do have a knack.” God slides a tray of cinnamon rolls from the oven, smears on frosting and serves you one on a china plate. “Coffee?”

“No thanks,” you say. “Aggravates my stomach.”

“You're under a lot of stress right now, that can’t help. Anyway, I have Tums in the bathroom cabinet, help yourself.” God pours a large mug of coffee. “Decaf. Don’t know why I bother, I never sleep anyway. You must have some questions.”

You do, but sitting there in God’s kitchen, looking at the wrinkled figure in the dawn blue sweatsuit, with nut brown skin and silver braid that falls mid-back, all you can think to ask is, “Are you a man or a woman?”

“Neither and both,” God answers and laughs, a big belly laugh that puts you at ease.

You talk with God, drinking Tummy Mint tea and eating cinnamon rolls with God’s cat purring in your lap and God’s dog resting her furry head at your feet. You tell God about your worries. God doesn’t say you’ve got it easy compared to Job or Jesus. God doesn’t give advice or dispense phrases like, “I never give you more than you can handle,” or, “It’s all for the best.”

God listens, asks a few questions, looks right at you, and even more than the heart-to-hearts with your wife, you feel understood, and with that understanding, you think you just might manage to swim and not sink in the sea of your troubles.

The sky outside begins to turn orange. God rinses the dishes and says, “I have to be going. I’m serving breakfast at St. Mark’s shelter this morning.”

The cozy feeling begins to evaporate. You linger at the door, not wanting to leave the yeasty warmth of the kitchen. You look at the cheerful pattern in the linoleum. “I don’t want to go,” you say.

“You don’t have to, the house is always open. Come back any time. Make yourself at home in my love. That’s the key."

The next thing you know, you feel a hand on your shoulder.

“Honey, were you up all night again?” Your wife kisses the top of your head.

You are in your kitchen, cheek plastered to the tabletop. She puts the kettle on and sits across from you. Your neck is stiff, but the place that’s been wound tight inside you feels calm and peaceful.

“What’s this?” She picks up a leather bound book next to your teacup. “A Bible?”

“I guess so.” You take the book, open it. Abide in my love is written inside the cover in bold loopy script. You look out the window toward your neighbor’s house. Mrs. Reynolds is lifting the baby into his high chair. Mr. Reynolds kisses them both and sits down with his paper.

You close the book and trace the gold embossed letters with your finger.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Get A Life!

You’ve heard the phrases; you’ve said them to yourselves and your friends––

Leave the past behind.

Don’t look back.

You can’t go back home again.

Get over it.

Get on with your life.

Let it go.

Move on.

Keep on keepin’ on.

Make tracks.

Given the plethora of entreaties for us to go forward, it must be human nature to look back and long for––

The good old days

The glory days

The vigor of youth

After all––There’s no place like home. Even if that home is Egypt for the ancient Isrealites, even if that home is slavery, or abusive relationships, or dysfunctional families, or addictions or disease.

At least all that is familiar and predictable. We know the routines, we know what to expect, we know how to get by and how to get along, even if we’re unhappy.

As soon as they got out of Egypt, before they’d even crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites were already whining in the wilderness. "Did you bring us out here to die?"

How much they were like us, how some things never change. We’re afraid of the unknown. We want road maps, travel guides, restaurant ratings, guided tours, and translators. We want to take all the guesswork out, to have a plan, a schedule.

We don’t want to lose our homes, our friends, our families, our jobs, our church, our hobbies, and our role in all of them, our place in society.

We want things to stay the same––our neighborhoods, the stores where we shop, the people who cut our hair and clean our teeth and prescribe our pills, and assess our health, the schools and those who teach our children. We don’t want them to change. We don’t want to start over with someone new, to learn to trust someone else with our lives and our care.

We want security, we want to be known and of course loved.

Not that we don’t want any change. We like it a little at a time. A new car, a new hair color, some new flowers in our window pots, a new bathmat, even a new love, as long as the preceding breakup didn’t break our hearts. We can deal with small changes that we choose.

We want to be in control. We don’t want our past to be washed out from under us as violently as the Red Sea erased any possibility of return for the Israelites. They saw graphically, in no uncertain terms that they must––

Leave the past behind.

They couldn’t look back or go home again.

They were forced to get over it, get on with their lives.

Whether they liked it our not, they had to––

Let it go

Move on

Make tracks

Keep on keepin’ on.

They had a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and Moses, running alongside them, a bit like a drill sergeant, keeping them on the straight and narrow, when they were exhausted and frightened and lost, and faithless. Moses kept calling to them to trust God. God kept working signs and wonders. Remaining faithful.

Life isn’t easy. Wandering in the wilderness isn’t fun. But it doesn’t have to be terrible. Carrying the baggage of our past weighs us down, it’s like carting a suitcase filled with boulders—we’re so busy dragging it across the desert, hefting it up mountains, that we have no idea where we are or where we’re headed. What if we drop some of those boulders into our Red Sea and move on, start over? What if we relegated the past to memory, not current reality? Then we could be open to the present, to the small wonders that appear before us everyday.

The more we live in the present, the more we can enjoy the scenery. We can––

Let sleeping dogs lie

Let bygones be bygones

Get over it

Get a life.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Getting to Know Jesus

Christmas is over. Baby Jesus has been born, the wise folks have knelt at his feet and ridden their camels home. Now that Jesus has come, what do we do with him?

Back in 1999, the National Catholic Reporter ran the “Jesus 2000 competition,” looking for a portrayal of Christ for the new millennium. From nearly 1,700 entries from around the world, Sister Wendy Beckett, an art expert, author and television personality, selected “Jesus of the People.”

In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus––dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe, He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.”

Through her painting, “Jesus of the People,” Janet McKenzie invites us each to explore who Jesus is and was. We are all part of “the people.” “Jesus” is part of us, and we are part of him in an ongoing, ever-changing relationship.

I met God when I was 23. I was washing my hair, when the quality of the water changed. It was a baptism, a wet and dripping, scalp soaking, water swirling at my ankles baptism. In that moment, God offered the thing I needed most and didn’t even know I’d been missing––unconditional love.

Even with that experience, I had no idea who Jesus was. I’d seen him when I was a kid––A painted ceramic grown up, hanging from a wood frame, larger than life, skinnier than anyone ought to be, clad in a diaper, with a wreath of thorny sticks on his head, blood dripping down his face.

I heard about him when I was in college from obnoxious young men who stood on the Quad, reading passages from the Bible in thunderous voices and shouting, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

It wasn’t until I began attending Gilroy United Methodist Church that I met Jesus in a real way. That came after God came to me; after I’d accepted God’s grace. God’s love came with no strings attached, no conditions that I must follow. I chose the Methodists simply because they got to me soon after God did!

Since then, through worship, study, and prayer, Jesus has become a personification of grace in my life. He’s a mainstay in my subconscious, appearing in dreams, including one where, dressed in a yellow squall hat and slicker (just like the Gorton’s fish sticks man), he saved me from kidney disease and pneumonia that threatened to suck me into Hell.

I write to encounter Jesus. I have been Bible people: the Samaritan woman talking theology with Jesus at the well, Zaccheus the tax collector observing Jesus from his perch in a tree, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, trying to understand his death on the Cross. I have imagined Jesus’ words to me, the way he would redirect my desires and challenge my understanding.

Jesus allows me to teach and preach with him, invites me to heal and be healed, to suffer, to grow, and to be resurrected alongside him. He is a paradox, a mystery, someone and something I can’t fully comprehend. In the Bible he is the storyteller, and the subject of stories. He is a man who walked the earth long ago, and a presence within men and women who walk the earth today. He was born human with a divinity so bright it summoned the world to take notice. His death was brutally inhuman with divine repercussions that shook the world and changed it permanently. He became a savior to millions who came thousands of years after his resurrection, ministering to a world he caught only the smallest glimpse of, yet had an amazing understanding of.

Through Jesus, we are all allowed to be fully human, and to express fully the divine within us. Somehow his spirit is alive in us. By telling his stories, we can honor the gifts Jesus gave to the world during his earthly ministry. By telling the stories of how God has changed us and how we experience this “Jesus of the People” we can allow the Christ spark to keep igniting the world.