God: Some Assembly Required?

God_PuzzleFive years ago, consumed with a yearning to better understand the country in which I had been born and raised, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on about the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

One morning I came across a hot-off-the-press article on Congo’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered very unceremoniously in the shadows in 1961 after not cooperating with the West. A masterful academic piece bemoaning the woes of Imperialism, the article’s author was a fellow way over on the other side of the world (not Africa). But the piece seemed lopsided to me: It pegged absolutely all of Congo’s problems on the Evil West, giving no mention to tribal conflict, the sheer size of the country, infrastructure, natural obstructions (rainforest, rivers, mountains, flora, fauna), and so on and so forth and what have you.

Feeling particularly bold (or insane), I sent off what I believed was a neutral response, suggesting that Congo’s complexities could not be pegged merely on Imperialism.

Well. Within seconds, responses to my response lit up my computer screen. This writer obviously had supporters. I got skewered. Not just for my rhetoric mind you; folks lambasted me, personally. Why, they called me a “European” of all things. One even got so bold as to call me “fluffy.”

Fluffy!

Their vitriol (Isn’t it interesting that this word used to mean “sulfuric acid”?) burned. While I observed from over here, I could see that they, over there, truly believed they had me all figured out. Within their cozy, comfortable circle, they chuckled, they cheered, they slapped each other on the back. One tried to engage me by questioning me further, but this time I knew better. Obviously nothing I could say would generate any kind of decent conversation. They could not go there, because they would not go there.

I wasn’t accustomed to this “say-whatever-you-want-and-remain-slightly-anonymous” stuff. I slammed my laptop shut and went to find a cookie.

They did not know me. But from the three, maybe four sentences they had read, they created an image of me that was not me.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. We were driving home from church one Sunday, and I was in a vulnerable state of mind maybe because I needed lunch, or because it was overcast, or because I needed a nap. At any rate, while my mind wandered around as it often does while I’m in the car or in the shower or washing the dishes, a scenario assembled itself in my head of a room full of varying social circles intensely discussing me. (Don’t pull out your tiny violins yet. I’ll get to my point.) In my self-absorbed haze, I watched as they analyzed my character, my person, how I ticked. They used books written by other people to draw their conclusions. The conversations were based on what they “felt” or what they had heard or what they had read. I was so yearning to be known, I was right there in the room, and yet no one approached me or gave me any eye contact.

But a Voice cut through the fog my self-pity, saying, “This is how I’m treated all the time.”

“Stop the car!” I wanted to say but didn’t. I needed to do a Job 42:5.

Now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. My self-absorption had to go. I threw it out the car window where it is now stinking up the road, right next to the Colonie Town Library.

This is how I’m treated all the time. This phrase pops into my head now almost daily, especially in the midst of the conversations that continue to intensify and swirl around Phil Robertson, the Grammys, and who-knows-what-lies-around-the-corner. Recently the Congo article fiasco was called back to mind because to me it’s the perfect analogy of how we tend to assemble our view of God. How is it that we come to choose what to believe about God?

  • By what sounds right? By what seems right? (Why on earth would we do that while getting to know anyone?)
  • By huddling in our comfort zone with those of similar opinions who will soothe and coddle us?
  • By building a foundation of lopsided academic research and calling it smart, and getting our affirmation from fans who will clap and cheer and slap us on the back?
  • By focusing only on one or two verses from the Bible (for instance, “archaic laws” in Leviticus about not eating lobster) to draw conclusions about God’s person and his character? Do we build security fences with those few verses, designed to keep God out?
  • By burning with self-justified anger when someone challenges our thinking? Do we have ears? Are we willing to go there? If there is that Voice, are we shouting too loud to hear it?
  • By reminding everyone that the word on the street is that we’re supposed to be accepting and loving each other? According to Jesus? Do we know this Jesus that we are quoting? Only you can answer that question.

How would we answer if we heard God ask, “Who is loving me?”

The last few weeks have me coming to a new understanding of Jesus as a man of sorrows. Not just the crown-of-thorns-getting-beaten-to-a-pulp kind of sorrow, but the kind of sadness that comes from being misunderstood, misquoted, ostracized, made fun of, despised.

How well do we know God? This begs another question: Have we created an image of god that is not God?

Me? Often in the past, friends of mine would suggest that if Jesus showed up at a party they would run and throw their arms around him. I always felt a pang, because frankly in such a scenario I always saw myself as being the one hiding in a corner behind a potted plant. Not for anything particularly bad, mind you. In fact I’ve been steeped and saturated in all things biblical and even know words like “antinomianism” and “supralapsarianism.” I’ve memorized oodles of Bible verses. But dang it, the person at the very core of me has always been a social periphery kind of girl. Don’t get too close there, Mister Jesus. Right there at arm’s length, thanyouverymush. So it’s not hard to imagine that my god-assembly, depending on my mood, has featured judgment and condemnation or soothing and coddling or whatever I needed to dream up at the moment, so long as it was a god that allowed me to do what I want. In other words, whatever was all about me.

But one day when my ears were ready to hear and my eyes were ready to see, the phrase “You can know about Jesus, but not know Jesus” went through me like a lightning bolt.

Am I there yet? Not at all. Am I learning? Every day — through prayerful conversations with God, through reading his very Word contained in the Bible, through worship. These things keep me from that familiar slide down to self. Condemnation? No. Joy? Yes. I have the full assurance that he is at your party, yearning to know you. There is no need to hide behind the potted plant. But he wants eye contact. As he passes by, look to him. He will say, “Come out from there you silly goose. I’m coming to your house for dinner.”

Encouraging Words:

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (Jesus, speaking in John 15:11)

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. (Proverbs 14:12)

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (The Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 1:27)

‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Jesus, in Mark 12:30-31)

That I may know him and the power of his resurrection. (The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 3:10)

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (Jesus, in John 17:3)

And to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 3:19)

 

In Memoriam of Martha Pontier, 1962-2013

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My first memory of Martha goes all the way back to the reading circle in the corner of Miss Stewart’s first grade classroom. While other classmates struggled through poor Sally’s drama in our Dick and Jane readers, Martha was showing me how to color my nails with a pencil.

She was the last in a long row of Pontier siblings and part of a greater Pontier Congo family. Her dad and his siblings had also attended Rethy Academy — a missionary boarding school where my mother taught — in its early years, when many roads were paths and many families could only get around via motorcycle.

Because of their work generally far from anywhere generally navigable, the family was often flown to school in a plane small enough to land on the tiny local airstrip. One time, though, when they did drive to Rethy will remain in my memory, because they rattled up the hill in what I think was an ancient Peugeot. The missing back seat had been replaced with a single wooden plank. Since the trip from their station had taken generally three days (in Congo everything regarding time, place, space is always “general”), I wondered if the kids had sat on that thing the whole time while traipsing through rainforest.

A lot of us kids were scrappy like that car. Our hair was scraggly. Our clothes did not match. For the most part we didn’t care. While there were those junior high girls at Rethy who spent Saturday mornings in curlers and looking at the latest fashions in the Sears catalog while sitting in front of the fireplace, Martha and I and others were in trees and either eating loquats or guavas, or investigating rickety old tree houses where the floor boards bent beneath our nervous feet while the pine trees swayed and groaned in the breeze.

There is one event we have always ruminated on that could have turned tragic. She and I, part of a small group of girls, were rock-hopping on top of a mountain during one of the school’s mid-term picnics. We returned to see everyone — gone. Suddenly there we were, about five or six white girls in the middle of the forest, miles away from the station. We panicked, and amidst tears and stilted communication in a mix of Lingala, Swahili and Kingwana, allowed a group of Congolese boys to lead us into the forest, along a dirt path. It did eventually lead to the main road just as the station truck — with the supervisor inside — drove by on his way out to find us. We were naive. The adults at the station were praying.

A memorial generally focuses on nice. But this morning as I was reaching into every dusty memory corner, trying to pull out everything about her, I realized this: I never had a cruel word from her. Even within my easily bruisable middle-school soul, she was always easy-going and kind. While we girls sometimes had to navigate those catty cliques that exist, yes, even in the middle of the mission field, Martha easily floated amidst each one, always approachable, always laid back.

Though I saw Martha last when I was almost twelve, by then she had been established within my foundation of lifelong friendship. After years of separation I was so glad to be able to reconnect with her on Facebook, finding that she had spent all of her adult life as a missionary in Kenya. I was hoping for a reunion someday at her house in Mombasa.

I paid her mom a visit about three years ago in her retirement complex in Florida. While I thrilled over all the Africa memorabilia covering her walls, I was also struck by the joy in Mrs. Pontier’s eyes as she told me of her children’s adventures with Christ throughout the world.

At times ever since, I’ve ruminated over that joy. Out there in the relative Congo boondocks, many of us — and that includes scrappy me — lived in relative comfort Rethy style. The nights were cool. The Milky Way paraded through the heavens. The springlike days there up on that hill made my life pretty idyllic. I rarely had to deal with creatures that came with heat and humidity. Others, though, like the Pontiers, out in the poli, were really in the thick of it, the whole family putting feet to their faith. At her home in Florida, Martha’s mom showed me a picture of their time in southern Sudan. Though the photo seemed to radiate with the heat and stickiness of that place, her eyes had only joy as she recounted the thrill of seeing Congolese and Sudanese meet Jesus. That kind of joy, to me, can only come from Christ.

That’s what I will miss most about Martha and why she will have an entry in my own personal Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame. From afar, here in my sometimes annoyingly quiet suburban life, I have observed that focus and dedication of hers, and it has impacted me, as well as knowing it has impacted others. That same scrappy joy, eminent in her recent photos, willing and able and happily at work for the Master.

Just One Reflection on the Ministry of Pastor Stan and Katy (written hastily at 6 in the morning)

The last thought on my mind last night remained to wake me up this morning: It was the story of The Workers in the Field.

Jesus tells the story about a farmer who hired workers for his field at different points throughout the day. And though it angered some, he bestowed on those hired late all the rights and privileges of those hired first.

When it comes to the ministry of Stan and Katy Key, I am beginning to comprehend the gratitude the workers must have felt who came late in the day. I wish I could say I showed up late because I didn’t know of them and their ministry; instead, within my spiritually shriveled state, it was no one’s fault but my own. Pride is a bummer.

I got there late, but I got there in time.

I came to Loudonville Community Church thinking I was “done” — I had begun to believe the lie that the future held little promise, that God was no longer interested in and had no more use for the likes of me. That misery reflected in my eyes when I looked in the mirror — it was ghastly.

But God restores. Over those two glorious years I got to know them, God used the ministry of Pastor Stan and Katy to rub oil on my calloused heart, to release from the depths tears of repentance, to replenish me in waterfalls of Living Water, and to restore to me — though I don’t want to reduce this to a cliche — the real Joy of my Salvation.

Gratitude has become my theme. Any “work” I’ve done in response has not been from the necessity of receiving any kind of benefit, but one of thankfulness and a blossoming love for Jesus.

Stan and Katy’s farewell last night, for me, was charged with “significance” — it’s a word that doesn’t even come close, though, to the actual experience. I found myself turning to observe hundreds belt out “Grace, Grace, God’s Grace,” and I was struck with the realization that I was in the presence of greatness — not of Stan and Katy — but of Jesus. A holy Weight filled and settled upon the room.

The physical loss of Stan and Katy in my life will be huge. It’s the hugeness of this loss, however, that fills me with even greater anticipation and expectation — of the day when we will be reunited at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and we will be in the presence of Jesus — forever.

The Other Side of Obedience (and why I hate sequels)

When my brother Bob called to say that he and Dorie had taken in six foster siblings, I offered to make other plans for Thanksgiving.  With all assorted relatives and such, that would make more than twenty for dinner including eight kids under the age of twelve: overload, I was sure, for Bob and Dorie.

Bob would have none of our other arrangements, so Mark and I steeled ourselves for possible chaos.  And sure enough, as soon as we pulled in the driveway at noon on The Big Day, there was the whole menagerie outside, Bob swinging three of the kids in a porch swing tied under a tree and the other three playing on the driveway.  Grant, eight years old and the oldest, immediately strode toward us and introduced himself, his hand outstretched. “That dude’s the little man of the family,” I noted to myself. Tyler started kicking a soccer ball around with Paul, while a little bitty girl wearing pink sparkly sneakers and a knitted cap on her head tried to push around, with one hand, a tiny tricycle which kept falling over.

I glanced at Bob. He seemed relatively sane. Now sane and Bob have always been very “relative”.  During his sojourn upon the earth, he has attacked with gusto everything he’s set his mind to do, including flying hot air balloons and ultra light airplanes; mastering the workings of anything mechanical; and building radio controlled airplanes, paddle wheel boats, house additions, you name it. Bob has also always been one color – loud – though tempered in recent years with a softer hue named Dorie.  Bob has also nursed a tender heart his whole life. I can attest to this even though, as his younger sister, as kids his tenderness wasn’t always directed at me. At any rate, seeing him push kids in a swing was no surprise at all.

Throughout the afternoon it was hard to get the six kids straight. In between the smoked salmon and baked brie appetizers I looked out the window to see them playing well with my kids. That was a relief. But why had I presumed that foster kids would be a batch of terrors? They also had good manners: When they came in for dinner, all dutifully washed their hands and stood in line, sat without fidgeting in their seats, and asked politely to be excused. During the partaking of all that is Thanksgiving dinner delight, I picked up tidbits on their background. Their mother was only 24. The kids had been removed by CPS due to her purposely burning her 3-yr-old on the hand. The family had been living in a one room apartment where meals consisted only of Blueberry Pop-tarts although one day the “present” father had brought home strawberry by mistake. When Dorie had asked Alyssa, the eldest girl, to talk about a good day at home, the girl had remarked , “There weren’t any.” They had been removed once before, but the judge in this particular county of this particular state held that children should be with their parents, so had allowed them back. And then the burn, which had required a hospital stay and skin grafts.  This three-year-old, according to the other siblings, had become the object of her mother’s frustration. The other kids had been taught to needle her, disregard her.

With the holiday hullabaloo in full swing it wasn’t until that evening, after the pie had most of the guys zonked on the couch and while the kids were in the basement playing foosball and ping-pong, that the little itty-bitty girl who had been pushing the tricycle around outside approached me, her arms raised to be picked up. It was then I realized who she was with the bandage on her hand, a persistent blister peeking around the dressing. On her fingernails was shiny red polish, now chipped, that a doctor had lavished on her before she left the hospital. I picked her up and hugged and kissed her. She pointed to the basement stairs. “You can take her down if you stay with her,” Bob explained, “but she’s not allowed to navigate the stairs on her own.” I wasn’t sure I should navigate them either with the clunky high-heeled boots I had on. She grasped at my blouse and I hugged the wall to keep from plunging headlong with my precious cargo.

When we reached the ping pong table I tried to set her down, but she continued to cling to me so I alternately stood and sat, rocking her and kissing her forehead while she tapped my teeth with her fingers, my braces making plinking sounds. “Wot dat?” she asked. “To make my teeth look pretty,” I answered. I gently held and pointed to her painted fingernails. “Like your fingers are pretty.” She grabbed at the cap on her head and pulled it off, exposing a wide swath of shaved hair which was starting to grow back, where doctors had taken the skin grafts for her hands. While she shifted her gaze back and forth from me to the boys, I tried to get a glimpse of her soul through her eyes. My heart flip-flopped. What I saw seemed muddy — shallow. I held her to me and prayed for her then, remembering Ellen’s response at my hope that her young age would relieve her future memories: “They say that a burn is the one thing you never forget.”

When we went back upstairs, Dorie was down on her knees with one of the girls, enlisting her help in getting the toys picked up and put away. “Can we please please please have a Bible story?” Grant pleaded, walking into the room.  Ellen stood up. “Let me tell ya,” she said to me, “These kids put me to shame when it comes to their desire for God.” Bob ambled into the kitchen, looking a bit done for. “How do you do it?” I asked him. “Daycare!” he laughed. “School and daycare. They’re great kids, but the weekends are so exhausting I’ve never looked so forward to Mondays in my life!” “So what was it that inspired you guys to do this in the first place?” I asked. “I felt that God was calling us to do it,” Ellen explained.  She paused and stated simply, “Obedience.”

Obedience. What a dog. It lay at the foot of my bed as I went to sleep. It was one thing for me to live four hours away and admire from afar Bob and Dorie’s decision to take in these kids; it was quite another to connect grace directly with these little faces, and to see in their eyes (well most of them anyway) deep pools of spirit. The little pink jackets hung on the coat tree and sparkly shoes lined up by the door were no longer just shoes and coats; they embodied hope. As I lay in the darkness I again felt the three-month-old baby melting into my shoulder after I fed her her bottle. I heard the squeals of joy as Bob pushed the three on the porch swing high into the air. Then I heard the dog at the foot of the bed groan and remembered times I’d ignored that supernatural nudge, holding my ears and closing my eyes until it had stopped. But then the awful emptiness .

I had only seen obedience from one side – mine: The work it would entail. The hours it would consume. The faith it would require. Now I saw obedience on the other side: the hope the work produced; the joy contained within the hours. The blossoming of increased faith.

It was easy to shift any self-reflection away from my weakness and to instead despise the mother.  Easier even because I’d never met her. Six kids including a newborn, three different fathers. Had she used her brain at all before passion took over?  Was she redeemable? Did I want her to be redeemable? I tried to put myself in her shoes. Was she in the throes of post-partum depression? I could almost talk myself into being sympathetic until I remembered that Dan had said she was willing to legally sign away her burned daughter. She didn’t want her. That I found hard to swallow.

The next morning, Friday, the tribe was headed out the door to daycare by the time I got up. Grant led the older siblings into the van like the General, while Bob and Dorie stood on opposite sides strapping the three-year-old, one year old, and three-month-old into their car seats. I watched Bob, that sometimes obnoxious loud-mouth of old, standing so humbly, tenderly and patiently making sure every belt and buckle was in order.

“You guys are doing a great job,” I offered when they came back into the house.  “How about we go out for breakfast?” I searched their faces for signs of cracks. “I hope they manage to stay buoyant,” Dorie’s mom had said the night before. “Six kids. It’s exhausting.”

At the diner Bob and Dorie finally got to relax and watch Mark and me wrangle with our three over the perceived injustice of who got the least bacon. On the way back to their house Bob and Dorie drove us by some income property they had just bought and were fixing up. They explained how the events surrounding the sale had them convinced that God had orchestrated and blessed the whole thing.  Well, that’s a no brainer, I thought. Being selfless like this, taking in these kids like this, obedience like this, faith like this, I’d think blessings were certainly in order. This was a family who would certainly live happily ever after.

But that is why I hate sequels.

Characters are supposed to live happily ever after. It especially drives me crazy when writers try to mess with Jane Austen perfection. I wish they’d just leave the happiness alone, but then they write ridiculous sequels where someone inevitably dies in childbirth, has some hunting accident, or discovers love is too difficult.

Monday morning Bob called me. I immediately knew something was up and was fearful that it had to do with those kids, that they were being sent back to their mother. Instead, Bob told me that he has cancer. A difficult kind. He has surgery in his future and possibly radiation. The surgeon wants to remove his lymph glands. I have lived long enough upon the earth to learn that these things — illness, pain, suffering – come to all, whether or not they take in foster kids or attack life with zest, or whether or not they are my brother – or dad – or uncle. We live in expectation – with groaning expectation at times – for what CS Lewis calls The Weight of Glory – for that Land far away, that Longing for Home.

Bob says he feels ready for that. He also says he doesn’t feel as if it’s his time to go. How do I feel? I feel as if I’m still in class. I feel like I’ll be in class for the rest of my life, having to learn and relearn, when life slings its muck, to fill my life with the kind of prayer that leads me to not only pray with confidence for Bob’s health and healing, but also leads to trust, to hope, to faith, and followed up with the obedience to put it all into practice.

What Does Worship Smell Like?

While waiting in line for a Caramel Macchiato during the holiday season a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but notice Young Female College Student, giggling and flirting with Mr. Dark and Handsome. Suddenly she faced him square on and blurted, “Will you come hear me sing in The Messiah at Christmastime?”

He shook his head with a gentle “no”. She gathered herself together and pleaded again. He, more firmly, declined again. She stared at him for a moment and then cried, “Come on! It’s not at all religious, you know!”

(A moment of silence, please, while the heavens collapse and the earth implodes.)

I immediately begged my sense of propriety, please please please can I set her right? although internally, my usual over-analyzing and second-guessing well-oiled mechanisms were spinning any possible sensible response into a vortex of unusable phrases that would never come together until 3 am the following morning.

She may have been wrong, but Ms. Propriety told me to shut my yapper.

So I reacted to my husband later. He listed possible scenarios to get her off the hook. Maybe semester finals had turned her brain to mush. Maybe she was too besotted with this guy to think clearly. Or maybe, since The Messiah is often sung every year at Christmas she simply saw the piece as tradition and paid no attention to the lyrics at all.

“She’s probably rehearsing almost every day!” I lamented. “And anyway, how can she sing these lyrics and not see that they are completely religious! How can anyone not know?!”

But it got me thinking: Is this what I look like when I gloss over the profound?

A couple of weeks before Easter this year, my family walked into church and was nearly knocked over by the smell of incense wafting through the sanctuary. Hunter of course went all dramatic, grasping his throat, coughing and gagging. I had to keep him upright from falling down in the aisle to do the Stooges’ dead chicken shuffle. But after he was collared and we sat down, I found myself drifting within the scent back to my brothers’ dingy teenage bedroom in 1969 Congo, where they spent rainy Saturday mornings reading Tintin books while the aroma of burning incense they had bought in Kampala or Nairobi hung in the air.

On this day, the incense in church was to ask the question: “What does worship smell like?”

The story goes like this: About a week before Jesus was crucified, around the time he entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey to the exultant cries of throngs of people, Mary, Lazarus’s sister, approached him during dinner. She poured an extremely — and I mean extremely – expensive bottle of perfume over his head so that it got in his hair, his robes, all the way down to his feet. The disciples were indignant and rattled, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor!” Jesus got upset with them. He said, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I’ve heard this story a thousand times. There’s even a song (a very, very long song) about it. The perfume was worth a year’s wages, it could have been for her dowry, it was an investment, yada yada yada. (Apparently Horace offered to send Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a phial of this stuff).

But sometimes those seemingly odd phrases in the Bible, like the “preparing me for my burial” one, seem so random and out of place within the context. It’s stupid, but over the years, I’ve gotten used to glossing over them.

Until this particular Sunday.

The pastor made the point that when Jesus left the house, the fragrance didn’t stay in the room; the fragrance went with him.

Not only did it go with him, but with a whole bottle of this kind of good stuff poured onto his hair and soaked into his robe, the fragrance would have followed him, drifting on the air throughout all of Passion Week: as he taught the early morning crowds who came to hear him in the temple, as he broke the bread and breathed a New Covenant, as he washed his disciples’ feet. He would have continued to breathe in that sweet scent of Mary’s worship as he prayed in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the soldiers mocked him, and as Pilate got in his face.

Now the phrase, “she’s preparing me for burial” makes complete sense. Mary had a sense of what was coming. The perfume wasn’t a random act of appreciation. It had meaning, a week before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Now I better understand that our simple but pure acts of worship affect not only us, but are a pleasing aroma in the nostrils of God as well.

My pastor says that Mary was the first theologian. Among the yammering, three-year-theology-student disciples of Jesus who measured and calculated and made value judgments, even though Mary could only “audit the class,” she was the only one who was always sitting at Jesus’ feet and keeping her ears open. So when Jesus said he had to die, be buried, and three days later be raised to life, she was the only one who really heard. She was the first to understand the Cross.  She got it.

I like to assume that Mary was the youngest sibling since she was always getting yelled at — for not helping in the kitchen, or for wasting her stuff. I can see her being the adoring little sister of big brother Lazarus and squeezed under the thumb of Miss Bossypants Perfect Hostess Oldest Sister Martha. She had no clout — no authority — no nothing. But what she did have was a heart overflowing with gratitude for all she had seen Jesus do — especially raising her big brother from the dead.

Every single act of worship has an aroma. Although Mary had nothing,  what she could do, she did.  When she poured that perfume over Jesus she acted out of love instead of common sense. In a spontaneous, lavish, intimate, beautiful act of worship for an Audience of One, she gave to him all she had, basically saying, “I don’t care what all of you people think; I care what he thinks.”

Pardon the pun, but I want to breathe that in.

In my writing classes, teachers emphasize engaging all of the readers’ senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. In my Protestant world of worship, we’ve generally left the sense of smell to the Catholics. But let me tell you, when I now open my closet and catch a whiff of the Tresor my husband gave me years ago that’s still hanging around on a dress somewhere in there; when I walk past the perfume counters at Macy’s; when I pass the lighted, scented candles on my way into the Unplugged time of worship the young adults host every month in my church, I remember. And it makes me wonder if, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, whenever those disciples were in a place where the aroma of that kind of perfume filled the air, it took them back to that spot, back to that week before the Cross.

The Small World of an Adirondack Bed and Breakfast

Kidless! for the first time in eons, centuries, forever, whatever! –

Our little darlings were three hours away, tucked in the comfort of their classrooms, while we, we were smack in the middle of autumn foliage at its peak in the Adirondack Mountains. Two days of canoeing, strolling the streets of Lake Placid, and breathtaking views lay ahead — all with Jeff and Lori, who had dared invite us along for the ride.

Then we saw the huge table taking up all the space in the dining area. My heart sank. One table meant we’d be eating our meals together with the other guests. I, quite frankly, wasn’t too excited about meeting other guests. What on earth would we ever have in common with a random couple or two who happened to be canoeing around some pond like we were going to do? We’d have to be social. We’d have to be polite and careful.

Couldn’t we enjoy a steak dinner in peace?  

Sure enough, pockets of silence peppered the first meal, though the folks seemed nice enough. The twinkle in Ed and Jan’s eyes came from canoeing every autumn for the last 25 years.  Jill and Gordon were from the UK. Now that was interesting. We could talk about Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy.

“There really is something to this art of conversation business,” Mark and I agreed later. “When you decide to take an interest and draw people out of their shells, you can find out quite a bit.” Both couples seemed genuinely interested in hearing about our kids and their Lego creations. Their eyes had not glazed over when I had talked about how Hunter stood up at the end of a church service and announced, “Time to eat!” Jill and Gordon also talked of their church; they had traveled a lot and  even been whitewater rafting in Uganda, so when they asked if we’d traveled I felt free to mention that I’d grown up just over the border in Congo.

By the end of the first meal I almost wished that we hadn’t already made plans to eat in Lake Placid the following night. At least we would share two breakfasts together. Throughout the next day, as we drove up the summit of Whiteface Mountain, strolled along Main Street in Lake Placid, lost my phone and then (thank you, God!) found it again, I found myself wanting to know more about Jill and Gordon and their background. Anyone who lives in the same area as Jane and has been to Africa automatically incites, within me, a lot of curiosity.

So during our last breakfast I decided to throw out some general bait and ask if they were Church of England.

But she threw out the bait first. She made mention of my being a mish kid.

Now wait a minute. Not everyone knows that term. Only folks who have had direct involvement with missionaries or missionary kids would call one a mish kid. My heart flip-flopped. I threw out some code: I mentioned Congo’s over-grown, livestock filled airfields and MAF planes. She caught it, and threw another back: She mentioned an MAF family that had flown out of Nyankunde. She mentioned UFM. She had a close friend who worked at the hospital in Kijabe. Jill and Gordon’s mouths dropped when I told them my father was buried there.

I couldn’t believe it. A random couple at a random bed and breakfast during one particular autumn in the middle of the Adirondacks in the Great State of New York. “It’s very bizarre,” I said to Mark on our drive home.

“It’s not bizarre at all,” he answered thoughtfully. “I’ve learned a big lesson: I need to get out of my comfort zone and reach out more. Nothing is random; God’s hand is in everything. He obviously orchestrated your meeting this weekend. Me — I saw that table and thought it would all be a drag. Look what happened. I need to meet each day understanding that each meeting is an opportunity.”

He’s right. And for me there’s more. Recently, through more than a few sermons at church, I had given up believing the lie that I was “done”. That God was no longer interested in the likes of me, or working in the likes of me. As I had relinquished my grip on stupid ideas like that and spending more time with him, God had been very tenderly showing me in increasing strength that I was important to him, loved by him, and a channel of his grace. On a random weekend like this, God showed up in the Adirondacks and particularly  showed me that he takes personal interest in me and that his hand is in everything. That, “simply”, is not only so much more than enough. It’s all I need.

Grace Rules: A Rant on Humanity (therefore exposing mine)

I love rules. They are so useful for making other people behave. I don’t need rules because I am a good girl and behave very well already.

My husband thinks rules are unnecessary and confining. This makes me very nervous.

So recently while on the way to that “Walk with the Dinosaurs” extravaganza making its rounds nationwide, we had a conversation we’ve repeated a few times during our marriage:

“Why did you bring that?” I pointed to the camcorder. “They’re not going to let you take pictures or film.”

“Why not?”

“They never do at this type of thing. It has to do with copyright. There’ll be an announcement – just you wait.”

“Copyright?! I just want a few snapshots — I’m not going to sell them. Besides, what are they going to do? Send around the camera police?”

“It doesn’t matter what you do with them. A rule is a rule. Just because you don’t agree with it doesn’t mean you should disregard it.”

Yada yada yada — and so it went on. Whatever. I had made up my mind. No camera.

On this particular day this conversation set the tone for my mood which was too bad since, though I couldn’t care less about dinosaurs, I care somewhat about my husband who likes dinosaurs so much he had been willing to shell out a small fortune for the show. I wanted to appear the supportive wife, so I had already decided that at least I could watch people, who are often more entertaining than any show. I was also glad to get out of the house.

Sure enough, before the show started a voice boomed over the stadium: “Dinosaurs will eat anyone filming or photographing the show.” Told ya so, dear, though I looked very gracious to not rub it in.

But now a tangent. (Bear with me.) Soon after seating ourselves, a Cluster of folks appeared with tickets for the seats next to us, including a Seat #9 at the end of the row, which was simply a chairless space. While they stood there looking confused, a woman a couple of rows back rasped loudly, “That is just awful! How dare they sell a ticket for a seat that isn’t there! You should complain – they should give you a seat in the front row! You should sue!”

I wanted to be helpful. “I’m sure they could bring in an extra chair.”

A woman in the Cluster sneered at me and snorted, “A chair –!” while the group’s matriarch complained to Mr. Security, who stared at the tickets with furrowed brow.

Immediately I was inwardly reeling about the sneering “a chair –!” comment. Had I said something wrong? Was I being inconsiderate somehow? After all, who was I, who already had a seat and was sitting in it, to suggest bringing in “a chair –“! Had I walked in these people’s shoes? Hmmph. I wondered:

Maybe they’d had a bad experience with — Musical Chairs.

Maybe the chair had been pulled out from beneath them.

Maybe if I had used the word seat instead of chair….

Meanwhile the stadium was filling with magenta Cretaceous fog. The show’s soundtrack started with an intensity they couldn’t expect to sustain. Dinosaurs lumbered onto the stadium floor; I could see their computerized carts.

Mr. Security came back with a folding chair which, unlike ours, had four inches of padding. The Cluster stood in a semi-circle around it, studied it, took notes over it, and then shook their heads.

It would not do; it was not bolted to the ground like the rest of ours.

I was annoyed. A chair is a chair is a chair. Now there was a Seat #9. Why couldn’t they just sit down and shut up?!

For Pete’s sake — I would have sat in the chair!

But never mind. My attention was momentarily diverted to the narrator saying:

“There were no flowers before the Cretaceous. But insects came along and helped the ferns pollinate, so to thank the insects, plants started to grow flowers.”

Read that again. Really?

Great. The predictable evolutionary allusion to us all coming from monkeys. I pulled a crumpled receipt out of my purse and scribbled the quote on the back.  When I looked up, the Cluster had disappeared.

“I bet they got front row seats,” Raspy Woman said. I noticed they’d left a sippy cup behind. Oh – now this was ripe! I could race down the stairs, waving the cup. I could stop them. Breathless, I could apologize:  “I’m so sorry – I’m so sorry for suggesting they bring in a ‘chair’!” And then  – wait for it – wait for it: “A ‘throne’ would have been so much more appropriate!”

Sometimes I crack myself up. But wait: what was that? I was jolted back to the present when one of the computerized carts started moving backwards, making the allosaurus look as if it were doing the moonwalk.

Simultaneously, all over the arena, a thousand flashbulbs went off.

Never mind what I said about us not coming from monkeys.

I was mad. I looked at Mark in disgust while he mouthed, “Told you so.” I imagined my first grade teacher rising out of the mist with great condescension and whining, “I’m soooorrrry, but because some of you are taking pictures so not follow the rules, you have ruined the treat for the rest!” The fog would cease, the lights dim, the dinosaurs would roll to a stop.

I couldn’t wait! Meanwhile, the magenta fog rolled and the soundtrack tried to sustain its frenetic energy. I stewed myself into a good frenzy. I rehashed the scenario of the “Cluster” and the camera-toting rule breakers again and again, analyzing, re-analyzing, and over-analyzing.  I even imagined what Jesus might have done, hanging out and looking cool.  Well, He probably would have called Raspy Woman to be his disciple: after all, she was loud like Peter.

I imagined myself at Princess Diana’s wedding. No one would have dared flout the rules there. No one would have hidden her camera in her purse. That’s where I deserved to be. A couple rungs up on the civilization ladder, that was for sure. Instead, here I was, tucked amidst the Great Unwashed Herd.  For Pete’s sake, what was wrong with people?

Thank heavens I was not like them.

Fast forward to this past weekend. Camera and camcorder at my feet. This time we were on our way to see my niece in her high school’s production of Seussical. My sister-in-law was saying, “You’re not supposed to film because of copyright, but last night everyone was filming and taking pictures anyway.” “Yeah, I don’t know what the big deal is,” my husband agreed. It was the same conversation all over again, except that when the show started, I flipped open the camcorder and filmed a little here and a little there with nary a thought. Why not? She was doing great, and I love her!

During the intermission, I got up to get the kids some snacks. When I came back I found this marked-up program on my chair:

I had asked my hubby for his jacket during intermission because the room was cold. Now waves of heat were radiating off my skin, my heart was pounding, and sweat was beading on my forehead. I felt a sudden empathy for how Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov must have felt before he finally blurted, “I killed the old woman!” How dare that Invisible Someone call me on the carpet at my own game!

I had broken the rules – I was part of the Great Unwashed Herd after all!

While Horton cradled Maisy’s egg and Gertrude McFuzz flitted around him, every guilty moment from the age of four paraded before my eyes: Stolen Fizzies; boarding school chidings; thank you cards I’d never sent! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Eyes behind me burned into my back — those fingers that had grasped that black marker felt as if they were strangling me. I was suddenly exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go home and hide in a closet. On the way home, “Y’know –”, “After –”, “Why did we –” was all I could blurt to my husband, who, alternately concerned and frustrated, kept saying, “What on earth is wrong?!”

When I finally spit it out, all he did was laugh. He laughed! He saw my pained look. “Come on, Ev, they don’t know you.” (Why hadn’t I just given him the camera?!)

Now, a couple months later, something pretty profound is sinking in (stay with me!). As a Christian, I’ve learned that Christ’s payment for my sin through his death and resurrection frees me to live within his boundless grace.  I am not restricted to having to follow a bunch of rules in order to please him. My head gets this, but sometimes my heart doesn’t. From the time I was very young I taught myself that behaving and following the rules would ensure approval, acceptance, and love – all of which felt really, really good.

The problem is, I get mad when people don’t follow the rules, because it takes the focus off of me and the rewards I think I deserve for my good behavior. So, the more I follow the rules, the more resentment I feel for the amoral masses. Following rules is also imprisoning, though, because I inevitably fail and so condemn myself. It doesn’t feel good to realize that I’m as creepy as the rest of them and it’s even worse when people like Black Marker Guy notice.

How can I extend Grace to others when I’m already condemning myself?

It boils down to this: I have no problem loving people except for when it comes to people. And that’s a problem when it comes to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Was Jesus’ irritation with the religious leaders of his day due partly to the fact that their focus on rules incapacitated their ability to be compassionate?

Consequently, where Grace would find potential and a possible disciple in the Great Unwashed Herd, within my snug behavioral boundaries I usually find fault.

Conversely, my rule-flouting, freedom-loving husband is the guy who extends grace all over the place — who always gives folks the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it drives me crazy.

But I’m learning. After all, I love it when folks extend grace to me – especially my dentist — because for all all my introspection and soul-searching this morning, apparently I just missed an appointment.