My husband may have had cause to find a concubine. Of course, I would have ignored the cause and made him my ticket to martyrdom followed by sainthood. I would have been forced to move far away, change my name to Therese, live in a room with a single light bulb (you’ve no idea how much I hate overhead lighting), and work as a clerk at Wal-Mart.
May have had—past perfect tense. That was last December; it’s better now that I’m speaking in a normal voice instead of the Schnauzer whine I’d adopted. It was our first Christmas alone, ever; and I’d like to think that was partly to blame for my worse than usual behavior. Our children are spread out now, and the tradition of coming home; home meaning where, we, Mom and Dad live, isn’t easy. Knowing this, last summer, I magnanimously set our children free, and to my surprise they took me up on the offer; like they were sweetly waiting for me, and I had just caught on. Or up. Marsena and Jeff, being closest to us in the Chicago area, invited us to visit them. We took our work and showed up a week before Christmas, celebrating early, knowing they would need to be in Wisconsin with Jeff’s family for the 24th and 25th. Midweek, Denis got sick and crabby with a cold, so he mostly stayed upstairs working on a seminary course. Then we had a disagreement about something so silly I can’t tell you about it, but it formed an icy silence between us.
I sat by myself in the living room, listening to carols in the background, and looking out on the frozen lake, where I’d been skating every night with Jeff. Chickadees darted to the bird feeder, and juncos, their feathers puffed against the cold, hopped across the snow looking for seeds. I tried hard not to pity myself, as I watched the birds and people chase one another around the lake, building a bonfire, and then leaving, I knew, to eat turkey and dressing with their families. I thought of my grandchildren opening their presents in soft candle-light, gratefully thanking me for my thoughtful, educational, more-fun-than-a-box-of-monkeys gifts. I listened to Leonard Cohen sing “Anthem”: There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in…. I wondered how light was going to penetrate my cracks. I am self-centered, just in general; biting into as many assorted chocolates as necessary to find my favorite, hiding a book from Denis so I can read it myself, never filling the car with gas, resenting Philip Yancy’s good writing…and many other things. I thought how The Incarnation might not mean a thing to me if I had to sit on the couch alone with my best friend mad at me.
That’s what I was doing right before or during the tsunami which crashed through the Indian Ocean.
The next day while thousands of people rolled in the ocean, I sat in a comfortable pew listening to Ewan Kennedy’s good sermon: “The Love of God Shown in Christmas: the Gift We Need.” I was busy repenting, feeling hopeful, and happy to receive The Gift I needed. It helped Denis and I get mended. More than mended. I was mollified, rolling in love again. That was before reports filtered, then flooded across the world.
Tell Me, If You Can
Then the international toll of the dead began. Day after day we witnessed the accounting.
How was it possible to live a common, ordinary life knowing thousands and thousands had fallen into death and grief? Who would give me permission to eat an entire chicken leg, wear thick socks warmed on the radiator, and sleep beneath a blue, polar-tech blanket with a man who loves me? Can it be right to grow alarmed because Kaiden has pneumonia, ear infections, and high blood counts? What’s one sick, two-year old twin when so many little ones will never be back? Or what was one case of diarrhea and a fight with your spouse? Shame on me. I gave myself a mental slap. Everyday joys and sufferings are insignificant, meaningless, I said.
Tell me. Can God be at once holy, furious, tender, merciful? I asked God, what is the meaning of the tsunami? Have we any right to lift our voice in complaint or sorrow ever again?
Such ancient questions. It’s like I forget the theology I claim to know, and this tragedy revealed something new and horrifying about God. I wanted wise voices to sort the tsunami for me, to give me comfort and reasons to live, even if a whole bunch remain unknowable.
Poets Ask The Best Questions
“Woman Why Are You Weeping?”
What is Brahman? I don’t know Brahman.
I don’t know saccidandana, the bliss
of the absolute and unknowable.
I only know that I have lost the Lord
in whose image I was made.
Whom shall I thank for this pear,
sweet and white? Food is God, Prasadam,
God’s mercy. But who is this God?
The one who is not this, not that?
Shall the fire answer my fears and vapors?
The fire cares nothing for my illness,
nor does Brahma, the creator, nor Shiva who sees
evil with his terrible third eye; Vishnu,
the protector, does not protect me.
Looking at them* I lose my place.
I don’t know why I was born, or why
I live in a house in New England, or why I am
a visitor with heavy luggage giving lectures
for the State Department. Why am I not
tap-tapping with my fingernail
on the rolled-up window of a white Government car,
a baby in my arms, drugged to look feverish?
[*them, meaning the people of India, not the gods.]
The voice of Jane Kenyon. It’s hardly fair to quote part of her poem and not the whole. I’m sorry to do it. (Consider getting her book A Hundred White Daffodils, a collection of essays, interviews and a bit of poetry.) In this poem Jane mourns her loss of the comfort of Jesus after a trip to India. Her sad questions are mine. We are struck by the inadequacy of Hinduism, but wonder at our own privilege in the face of suffering.
Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian poet, offers a suggestion at the end of bewildering questions.
“4. How Could You”
It’s beyond my understanding.
How could you create such a world,
Alien to the human heart, pitiless,
In which monsters copulate, and death
Is the numb guardian of time.
I am unable to believe that You wanted it.
There must have been some precosmic catastrophe,
A victory of the forces of inertia, stronger than Your Will.
A wandering rabbi who called You his Father,
A man defenseless against the laws and the beasts of this earth,
Let him help me
In my prayers to You.
[“Father Severinus” from Second Space by Czeslaw Milosz, HarperCollins, 2004]
The Rabbi Says
The Sunday after the tsunami, a woman at church told me the highest death toll from the tsunami hit the coasts where people were the most evil. I was speechless.
When Jesus was told in Luke 13:1 about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices, they assumed the Galileans were especially bad sinners to have suffered such a sacrilegious end to their lives. What else could explain this awful thing other than the sins of the dead must have been great enough to justify the defilement? They wanted Jesus to confirm their opinion.
Jesus totally destroys that thread. He uses another example of eighteen men killed by a tower collapse in Siloam. “Were they worse offenders than all who live in Jerusalem,” he asks? “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
He was saying, it doesn’t matter who or where. You’re not better than or less sinful because the tsunami didn’t hit your beloved shore. We’re all in danger of a much greater destruction unless we repent. Okay. That helps a little. I was repenting when the tsunami happened. (See above.) I know sin and death have a hold on me. Typical: the woman at church made me disproportionately angry, and she’d probably only been listening to Christian radio. I wish it were otherwise, but along with the rest of humankind, I’m never quite done repenting.
Can I Shout at God
One of Job’s mistakes, Francis Schaeffer says, is that he shouts against God as though to accuse him of using people as puppets or machines. “The Bible insists that history is real, with a true cause and effect in itself. When the tree is blown down on the mountain, the Christian does not say, ‘God knocked the tree down.’ The consistent pantheist must say that, but not the Christian. The Christian says the wind blew the tree down, because that’s the way God made the world.
We cannot always say that God brought [suffering]. It’s not always directly from Him. [It] can be a working out of real history, a history that is abnormal because of man’s sin in general.
I can understand Job saying, So, God, why aren’t you balancing the books now? Schaeffer points out that, “In Job’s case, the books were balanced in this life—in the end. [It’s like the country western song played backwards, you get sober, your wife comes home and you find your dog.] Sometimes, in my case and in yours, this may happen; often it won’t. That doesn’t change the message of the word of God…we must remember we are creatures in the total reality of history. And as such, I simply do not know enough to shout at God.
[The International Newsletter of L’Abri, Spring 2005]
“Knowing enough” would include seeing the naked human heart, all its thoughts and intentions, and a total understanding of nature and history. I’m silenced.
On the phone, Steve Garber tells me a friend of his, a husband, a father of four children still at home, has taken his life. Another tsunami. I could tell Steve was tired and burdened. I asked what comforted him. How do we comfort others? He replied, “Well, dear sister, I often think how much more difficult it would be to remain a Christian without John chapter 11.”
Lazarus is dead and the Son of God is weeping. It’s evidence of Jesus’ choice to stay with us through pain and suffering though he could have been anywhere else. This is Milosz’ wandering rabbi, the one who helps us pray, who will one day have victory over all catastrophe.
On A Good Day in Real History
Christian faith knows that both natural disaster and human sin are part of the interim between the Fall that corrupted God’s very good creation and the glorious goal toward which history is moving. (Romans 8:19-22)… The problem was so great that the Trinity offered a radical solution: the death of the Son of God for the life of the world… The discussion of God’s control over people and nature today must not be separated from God’s victory at the end of history. At the center of this story—at the pivotal point in the narrative—is Jesus, with his arms outstretched.
[From Christianity Today Editorial, Feb. 2005]
That’s how I see Jesus best. Come, he says, all you who are weary and burdened: You mothers who’ve washed the crib sheets, yet again, because your two-year old twins peed on them. You children asleep with teddy bears. You who fell on the kitchen floor and can’t rise again. Come, you men bent over your computers late at night with the Visa bill. And come, you who don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
A Table Set
I wish reasons to believe were a little more precise, but this will do for now. I pray more quietly, as Jesus taught us: Give us this day our daily bread; thank you for the table you’ve prepared for me in the presence of my enemies.
I pull through the drive-up at Dunn Bros Coffee and order an Americano using all the coins Denis has carefully saved in the console. Lovely—and no concubines in sight. I finish sewing a comforter for Anson, my grandson—red sailboats on one side, navy-blue flannel on the other. I’m sad for my friend whose mother is gone, died after months of suffering. I mourn for the woman pregnant with triplets who chose to abort the twins and keep The One. Neo? No, way. And what will The One think when he grows up and learns his Twin Siblings were sacrificed by his mother? My granddaughter, Manessah calls. I’m reminded her name means God has helped me in my sorrow. She tells me all her friends are coming to her birthday party and they are dying their hair blue, won’t that be special? I doubt her mom thinks so.
We are in Concord, NC, at Providence Presbyterian Church doing a weekend conference and staying with the Baldwins (Steve is pastor). Karen and daughter Rachel made gnocchi* (pronounced neeokee). I watch as they gently knead a dough of flour and potato, roll it into snakes and cut the dough into tender little chunks the size of fat, baby mice. Rachel presses a fork against each one leaving a tiny tread mark “to capture the butter.” Simmered, drained, and mixed with melted butter and sage, newly plucked from the garden. We sit down together, hold hands, say grace, and eat gnocchi, my new favorite comfort food.
Graceless & Bounding
Back to Ewan’s sermon on “The Gift You Need.” He ended with Malachi 4:2 “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” That’s perfect.
I’ve released calves from their stalls and know how they look, what they do. It’s funny that Malachi chooses them to describe us. I’d rather be let out like a Bolshoi dancer from the wings of a stage, you know? No such luck, we dance like happy calves escaping the barn. Not studied, practiced grace, just spontaneous running and splay-legged jumping, tails in the air like skinny wands.
I think we can do some of this, occasionally dance like calves and take care of each other. And trust, as my friend Nancy Snyder says, that when, or if, disaster washes up on our doorstep, we will be given the wisdom to choose in that moment what to do. Remember, too, God never staked the success of salvation on us, that’s been his job from the beginning. You said something like that, didn’t you, Nancy?
*Recipe for Gnocchi
2 1/4 pounds potatoes
1 3/4 cups flour (about)
pinch of salt
Steam potatoes until tender but firm.
Peel and mash while they’re still hot. (A ricer works well for the right texture.)
Season with salt and work in the egg and enough flour to obtain a firm, smooth, non- sticky dough (how much depends on how moist the potatoes are).
Dough should feel very tender, not at all like bread. Roll into snakes as thick as your finger, cut into one-inch pieces.
Gently score pieces with a fork.
Cook in salted boiling water.
Remove with slotted spoon a minute or two after they rise to surface.
Serve with a few leaves of fresh sage, melted butter and Parmigiano cheese.
I either didn’t work in enough flour or boiled mine too long and they were dangerously close to becoming mush. But the flavor was wonderful.