Monthly Archives: March 2010

Wednesday, Holy Week

"Christ is stripped" (Anna Kocher, 2006)

Descending Theology: Christ Human

Such a short voyage for a god,
and you arrived in animal form so as not
to scorch us with your glory.
Your mask was an infant’s head on a limp stalk,
sticky eyes smeared blind,
limbs rendered useless in swaddle.
You came among beasts
as one, came into our care or its lack, came crying
as we all do, because the human frame
is a crucifix, each skeletos borne a lifetime.
Any wanting soul lain
prostrate on a floor to receive a pouring of sunlight
might–if still enough,
feel your cross buried in the flesh.
One has only to surrender,
you preached, open both arms to the inner,
the ever-present hold,
out-reaching every want. It’s in the form
embedded, love adamant as bone.
In a breath, we can bloom and almost be you

Mary Karr, Sinners Welcome

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Note #1: I apologize for the incorrect formatting in Descending Theology: Christ Human. The blog monster doesn’t agree with indentations. I can’t give you a link to its correct form; you’ll just have to find it in her book.

Note #2: Find Anna Kocher’s other work here.

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Thankful Tuesday, Holy Week

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week always feel a little unsettling to me. I know what to think about on Sunday. I can focus and meditate on Christ’s journey Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But what about these three unnamed days?

Though there is plenty to read in the Gospels, teaching and events occurring within those few days between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his Passover feast with his disciples, I always still feel a bit unprepared when Maundy Thursday hits, as if I’ve forgotten to get ready.

So, maybe we can start a little earlier this week. For the rest of Holy Week, I won’t be blabbing on and on about whatever deep thought I’m having at the moment. Instead, I’ll be introducing some paintings and poems that have been an important part of my Easter experience over the past few years.

In 2006, our church in Philadelphia commissioned my friend Anna Kocher to produce a series of paintings to help us worshipfully walk through the Stations of the Cross. Since then, her work has lined the hallway at our church each Lenten season, and has been available for guided prayer in the sanctuary every Good Friday. These pieces have been a significant part of my experience of Holy Week for the past three years and I have missed having them in my life during my first season of Lent in San Francisco. So, I’m giving us a glimpse into her series: I’ll be posting a few different images of the paintings, one for each day, here on the blog. I hope each will be something you can spend some time meditating on, allowing God to speak to you, perhaps, in a new way this week.

I’ll also be posting a poem each day to aid us in our meditation on the life of Christ. All the poems, except one, are from a series on the life of Christ called “Descending Theology.” These poems are from Mary Karr’s book Sinners Welcome, a book that every Christian who loves poetry should own and consume as much as possible. (That’s just my humble opinion.)

So, Happy Thankful Tuesday. Today I’m thankful that even on Tuesdays in Holy Week, when we don’t know what to focus our minds on, we can read a poem about the nativity and gaze on a painting of Christ’s arrest and remember that this story we believe in is beautiful and crazy and earthy and capable of changing everything.

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"Christ is condemned to death" (Anna Kocher, 2006)

Descending Theology: The Nativity

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth

found that first fullness–her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was left
in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

-Mary Karr, Sinners Welcome

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Palm Sunday

As I write this, it’s still Palm Sunday, the day we pick up our palm leaf alongside our worship brochure and wave it. (And try to pay attention to the sermon while secretly folding our palm leaf into a cross that can sit on our dresser for the next few weeks until we throw it away.) It’s a strange day of celebration, knowing what lies ahead this week, knowing what we’re actually commemorating. Just as we celebrate the Christ walking into a city crowded with “Hosanna!” shouters who will turn to cry “Crucify” on Thursday night (or Friday morning?), we are aware that we’re among those praising on Sunday and crucifying on Friday. We have good intentions and then are overwhelmed by the brokenness of what we actually are.

This morning I sat August on our bench beside the front door, said: “Let’s get your shoes on so we can go to church.” I don’t know if he was unaware all morning as we moved around him, getting ourselves dressed, combing his hair, sharing some pancakes, that church was our ultimate destination. He likes church. He loves his “teachers” in the nursery. He loves playing with his friends. But today, the mention of church was explosive. Some fear that’s been welling up in him was let loose and he panicked. He suddenly shifted from the happy boy carrying around his dinosaur books, saying, “Saur! Roar!” to an open mouthed, full lunged scream, face reddening, hands stiffened in the air, fingers outstretched.

All of that would have been fairly normal, typical nearly two-year-old stuff. What disturbed me was what happened next: he began hitting himself in the face. That’s probably a normal toddler tantrum reaction. He and I deal with his need to hit fairly often. I’ve gotten my fair share of his arm swing when he doesn’t want his diaper changed or doesn’t want to get in the stroller. We deal with the hitting (a little time in the sad chair, anyone?) and move on. But his hitting himself is a new thing. As someone who has worked with teenagers for years and has known kids who cut and mutilate themselves to gain relief from the pressure of their lives, families, relationships, and the general burdens of adolescence, I shudder to think of August hurting himself.  Cutting oneself is such a common occurrence in high school that it’s often the first relief kids turn to when they’re hurting.

I know that a toddler slapping his hands against his head is not comparable to the depth of what’s going on in a teenager who is secretly cutting herself in the bathroom, but as August screamed and hit his own face, I couldn’t help but think of the girls I’ve been praying for who are struggling in that way right now. It was a moment when I knew I have to be intentional with August his whole life. He needs to know that hurting himself is just like hurting other people. I told him that. He got some mama comfort until he could calm down and remember that church was actually a fun place for him to go.

Later, as I sat in the service this morning, I was aware of my heart, my nature, my tendency toward the fickleness of those who praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, laying out their coats for his donkey and shouting words of worship, only to later ask for his destruction. I thought of August living with no cares in his life: food is provided, songs are sung, friends are played with, toys are waiting. Yet, he’s still capable of great fear and frustration and self hate. He has all he needs and in spite of that, he’s already broken.

I had a realization about Palm Sunday: What we’re really doing on this day is recognizing that our “sinfulness” is more about our own lack of wholeness, our inability to fix what’s incomplete in us than it is about our outward shouts of “crucify him!” The inconsistency of the crowds in Jerusalem is the same inconsistency in all of us. How can August long to fill his tummy with food and play with toys because he finds joy in it and still want to hit himself when he’s scared? How is it that I can spend so much time longing for others to like me, think only of myself when I should be caring for others, and still be able to criticize myself mercilessly, believing lies about my worth?

It’s the same thing that caused the crowds to love Jesus when they thought he was capable of being their political leader and leave him when, after a few days, it appeared that he was too weak to follow through on what they wanted.

This morning, before we sang, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” we prayed together:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who on this day entered the rebellious city which later rejected you:
We confess that our wills are just as rebellious,
that our faith is often more show than substance,
that our hearts are in need of cleansing.
Have mercy on us, Son of David, Savior of our lives.
Help us lay at your feet all that we have and all that we are,
trusting you to forgive what is sinful, to heal what is broken, to welcome our praises,
and to receive us as your own. Amen.

Friends, as we journey through this Holy Week together, my prayer is that we may know more deeply what it is to lay at the feet of Jesus all that we are, with honesty, despite our fickle hearts and deep-woven broken places. May we experience this week the only one who can truly receive us as we really are.

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Where is my cross?

It’s not often that Sunday’s sermon loiters in my head throughout the rest of the week. It may be because I helped lead the discussion on the same passage last night in our church small group, but it’s been lingering today and I need to talk to you about it.

In Luke 14, Jesus turns to a massive crowd that had gathered, drawn by his miracles, his charisma, his entirely new interpretation of the scriptures, and his radical challenge of authority. It was a moment in his ministry when he could have made good use of those crowds surrounding him: most would have aimed for revolution, called everyone to rebellion against the Roman government, begun a movement. Instead he asked them to do the impossible:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26-27, ESV).

I’ve struggled with this passage for years. I’ve heard it explained a number of ways. And, for the most part, I’m never completely satisfied. Okay, I think. I get it. He was being “shocking.” I know Jesus liked to upset his listeners into a completely new way of seeing the world. I can respect that. And I can respect the idea of “hating” oneself. You can’t grow up in evangelical Christianity in this country and not accept that you’re supposed to take yourself out of the equation.

But, come on, what does Jesus really mean when he says, hate your mother and father and children? Thankfully, for us women, we don’t have to hate our husbands. (Whew! A reason to celebrate our obvious exclusion from the passage!)

So my pastor’s explanation of this passage is one of the best I’ve heard. I’m actually not fighting it too much in my head, which is a major accomplishment. He said that “hate” was often used in biblical passages as a comparison word, almost like a literary device to contrast the significant distinction between two things. It’s saying: I want you to pay attention to how considerable the non-hated thing is.

As an example of that use of “hate,” my pastor referred to the story in Genesis when Jacob works for seven years to win the hand of his love, Rachel. When Rachel’s father sneakily marries him to Leah, her older sister, Jacob is willing to work another seven years to wed the woman he actually loves. His passion for Rachel is so deep that the passage describes him as hating Leah, though, as my pastor pointed out, there’s no reason for us to assume the hostility we would usually equate with the word “hate.” There’s no point in the narrative when we see Jacob outwardly despising Leah. They have children together. They live as a family together. But, in order to make sure the reader understands that Rachel is the love of his life, the passage tells us that Jacob hated Leah. It’s making a distinction; there’s no middle ground allowed.

Is that the point Jesus is trying to make here to the massive crowd gathered around their latest superstar rabbi? Maybe. Demanding that his followers carry their cross was not a great movement-building idea. The image of the cross conveyed arrest; it conveyed actual death. It was not a great PR choice to tell a crowd that following you is going to be like walking toward the place where you will slowly agonize (naked and humiliated) and eventually die of asphyxiation.

But those are not the things I can’t get over this week. What I can’t stop thinking about is me in the midst of this passage. (What’s new? you say.) What does this  passage mean in my life? How in the world can I ever live out this command as a comfortable stay-at-home mom in contemporary America? I have a lot of baggage left from the days I assumed that my value to God lay in what I accomplished for him. And in that mindset I spent many years exhausted, pushing myself into “ministry” and feeling guilt for the days of rest I enjoyed or the relationships I loved easily without sacrifice.

We can talk about “taking up our cross,” a phrase we spout pretty regularly in evangelical culture, as doing the right thing at work, or choosing to tell the truth, or giving financially even when it’s difficult. And all those things are legitimate examples of living by the moral standard God has given us, but are they worthy of an image of agony and asphyxiation?

I don’t know.

All I know is that my pastor came back to Rachel and Leah in his explanation. He said: “Jesus is saying, ‘I want to be your Rachel.’”

Everything else in my life needs to be “hated”; it needs to pale in comparison to the God I follow. Is that just a matter of my emotional inner life? I don’t know. But it should challenge me as a mother and a wife. I’m not convinced that my family needs to be my entire ministry in life. There are others to give myself to, especially because it often feels easier to only give myself to August and Chris.

And so, the question needs to live in my head every day: Is Christ my Rachel? Or is my son my Rachel? Is my work my Rachel? Is some vague idea of who I should be or what I should accomplish my Rachel?

And in that, where is my cross?

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What Endures

Lord God, protector of all who trust in you,

Without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy;

Support us always by your love.

Guide us to use the good things of this world,

That even now, we may hold fast to what endures forever…

This is the prayer laid out for me this morning in my Benedictine Handbook. It’s not a prayer for Lent or a prayer for a certain holy day. It’s simply a prayer for a Wednesday, which is perhaps the most difficult kind of prayer to pray—to recognize on an ordinary day, a day of simple work and encounters and vague remainders of thoughts and struggles and joys in my head—that the good things I experience are a picture of who God actually is, a picture of what endures beyond the ordinary.

This morning I sat down with God, coffee in hand, and my first words of prayer were not, as Benedict would have it, “Oh Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” My words were, “I wish you weren’t so mysterious and I didn’t have to doubt you so much.”

I have no reason to be feeling that way this morning, other than the fact that my mind is running through my unsatisfied God-problems on a regular basis. Sometimes my frustrations with the God I don’t understand are louder than other times. They shouldn’t be today. Yesterday I had wonderfully encouraging news from my dear friend, Cat, who shared the ministry in Young Life with me for four years and is faithfully building up the work I left behind there. On the phone last night, she relayed story after story of beautiful things God is doing in kids’ lives, answers to requests that are written on my kitchen dry-erase board, names of kids I’ve been praying for. How is it that I can so clearly experience God’s healing of broken lives and still be ungrateful, still find every other reason I shouldn’t believe?

That’s why I’m loving this prayer today: “With out you nothing is strong, nothing is holy.” Yesterday I wrote about a holy moment with August on the top of a mountain we’d hiked. My mom’s cousin sent me an email about that post, saying that she sees those moments as “real” moments. I love that. The truth is that in deep joy we are seeing ourselves and those around us as we were really meant to be apart from the brokenness of our lives. When God gives us beauty it’s the closest thing we know to what is actually real in this world. What we usually experience in our everyday fear and stress and monotony is a world that is out of order, not the reality God intended.

And so, today, my prayer is that we see what is strong around us, what is true: the good things. I pray that we would not walk into our offices or schools or lunch dates in fear but in joy, knowing that the real things are what endure forever. And while the mysteries and my God-problems and my moments of deep anxiety may push me into joylessness, even now, sitting on the couch, or in the car, or picking toys off the floor, or disciplining August, or kissing my husband, I can hold fast to what endures forever…

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The city, the ocean, the backpack

This past Saturday, our little family picked up our newest Craigslist purchase, the baby hiking backpack, loaded up a picnic lunch, and drove twenty miles north of the city to a beach in Marin County. Still new to this area of the country, I can’t get over the fact that both the ocean and mountains can be within driving distance of a city. It’s so unfair! Our lovely afternoon started with a picnic near the beach before we loaded up for our first official family hike.

I should make a note here that we’re most definitely not “those people.” The ones who go on hikes and camp every weekend. And have the most breathable and protective hiking pants. And make their own tofu jerkey. (Is tofu jerkey even a thing?) It’s not that I don’t want to be those people. I have always fancied myself an outdoors girl. I grew up camping. I have no problem digging a hole in the woods. I love fly-fishing (even though I’m terrible at it).  And, most of all, I love the smell of being inside a forest. I love the quietness of feet crunching sticks and leaves. I love the whoosh of streams starting down the mountain. I love the exhaustion of a good, long hike.

I did not marry an outdoorsy man and he has no qualms about that.  Chris is not anti-outdoors. He loves playing football with friends outside. He loves being on sailboat in the ocean. He’s just never spent his time hiking or camping. And he has no need to make himself into a Chaco wearing, guitar-playing dude so you’ll like him. That’s one of the traits I most admire about him: he doesn’t need to impress you.

So, when my husband, knowing how much I would love it, expressed interest in getting a hiking backpack and heading up a trail, I was so excited I actually giggled. He strapped all thirty pounds of our little boy onto his back and we started what would be a six-mile, five hour long trek. (I don’t think we would have actually committed to that if we had realized what we were getting ourselves into).

There were definitely some difficulties for Chris carrying the boy on his back. For one thing, my husband is 6’4” and lots of tree limbs aren’t. So he was doing a lot of ducking and August was learning how to bow his head from his seat on his dad’s back. Chris even crawled on his hands and knees a couple of times to get under a branch with August. It was awesome.

And after our first two and half hours of climbing, when the forest opened up into a sprawling, pale green, rolling meadow, we all gasped. (Note: August didn’t actually gasp. He was asleep in the backpack by then, his mouth drooling all over the foamy nylon). It was stunning. We continued on for a while until we reached the peak of one of those grassy hills, where we could look toward the south at our new city twenty miles away and to the west at ocean spreading all the way to Asia. We walked a little further toward a hill where we sat and my boys took each other’s places in the nap department. August woke as we sat his backpack down and his father lay on his back in the grass with a sweatshirt over his face.

So August sat beside that sleeping man, sharing a bag of dried dates with me, both of us on our butts with our legs straight out in the grass, able to stare straight out at our city and this ocean which both still feel like strangers to me.

August will be two in a few months and I know that marker is officially the end of his life as a baby. I’ve been coming to terms with what the loss of his infancy means to my heart. But I’m having a hard time right now writing about those minutes of sitting in the sunshine on a mountain beside my little boy. A year ago I was still nursing a crawling babbling thing who was learning to throw a ball with wild flapping arms. Saturday, we stared at the ocean, eating dates and talking about bugs.

You know those moments of holiness: when every normal thing in your life is lit up and you can see for an instant the beauty of what you actually hold? Ours lasted twenty minutes. We picked up a mama and a baby roly-poly in the grass. We felt their shells and sat them back. We ate all the dates in our bag. We watched a family of deer meander out of the trees and graze across the meadow from us. We walked at toddler pace past wildflowers which August picked and plucked to his heart’s content. We got a better view of the ocean and when I pulled out my camera to take a picture, my boy said: “Cheese! Sharks!” (I will interpret: “Say cheese, sharks.”)

We walked back up the hill to his father, who was waking from his happy nap, strapped the backpack to Chris and sat an ecstatic August inside it. And we hiked another two hours down.

The chapter I’m reading in Henri Nouwen’s book, Lifesigns, is about how fear and joy cannot coexist together. There have been plenty of moments of fear in my short motherhood. But I’m thankful that just as August could run into our house on Saturday evening, shouting at the cat: “Backpack!” I can live in joy in those moments that glow.

It’s Thankful Tuesday. What are you thankful for?

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Cotton and Lorraine

I spent two days last week with my mother and her sister, Vicki, visiting my great aunt Lorraine in Los Osos, California. It’s been fifteen years (that’s half my life) since I’ve hugged her. She’s now 92 and stunning, thinner and frailer but still absolutely beautiful with fantastic style and fire red hair (she’s had it dyed every three weeks for the past 50 years).

It’s interesting to me how I feel about Lorraine. I have many great aunts and uncles. Every one of my grandparents came from large farming families. There were plenty of relatives to run into from time to time growing up, but none of them were loved the way I’ve loved Lorraine. I saw her rarely in my childhood, every three or four years, maybe, when we took our family trip to the west coast, or when she came to Amarillo to visit my great grandmother “Mama Mac” (for whom my Mama Monk name draws some inspiration). Perhaps it was her love for white pant suits and big gold clip-on earrings or her forty-year commitment to the same Este Lauder perfume. (I was relieved to catch that sweet scent on her when we hugged.)

But I know the reason I love her dearly is because my grandmother, Cotton, loves her dearly. There was no way to grow up listening to Cotton’s stories of childhood and World War II and being a young mom in the fifties, without falling in love with Lorraine, my grandmother’s dearest, and wonderfully colorful sister.

Before coming last week, my aunt Vicki spent weeks scanning in old family slides from the summers they spent in California during my mom’s childhood. I’ve loved gliding through one photo after another, staring at these two beautiful blondes sunbathing in their two pieces. My husband has always had a secret crush on my grandmother in her young, glamorous twenties and thirties, when she was a gorgeous blonde with uniquely arched eyebrows and constantly tanned skin. But he’s been astounded by the two of these women together in black and white, bronzed on the beach, simply oozing elegance. I’m honored to say I will never be so lovely.

Last week, as I was scrubbing the toilet in preparation for mom and Vicki’s rapidly approaching arrival, I called to wish my grandparents a happy sixty-eighth wedding anniversary. (Yes, I wrote that correctly. Sixty-eighth.) I mentioned to Cotton how much I wished she could make the trip out to California to see Lorriane.

She said to me, “Micha, it takes a special kind of grace to accept what you can’t do anymore. And I don’t think I can travel out there ever again.”

I said, “Well, then, do you think you have it? That special grace?”

“I’m beginning to,” she said.

During my visit with Lorraine, I was shocked at how much her face is like my grandmother’s, the same expressions, the same quiver in her voice, arthritic fingers, hands covered with the raised veins that I have always loved on my grandmother’s hands, that I traced with my pointer finger as a child while I sat beside her.

I’ve always hoped that dying would be like every other change in my life. Remember how scary leaving for college was and how there was this wonderful longing for adventure mixed into that fear? I’ve felt that way about every move in my life. I felt that way about marriage, about having a baby, about leaving the ministry. As scary as the jump is, there has always been solid hand on my back, lovingly shoving me off the ledge.

What is that special kind of grace Cotton was talking about? Is there a moment when it arrives? Do I need to start looking for it now? I fear the day when I cannot see or talk to my two big brothers…when we’re too confused to have phone conversations, when I can’t get on a plane because I’m too frail to travel, when our grandkids don’t know each other and dread being forced into conversation at some Boyett family reunion.

But I pray there is some secret grace waiting in that moment, like the one I knew Thursday afternoon, when I lay my sleepy baby on Lorraine’s bed, sang him a song and snuck out of the room, stopping for a moment to stare at those two beautiful blondes smiling in the framed 1940’s photograph. A whole life ago, those girls posed. Young smooth hands and inside jokes, they shared memories of days on the farm in Floydada, Texas. They were working in California, waiting for their men to return from war.

I stared at my sleeping blond boy, whose right eyebrow arches in the same unique angle as Cotton’s. I thought, how is the world so beautiful? How is it so broken?

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