Seven is a sacred number,
signaling perfection in an imperfect world:
Seven days of creation, seven loaves and a handful of fish,
Seven deadly sins, seven virtues, seven gifts of the Spirit,
Seventy-seven times we’re called to forgive.
Seven times today my granddaughter
stops dead in her tracks,
a full-throated gasp escaping her lips.
As she hunts for hand-me-down toys,
she surprises a vacuum cleaner,
standing upright just inside the bedroom door.
As she gazes from the front window,
white petals drift off the dogwood
and settle silently on the still wet grass.
As she struggles to separate two plastic bricks,
she squeezes one in each chunky hand and pulls,
pulls harder — until the pieces pop apart.
She seeks refuge in the walk-in shower,
sliding down the tiles to sit in the corner,
and laughs as I splash water on the glass between us.
She picks through the clutter atop my dresser,
zeroing in on a tarnished pair of tweezers,
that stands alone in an old crystal glass.
She sorts through my jewelry box,
coaxing a string of bright green beads
out from the tangle in one dark corner.
She pries open a small metal box
that bears the image of ancient Irish stones
to discover again four smooth rocks gathered on last week’s walk.
Seven times today my darling Dot
makes sure her old Nana sees for herself:
surprises behind a door,
struggles that succeed,
refuge that allows laughter,
tarnish that does not diminish usefulness,
brightness illuminating dark corners,
and the joy of rediscovering last week’s wealth.
On a recent mid-morning, my three-year-old granddaughter, still wearing her white cotton nightgown faintly smeared with her strawberry snack, walks into the living room with a wicker basket slung over her arm. I look up from the newspaper.
“Hey, Nana, I am picking apples,” she says, moving behind the armchair and crawling over the sofa arm. “I am going to make an apple pie,” she announces as she heads back into the spare room to gather “the ingredients.”
Back in the living room, on a hastily cleared coffee table, she begins to make her pie.
“Do you have a recipe?” I ask.
“Yes.” She pushes her long brown hair away from her eyes. She rejects my offer to tie it back.
“Will you share it with me?”
“Yes. First, you put 100 cups of flour in this yellow bowl that I like. And then eggs.”
“Three,” as she adds three smooth rocks she’d pulled from a battered egg carton and smacks them one by one on the edge of the plastic bowl. “And five spoons of baking powder.” She uses an orange plastic spoon to measure out the make-believe contents of an old baking powder can. “And I already put in the milk.”
“How much?” I inquire -- I’d already begun to take notes on the back of an envelope.
“Half a bottle. And then three spoons of sugar.” She is perplexed for a moment because the dented toffee tin she had opened was empty. “We don’t need sugar,” she says, dismissively tossing the tin aside. “Now I have to make the apples.”
“I’ve heard that apple pie tastes best when it’s made from two kinds of apples,” I volunteer as a lifelong baker. Again, she seems perplexed.
“I mean two different colors of apples,” I explain hastily. “Red or yellow or green or striped.”
“Red and green,” she says. “Good thing I picked some green apples, too.”
“How many do you need?” .
“Four,” she says at first and then is quiet a moment as she reconsiders. Her blue eyes focus on mental calculations. “No, eight.”
“That’s all the ingredients. Now is the time to mix it up. Mixing is for grown-ups. You have to do it standing up, with one hand so it doesn’t spill.” She blends all the fixings with a wooden spoon.
“Now you pour it into a hot pan -- a grown-up has to do that part, too,” she adds as she -- clearly a minor -- empties the contents of her yellow bowl into a small metal pie pan that has seen better days. “And then you leave it in the oven,” as she slides it onto the fireplace hearth.
“For how long?” I wonder aloud.
“Eight minutes,” she says, without even checking her recipe. As she waits for the pie to bake, she picks up a plastic whistle shaped like a red and white chicken. She blows noisily into its hind end. A high squeak results.
”Have you heard my chicken?” she asks, turning it around to blow into its beak to release a deeper cluck. Yes, I say to myself. That chicken and I go back at least thirty-three years. I’d bought it for her dad and his brother a long time ago.
“Why are you blowing into the chicken whistle,” I inquire out loud.
“That’s the timer,” she says, rushing to take the pie out of the oven.
“Do we need to wait for it to cool,” I ask.. “Do we need to blow on it?”
“No, it cools itself,” she replies. “Let me slice you a piece.” She squats on the carpet, her knees bent sharply, her bum not touching the floor. My joints ache at the thought. She rises too gracefully, no need to hold onto a table or chair. She brings me a piece of pie, resting it on the flat of her hand.
As I savor the pie, she careens across the room to pull on the chain of a nearby floor lamp, turning it on. “Let’s pretend it’s Christmas,” she says. Her invitation is infused with wistful enthusiasm. She and I have agreed often in the past that Christmas is the best time of the year.
“This pie is delish,” I exclaim. “So is this a Christmas Apple Pie?”
“No, nana,” she said, actually shaking her head at my feeble effort to catch up with her imagination. “It’s apple pie,” she explains patiently, again pushing her hair back. “And this,” she waves her arm to take in my cluttered living room, “this is Christmas.”
As the pandemic grinds on and ordinary human life proves relentless, my personal prayer list may be the longest I’ve ever wrestled with. I know and love so many people who are grieving right now. Each person exists in a separate world of loss, fear and very fragile hope. It is hard to know what to pray for. I know miracles sometimes happen. I know they don’t always. And I know that what looks like a miracle may actually turn out to be another, often higher hurdle, one that causes us to stumble again. I often pray my own litany, reciting and reflecting on each person by name. I ask God to be with each of them and with those who love them, using their names if I know them, too. But I must be honest, sometimes even that simple prayer is hard to put into words.
This morning I read what Pope Francis said at his private audience in Rome yesterday. He talked about the connection between prayer and the communion of saints. As a convert to Catholicism, I have always loved this idea, that we do not pray alone, that those saints -- the ones recognized by the church and many who are not -- pray along side us. And, as we pray together, Francis said, “we are immersed in a majestic river of invocations that precede us and proceeds after us. A majestic river.”
I loved that Francis went on to connect our prayers with those that fill Scripture. The stories we read there are prayers, he said, “that often resound in the liturgy, , , traces of ancient stories, of prodigious liberations, of deportations and sad exiles, of emotional returns, of praise ringing out before the wonders of creation.”
Francis says that good prayers are “expansive" and he elaborates: "they propagate themselves continuously, with or without being posted on social networks: from hospital wards, from moments of festive gatherings to those in which we suffer silently . . . . One person’s pain is everyone’s pain, and one person’s happiness is transmitted to someone else’s soul. Pain and happiness, all a story, stories that create the story of one’s own life . . . .”
He reminds us that prayer is powerful, even when it’s spurred by conflict: "A way of dissolving the conflict, of softening it, is to pray for the person with whom I am in conflict. And something changes with prayer. The first thing that changes is my heart and my attitude.” (The emphasis is mine.)
And finally, the pope notes that the “communion of saints” involves not only those who are canonized formally, but all those who already have passed away and those of us who struggle to be pilgrims on earth. Some, who have made more progress than I have, may live next door, shop at my grocery store, pass me on the street. Although finding the words for prayer is sometimes hard for me, I am not praying alone. I am buoyed by a magestic river.
I have been reading, thinking and writing about darkness throughout Lent, but recently I’m contemplating candles. A friend’s wife passed away, and those who grieve for her -- and for him -- are lighting candles in her memory. The neighbors placed luminarias on the couple’s front porch so that her spirit can find her way home. And I’m struck that in this modern age -- when we don’t rely on candlelight to see, we still light candles to help us see better.
Candles themselves may be 5,000 years old, originating, perhaps, in ancient Egypt and perfected by the Romans. Through the centuries, candles have been made from oils or fat derived from plants, animals, insects, and sea creatures. Depending on what candles were made of, they sometimes smoked or emitted noxious fumes. But their essential light outweighed their material shortcomings.
In the Middle Ages, candles made from beeswax burned cleanly with a pleasant scent, but they were expensive and rarely used in everyday life. In the 19th century, paraffin, made from petroleum, resulted in clean burning candles. Now, soy candles are all the rage, often infused with strong (sometimes still noxious) fragrances. I’ve burned some scented with balsam pine that made my eyes water. The one on my fireplace now, fragrant with “bergamot, Cuban tobacco leaf and ylang-ylang,” clears the air and the living room after only five minutes.
What was once necessary for everyday life (and still is in many parts of the world) has become more than a means to an end: more than a way to see the sock I am darning, the writing on a page, or the faces of a family gathered around a table. For many of us these days, living with the luxury of electric lights, we still light candles to add warmth to a room or a dinner table. Candlelight is also a companion in times of loss or worry, meditation or prayer.
When we are sitting vigil, for someone who is lost or ailing or for a holy day or even out of fear, we may sometimes use our cell phones, but the staunch standby is candle light. A good friend of mine, whose nightly ritual involved Reese’s miniature peanut butter cups and Anderson Cooper, used to light a candle after her snack to ease her into prayer. Sometimes, I light one to keep me company as I knit my way through Law & Order: UK.
Like faith and fear, life and hope, the flame of a candle is not steady or unchanging. It flickers. And it does not last forever. We blow out a candles before we head to bed. A breeze or draft may extinguish it, leaving behind a wisp of trailing smoke. Sometimes a candle drowns its own wick, burning itself out. And still we light them. Flash lights, cell phones and gas-fired eternal flames require batteries, charging time or a steady fuel source. Their light requires more than the quick scratch of a match against a rough surface. Candles, whether they are holiday leftovers that fill the drawers in my dining room or the ones stashed safely away for when the big earthquake strikes, always lie ready and waiting. Like faith itself. Ready when we need to remember a loved one, create sacred space, send forth a prayer, or rekindle hope. We still rely on candles.
My husband used to say, “Life is suffering.” (Yes, I know that the Buddha said it early on, but humor me, please). Which is not to say that Fred was a pessimist or the least bit fatalistic. But when sorrow or struggle washed over us, as it did (usually when we were congratulating ourselves that “everything is good right now”), he would find a way to remind us both that suffering was inevitable. And somehow that was almost as comforting as him saying, “Things are going to work out.”
I thought of him as I finished Barbara Bradford Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, the book I have been reading for Lent. Near the end, she lists what she learned -- or relearned -- as she researched and rested in darkness. Here’s my summary (with my own emphasis):
First, in the creation story of Genesis, darkness existed before light. “God’s first act on the first day of creation,” Taylor writes, “was not to make light and darkness but to make light and separate it from the darkness.” Later on, we human beings imposed our knee-jerk declaration that darkness was bad and light was good. But both are far older even than evil. For my part, there is something comforting in knowing the primacy of the absence of light.
Second, darkness and light take turns. Neither lasts forever. Which reminds me of something else Fred used to say, “Never say never.” It is another human error that assumes -- when things are going well or unraveling too fast for us to keep up -- that our lives will always be like “this,” the pain or suffering or loneliness that we feel at any given point.
Finally, it is fear that keeps our eyes closed to what we may find in the darkness. We have learned some unwritten rule that our lives should be safe. (Although I don’t remember any divine promise of safety. Nor was it one of Jesus’ expectations.) We tell ourselves that we bring light into the world. That we control the amount of light, even in darkness. That enough light will keep what frightens us at a distance. We think light keeps us safe.
“But, of course, we are wrong about that, as experience proves again and again,” Taylor writes. “The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there. The suffering comes from our reluctance to learn to walk in the dark.”
So, what have I learned about walking in the dark? Or, more accurately, what do I hope I’m learning about walking in darkness? First, try not to be afraid of it. After all, I don’t walk alone -- even when it seems that way. In the darkness at the beginning, God was, is and will be present. And with practice, maybe I can learn to walk in the dark with love, compassion and courage. For myself and for others who are overwhelmed by darkness. Even if I stumble or fall, I can get up and limp along, maybe find a way to pull someone through. And finally, although darkness is inevitable, it is not eternal.
As someone who used to give up chocolate or ice cream for Lent, only to spend 40 days obsessing over sweets, I have tried in recent years to take on something that will improve my understanding, spark better behavior on my part, and be worth a little obsession. This year I’ve stumbled onto an amazing book.
I have been reading and thinking about Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne, 2015). She describes herself as a “spiritual contrarian.” I like that. She is an Episcopal priest, who embraces the natural world and whose vision of holiness encompasses more than church pews, public relations, and politics. She’s written many books, including An Altar in the World, and has a gift for living a deeply spiritual, well-grounded life. I was drawn to her book on darkness, because that’s often how the world looks to me in these days of pandemic, economic strife, and guerilla politics. Darkness is also what I encounter several times a week, when I open my eyes at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., unable to sleep and unwilling to get out of bed.
Taylor’s proposition is that darkness is not a bad thing, not a state that should rattle or terrify us, but one that brings insights of its own, if only we are open to perceiving them.
She writes about living in the country where true darkness visits every night -- as opposed to the city where streetlights assure that we can always see what is happening on our streets, if not the actual stars. She writes about human beings’ essential need for darkness and our seemingly innate dread of it. She writes about people who could see and now cannot, struck by blindness and then by the power of what she calls “dark angels . . . the best, most demanding spiritual teachers we may ever know.”
She mentions my favorite story from the Hebrew Bible. Genesis describes Jacob, who had cheated his older brother, Esau, of his birthright. The story is a Sunday School staple. Isaac, the son of Abraham, had twin sons. The older of the two was Esau, the younger was Jacob. When their aging father was ready to bless his oldest son, Esau, Jacob and his mother plotted to fool the blind Isaac. Jacob put on Esau's clothes and wrapped his neck and arms with a hairy goat's hide. When the blind father grasped Jacob's hands, he mistook him for Esau. Once the trick was revealed, Isaac couldn’t take back his blessing. Instead, he sent Jacob away to a neighboring land to find a wife (perhaps to remove him, too, from the wrath of his older brother).
Jacob lived apart from his family for more than 14 years but decided eventually to take his two wives and children and return home, despite the fact that he was wary of seeing Esau again. On the way back, Jacob’s family camped on one side of the river Jabbok, and he went to rest on the other, perhaps to avoid the noise of his two feuding wives, their maids and his 11 children (another story altogether). In the darkness, Jacob awoke because a man was attacking him. The two wrestled through the night. At one point, the stranger struck Jacob, knocking his hip out of joint. The fighting continued until daybreak.
“Let me go for the day is breaking,” the stranger said.
“I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob responded.
“What is your name,” the stranger asked. Jacob gave his name, and the stranger replied, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
When Jacob demanded to know his attacker’s name, the stranger blessed him and disappeared. Jacob stumbled back to his family with a limp that would last his lifetime.
Since I was a child, this story has fascinated me -- that it happened in the dark, that Jacob didn’t know with whom he wrestled (some English translations render the attacker an “angel,” but the Hebrew word means only “messenger”), that the wrestling would mark Jacob for the rest of his days, but he would emerge with a new name, one that reflected his struggle.
“Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape,” Taylor asks. “The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.”
(It strikes me as slightly ironic that Jacob/Israel becomes a patriarch of the Hebrew people, a man whose ten sons included Joseph, the dreamer. But I digress.)
Taylor writes about dining in the dark, spending time in a cave that no light or outside sound can penetrate. She draws from science, biology, sociology, philosophy, poetry, and even an all-too-familiar Christian theology that invariably connects evil to darkness and faith to light. But she’s also read and wrestled with the church’s mothers and fathers, and draws them into the discussion from time to time. And, fitting for a Lenten read, she connects darkness to Easter.
“Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way,” she writes. “If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. . . . new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
Now, I don’t really know whether the nighttime wrestling I have done has been with my subconscious or the worries that spill out of my overstuffed heart. In other words, I am not sure that I’ve wrestled with God very often, or ever. But If I had, that would redeem some of the wrestling, I suppose. It’s also true that I haven’t always welcomed the darkness (real or spiritual) and that I have often dreaded wrestling altogether. But this story of Jacob gives me hope. It may be that I will emerge from this present darkness with a limp, but also with a new name, a better way of living, even in the dark.
*Isaiah 45:3 "I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name."
When the first Tweet you read in the morning is a Catholic bishop declaring that "Biden is not a real Catholic"
Forgive me, father, for I have drifted.
It has been almost a year since my last Mass.
In these many, many Covid months, I have kept close to home. I have read and prayed on my own. I have listened to the online journal of a friend, who is a priest -- a wise, thoughtful and compassionate one who has been dear to me for 30 years.
I confess that I have not listened to an entire virtual Mass. Last week I caught a few minutes of the one broadcast by my son’s parish. The readings, the sung responses and the prayers filled me with a longing that surprised me. I do miss the community of Mass, the feeling that I am not in this alone. Still, I felt that distance in me that makes a virtual Mass less than virtuous.
And then a friend sent me the following article from the National Catholic Reporter, a thoughtful attempt to explain the psychology behind the fact that the Catholic vote was almost an even split in 2020’s presidential election. Reading this piece reminded me that, if I am truthful (and confessions should always be truthful), the distance that I have been wrestling with these many months began before Covid-19 devoured normal life. I felt out of place at Mass before and since Trump’s election in 2016. I remember sitting in the pew, wondering who in the congregation had voted for him. Back then, it was about 52 percent of Catholics. And this year, the vote was almost evenly divided between Biden and Trump.
In theory, Catholics believe in the sanctity of life -- not just for the newborn, but for all the clay containers, made in the image of God, who hold it. We believe that racism, sexism, classism, any -ism in conflict with Saint Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3 that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" is a sin. On the other hand, we do not believe that poverty is a sin, but enabling and tolerating it is. We try not to judge, but work for justice. Yet half of us chose a leader whose commitment to these ideas is self-serving fiction.
I understand that I am teetering on the brink of judgment here -- perhaps sliding into it altogether. But this is a confession, after all.
So, father, I confess to judging others, harboring anger, and condemning them for their beliefs. But what, I ask, is faith if it is not testing one’s “beliefs” against the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. And when we discover a conflict, shouldn’t we be the ones who own it, confess it and change our behavior accordingly?
Please, God, let me be guilty of that.
Here’s a slightly pathetic, but deeply pandemic note. I order my groceries online and pick them up first thing on a weekend morning. I use the store app to let them know that I am “on my way.” When I arrive at the store, I pull into a designated parking space and let them know “I’m here.” I wait a few minutes before a clerk wheels out my order to put the groceries in the trunk of my car. Often we just exchange a few words: “Did you check your substitutions?” “Yes, they’re fine.” “OK, then, thank you!” “No, thank you.” And I drive away, put my car back in the garage, carry the bags into my house, and put the food away.
But sometimes, I get the same grocery clerk. Young -- maybe in his 20s -- tall, very long dark hair. I can’t see his masked face, but his tone is always cheerful -- even in the early morning, at the start of what, for him, will probably be a long day. I don’t even know his name, though he always calls me by mine. (And, yes, I know he has a clipboard with my order on it, but still.) Lately, he lets me know that he remembers me. Today, I thanked him not only for bringing the groceries to the car, but for his polite, good humor.
“Oh, I love this job. I love bringing people their groceries,” he said. “It makes them so happy.” I was stunned as my mind filled with images of essential workers and then, immediately, by how poorly they are paid -- even as the pandemic reminds us of how necessary are their jobs.
“I wish you got paid as happy as I feel,” I said, all understanding of grammar and syntax flying out of my head. His turn to act surprised.
“Now Nancy, I am a crier and right now I am just going to load up your groceries so you can go,” he said with a slight quiver in his voice.
“Me, too,” I admitted to crying at the drop of a hat. He loaded the food into my trunk.
Driving home, I thought about how lucky I was. I have family members and friends and plenty of opportunity to talk to people from a safe distance or on the phone as this virus has so many of us sheltering in isolation. But these few words with this clerk -- I must ask him his name next time -- reminded me how much I miss personal encounters with strangers of good will. I miss that warmth-tinged-with-embarrassment feeling when someone I don’t know well acts in my interests with cheer and respect and then coaxes those emotions out of me. I hope that’s part of the “new normal” that lies ahead.
And now, some notes from the real world:
-- My grocery chain is closing stores rather than give workers a raise in this pandemic.
-- My alternative grocery chain is raising pay during the pandemic.
-- Last time I picked up groceries, I was heckled by a passerby, "What a f---in' lazy way to buy your groceries! Why the hell can't you shop?"
God help us.
I’m working on a 13-page bibliography for a biblical commentary that I am writing with a friend. Hours spent scrutinizing every entry, every comma, colon, period, and parenthesis; searching out missing publishers and page numbers; and remembering the hanging indent has taught me the following truths about myself.
Last name, first name, period. This is the way I grew up. Every adult was Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. LastName. And I followed this convention for all the years that I worked at a newspaper. Which often surprised the person I was addressing, as well as any of my colleagues within earshot. I think I imagined that the person I was speaking to was mildly flattered, even grateful, and would respond with courtesy. Today it’s FirstNames, often as OnlyNames. I kind of Ms. That Formality.
Title of work in italic, unless it’s part of a larger book. Then, it’s in Roman type, “enclosed in quotation marks,” followed by a period. Then comes a fragment in Roman and italic type: In Title of Larger Work. I’m thinking this is like my life -- “A Series of Smaller Lessons and Discoveries.” In What I’ve Learned in a Lifetime.
But, if the larger title was edited by someone else, which -- let’s face it -- most of our work is, the Title is followed by a comma, and then the phrase (in Roman type): edited by first and last name of editor(s). As in, What I’ve Learned in a Lifetime, edited by My Parents, My Teachers, My Mentors, My Family, et al. Et al., is an abbreviation used for multiple editors. Then the Title-edited-by phrase ends with a period.
City of Publication: Publisher, year. After wading through the first part of an entry, especially when it includes multiple languages, both ancient and modern, this is like a reward. Every detail is pretty easy to track down if the writer hasn’t included it in a footnote. I have, on occasion, been guilty. Thank heaven for Google. My publication information: Tiny Idaho Town: Haughts, 1954.
And finally, the hanging indent. The first line of an entry starts flush left and runs across the page. Subsequent lines of an entry are supposed to be indented, like this one.
I have no idea how I just did that.
Hanging indents are a ridiculous, multi-step process on this friggin’ computer program, which has threatened my last shreds of patience and concentration for the past four days so that I finally had to take a break or brake. There now. That is all.
A few days ago, I ran across this quotation from Cole Arthur Riley, a black liturgist who works to incorporate into prayer some biblical themes that we often ignore -- dignity, lament, a sense of belonging, the struggle for justice, the need for rest, and the ultimate goal, liberation. She wrote, “I take so much delight in the silence of the men in the Advent story. Zechariah can’t speak. Joseph doesn’t speak. While the words and emotions of Mary and Elizabeth take their rightful place. The sound of Advent is the voice of women.”
Like any good writer, she sent me back to the Bible, to remind myself of what, precisely, Elizabeth and Mary had said in their Advent stories. The first chapter of Luke quotes them both. Elizabeth was married to the high priest Zechariah. Both led righteous lives, but they were getting older and had no children. One day, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah in the temple and told him that Elizabeth would bear a child, who would be named John and would bring others back to God. When Zechariah wondered aloud how that could be -- given their ages -- he was struck mute “until the day these things occur.” So, as Riley wrote, “Zechariah can’t speak.”
While his wife, Elizabeth was in seclusion, she said of her pregnancy (v. 25), “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Hold that thought.
When the same angel visits Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, to announce her child, she responds by thinking first (v. 29) and then speaking (v. 34): “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Then she listens before she speaks again (v. 38): “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word.”
Soon Mary visits her kinswoman, Elizabeth, and the child in her womb leaps when he hears Mary’s voice (vv. 41-45). Then Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary respondes, speaking at length (vv. 47-55): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
A few months later, when Elizabeth’s child is born, people assumed he would be named after his father, Zechariah. His mother spoke one last time (v. 60), “No; he is to be called John.” When her hearers objected that that name didn’t run in her family, Zechariah responds -- in writing because he still can’t speak (v. 63) -- “His name is John.” Immediately. Zechariah’s mouth was opened.
Imagine an Advent when we heard not the whole Christmas story, as it was recorded most probably by men, not the countless words explaining what Christmas means, written and spoken by men in the centuries since, but only the words of Elizabeth and Mary. We would hear Elizabeth express her own sense of awe and humility. We’d hear her acknowledge the disgrace she endured in her barrenness. We would hear her rush to bless her kinswoman, not once, but twice and, between those two blessings, we'd here her own wonder about her role in the story.
And in Mary’s speech, one of the longest uttered by a woman in the Bible, we would hear her praise for God and her recognition of her own humility. We would hear her acknowledge what God has done for her. And we would hear her elaborate on what God will do for others:
Show mercy to the fearful.
Scatter the proud.
Bring down the powerful.
Lift up the powerless.
Fill the hungry.
Send the rich away empty.
If ever there was a theological to-do list, this might be it -- straightforward, humbly to the point. Riley is right. “The sound of Advent is the voice of women.” Are we listening?
Last week my three-year-old granddaughter spent a day with me -- we are in the same pandemic bubble. We had a great day together, the highlight of which was her playing with an old wooden nativity set that I’ve had for at least 40 years. Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a carved wooden crib, three wisemen and a handful of sheep/donkeys. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, these little sheep have lost their shepherds. At any rate, my granddaughter played with them throughout the day, introducing them to some Native Americans, Lego people, and one small, bedraggled, artificial Christmas tree.
The next day, as I gathered up the toys, I sorted the play figures -- putting away the plastic versions and scooping up the wooden nativity figures, setting them on a wooden tray that I keep on my coffee table. I went about the rest of my day, but the next morning, as I sat on my sofa, gazing at my seven-foot Christmas tree, also artificial, I noticed the nativity folk on the wooden tray. The tree stood in their midst. The men were gathered up together, as though they’d formed a football huddle. I smiled at what they might be saying to each other. “Great visit with the baby, Joseph, but where can we get a drink and a hot meal?” Mary sat by herself, removed, her back to the men, staring off into the distance at my blank television set. Scripture says (in Luke 2:19) that while the shepherds were nattering on about the baby Jesus, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Maybe my rearranged nativity set reflected Mary in a pondering moment. Meanwhile, as she’s got her back to the action and Joseph and the Wise Men are conferring, the baby Jesus lay across the tray, behind the tattered Christmas tree, in his manger, all alone.
Now, I have been known to read too much into little things, but my unintentionally alternative nativity scene has been much on my mind in recent days. Like Mary, I catch myself staring off into the distance, lost in my own thoughts, wondering about how to sensibly celebrate Christmas in the midst of a global pandemic. At other times, I am caught up in animated conversations about the latest political fallout of this nightmare presidential transition. “Have you heard the latest?” Occasionally, I feel alone like the little wooden Jesus, wondering, perhaps, like him, about what my life means in this hostile world. And all too often, I think about how the adults in this nativity scene seem to be ignoring -- and I cringe to use this phrase -- “the reason for the season.”
It’s been almost a week and I haven’t rearranged this unusual nativity scene yet. I think it is teaching me something, and I want to reflect on it a little longer. Here’s what I’ve come up with. That after more than sixty years of contemplating the Christmas story, I often get it wrong. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with thinking about Mary, or Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men or even Jesus. But sometimes I forget the big picture. And I think it is the big picture that promises hope. I think the point of the nativity story is to remind us that the birth of Jesus involved more than three people. A group of individuals, each with different perspectives, different lives, and different values, were present. Surely, the birth of Jesus did not affect all the witnesses in the same way. So removed from their circumstances, we can’t be sure whether or how the rest of their lives were changed.
The same is true today. As I sit in judgment of others who don’t “get” the Christmas story, I am reminded that there is a lot about an individual's or a groups’ mindsets, motives, and actions that I just don’t know. I pretend I can read their minds, but the truth is, I can’t. Maybe one miracle of Christmas is recognizing that hope may well reside in the inner lives of anyone who witnesses the birth of Jesus. How that hope expresses itself may not be readily, if ever, apparent to the rest of us. But for me, this difficult year, believing that hope exists when I can't see it may be the point of the nativity story.
Advent is underway, the season when Christians prepare themselves -- not their homes, their gift lists, or their holiday menus, but themselves --- for Christmas. Keeping one’s priorities straight is difficult enough in ordinary times, especially in the face of overwhelming cultural cues on gift-giving, shipping deadlines and budget-friendly feasts. But focusing on the state of my soul, my words, my actions, and my inaction during this time of pandemic and a problematic presidential transition, as the nation seems to splinter around me, is almost impossible. Recently I have been thinking about Watch Night, an old Christian custom that has been reclaimed several times over the past 500 years. Watch Night might be the best way to end 2020 and prepare for 2021.
In the fifteenth century, Christians in the Eastern European settlements of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) were inspired by the words of Jan Hus, a Bohemian theologian and professor who criticized the Catholic Church sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his protests to a church door. Hus faulted the institutional church for selling papal indulgences and participating in unholy alliances with secular leaders. He was excommunicated in 1411, but popular support for his ideas grew. The church officially declared him a heretic in 1415, and he was burned at the stake by secular authorities. His ideas endured, however. In 1457, Moravian Christians, in something of a prophetic move (the official Protestant Reformation began in 1517), broke away from the Catholic Church and established a denomination that still exists today. The core of their faith is that accepting a particular doctrine or creed does not make one a Christian. More important is living one’s life according to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. And the point of their faith is to serve the poorest and most despised among us. The Morovian tradition included Watch Nights, or covenant renewal services. Often held on New Year’s Eve, Watch Nights were prayerful gatherings where the faithful assessed their lives over the past year and rededicated themselves to following Jesus’ example in the next one.
John Wesley, a more modern Christian reformer and a founder of the Methodist movement, encountered the Moravian Church in the 18th century. His journal from 1736-38 records their calm, cheerful, and selfless service of others living in poverty and suffering injustice. Wesley was so impressed with the Moravian covenant renewal service that he adopted the Watch Night principles and encouraged covenant renewal services within his tradition. Many Methodist Churches still hold them on New Year’s Eve.
Then on December 31, 1863, African Americans gathered in churches for a vigil the night before Abraham Lincoln was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. As midnight approached, the faithful knelt in silence to pray. Known also as “Freedom’s Eve,” this rendering of Watch Night still is marked today because persistent racism still exacts a deadly toll on people of color.
This thumb-nail history of Watch Night reminds me of the need to rededicate myself to my faith, especially in these trying times. And, believing that saying or writing one’s intentions “out loud” is often a way to make sure they are carried out, I am telling you that this New Year’s Eve will find me alone at my kitchen table. I will light a candle and think about my failings: the anger I feel in the wake of the presidential election; the sorrow and resentment I wrestle with in this pandemic; my own racist thoughts, words and deeds; the privilege that I struggle with; my fears for the future that keep me from being more generous; and my unrelenting critique of the church that has, too often, subverted my faith in Jesus Christ. I have also decided to re-read the Gospel of Mark all at once. Mark was the earliest gospel written -- the shortest one -- and was, scholars think, intended to be heard or read in a single sitting. I will pray for strength to begin again in the New Year. And I will ask God’s blessings on Moravians, Methodists, on all Black men, women and their families, and on all human beings, created, as we are, in the image of God.
May we all have a better year in 2021.
Mother's Day is complicated for those of us whose mothers left much to be wished for. Society's emphasis on good mothering calls attention to the best and worst that we have known or experienced. And I am mindful today that my mom did bless me in unexpected ways.
This morning I read this lovely piece on Mary, Jesus' mother, by Kaya Oakes. It made me think about what Mary has meant, does mean and will mean to me as I live out my days as a grandmother. Please take a few minutes and read it.
To me, it reads like a prayer for all the women working, sheltering, parenting, recovering, and loving from afar on the front lines of this pandemic. And I'm walking away with the reference to Mary as "the undoer of knots."
Happy Mother's Day.
There is a Jewish tradition that the youngest child present, who is able to do so, begins the Passover Seder with a question: “How different is this night from all other nights?” The sacred meal then unfolds with symbolic foods, scripture passages and prayers, all telling the story of Israelite slavery and the exodus from Egypt.
Some Jews believe that as they taste bitter, salty and sweet foods and listen deeply to the biblical story, they are not so much remembering the story of their spiritual ancestors as they are reliving it themselves. Jesus and his friends shared a Seder dinner on the Thursday night before he died. Because I want to keep him connected to his faith and find him in mine, I am borrowing the first question of Passover on this Easter morning.
Sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic means that most Christians are not dressed up and filling church pews around the world. We are finding different ways to celebrate the resurrection, separate but united in spirit. Like many other believers, I am thinking about past years, especially those I spent at Catholic Easter vigils. They are long services -- especially the one we attended one year in New York City, where all the required scripture was read in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
I remember how the service begins outside the church as the darkness grows. Everyone assembles around the Easter fire, a symbol of light and hope. I remember the smell of burning wood and the crack of sparks rising into the darkening sky. I remember the lighting of the tall Easter taper from the fire and watching the light spread as that great unwieldy candle lights smaller ones held by the faithful.
I remember the stream of light processing slowly into the dark church. A leader chants the name of a saint, the rest of us chant back, “Pray for us.” This litany of the saints is longer at the vigil, replete with names of holy women and men rarely mentioned in ordinary services. I remember when the lights of the church are turned on. We blow out the small candles. The smell of smoke and hot wax lingers as the long progression of readings starts. They begin with the creation and end with the resurrection, aiming to remind us all of our shared salvation history.
As I think about these Easters past, I see how the holy celebration of light begins in darkness. That it is seeded in the grief and doubt of Jesus' family, friends and followers. The beginning of its end lies with a tiny group of women, gathered to do the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial. I remember their surprise at finding the tomb empty, how the words of a stranger send them back to where their compatriots are hiding in fear and sorrow. I see how the women shared the good news despite the scepticism of those who heard it.
This morning, Easter 2020, is different from all other mornings. It holds together darkness and light. It fuses the church’s liturgy of saints with the next-door holy ones who go to work while the rest of us shelter at home. It challenges us all to endure the frustrating and frightening waves of grief and doubt and surprise and hope swirling around us today.
We are not just remembering the first Easter, we are reliving it, too.
I always dread Good Friday services. Somehow, it feels odd to me to gather as a community on such a lonely day. And, after years spent as a Presbyterian, I've never been comfortable with kissing the cross. I can't even bring myself to wear one.
Now, with coronavirus and its attending angel of death passing over us, I'm at peace with my solitary Good Friday. To be sure, there are services online. And there are moving photographs of Pope Francis marking the way of the cross in a mostly deserted Vatican square.
But I took a walk alone through my mostly deserted neighborhood, reflecting on how lonely the family, friends and followers of Jesus must have felt on the day they saw him die. And I remembered an interview I read earlier this week with the pope for Commenweal titled A Time of Great Uncertainty. It's a good piece to read during Holy Week.
So, today, on Good Friday, I am carrying two of his thoughts with me:
First, that we all live next door to saints -- doctors, nurses, clergy, first responders, grocery clerks, shelf stackers, pharmacists, delivery people, mail carriers, and on and on.
And this quotation from Francis, which includes a line from one of his favorite novels, The Betrothed by Allesandro Manzoni: "'The Lord does not leave his miracles half-finished.' If we become aware of this miracle of the next-door saints, if we can follow their tracks, the miracle will end well, for the good of all. God doesn’t leave things halfway. We are the ones who do that."
Unlike those people who first followed Jesus, we know Easter is coming.
Like many people around the world I have been keeping to myself these days. I've pulled myself away from the coronavirus news over the past four days to do some spring cleaning that I didn't get around to last year. Here are seven other things that I accomplished today -- all small, insignificant but somehow life-giving in a trying time.
1. I decided to leave the thermometer on my coffee table so I keep taking my own temperature. Otherwise, I forget because, thankfully, I"m feeling fine right now.
2. I've written and mailed a letter, long overdue, to someone dear to me.
3. I made a new list of new groceries so I remember to use everything up before I ask someone to go to the store for me.
4. I've set an alarm so I remember to immerse myself in a virtual viola concert by a friend's talented daughter.
5. I've cleaned up a few pairs of old earrings because, while makeup seems stupid, a sparkle here and there doesn't.
6. I've made a point of savoring both of my cups of coffee this morning -- one alone and one 10 feet away from my neighbors.
7. I've added one app and tackled some new software so I can "visit" others online. I will not let this devastating horror get the best of me.
For almost a year now, I have been working my way through the Book of Ruth. Yes, I know it is a short biblical book. Only four chapters long. But there is a method to my madness, one that I could explain, but that’s not the point right now.
This morning I am studying Ruth 4:16: “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.” A dozen commentaries lie open or stacked on my dining room table. Recording almost that many arguments about whether Naomi, an old woman, the mother-in-law of the baby’s mother, might really have been a wet nurse to this tiny child.
I’m not quite finished reading all the commentaries. Right now, I’m leaning toward the “Not Very Likely” camp. But as I work, we in the United States are being urged to self-quarantine and embrace the practice of social distancing. So here I sit, alone at my dining room table, working, stopping while my one son drops off a dozen eggs and couple of boxes of facial tissues, and listening for the “FaceTime” chime telling me my other son and his children are checking in on me. “They miss their Nana,” he texted me a while ago.
This is a pandemic and the logic behind self-quarantining and social distancing makes sense to me. And I am doing my best to do both. But I’ve known for days now how hard this will prove to be: on people who struggle emotionally to be on their own, who are endangered or hungry when they are “home,” who already were lonely and isolated before the virus struck. And so, some of the points made this week by David Brooks were already haunting me before I sat down to read his column. He’s done his homework on pandemics and the toll, not only in terms of the lives lost, but on the people who lived through them. I highly recommend that anyone reading this read his column.
Meanwhile, I’m taking a few minutes to recommend that and write this because of something I read just now in my work on Ruth. Before Naomi takes her grandson into her arms, the women of the town remind her that, despite the deaths of her husband and her two sons, Naomi is no longer “empty.” The women bless God for providing Naomi with a nearer redeemer, not the boy’s father, Boaz, but the child himself. “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age,” the women say.
One of the scholars from the “Not Very Likely” camp has concluded that a tiny child can redeem an old woman without her being his wet nurse. She cites some biblical verses but rests her case on the two phrases the women also use: “a restorer of life” and “a nourisher of . . . old age.” Elsewhere in the Bible, “a restorer of life” saves one from death and feeds someone who is starving. And a “nourisher” feeds those who are hungry, revives their courage in stressful times and redeems a troubled soul.
I am not as eloquent as the women of Bethlehem or the writer of the Book of Ruth, but they express what I feel whenever I gather up a grandchild and hold him or her close to my chest: All of us are too old to nurse, but they restore and redeem me whenever I hold them. And now the prospect of not holding them for a while brings tears to my eyes. I think the women of Bethlehem were right, the redemption and restoration of Naomi doesn’t mean she could nurse her newborn grandson. And I think David Brooks is right to warn us of the clear and present danger we face in this pandemic (and it’s not just a virus). And I hope I am right about children redeeming their grandparents -- even from a social distance.
Last month a former Oregonian colleague, Joe Rose, invited me to take part in a retreat on hospitality and strangers at Trinity Retreat Center in West Cornwall, Connecticut. For months, I’d read about how wonderful this center was, newly refurbished by his wife, Heidi, and bursting with ideas, thanks to both of them. The center, part of Trinity Church Wall Street's ministry, was all the photos and reviews had promised.
Sitting alongside the Housatonic River, in the midst of a stripped but probably lush deciduous forest, the center is quiet, spacious, comfortable, with a library, windows full of light and outdoor beauty, gracious common rooms and a kitchen staff that inspires even the tired, old cook inside me.
And the people who came to the retreat, almost all strangers at the beginning, ended the weekend knowing names, broad outlines and some precious details of each other’s lives. It was for me, a chance to see walls fall and bridges being built. And that is what my heart needed.
For my part, we all read and talked about the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-27. He is one of the characters I wrote about in Sacred Strangers. From the standpoint of the “believers” in the story -- the Israelites -- he was an outsider, an actual enemy who had conquered them in past wars because, Scripture says, God was on his side. As if that weren’t surprising enough, the story goes on to recount his peace-time encounter with the Israelites in which he seems to have a better grasp of the Holy than the believers around him.
If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to read his story and watch for some of the surprises that we talked about on the retreat. What you discover may open your eyes to what the strangers in your own life might be teaching you.
A few questions to get you started: Who is it who gets the ball rolling in this story? And what does it say about Naaman that he ends up before the king of Israel? What does the king’s behavior reveal about government authority? Why does Naaman resist a solution that sounds too simple to be effective? Finally, if this is a story about servants, good and bad, what kind are you and which do you aim to be?
As our discussion ended at the retreat center, some of us objected to the notion that the punishment of one generation is felt by the next one, and the next. It is an idea familiar to readers of the Bible, and one that we want to reject. That is not fair, we say. And we are right. But here’s one thought: Many who study the Bible recognize that it is often descriptive, not prescriptive. That the intention is not that one person’s punishment should be visited on subsequent generations. But, if we are honest with ourselves, that’s often what does happen. If we try on that perspective for a moment, does it change the end of Naaman’s story?
My heartfelt thanks to Heidi and Joe and all who took part in that amazing weekend.
Today on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I'm remembering James Cone and his book, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Cone quotes King on the relationship between love and justice:
"Love is one of the principal parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice . . . . Justice is love correcting that which would work against love. . . . Standing beside love is always justice."
I took my Christmas tree down this week, setting my all-time record for putting off a day I hate. I have martialed all my excuses: It was a beautiful tree. I needed the lights to remind me that this is season of hope. My cat got sick. I had to attend a retreat earlier this month. But, while all of that is true, I confess I held onto that tree because Christmas itself seemed so fleeting this year.
People blamed it on a late Thanksgiving. But for my family, at least, there was more to it than that. My brother-in-law passed away in early December and the loss has hit all of us who knew and loved him hard. He was the smartest, kindest, most generous man I ever encountered, a man who worked with his hands (who could fix almost anything) and always reasoned with both his brain and his heart. His cancer was diagnosed as my husband died in 2012. Their treatments ran almost parallel, but Albert survived his and spent every minute of every following day loving his family and my own.
As brightly as the lights on my tree shown, every glance at it reminded me of the lights that are missing from my life. I can hear it now, give it now, the sermon about how the coming of Jesus transforms all loss and fills every human void with hope. But this year, it felt like Christmas was bearing down on me as relentlessly as the steam engine that pulled the Polar Express. And, if I am honest, it ran me over. Weeks later, it feels like I am putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward one step at a time. I know from experience this strategy works for me. In time.
Meanwhile, I pray for all people who were, for one reason or another, not able to receive the gift of Christmas. There are, I suspect, a lot of us. And I hope that next year will be different.