Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Our ever-present visitor

When I was in college, I lived across the country from my parents. We weren’t quite so casual about air travel then as now, so I had a bunch of long-time family friends I had adopted as “surrogate families” whom I could visit – for laundry, for holidays, or just to stay in touch with something familiar.

One of those families was Jewish and observed many of the Orthodox traditions. I learned a lot from them, and the wonderful quiet of weekend Sabbaths I spent with them. I also spent a lot of time there that wasn’t Sabbath time – and since their holidays and festivals were often not on my calendar, I never really knew when I would arrive in time for one.

I loved the way they welcomed me, no matter how bad my timing. And I especially loved a tradition I learned one time when I arrived early enough to help Claire prepare. She asked me to set the table, and no matter how I counted her guest list, it was one short of the number of table settings she had given me. I thought it was lovely that they prepared for an extra guest so none of us would ever feel intrusive.

I was not entirely correct in my understanding of the gesture, she told me. The table setting was not for the uninvited guest who might appear at the door – though he or she would also be welcomed. The extra place was set in hope that Elijah would appear for the celebration.

I don’t remember what feast it was, but I do remember the tradition. And I think it’s a tradition we can adapt, even if we don’t actually put out an extra set of silverware and wine glasses.

In the midst of all the mixed joy and turmoil this holiday brings, I think I will try to remember – and to celebrate – that we do have an unseen guest at the table: No matter how fun or how difficult each of us may find the party, God wouldn’t miss it and is right there with us, sharing every moment.

I think that’s worth a toast, don’t you?

And my thanks to all of you for reminding me . . . .

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense

For as long as I can remember, the hardest question for me has always been “How could God let this happen?” The question has been hurled at me in accusing tones by people who really mean ‘if this god you believe in really existed, this wouldn’t happen.’ But it is also a question I find it hard not to ask myself when I hear about great evils or great disasters. After all, I don’t really think that God meant for 600 people to lose their homes and everything they own this past weekend, any more than I think God meant for the residents of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to be further impoverished and displaced by Katrina.

As much as I am reminded of the fire’s devastation by the smell of smoke in my living room and the taste of ash in my mouth, I am startled into an awareness of other aspects of God’s presence when I watch the grandeur of the sun setting over the ocean, through the ashen sky. One of the great ironies of Creation is that there is no more magnificent sunset than when the air surrounding it is filthy.

What does this tell me about God and God’s presence in the world? I can only guess – and my guesses are no better than yours – but I think the contradictions are meant to be stunning. To stun us into alertness. Perhaps to remember that there but for the grace of God go I, this time. But perhaps even more importantly, to ask what we are called to do to bring a moment of beauty into a messy and ambiguous Creation. What can we do to help those displaced by the disaster? What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen this way again? What can we do for the friend or colleague who finds in every less-than-perfect moment a reason not to believe in hope or joy or possibility?

Some days I think I just have to forego the satisfying articulate explanation and try to do what little I can to make some tiny corner of the world a little better for someone who may have every reason to rail against God. It may not be entirely comfortable for either one of us, but maybe it can move both of us a step away from despair.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Keys, clues, and seeing the invisible

Jimmy talking about “breakfast for dinner” got me thinking about Green Eggs and Ham. Why that so stuck in my mind sitting at the Jazz Bakery wasn’t quite so clear to me . . . .

Last week I had been thinking about that trompe l'oeil picture that looks like white space with black borders to some, a fancy champagne goblet to others, and two human profiles to yet others. Most people who look at the picture and see only an abstraction can see either of the patterns quickly if it is pointed out to them. On the other hand, for most people who see either the goblet or the profiles, it takes real concentration to see it the other way. That’s especially true if they keep staring at it. It seems to be much easier to make the change if you close the book or otherwise walk away from the picture and come back to it later.

Somehow all of this felt related to me as I drove home Sunday afternoon, but I did have to ask myself: What could trompe l’oile possibly have to do with Green Eggs and Ham?

Step back, look away, and presto change-o Aha! Boxes. The connection is the ways we put things in Boxes. And it’s so often the Boxes that tell us what to see and what to think about it. What we like, what we long for, what we fear. We can be such creatures of habit that we see only what we expect to see, whether it’s there or not.

And for some of us – or maybe for all of us, some of the time – what we expect seems to be what we fear. Like our avatar in Green Eggs and Ham, we avoid and postpone for fear of what we don’t know. . . . With thanks to Dr. Seuss:

You do not like them. So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may. Try them and you may, I say.

If you let me be, I will try them.
You will see.

I like green eggs and ham!
I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!

* * *

I do so like Green eggs and ham!
Thank you! Thank you!

The miracle comes in driving over the mountain and seeing the sun sparkling on the ocean when we procrastinated because we thought we might see clouds.

I don’t know about you, but so much of what's on my mind is always left over from yesterday or due tomorrow that I think I actually forget a basic fact of life: Today is its own new day. That it is attached to yesterday or tomorrow is a burden I have learned to put on it. And to weight it down with all that baggage is to miss all of the new things it brings, all of its possibilities . . . .

When will I learn always to remember to wonder if the monkey on my back actually may be the angel on my shoulder? Or perhaps even more importantly (at least for me): When will I learn to act as if the monkey on my back may actually be the angel on my shoulder?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Just Do It!!!

After hearing Jimmy's sermon and feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, I was racking my brain trying to figure out when I could get to the beach. The beach is where I feel the happiest and most at peace, not to mention closest to God. I plotted and planned and tried to squeeze it into my week.

When Monday came, anything that could go wrong did, and then some. I was late, trying to get out the door to work, when my nanny called in sick. My whole day was thrown off and I was thinking of how to entertain a two year old.

Suddenly I thought of Jimmy. Shane had invited him to go surfing, on a perfect day, but he was too busy "fussing". He decided to go anyway. In my fussy state I made the best decision in the world. I put my son in the car and headed to Malibu.

The whole way there I wondered if I was making the wrong decision. Was it going to be overcast and cold? Would my son be bored and want to go home? Was the drive too long?

When I got off at the Las Virgenes exit on the 101, the weather was gorgeous. Then I saw it. As I drove over the canyon I saw view of the ocean with the sun reflecting a clear blue sky. My heart was so happy. My mood completely changed, there would be no fussing today. Just the ocean, me and my son.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Next Little Thing

So here we are, challenged this week to spend time in our very own personal field of wildflowers, to reach out and let God embrace us. In the words of my long-time favorite book, “I think I can; I think I can: I think I can. . . . .”

But I have to admit it: this is no easy day to be open to a soothing or strengthening embrace. Everybody out there is working hard to remind us that each of us can make a difference. I remind myself, of course, that the difference I can help make is in the World and not the Kingdom.

But maybe not . . . . Maybe the real difference we can each make is not in our vote, but in our voting – in our willingness to do our very best to care enough to bring our Eyes for the Kingdom to living in the World, one little action at a time.

It’s so easy to think about – to long to achieve – the grand gesture, the Next Big Thing that captures broad attention. But most of us don’t live there. We live here, where our lives touch a relative handful of other lives. But each of those lives matter, and each time we touch them it counts.

Maybe today, instead of failing at the challenge to get away, I should just let myself succeed at doing my best to reach out and touch with the best of me – to be a tiny little Kingdom light in that long line of things to do that comes with living in the World.