Monday, September 19, 2011

Open Heart, Open Hands : Counterintuitive in a World of Pain

“A glowing sun-orb fills an August sky the day this story begins, the day I am born, the day I begin to live.

And I fill my mother’s tearing ring of fire with my body emerging, vergin lungs searing with air of this earth and I enter the world like every person born enters the world:  with clenched fists.
From the diameter of her fullness, I empty her out—and she bleeds.  Vernix-creased and squalling.  I am held to the light.
Then they name me.
Could a name be any shorter?  Three letters without even the flourish of an “e.”  Ann, a trio of curves and lines.
It means “full of grace.”
I haven’t been.
What does it mean to live full of grace?  To live fully alive?
They wash my pasty skin and I breathe and I flail.. I flail.
For decades, a life, I continue to flail and strive and come up so seemingly. . . empty.  I haven’t lived up to my christening.
Maybe in those first few years my life slowly opened, curled like cupped hands, a receptacle open to the gifts God gives.  But of those years I have no memory.  They say memory jolts awake with trauma’s electricity.  That would be the year I turned four.  The year when blood pooled and my sister died and I, all of us, snapped shut to grace.
Standing at the side porch window, watching my parents’ stunned bending, I wonder if my mother had held me in those natal moments of naming like she held my sister in death.
In November light, I see my mother and father sitting on the back porch step rocking her swaddled body in their arms.  I press my face to the kitchen window, the cold glass, and watch them, watch their lips move, not with sleep prayers, but with pleas for waking, whole and miraculous.  It does not come.  The police do.  They fill out reports.  Blood seeps through that blanket bound.  I see that, too, even now.
. . .At the grave’s precipice, our feet scuff dirt, and chunks of the firmament fall away.  A clod of dirt hits the casket, shatters.  Shatters over my little sister with the white-blonde hair, the little sister who teased me and laughed, her milk-white cheeks dimpled right through with happiness. . . They lay her gravestone flat into the earth, a black granite slab engraved with no dates, only the five letters of her name.  Aimee.  It means “loved one.”  How she was.
We had loved her.  And with the laying of her gravestone, the closing up of her deathbed, so closed our lives.
Closed to any notion of grace.”                 (excerpt from One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp)

A few of us might be spared tragedy.  Some may never be utterly betrayed or violated.  Shattered dreams may not visit everyone’s waking hours.  But, as Marcus Borg states,  “None of us gets out of this alive.”  If pain, unspeakable ache, has not yet seared your soul, it likely will.

Such bewildering unfairness raises many “why” questions, and the answers escape us.  Of even greater importance than resolving the “why” questions is this:  How will I respond?

When tragedy strikes, will I respond with clenched fists –or—open hands?  When betrayal lacerates my heart, will that broken heart “snap shut to grace,” or in brokenness remain open to God and goodness? 

I have done both.  Regrettably, I have spent years with closed fists, angry at God, at life, for gut-goring tragedy in one season of my life, for a broken relationship that nearly buried me  in another season.
It seems my life has been a  painstakingly slow plodding toward opening my heart, my hands to receive grace, to express gratitude.

My closed heart and clenched fists were how I coped.  But it was no way to live.  To live a life of the closed fist is to always be looking back, rather than living in the present.  It’s a life of reaction; I want to live a life of response.  I’m tired of the backward look at the unfairness, the abuse, the tragedy, the plethora of grievances and spending the present moment reacting to it all.  I’m not suggesting there is no value in looking back; in fact, I think it’s an essential component of grieving and healing.  I need to visit the past, not live in it. If I’m always looking back at the past, I will miss living in the moment.

And there is grace and goodness now that I earnestly desire to savor.

May God give you and Amy Voskamp and me open hearts and hands to, in time, receive healing and wonder and joy.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Life: A Bipolar Experience

It's Labor Day and  the sun is shining. After temps endlessly in the 90's it is a mellow and mild 70.  The cicada sing to the waltz of the gentle breeze.   God is great and life is good.  

All it takes is one phone call to send us careening into chaos.  "Mr. Harris, this is the Peoria County Sheriff.  There has been a terrible car accident. . ."    "Steve?  This is Dr. Wahlberg's office.  We received the results of your tests.  Doctor wants to see you as soon as possible."  

 All it takes is one poor decision to plummet us to  the depths.  "Dad, I'm allowed one phone call.  I'm calling from jail. . . "   

 Life is filled with laughter so deep it hurts; life is replete with hurt so deep one doubts she'll ever laugh again.  It's still a mystery to me how to navigate such unpredictable waters.  One season I can be sailing carefree and not a care in the cosmos; the next season I'm  stranded in the middle of the ocean with no land or craft in sight, desperately clinging to a piece of shattered lumber, hoping to stay afloat.  

 The song of life can be so good that I lift my open hands in thanks and praise, and I have no sooner sung the chorus and a dirge begins and I'm shaking my angry fists at God.  

I know I am not alone.  Even the great saints and prophets of God have reported a similar experience.  Hear the heart of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah as he bursts into spontaneous joy.  "Sing to the Lord!  Give praise to God!  He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked."  And without skipping a beat he agonizes in lament, "Cursed be the day I was born!  May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!  Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad,saying, 'A child is born to you. . . !'"  (Jeremiah 20:13, 14)  

This unpredictability of life teaches me  to savor the joyful, the wonder, the beauty without demanding it or allowing those moments to define me.  Neither can I allow the hellish and horrific to dictate and determine my state of mind,my outlook.  There is One who transcends both the delightful and the decimating; there is One who is above and not circumscribed by the awe-full and the awful.  

I need eyes to see and ears to hear the One when there is so much vying for my attention, clamoring so loudly that often all I notice is the immediate, rather than the Ultimate.