Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Little Old Me

When my father’s teeth pierced the skin of the Freestone peach, the sweet juice burst forth, out and down his arm.  He leaned forward, not wanting to stain the front of his shirt.  Too late.  He quickly took another bite, making a suction noise, eating over the cupped palm of his other hand.  Mouth full and eyes closed, he murmured, “My, God!” 
He wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, and standing there in the kitchen, on a June mid-morning, just back from Mr. Bond’s produce truck, he began to rhapsodize: “To think, God gives us something like this.”  The peach held up before him, his head was nodding back in forth, as if in disbelief.  “Something this incredible, and all we have to do is pluck it from a tree.”  Again, he said, “My, God.”
He reached into the brown paper bag and pulled out another Freestone.  And while he finished the first one, he washed off a second. 
It was though I wasn’t in the room at all, and yet he was teaching me—Enjoy the small glories of God  because they make a moment great.  I stepped forward and he handed me the washed fruit, and then he reached for a third.  My father’s gratitude was genuine, knowing that something as awesome as God, not just considered him, but provided something simple as a peach for him; yet it was so incredibly fulfilling.  And why does God give us so much consideration and special care?  Possible, as one who loves us above all, He wants us to feel significant, especially when we may consider ourselves so insignificant.  Perhaps there is no better example of this esteem than in The Book of Luke.   
In Luke, there is a popular passage where Mary meets Elizabeth and they both exult in the blessings of their pregnancies:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.’
And Mary said, ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me --holy is his name.’
During their exchange, Mary gives praise to God.  And what she celebrates is how impressed she is by God remembering her, “[F]or he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”  Maybe a simpler way to phrase what she is thinking is, I can’t believe He remembered little old me.  God’s message is clear: The greatest of what He has to offer is not reserved for Kings or Queens or the most popular or a select few; it’s for all of us, especially the least among us, the anonymous.  That awe that Mary felt from God’s consideration is the awe I saw my Dad feel again and again, the awe that again said, I can’t believe He remembered little old me.           
I was always impressed about how long my dad could sit alone in his bedroom and practice playing the banjo.  Sometimes he would be in there for three or four hours, emerging only for a quick, cold drink of water, after which he’d belt out a well earned  Aaahhhhhh.  Dixieland arrangements of standards, Bye Bye Blackbird, Whispering, Bill Bailey, When the Saints Go Marching In. etc., would be ringing throughout our old Victorian apartment, over and over and over.  He’d be sitting on the side of his queen-sized bed, hunkered over his banjo, his music stand a foot before him, dripping with sheet music close-pinned to the sides.  He strummed with a large triangle-shaped pick.  After exhausting runs and rousing, momentum-building tags, Dad would take the edge of the pick and run it across his forehead, squeegee-ing off his thick sweat and whip-lashing his wrist to the side, flinging the salty fluid off into the ether.  When I went in his room, I could feel the immediate rise in temperature.
Later, Dad would emerge from his room and plop himself down in the corner of the high-back , patterned sofa, his button downed shirt blotched with perspiration.  “Man!” he would begin.  “I did things on the banjo I didn’t know I was capable of.” 
My dad was an extraordinary musician, but he would admit that his best moments were often not in front of an audience, but when he was practicing, playing alone in that bedroom.  Yet, he wasn’t upset by that fact.  From time to time, in a spirited reverie, he would explain, “Sometimes, I make runs and create something on the spot that I’ve never done before and just play at a level that I can’t normally play…It’s like God is right there, y’know?” 
What my dad reveled in those moments were what we all so badly clamor to know—that we matter.  He was simply glad to know that God was remembering him, thinking of him.  In some tiny corner of the world, my dad was sitting alone on his bed and playing his heart out, and God was listening to him, even allowing him to reach new heights, to experience a moment of greatness.  Maybe that’s why he could play for hours.  He wasn’t just strumming out his chord-melodies; he was communing with God.  While not as earth-shaking as the “immaculate conception,” my dad felt no less recognized in God’s thoughts, enjoying immeasurable treasures and delights that were put on this earth, just for him.  It is just this recognition that I’m trying to get my own children to see, if for nothing else than to experience sheer joy.        
I spent the first Saturday in November raking the leaves in my backyard.  It was one of those crisp, cloudless Autumn days, mid-fifties, and full of sun.  I whipped the leaves into a massive pile that was almost as tall as my three-year-old son.  As I topped the pile off with more leaves, he busted through them with laughter that was loud and uncontrollable, erupting leaves all about him.  This pattern went on and on as he seemed to only be able to utter one word—Again!  I couldn’t rake quickly enough to keep fortifying the mound.  Eventually, we collapsed into the nearby hammock, both of us gloriously exhausted, my son nestled under my arm, his head on my shoulder.  We swayed back and forth, looking up at the bare tree branches in front of the azure blue sky, giggling and catching our breath.  The high branches were a towering cobweb above us, with a few fluttering leaves dotted among the network.  When one fell, we would try to guess where it would land. 
“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked my son.
“Uh huh,” he agreed.
“Man, God put this here just for us,” I continued, in my best attempt to have my boy beginning to see God at work in our lives.
“Is He here?” he asked.
“Is he on the hammock,” he asked.
“Yup,” I said, “so scooch over; make some room.”
“Does He like leaves?”
“He loves leaves!  Look at the reds and oranges and yellows and greens and browns.  He gives us these colors just to look at and to make big leaf piles to dive into.  Isn’t that nice of Him?” I said, and then I dug my heel into the earth and pushed off to increase the pendulum swing again.
Often it’s too hard to tell what my kids absorb and what they don’t.  Mostly, I won’t know until life plays itself out.  But, if I can do one thing for them, it would be to try to bring them joy, not from the grandiose, but from the seemingly insignificant, like a peach or a song or a leaf. 
Earlier this week, I saw a construction paper turkey, hanging on the door leading into my son’s pre-k class.  On each feather was written a child’s name and a quote of what he is thankful for.  Under my son’s name read, I am thankful for God.  I am thankful He is in my life.  Of course I can’t help but wonder, does my son think of himself as “little old me.” 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Arm's Length Away

The intermittent flashes of lightning seemed to have caused a strobe light, casting odd shadows across my room.  And in the far corner, the chair with the pile of clothes heaped on its back ceased to be a chair, but some deformed, demonic being, shape-shifted from what I had seen in the light of day.  It just stood there, waiting.  Perhaps waiting for me to make the first move, any move, breathe even.  Finally, after one crack of thunder, I slid out of bed and through the doorway, my pillow and blanket clutched in each fist.  I ran down the hall and entered my parents‘ bedroom.  They were sleeping soundly.  My father, who was deaf, couldn’t hear the storm at all without his hearing aid.  He was lightly snoring.  I stood next to his bed, staring down at him, about to wake him; but I didn’t.  I laid out my blanket and pillow on the floor next to him.  I lay down, an arm’s length away, and I went to sleep.   

At first light, I crept back into my room, where the beast had shape-shifted back into an old wooden chair with dirty laundry heaped onto its back, never to return.  Who knows what got into me?  From some unknown place, a fear took a stranglehold over my seven-year-old mind that night, which I could not shake.  Waking up to such an image, I cried out in the silence for my father.  Wherever he was, it was the only safe place in the world.  If I was going to have any peace that night, it would only be when I was with him, even if it was lying on the floor next to him, feeling him close in my life.  Knowing, not hoping or believing, but knowing that when I’m with him I’m okay.  It is this knowing, far beyond faith or belief, but this actual truism that concerns Jesus in The Book of Mark. 

In Mark, 12:30, “Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment of all, He replied, ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’”  One could read this passage and think, Okay, I love God…easy enough.  But what Jesus is saying here is not something to be taken lightly at all.  He is saying love the LORD in such an absolute and complete way that it may be impossible for most.  How many of us can say that we have such a genuine love like that for more than a few immediate family members, or maybe even friends?  How many can say that about just one other person?  And, how is a love like that even possible?  Can it be genuine just because it’s God?  Because a love like that just isn’t possible in an instant, just because Jesus commands it.  A love like that is only possible through a cultivated relationship.  It’s the unquestioning love of a child.  It’s the unconditional love of a father.  It’s the love my dad had for me.  And it’s the love he had for God, a love that stretched across a lifetime.   
I remember one of the earliest times I witnessed the relationship between God and Dad.  One afternoon, I walked into my parents’ bedroom, looking for my father.   He was sitting with his back to me on the far edge of the bed, and his head was down, and his hands were together and shaking.  With his “good ear” turned away from me, I could tell that he hadn’t heard me come in.  I just slowly backed out without him seeing me.  Days later I asked him what he was doing.  He said, "Praying."  I didn’t know he prayed.  So of course I asked what he was praying for. 

“Well since you asked, right now things are really tight and we have to pay the rent and buy groceries and I didn’t have any money coming in.” 

“So you were praying for money,” I asked.   

“Nonono.  I was praying for help.  I don’t pray for specific things, just help or guidance.  And then I stay open to however God answers.  I put it in His hands.  And He always has an answer.”  He said this with a confidence that was not for my benefit, but because he was genuinely at peace with his trust in God.  He spoke with the assurance of someone who was speaking about someone close, an old friend, a parent even.  He was speaking about someone he didn’t just believe in, but someone he trusted because God was someone with whom he had had a long, close relationship.  There was no distance between them.  And, there was no question that God wouldn’t come through. 

Consequently, the next day after I saw my father praying, there was a knock at our door.  It was my father’s sister.  She had dropped by, unannounced. She couldn’t stay long.  She just wanted to share a bit of her good fortune.  It turns out that the day before my aunt bought a lottery ticket or scratch off or something and won some money and she decided to share some of her winnings.  I know prayer usually doesn’t work that way, and it’s even dangerous to want it to; but on that day, it did.  My aunt put $500 in my father’s hand, and was gone soon after.  My father was proud of his sister, and he often spoke of her generosity; however, I don’t think he was surprised.  Why would he be?  Why should we be surprised when we get the love, help, and support from those closest to us?  My father was close with God.  They had a relationship, like father and son.  So why should a son be surprised when a father helps him out?  He wasn’t.

In his final days, bedridden and in and out of long bouts of light sleep, my father would call out, “I want Jesus!”  He wasn’t saying it like he wanted the faith he didn’t have.  Nor was he saying it as a wish to welcome Jesus into his heart just in time, as some sort of feeble loophole to gain salvation at the 11th hour.  He was crying out for Jesus, wanting him close.  Knowing that the safest place in the world is with him.  Feeling that any possible comfort is with him.  Admitting that any peace to be had is with him.  My father summoned Jesus as a scared child would cry out for one whom he loved above all, one whom he has known all his life, one with whom he has had a relationship of unwavering trust, as one would cry out for his father, alone in a thunder storm, desperate, needing only to sleep on the floor, an arm’s length away.