A Wordless Presence

A Wordless Presence

The wrestling season is finally over (cheer)! Its duration-and my 16 years spent in the bleachers for this particular sport-always test my heart and stamina. Wrestling tournaments bring a special kind of torment to both spectators and participants. Two people wearing nothing but a singlet and flat sneakers circle each other like panthers, trying to vanquish the other by pinning him or her, helpless,to the mat. Spit, blood, and sweat are often involved.

It's primal and intense, a display of strength and athleticism nothing short of astonishing. And if you are a parent of one or two of those ripped, twisted bodies being taken to the mat, it's sheer fear. Necks aren't supposed to bend that way. Backs should not fold, and bloody noses deserve more than a coach ramming a twisted piece of Kotex up the nostril. O child of mine! I can hardly watch.

At the last tournament, tired and desperate, I took up my camera. Thus armed, I stood at the edge of the mat now, 20 feet from the action, with the lens to my face, but all was changed. Now it was about snapping a decent photo, not worrying about the other guy snapping my son's back. It was about recording a drama, capturing a moment of art in the spar.

From that vantage, Russian author Anton Chekhov's famous prescription for writers came to mind:

"A writer is not a confectioner, not a dealer in cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound under compulsion, by the realization of his duty and by his conscience. To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist."

I thought, too, of the essential role of the artist-writer as a witness, a dispassionate recorder of the often unpleasant.

I needed no further justification. I was now the photographer-witness, safely and objectively documenting my sons' pins, wins, and losses. It saved me a section of stomach lining and led to some interesting observations.

But the longer I stood there at the end of the mat, the more my objectivity shrank. By the eighth hour, I had put my camera down to watch the blind wrestler tapping his cane to his next match. 

I cheered on the gutsy girl wrestlers. I brought my embattled sons bottles of water. In short, I drew close.

Chekhov's brilliant short stories often ring true, yet these particular words of his feel a poor prescription for writers and for believers living in a suffering world. This month brought another death in our church family, the daughter of a friend. This was her fourth child to die. I did not want to go to the funeral. I wanted to keep a safe distance. I had nothing to offer but what she possessed too much of already: tears, despair, unanswerable questions.

But I could not stay away. I wept through the entire service and hovered around my friend as the casket was loaded into the hearse. Just before it left, I looked into my friend's face, gave her a hug, and left.

I am haunted still. I am haunted because I believe in presence. I believe in a God who did not stay coolly distant and "objective," but who came close enough to us to spend his own blood and spit, a God who came so close, he took our place "so that we who were once far off could be brought near" (cf. Eph. 2:13). I see him with muscled arms and legs grappling with Jacob on the night plain. I think of Emmanuel, "God with us," who ate dinner next to the possessed and dispossessed, who expended his presence extravagantly to the near and far-off alike.

But I am not Christ! How puny my hugs and my tears before the magnitude of this friend's grief! Is this all my presence can offer? In my own helplessness now, I remember Jesus' words, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them" (Matt. 18:20). We tend to invoke these words at prayer meetings and church services before we launch into lengthy supplications. But I am beginning to understand that maybe my wordless presence with her was a prayer. Maybe Jesus' words are really true. Maybe our physical presence beside those who grieve, who feel abandoned, who wrestle against the muck of life is itself an embodied prayer that invokes-or somehow actually becomes-"I am there among them." God with us.

This is more than a hope. As I step off the bleachers, sooner now, with water or a hug to someone alone, my hands, my legs, my feet will be praying: God with us, be with us. I know he will.

I believe in a God who did not stay coolly distant and ‘objective,' but who came close enough to us to spend his own blood and spit.

Intercultural Fiesta Fail

Intercultural Fiesta Fail
‘We are all alike!’ doesn’t fly in a fly-infested hut in El Salvador.

The thinly thatched roof of the bamboo hut barely shades us from the tropical sun. The four women do not stop making tamales as my daughter  introduces me to them. They smile shyly at me  while tending the  wood fire and tying the leaf- wrapped bundles with  twine-like stems. The flies  are thick. A baby sitting on  the dirt floor surrounded  by chickens cries. I try to look  pleasant and non- judging.

“Will you come to the fiesta, then?” my daughter asks  the mother and her grown daughters.

“Sí,” they nod, glancing at me nervously. 

The “intercultural fiesta” had been planned for months  around my arrival in El Salvador, where my daughter is  working in rural villages. The party was the perfect incentive for the women she works with— practicing songs and skits to raise awareness on domestic violence, an enormous problem in their country. I was part of the program. We would share our lives and learn from each other.

“They’ll dress up as much as they can,” my daughter tells me. So I dress down: a dress from Walmart, a plastic necklace, old vinyl sandals that stink when my feet sweat. I want to blend in, to be one of them, to not be what I really am: a rich American.

After a skit where my improvisation and faulty Spanish elicit a little too much laughter, we move on to a round of charades. The women act out their lives in the villages, and I do the same for my life in Alaska. For “work,” they stand in a row and swing their arms gently back and forth. “Hoeing corn!” I shout out, while my daughter translates. They grin. For my turn, I mime standing in a skiff and pulling in a net heavy with fish. Because they have heard about this  already, they immediately guess “Fishing!” When I pantomime church, I bend my head to pray, I lift my hands to worship, and I enact Communion. They shout “prayer!” “Praising God!” “Communion!” with the excitement of recognition. Later, I teach them a hallelujah song.

My heart fills. Though we live 7,000 miles apart, we are women, we are mothers, we worship God—we share so much. I think of the apostle Paul’s metaphor for the church, that we are “many members, one body.” I think of the mystery of the communion of the saints. I try to overlook the flies and the dirt to see these families as my neighbors.To love them.

But the we-are-all-alike glow doesn’t last. Few of the women try to speak to me. The children are afraid of me. I am unable to eat the food served, because a previous meal has made me sick. They do not invite me to sit with them under the shade of the tarp. I ennoble them because of their brown skin and deep poverty. They ennoble me because  of my white skin and wealth. Despite their dressing up and my dressing down, we are clearly still “other” to one another, and nothing I do that day changes it.

Now, back home, I realize it is a travesty to try to erase what lies between us, which is not simply distance but skin color, language, education, worldview, lifestyle, life span, and myriad other real distinctions. Surely these matter.

The basis for loving our neighbors, and for unity in Christ, is not proximity, understanding, or commonality. We are one in Christ not because we are one and the same, but because Christ is the same. It is an impoverished theology that mistakes unity in Christ for sameness in Christ.

The perfection toward which we are heading, the extinction of our sin nature, will not blur us all into homogeneity. At Pentecost, a foretaste of heaven, the Holy Spirit did not repair the splintering of language begun at Babel, the miracle we would expect. Christ did not unify the multi-tongued hearers through the same language, but through the hearing of the same gospel.

No one at the fiesta that day would have mistaken me for anything but what I am. I’m relieved. Whatever borders I cross next—be they in countries or church pews—I can give up the guilty fiction that I can become the other. I do know, however, that I can at least be among the other. 

There, among the women, I hope they marveled, as I did, that redemption is so wide it even includes a middle-aged gringa with bad Spanish and stinky feet.

The Cosmo's Best-Kept Secret

The Cosmos's Best-Kept Secret
Who we really are in Christ.

Recently I rested on a church pew—at the boat harbor. It is a gorgeous oak pew, the kind you sit on in a Baptist church, which is precisely where this pew had come from. The church replaced the pews with padded chairs in order to fit 30 more people into its sanctuary. My sister-in-law, spying beauty and spirit, bought one of the homeless pews and was taking it out to her fish-camp island in Alaska.

It took six muscular men to hoist the pew onto the truck and then walk it down the ramp onto the dock floats. There it sat for an hour, waiting its turn to be loaded. God on the dock. But the job wasn't done. The men soon hoisted it onto the deck of our barge. Hours later, the pew went sailing all night on the Pacific out to our island. God yet nearer: God on the deck.

These days I am reading Colossians, the book of Scripture that proclaims the "fullness of Christ." As I read the first chapters, I feel the strain of language as the writer attempts to tether to the page the incomparable majesty of Christ: he who is in all and above all, who is before all things, who is the firstborn over all creation, who holds all things together. We discover that the fullness of Christ's gospel has been a mystery, something "kept hidden for ages and generations." But now that mystery is made clear.

Here it is, the deepest secret that our forbears and even angels longed to hear and know but were not told: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27, emphasis mine).

I hope the parallels here are not trivializing: the mobility of it! Who could imagine a church pew on the deck of a barge, sailing the ocean? Who could imagine God inhabiting people, inhabiting us? The very Son of God, a tabernacle in sneakers. It is so bizarre that most who have heard the claim throughout the ages have rejected it.

Not long after the pew sailing, I watched "The Most Astounding Fact about the Universe," a video gone viral, narrated by the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Against stunning imagery of the cosmos, with an infectious soundtrack provided by the Cinematic Orchestra, Tyson explains in a deep lyrical voice that the atoms that make up our bodies came literally from the stars themselves, who exploded their "enriched guts" into the universe, creating our world and providing the elements that compose our bodies. The most astounding fact is this, says Tyson: "We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but more importantly, the universe is in us …. We are made of star-stuff."

Tyson, a self-described agnostic, ridicules the notion that human beings are special, that the universe was built for us by some Creator. Yet he finds meaning and significance in our star-shared atoms: "I feel big because my atoms came from those stars."

I'm moved and inspired by Tyson's cause. He has good news! This shared makeup, however random and impersonal he believes its cause, is not reason for despair or disvalue, but rather grants all human beings significance, belonging, and nobility. "I feel … ennobled, I feel a connectivity. I bask in the majesty of the cosmos," he says evangelistically on late-night shows and in university lectures, to energetic applause.

I recognize in his stirring messages that science and faith have a common enemy: apathy and meaninglessness. Lives so sunk in the quotidian, the mean, and the small that we fail to look up and recognize who we really are. The stars are within us! I am moved and awed already by Tyson's message.

A Pro-Life Plea This Election Season

A Pro-Life Plea This Election Season
The importance of remembering real women.

A woman is standing in the bathroom, staring at the white wand in her shaking hand. Her disbelief gives way to anger, then despair. She has five children. She can't afford childcare—she'll have to quit her job. Her house is too small for another child. Her family's business is under threat, and her husband will be traveling more than ever. She's just come through another unplanned pregnancy. She is well past 40. How can she be pregnant at this age when using birth control? How can she go through another pregnancy, another birth? How can she raise another child? 

Then a thought comes: This could all just go away. No one would know. She feels a lift. There is a way out.

That woman, of course, was me. Never did I imagine I would consider abortion, even for a few seconds.

Reading this, some will write me: "How could you even think that? You're a terrible mother. 

Don't you know every child is a blessing?" I know because I got some of those e-mails when my bookSurprise Child came out a few years ago.

I'm thinking about all this again because we are facing an election cycle in which life-ethics issues are almost daily news, and because January 15th is National Sanctity of Life Sunday.

Those last unexpected pregnancies jarred me awake in so many ways. I discovered that 20 percent of all women obtaining abortions self-identify as evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, or born-again, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute. That's somewhere around 200,000 believing American women a year ending the life of their child.

Can this be true? While I was speaking on a talk show about the topic, a woman called in and said, "I work outside an abortion clinic, trying to save lives, and you wouldn't believe how many cars in the parking lot have Bibles in their front seats and Christian radio stickers on the back. The women are almost always alone, and they're really scared."

I understand that fear. And I think local church culture bears at least some responsibility. We've so spiritualized the fight for life, we may be losing lives because of it. We know God is the maker of every human being. We know that premarital and extramarital sex is contrary to God's Word. Our beliefs on this front are passionate and unbending, and they should be. But I fear that our conviction and certainty can lead to lack of compassion when women make mistakes.

I attended a church a few years ago whose (male) leaders would not support a church-sponsored baby shower for a pregnant teen unless she repented of her sin—publicly. If there is no room for error, no message of grace, women in crisis will continue to drive out of church all the way to abortion clinics, their Bibles on the front seat, scared toward death.

I fear as well that the politicization of "pro-life" has desensitized us to seeing the people involved. We speak in military terms: the "fight for life." We draw battle lines and launch campaigns. We objectify mothers and are so focused on saving the fetus that we neglect the mother. Though evangelicals have over the past decade become more convinced of the importance of supporting unwed mothers, many of us still labor under the idea that once the baby is born, we've won the fight and can move on to the next one. But where does that leave mother and child?

As I struggled wearily through my last two pregnancies, I learned that "pro-life" was far more than a cause, a box to check off on a ballot. I was acutely aware that I was not gestating a political platform, a point of theology, a spiritual or moral issue: I was growing within my own body a human being with a body—and that is where I needed to be met. Every day.

The great good news here is that U.S. abortion rates are at their lowest level since the 1970s. The disastrous news is that child abuse rates are exploding and are considered "epidemic." This does not warrant or buttress a common defense of abortion, but rather supports the argument to widen our concern for life, beyond the baby and birth itself to the whole family and every member thereof.

In this election season, the "pro-life cause" can trick us into thinking that our duty is done when we check the box beside the right name. I'm glad for those in my church who knew it wasn't, who brought meals and gifts before and after Micah was born, who loved an overwhelmed woman so she could begin her real pro-life work: the lifelong work of loving another.

Why Are Our Communion Meals So Paltry?

Why Are Our Communion Meals So Paltry?
If we have such an extravagant Savior, we should attempt to create a fuller meal.

As I enter the sanctuary, I see the cloth-draped table near the podium. Communion Sunday! My heart lifts—and sinks. What will they serve? If they passlittle cubes of bread, I resolve to take three or four. This time I am determined to be nourished. 

The problem could be me. Maybe I simply lack imagination. In the churches where mini-saltines are served, my clumsy fingers struggle to find and keep purchase of a single morsel. As I crush it in a single chew while the pastor reads, "This is my body, broken for you," I cannot help wondering if Christ has broken a fingernail on my behalf. At the common cup where I take a single anxious swallow, or in the jigger of juice I down in two gulps, I strain to see the blood that flowed from his face and side, the blood that covers the flood of my sins. I know this should be enough, because I deserve none of it—not a fingernail of bread, not a tongue-tip of the blood that Christ spent for me! But the body talks; its messages are real, and I cannot help listening: We have overspiritualized the Lord's Supper. We've turned an actual meal into a pantomime of a meal, and the church is hungry because of it.

I have some guesses as to how this has happened. Forgive the familiarity of this critique, but we're still trying so hard to be spiritual. The Book of Hebrews tells us that earthly things shadow and symbolize the more real yet invisible heavenly things. If Christ's presence is made real through the elements, then a sliver, a swallow is surely enough! And if the ceremony is mostly memorial, a remembrance of Christ's sacrifice, then tidbits and jiggers suffice!

But we cannot escape another truth: On the night he was betrayed, Christ offered a very real meal. Throughout the Scriptures, the apprehension of spiritual realities behind earthly symbols plunges usinto physicality rather than removing us from it. John the Baptist sunk penitents into a cold and decidedly wet river. On his eighth day of life, Jesus was marked with a symbol of the covenant—his body cut with a honed knife.

Nor did Christ overspiritualize the meaning of being a disciple. He flaunted, even hyperbolized the physicality of that meal and what was required: "[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53).

It is past time to reclaim the "supper" that Christ instituted and to give the body—our own bodies and Christ's body, which our gathered bodies enact—its full due.

I am not asking for an examination of our theology. In truth, I think much of the Communion practices of the evangelical church have less to do with theology and more to do with the behavior of a single congregation, those unruly, factious Corinthians who gathered for the feast but ate and drank with no regard for others. Some left hungry while others left stuffed and drunk, blind to the body of Christ in their food.

We have overspiritualized the Lord's Supper. We've turned an actual meal into a pantomime of a meal, and the church is hungry because of it.

We've taken care of all that—in spades. Our services are precisely orchestrated. Servers march with military precision. We no longer recline at tables; we stand in line or sit upright in pews. 

We do not choose our serving; portion control assures we're all served the same. We chew and quaff in exact synchronicity. The Scriptures are scrupulously read as we partake. No one is overeating. No one is getting drunk. Check. Check. Check.

And we've managed to go one further: even in the largest congregations, we can get everyone out the door on time for their real meal after the pretend meal. This is my final complaint. In our avoidance of the sins Paul warns against, we are committing another: the crime of efficiency. We're so busy, and our services so short, there's no time for a sit-down dinner or anything like it.

But I can think of no busier night than those two particular nights: Passover, when the Hebrews were readying for their journey from bondage to freedom. Who had time to cook and eat dinner? But God required a meal, however hastily it was eaten. Jesus had betrayal and death before him, and all of history to overturn on his night. Who had time or appetite for a meal? 

But the events of those nights were too important not to eat and remember.

I hunger, spirit and body, for the day when our Communion tables are freed from regimentation and parsimony, images of a cautious, lugubrious, measurable redemption so unlike the real table God has set before us. Let us find ways to extend the table to a fuller meal, if not every Communion service, then once a month or quarterly. It is now, in this world, when we are parched and starved, that the church needs the meal most. Let's eat the feast already given.

Throwing Christ Over the Cliff

Throwing Christ Over the Cliff
How the church can help the faithful stay faithful.

My family and I are headed to our Alaskan fish camp this month, where we commercial fish for salmon every summer. This time last year, I was happily stripping out the season's first king salmon to put in our new smoker. When I was done, I set the white bowl piled high with carmine flesh on the counter, then called my two youngest sons, ages 8 and 10, to dump the carcass over the far cliff, where all our organics go.

A few minutes later they handed me the bowl, now empty, and turned back to their play.

"Thank you," I said unthinkingly. As I stood there with the bowl in my hand, I realized something was wrong. "Boys!" I shouted. "Did you just dump all the salmon over the cliff?"

They came running, looking up at me with innocent eyes.

I pointed to the carcass still in the box on the floor.

"Ohhhhh." Their eyes went wide, their faces burned pink. 

I calmed down—eventually. I've lost a lot of things out there, including all my journals and my wedding ring, which went down one year on a sinking fishing boat.

In such times, I can't help thinking of the poet Elizabeth Bishop's famous villanelle, "The Art of Losing": The art of losing isn't hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

But often losses are disaster. I frequently run into people who are losing and throwing away treasures far more precious than salmon and journals. A lifelong friend who grew up in a Christian home and went to Christian colleges wrote recently to tell me he no longer believed Jesus was the only way to God. Yesterday, I talked with a woman whose son had found faith in high school, but who now believed in kung fu instead. In Costa Rica, I met two young men, missionary kids, who had both abandoned their faith. "God didn't really do much for me," one said.

I'm always saddened by these encounters, but I'm not surprised. As evangelicals, we believe that faith is more than rote ritual, that God can be known intimately through Scripture and the Spirit, so we urge believers toward "a personal relationship with Jesus." But from what I've witnessed, it can become so personal it ends up being about the wrong person—me.

And so the church is stuck with a conundrum: We believe, rightly, that our faith must be individually chosen, not inherited from our parents or bestowed by any church body. And like good existentialists as well as evangelicals, we often feel it is our choosing that makes our faith authentic and personal. In its best expression, our faith in Christ becomes our greatest personal treasure, the pearl of great price we have sold all to purchase. But in its worst, as owners of the pearl, we start to think faith is our property to throw into the sea, to toss off the cliff, whenever it loses its sheen.

(Ironically, while we insist that our act of choosing is necessary to the validity of our faith, in exit polls, those who leave usually lay the blame squarely on the church.)

As Christians and the wider body of believers, it's time we took more responsibility for keeping our faith polished as a pearl of great price—and it's time we understood whose faith it really is. The Book of Jude helps us accomplish both. Writing to the early church specifically about "the leavers," the author says to "keep yourselves in God's love," by "building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit … as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life" (1:20-21).

We must actively choose our faith—a faith Jude calls "most holy"—and we must just as actively deepen and build it up ourselves. And here's why: because it is ours, and yet not ours. Jude 1:3 identifies "your most holy faith" as "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints"—that is, the same faith delivered to all the saints in all the world through all time. This faith belongs to us if we choose it, but even more, we belong to it.

We will never fully end the trail of leavers who stand on the cliffs, throwing over perfect, beautiful flesh mistaken for a carcass. But if the church focuses less on a one-time act of choosing Christ, and more on building up, praying, and communally enacting this once for all most holy faith—I believe it will not be so easily discarded. Then we will together master the art of keeping.