Monday, March 1, 2021

         Muleki woke astonished and dazed.  Mostly though, he suffered a piercing hunger and so decided that whatever his dream was, he would call it a message from the spirits and ran to the village before all the bean cakes were gone.  He found his mother kneeling at her work in the dust before her hut and his sisters beside her pounding reeds and combing the strands of it like hair.  His mother asked about his dream after mopping his brow and checking his wound and he told her between great mouthfuls of kachoa fruit.

        "Tell me of your father's voice." she said softly, her eyes fixed on her hands grown still in her lap.

        "He called first with urgency, next with softness.  Last, he called with weeping."  His mother's hands fell slowly from her lap, the tools sliding from them without notice.  She turned her face away to hide her wet eyes.

        "How did you know our father's voice?  You were only a baby when the men were slain.  You never even knew our father." said his oldest sister.

        "I do not know his voice." he said.  And this puzzled him even as he spoke the words, "Still, I'm certain."

        "We will go to the old ones and they will ask the Great God for direction and for the meaning of these things within the Crones' Circle." said his mother.

        Word of his return and the Crones' Circle shuddered through the village with a wave of tense expectation.  Everyone helped prepare.  The youngest gathered stones and tinder while the older girls tamped the clearing inside the ring of huts.  Last came the crones to consecrate the earth with their bundles of coca leaves, squinting tight their rheumy eyes and turning slowly to each of the four directions.

        At last light, Muleki's grandmother brought the carved jaguar head with its fearsome snarl and keen eyes of jade from its shroud--the totem of the Great God.  The god above all others, the god like a jaguar, with ways mysterious, violent and inexplicable--the god who sees, but is unseen.

        She stabbed the earth at the heart of the village and balanced the jaguar on the pike.  Then the crones stretched a cord taught from this pole and stamped a circle into the earth--a circle for the old ones, a circle of prayer.  They carefully measured a wider circle next and marked it with a ring of small fires.  These the mothers tended--the circle of revelation.  Last they laid stones around an even larger circle--this for the tasks of this earth and for death.

        As night fell, the crones danced in the flickering oranges and purples of firelight and shadow, tamping the ground with their leathered feet.  They sang softly and whispered to the dead.  Their words fluttered like rising wings up into the thick dark, then floated to earth again soft and silent as ash.

        The mothers cut their arms and fed the blood to their little fires.  They keened in soft voices for their lost husbands and sons, their whispered loss hovering around them like smoke.  Muleki and the other children watched from outside the circle of stones.  For nearly all the children's lives, they had been a hunted people and lived without fire except for feast days and prayer, and so the children crouched in the shadows, enchanted by the dancing lights.

        Long into the night, Muleki's grandmother left the crones and spoke in urgent whispers to his mother who left her fire and came to where he sat watching.

        "Tell me again about the mountain.  What did it look like?"

        "A big rock with no trees and covered in spots with white."

        "Draw its shape for me."  She motioned his grandmother over and they both looked intently at the lines he scraped into the hard earth with a stick.  A look passed between them, but they said no more.

        At first light, high in their nests, monkeys howled their greeting to the sun as it rose somewhere beyond the canopy of leaves and dripped a soft light into puddles on the tamped ground.  Then came the steady thrum of birds and bugs--a thousand colors of hunger in rustles and chirps and squawks.

        In the heavy heat of the day, as the air thickened with the mud smell of the river, the world grew weighted, silent and sleepy.  The children dozed.  The oldest women rested on their shadows, but still the mothers sang.  And with the rising of the moon came the blossom of night noise--the chitter and hiss and chaos of night bugs, the pulsing of frogs, the flutter of bats.  Sang the mothers still.

        Muleki sat on his heels until the monkeys howled the sun awake on the second day.  His sisters brought tenachl root and water for the children outside the stones, but the old ones took no food or water, nor the mothers.

        Suddenly, when the sun was high, the singing stopped.  His mother rose and came to him and he stood to meet her with needles in his feet, his legs wooden.

        "You leave at sunrise." she said, her voice a choked whisper.  Dirt and exhaustion and fear smeared her face--and a raw grief.  Her eyes would not meet his.  The old women passed by him slowly as he stood shocked, each one touching him with a pained tenderness, letting their gnarled fingers rest overlong on his arm, his back.  Their eyes also could not meet his.

        Last came his grandmother.  "You promised I wouldn't have to leave!"  His words came out choking and hot.  To speak to an elder thus was ill mannered and abrupt, but no one scolded.  Instead, his grandmother gathered him in and wept her shaking sobs into his hair.

        At long last, she came to herself and whispered into his ear, lest anyone else hear, "My child, the gods have called you to preserve our people.  I have prayed and argued with them--I told them you were too young, that you should wait--but the gods have willed it and shown the way.  My heart is broken that the task falls to you."  She did not bother to dry her eyes, only smoothed his rumpled hair made damp with her tears and went with the others to prepare.

        The whole village busied itself with the departure in an urgent, yet weighted sorrow.  His sisters cried openly as they rolled stacks of tahia leaves and bound them tightly together with grass.  They wove clever braids of kachoa and nut fruits and hollowed a large gourd for water.

        That night, they formed the circle of the people.  The crones linked their arms at its center and all the village sang in whispers, then prayed with one hushed voice.  His sisters clung to him, the youngest weeping.

        He lay sleepless that night in the tangled heat of his sisters' arms while his mother sat silent at the hut's open mouth and stared out into the dark.  He tried to memorize the damp smell there--heat and reeds drying, sweat and raw earth.  He felt the soft flesh of his sisters' arms and the distinctive scent of each one's hair.  His wound still throbbed, but he hardly noticed for the raw and jagged gash in his heart and the cold stone of his grandmother's words.

        With the new sun, the crones came with their powders and magic, with their paste of kali berry to paid the red of it beneath his eyes.  One by one, they red their palms and placed their prints on his skin.  To his back, they tied the blanket woven with their people's story, then coiled the sash that named his ancestors around his waist.  Into a bundle, they rolled his own blanket, the one woven by his mother that told his name, his story, her dreams for him, her prayers for him.

        Then sang his mother to bless him.  It was their people's most sacred song--The Mother's Song.  Her voice faltered only twice, but when she finished, her cheeks were wet.  She red her palms with kali berry and with a soundless prayer, placed the print of her hand upon his heart.  She left her warm hand there as she sang his name--Muleki--the treasure hidden.

        She sang his story, how she hid him high in a monkey nest as a baby when the flesheaters came to slay the boy children.  How an old mother monkey lay her body over the baby to keep him from being discovered, then hissed and snarled when the flesheaters came near with their bloody knives.  At this part of the song, Muleki heard the soft weeping of the other women for their own lost sons and felt the weight of their grief sink into his bones even as he felt his mother's magic enter through her palm pressed to his heart.

        His mother then tied a braid of crow feathers around each of his arms to mark him a pilgrim, a seeker protected by the gods.  She took the little pouch hanging from her own neck and, with great care, placed it around his.  His sisters tied their father's knife, cleaned of his blood and polished with sand to shining, onto his sash and touched their own red palms to his legs.  They touched the wet of their eyes to his cheek and brushed the ends of their hair upon his feet.  The youngest offered her baby sloth with its fur green as moss and it latched tight to Muleki's arm, but he pried the little claws loose and returned him.

        Muleki's own eyes brimmed wet and hot tears spilled down his cheeks to his shame.  He summoned all his strength to tamp the great lump of sadness and fear that rose in his chest and threatened to choke him there in front of everyone.

        His mother led the procession out of the village--a long single and silent line.  The women and girls stopped at the end of the known trails, but his mother walked on before him to a far rock by the river's bend.  There she stopped.

        "You must follow this river back to the place of its birth, into the high land and then into the mountains."  She was quiet then.  Her eyes found his and spoke to his eyes for a long moment.  He knelt once more for her blessing, for the trembling weight of her hands on his head, then walked on alone while his mother waited upon the rock.

        He walked beside the river, not stopping even in the heat of the day.  He walked against the current as his mother had said, and when the sun was almost set, he found himself on a little hill and turned.  Far, far away he saw his mother still standing, waiting on the rock.  He felt her eye follow him even as he walked on in the gathering darkness.  Long into the night, he could feel her standing on the rock, her eye searching for him in the deep black.

Monday, February 22, 2021

     He returned to the hut and ducked into its darkness where his mother knelt sharpening a long knife against a stone.  Even in the low light, the knife was a thing of careful craft and savage beauty.  He watched it scrape back and forth.  Though it had an angry shape, Muleki felt no menace or wiliness in it, only a grim and strict obedience.  His mother held the knife as though it was holy, her hand tight around the bone handle worn smooth as flesh.  She held it as though through it she might somehow feel the ghost of his father's palm.

    The blade flung shards of light onto the reed walls as it scratched over and over across the stone and Muleki's reverence and wonder cracked and fear spilled like a runny yolk into the pit of his stomach.  He felt his knees go suddenly weak and his flesh prick.  His mother looked up and saw his face.  She stopped her work and touched his cheek lightly with her fingertips.

    "Muleki my son, you become a man this night--a man brave and sure and good as your father."  She took his head in her hands and smoothed his unruly hair.  "Stern yourself.  Steady your breath.  Do not cry out at the knife's bite.  To do so would bring shame to this knife which was your father's and his father's before him and his father's before him.  To do so would bring shame to your father's name--to his memory."

    "He was a brave man."  Her eyes turned from him and looked far away at nothing at all.  "What could take more courage than to kneel before enemies, to bare the neck to their axes rather than break a vow?  You are his son Muleki.  His sacrifice is your birthright.  And you are the only man left of our people--you must be noble and brave for the rest of us.  Latch your eyes onto mine and be not afraid.  I will give all the strength of my heart to you that you falter not."

    As the sun set, the crones came slow and bent, robed in their worn blankets like a line of ratty storks.  The withered women gathered in a circle, Muleki and his mother in its center.  He forced his heart on the familiar scent of them, on all their kindly eyes, rheumy and deep set in their wrinkles.  On their knobby hands--hands that touched him as easily as his mother's or his grandmother's.

    His mother held the shining knife flat across her palms and knelt with her face touching the hard tamped earth before his father's mother whose eyes, like many of the others, shone red rimmed and wet with loss and remembering.

    When his mother rose to face him, that same sadness clouded her eyes until they found his.  When her eyes locked on his, the soft mist in them burnt away to show a look fierce and strong.  He latched onto this look while his grandmother sang an unfamiliar song in a faltering voice.  Soon all the bent and wrinkled crones joined in clapping softly and singing as the song grew faster and louder.  A final shout erupted from the old women and the knife bit into his flesh.

    He didn't flinch, not even as the knife was placed back in his mother's hands streaked with his blood.  Not even as the heat of that blood trickled down his leg and foot and clotted the dust.  Muleki felt the eyes of all the village girls on him like a stinging of bees, but the power of the old crones kept their giggles and chatter stopped up in their mouths.  A hot pain ripped through his member and up into his mouth, but the power of his mother's eyes kept his cry stopped up in his throat, kept his knees from buckling.  Kept tears at bay.

    An old woman stepped forward and mixed his bright red blood with the sticky sap of mashed coca buds and burabura flower and dabbed this onto his open flesh.  The searing pain dulled instantly and it was only then he dared look down.

    "It's still there!" he groaned in dismay before he could stop the words.

    The old women, who had been so sad and somber, now all cackled with glee and a hot shame rose to his cheeks.  His grandmother rubbed his hair and kissed his forehead wetly.

    "Muleki, my beloved--we only took its little hat off."

    Then came all the other women to pinch and squeeze and giggle and mess his hair.  He could see all the village girls peeping out from inside their huts and his shame burned hotter than his wound.  But his mother did not laugh.  Her eyes did not change.  He latched onto their fierce strength to keep tears from spilling down his cheeks.

    Finally the oldest crone quieted the rest with a nod.  "Muleki, thou art a man now and this night must separate yourself that the spirits of the dead may find thee."

    He turned frantic to his mother.  "I'm cast out forever?"  Again laughter, but his grandmother stroked his cheek with fondness and kissed his forehead again.

    "No, no my son.  Only until the spirits find your dreams.  Go now, but not too far lest you be lost.  You are a man, but just barely."  She pinched his ear.  "Go now and make your prayers."  She hung a medicine bag filled with coca buds and dried leaves around his neck.  "These are for when the pain comes.  Hold them under your tongue.  Now go.  Fast and listen with care.  Listen with the ear that hears the other world.  Remember all and return to us, then we will feast.  Go now."

    Muleki found, in the last weak lights of evening, a rock ledge he knew away from the village, but not far.  There he crouched with his wounded flesh dangling between his legs and throbbing under its sticky poultice.  He heard the muffled sounds from the village soon drowned by thick sounds of night creatures and watched glow bugs flicker and hover low to the ground where the din of the other night noise finally settled and melded into a thick buzz.

    He felt utterly cast out and lonely and thought with bitterness of his ugly swollen wound.  It pulsed with his heartbeat.  It burned fierce and raw and he placed the coca under his tongue to dull the sharp ache.

    As the long night wore on, he thought on the pile of his sleeping sisters and wished with all his might to be tangled in their steady breathing, longed for the dense damp air on the matted floor of their hut.  When morning came at last, there had been no dreams, no spirits--just a hard sharp ache up and down his legs, an empty murmuring stomach and a growing shroud of pestering flies.

    He crouched on the rocky ledge all the next day, the hours long and prickling with pain, made foggy with his grandmother's leaves, and hunger.  At last, in the heavy heat of afternoon, he dosed in the blue shade of a big cacha tree, but even in the fog of the coca leaves, no dreams came.  He woke in a fevered sweat with hunger gnawing at him like a toothy beast and listened for any sounds rising up from the clearing where the tiny huts clustered.

    Thoughts of the giggling girls, their mouths full of terra fruits and honey, with cakes of pita bean, brought on again the hot red bitterness that racked his parched throat.  He looked down at his misshapen, sap crusted maleness and wished with all his might that it be utterly gone.  He was banished, wounded and abandoned for the sake of this ugly thing that now sent great rips of pain whenever he made water.  He wished not to be a man, not to have the weighty blanket of all that doting, all the smothering love, all those expectations--and now exile.

    And so he brooded there on the rock ledge until darkness fell thick and wet and sleepless and the air bristled and groaned with every possible chitter and click and buzz.  Muleki crouched there most of the night, wary and still, but sticky with fever and a thick anger that covered him as thoroughly as the hard sweat. 

    As dawn began to soften the edges of the dark, he drifted at last into troubled and fevered dreaming.  In his roiling dreams there came a great crow with a twisted foot who called to him three times in what he somehow knew was his slain father's voice.  The crow beckoned him each time to a distinctive mountain in a far and strange land, a high and treeless and colorless place of cold and sheer rock.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A New Project

So a few years ago I was traveling with my family in South America and came up with a little story that I thought might serve as a scaffold for many of my crazy notions.  It was an allegory of sorts--my own little "Pilgrim's Progress".  Over the course of this pandemic, I had the time to work it up and thought I'd post it here.  Casting my bread upon the waters.

Chapter One

    On a day just before the great destruction, Muleki the Seer sulked on a rock by the river.  Of course he was no holy man on that day, no sage, only a bitter boy.  On that sultry afternoon, the green breath of the world pressed every living thing to stillness.  To quiet.  The monkeys dosed open mouthed, sprawled on their branches.  Birds found their shade.  The heavy heat clamped every fluttery wing, every tail or whisker twitch to stillness.

    Muleki sulked on his rock in the blessed shade of the limp ptulca leaves.  He plucked its fuzzy berries without thought or thanks, then flicked them into the shallows just to watch fish rise from their cool depths and suck them whole into their round mouths.  He sulked because his sisters and the other girls of the village teased and taunted him (as was more and more usual these days, as he was too young to be a part of their silly games and gossip and too old to be the pet or plaything he'd been when he was small).  He sulked because he could think of no retort or remedy for this, but then his mother called to him from the puddle of shade where she worked beside their hut and presented one.

    Muleki heard no urgency in her call--just a dry resignation--and so he took his time climbing the slippery bank and at last stood before her, impatient and streaked with red mud.  She didn't speak for a moment and Muleki watched the easy ripple of her fingers weaving damp reeds into a mat.  His eye fell with fondness on the thick stripe of white running through her hair--a thing that distinguished her from all the other women in the village.  A thing, that to his mind, marked her as his.

    "My son," she said at last, her hands grown quiet and resting with their reeds in her lap, "the crones say that the time is come for your cutting.  It is early yet--too early--but your grandmother dreamt that it must be done while the coca tree buds."

    "What is this cutting?"

    "The ceremony to mark you a man now that you are no longer a child."  His mother found his eye shyly and saw his confusion.  She sighed and the familiar sadness washed over her face.

    "You have never seen it as you are the only male in the village.  In the old times, before our escape, before our men were killed, they performed the ceremony.  The father cut his son before the elders to welcome the boy into the council of men--to be esteemed a man, a boy no longer."  His mother looked away then to hide the choke in her voice.  "As all the men and boys are dead save thee, this duty falls to the crones."

    "What do they cut?"

    His mother smiled then, just a small fleeting shard of smile, and nodded at his member under its muddy cover.  Muleki's breath caught hard in his throat, but he controlled his face with a practiced resolve, lest she see his flinch.  She was a mother though, and her quick eye softened at his obvious efforts.

    He managed to choke out the words, "When is this thing?"

    "This night.  The moon grows full and the coca buds are ready.  Prepare yourself my son.  Wash with care and make your prayers.  The crones come at dusk."

    Muleki trudged back down to the river, but this time to his favorite tree--a tree so tall, its highest branches surely knew the blue place of spirits.  He whispered his prayers into its pungent bark and felt the words climb in their steady way, one after the other like lines of ants, until they reached the highest leaves and branches and were yawned into the blue heaven in a mist.  After he washed, he sat naked for a long time on a rock warm with sun.  He looked down at his offending flesh--that strange dangle that kindled snickers and ridicule from the girls of the village and marked him always as "other".  Different.  An outsider.

    Muleki gulped bravely and thought that it would be good to be rid of it, that after the crones cut it off, the teasing would stop--though even as he thought this, a knot of fear worked his stomach.  He shook himself.  Perhaps the silly friends of his sisters would be sorry at his bloody wound.  Perhaps they might think him brave and grown.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So sorry for this super long post. This is an essay taken from a Women's Conference I did some time ago. You can take the whole holiday to look it over--I'll be playing with my grandbaby and enjoying a rare visit with my kids. Happy holidays!

   Faith and Fear

We live in a terrifying world, a world filled to the brim with rage and stress, disease and heartache.  And we know too much.  We get front row seats to every horrible thing that happens in the world with constant reviews in case we missed any tiny detail the last sixteen times we watched.  There is plenty to keep newscasters and doomsday prophets busy.  And if what scripture tells us is true, things are going to get worse before they get better.  Ours is a terrifying and fearful age.  So what I’d like to talk about here is the relationship between fear and faith.

I am a certified wimp.  I’m a chicken.  I don’t think I was always this way, but something happens when you have a really vivid imagination and then you have babies.  Once you have a baby, it suddenly becomes easy to imagine every horrible thing in the world that could possibly happen.  With a good imagination, I can visualize every conceivable accident.  I can feel every horrible disease or calamity just lurking around the perimeters of my world, no matter how safe and careful I’ve been.  When we invest our hearts in our neat and tidy little lives, it feels sometimes like the whole world is just waiting to mess things up.  Because I’m such a ninny, I’ve done a lot of thinking about fear in the hopes of becoming braver.  I’ve learned one really important thing about fear and this is what it is:  fear and faith fill the same cup.  The more room one takes up, the less room there is for the other.

Faith is the antidote for fear--not raw courage, not a rash and headlong run into what we fear most, but quiet, rooted faith.  Faith that behind all the horror and uncertainty of this crazy world, there lies a benevolent universe--one that is full of love and makes perfect sense and operates in our best interest.  Given the state of things, that is a lot to ask, but faith in the justice and power of heaven is the powerful antidote for the fear that permeates our dangerous and scary journey here on earth.

Faith and fear fill the same cup, the more you have of one, the less room there is for the other.  Because it all boils down to this:  Faith is the fuel of good and fear is the fuel of evil.

We live in a world overflowing with fear.  There is fear of the big stuff--terrorism, disease, financial disaster, random catastrophes; and fear of the personal stuff--kids in trouble, infidelity, betrayal, fear of being alone.  Then there is the campaign of fear waged by advertisers and politicians and the media convincing us to buy things so bad stuff won’t happen, vote for things so bad stuff won’t happen, or to stay tuned in so they can tell us when bad stuff is going to happen.  We all swim in an ocean of fear.  We breathe it in day after day.  Then we wonder why it’s so hard to feel any kind of peace.

Fear is the most destructive element in the human mind.  Fear creates aggressiveness, distrust, cynicism and hate.  It causes us to retract, to build walls, and to exclude people.  Fear is incapacitating.  It paralyses us.  

Fear is the god of this world and has a marker to its very DNA--control.  The desire to control things is a product of fear.  When we try to control others, we are attempting to override their agency because we basically have no faith in them.  When we force our children to “succeed” (by our standards), their success becomes ours.  We own it, they don’t.  The glory is ours.  Control is the enemy of faith.  When we wrestle and manipulate our own lives into exactly what we think they should be, we leave precious little wriggle room for divine intervention.  We have such wonderful set plans for ourselves, there’s no room for God’s surprises, for those delightful plot twists He’s so fond of.  Control is the height of both arrogance and insecurity.  Control is relying on the arm of the flesh.

And ultimately, control is really only an illusion.  We have no real control.  Life here on earth is about free agency and risk.  Our lives are at the whim of a hundred thousand uncertainties.  Our job here is not to control our situation--to guarantee that everything be perfect and happy and blissful all the time.  Rather, we’re to do the best we can, prepare the best we can, and then use whatever befalls us to gain experience and wisdom and, most of all, to be useful to others.

The big lie that all this fear brings with it is that we, all by ourselves, can keep bad things  at bay.  That somehow--if we do all the right things in just the right way--we can guarantee our lives and insure them against pain.  But alas, pain is part of the reason we’re here.  It’s an essential part of our purpose.  Life isn’t supposed to be easy and pain-free, it’s supposed to teach us joy.  We can only feel real joy about things we’ve shed some tears over.  As Kahlil Gibran says, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

Faith is what the power of God looks like.  Faith is anchored to everlasting things--true things, eternal things.  At its core is free agency, a willingness to let go of the white knuckle grip we have on our lives and rely upon something larger than ourselves.

Faith is at the heart of true courage.  The prophet Alma says, “Yea I know that I am nothing; as to my strength, I am weak...but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.”  And here is the lovely paradox--that true humility begets true courage.  To know we have the help of heaven makes all things possible no matter who we are and no matter how limited our abilities.

Faith is what gave David the chutzpah to confront Goliath and gave Moses the audacity to make demands of Pharaoh.  On this continent, faith gave a motley band of patriots the courage to take on the whole British Empire.  Faith is what sustains and empowers righteous actions everywhere--great and small.

I was reading a book about the Amish awhile ago and was intrigued about their notion of insurance.  In this little Amish village, they had no formal insurance.  If anything really bad happened--like their barn burned down or their cow got sick and died--their neighbors just pitched in and tried to helped them out of their jam--built them a new barn or gave them a new cow.  They all just took really good care of each other.

Unfortunately, our culture’s notion of insurance, our idea of taking really good care of each other, has evolved to a hard business transaction.  And we demand guarantees for our money.  We insist that everything be made right as rain.  We want a hedge against pain of any kind--that’s what we’re paying for.  Insurance is the way we control bad stuff and we’re willing to pay huge bucks for this control.  We buy insurance for everything--even though it doesn’t come under that heading.   We buy insurance for body odor, dandruff, flu, streaky windows, bad breath, cellulite, loneliness, a lack of calcium in our diets, the admiration of others, our children’s success.  We try to insure that we’ll have the energy and agility and virility of a twenty-five year old when we’re pushing eighty.  We spend an astronomical amount of money and time and worry insuring ourselves against every conceivable discomfort or pain or embarrassment--the biggest being death itself.

And yet here is the sad truth--we’re all going to feel pain.  We’re all going to die.  There are no guarantees in this life.  None.  The closest we can come, I believe, is to be useful to the being who does hold all the strings.  To be useful God, i.e. useful to our fellow man.  If we make ourselves channels for blessings--distributors of blessings rather than hoarders of blessings, perhaps God with entrust us with the abundance to share.  Whether that abundance comes in the form of money or love or comfort or aid, if God can depend on us to spread it around, hopefully we’ll always have enough to spread.

If God can depend on us to use our days blessing everyone we can, He’ll give us as many of those days as possible and will lead us and direct us to places and people who are in need.  If He knows we will abide by the truth we receive, He will give us truth.  If He knows we’ll share our light with the world, he’ll help us shine.  If He knows we’ll use our strength to steady others who are weak, he’ll make us strong.  This is the insurance faith provides.  Faith is the antidote for all that makes us fearful.

What are we really afraid of?  What should we be afraid of?

Our lives are nothing more than ten trillion choices stretched over time.  With each choice we define our values and priorities and shape ourselves.  Faith teaches us to hold loosely all that is not eternal, all that is of this world only.  This should make most of our ten trillion choices a little easier, but the fact that we’re swimming like crazy just to stay afloat in the here and now can make us lose sight of all those eternal priorities.

The here and now tells us we are only worth what we possess, that we are defined by what we own, our title, our degree, our opulent home, our giant car, our toned muscles, our brilliant white smiles, our impressive resumes--our flash.  It teaches us to fear and crave the good opinion of others without compelling us to love them.

We fear death.  We fear pain.  We fear hardship.  We fear loss.  Strangely, the more we think we are able to “control” these or avoid them, the more pronounced is our fear.  In truth, these things--death, pain, hardship and loss--are a big part of the reason we’re here on earth.  They are life’s master classes.  The really hard stuff is where we learn the really big, really important lessons.  They are where we gain wisdom and develop character.  Where we prove what we’re really made of and capable of.

All this is nice in the abstract--but how does faith to help us endure and give meaning and grow from hard stretches?  How do we make our faith a sufficiently sturdy thing, something we can cling to when life gets really rough?  

This is how our faith takes root:  God asks us to do something we don’t want to do, that we know we’ll just hate doing, but we do it anyway just because He asked.  And somewhere, right in the middle of this awful chore, we catch a glimpse of the reason we were asked to do this.  We see how specific we were to this thing and feel honored that God knew us well enough to ask this thing of us.  Awed that He knows us that specifically and that he had that kind of trust in us and our abilities.  And this understanding makes the task itself an honor.

God asks us to do something impossible.  We know it’s impossible, but we try it anyway just because He asked us to.  And just as we suspected, our best efforts aren’t enough, so God sends little miracles--extra time, extra strength, extra help--to bridge the gap.  We see His hand in our lives and that makes us confident.

God sends us a task or situation that’s really really hard.  We’re sure we’re not strong enough--that it’s all just too much--but we try because we’ve got no other choice.  We put on our game face and give it our best shot.  And like Christ in Gethsemane, the Lord sends angels--seen and unseen--to attend us and support us and to help us bear our heavy burdens.  Each little miracle that we recognize and acknowledge as God’s hand and not our own, roots our faith and anchors it securely to divine, rock solid, eternal things.  We know God is watching over us.

There’s a reason we call really hard stretches in our lives “faith-building experiences.”   When everything’s easy, when we can handle things on our own, we don’t need God.  Even though we’re steadfast and earnest and prayerful, it’s really hard to see His hand in our lives because we’re doing pretty well on our own.  It’s when we’re out there on the ledge, when we’ve left our comfort zone miles behind, when we can’t make it on our own, that miracles happen.  And, more importantly, that we recognize them as miracles.

But here’s something we should be afraid of--something that’s justifiably terrifying--regret.

Biscuit, my cat, taught me a great lesson about regret.  She was hit by a car and as she lay dying in my arms, she was still purring.  As I sat there sobbing, her peace settled in on me.  I realized I had no regrets.  I had loved this little cat as truly and as totally as I could and she had loved me truly and totally as well.  We were square with the universe.  We had been blessings to each other to the full extent we were able.  Though I cried and cried--they were good tears.  There were absolutely no regrets.  Unfortunately, for me, loving in that total way--in a way that leaves no regret--is so much easier with cats than with people.

It’s a terrible thing, I think, to be stingy with love--to hold back the peace and joy we have to offer each other.  I don’t think we’re stingy with love because we’re hoarding it for ourselves.  Rather, I think it’s a very scary thing, at least it is for me, to overcome the vulnerability and risk I feel when I’m required to offer my heart to another person.  And the only antidote for that is faith.  Faith that love is always the right answer, even when it’s misunderstood or not returned.  I’m convinced that the biggest regret we can ever feel is to have not loved enough.

Our culture teaches us to regret, to be perennially dissatisfied and disappointed.  We’re taught that we’re not enough, that we don’t have enough, aren’t thin enough, fit enough, rich enough, pretty enough.  Our regret sells tons of stuff and keeps all of us striving for more and more and more.

Faith teaches us to quench our thirst at the well we happen to be at before moving on.  To trust that there is specific work for us to do in each phase of life and specific lessons to be learned.  Faith teaches us to love the phase we’re in, to learn all we can from it, to do all the good we can possibly do, and then, when it’s time to move on to a new phase, to do so with grace, enthusiasm, courage and trust.  With no regrets.

Faith helps us see our lives, our purpose, and our potential clearly and truly.  It helps us understand what’s important and what’s not--what’s of eternal value and what’s not.  It helps us see what is in our power to do and what we must leave in God’s hands.

Faith asks us to place on the alter the only thing that is truly ours to give--our agency, our will.  It asks us to place our fragile and clouded understanding of ourselves and our own abilities in divine hands.  It asks us to trust our safety and security to things we can’t see.  It begs us to let go of the white knuckle grip we have on our own lives and trust in something bigger than ourselves.  And the very act of letting go of the grip and control we have on our lives allows God and angels to act on our behalf.  And so faith always precedes the miracle.

These days, in these most faithless and fearful of times, faith must be a deliberate and calculated choice.  All the technology, all the medical advances, all the insurance and doomsday prepping in the world can’t immunize us from pain and sorrow and hard times.  But faith grounds us.  It anchors us to things that are bigger than the here and now.  Faith instructs us through our experiences, especially the really hard ones.  It makes sense of them and makes them useful to us.  Faith links us to the divine and grants access to the powers of heaven.  Faith carries us beyond ourselves.

In closing, I’d like to tell you my all time favorite story about faith.  It’s a scripture story and, incidentally, a wonderful metaphor for our journey here on earth because it’s the story of an epic journey.  The story takes place long ago when people still thought the world was flat and the sea was filled with monsters.  It takes place when people who ventured out onto the sea always kept land in sight and navigated by the shorelines so they wouldn’t fall off the edge of the earth.

At this time, there was a tiny band of friends, maybe two dozen, who looked around and saw that their society was falling apart.  They loved each other and wanted to protect their families.  And so they prayed.  God told them to go to the water’s edge and instructed them to build boats like none they’d ever seen.  They were tiny enclosed capsules the size of a sailboat.  They had no rudder, no sail, no compass--absolutely no way for men to control them.  They had no windows--just a watertight hatch in the roof to let in air and another one in the floor for when they tipped over and needed air.  And they built eight of these little boats with exactness.

And this is the really sweet part.  Their leader was worried about his little band--worried that they would be frightened sitting in the dark for days or weeks or months as they were tossed upon the terrifying seas.  And so he came up with a plan.

He climbed a high mountain and melted rocks to make sixteen beautiful, transparent stones.  Then he took these and prayed and asked God to make them shine.  God was so impressed with his pragmatic and absolute faith, that he touched the stones and caused them to shine.

The little group put two shining stones in each boat, loaded up their stuff, shut the hatches and put everything--their own lives, the lives of their children and all their posterity--everything, completely in the hands of God.  They floated away from everything they knew, everything that made them feel safe and secure, everything they understood.  They floated out into the terrifying unknown.  They tossed and tumbled in stormy seas with their little lights for months before they came to rest at last on the shores of their Promised Land.  I can think of no better story about faith and fear.

Pure faith is so hard, for almost all of us, it will always be a percentage game at best.  But as little by little we exchange our fear for faith, we can measure our progress-- because faith and fear fill the same cup.  The more faith we have, the less room there is in our lives for fear.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

I finally wrote a poem that sort of goes with one of my favorite old quilts--one I did almost thirty years ago.

           The Rules of Engagement

A child must be taught the way this world works
A child must be swaddled to know its boundaries--
          wrapped snug in the fears of the clan,
                    in their notions of limit, of scarcity--
The very finiteness of substance, of time, of love.
The constricts of the flesh.

A child must be weaned onto the red meat of self-ness--
          self-interest, self-preservation, self-control.
A child must be weaned onto the fizzy sweetness of desire.
A child must understand these rules of engagement
          or the world and its hoard--
                    all those others--
                              will destroy him.

This container of mortality,
This box set over us,
This cage we inhabit,
                    built to keep us,
Must be carefully delineated for a child
          by well-meaning, even loving, best guessers.
Folks armed with knowing looks,
                    with cautionary tales,
Folks with age and experience on their side.

But little one--
I will whisper the big secret into your ear
                    when no one's looking.
I will slip the spell like a magic coin into your pocket.
I will bake you a cake with the file hidden inside.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving--perhaps my favorite holiday.


Alberta's Thanksgiving table
          stretched through two rooms,
A teetery assemblage 
          of planks and saw horses,
                    of unhinged doors,
Cloaked in every available cloth.
But there was a place for each of us
          set in mismatched china
                    and paper napkins--
The daughters and daughter-in-laws--
          after their fussy frenzy in the little kitchen--
The sons and sons-in-laws--
          after their football game at the park--
The wild mob of grandchildren--
          deliciously guilty of petty theft
                    once the hidden jam tarts
                              were discovered.
A place for Alberta at the head
          and Vic to the side
                    where his crippled leg would fit.
A place fore or aft of Uncle Sherm
          depending on your enthusiasm
                    for mashed potatoes.
And a place for me--
          who peeked during the blessing,
To see the tears on Alberta's cheeks
As the Good Lord was thanked
          for all that was on
                    and around
                              her long table.
For all her hungry, wriggling, 
                              jabbering treasure--
          seated on the piano bench
                    a kitchen stool,
          patio chairs borrowed from the neighbors
                    and bumped to height
                              with phonebooks and dictionaries.

Too much gone--
Alberta's table,
          the house that housed it,
                    and too many that sat round it.
The mitosis of that long table 
          to smaller tables
                    peppered across the country
                              across the globe--
Each with a Thanksgiving grace-
          and the faith behind it
                    that are Alberta's.