Deeper Story: Her Hands (Or I’m A Brat In Need of Humbling)

Deeper Story: Her Hands (Or I’m A Brat In Need of Humbling)

She was looking at her fingers.

I was zeroed in on my laptop with my own fingers flying over the keys typing an email when I glanced over at my mom sitting next to me on the couch. Her hands. She stretched her fingers out turning them over and back again and again periodically wincing at both the pain and sight. She looked at me and said softly in Korean, “They look strange, don’t they?”

Mild arthritis has started to bend her fingers with joints and knuckles swollen and angled in unnatural ways. And looking at them tonight I felt my heart soften towards her. A rare moment.

I’m normally a complete brat towards her, and when she’s been with us for any amount of time long enough for us to fall into familiar family dynamics and roles, I turn into … Well, I might as well say it. A bitch. A complete, bonafide, grade-A bitch. I can’t help it. I’m impatient and easily frustrated with her. The nagging. The questions. The over-reactions. The way she is seemingly ubiquitous and always in the way of the fridge, bathroom, or my favorite spot on the couch. I can tell the husband is embarrassed by my sudden reversion back to obnoxious adolescence.

She’s been with us now for the last two weeks because of the early arrival of baby #3 by unplanned c-section. Remembering the difficult recovery – particularly those first few weeks – with the twins two years ago she insisted on coming down early. And I couldn’t say no, in fact, I would be stupid to be less than eager to have her help. She’s still relatively young at 58, and has the energy of a spring chicken the way she frantically races around the house attempting too many chores at once. But once she arrives and the days go by I start to get annoyed. I can’t help it.

No human relation gives one possession in another – every two souls are absolutely different. In friendship or in love, the two side by side raise hands together to find what one cannot reach alone.” ― Kahlil Gibran

Tonight, though, as I look at her fingers I think about all that those hands have done not only these last two weeks but my and her entire life. When she was young her family ran a hotel in Seoul, and she cleaned and helped maintain it. When we immigrated to the US she joined a group of the ladies from the church and sought employment at an electronic manufacturing company soldering tiny little wires and bits together on an assembly line. And then it was work at a dry cleaners. And then more cleaning gigs. And the ministry of the Deacons at the church. And eventually becoming a pastor’s wife – probably one of the hardest, most high pressure jobs for a Korean woman. Hours of painstaking work cleaning and cooking and then rubbing my feet after they swelled up like doughy pillows with the twins’ arrival. All that work both small and big done by those hands over the last many decades.

So I look at her hands again, crooked in almost impossible ways, and I think that they are actually the most beautiful fingers I’ve ever laid eyes on. I remember what she once told me – that everyone has some struggle, and everyone needs and deserve some tenderness. Of course, it’s ironic that I would not recall this sage advice in my interactions with her, but seeing her worn hands, and the way they softly rub Baby #3’s back, I am actually leveled – surprisingly, not by guilt as I maybe would expect – but by gratitude and compassion. I am who I am because of her hands.

Her hands.

It conjures up the first time I served communion to the mother of an older woman, “Barbara,” in my congregation. Barbara had invited both myself and the senior pastor over to her home to break bread one last time as her mother’s health was declining, and she was clearly not long for this world. I watched her take a piece of bread in one hand after the words of institution, and bend her head near her mother’s ear saying, “Mom, Mom. Here’s the bread.” Barbara put it on her mother’s slightly outstretched tongue. And then with the small plastic cup, “Mom, Mom. Here’s the juice.” And she stuck her pinky in there a few times and dabbed her mother’s tongue with it. And watching it, I lost all sense of professionalism and wept quietly. My mind flashed forward to the future, and what it would be like to do this with my mother, to care for her in this way, a tiny glimmering of the way she sacrificed her own flesh and blood for me over and over, an ordinary, but exquisite, and oh-so-undeniably true image of this holy sacrament.

I’m still always surprised…how much marriage, and then especially parenthood has made me see these truths a little more clearly. I never expected these seasons to really have such a huge impact on shaping my outside relationships. The dynamics between parents and children run such a wide spectrum, and I am totally aware that I am one of the fortunate ones with a decent, if not really comfortable relationship with my folks, especially by Korean standards. But, I admit, that I don’t act like I know it. I’m more inclined to be indignant – actually, full of road-rage and unnecessary curses – towards daily little impositions, those interruptions, and those who I feel like have wronged me or simply got under my skin. But, after the birth of #3 – the incredible and lovely gift of this one – and then watching my mom handle me with care, and care for my children – I’m feeling more convicted by how important it is to enter into every moment with that same tenderness shown to me by my mother, that same gratitude and compassion. Everyone has some struggle, and everyone needs some…grace. And those that may need it the most are possibly the ones that are the nearest. This kingdom-compassion isn’t only for the strangers but so for the ones who are invisible and taken for granted in other ways. God, help me to see and feel this and to love better.

“…now that I am a mother, I understand what Mother’s Day is about: it’s about looking through our lives and recognizing the act of mothering everywhere we see it, and more than that, recognizing that when any of us mother– when we listen, nuture, nourish, protect–we’re doing sacred work.” ― Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way

 

#ThrowbackThursday: Accept No Substitutes

#ThrowbackThursday: Accept No Substitutes

20140507-212401.jpg

Reblogged from 2012.

I didn’t make it to church this morning. I had every good intention last night, and planned out the morning as I lay in bed so I could squeeze in a shower and smell nice, the babies would eat breakfast and take a nap beforehand.

I know, I know, the road to hell…anyways. The babies went down for their nap, and so did I.

But I continue to mull over what Christine had sent me a while ago – a blog post called “The Desert Mothers Didn’t Change Diapers. But Maybe They Should Have,” written by Penny Carothers, a guest writer on Don Miller’s blog Don Miller Is. She articulates exactly what I have been feeling for a while in terms of thinking that my spirituality, my faith life, my devotional life, my connection to God needed to be a certain way. But, she challenges that obligation, and offers the possibility of “the sanctification of the ordinary” in these words:

[It] has got me thinking: what if there really is a different way? What if God intended the hug of a child to mirror the numinous moment others achieve through meditation? What if attending to the needs and the play of children – really attending, not reading the news on my phone or folding laundry while I listen with half an ear – was a window into the spiritual? What if all I really needed to do was simply be present? After all, God calls himself a lover and a parent, and perhaps there is something to learn in embracing my life rather than trying to escape it so I can have real communion with God.

It’s still a little shocking, but perhaps the most spiritual thing I can do may be to embrace my life as a mother. Not a spiritual, metaphorical mother, but a snot-wiping, baby-chasing, diaper bag-toting mother. Because sometimes it’s not the bible stories or the lectio divina, but the Help! and thank you that a relationship is built on.

So, I put on some classical music for a little bit. The babies and I listened to their Pap’s sermon from last Sunday on my Iphone. We played with rattles and cars. I sang “Spirit of the Living God,”to them. We played with kitchen paraphernalia. I threw them up in the air a few times just to hear them squeal and laugh. I played some more hymns and worship-y songs on the piano. We ate lunch.

It wasn’t church, and I really believe there is no substitute for the communion of saints each Sunday, but I was still blessed by it. I believe I can still worship through attending to these moments, and of course, there’s always next Sunday.

When to Just Go with It or a Casual (First) Communion

IMG_5456

We were singing the second verse of the hymn in preparation for communion. My mind wandered as I thought about the rest of the day – laundry, dinner, camping later in the week when I felt something push against my leg. I glanced down. It was Desmond – an expectant grin, one full of mischief and pure joy like he’s saying, “Surprise!” It’s his usual smile. I looked up and watched the childcare volunteers come in with Anna and Ozzie. It dawned on me that, oh, right, the childcare providers usually come up during communion…which means, the kids come up, too. 

Oh. The kids are going to be here during this time. For communion. Wait a minute. They’ve never done communion. We’ve never talked about it with them. Wait a minute. What do I do???

As the pastor went through the great prayer of thanksgiving and the words of institution I panicked about them being there. They were fidgety, as would be expected, I mean, when are they NOT fidgeting or squirming or flailing or swinging their legs or in general, quiet? Silence has become a stranger to our home since the arrival of the babies. I shuushed and covered Desmond’s mouth with my hand, which of course, made him louder, because apparently that signals “speak up,” rather than “be quiet,” to him. I squeezed him closer to me as he twisted in my lap. Oz sat on the volunteer’s lap playing with two plastic chickens. Two plastic chickens locked in some epic battle over God-knows-what but the conflict was urgent and again, loud. Anna crouched next to me periodically beaming that gorgeous and irresistible smile at me. And incessantly whispering, “Mom, I have a question for you.” But there were hardly ever any questions. Only statements. Observations. Or gibberish.

“For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ” -Kathleen Norris

All of a sudden the ushers were there next to us with the plate. And the hesitation melted away as I decided, “oh the hell with it,” just go with it, I nodded, as they looked at me with questioning eyes, “Do we serve the children?” I whispered firmly, “Desmond, Anna, Ozzie, take one piece of bread. This is Christ’s body broken for you.” Desmond declares, “I’m hunky,” (hungry), and Anna says, “I want a snack.” They immediately pop it into their mouths before I can say, “Wait, let’s eat it together with everyone.” Desmond chomps dramatically. Anna smiles even bigger.

I try to say something serious about communion but…I’m at a loss for words. I thought I should at least get them to say the word communion. “Anna, can you say the word ‘communion’? That’s what we are doing right now. Communion. Say ‘communion,'” and all I get in response is: “Mooooo-oooom I want another one.” I see Oz, and the volunteer puts the little square into his mouth, like I would at home if I was trying to get him to eat something but had to do it without disturbing his focus. Because there was no way Oz was going to put down those chickens. As I suspected he didn’t pause even for a moment in his play as he chewed on that piece of bread.

Did I just fail as a parent – a parent who should know how to teach their children about the Christian faith? As someone who wants their children to have meaningful experiences of God and church? Did I fail as a pastor? When I was serving as a minister to youth and children we had workshops for the sacraments. We talked about baptism and communion, and we talked about worship, and all the symbols on the chancel, you know, to explain why we do what we do on Sunday mornings. But I didn’t even have a chance to think about this possibility with the kids before this day. I mean, Andy wasn’t even here. For their first communion.

IMG_5453

“I am the living water…” – Jesus in the Gospel of John

As I was mulling over these thoughts the servers were coming back around this time with the trays of grape juice. I told the children very loudly in my best mom-voice this time to each take one, hold the cup, and not drink it until I said so, mixed in with a speedy, “This is Christ’s blood poured out for you.” We sat there waiting for what felt like an eternity (Desmond spilled half of it on me), and then finally, finally, the pastor said those blessed words, “The blood of Christ,” and we all tipped our little cups into our mouths. Anna chugged loudly. Desmond sipped daintily. I watched Oz drink from his cup and then smack his lips a few times.

I broke inside. How many times do I tell parents, adults, teachers that it’s okay if they don’t totally “get” it – how many of us grownups can articulate with total certainty that we understand the depth and mystery of God’s love for us in this moment? And here I was watching and feeling it all for the first time as a miserably hopeless failure of a parent in need of God’s grace as much as these babies in front of me. They weren’t dressed up in fancy new clothes and I didn’t do any Pinterest-worthy activities to prepare them for this moment, and they certainly had little idea what made this meal sacred and special. It was no different from them sitting in their carseats and me throwing goldfish crackers at them in the car from the driver’s seat because I forgot their snack traps again.

And, it was really, truly okay. I was so happy for a moment that I clutched Desmond a little too hard and he squealed like one of their bath toys being stepped on. Everyone’s heads swiveled towards me as I looked toward the ceiling pretending not to notice. I know I was being judged and questioned, and now more eyes looked my way, but who cares? I watched the way they ate and drank, and I loved that they had no idea what we were doing right then and there, why or what it was called anyway. It was a gift. They were there. And they ate. And…that fed me. It filled me. It led me to Jesus’ table in a new way. Because I imagined what it would have been like for children to have been at that last supper with Jesus. I’m sure they would have been loud and disruptive, but then periodically solemn and watching everything like Desmond and Anna. Maybe some of them would have been coloring or playing quietly with toys and would be handfed by caretakers, too, like Oz. I thought that Jesus would have been more than okay with children being at that meal. In fact, in so many ways it would make sense that it wouldn’t have just been the male disciples, but whole families, men, women, and even children all gathered together, for Passover, for communion.

“I wonder if children don’t begin to reject both poetry and religion for similar reasons, because the way both are taught takes the life out of them.” – Kathleen Norris

I remembered then how we take ourselves out of the story sometimes. And, many times those in power take over the narrative, and they take the least of these out of the story, too. Then everyone misses out, misses something, we all lose out, we then make it rote and routine, mindless, because it’s bland and homogeneous, we aren’t on the edge of our seats, we’re sitting back, eyes glazed over, but in these odd and ordinary moments – these moments when we have to pay attention in another way, when we have to make a decision about who should be there, then we listen to the words, and taste the dry crumbs from a carefully slice loaf of bread, remembering that these moments together, even in the casual, even in the unplanned, unexpected, and uncertain, these are moments of resistance. Our words, our prayers, our songs, our sipping lightly from plastic cups that will later be tossed in the recycling bin – in fresh ways, in uncomfortable ways, these are acts of resistance, our protest against the darkness, against hopelessness, against the normative, against all who would say, “No. You shouldn’t eat at the table because you don’t understand it, you don’t deserve it, you don’t look or sound like us.”

As Nadia says, “Jesus still calls the tax collectors and prostitutes and housewives and social workers and Pharisees into the very heart of God. So come and join me at his table, at this holy of holies, not because you have made it past the velvet ropes, but because the ground at the foot of the cross is level and there is room for all of us.” There’s so much that can gather us around God’s table, but these days, what feels provocative and compelling, what feels like living and life is the struggle – it’s the struggle that binds us together, the struggle and angst, the drama and grief, and the clinging to utopia, that makes me keep going back to that table. Even when I don’t feel like it. When I don’t feel it. And even as we sit at the table, squiriming, flailing, playing with our damn plastic chickens, what matters is that we are there, and we receive, and that’s all we need to do in the end, is just receive and eat – who cares if we know what it’s called – just open our mouths, and chomp and chug like it’s the best snack in the world.

IMG_5463

Prayer: Limping Around the Altar

IMG_7108

Limping around the altar.

The words from 1st Kings this Sunday morning about the prophets of Baal trying to quicken fire from heaven onto their offerings with shouts, cries, and blood. But, of course, in vain. After hours of circling their offerings pleading with this mysterious slumbering god to answer them they begin to get blisters on their feet. So they limp around more until there is clearly nothing left to be done.

And then it’s Elijah’s turn. He strikes me as a bit of a bad ass. But, also kind of an asshole in a way. The way he plays with the other prophets a little and rubs it in their faces with the jars and jars of water poured out on to the offering even overflowing the moat he dug around the altar. A little smug. Like he knows that a firestorm will surely rain down on his little table but you know, might as well really prove this point.

And, yet, here, maybe for a moment, he takes a different tone. Pauses. Praying something that maybe he learned in synagogue school as a child. A simple prayer for assurance. One that might come out of a moment of flailing and drowning. Elijah prays Psalm 121: I lift my eyes up to the heaven…Where does my help come from?

I lift my eyes up…

||

We were about halfway through Summer Hebrew. My first class in seminary. Exhaustion from the first month of grad school, work at a church 90 minutes north, and transition into East coast culture (ie. jug handles, allergies, and ungodly humidity) was taking a toll on me. On my soul and spirit. I was weary.

Hebrew was also kicking my ass. The speed and intensity of learning the language was much more demanding than I had anticipated as a cocky, self-assured expert Christian. And so I sat in precept – the small group class that met after each lecture – overwhelmed and sensing – surprisingly – I wasn’t totally alone. There were more frustrations voiced from almost everyone. More so than the usual light-bulb revelations and epiphanies or breakthroughs, “I get it!” It was more “Argh!!! What are you talking about???”

And we got to the end of the hour ready to close in prayer. The TA – also sensing some angst – decided to do something different. She turned fingers deftly skimming her worn out Hebrew bible and paused for a moment before saying, “Hear these words from Psalm 121.” She read to us. In Hebrew first. Simply and perfectly, with a lovely surprising familiarity, strange from this beautiful, blond, blue-eyed young woman. Then her own translation afterwards. And we prayed her translation together.

Something broke in me. And I looked up and saw the same in those around me. Almost of all of us were weeping.

No doubt there is something profound about hearing God’s word read in the original tongue. Words that seemed to have come directly from God’s own lips. But, it was in the English, too, even though our teacher didn’t take time to parse every word for us, and conjugate everything correctly, and take it to a committee, somehow, somehow, somehow, something ancient and cosmic broke forth, the Holy Spirit broke in irrupting oceans of grace providing her the words to give us that we desperately needed in that moment. It was the best interpretation. For us. Maybe it wouldn’t have the same effect in another scenario, or on a Sunday morning. But, it was perfect in that moment, and exactly what we needed to come to God’s throne.

It was a moment of grace. It laid waste all my defense mechanisms, and I found myself giving up on circling my idols and own altars, not limping any more but laying there at the foot of the altar. Surrendering. Trusting. That God would provide rain in those seasons of drought and fire for those seasons of uncertainty.

||

I’m sitting on a pew. Oz has finally stopped fussing and nursing and flailing in my arms. He’s asleep. Mouth slightly opened. Fingers curled around the neck of my shirt. And the organ is playing loudly but sweetly and wrapping him notes of grace. Somehow I’m comforted knowing that he will grow up not only with the music of the twins’ shrieks or Sesame Street but these glorious and holy sounds poured into his ears. Sounds building and rising like hills, those hills of God’s abiding presence, and God’s promise to not sleep and to not slumber while always watching over him.

Almost May: Catching Up and Springing Forward

Almost May: Catching Up and Springing Forward

20130428-223152.jpg

-Louis Armor-

Someone posted this on Facebook. It felt like it was pasted there really purposefully. For me. I have tried to take a hiatus from blogging because of one pressing deadline and wanting to get going on the other one due this summer. Feeling like lately the hiatus has been less rest though and more paralysis. But … My brain is turning. It’s been a fruitful month with a Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting, then the editorial team meeting for a special Young Adult issue that will be put out by Presbyterians Today, Presbyterian Women, and Unbound next May 2014, joining the Deeper Story writer tribe, and winding down with UKIRK for the summer (saaaaaddddd).

A lot going on but then with the horrible week of tragedies and defeats – like tidal waves one after another crashing down on the world – it felt like it was almost too much to try to make sense of … So I mentally crawled back into the bed under the covers and tried to pretend it was still night. That I could still sleep, and eventually wake up to a day where everything would be sorted out.

Not so much.

Sleep is not friendly towards us these days. But, that darkness seems to cling nonetheless.

I’m not going to lie. There are days I can’t help but be totally self-absorbed and consumed with the going-ons in my little corner of the world. A friend – who also has multiples – calls it the “vortex.” Which seems like an apt name for that time period post-nap up until heads are in beds. I’ve taken to calling it the same. The vortex is enough of a challenge (to put mildly) to try to survive the day-to-day with my three little monkeys literally crawling all over me All. The. Time. Miss Banana loves to jump on my back out of nowhere like a howler monkey. D-Money will climb Andy and pull himself up by grabbing a handful of Andy’s hair and end up standing on his shoulders. We are seriously physically fighting for our lives each day. When I have a moment to let my eyes glaze over I have little left in me to turn towards the happenings on the rest of planet earth.

But I trudge on. Some days seem quick. Others feel as though the minutes are an eternity. Still, I try to remember all those hours and what I have done. And my mind turns to Daylight Savings Day and how it feels like my body is still missing that hour. Did we really spring forward already? I am pretty sure the kids sprung forward. They keep making bedtime spring forward. I am playing catchup, I suppose. But the light stays longer in the evenings so it makes sense that the kids want to drink it in a little longer. And I admit that I feel that longing, too. After a long winter the sunlight is delicious.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

I guess there’s something to be said about how the darkness makes the light all the more sweeter. And sometimes it’s only darkness that gets me to see and feel it all. Which in turn gives me something to write towards … And those words though they may seem trite and random do something to me, too.

Words traded back and forth, words mimicked, words slowly stitched into whole sentences. Recently, while cleaning out the attic, I ran across a note on my oldest son’s first full sentence: “Mommy come pick me up after work,” a life-saving sentence for him that I probably wrote down with mixed feeling about leaving him to go to work. Words in books, rhyming Dr. Seuss words, Good Night Moon, and books with only one or two words per page, picture books without words for which we make up stories. Words shared around the dinner table, words sung by heart on Mark’s lap with guitar about Casey Jones the railroad engineer, words rejoicing in worship, words debating language for God, words spilled in anger, words recanted. Words with holy potential. The Word as the holy itself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). (From In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

But I know people will say, what about how the power of words has been abused and taken for granted by nearly all of humanity? Still, I need this imperfect and messy platform for expression and connection, I need words, to hear them, to write them, to speak them, and drink from them, whether from seasoned theologians or from pithy status updates on Facebook, or from the children. Because there is something holy there … and a gift … whether in the darkness or the light.