Too Long

“It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said.

It was one of those cold gray days that would be miserable come February but that in November still carried a sort of crisp promise of the impending Christmas season.  The perfect sort of day for long conversations over cups of espresso. We settled in accordingly, curling up on sofas and armchairs, nibbling on sweet-spicy, cinnamon candied almonds.

We knew one another well or barely at all.  The guys had been friends for a long time. She and I had as well, though our friendship was recently renewed after years apart. I’d met the others  just this weekend.

But this morning we’d shared bread and wine in the bare sanctuary of the little Evangelical church, and this afternoon we’d shared bread and wine (and pasta and soup and home-made tiramisu) in the cheerful sanctuary of the homey kitchen.  And shared worship and shared family time make for quick familiarity even with the barrier of a foreign tongue.

Now, with our hosts busy about their afternoon business, the other young people spoke English for my sake.  I envied their easy fluency in two languages, but was thankful not to be straining my ears and my memory to follow Italian.  In English, our conversation could range from the church service to our travels, from plans to anxieties.  We discussed loneliness and the desire for belonging as comfortably as we speculated over international population density and the materials of home-architecture in different parts of the world.  Ideas and opinions about music and art and literature, philosophy and government and theology, all flowing into one another through that near-mystical association that sometimes arises so spontaneously in the “right” mix of personalities.

And in the conversation I was happy.  But the joy was edged with sorrow, with a knowledge that we all live so far apart, that this perfect fellowship between the four of us would last only a few hours, would probably never exist again.  There is something, in such moments, that highlights the loneliness of so many other moments, moments of being alone, or worse, not alone but still outside.

But then, “It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said, and I saw that the others were thinking the same.

And I realized, the pain of the joy also is shared. Here, at least, I was not being admitted into a world of fellowship that was common to the others. I was not the only one who felt more often out than in. And somehow that made the loneliness less lonely.  It had been too long. It would be too long again.  But it would not be forever.

For each of us there would be other moments, in other places, with other people where we would again think “it’s been too long.” We can’t hold on here to that easy feeling of belonging, but someday we’ll know it again.  And for this afternoon, at least, that hope is enough.

The Feast II

The lines of the church are long and clean. There are bare walls, and simple straight benches. Apart from strings of colorful triangular flags that crisscross above our heads, the only complex forms in the entire building are the people. At the front stands a tall, thin man in clerical robes. Though I do not understand most of his words, the rhythms of his speech sound familiarly pastoral. I follow along with the order of service, the Book of Common Prayer. Even though these vernacular prayers are not in my “mother tongue,” I can pick out parts simply from their form: the creed, the Lord’s prayer. Bwana, I know, is Lord, and it punctuates sentences as much in Swahili as it does in English.

The place and the worship seem very familiar and yet I know that the church–like the city in which it sits–is filled with lifetimes of experiences and words that are, at least for now, veiled from any real understanding on my part. I have heard (parts of) the stories of (some of) the people sitting here beside me, and my privileged access to education, health care, and safe roads hangs uncomfortably close to me.

But then the service moves to a meal. The bread and wine we are about to eat and drink have been taken, received, consumed, by each of us before and by so many others. It is not too mystical, perhaps, to think we are all reaching forward now to take it, separated by miles and centuries and oceans. There is a prayer of gratitude, in words I don’t understand, but from hearts I do. And a man in the chill of an Italian winter, with sandals on his feet and the threat of death in the air outside, prays. The music begins. The tune is Nothing but the Blood–the words I can only guess, their echoes in English are inside my head and sometimes slipping from my lips. A woman, living and breathing in the hot grime of nineteenth century Philadelphia, hears the claim “as white as snow” as she prepares for her turn to receive. At the front, we kneel, hands cupped. Two English men, one at a table, the other an altar, receive with joy. The voice I don’t understand tells me, I know, that this is Christ’s body, broken for me. In Mexico, in the midst of the chaos of revolution, a thin girl drinks, knowing this is Christ’s blood, shed for her. Next to me, a friend of my sister, her beautiful face full of faith, rises, knowing she is forgiven.

We are loved, and so we love. We are drawn into a union so complete–despite the fact that almost all of the accidental elements of our lives are so different–that this union is the inviolable integrity of one body. This is the love story of the church.

Two Years Later

First she was a rumor.  A guess, extrapolated from snippets of telephone conversations that I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on. It was none of my business and I speculated without seeking confirmation, a little embarrassed to have overheard at all.

Then she was a secret, one I was forbidden to share even with those who had more right to know.  And though my confidence was a matter of professional necessity rather than privilege, I was nevertheless pleased, gratified by the evidence of trust, excited by the sheer magnitude of the knowledge I was privy to.

After that she was an announcement:  weight, length, gender, and name.  She was The Big News, shared around the office: initially statistics, then a face in a photograph, wrinkled and red with dark eyes and a remarkable mop of straight black hair. I fell in love with her in those first pictures, received by email and text message. I was no relation, but somehow felt as possessive of her as an aunt – a kinship born in the days when I shared the secret of her impending arrival.

Finally she was a small, present person, cuddled close and cooed over, the recipient of little gifts and bestower of imagined smiles.  Her parents took it for granted that she would love me, and when she was old enough to know who I was, she seemed to take it for granted too.  We played clapping games at her first birthday. When she was taking her first unsteady steps we spent a summer afternoon exploring the campus. She fell in the fountain under my supervision, but both she and her parents forgave my negligence, and really, it was a fine adventure.

Now, at two years old, she’s growing up.  She is tall and thin – like her parents – and precocious and happy .  She is the joy of her family, the answer to years  – indeed decades – of waiting, the culmination of hopes and prayers.

As her mother and I visit over lunch she eats her macaroni patiently, occasionally inserting her own oddly-relevant observations. Ours is a quiet, intense conversation between women who know the struggle (to paraphrase Eliot) of waiting without hope of the wrong thing and clinging instead to the presence and promises of God, the working out of all things truly to good.

The little one glances up with a smile to repeat a word she likes, oblivious to the catch in our voices or the deeply aching love in the words of her mother who lays a hand on the head of this long-awaited child, “look what He’s given.”

And as I look I am offered broken crayon: “Atshee fix.”  I peel away the paper so that she can use the colored wax and hand it back to her. She bends seriously over her child’s menu, carefully scribbling blue in bold strokes. Will she know, I wonder as I watch her, just how much of a blessing she is – not just to her family, but to all of us who know her?  She is, like Isaac or Samuel, a tiny, perfect sign of God’s faithfulness and goodness to those who love him and are called according to his purposes.

O Love that will not let me go

Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world; since the rumor that God had left his heavens to set it right.
~GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

We started this blog  (almost a year ago, aren’t you proud of us?) to remind ourselves, each other, and anyone who happens to read our stories of the gift of love in a broken world. For many, this time of year offers particular encounters with both love and loneliness – time with friends and family in the cold darkness of winter, the New Year with its fresh promises but also with its reminders of longings still unsatisfied and hopes still unrealized.

It seems appropriate in this season, to take a break from the stories to remember the Story, commemorated in these Holy Days of Advent and Christmas, of Emmanuel: God come to us, dwelling daily with us, deeply knowing us.  Love that will not let us go.

May these hearts prepare a place
For God-With-Us will come to save
And surely he shall comfort those he loves
And so we wait.

~Young Oceans

For both of us, “Emmanuel” is an increasingly precious word. We did a shorter version of the following reflection in church a couple weeks ago and it sent me back to my concordance (and, in a few places, back to the Old King James) to seek out the source of each verse of the hymn as a winter’s meditation.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Matthew 1:23 ~ Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

1 Corinthians 1:30 ~ But of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us Wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High
Who orderest all things mightily
To us the paths of knowledge show
And teach us in her way to go

Isaiah 11:1 & 4 ~ And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. . . with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From death’s dark hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave

Luke 1:78 ~ Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the Day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Isaiah 22:22 ~ And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut and none shall open.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery

Isaiah 11: 10 ~ And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

Haggai 2: 6-7 ~ For thus saith the LORD of hosts: Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts.

O come, Desire of Nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease
And be Thyself our King of Peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Another Family

It is not the nicest drive on a dark winter night, dark even before you leave the office. The canyon is pleasant enough in the fading twilight. But then comes the freeway,  slow crawl amongst headlights and taillights  – loneliness exacerbated by the abstract crowd around you. Then the busy city street through the San Fernando Valley which certainly doesn’t look like its going anywhere you’d want to go: past a low, square building selling tombstones and masonry, bright neon lights of fast-food restaurants and corner liquor stores, a strip club on the right advertising discount lap dances.

Once off the busy street you find yourself in a dark neighborhood with bland mid-century houses: utilitarian, unimpressive. A couple rights and lefts more and you pull up in front of a house that you recognized even on the first visit. This one is set apart from the others by attention and love – welcoming landscaping, bright light pouring through the frosted glass ichthys (ichthyses? ichthyss?)  in the wood-framed front door.  You ring the doorbell and then there is an open door and open arms and a welcome home in the darkness of winter.

It is their home, but as long as you are here it is your home and this time of year – and this time of life – it is nice to find home wherever possible.  It is a good home to find when you come on your own to talk about life, when you need to be comforted or corrected. And it’s also a good home to find when you come along with the rest of the family and you don’t need anything in particular except love.

On that sort of a night there is laughter and chatter and rich Cuban accents. The daughters and sons-in-law ask about your work and your family in genuine effort to know you better. The grandchildren are happy to have a new playmate, a new ear for their stories, a new seat-mate at supper.

The meal is loud and full of laughter as the daughters tell stories on their mother, interrupting each other with details and she laughs at herself along with the rest.  The older of the grandchildren listens with increasing skepticism as her grandpa tells a story. Even if a grandfather is a priest, you still can’t believe his tall tales. And you grin at him and say “she knows who to trust in this family” and he laughs “She knows to trust no one in this family” and she says “uh huh! Grandma!”

And with desert there is a frosting fight between the uncle and the five-year-old and she comes to show you the smear of sugar on her nose, dimples deepening when you pretend like you’re going to lick it off for her

These  friendships are still new, and you are a little surprised at your own comfort. You’ve heard before and said before, that the church is a family; words like “brother” and “sister” tossed around until they seem trite.  But tonight, almost for the first time, that doesn’t feel like an idea or an analogy.  Tonight it seems like mystery and reality.

Behind the reality of fellowship and the joy of laughter, all the stresses of life remain, different for each but real for all (except, perhaps, the five-year-old).  Being together doesn’t make them go away, but it is good not to bear them all alone.  And as you say goodbye after dinner, you thank them and you thank God that, for tonight, your sorrows and joys were welcomed into the mix.

The Voice

link to part 1

Every Sunday they pray. This is not unusual for a church. What may be more unusual is the generous and unwieldy time to voice specific needs beforehand. The requests are short: “There was a bad accident on the 219 this morning. They had it shut down. We should pray.” Or ongoing, a battle with cancer. Sometimes the story is longer, more complex, or told with choked tears. The voices range from the pastor’s wife to those of the children who are don’t realize that this is an odd practice in a public service to those who, though nervous, are driven by a need for help. Each one is carefully recorded in a book and will be remembered at a prayer meeting later in the week.

After everyone has been heard, the congregation moves together, joining hands across the aisles. There is no drawing back, no sitting quietly removed.

The pastor is a tall, thin man in his eighties. Though the congregation may wear jeans or even sweats or camo, he is always in a suit. It is held to his bent frame with suspenders, always giving the impression his proportions defy the best efforts of a belt. His hands over the years have twisted like the branches of a bristlecone pine, a realized metaphor for time and wisdom. His voice can be quite soft. And of late he sits to converse with people after the service, preaching having drained his lessening stores of energy.

Yet, as he firmly grasps the hands of the two men next to him, his voice rings out at the end of the prayer, needing no microphone. “Our Father…”

Without prompting, the others join in, but it is his baritone guiding the many. The conviction of decades of faith resounds through the words: “thy will be done.”

The Professor

I revisited my alma mater last week, the first real visit in seven years. I wandered hallways haunted by people still alive and well in other parts of the country, but lost forever as essential pieces of this world, as essential parts of my own life. And, indeed, I am lost to them. Even the faculty had dispersed, scattered by bitter disputes and unsatisfactory resolutions.

Only two professors weathered the early storms completely, and that with a dignity that earned our respect.  One has remained a friend and a collaborator on projects throughout my graduate education and beyond; the other I hadn’t seen since I left.  As I went in search of the latter, I felt suddenly shy.  It had been a long time, and I’d given no warning of my visit.  Besides, he’d had many students since my time, and the three core courses I took from him hardly place me in the memorable category.

But he saw me through the window before I had a chance to knock on the door and jumped up to greet me with immediate recognition and pleasure.  “What brings you back?” and “Welcome, welcome!” waving me into his office under the arm that held open the door.  I’d forgotten how tall and how very thin he is, cheeks as gaunt as Lincoln’s and not at all hidden by his sparse white beard. He has aged since I was his student, but in such a way that I realize he was not so old then as I thought he was.  Now with crinkled eyes and short – but nevertheless unruly – hair, he more than ever fit my image of a professor, lacking only a tweed coat and pipe to complete the picture. As I settled myself into a shabby easy chair he offered me a cookie jar full of chocolates, just as he did the first time I came to office hours, and for a moment I felt very much like that seventeen-year-old freshman.

“You look very well,” he offered, “very healthy, very tan; California is good for you.” I laughed, knowing very well how unhealthy I looked in college. We exchanged pleasantries and I surveyed the still-familiar office. He’d added more bookshelves, and while everything seemed neat enough, the crowded room  gave an impression of barely constrained chaos.  After the briefest moments of small talk, he leaned back, pressing his fingers together and to his lips and closing his eyes thoughtfully.  His arms and fingers are very long, and his gestures slightly awkward but predictable, familiar even after all this time.

Quietly and politely, he began to ask more detailed questions about my life, my family, about loneliness and love and faith and doubt.  I remembered sitting here many years ago, with a tissue pressed to puffy eyes as we discussed a crisis of faith and he offered quiet words of assurance in place of answers to doubt.  A decade later I find the same assurance as I again fight back tears. He recommends a book to read – a little pamphlet by Tim Keller on self-forgetfulness – and takes out a 3×5 card to write down things he can pray for on my behalf.  “I won’t pray for you forever,” he admitted apologetically, “But do feel free always to ask.”

When I stood to leave he waved absently and turned back to his computer, without so much as offering a handshake in farewell, but as I closed the door behind me, I saw him pin the little prayer card he made into a space above his desk.  And in a moment and for a moment that small gesture of love from a professor to a former student made up for all the frustrations of those early disputes and of later embarrassments.