To The Unborn

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My mother and me.

PRECIOUS,

When I was little, a man on an airplane asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Naturally, I hugged my doll close to my heart and said, “I just want to be a mommy.” (I took that doll everywhere, and then I lost her somehow and cried about it for years.)

I was raised to be a housewife, like my mother and my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers. I grew up amid the sub-cultures of two extremely large and traditional families. One of my cousins from my mother’s family married one of my cousins from my father’s family. I was related to nearly everyone at the wedding. One of my cousins called me the morning of the wedding to ask if she could borrow something to wear. She’s the mother of eleven, soon to be a grandmother. So, obviously, our cradle has been crazy blessed, and the fact that I have not yet done my duty to society is so unorthodox, by our standards, it’s almost immoral. But it isn’t because of an absence of desire on my part.

God calls those things which are not as though they are–and I do the same.

Nothing is as painful as love that has nowhere to go, no way to spend itself, and so it makes me happy to think that there is something I can actually do for you today. I just have a few things in my heart that need to get out, and I won’t try to be witty or poetic. I’ll do this now, and someday when I have you in my arms, fresh and sweet with promise, I’ll gladly put my pen away and probably never reach for it again.

The grandmother who I never met became a mother when she little more than a child herself and died young. “No wonder,” people gasp, “after giving birth nineteen times!” But if they asked her she would have told them that delivering all those babies was the easy part. It was actually the child-rearing more than the child-bearing that put her in an early grave.

The pretty teacups that she left behind were all broken and glued back together. Her homemade dresses were folded tenderly away in my grandfather’s dresser drawers.

She deserved her own Taj Mahal for all the cloth diapers she washed by hand. Continue reading “To The Unborn”

His Work, His Way

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“God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”–Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT

THE SUICIDE AND ALCOHOLISM RATES in my neighborhood are well known facts. Teen suicide is 62% higher than the national average. Alcoholism is 510% higher. We have the highest unemployment levels in the state. One out of three females are sexually abused. The average life expectancy is forty years…

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.–1st Corinthians 1:27-29 ESV

What is not well known is that God is doing good things here. He’s using common clay. He is personally invested in His creation, and nothing is too hard for Him. He’s working in unexpected ways, through unlikely and unassuming people. He’s doing His work His way, and unseen miracles happen all the time.

I was reminded of this today when I interviewed a certain unsung hero. (Notice all the uns in this: unexpected, unlikely, unassuming, unseen, unsung…)

“God don’t make junk,” he said.

No, Precious, He doesn’t.

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.–Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Morning

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C. AD 30

We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.–2nd Corinthians 1:9 NKJV

The eyelashes of morning fan across a blushing sky and Peter laughs with his friends over a catch of fish so bountiful that their net is too heavy to pull into the boat. The net is not as full as Peter’s heart, though—for death has become its own executioner, just as the Lord said, and there’s an empty tomb to prove it. Sorrow has turned into joy. Night has turned into day. But Peter, formerly so passionate, now doubts the warmth of his own affection. He still can’t hold his head up when he remembers what a miserable failure he was—how cowardly and blind and unfaithful. And is that a twinge of insecurity that he feels toward John, favored “baby brother” of the gang, who is (of course) the first to realize that the friendly stranger on shore is actually The Resurrection and The Life? Peter, always impulsive, leaps into the water.

2009 

She’s like a little girl trapped in an old woman’s body—so fragile yet so strong—visibly shrinking while the cancer eats her alive. Morphine takes the edge off (but pride and fear, she says, have robbed her more than cancer or anything else). Her bed is her home and it has to be made perfectly. I sing as I work in the kitchen, to keep her company. Tears run down her face when I leave. She is curled up, facing the wall. I promise to return, but every step is agony. “I’ll see you later…” She flies away like a dove to her rest, under a big blue October sky. She doesn’t wait for me to come back. I sprinkle dirt on her coffin, thinking about what could have and should have been different. The wages of sin is death… the sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law… the last enemy that will be destroyed is death… O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? I get up every day and thank God for my health, singing I Know You by Heart and Angel to myself. I know what the “sting” feels like now. It feels like separation and regret.

2016 

The sky is opal. Morning steals in through a window, gilding my bedroom, breathing on my face like wisps of silk. It feels as if there’s been a death in the family, although there hasn’t—only the death of a dream. I hear the faint rhythm of my own heartbeat. It feels as if I am dying too, and maybe I am. Oh Father, let me go back and do the last eighteen months of my life over! 

Like A Fire of Pine Logs on A Frosty Night

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FROM CASABLANCA TO NORMANDY, Ernie Pyle’s Pulitzer Prize winning reports were the link between civilian America and Americans in uniform during The Second World War. Ernie described logistical technicalities, personal encounters, and random incidents with intimacy, integrity, and nary a shard of sensationalism, and these unvarnished accounts were published in two books, Here Is Your War and Brave Men, which I picked up in an antique store and couldn’t put down.

One vignette from a field hospital was particuliarly striking.

The wounded man was still semiconscious. The chaplain knelt down beside him and two wardboys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, “John, I’m going to say a prayer for you.” Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer… Then he rose and dashed off on some other call, and the wardboys went about their duties. The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an isle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn’t be otherwise, but the aloneness of that man as he went through the last few minutes of his life was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn’t do it. I wish now I had.–Ernie Pyle, Brave Men

Saddest words ever written: “I wish I had.”

I wonder if anyone held Ernie’s hand…

IMG_1099The autobiography of Sergeant York (a conscientious objector who became America’s “one man army” during The First World War) is told in a hillbilly vernacular that makes me think the humble hero must have been sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch. It’s also one of the best books ever written.

The war brings out the worst in you. It turns you into a mad, fightin’ animal, but it also brings out something else, something I jes don’t know how to describe, a sort of tenderness and love for the fellows fightin’ with you. It’s sort of clean, like a fire of pine logs on a frosty night… It was as though we could look right through each other and knowed everything without anything being hid… I kinder think away down underneath I sorter loved them for their weakness most of all.–Sergeant York, Sergeant York and The Great War 

Virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (a Russian Jewish immigrant) knew what Pyle and York knew, when he took his musical genius and his robust sense of duty to the frontline.

One day, he told me, there was supposed to be pouring rain, the afternoon when Mr. Heifetz was supposed to perform. He was told that nobody was planning to come. He said that, ‘you know, when I am scheduled to play–unless I’m really, really deathly ill–I will play.’ So when the time came, he played. And to his great surprise, there was only one soldier sitting way in the back, holding an umbrella. And he told me later that that was one of his greatest, best performance ever.–Ayke Agus, in an interview for the PBS documentary, Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

The performance of a lifetime for an audience of one on a rainy day.

Imagine that G.I.’s disappointment, if Heifetz had not been there. 

Snug As A Bacillus In A Cheese

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THERE WAS A WINTER when it was so cold that the air hurt to breath and made the hair in adult noses crackle. Power lines snapped under the weight of accumulated snow, which completely buried our car, and which we melted in pots on our wood-burning stove because the plumbing was frozen. It took real guts to venture out on the icy roads. Starving coyotes would sit outside the house at night, punctuating the stillness with their delirious howls, while our Border Collie slept fitfully indoors by the fire. My sisters and I curled up together, spoon-style, beneath a mountain of quilts, more like one body than three. To ward off the doldrums, we played a sadistic little game in which we dared one another to go outside and run all the way around the house barefooted. We were always the kind of children who were easily entertained, and so it was no hardship when fog settled in like a nebulaerasing the world around us. I perused the whole shelf of World Book encyclopedias from A to Z. I ate instant oatmeal and learned the importance of ritualthose little habits and routines that lubricate the machinery of life and maintain our sanity.

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My sisters and me.

So it must be nostalgia or femininity or some combination of both that when I think of “adventure” I automatically think not of storm-chasing or espionage but of Gontran de Poncin’s description of hibernating at a Hudson Bay Company outpost in Kabloona.

“Paddy had done wonders with his living room. It was warm and intimate and was the frame within which our life was lived. Here within a hundred miles of the Magnetic Pole there was a kind of bourgeois* coziness that was unbelievable. I used to say to myself that there were no bourgeois places, there were only domesticated souls. One could be an adventurer in New York, and one could also be an old maid in the polar regions… Nothing would have been present to remind one of the Arctic if a few white foxes, the ‘money’ that paid for my excursions on the trail, had not been hanging from the ceiling… There was even a vase of artificial flowers—which I would hide from time to time and Gibson would bring out again almost immediately…

Adventure has two faces—one showing men at grips with the elements, the other showing them darning their socks. It was in Gibson’s living room that I saw a remarkable photograph of three members of an Antarctic expedition. They were sitting in a hut, one of them mending his pants, another smoking with a far-away look in his eyes, the third writing a letter. Had they the same peace in their own homes, I wondered? … I felt as snug as a bacillus in a cheese… Continue reading “Snug As A Bacillus In A Cheese”

A Letter To The Man In Orange: Uncensored

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My photo.

DEAREST UNCLE BUD,

How are you? Had any visitors lately? How’s your new prosthetic working?

Yes, the trip was ok and everyone’s fine.

Flying with El Al afforded fifteen solid hours to get pre-acclimated to Israeli bluntness and the rich sound of spoken Hebrew. The gate at Los Angeles International Airport is very remote and hard to find (just like the Israeli embassy in San Fransisco is located in an unmarked building and, once inside, deliberately disorienting). The jet was roomy and clean, the staff professional, the food tasty. Most of the passengers were Jewish, and so there was a lot of camaraderie and sarcastic humor going on. There was also a lot of seat-shuffling, because some of them didn’t want to sit with members of the opposite sex.

The sophisticated young lady banker to my left chatted with me in a refreshingly candid way and shared her things as though we were old friends. The elderly lady to my right overflowed her seat like a big pillow and doted on me with shocking warmth. “We need people like you,” she sighed, patting my leg. A helpful lady in the row ahead taught me some fun Hebrew phrases (“Is my accent cute?”). She had a dark complexion and her traditional turban made her look like a Gypsy fortune-teller. “Be very careful,” she warned me, almost as if she were gazing into a crystal ball, “Stay away from crowded places.”

My best adolescent friend was a Gypsy girl from Romania. Do you remember her from when you were at our house, the last time you escaped? Her adopted grandparents were quite the globetrotters, if you remember, and I used to like to sit on a camel saddle at their house. So now I’m traveling and everyone looks like a Gypsy to me. Maybe one day I’ll see a Gypsy staring back at me from the mirror… Continue reading “A Letter To The Man In Orange: Uncensored”

Beautiful Beulah

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My photo.

He led me to the gate, the gate looking east, and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east.–Ezekiel 43:1-2 TLV

MY FAVORITE PLACE IN JERUSALEM (so far) is the eastern gate, known as the Golden Gate or The Gate of Mercy–seen here from the Garden of Gethsemane, framed by the branches of ancient olive trees on the opposite hillside. It is the most conspicuous feature of the eastern wall, which towers nobly above terraced olive groves, facing the dawn. From the streets in the valley below, the iconic domes of the two mosques on Temple Mount are barely visible. Though not impressive in appearance, it is the only gate with direct access to the site where Solomon’s Porch used to be. Jews believe the Messiah (Savior) will come to the temple from the east, and so (as you can see if you look closely) the double arches of this gate were sealed long ago by Muslim conquerers in order to keep the Messiah out.

Muhammad’s followers were a thousand years too late however, and by trying to prevent a prophecy from being fulfilled they inadvertently fulfilled a prophecy:

He brought me back to the outer gate of the Sanctuary looking east. It was shut. ADONAI said to me: “This gate is to be shut. It must not be opened. No one may enter through it, for ADONAI God of Israel has entered through it.”–Ezekiel 44:1-2 TLV

I’m no expert, but to the best of my knowledge Yeshua (Jesus) probably entered the city through the gate that used to be here, much to the people’s excitement, to celebrate Passover with his disciples, shortly before He was executed by the Romans and not long before the Roman’s destroyed Jerusalem. He entered with zeal and authority, calling King Herod a fox, cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit out of season for Him, driving merchants out of the temple with a whip and verbally chastising the religious leaders for their self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Yeshua would have been able to see the gate whenever He preached and prayed on the Mount of Olives (where this picture was taken from)—and when He wept over the beloved city: “If only you had recognized this day the things that lead to shalom!” (Luke 19:42).  Continue reading “Beautiful Beulah”