Friday, December 25, 2009

In Praise of Transformation

"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel"--which means, "God with us."
Matthew 1:23

It is an astonishing thing to consider--the universe bursting at the seams of human flesh; minute hands  with lightning in their fingertips, clutching a broken world with the assurance that we were no longer alone, that we too could be changed.

They are mostly painful, those first steps.  This Christmas I have friends sitting at tables without a drink in their hand for the first holiday in a long time and what should have been an exhilarating experience, in fact feels more like getting shot out of a rocket; the world unfamiliar and without handlebars.

When he was 68 my father went back to school, a place where in an earlier life he'd been told he was stupid--the 1940's term for dyslexia--but this was no mission for the faint of heart.  He would have to ask for help.  He might be humiliated.  He would have to use a graphing calculator, for crying out loud.  At the end he had a new career, though the greater gift was ours.  "We have no idea what wonders lie hidden in those around us," wrote Anne Nelson in her play, The Guys.  But that day we got a glimpse.

My mother walked back into a classroom at age 50 after 25 years as a stay-at-home mom.  She cried every day for weeks, certain that this could not be the path, so dark was the way.  Yet, these days, hers is the name most often written on the dotted line.  The one parents use when they request the teacher they want their tiny preschoolers to have, the ones with learning issues and speech delays, behavior problems, and sometimes crushing poverty.  And there she is in their midst, each gentle touch and insightful instruction conveying the same message,  "The climb is not too hard.  Here's a flashlight."

It is a time of year when we crave the familiar--people, places, rituals, food--we want things we can depend on...and feel their absence like a phantom limb.  What is wrong with us? we think.  We look nothing like the Christmas in the picture.

Of course the Christmas in the picture was a few poinsettias short of ideal.

I've often wondered how Mary felt that night.  If, as they wandered from inn to inn, contractions increasing and no midwife in sight, she ranted at God as I fear I might have done, "You told me I was chosen and this is the best You can do?  Lemme tell ya, this is not what I signed up for.  THIS IS NOT WORKING OUT."

And then there He was.

In the midst of the chaos and confusion, lavish gifts and unshowered men, did she know He would take her on the ride of her life?  Do we?  Let us open the gifts we've been given, stiff new jeans and lives that don't fit right, willing ourselves to endure the unfamiliar until it fits us like a glove.  Until we too, are transformed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I know, I know the Maccabeans

 To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season....and a time for every purpose under heaven.
     -King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 3 (with a little help from Pete Seeger)

Last week I thought I would write about Hanukkah, a holiday I have loved ever since Rayner attended the Temple Emanu-El preschool in New Jersey.  One day in 1997, my dear friend Alicia, a member of the temple, came into the house with the car pool kids, howling with laughter as she recounted Rayner's version of the happy hanukkah song, "The Maccabees" which included the above title.  That year he may not have known how to say it, but we all began to understand what it meant, especially once we celebrated our first annual "Hanukkah/Advent Lighting of the Candles" ceremony.

It is a story which bears repeating, this tale of Judah Maccabee and his ferocious brothers.  Always outnumbered and always outgunned, they somehow managed to defeat the numerous armies their Greek oppressors threw at them before heading to the temple in Jerusalem---defiled in every possible way by rulers who had heretofore offered two options, a) submission or b) death.

The Maccabees chose option c) Oh Hell No and wound up in the fight of their lives, a fight which would eventually be commemorated with latkes and dreidels, but which, at the time felt more like the siege at Khe Sanh.  It is the latter version that I have experienced this year.

Last week I was talking with a group of women about the fact that the life we imagined is often not the life we live.  As I looked at their faces, one framed by newly grown hair after chemotherapy, another, smiling despite a chronic illness, a third with eyes that tell a story I don't know, I understood again that life is a fight, that some days the greatest victory we achieve is that we are still here.  Wounded and weary, we awaken  to the unending battle of yet another day and take up our swords with the hope that there will yet be a time for peace, a time to heal, a time to laugh, and a time to dance.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hannah Kathryn is 21

She will not read this until tomorrow.

It is, after all, her 21st birthday, a day she has been waiting for since the last big birthday she celebrated nearly a full year behind everyone else in her class--16.  But when she wakes up, bleary-eyed and glad for the rest of her life that she is the youngest, I want her to know how proud of her I am.

She had moved 6 times by the time she was 12.  Every classroom a bit like a lion's den for a sensitive and pretty little girl.  Each town was like a foreign country with a new language to learn and customs to adopt and I confess that there were days I thought my heart would shatter because it was so tough.  Of course so was she.

She wanted her training wheels off and her hair long and she could fight with the best of the Jedi.  She loves Kansas basketball and all little children and though they practically pay her in dimes, she has worked for 3 1/2 years at the Campus daycare center, supporting this childcare ministry with a second job at a sports bar.  She has a work ethic that would put a lumberjack to shame and she is smart smart smart, but will always laugh at herself.

She has four siblings who adore her and miss her terribly, but when she is in the house, the joint is jumpin'.  There were years, let me tell you of outstanding theatrical performances whose organization often depended heavily on her willingness to give the right person a shove at the proper moment.

The mother daughter dance can be the most complex one around.  I did not know this when I brought her home 21 years ago, this beautiful baby, bundled against the December cold.  I thought of Mary then, holding Jesus and wondering,"What if I do it all wrong?"

She used to say, "I wish I could rewind the world," and if there were such a device, I would have given it to her for her birthday because oh, there are some do-overs I would love to have.  Yet here she is, lovely and amazing, living proof that it is the grace of God and not perfect parenting that carries us.

Happy Birthday Hannah Kathryn.  When I started this entry it was still your birthday and now, just like that, it's tomorrow.  Kind of like the past 21 years--fast as the speed of light, you have walked through heartache and glory with kindness and grace.

Bless you daughter.  God give you joy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The veil between what Might Have Been

Last summer Mary Glen went to Ethiopia.  She had long dreamt of travel to Africa and the opportunity to teach English in a rural village seemed heaven sent.

There were things that seemed, to me, remarkably civilized--she could travel to the city of Harar and use a computer to send email.  Her cell phone even  worked occasionally and on Daniel's birthday she walked to a coffee shop at a higher elevation and was able to make a call.  Halfway through (he told me much later) she said to him, "I need to leave now.  A guy with an AK just walked in."  That's wild west lingo for AK-47, the most efficient and widely used automatic rifle in the world.

Yet she never felt unsafe or uneasy while she was there.

Until the day the police showed up at dawn at the door of her family's house and asked for her passport and cell phone, and upon receipt of said objects, asked her to go with them, though they did not say where.  Thus began a three day odyssey which involved the members of her program being rounded up in the region and taken into custody in Addis Ababa the capital city.  She was not allowed to say goodbye to her family in Dadar or to call us in the United States.  Embassy access was denied.  On the third day, the government lackeys drove them to the airport and through a series of crazy circumstances the Embassy got wind of the plan, and let me just say, that even in the 21st century, the cavalry does still ride in and save the day.  She arrived home in one piece, physically unharmed, but not unchanged.

I think of this at this late hour because Rayner told me tonight that a young friend of his will be testifying in court tomorrow and has asked for prayer.  Last year he was the victim of a horrible crime and but for an act of God (I mean this in its most literal sense) his life would have been taken.  Tomorrow he must go to court and testify against the person who did this to him.  Someone who still possesses power and connections to harm.

And while I am thinking about and praying for him, I am trying to clean up something I bought on Craigslist recently, for what was, to me, a significant sum of money, now lost because I was cheated.  I don't know if it's because I feel embarrassed that I was duped, but the thought of it makes me angry all over again--furious that I have no recourse, no justice.

Yet held up next to that young man headed into the lion's den of a courtroom, I feel my perspective shifting.  I remember the photo in today's paper of the young people of Iran, taking to the streets despite the fact that it could cost them their lives.  God, give them justice, I pray.  Where is the cosmic margin between what is and what might be; between an AK slung over the shoulder and an AK used?  Some days the veil so thin as to be invisible.  And seeing the world in this way, I realize that I cannot wallow in my bitterness any longer. There is too much at stake to demand justice for foolishness when it is in such short supply for lives.

On the plane ride home from Africa, Mary Glen took this picture.  Every time I look at it I feel the peace and relief of a mighty delivering hand.  May tomorrow give one brave young man the same view.

Friday, December 4, 2009

December 4, 2009....Happy Birthday ERTB

Here is the first thing you need to know about Elizabeth Rachel Tyndall Baucum--she will be your friend even if you break into her house.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

We met in the fall of 1978.  Her Episcopal church youth group (progressive in a Venice Beach sort of way) came from Springfield, MO to my Episcopal church for some kind of a retreat.  At the time I had mixed feelings about the Episcopalians and their youth--there were cuter boys at the Presbyterian church up the road, the services there seemed more normal since the Presbyterians, for example, didn't feel the need to sling incense on a regular basis.  The Episcopalians were a different bunch--sucking down coffee and smoking like chimneys in the church basement during social hour.

I arrived late to the meeting.  Shy and shuffling, I found a spot and listened without looking around until the leader said he wanted to pray.  And at that point he said he wanted to pray for someone in particular and pretty much described in detail what was circling around in my head.  I'm not gonna lie--it totally freaked me out.  I had every intention of waiting for someone else to cop to what I was thinking until finally I couldn't take the silence any more.

"Um, yeah, ok," I said, "You could pray for me."  And then I immediately shut my eyes to get it over with quickly, at which point I felt a hand slip into mine and looked up into a sympathetic smile.

It was over fast enough.  I went down to the sanctuary and found my mother, a great lover of after-church chat, and asked if we could leave.

"Well, yes," she said, "but I want you to meet an old friend of mine who came with the visiting group," to which I groaned in the same key that my children exhibit now, "Her daughter was in the youth group meeting.  You could meet her too."

But of course, I already had.

Lizzie and I would get to know one another far better two years later when we wound up in the same sorority house (I see those eye rolls--don't judge).  For three years she would be the wisest voice in my head, the most independent thinker, and my most unique friend.  She had a family who listened to Prairie Home Companion at a time when I didn't know what Public Radio was.  She had a red-headed boyfriend, a grandfather who had once sold his business to stay home and read the encyclopedia for a few years, a feisty grandmother called MeeMaw and an uncle who had lived with his girlfriend forever.

She understood the fragility of life--her father Vinnie had gone toe to toe with cancer and won, at a time when almost no one did.  She sang and played the guitar sitting on her bed, and she got out into the world (which at that time was a large state university campus) and she did things and met people which was very different from the life I had where I occasionally went to class, seldom spoke to anyone I didn't know, and pretty much hunkered down until graduation.  She had more great guy friends than she knew what to do with, so she shared them with people like me.  She was, and remains today, just about the easiest person I know to be with--the very essence of familiar.

Which is why I knew it would be fine to break into her house.  At the beginning of a long car trip from Branson to Kansas City one summer I found myself in dire need of a bathroom.  My good sense of direction (yes I do say this proudly) did not fail me, and I found her parents' house as if I knew exactly where I was going.  Pulling up in the driveway things looked ominously silent and one trip around the house confirmed that there was no one home and I was totally screwed because now I was about to burst and had NOT left myself time enough for another alternative.

Thank God the Tyndalls always preferred windows to air conditioning.  It was so easy to snap that screen off the front window of the house that it really didn't even qualify as a break-in.  I found my way to the bathroom that was home to three sisters and then wandered back through the house, a fatal decision if ever there was one because it is just such a comfortable place, a place where Take Your Shoes Off and Stay Awhile, just sort of hangs in the air.  And so I did.  Well, I actually took off more than my shoes.  I needed to, in order to take a bath (I had been working at a camp for two weeks--geez) and then when I was clean, I thought maybe I should wash some clothes too.  So I put in a load, topping it off with someone else's stuff in the laundry room (I was nothing, if not a good guest) and came upstairs just in time to hear the phone ring.

Ever helpful (this was back in the pleistocene era before answering machines, call waiting or cell phones) I answered brightly, "Tyndall residence."

This was followed by a fairly long pause, broken with the words, "Who is this?"

Confidently, in the voice only a truly helpful person could muster, I said, "This is Kate.  I'm a friend of the Tyndall's."

"Kate, this is Vinnie," he said, in the kindest possible voice he could have used for someone who had vandalized his home, "What are you doing in my house?"

"Oh gosh, Vinnie, hi!" I bubbled, "Well, I drove through Springfield and needed to use the bathroom..." and I walked him through my visit right up through the laundry room.

There was silence at the other end of the phone.....and then they invited me to join them at Meemaw's for dinner.

One of the things I forgot to mention about Lizzie is that she and hers were all just tech crazy.  I mean if those girls had been teenagers now, at least one of them would be an underground dj, privy to all the latest music and with a host of gadgetry that would put most record companies to shame.  They got this from Vinnie, who, at the time I answered was demonstrating for his brother Terry the way his new ham radio could also place a phone call.  That day, they were surprised by more than the technology.

Undoubtedly, if you are reading this post you are thinking that I was nearly certifiable.  And were it any other home, I would admit you were correct.  Certainly I had some more learning to do in the area of Boundaries, for example.   But somehow, Lizzie managed to overlook my insanity.  Who are we, I have to ask, if we do not have people in our lives who will forgive our foolishness?

She drove a an orange hippie van and went to law school.  Clerked for a judge and then lived in a loft before most people could spell it.  She introduced me to Nancy Griffith, told me she thought I was smart, and for the rest of my life I will not hear the Billy Joel song, "You're My Home," without thinking of her, such a staple it was on our college mixtape collection.  She is godmother to my first daughter, Hannah, and after she had done all of these things--lived so thoroughly--she married Tory Baucum, an Episcopal priest who would go on to serve in that very little church where she and I first met.

She has lived in great cities and small towns, is equally at home with thinkers and tradesmen.  Mother to three beautiful daughters, she can hang with holy rollers and atheists, home schoolers and high ranking professionals.  She is a woman who knows when to pick up the phone and call.  And tonight, I learned, she is sitting at the hospital bedside of that dear man who loved me enough not to press charges.  A hospital room isn't usually a great place to celebrate a birthday, but with this crowd it should be spectacular.

"There was a star danced, and under that I was born," wrote William Shakespeare.
The heavens celebrate you still.  Happy birthday friend.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Waiting, Sweetheart...

"...for which foul deed
The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have
    Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,
    Against your peace."

The Tempest, Act 3, Scene 3

I rehearsed this scene with Mary Glen over Thanksgiving break.  The Stanford Shakespeare Company is doing The Tempest for its spring quarter show and she is preparing for auditions this weekend.  I haven't read the play before, so I loved hearing the story and reading through the scenes she rehearsed.  But one small fragment seemed to leap off the page like an arrow to my soul, "The powers, delaying, not forgetting..."

I started this entry wanting to write about Advent on this first day of December, but I felt stuck.  What did I really want to say?  And then I remembered that line, "delaying, not forgetting.." and I realized that is what this is about.  For how often have I felt forgotten when I was only delayed?  How many times have I seen that the tempests which whipsawed me practically in two, were also the storms which moved me miles and miles closer to my destination?  

The final chapter in the Old Testament is Malachi 3 which opens with this verse: "See, I will send my messenger......the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," and then there were only about 400 FREAKING YEARS OF SILENCE until that word came to pass.  I don't know about you, but I can tell you that there have been waiting periods in my life that felt about that long.

We wait for healing, for relief from pain, for love, for success, for justice, for failure, for the other shoe to drop, for someone else to change their evil ways only to realize that it was we who had a hitch in our gitalong.  On days when flossing and brushing seem more than we can bear, still we hold on...for change or the grace to endure until it arrives. 

Today Matty opened an Advent calendar which has hung on various walls around the country for 22 years.  

My father made it and gave it to me when we started our family.  It is an exact replica of the one which hung on the wall of my parents' home my entire life, right down to the slightly taller first row which houses the same five too-tall inserts every year. Though I now have more than 24, our Advent calendar always begins in this way:

"Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace and good will toward men."  In other words, at the beginning of our waiting, we look to the end, to the words spoken to those cold and dirty shepherds when they got the news that the world had been waiting 400 years to hear.  

More than ten years ago we attended church in New York City at a place called All Angels.  And one year at our Christmas Eve service, Colin Goode asked the congregation, What are you waiting for?  There were many answers that night--a new job, hope, a place to live--all pretty much faceless in my memory now, save one.  That night John Flannery, all of 8 or 9 years old stood up and took the microphone with a great and tearful passion and said, "I am waiting for my dad to be healed."   His dad, Jack Flannery, a prince of a man if ever there was one, was not healed of his brain tumor in the way we all hoped he would be.  He died on November 19, 2004 and John is now a freshman in college.  And I cannot think of that moment, without remembering Hebrews 11:39/40:  "Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours." (The Message)

And so, in the waning light of December, in a world which seems darker with each passing day, let us begin with the end in sight, scanning the horizon and waiting...anxiously, fearfully, with hope or with dread, but together--For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come.