Sunday, February 26, 2012

Starting to forget, remembering to remember

This story is such a vague memory I almost can't recall the details of hearing it.

But the story, I'll never forget.

I do remember sitting in the living room when I first heard it, watching TV in the rented house I shared with my first husband, a drafty wooden one-story with a giant single-pane glass window that looked onto Delaware Drive in San Mateo.  I know I was in that house because I remember the gold velveteen of the borrowed sofa underneath me.  I kept petting the prickly nap of the cheap fabric as I prayed nervously, desperately, after hearing the story.  Back in those days, I didn't pray much, but I did that night.

We still had the 19-inch vacuum tube TV; flat screens hadn't been invented yet.  My new baby daughter was in bed, baby monitor on, my son not yet born or thought of.  Not sure where my husband was - just that he wasn't there. The show, I don't remember.

I haven't seen or heard the story since, except when I have told it, and again today when I  looked for it on the web.  I found it in the sermon notes of a Mr. Tad Pound, who told it in an Epiphany series at San Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church in New Mexico not long ago.  It's from Chicken Soup for the Soul, turns out, told by Dan Millman, about a little girl named Sachi.

I love the web.  It's kind of a miracle.  Connects all the threads of our lives that would otherwise be loose at the ends, and frayed.  Now back to my story.

So here goes.  On the TV show, a mother was telling it, as if it were her story.  Maybe it was.

Sachi's mother was about to have her second child.  Every day the toddler would put her head against mom's tummy and ask to speak to the baby.  Please, can't he come out and talk to me?  Then he can go right back in.  OK?

Not possible, baby.  You'll see him soon.

After the baby was born, Sachi begged to be left alone with her new brother in the nursery, just for a few seconds.  Her parents were hesitant, fearing she might poke or scratch the baby, or try to pick him up and drop him, even if she was well intended.  Still, they had a baby monitor hooked up, so they decided to let her go in alone.

Once inside, it only took her a second or two to ask her question:  Can you tell me about God?  I'm starting to forget.

Now, you may have heard this before, and therefore discount it as a cute urban legend, or let it go by in the background like white noise.  Like the starfish story.  Heard that.  Got the T-shirt.

Even Snopes, that venerable website that debunks legends, has written about Sachi.  Snopes says that there are lots of tales of toddlers professing to have seen or smelled or been held by God, but that there is no proof that it is God whom they saw or smelled or touched.

Whatever.  What this is, is a mustard seed.  And frankly, I believe it all, Sachi, and the baby brother, and almost forgetting about the God she remembers, because she saw Him.

Why do I believe it?  Because I have asked Him many times to show me, as He said I should do, and He has kept his promise to back up my mustard seed with a whole jar of mustard.  Therefore I have tasted and seen the mustard again and again, and it is good.

Try it.  Asking Him to show you, that is.  I tried it the day I heard about Sachi, and it was good.  It hasn't been good every day, but the goodness has rippled out in ever escalating levels of goodness, one layer at a time, as only the Master Conductor could orchestrate it.

In fact, He never fails to remind me He is God, if I remember to ask.  Sometimes it's in little ways.  Like today, when I was looking for the Sachi story.  One of the places I found it was on an Angelfire site called Our Family Page, created by a family in Texas who has taken in several children.  On Our Family Page, Sachi's page is decorated with Precious Moments pictures of a little warrior holding up a sword, his face adorned with a criss-cross bandage, covering his heart with a shield.

When my almost-soon-to-be-second husband was nearly killed in a bicycle accident about ten years ago - seven bones broken, one punctured lung -  that very same Precious Moments warrior was painted on the wall in the room where he lay for ten days, oxygen tubes and morphine and all.  It was in the old hospital on 13th Street in Merced, which has since been replaced by a sparkling new hospital on the north side of town.  So the mural is probably gone, unless they one day rescue it from the wrecking ball when that time comes.

That mural was painted there by one of the surviving sisters of a horrible crime in the Weaver District of Merced County, created in homage to her 7-year-old brother John who had been murdered with a pitchfork while he slept.  A naked crazed man had charged into their home while the oldest girl was babysitting the other three.  He was attacking them one by one, goring whoever he could corner.

In the next cubicle was an homage to nine-year old Ashley, a praying angel, who had courageously thrown herself at the killer, screaming, "Get off my sister!"  That's when he turned on her, running her through.  Ashley perished in that cubicle.  Only the two elder sisters made it; the oldest married last year.  They're Gospel Defenders.  They know the soul survives.

The presence of those babies was still tangible as my husband lay there; the gratitude for flames that  had burned short but well, still tangible.  God had come to cover them there in those cubicles, and it was clear while I sat vigil that He hadn't left.  He was there to cover me, so much less deserving.  So much less in need, yet so much less grateful, even as I was.  Still, He covered me, as He covered my unconscious husband, for whom He had already sent a passing EMT, complete with ambulance, who happened to be crossing the remote country road at the exact moment when he went down, reviving him in time to live another day.

So bring Him your mustard seed.  It doesn't take much.  If you are starting to forget, then remember to remember, and just ASK.  He'll show you, in a million ways large or small.  He'll never fail, His word on that.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Getting strait

Something in my heart was made for luxury.  Calgon, take me away.

Somehow I think I'm not the only one. Much of advertising is devoted to spectating the good life, all those things we crave but don't have time for, or can't afford. There are entire television channels devoted to nothing but eating, or fashion, or travel, or the lush comfort of a beautiful home.

Sprinkled in between the costly and unreachable is the accessible and do-it-yourself-able, all possible through a few simple purchases.  Just call this number, and for practically nothing you can buy it.  Family around the table.  The smell of home.  Canned peace of mind.  A quiet soul.

Truth be told, I am especially susceptible to promotions of guilty pleasure because I am an inveterate workaholic.  My life is out of balance.  Feast or famine, sweat or sleep.  Little in between.

For years my career as an executive ate my life.  I commuted to a distant university and back, drove for hours in the dark of night as a young wife, to advance myself to higher degrees.  I never took a vacation unless it was somehow tied to business travel, even through the years my children were growing.  Dedication to purpose, to be sure, but also a squandering of blessing.

Even now, as a high school teacher, with the promise of summers off and days that end when the sun is still high, I am bent over my desk when all doors but mine are long since locked, still in the saddle through the dog days of July and August.  Every precious minute I have to sell, I sell. Not sure why.  Perhaps I'm an addict.

So to salve the world-weariness brought on by my addiction, I spectate, and I buy guilty pleasures.  Like tins of refrigerator biscuits.  Ironically, this is so I can save time on pursuits like making biscuits for my daughter, on one of the few mornings we have together.  Most days, she is commuting two hours each way to her dream job in the Bay Area.  Just like her mama.

What's wrong with this picture?

"Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads unto Heaven, and few there be that find it." - Matthew 7:14

We'll think about that in a minute, but keep it behind your ear, and let it simmer.

We're believers, my two children and I.  We all live here together.  My daughter is a lot like me.

My son is the black sheep, the prodigal, so we think.  He's undone by the excesses and strictures that come with over-commitment to worldly purpose.  He's angered - overly so - by the small nagging duties of square living and commerce.  He's hard to live with because you can't get too driven around him or he unravels.  He prefers to bask in the presence of his loved ones, to work with his hands just enough to earn food for his belly and clothes for his back (which he has few of).  To laugh at jokes, to watch cartoons, to play with dogs. To mow the lawn without criticism for which way the mower may have turned when it laid out the rows.

He's always hated video games.  He's always preferred living.

Darn him.

That makes it hard for my daughter and I to feed our addictions.  Perfectionism, workaholism, nagging.  Spectating.  My son, her brother, gets upset.  We must handle him with kid gloves, so we think.

In reality, I think she and I have bought into hard-work, perfectionist, works-based religion, to an extent.  I think we both believe, perhaps because I have taught her, that the harder the labor the cleaner the soul; the "better" the behavior, the better your shot at Heaven.  That somehow trying hard will get us to the Promised Land.

But look:

"(E)very man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things (my italics)."  - I Corinthians 9:25

"Cease striving and know that I am God." - Psalms 46:10

"Stand still, and see the salvation of God." - Exodus 14:13

Our lives are out of balance.  Perhaps only a little - let's not beat ourselves up here.  But out of balance nevertheless.

Somewhere between perfectionism and sloth is temperance.  Somewhere between striving yourself to death and sleeping yourself to death is balance.  Somewhere between self-righteousness and willful sin is forgiveness. Somewhere in the middle is a still, alert, and present soul, looking into the face of Jesus.

This middle place is strait, and narrow.  Few be there that find it, prone to addictions and extremism as we are.  Finding it requires a stillness and a patience, a humility, born of discipline.  To find it, we must get strait.  Look it up.

There is no more stringent discipline, in this culture born of striving, than to cultivate a watchful, humble mind, a mind that watches Jesus.  Watches and waits, waits to find His balance.

I didn't have any tins of refrigerator biscuits today so I made my daughter homemade biscuits for breakfast.  We had a slow and dreamy morning, between our bouts of laboring.  Warm, crumbly, redolent with shortening, star-shaped things cut out with a really big Christmas cookie cutter because I don't have a biscuit cutter.  Never took the trouble to buy one.  Too busy working.  My son does all the shopping because I'm too busy working.

"Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads unto Heaven, and few there be that find it." - Matthew 7:14

Somewhere in between, in the narrow place, lies temperance, stillness.  Somewhere in between we stop striving and start simply and humbly working, start loving, start watching for direction on where to draw the line.  How much is too much.  How much is just enough.

Somewhere in the middle, we wait.  We stand still, and see our lives unfold before us.  We see the salvation of God.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The substance of things hoped for

Sometimes I feel like I see the number 1 everywhere.  Has that ever happened to you?

I have a special friend - a prayer warrior - who loves those number 1's like nobody's business.  They are up all over his Facebook page.  He posts shots of his i-Phone screen at 1:11 and 11:11.  Some days he has a penchant for 3's, but most of the time, it's all about the 1.

Love him.

Here's an 11:1 for you:  "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1.

We look for God's fingerprints on things.  We know He's there because we can feel Him, we can smell His fragrance.  We can feel the fine touch of His hand brushing softly across the fuzz on our cheek just as we fall asleep.  If I should die before I wake.

When my daughter moved away at 21, her first apartment was number 11 in building 1A.  When she got an upgrade, it was to number 101 across the courtyard.  My baby surrounded by 1's.  As my friend would say, just sayin'.

Is it Him brushing against our cheek, or is it just us looking for Him, looking for faith?  Maybe both.  Only He knows.

Recently I wrote about a goose who snatched a toddler out of a drowning pool by his pants, only to expose himself to the zone code inspector and sacrifice his neck in the process.  For the toddler, that goose was his number 1 that bright blue afternoon. The substance of things hoped for, a gift of life from the Great One.  Fear not; I am here. Have faith.

Today I am going to tell you a similar story, one I referenced in my last column.

It had been a long day, and my husband back then was driving us back from San Diego.  It was the day before New Year's Eve in '10, and our marriage was in the dying days.  The trip was a mandatory one.

We had come up over the Grapevine, ink black sky to match the pavement, rain slanting sideways.  A man pulled up beside us and waved at us, pointing. Turns out we had been driving without our headlights on.

My husband softened for a while after that.  Just for a while.

We continued to amble over the rise, down into the flat, up the long stretch flanked by redwoods either side, center lane, idle chat, mostly silence.

As we came into the heart of the Valley, my husband's love of the back roads and the hinterlands got the better of him.  Sharp hook off the 99 into the dark parts unknown, the places where I get lost.  The rain had subsided some.

But this time he got lost.  Narrow potholed roads, tight with barbed wire dairy fences and abandoned clapboard storefronts.  Vineyards.  No lights, no curbs, no gutters.  Plenty of mud to turn around in.  Plenty of time to think.

Once long ago when we were first dating, he had taken me to the Woolgrowers, a Basque mainstay on the west side of the county known for its Portagee diesel and lamb stew (I have lived in Merced County long enough that I get to say Portagee diesel, and people know not to take offense).

On the way home from dinner, warm with diesel, again a rain-slanting-sideways night, we hit a tumbleweed the size of Texas, then bunny hopped through a puddle that nearly covered the hood of his truck.  He chatted me through it, patting my hand like a grandma while he steered with the other.  That's how we found that we had been born two days apart in the same year, and had gone to the very same Disneyland grad night in 1971, the night Smokey Robinson had played.  That time, our hides dried out to drive another day.  Prelude to a traffic accident.  I teach this to my English students as foreshadowing, or in this case, flashback.

But I digress, as I often do.  Still, there's a theme here.

Back to my story.  On the drive back from San Diego, I finally lost count of how many times we had doubled back, the vineyards seemingly new ones, but then we would see a landmark and know we had only driven in a circle.  Finally over the rise, we saw it:  the freeway overpass in the distance, shimmering and fresh with rain, a shot at the 99, freedom, safety.

I know a road, he said.

About an hour later, the warm glow of Dinuba showed on the horizon.  Breathe.  We were on the main street of town.

Straight, I said.  The freeway's ahead.  Left, he said.  It's quickest, and the freeway is right there.

Inky road, two way, no traffic, black as hell.  Clapboard cottages, blustering winds, ravines either side, black.  Thickness of black.

In the road, the headlights unveiled something, nothing.  Half a second, and we were in it.  The highest winds of the season had laid it down, a dry leafless silver branched eucalyptus, the dry color of cloud and winter sky, and we were through it.

Brakes locked, whipping left, right, over, galloping down, snap behind me, branches grazing the back of my neck, shatter of glass, twist, and we were nose down, 180 degrees around, backward and teetering an inch from the ravine.  Scratched against the dead black wet silence, cree-ee, cree-ee, we rocked.  Elbows locked, hands still on the dashboard.  It's ok.  I haven't left you.  Rocking.  Smell of coffee all over the front of me.

We popped the doors open and somehow were out, the car lurching and scraping as we climbed.  The branch had shot through the right rear window and stabbed through, an inch behind my head.  Up twenty, maybe thirty feet, was the road.

And then the glare of headlights were in our eyes as we stood in our depths, and he was there, cut out in silhouette on the horizon of the ditch.  His beret I noticed first, then the broadness of his shoulders, and his hand outstretched.

"Are you ok ma'am, sir?  Take my hand."  One by one he hauled us up light as air from the ditch so deep we could not see the road.  Could his arm really have been that long?

I don't remember his face.  I only remember wondering if I was really dead, and I was being invited into Heaven.  I remember his silver grey camo fatigues, not a drop of mud, color of the tree we had just been birthed through.  Us staring aimlessly, turning in circles, disoriented.  Meanwhile, he laid out flares.  "I hit it too," he said.  "I was right behind you."  I didn't notice his car, not at all, just light.  And him.  He waved traffic around the tree, waved it to safety.

Cherry-on-top and blueberry lights spun in the distance.  We turned to look, camo soldier still waving behind us.  When we looked back, deep in our minutiae of statements, he was gone.

"Did you see him?" we asked the officer.  "The soldier.  He hit it too, helped us out of the ditch."

No, he hadn't seen a soldier.  No car. No waving.  No beret.  Only the flares, and the cars filing neatly around the tree, safe.

And all the way back home in the tow truck, I continued to wonder, am I dead?  Is this Heaven?  Or is it merely the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen?

I don't know if our soldier was real or not.  I don't know if he was an angel.  I don't know if he was just on his way to the airport, back to duty, and didn't dare miss his flight.  All I know is, his arm was long enough, longer than common sense would allow.  And there was not a drop of mud on him.

If we trust just one iota - one mustard seed - He shows us the evidence that there is something we cannot see, without fail. 1's. Geese.  Silver camo soldiers.  He brushes our cheek ever so softly with His hand just as we are falling asleep, and thereby feeds us substance.  He feeds us faith.

His arm is long enough, longer than common sense would allow, long as hope.