My health has been, let’s say, indifferent over the past couple of months. I’ve had to change some plans, with disappointment, and there may be more of that to come. My rheumatologist has prescribed a new medication and made some adjustments to another; it will take some time to see if this artful combination works.
I always try to be hopeful about these things
I can’t decide how to punctuate that sentence.
“, but …”
“; that isn’t always easy …”
I don’t know. It’s been almost ten years since I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. One of the chapters of my book is about how I have used denial to cope. Now, not only am I trying hard to be more realistic, this time I have felt poorly enough that I can’t fake it.
I’m like some wild owl–
like some screech owl in the desert.
I like awake all night.
I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.
(Psalm 102:6-7, CEB)
I’m not alone, of course. I have a genuinely and generously supportive wife. The lone, wild bird is a creature of my feelings. I reject the idea of being ill and dependent. I like to do *for* others. I’m an Enneagram 2; it’s a feature of my personality, and it’s been important for me to learn to give without wanting something in return, and to learn when something is mine to do, or not. I understand all that.
But must I learn to receive even when I cannot give?
I’ll be honest. I hate that.
Thus the bird on the roof.
Many psalms lay out a complaint, whether a diatribe against oppressors or a lament direct to God. Usually they turn to praise, to some sense of reconciliation with the Lord, some relief of the pain. 102 comes around for one more exclamation in verse 23.
God broke my strength in midstride,
cutting my days short.
My days are cut short because I cannot do all the things I want to do, at home, at work, or at play. And while that is discouraging in the near view, the hardest thing in this illness is how inevitably I get sicker when I am trying to get better.
I don’t believe God visited it on me
That’s a hard one to punctuate, too.
I don’t believe God visited it on me, but I wish I could get a break, some improvement in my health, even a time of staying the same. It seems I need to prepare for more of the inevitable; I will find a way to do it.
For now, though, I am trying to feel my feelings. For now, in prayer at least, I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.
Up very early on a fresh spring morning, I looked out my kitchen window to check on the progress of the lilacs planted against the fence and my neighbor’s garage. Then I saw her, coming out from under my neighbor’s garage to grub under a large stump in our backyard.
Mama Skunk had a family to feed.
Mama Pastor had a little nutty. I was getting ready to sell my house. Could there be a less thrilling inducement to buy than a skunk family whose front yard is in the backyard? Despairing, I turned to Facebook for some crowd-sourcing. “What can I do about a skunk in my yard?” Friends and “friends” offered sympathy and suggestions, as well as reviews of the kind of people who help relocate unwanted wildlife.
I called one of them. I also ended up calling him my New Best Friend. He set some traps in my yard, and when he came back and found only a pregnant possum and heard my report that the skunk had been seen nibbling the marshmallows at the door to the trap in the middle of the day, we had a talk about what would happen if she appeared to be rabid. “Then we’ll have to dispatch,” he said. “Call Animal Control?” I asked, hoping I had missed a word in his sentence. “No. I’ll have to dispatch … her.”
I couldn’t handle it just then.
More than once, I’ve sat by a hospital bed listening to someone tell a story that sounded just like my mom’s. She died twenty years ago, a fair-skinned blonde whose little mole on a shoulder blade became metastatic melanoma that took her from us. In the waning months of her life, she confided that she had searched her heart to determine what she had done wrong; why was God punishing her? There must be some reason. She trusted me with her fear.
I wasn’t sure I knew how to handle it then.
The average warning time people get before a tornado is about fifteen minutes. Last Monday, in Moore, Oklahoma, school officials and hospital administrators and business owners had to decide in a flash the safest places for students and patients and employees. People at home went to their shelters, or ran to their neighbors hoping to be allowed into safety.
They had to handle it, whether they felt ready or not.
Jesus, in the translation we read today from the Common English Bible, tells the disciples, “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.” (John 16:12, CEB) He knew their limitations. Although they had traveled with him for three years, watching and listening, the disciples had trouble grasping what he said. They gathered for what we now call the Last Supper. In John’s gospel, the meal goes on for many chapters, in which Jesus delivers what we’ve come to call The Farewell Discourse. Although I hesitate to paraphrase Jesus too briefly, it amounts to this:
• I am going to the Father.
• Soon you won’t see me, but you will again at some unspecified time.
• Meanwhile, love one another as I have loved you.
• And because all of the fancy specifics of who I am and what it all means are too hard for you to comprehend, God will send the Spirit, otherwise known as the Companion or the Advocate, who will be with you always.
Nor was it for the disciples. The passage goes on:
“Soon you won’t be able to see me; soon after that, you will see me.” Some of Jesus’ disciples said to each other, “What does he mean: ‘Soon you won’t see me, and soon after that you will see me’ and ‘Because I’m going to the Father’? What does he mean by ‘soon’? We don’t understand what he’s talking about.” (John 16:16-18, CEB)
For centuries people of faith wrangled about the meaning of all this, eventually arriving at the Doctrine of the Trinity, that mystical notion that God is three persons, traditionally described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is One, but God is also Three: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. I’ve used these strings of words many times, but what do they really mean?
“I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”
I hear this as developmental. Humans mature in faith understanding just as they mature in practical understanding. God can wait for us to get there, but not in the person of Jesus. He needed to move on to the inevitable end of his human existence in order to show us a different way of being God. Jesus showed us divine vulnerability. Divine vulnerability allows our relationship with God to be at its worst, yet still be a relationship.
He did not leave us alone to flounder, even if he did leave us to wonder how God the Creator, God the Christ and God the Holy Spirit are all three God, but at the same time One.
Once I understood the parameters of the skunk situation, I became more peaceful about it, even when the traps remained empty for days on end. The goal of my New Best Friend was to catch Mama Skunk, then find her little ones and transport them all together to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Later they would be released into the wild, somewhere far from the densely settled neighborhood where I lived. Or, they might move on their own, far enough away. For a time the outcome remained unpredictable, but my New Best Friend promised they would not live in my yard forever, and I trusted him. In fact, when the initial shock passed, I came to wish we could all live together in peace, even though I also wanted to be able to let the dog outside.
It’s hard but essential to hold seemingly conflicting ideas in balance. The Trinity asks us not to get stuck in what seem like facts. We get in trouble when we get too set in our minds, too sure of our definitions of what works and what doesn’t. Those things only work until we reach the next stage. And there is always a next one.
“I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”
Jesus knew how hard it was going to be for the disciples, but he also knew they would not be alone. He knew that just as he had come, part of God’s own self, to live in human form, so would the Spirit, also part of God’s own self, be available to his friends. It wasn’t just for that spring in Jerusalem, or the next five years, or the next three centuries. The Spirit is here with us.
Of all the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, the Spirit is the hardest to capture. God the Creator, the Divine Parent, the Source of All That Is might be visualized as a force or a white-robed grandpa or a wild-eyed wonder-worker or a great, big-bosomed mama – our imagination is the only limit. We have a world of artwork and stories that aim to put flesh on Jesus, to help us relate to him as the Good Shepherd or the man with the children gathered around him, even as the person suffering on the cross.
But how can we picture the Spirit?
Scripture calls the Spirit Fire and Wind; it’s elemental. Scripture calls the Spirit Companion, Advocate, Comforter – claiming God’s presence with us in times of isolation, trial and loss. I would add Inspirer, Instigator, even Provocateur; the Spirit is God present among us, urging us toward deeper faith and wider action and greater understanding.
There are going to be skunks in the yard. There are going to be things we feel we just can’t handle. Those are the times we especially need the Spirit of God.
“I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”
We can’t handle it, not alone.
But God will allow things to unfold at the right time, when we’re ready. In the Spirit of Truth and Love, there is a New Best Friend better than any other. This is the Good News: the Spirit will be with us, no matter what may confront us, whether it’s skunks or lingering grief or natural disasters, or all of them at the same time. When we need to grow in knowledge or understanding, when we need to love truer and believe deeper and trust harder, we are not alone. In the company of God’s Spirit, we can handle it. Amen.
My mom died before my dad, and he was adamant that other than her clothes, nothing of hers was leaving the house while he was still in it. But because I was the kind of daughter who liked to look through her mother’s drawers—I must confess it—I knew which drawer had the good jewelry, and which had the pretty costume pieces and where the out-of-style pins from the 1960s and 70s had landed in the guest room.
And I knew that in the drawer with the precious jewelry was a clipping, an old Ann Landers column encouraging children not to fight over their parents’ things, whether money or material objects. My brother wasn’t inclined to snoop in drawers, but he knew how our mother felt about it, too, because she talked about it when she was dying, too young.
Don’t fight over things. That was her sermon, delivered gently, subtly, never to both of us at the same time.
My father heard it, too, and somehow we knew, my brother and I, how to proceed. We took turns choosing, first in this room, then in that. We sat down at the dining room table, the one that’s in my house, and went through the things in the safety deposit box, where we discovered our dad had moved a *few* things of our mother’s. We considered our daughters and divided the good jewelry.
A huge moving van pulled up outside our parents’ house in Virginia, and the movers packed it in two sections, one for Pennsylvania and one for Maine. This was a long time ago, fourteen years, and the things that came to my house are worn down now by dogs and children, showing their age.
So it was strange to visit my brother recently for the first time in many years and see how the other half of the material objects had fared. There are three children in his family, too, and dogs have lived in his home, but somehow everything at his house looks just the same as it did when we packed it on the truck in 1998. The things I hadn’t seen in such a long time looked so shiny and pretty; I stood in front of a mirrored wardrobe and caressed the gleaming wood.
I had a moment, just a little moment, of remembering how we divided things up, of the place where the system failed, when I realized his wife had written a list and helped him develop a strategy, so that even though we had promised to do this just the two of us, she was there.
My brother might tell the story differently. I assumed he wouldn’t care about the old-fashioned music box if he could have the Grandfather clock, but later he told me that he couldn’t have chosen the music box because I had been so vocal about wanting it.
We all have our stories.
In Proverbs 3 we read: Happy are those who find wisdom and those who gain understanding. (Wisdom’s) profit is better than silver, and her gain better than gold. Her value exceeds pearls; all you desire can’t compare with her. In her right hand is a long life; in her left are wealth and honor. Her ways are pleasant; all her paths are peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who hold her tight are happy. The LORD laid the foundations of the earth with wisdom, establishing the heavens with understanding. (Proverbs 3:13-19, CEB)
Our memories are like that wardrobe, drawers and shelves of treasures, hangers holding banners of the past. When I think of the things my parents collected, the ones in my brother’s house and the ones in mine, what matters about them is not their value or even how well-polished they are. What matters is the joy my dad took in buying a print he loved or the image I can conjure of my mother getting dressed for a party then taking off one piece of jewelry. What matters is sitting around the table we shared and laughing with the next generation the way we told stories with the last. What matters is the hope they had for their children, that we would love the memories of them stored in our wardrobes and have the wisdom to let the rest go.