I got an email this past week from my Atlanta friends announcing our high school reunion next summer. There was also a digital photo album of the last reunion, which I was unable to go to four years ago. Luckily everyone had on a nametag, because without that I would not have recognized most of the people in the pictures! It was a very strange feeling—thinking “Who are all these old people and where did my friends go?” As Tevia says Fiddler on the Roof, “I don’t remember getting older, when did they?” It reminds me of the poem A Summer Day by Mary Oliver. The last few verses of the poem read,
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
When I hear this poem, I get a little anxious and panicked. I can hear the last line, “What is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?” as a demand. I don’t think Mary Oliver wrote this to be demanding, but it is sometimes how I hear it. What in the world am I doing with my one wild and precious life? It hits me the same way as thinking about my high school reunion does. What am I doing with my life? What about all the plans I had? The money I would make? The books I would write? The great things I would do? I start to feel as if time is running out on all the chapters of my future memoir. I told my husband Stuart the other day that I was middle-aged– and he laughed. He said if I think I’m going to live to 120, then I am middle-aged. But if I think I might hit 90, then I am post-middle aged.
Spring has the same effect on me. Like a winter tree coming back to life, I look around and think I need to get moving, start accomplishing something bigger and better. I want to change myself the way I change the clothes in my closet. Quit procrastinating, start being more compassionate, get better at remembering names, exercise more, eat less—be different. Be more like you, or at least the way you appear to be.
That’s why the gospel this week is good news for me.
The disciples are hiding in Jerusalem, full of fear and wondering what to do after Jesus’ death and rumors of his resurrection. Then Jesus shows up in the very room they are hiding in. He goes to them—in the middle of their greatest fear, inadequacy and anxiety. Jesus does not require that they do something first. He enters into the place that they are in to comfort them and show them the way. If Jesus had not done that, we would not be sitting here today. Think about that for one moment—if Jesus showed up in this room, right here, right now—how would we feel? Probably a little freaked out and distrustful of your own senses. Have you ever been in an earthquake? Remember the earthquake in Charlottesville in 2011? The whole room jumps around a bit, and you think you are just crazy. Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.”
Jesus’s resurrection was like a cosmic earthquake, rearranging time. Naturally, the disciples were startled and frightened because no one has a lot of experience seeing someone come back from the dead. Jesus does not show up as a beam of light, or a ghost or a hologram. He has scars and wounds and eats broiled fish. It’s comforting in its ordinariness, in the groundedness of his presence. He has experienced death and dying—and brings peace from the other side. “Peace be with you,” Jesus tells them. This peace is our reunion with the risen Lord.
What does peace look like? For me, honestly, it would be having peace with myself, learning how to live with who I am, the way I am. It would also be acceptance of my life as it is, right now at this moment, not my life when I’m finished with my life-long self-improvement project. I would stop trying to be you. I’m not sure I want peace because I constantly push it away in favor of more exciting possibilities. Didion also wrote, “We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of…mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
Parker Palmer writes, “To feel at home in my own skin, to feel at home on the face of the earth. I sometimes think that those are the two deepest yearnings in our lives. What I know for sure is that life becomes very painful when I don’t feel at home with who I am.” Alan Watts tells us that, “Waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.” I seem to believe that if I could only finally be the person I want to present to the world, then I would feel peaceful. But it never comes. There is always something else. Christ’s peace that passes all understanding is the peace that accepts that that my life is not my own. The life I have been given is the one and only life I have. I am not making my life—it is unfolding before me and within me. In the last verse in Luke, Jesus tells us that we are witnesses to the life of redemption and repentance. A witness is proof. Our lives are proof of the reality of Christ in the world.
What does that mean about the pain, sorrow and regret of living? Does that mean I should be satisfied with that?
Vanetta Rendall Risner wrote The Scars that Shaped Me and is no stranger to pain and loss with over 20 childhood surgeries for polio, 4 miscarriages, the loss of a 2-month-old son because of a doctor’s mistake which also ended her 17-year marriage. Vanetta describes how comforting it is to know that Jesus bears scars and wounds. Risner writes, “In the midst of crushing circumstances, we know something else is going on. Something bigger than we can imagine. Something that puts our pain into a larger context. When I face my miseries directly and find blessings in them, something miraculous happens. I view all of life differently. I see my circumstances through a lens of faith. And I am able to declare with confidence that, even in the worst of circumstances, God is still good, and there is much to be thankful for…For most of us, [the thought that] “grace always heals deeper” is a sweet idea, but we’d prefer the physical healing. Or emotional healing. Or the return of our wayward child. Or reversal of a financial disaster. Those things are tangible. And visible. A cause for celebration. But grace. That’s an invisible healing. To an outsider, nothing looks different. Life still looks shattered and God may seem uninvolved. But that’s just to the casual observer. In reality, we are profoundly changed. Grace gives us the courage to face anything, healed from the inside out. For this healing is not just for this life but for the next. It is Spirit-breathed, not humanly understandable. It is permanent, not temporary.”
Mary Oliver has another poem that seems to sum up this mundane, everyday-ness of our relationship with God. It is called:
LITTLE DOGS RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
Tell me you love me, he says.
Tell me again.
Could there be a sweeter arrangement?
Over and over
he gets to ask it.
I get to tell.”
We get to ask, Jesus gets to tell us. We are loved as we are and it is a sweet arrangement.