Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Mitt

You did not choose Me, but I chose you….John 15:16

It was twenty-eight years ago. These are the things I remember about fourth grade. There was the red dirt playground of Saint Williams, my first baseball mitt, Little League, and my father’s transfer to Taiwan, all that year. Each has finally wrought its conviction; each is just now finishing its work of grace.

Though it has been nearly thirty years I still remember some of my friends’ names. Thomas, who had seven brothers and sisters; Vincent, a light brown boy whose origin was an enigma to us all; Sammy, who was held back in first grade; Jack, who sneezed into his hand one day, snot ran from between his fingers and no one had a Kleenex. And Raymond. Raymond was ‘retarded’ as we were allowed to say back in the fifties.

Recess and P.E. were death for me in elementary school. I was the smallest kid in my classes. If not the smallest I was certainly the least feared. I had to participate in grade school sports during the Dark Ages before the discovery of the fragile self-image, before the light of child psychology was shed on playground dynamics. In those days the biggest, most popular and most powerful kids were usually appointed as team captains and the rest of us were alternately chosen by these gods of the playground to make up their teams. I was not endowed with athletic ability like most of my classmates. I remember standing in the red dust with the group between the team captains, listening to the cheers as one side or the other got a coveted talented, aggressive player, watching the teams fill and the center group dwindle down to the small, the fat, the goony, the bucktoothed and bespectacled misfits until only Raymond and I were left.

I usually stared at the ground too embarrassed to look up because they might see my fear of being the very last in the center; or sometimes I tried to act like I was not particularly concerned about the matter by grinning stupidly while the team captains argued over who HAD to take one or both of us this time. If either of us was ever actually chosen, I, at least, realized it was purely out of some nine-year-old’s version of pity (though I didn’t know that word then). Raymond, I still hope and pray, was oblivious to it all and just went where he was told to go.

It was that same year that my father bought me my first baseball glove and signed me up for Little League. We went to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime to shop for a mitt. I knew little about baseball. Though I’d never played it I knew I was not good at it. I had never even seen a real game. One thing I did know was that to have an autographed mitt meant a great increase in my likelihood of getting picked sooner by the gods of the game at P.E. If for no other reason, one of the cool guys who was already chosen would always want to borrow it from me and would use his influence to get me picked. Thus I never really used my mitt at recess. It would always end up on someone else’s hand in the infield and I would be assigned to the far outfield where few fourth graders could hit the ball. It was not a critical nor prestigious position to play but it beat getting picked last.

I am right-handed. It made sense to me therefore that I should have a right-handed glove, meaning one that fit on my right hand. My father tried to explain to me that a right-hander catches with his left hand so he can throw with his right, but I would have none of it. I knew the purpose of having a mitt is to catch a baseball. I knew that if I could not catch a baseball with it I would be laughed at. And I just knew I could not catch with my left hand. I would rather have been eternally, mittlessly, but safely, consigned to the outfield than to be humiliated by my ineptness with my new mitt. I never revealed my reasonings to my father, but I was so adamant he bought me the right-handed mitt I wanted. I soon found out he was right and after school, in the seclusion of our back yard, my father chased wild throws all over the yard as I struggled to learn to throw left-handed.

God only knows why I signed up for Little League that year. I went to tryouts with my right-handed mitt and a sense of impending doom. One of the coaches noticed immediately that I alternated between my right and left hands and asked me if I could pitch with both hands. To avoid the embarrassment of explaining my stupidity in picking out my glove I said yes, knowing full well I could not even throw well enough with my right hand to hit the dugout, much less get the ball over the plate with my left. I remember his face lighting up. “A switch pitcher!” he exclaimed to his assistant. I didn’t know what a “switch” anything was. All I remember is the fleeting elation of having someone impressed by me, of being considered for THE prize position on the team, and the terrible sinking feeling of knowing I would ultimately be found out. That week my father got orders and we were transferred to Taiwan. Though it meant leaving my friends it also meant I got to quit Little League, mercifully before my dark secret was discovered and I was completely humiliated before the team and my friends at school when the word got around.

So, here I am twenty-eight years later, reading the parables of Jesus Christ and realizing that, just as my pain about the playground and my mitt speaks to all of us and our own most secret pain, so the gospel holds our hope for us all.

I read in the parables how God goes out into the streets and alleys and calls out the last, the least, the lost, the helpless, the hopeless and the worthless to play on his team, which wins because of him and is not hindered by the lack of talent in those he chooses (Luke 14:15-24). I read how God chooses the last ones left and makes them the first string of the All Star team (Luke 14: 7-11). I read how he takes the rejects, the skinny ones with thick glasses, the oblivious and the ones standing idly on the sidelines, their shirt-tails out, with lunch on their fronts, and inducts them into the Hall of Fame for just standing in the outfield for the last inning (Matthew 20:1-16, all my paraphrases).

I read the gospels and I saw Jesus with the sinners. As much as it hurt to finally admit it, I understood that I really was, I really am, the last, the worthless, the least. I realized that to deny that painful reality is to deny his grace. I finally understood that my only hope is in the truth of the gospel, that the only ones chosen are those who know they are not worthy of being chosen. I stood off in the distance, I fell on my face before him saying, “God, please choose me; be merciful to me, the sinner.”

Twenty-eight years later I understand the gospel and realize too that the Little League and my mitt speak of the killing flaw in my humanity, truly all humanity: It is to seek acceptance through lies and illusions of competence and trumped up abilities. This is woven into the very fabric of our beings. How often I have put on pretenses, overstated my qualifications, my experience, my credentials, inflated a resume, covered up a failure, or tried to make an impression on someone only to lie awake with a knot of dread in the pit of my stomach at being found out.

And we must think about what illusions we might be holding up before God. Do we stand before him and declare, “I am not like the sinners, God. I pray, I fast, I tithe”? Do we come to the Father and say, “I am not like your prodigal sons. I work hard in your house, I do not waste your blessings on worldly pleasures”? What value, what worth, what talent, what competence, what knowledge do we hold up before him as if to make ourselves acceptable to him? We often come to God as if we are trying to qualify somehow for his love and choice of us, like it is a position on his team. (The proper doctrinal mitt or moral bat will get you chosen – this is what it comes down to for most religion.) But at the moments we are able to be honest with ourselves, we tremble at being found out for what we really are: a goony, lonely kid fearful of rejection, with no talent and a wrong-handed mitt.

But we have been found out. God knows. And Jesus calls out our names anyway. You see, he too stood one day, with just two of them left, and the crowd chose the other, Barabbas, not him. There was no one to stick up for him. He was tossed back and forth between Pilate and Herod, the team captains, who argued over who had to take him. He was finally left dead least, hanging between heaven and earth, rejected by both, and he died in the outfield with two other slobbering, rejected misfits.

But by the authority of His resurrection He’s the team captain.

He looks into the downcast, awkwardly grinning faces of the skinny, hopeless, worthless misfits who have no autographed mitts, who are hoping against hope to be picked and not left standing rejected, finally and completely alone, and he knows how they feel. I tell you the truth: as long as he is the one choosing up sides he will never let Raymond, or me, or you, ever be picked last again.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Will of God

I loved her to distraction.

That evening held us in its loom, weaving our histories together, now and forever a tapestry irrevocably bound by one look, one touch. From that moment, so pregnant with magnificent consequence, that very moment I knew I would have her. She would be my beloved, I would be hers. And so her heart’s desire became my obsession.

Oh yes, I could name her imperfections for you. I could tell you of her weaknesses. I could reveal the hidden things of her heart, her fears, the places so dark they frightened even her. I could disclose to you the secrets in her past that still she speaks about it guarded whispers. But I will not. I loved her, I love her, and those things are of no consequence to me. My desire for her was never diminished by the discovery of her weakness and flaws. My wish to work magic in her life never changed, but grew more intense as she revealed her struggles. As I came to know her pain, my desire for her healing deepened.

I wished joy for her; unending, incredible joy that would release her from her past, her demons, her fears. I wanted her to lay her heart’s burdens on me, to find solace within my arms, shelter in my love for her. I desired above all else that she seek me out as one who could bring joy into her life and was willing to take her sorrows and comfort her. I wanted her to know that my life, all I was and had, was hers. I longed for her to find me loving her beyond her wildest imaginings, caring for her heart and soul sometimes more than she cared for them herself. I was willing to sacrifice all I had for her, joyfully, and never look back if that would bring a smile into her wearied life.

It was my desire for her to be at peace. It was my will, my heart’s deepest longing that I could see her face without the lines of sorrow and distress. Her healing became my greatest need, her rest became my burden. I would forgive anything, I would accept her in all of her guilt. I wept for the secrets she kept from even me and for her unspeakable pain. I would give her my gifts hoping she would know they were from my heart, a shadow of the offering of my life for hers. I died a thousand times for her, wishing I knew what I could do that she would know she was wondrous and loved beyond telling.

I wanted above all else that she find her deepest longings fulfilled in me, in my love for her, in my life given for her. I was jealous, outraged when she would seek healing and comfort in another. But even in my jealousy I loved her. I sometimes waited for her, sometimes pursued her. I could not reject her, I could not give up pouring out my heart to her even when she was not there to accept it. I was wounded many times and yet I bore the scars like precious jewels of outrageous cost.

I was hopelessly lost in her. I was powerless to give up my pursuit of her heart. I was joyously, wonderfully, passionately in love with her. I could only give, forgive, accept, forbear, and comfort. My desire was for her alone, my longings were for her peace and joy. My will was that she be one with me and me alone, and find within me all that she was seeking. There was no cost too high, no price too great to pay for the possession of her devotion and love.

I could not command her to love me, only pursue her. I could not direct her except by enticing her. I could not hold over her my gifts, my love or my sacrifices, only lay them before her. My will was my desire for her good. I held no power over her except as she yielded herself to the power of my love for her. I could only tell her of my dreams for her, for us. I could not coerce her to dream my dreams; I could not force her to fulfill my desires. But if she did fall in love with me I knew it would be with all of her heart, soul, mind and strength. It would then be her will, her desire, not mine. My dreams would then be her dreams. She would love me with the depth and passion that no command could force, no word from me could create.

And this is the desire of God: that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, the truth of His eternal pursuit of our love. This is the desire of God, this is His passion, His deepest longing. In the compelling power of my love I have seen only a passing shadow of the love of my God for me. My desire is but a dying distant star beside the flame of His desire. My shallow longings for my beloved are drowned in the depth of His longings for my heart and soul. I see only dimly His love in the mirror of my heart’s wildest desires.

He wills that I have joy, He wills my peace. He would be my shelter, the One who would take my burdens and dry my tears. He would heal my broken heart. He lays His gifts before me, His life for mine, His heart for mine, His sorrow for my joy, His scars for my healing. He is powerless to relent in His pursuit of my love. No cost was too high to consider, no cost too great to pay to win my devotion.

My God, how You love me. I have come to know You love me beyond my wildest imaginings. I know beyond reason that I am loved beyond telling. Your desire is now mine, my Beloved. You have pursued me, enticed me, and You have finally won me. My heart is Yours. I touch the scars You so beautifully bore for me and all that is within me cries out, “He is my Beloved and I am His.”

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Fallen World is Real

A mundane occurence with theological ramifications: Nothing reminds you better that the world is fallen and how much you are willing to pay to avoid pain than a broken tooth with the nerve exposed. I have a dentist's appointment on Monday.

A Prayer

Merciful Spirit of God,

Move Thou across the chaos of this, the deep and dark waters of my life.

Cast the shadow of the wings of Thy presence over the chaos of my heart:

Over my raging at the unseen and fearful powers I feel tearing me asunder, powers I cannot name, powers I have begged Thee to rebuke, yet they surround me still;

over the evil I find myself doing, the evil I hear my own voice speaking; the desperate things I do to bring this despair to an end in my own ways, in my own time;

over the places within me shattered by my despondency at Thy "No" to my cries and longing for Thy help;

over the places broken because Thy hand did not stay the brutal and unspeakable evil that assailed me;

over the sadness that has crushed my fragile hope,

over my faith that has been ground to desert dust.

I fear for life itself. The night is so vast, the darkness swells and rolls within me. I am helpless against it.

O Lord, hear my frail voice before it goes still, before I cannot find the faith to beg Thee any longer for Thy hand to heal my wounded and broken heart.

I lay this, my chaos before Thee.

O Unbegotten Genesis, O Spirit of God, pass over the face of these my dark waters and let there be Light once more. Divide the waters of my tears, dry my eyes with Thy gentle hand. Create in me all manners of wild and glorious things, constellations of joy, seasons of work and rest, places of lofty things, places of deep mystery, places of firm footing. Let Thy Spirit work its Holy terror within me, let it gather up what has been broken and shattered and create something wonderous of Your sacred imagining. Then will I know certainly Thou art indeed the Creator, the bringer of order within me, O Savior of my body and soul. Amen.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Election

William Chen. He was my friend and I hated him. It was because William was my friend that I hated him.

Seventh grade. We were stationed in Taiwan. I attended the parochial school because the strict discipline and tough academics were notorious there.

The Beach Boys (their first time around) were cool. Straight blond hair was in. Beatle boots and pegged pants were still in. I.D. bracelets and initials for names were in. T.J. was a guy who had it all – blond hair, bracelet, black pointed-toed boots with zippers on the sides. T.J. got to bring his lunch in a brown bag instead of a cartoon lunch box. T.J. was so cool he went steady. He actually walked with his arm draped over his girl’s shoulder at school right in front of the nuns. The coolest thing of all was when he cried when he heard one of the Beach Boys lost his voice. Real tears he cried, blubbering sobs, and no one, but no one made fun of him. T.J. had it all. K.C. was almost as cool. He had dark hair but his parents let him wear it like the Beatles and he had his blue Parochial School uniform pants pegged.

It was not a very easy thing to be cool at Saint Vincent’s. The uniform was white shirt, dark blue pants purchased from an approved tailor, white socks and black shoes. The Dominican nuns were not given to admiring coolness. The cool guys always seemed to get away with being cool while the rest of us lived in fear of being told to get our hair cut or to go to the office to change into a set of ragged, one-size-fits-all clothes they kept in there to humiliate dress code violators.

William Chen was not a cool guy. Neither was I, for that matter. But William was goofy. He laughed like a chicken. He walked like a half-sprung pogo stick. He stood too close when he talked to people, maybe because he couldn’t see despite the slab of glasses that hung precariously on the end of his nose. His shirt tail hung out on one side, and you could always tell what he had for lunch from the front of his shirt. One sock was always at half mast. William was the Black Plague on whomever’s social life he invaded; you were a dead man if you were infected with his presence. William was so goofy he wasn’t even pitied. William was not cool. William was my friend.

It was not that I solicited his friendship, you understand. I guess I looked vulnerable and he simply fell in step with me one day on the way to recess and I never seemed to be able to ditch him. Perhaps I could have tried harder but I didn’t have the nerve that the cool guys had when it came to William. So it was William and I, with our own table at lunch, last ones picked at P.E., science and bus ride home partners. I didn’t particularly hate him then. But I didn’t enjoy him, either. Not him specifically; I got used to his chicken cackles and quirkiness. I didn’t enjoy what his presence implied about me. You know, birds of a feather. Maybe it was that I was goofy, too. Maybe I was just one rung up on the ladder from him and had gotten social pity that I had always mistaken for acceptance. It was beyond terror to think maybe William was my only true friend.

It came the season for class officer elections at Saint Vincent’s. Before I tell you about the meaning of the election, I must spend a moment explaining the sociology of and the procedure governing the elections.

First the sociology. Everyone knew class officer elections had both everything and nothing to do with the cool guys. It was just innately understood that the cool guys were too cool to be class officers. Thus they never got nominated and got no votes. But they voted. And so did everyone else. If nominated one need not win but just get a respectable show of votes. Votes meant affirmation, votes were a pronouncement of status, and votes were a witness to one’s place in a pitiless society.

Now the procedure. We nominated to candidates, Sister Mary Ellen put the names on the board. We voted by raising our hands. The candidates put their heads down as the vote for their office was counted, thus they would not see how many votes they got. The Sister would write the numbers next to the names and before the candidates were allowed to raise their heads to view the results, the losing candidates’ names and votes were erased so none would know how many votes they got. Of course there was nothing keeping the losers from asking their friends how many votes they got, except maybe embarrassment.

Class officer elections meant nothing more to me than a half of a morning without academics. But this morning they meant everything to me. William Chen nominated me for class president.

I was a realist. I could face the fact that I would not win against the likes of Mike Esmark or Pat Grady. Mike had been class president since fifth grade. His re-election in
subsequent years was insured when he offered to take six swats from Swingin’ Sister Jude so the whole class would not have to do extra homework for a week for being rowdy in the lunchroom. She gave him the swats, we did no homework and Mike was president for three years running. I had no such platform on which to run, so I knew I would not win.

I truly had no desire to win except the crazy “wouldn’t it be great if” that you feel when you have no hopes. I did have a delirious desire to know the vote, an exhilarating fear and dread of knowing where I stood, William Chen notwithstanding, what my true place was, to have my existence acknowledged and affirmed by my peers, yea, even the cool guys, or at least a couple of them.

And it came our turn to put our heads down, foreheads on the forearm, while our names were called and votes were counted for president of the class.

Mike Esmark. A rustle of sleeves, a rumble of shifting postures, a long pause, chalk scuffing and tapping on the board. Double digits.

Steve Robinson. I listened, my ears acute with fear and hope, and nothing save a distant choked laugh from the back of the room. I could not help it; insane with dread, I opened my eyes and peeked over the top of my forearm. Though I could only see two-thirds of the class I knew what the remaining one third looked like. There, grinning like porpoise, sat William Chen. A solitary hand raised high and proud for his best friend. And I hated him.

I don’t recall Pat Grady’s name even being called, so consumed with hate I was, and with the single scratch of the chalk on the board roaring in my ears.

Oh, William Chen, how I hated you that day. Had you not called my name I could have lived gladly, perhaps with suspicions and dread, but blissfully, even willfully ignorant of what I truly was. Had you not called my name I would not be the object of giggling lunchroom derision and the butt of merciless playground hilarity. I would not be numbered with the lowest and least and fools. William, with your hand held high that day, solitary in your acceptance of me, you killed me, and I hated you. You were my only friend and I hated you.

But now, William, I love you I know now you were truly a Christ to me. You were the gospel incarnate, a living word making straight the way of the Lord within me. You see, years later another came to me, one who also despised and rejected of men. He said he came to be the friend of the last and lowest, the sinners and outcasts. Like you, William, he called my name. Mine. He called my name and I could no longer avoid knowing the dreadful truth about myself that I feared. Through him I knew what I truly was. I knew by his call that I, too, was numbered with the lowly and the fools, the rejects and the sinners. He was not cool, nor was I, but this time it mattered not to me because I did not hate him.

This One was Jesus Christ, William. His call is a call of grace. His gospel is the story of a friend like you. It is of God who took on legs of flesh and fell in step with and, yes, fell in love with the outcasts. It is of one who was rejected by all but will not reject any. It is of one who seeks and finds and will not be ditched by those he chooses to befriend. It is of one whose presence means our death in this world but who turns out to be the only life there is. It is of a friend who will endure our hatred of him until we learn to love.

This is of my friend who, even knowing what I truly am, called my name one day. And on that day he raised his hands, nailed high and proud, in solitary acceptance of me.

William, meet Jesus, my other friend. And I love him.