Advent, Week Two: Peace

Comfort, comfort my people!
    says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying:
    “Call out!”
And another said,
    “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
    all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up
    and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
    the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.  (Isaiah 40:1-11, CEB) 

No justice, no peace!” we have heard many times this year.  “Peace” has come to mean “silence,” “acceptance,” “docility.”  “Peace” has come to mean not the absence of strife but the ignorance of it, the half-closed eyes that cannot or will not see it. The women of the Church do not want that kind of peace.

“Peace” is that which is often “passed” in church services, a synonym for greeting the others seeking peace in that hour.  Yet how often do we bring peace into a service, no matter our gender, in the heartache of a broken world?  How often do we have it to give?  If we are not at peace, if we are not still within our souls, how shall we pass anything but turmoil to our neighbors?  Shall we simply sit silent while greetings flow around us?  For women, the silence is both no option and the only option.  “Peace” is what many say as a way of saying, “stop talking.”  The chafing bonds of Paul’s injunctions spoken in a different time of specific context close women’s mouths in many denominations and they are told to be at peace, to have faith in this God-blessed structure.  “Peace” has become shorthand for a false tranquility that many women are told to feel so as not to be overly emotional, so as not to be disruptive, so as not to overturn the idea that women are somehow inherently gentler, more peaceful.

The Church must stop conflating peace with submission.  The Church, here in the expectant waiting of Advent with breaths caught in hope of all that the coming birth might do, must comfort its people, must “speak compassionately to Jerusalem” and to every city, to every nation, to every woman that “her compulsory service is ended.”  The Church must recognize that all are invited to see the glory of God, that there is neither male nor female in Christ, that the vision of the heavens is to see the valleys and the downtrodden raised up.

Peace is not silence.  Peace is not acquiescence.  Peace is not the status quo remaining unexamined or unchanged.  Peace is the active inclusion of the full body of Christ, peace is the ability to live without fear, peace is the solid truth that equity is part of God’s vision for God’s creation.  Eden was at peace when woman was included and valued; the false hierarchy of the Fall has no place in God’s heaven.  Peace comes when voices are raised to challenge the culture in which the Church exists, taking on the songs of the season like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because people of faith will not be complicit in the denigration of women’s choices.  Peace comes when male leaders, both lay and ordained, empower women within their congregations to speak God’s word as pastors, liturgists, teachers, and board members. Peace comes when we challenge the sacred texts speaking of sin and “she” in one sentence; peace comes when we teach and learn that women are not inherently more sinful than men no matter how many times female pronouns are attached to wicked cities or abstract ideas.  Peace is something that we make happen; it does not come on its own but requires our midwifery as the people of God actively birthing peace.

Peace cannot be a command from another who does not acknowledge the anger, the sorrow, the pain, the distance held within; peace must be a choice to be calm in our very souls because we actively decide to rest.  Peace comes as shalom, a wholeness of our very selves.  To the women of the Church, to the women of the world who wait in strife this second week of Advent says “peace” not as a directive but as a gift as yet undelivered.  “Peace,” it offers, knowing that peace has not come just yet, that action is still required though weary hearts are worn by the howling winds of all that is not peaceful.

May you find peace because you have chosen, in the full power of your own agency and value, to receive it as the gift of a God fully aware of all that is not at peace yet.  May peace, like hope, be your armor and strength.

Advent, Week One: Hope

Happy Advent, Reader!  This is a balm for me this year, to return to this time of waiting and being present in the hope of Christ’s birth.  It is important to me to observe it not only in my offline life but also here with you.  However, I bend to the reality of being in seminary; so, instead of my usual habit of observing Advent on this blog through the lens of various Christmas carols, I’m using this space to share a project assigned to me in my Women and Religion class—a challenge to engage the question of women’s religion and to create something that represents the fruits of that engagement.  I’ve written an Advent devotional corresponding to the four weeks and then Christmas Day (which is on a Sunday this year, which makes me terrifically happy) and I will be posting that through this season.  It is, I admit, a departure from my usual style because I am writing it for a specific course; I welcome, as ever, your commentary on it.  Please know that I mean this for both men and women, so don’t feel as though I’m leaving you out, Reader.  No matter your gender, you will encounter women and religion—and the Spirit will be with you in each encounter, delighting in the diversity of Her creation.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand.  So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  
(Romans 13:11-14, ESV)

It is the first week of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year and a time of waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth into the world.

Women know something about waiting.

Women through history have waited for recognition, have waited for equality, have waited for respect, have waited for a sense of safety, have waited for not only culture but the Church to see the gifts and talents they have to offer.  In this season of Advent where new political realities have already come to the United States and all over the world, many women feel their waiting for all of this has been prolonged yet again.  They feel that the slouch toward Bethlehem suddenly got longer—or was halted in the middle of the road entirely.  This first week of Advent brings the word “hope,” lighting the first candle to show us that the darkness is never complete.  But what hope does God’s Church offer to women, the often voiceless participants at the very heart of the institution?  What hope does God offer when it seems that we are waiting for liberation that will never come?

Hope comes in that single candle flame.  Hope comes in knowing that the fight is not over, that this is a new year and a new beginning, that neither we nor God are done with the vision of a world that recognizes, respects, and encourages both men and women.  Hope comes as Church leaders like Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne call for the traditional guard of evangelicalism to step aside and create space for women, for people of color, for the new generations, for all who are not currently being heard.  Their recent editorial in the New York Times, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead, asserts that “we are not willing to let our faith be the collateral damage of evangelicalism” by excluding the voices God has called to speak.

Hope comes in devotionals like Fuck This Shit that refuse to be quiet or “lady-like” about the outrageous grace of God permeating a world that seems darker than ever before.  Hope comes in the ongoing conversation of gender and racial justice sparked by #StayWokeAdvent, a tag originally created in 2014 as a response to the outrage after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Hope comes in the call to everyday action through this season to change the world one person at a time, laid out in calendars like this:

Perhaps, for the women of the Church battered by the destructive force of a patriarchal system built into our religion and now reinforced in our representatives, hope comes from disengaging.  Hope comes from finding the people who respond to you as the purposeful creation you are.  Hope comes from privileging time with them over those who do not honor your value.  Hope comes from refusing to continue walking in the fear created by those who see only flesh and object; hope comes from waking into the fervent belief that God outlasts all governments.  In this season of Advent we wait, but it is not passive.  We wait in the active belief that God has come and the grounded hope that God will return.  Our year hinges on a spectacular birth made possible by a woman and her willingness to bear the impossible to birth the incredible.  We wait fully awakened, shaking the sleep from our eyes and the lethargy from our limbs to stand and say we have hope in the God Who made us, in the promise that righteousness will reign.

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, wrote into the tension of waiting in just such a time as this:

Friends in Christ, this is not an invitation to naiveté. People’s lives, livelihoods, security and well-being are at stake….We must stand against the meanness and hatred that is upon us. We must stand for what is best in us as People of God….We must stand against bigotry, hate and discrimination in all forms and settings. We must proclaim from our pulpits the Good News that overcomes hatred and fear. We must be quick to confess our own sin and places of complicity and vigilant against all that diminishes the worth of any individual….So, I urge all who follow the Christ to remember who we are in this time. We are the People of God called to proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are the People of God called to create the Beloved Community of Christ. We are People of God commanded to love as Jesus loved. We are People of God created to be the kingdom of God envisioned in the Advent prophecy and fulfilled by Jesus. This is our vision, our hope, our prayer, our opportunity, our commitment.

May our hope layer itself as the armor of the light as we step into this expectation, this waiting, this Advent.

 

Celebrity Jesus

I wonder if His contemporaries were ever disappointed by Jesus.

I don’t mean the folks who traveled with Him every day, the ones who of course were going to be disappointed by the times He didn’t get the nuance of the way they said they were fine when they weren’t or when He was too busy healing the crowds to see they were exhausted.  He may have been perfect, but He wasn’t a mind reader—and keeping His disciples always happy/comfortable wasn’t the point of His ministry, anyway.

I mean the folks who came to see Him, the ones who woke in the weird space when the sun has kind of come up but only enough to make the world that yellowish grey, the ones who walked to see this rabbi Who was becoming such a sensation that He drew huge crowds without a single ad on YouTube.  I wonder if they heard Him speak—itself a feat in the days before microphones and speakers, people passing along the words they could make out like a giant and incredibly important game of Telephone as Jesus pushed up His outdoor voice from His oh-so-human diaphragm—and then clamored to meet Him, to have Him heal their ills, to have Him listen to their stories (which is a different kind of healing).

And I wonder if they got up close to this traveling powerhouse and were surprised to find that His hair was going grey (it happens to some of us early, okay) or that His face was much more lined and plain than it had seemed from afar or that His clothes were shabby even for an itinerant rabbi.  I wonder if some of them came on one of the days He got overwhelmed and got in a boat and left while the people still clamored for His attention and they stood in shock, disoriented on the shore.

We may be a society and era who invented the technology for the ways we obsess over various celebrities, but we most certainly aren’t the first to get close to the people we shoved onto pedestals and be disappointed to find that they are, after all, still human.

I was thinking about this after having gone to see a Person of Importance a couple of weeks ago; she’s a Church type of some note (in Church circles) and has a lot of great things to say.  She was keynoting a retreat/conference I attended and said some really brilliant and thought-provoking things.  She also said some things I’m not all that down with.  And she said that she was in no way perfect and wasn’t, really, even all that personable.

She was right.  She knows herself and her gifts well enough to know that her true and engaged self has to be reserved for her congregation at home where she can go deep with her parishioners and that trying to create five-minute relationships with the crowds of people who want to take pictures with her and have her sign books for them simply isn’t going to go well.  In person, she does come across as rather brusque and uninterested, not because she doesn’t care but just because that’s how she’s learned to draw her boundaries.  Also, she’s a human and not perfect and maybe is uninterested because she’s tired and frustrated and running low on grace after the five hundredth signature.  It was fascinating to hear her unequivocally state that this would be the case and yet still see people after her various talks be disappointed by the reality of her—she’s such a good theologian, she tells such great stories of love and mercy, how could she be so sharp?  How could she not listen?

Maybe this was part of what Jesus was doing when He kept telling the disciples not to spread it around that He was the Messiah.  The whole God-in-human-form thing only had that gut-punch impact, after all, if there was a gut to punch—if God was human and not wearing humanity like a clearance-rack coat (as in Docetism).  We want, we need to believe in the incarnation and its reassurance that God understands why we’re skipping church to deal with the flu, that our human bodies both limit and free us to His service.  A huge chunk of early Church history was pushing against the idea that Jesus was some percentage of human or divine in favor of His being 100% both always, all the time.  Jesus being anything less was intolerable even though the alternative—that God the divine being was willingly living as a human and yet still had God’s divine nature—was outrageously improbably and more than a little weird.

But we who come thousands of years after Jesus’ ascension don’t have to be disappointed by His homeliness or His inability to get why it drives us nuts that He always leaves His sandals just that far away from the wall of wherever we’re staying.  We can put Him back on that pedestal as the perfectly loving peacemaker Who said groovy things about kindness and tolerance.

And I wonder, would we be disappointed if we got the chance to get close to this celebrity Jesus?  Can you over-idealize a perfect Being?  Or can you just get rattled that your idea of perfection doesn’t match Who He actually is, which means that maybe you—maybe don’t have as much of a lock on perfection as we’d thought?

 

 

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:25-27, NIV)

Greetings from the Wicket Gate

In case you’re wondering where that is, here’s a short explanation.  As Magister so rightly pointed out, everywhere I go is the Land of Pilgrims, but I’m definitely in a different geographical spot than I was a week ago.  And you still don’t need to know exactly where that is; as ever with this blog, I want what I’m doing to be more important than who I am or where I’m living.  I also want you, Reader, to be able to map your own pilgrimage onto parts of mine, not because we’re doing the same thing but because any similarities our paths have may help us understand each other and this God Who sees the whole of it that much better.

So I’m here, and I realize that the metaphorical name for it doesn’t quite fit; as with any borrowing of metaphors, it’s not perfect.  I’m at seminary (at long last, you might be saying) and to say that it is the only narrow way to the King’s Highway would be a terrible miscarriage of what seminary is and what the King is expecting of His people.  But for me, Reader, this is a start to the journey even as it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing and what God has been doing through me.

For now, I wanted to check in and let you know I’d safely arrived; thank you for your prayers and hopes for me in the transition, as it was quite a whirlwind.  I’m now mostly unpacked (no one needs this many towels, where did they all come from?) and convinced that I’m never allowed to have a full-sized house since I accrue stuff at an alarming rate if I have space for it.

And if I don’t.

It’s funny how one of my primary desires is to find home here—and, equally, to accept that I won’t.  My heart was left behind in the Land of Pilgrims and I don’t see that changing any time soon; I lost it in church this morning as I drowned under the first wave of homesickness for my family, my congregation, my rhythms and rites.  Yet even in that moment of missing people and place so much it hurt to breathe, the service reminded me that God goes where I go—rather, I go where God goes because He was there way ahead of me, waiting.  Communion here still involves bread and grape juice and the challenge of community just as it has in so many churches not only in this country but in others.  Music here—some of it the same that we sang at camp, which I think was God being rather heavy-handed in underlining the continuity—still has so much variety and breadth and is still calling me to pay attention to God’s presence in this sacred space.  The Bible here is still God’s word, and Jesus goes by the same name here.  Yes, it’s a whole different world and my home church doesn’t have a jazz trumpet in the praise band, but God is God is God is God no matter where I am, geographically or spiritually.

What an incredible gift.

And in the midst of all this change, I’m still connected to that family, that home; technology, that hated love of mine, has ensured that Interpreter, Prudence, and several others have been at my very fingertips while I navigate orientation and moving in and unpacking and job interviews and all manner of things that are oh-so-daunting.  The relationships will change, for sure, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled about that, but change does not have to equal challenge.  In fact, having them come along for this adventure can make the relationships that much more multi-dimensional.

And you, Reader, come with me.  No matter where you are, we remain in this corner of the internet together—and I can’t tell you what a gift it is to know that you are still here exploring with me, cheering me on, sharing parts of yourself and accepting these offered parts of myself.  Thank you for being my travelling companion, Reader.

And hang on.  This gate is going to be pretty intense.

 

 

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it.”  (Matthew 7:13, AMP)

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Another.

We don’t really talk about shootings anymore, we talk about another shooting, another bombing, another loss of what could have been.  Our hearts fill and our stomachs empty at having another death before we’ve truly internalized the last one, before we’ve pulled our flags back to the tops of their staffs, before we’ve understood what happened.  Our hearts are hardening, thicker than Pharaoh’s as we hear the tears on 24-hour loops until we cannot hear anymore, we cannot cry anymore, we cannot know any more.  Our hearts have broken so many times that the pieces no longer stay together, even with the strongest glue, the hardiest tape.

How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?  (Psalm 13:2a)

I have no more answer for these, no more energy to refute those who say that black lives cannot matter unless we bury them under the suffocating banners proclaiming that all lives matter, that surely proclaiming love of everyone means that everyone is loved.  I cannot continue speaking when my throat is dry, my voice rasping from saying that I am not anti-police for being anti-police-brutality, that I can mourn the five dead officers from Dallas even as my sorrow burns into anger for Philando Castile, for Alton Sterling.  I do not understand how better to fight a system from which I benefit, in which I am uncertain of what to change but certain that change must happen.

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.  (Psalm 13:3-4)

Yet to You, o God, I return if only because I have nowhere else I can think of going.  Interpreter opened the sanctuary today for a prayer vigil and I took lunch to go because I wanted that safe space to grieve, to massage my hardened heart back into feeling.  Few lights were on, allowing the sun streaming through the stained glass to provide illumination, allowing shadows to linger on the edges of the room.  Monastic chant played quietly as he lit one candle for the shooter(s) of Dallas for that person, too, is God’s creation.  Only a handful of us were able to come to this space and we lit candles for the officers, for the survivors still fighting, for the civilians.  The lighter proved difficult and so we used one of the acolyte candlelighters, bathing bruised souls in the old, old traditions of the Church and the shifting drops of flame.  We wept and prayed for all that is not changing, for the courage to continue believing and acting as though change is truly possible.

Oh that my head were waters,
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
    for the slain of the daughter of my people!  (Jeremiah 9:1)

There will be no post next week, Reader, because I am going back into the world of camping to act as counselor once more with middle schoolers.  Prayer is most welcome for me and how much counseling costs me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, but also for these kids.  How do I spend a week assuring them of the love of God when we all wait with shortened breath for when it is our loved ones, ourselves who die?  How do I tell them of God’s power and presence when our streets are not safe, our wars have crossed the seas to nestle in our beds and minds, our fears of those who are Different Than Us cause us to deny our own eyes and say there is no problem, there is no injustice, there is no reason to say that some lives seem to matter less than others?

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  (Psalm 13:5)

I preached last week on the places we expect God to give us great miracles, show-stopping spectacles of power in proof of the movement of the Spirit; I preached on how we cannot make God fancy, how ours is sometimes a God Who is not in the wind or the thunder but in the still, small voice.

Reader, sit with me a moment that we might breathe together, that we might listen for that quiet Presence, that we might remember hope when it feels there are only bullets and pain, that we might light a candle to guide our way.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow—
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
 (Great Is Thy Faithfulness, stanza 3)

 

 Thus saith Jehovah: A voice hath been heard in Ramah, the wail of very bitter weeping,—Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are not.  (Jeremiah 31:15, DARBY)

Crazy Little Thing Called Church

Sorry this is rather late today, Reader; I’m in the middle of Annual Conference, which is kind of the United Methodist equivalent of a state senate session.  Delegates from all over my state gather together for a handful of days to worship together, to work through legislation together (we are a human organization, after all; it might be nice to say we should just live in harmony, but those of us who have read Lord of the Flies know that doesn’t quite work out on its own), and to be the Church together—in all the ups and downs that entails.

And it has its ups and downs.  There are many ups.  We had fabulous worship this morning, complete with some slam poetry psalms that made me ache to write such power myself and an address by the bishop that ended in her singing my dead grandfather’s favorite hymn—double trouble, in terms of emotional connection.  We were challenged (wonderfully!) to step outside of our worship comfort zones, to truly be present in praise, and it fed my soul when I didn’t even realize how hungry I was.  In the afternoon, we had fabulous worship of a totally different kind, working into my denomination’s recent commitment to repentance and reconciliation in regards to indigenous peoples and the part the Church has played in their genocide.  Powerful stories were told, the stories that only get sideline paragraphs in U.S. history books because we as the “greatest nation on earth” don’t want to see the ways that we lied and stole and broke ourselves and others in climbing to the top; we don’t want to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect, that we are not nothing if we are not first, best, spotless.  We as a conference committed ourselves to going back for that one sheep, that one tribe, that one person we have left out on the margins because we cannot do anything else if we are truly claiming Christ’s example.

And there have been downs:  the anger and tension over the General Conference (global, every-four-years gathering; kind of a UN summit meeting for the United Methodist Church, in a way) decisions and lack of decisions simmer under everything.  There are some pastors and laity—“right” and “left” in terms of polity—who continue to push rhetoric and motions that needlessly jab at those who do not agree, who continue to demand words that wound in the name of clarity and accountability.  Truly, Reader, these piss me off.  I don’t care whether you’re left, right, or center; I don’t care how angry you are about whether the Church is or is not doing what you are so sure is right.  To shove people’s faces and spirits in language and rules which don’t bring demonstrable change but do highlight how right and godly you are and how wrong and prejudiced “they” are is just selfish.  We skitter, in some ways, on the edge of schism—not because the vast majority of the UMC wants to split but because those at the extreme ends keep pushing their opponents’ buttons like four-year-old children cruelly searching for the breaking point.

Capture

Conference is exhausting; perhaps it is more so this year, coming off of being in a wedding last weekend and having another wedding in the middle of things this weekend and dealing with work and transition in and through.  Conference is exhausting because it’s one long networking session:  this, barring serious changes, will be the conference to which I return after I finish seminary, so these are my future colleagues and bosses and employees and congregation members.  These are the people with whom I will serve on committees, to whom I will turn when I need a hand in my church.  Conference is exhausting because I wear uneasily the mantle of my future career even while I am at present a lay representative.  Conference is exhausting because it’s non-stop, and my introvert self needs a day off.

Yet, crazily, I do not regret taking time off of my paying job to do this work.  I believe from the bottoms of my feet that it matters, even on the days when I sit in a meeting listening to people question whether or not parliamentary rules allow someone to make that kind of motion now or if it has to be introduced by a separate action.  I don’t know why Crazy Little Thing popped into my head earlier today, but I’m running with it.  No, I don’t advocate attempting to be in a romantic relationship with the Church (for one thing, Valentine’s Day is going to be disappointing every year), but that sense of not really understanding but going for it anyway is totally applicable.  Conference—Church administration in general—is weird and inexplicable and tiring and yet something that (for some) is also energizing and fascinating.

And is sometimes something you need to leave for a while, get on your motorbike and get away from until you’re ready.  I’m glad of having another wedding this weekend to break up Conference for me because I, too, am not totally in love with what the Church is doing to itself at the moment.  I am frustrated with what we’re not saying, with the assumptions we’re making, with the petty skirmishes of power and elevation that distract us from our purpose as God’s people to be light to the world.  Yet after the ride, after shaking off the frustration in the humid summer night air, I still pray that all of us can return to our seats the next day willing to look at what we do and see it to the glory of God.

And may we be brave enough to call ourselves out if it is not.  What a crazy thought.

 

 

Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”  Paul and Barnabas took sides against these Judeans and argued strongly against their position.  The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and several others from Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to set this question before the apostles and the elders.  The church sent this delegation on their way.  (Acts 15:1-4a, CEB)

People of the Books: The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“How on earth, Christiana, does this book belong on a blog about Christian spirituality?  It’s only an old nursery tale about a rabbit.  There’s no mention of God anywhere.”

True.  I think we both know that God doesn’t so much wait around to be mentioned, though.  Here’s the thing about The Velveteen Rabbit; I don’t actually understand this book.

I mean, I get the story line well enough—before Toy Story (but after Pooh and Pinocchio), there was the Velveteen Rabbit being a toy with its own worries and fears and desires to be loved and useful and fun.  But there’s this central concept in this story about being Real, and I struggle so hard with what that actually means.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a book loaned me by Interpreter, who has had me read it twice and I’ve read it a third time trying to understand what on earth is so important about it.  My first response is yay, that’s adorable, what a delightful snippet of childhood.  I remember having that one toy as a child that was not a toy but my best friend. It knew my secrets, it shared my adventures, it understood the days that I needed to not talk at all but simply be there together. Giving that toy a voice, a heart, a love for its owner and a desire to be Real—what a fantastic concept!

But I still didn’t really get what “Real” actually meant, which kind of drove me nuts because this book seems to mean a lot to people and I didn’t know why.  So I read it, and re-read it, and mulled it over, and thought about it when that one important page popped up on Facebook pages:

And I still didn’t get it.

Anyone who’s ever taught anything knows that you understand something so much better when you have to explain it to someone else.  I was out to lunch with Discretion the other day and somehow she and I got onto appearance.  I’m not beautiful by American societal standards, and in some ways neither is she.  This is a hard thing because we are taught to want to be beautiful—but that’s another conversation.  In this conversation, I was talking about how it’s okay that I’m not beautiful because my friends like her don’t actually look at me, not my physical self; they see the me who is their friend, the conglomerate of all the memories that we have together.

And I actually stopped mid-sentence because that is what it is to be Real.

I have the feeling there’s more to it than the physical appearance thing—I don’t pretend to have totally figured this book out.  But I am Real to God:  no matter whether my ears have lost their pinkness or my nose has fallen off or my fur has been rubbed to dullness, I am Real to God.  No matter whether I don’t have real hind legs and can’t actually hop, I am Real to God.  No matter whether I have totally fucked up the life I was given and the body I was given and am not at all like the human I was supposed to be, I am Real to God because God sees past all of that.  God loves me enough that I am Real.

Because I am Real to God, and because God teaches us to see other creations as Real, I am also Real to some other people.  I am Real to Discretion, and probably to Watchful, Hopeful, Magister, and Interpreter.  They don’t see the unkempt body or the mismatched sins; they see me, their friend whom they love.  And they are Real to me because I see them as the people I love with whom I have shared many adventures and long conversations and moments of holding tightly when I was afraid.

This is tough stuff.  The Skin Horse (who has been Real for a very long time and is quite wise) says, “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”  Either I am not Real all the time or the Skin Horse got that one wrong, because I very much mind being hurt.  This is perhaps why I get super stuck at the Rabbit’s conclusion when he’s been thrown away with all the other scarlet-fever-infested toys:

Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?  (33)

I’m still there, to be honest, because I am still velveteen and I want very much to stay in what I know.  My family loves me and I have to leave them, and that sucks, Reader.  That sucks a lot and I am in a lot of conversation with God about what that’s going to look like because what use was all that relationship-building if it’s to end like this?

The hope, perhaps, that it does not end like this.  The Rabbit meets a fairy and the story goes on; some day, some far off day, I will meet a Savior and the story will go on.  In the meantime will change, and there will be many other meetings in between now and then, and I may be altered by the next pieces of my life such that one of my current friends may see me and not quite recognize me but think, “That woman looks just like a friend I used to have…”

But I will never stop being Real because one you become Real, you can’t become unreal again.  God made me Real long before I had any idea what that meant because God really loved me—loves me still.  So to God, and to some of my friends, I cannot be ugly—in spirit or physicality—because they understand.

At least, I think that’s what it means.  The things we write for children are often hardest for us adults to grasp.

 

 

Rating:  4/5 stars  5ac3e-1056599-golden-four-star-rating-border-poster-art-print