Monday, May 02, 2016

Keeping my fork

I celebrated my birthday a few weeks ago, and my mother-in-law gave me this card with a sparkly three-dimensional fork on it. I'm seriously tempted to pull the fork off the card and try eating with it -- very princessy!

I laughed out loud when I opened the card because I knew just why she'd chosen it. Whenever she comes over for a meal and we're clearing up after the main course in preparation for dessert, we always mention "keeping your fork" -- referring to that expression "Keep your fork; the best is yet to come."

Our pastor used this expression a while back, too, citing a man who apparently asked to have a fork placed in his casket with him when he died, to signify his conviction that he knew the best was to come after his death. (In the same sermon, Pastor Mark also mentioned those little pink Baskin-Robbins spoons: how they allow us a small taste of a particular flavour to see if we like it -- and if we do, then we order a much larger amount. As I recall, his sermon was about how the restoration of the temple in the book of Nehemiah foreshadowed a bigger and better restoration still to come.)

I found out you can also get "Keep the Fork" bracelets: click here to see.  That actually doesn't look like a fork to me at all, though it could be useful for spaghetti. But I can't imagine wearing it on my wrist!

Who knew that cutlery was such a fertile subject for spiritual metaphors?

If you believe in the afterlife, as a Christian, then "The best is yet to come" holds true. In the Bible passage that Mom's funeral sermon was based on, Jesus says, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:3) As I listened to that sermon, I felt comforted knowing that Mom was now experiencing the very best: she was in the presence of Jesus, and her body was no longer ravaged by the cancer that took her from us so quickly.

But at the same time, "they're in a better place" arguments can sound hollow and trite, too -- especially when someone uses them in a clumsy effort to make us feel less sad at a time when sad is just what we should be feeling. When we've lost someone we love, it's not always easy to accept that the best place for that person to be is away from us. (And for the record: I hate cliches like "God needed her more" and "Heaven must have needed another angel.")

Another problem with focusing solely on what's yet to come is that we may fail to appreciate the beauty and significance of life here and now. If what comes after is all that matters, why not just trash our planet? All we can do is grit our teeth and endure this second-rate life until our "real" life starts. And I just don't see either of those as an option for a Christian. Yet I don't necessarily buy the "Life is short; eat dessert first" option either: seeking only short-term pleasure without taking the long view seems selfish and myopic.

I often find that something I'm currently reading speaks directly to the subject I'm pondering in my writing. I've been re-reading Jerry Sittser's beautiful book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. In it he talks about how Jesus' resurrection defeated death so that death no longer has the last word: life -- eternal life -- does.

Of course that is in the future. But we live in the present, which is often full of sorrow and pain. Suffering engenders a certain degree of ambivalence in those of us who believe in the resurrection. We feel the pain of our present circumstances, which reminds us of what we have lost; yet we hope for future release and victory. We doubt, yet try to believe; we suffer, yet long for real healing; we inch hesitantly toward death, yet see death as the door to resurrection. This ambivalence of the soul reveals the dual nature of life. We are creatures made of dust; yet we know we were made for something more. A sense of eternity resides in our hearts. Living with this ambivalence is both difficult and vital. It stretches our souls, challenging us to acknowledge our mortality, and yet to continue to hope for final victory.

The word ambivalence -- which he uses three times in this short paragraph -- is what struck me most. Like all of the most profound truths, this one is a paradox. If we acknowledge this "dual nature of life," which suffering often forces us to do, then yes: we do look forward to what is to come, like a person anticipating the best part of a meal. But we also try to embrace and be grateful for what we've been given here and now -- both because of and in spite of the fact that it won't last forever.

My birthday cards are still up on the mantel; I'll have to put them away soon. But I think the fork image is going to stick with me. It's a good reminder of the in-between-ness of our days and the challenge of living in current reality and future hope at the same time.

Monday, April 25, 2016

"We're flying!"

This past weekend I watched this YouTube video that Ann Voskamp shared on her blog as part of her weekend collection of uplifting content.

It's a 5-minute video of Irish pilot Michael McMahon taking his little brother Robbie on his first airplane flight.

 There's not much to it, really. There are no "YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS AT 3:12" or "WHEN I SAW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, MY JAW LITERALLY DROPPED!" moments ... no death-defying rolls or flips in the air ... no emergency landing. Still, I bet that once you've watched it, you'll want to see it again.

I think what's so special about this clip is that it captures all of the good things in life:
  • Adventure. What could be more exciting for two brothers than flying in a plane?
  • Companionship. I love it when little Robbie says things like "Booza-booza" and Michael says "Booza-booza" right back. They've clearly had these conversations before.
  • Trust. Note Robbie's body language. He never flinches, never tenses up and holds on, never seems fearful of a noise or movement; he just enters into the experience without question, happily assuming that whatever his big brother does will be just fine.
  • Patience. Robbie keeps saying "Mikey?" "Mikey?" and his brother answers patiently every time. (I can relate: well, to the repetition part, if not always the patient reply part.)
  • Simplicity. Robbie is thrilled to be in the plane, but also looks forward just to having dinner with Daddy and Mikey.
  • Love. That's obvious throughout, but they still say it in words: "I love you." "I love you too, buddy." So sweet!!!
  • Joy. The expressions on their faces at 1:40 say it all: life is good when you're doing something fun with somebody you love.
I hope you enjoy this video as much as I did. And remember: "Sing a happy happy happy happy happy happy song."

Friday, April 22, 2016

"We've been there for you"

Last week I went with Allison, her friend, and her friend's mom to a concert here in town by the Canadian group Hedley.  It was a great show by a very talented band. I remember watching Canadian Idol in 2004 when 20-year-old Jacob Hoggard reached the third-top spot before being eliminated. Twelve years later he heads one of the most popular groups in Canada -- and apparently loves every minute of it. The best entertainers create a rapport with their fans, and Hedley did that: making jokey calls from a fan's cell phone, tossing out picks and water bottles, and hauling out what looked like a massive SuperSoaker to blast canisters of T-shirts into the crowd.

Then at one point Jacob Hoggard sat down at the edge of the stage to chat intimately (!) with the 5,000 or so concert-goers. He thanked the fans for supporting the band for 10 years, buying the concert tickets and merchandise. "You've been with us all along," he said. "You've been there for us. And I want you to know -- we've been there for you, too."

The crowd went crazy. But his words gave me pause, and I'm still thinking about them. What did he mean by that? In what meaningful way could he assert that he and his bandmates had been there for their fans? The person in the crowd struggling with school or bullying or addiction or anxiety or whatever isn't going to call up Hedley for support; the person celebrating a graduation or an engagement or marriage wouldn't expect them to be a direct part of that experience.

But when I thought back to when I was a teen, his words made more sense. I never went to concerts, but the musicians and songs I listened to on the radio formed the soundtrack of my teenage life, with all its ups and downs: the Bee Gees, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac. I might not have identified with (or even understood) all the lyrics, and it never occurred to me to call on Barry Manilow for support in a time of crisis -- but these musicians were a huge part of my life. I remember one Friday evening (and if I refused a babysitting gig, then I apologize to my friends the Stretches) I was firmly resolved to stay home. Andy Gibb was going to be the guest star on Donny & Marie, and there was no way I was going to miss that. He was so good-looking! And he had such awesome feathered hair! I was devoted. (I suppose you could say I was there for Andy.)

So I think Jacob Hoggard was tapping into some strong emotions when he talked about being there for the fans, especially younger people. Maybe he was recalling his own youthful days, the music he played or listened to, how that formed the soundtrack of his life and gave him a place to put his dreams and longings -- and he wanted to give that back to his fans.

But then I got thinking about how Christianity is also focused on being with and being there for. How one of Jesus' names is Immanuel, "God With Us" ... how Jesus promises his disciples, "I am with you always" ... and how God says, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you." Those are just a few of many examples in the Bible. But what does that mean? Is God just a familiar, pleasant soundtrack to our daily activities? Is God just a container or shape for our longings -- a projection of our desires? Is that all "God with us" means?

Right in the middle of these ponderings, I was reading Dallas Willard's Hearing God, and I came upon this passage in a chapter entitled "Never Alone":

... when our first child was born[,] I realized painfully that this incredibly beautiful little creature we had brought into the world was utterly separate from me. Nothing I could do would shelter him from his aloneness in the face of time, brutal events, the meanness of other human beings, his own wrong choices, the decay of his own body and, finally, death.
     It is simply not within human capacity to care effectively for others in the depths of their life and being or even to be with them in finality -- no matter how much we may care about them. If we could only really be with them, that would almost be enough, we think. But we cannot, at least in a way that would satisfy us. For all of us the words of the old song are true: "You must go there by yourself."
     That would be the last word on the subject but for God. He is able to penetrate and intertwine himself within the fibers of the human self in such a way that those who are enveloped in his loving companionship will never be alone ... The completely adequate word of faith in all our sorrows and all our joys is "Immanuel, God with us."

When I read this, it brought into focus everything I'd been thinking about. I loved how Willard spoke so confidently -- and obviously from personal experience -- about that intertwining of God's heart with ours, that intimate relationshipGod is more than just a soothing presence in the background while we do our homework or an idealized symbol of all we long for. God is Creator, Father and Mother, Friend, Provider, Healer. God is with us in a way that no human person can be, and in ways we often don't even realize. He never leaves us alone.

So of course Jacob Hoggard's words to his audience weren't "the last word on the subject." He and his band mates can't possibly be there for thousands of people in anything but the most indirect and superficial way. Yet I was still moved by what he said because he was recognizing that need we all have to be acknowledged and loved, and connecting with that need in a way that wasn't self-serving, but warm and appreciative. And that's what all of the best artists do: connect with the human heart. They can't provide ultimate fulfillment, but they can point the way -- sometimes directly, sometimes just by articulating what we all long for: someone to be there for us, so that we're not alone.

That night, Jacob got me thinking about God.

 photo: (free photos)