Thus says the LORD: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water. Isaiah 35:4-7
This was the first reading this last Sunday, and when I heard it, I found myself gripped and shaken. I find myself gripped and shaken quite a bit lately, and frankly there is only so much of this I can take before I have to pay serious and often trembling attention to the heart that is trying to tell me something by its resonance.
So, I'm just going to say that this is a very challenging post for me to write.
That reading from Isaiah is not a new one to me. The images in Isaiah of the burning sands becoming pools, of streams in the desert, and of the blind, deaf and lame being healed have always caught my attention and set off a longing in my soul, like seeing a promised Beauty towards which I have long been traveling.
But this Sunday when I heard it, what struck me was not a wonderful Something that was somewhere else. It was a Someone here, now. That word, recompense, jumped out at me with great force.
For what could God possibly come with recompense to me? Does that concept even make sense?
....How can I dive into telling this story? Maybe head-first is the only way.
My father was very strange. I have few memories of him before my parents divorced; I was so young and he spent a lot of time commuting to distant towns and even distant states trying to stay employed as a teacher. He taught academic stuff when and because he had to, but at heart he was a band teacher and a choir director. Actually, that's not quite right. He loved music (trumpet and piano) but he hated teaching. He could not handle interacting with students, or anyone else for that matter. He was an alcoholic, but I'm not exactly sure what the chicken/egg progression was with the drinking and the social skills.
When I was 23 and had worked out forgiving him for what I had mistakenly understood as his attempt to ruin my life by his alcoholism, I took him out for his birthday. It was the only time, minus once when I was four, that I can remember being alone with him, without my brother. I arrived at his house, and presented him with a recording of some music I'd written. I remember him standing with his back to me for several minutes as we tried to carry on a conversation. He wasn't doing anything, he simply literally could not face me. He insisted we go to Denny's, because birthday people got free meals. It seemed he couldn't bear the thought of me wasting money on him. Later, we sat in his car and he told me things about himself I'd never known, including that he had been diagnosed with the same mental illness as my sister.
Just imagine for a moment being 23 years old and never realizing that your father is mentally ill. It didn't even hit me like a sudden flash of insight and realization, as if all the pieces of his strangeness suddenly made sense. All I can say is I had come to accept him, with great begrudgingness of course, in the way all children somehow look to their parents and accept them as the standard of normal. My "normal" seemed to require a confusing disconnect from what my senses told me.
My father's core belief, as communicated to me at least, seemed to be of his own worthlessness. He did his best to say he believed better of me, and in fact as a follower of the Twelve Steps, he occasionally would honor me with an apology for his drunken disruptions of my life. He in fact told me he loved me, and those words were otherwise never voiced in my family. Ever. I am sure now that his distancing himself from me was a way of wishing me "better than him" for my life. But I was left with an enormous sense of guilt for being intelligent, having friends, and achieving any sort of success, because I intuited these things would make him feel worse. Our mutual love of music was one of the only shards of commonality that lent itself to "conversation," if you can use that term for my one-word answers to the couple predictable questions he asked each week at our weird, scheduled visitations. It was a rickety bridge that never really succeeded in connecting us.
When my father died in 2001, I cried not because I would miss him as much as because I had always missed him. Potential for a positive relationship with him disappeared like a tiny round blue flame whose going out is only noticed by one who had hopes for it.
Life goes on. God has done wonderful things in my life for many years. But lately I am very struck by something new God is doing.
When I was a kid I started finding refuge for my life in God. But I also learned to use religious stuff as bricks from which to build a fortress to protect myself. God was faithful and patient, and kept watching for chinks in my fortress walls to try to bring me peace. I will never forget a comment my husband made to me before we were married, when I was a graduate Theology student. He called my study of Theology a "hobby." Hobby? I snorted with lightning bolts flashing from my eyes. These ideas, these truths about God are the most important things in the world, and I am giving myself to study them! How dare you think this is just something I amuse myself with! But in my heart I knew he was right, and it was like a stinging slap into a reality I barely knew. I played with ideas for comfort. Religious ideas, and sophisticated comfort, but, all the same...
I was very much like Simon and Garfunkel's rock. You know, a fortress deep and mighty who could not countenance much talk of friendship and who identified people with devastation. I truly loved God, but I wrapped myself tight in ideas about Him in an effort to make contact with His love for me in return. And of course, I did not succeed, because that isn't how it works.
The most basic Bible verses tells how it does work: Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. To encounter God's love we must encounter God's people. I've spent a lot of time acting like my father, standing in the room with my back towards everyone, for lack of knowing that one should turn around.
The shocker for me this year has been to experience this encounter with Christ afresh, and to be challenged by it in the deep parts of my personal history, so deep that after weeks or months I am still trying to catch my breath and allow myself to take it in.
I've been learning that Christ comes to us now in the same mode He did when He was born: the Incarnation. This physical world has a sacramental nature to it now, because Christ has entered it. The Church is the first sacrament, because it is the continuation of Christ's presence in time and space. We don't encounter God's love through ideas, we encounter it through people and events. This is what sacraments, what the Church, are all about.
A whole string of people have brought me to the experience of Christ I have today. My husband provides my baseline, enabling me to face out into the world. My son and daughter have each stretched my capacity for being human. But the Lord has also placed in my path a man who, like my father, is a musician. It is actually in the light of his face, so to speak, that I have been forced to take another look at what aspects of my past need to stop informing my present. I almost imagine my father looking down on me from the next life and saying, "Marie, I asked the Lord to find someone who would remind you enough of me so you'd know I was thinking about you, but who was able to show you a way of humanity I simply couldn't." Joe's ability to lead, to pull confidence out of us (ok, out of me), and his orientation towards people as the whole point of living just exude from him like leaves grow on trees. Or like streams and rivers flow... from the desert... making pools appear in the burning sands. It's an awful lot like how bread and wine are normal things until God gets hold of them. Actually, it's exactly like that. What is perfectly natural to him becomes a call, a sign, a promise of conversion to me.
This is what I call evidence. Evidence that God sees, that He knows, that He counts all of our hairs, saves each of our tears, and that He builds from dismantled fortress walls something completely different. A highway, I think, for our God (Is. 40:3). It is evidence that He is the Redeemer.
Thank you, Jesus, that you are my Redeemer.
P.S. The Father's Day after I wrote this post (June, 2010) was the first time I was able to feel happy, peaceful emotions for that celebration. I realized I am so much my father's daughter! Being able to accept him and understand how in fact he loved me, under all the weight and pain he carried, freed me to respect him and to sort of re-write my understanding of his place in my life. Thanks be to God.