The leaves of the pear tree are glossy and thick on the branches. The pears, a bit larger than walnuts, blush rose near their stems. On my window frame hangs the icon of a skinny naked Jesus. It is the crucifix of San Damiano from which St. Francis heard Jesus tell him to repair His church. This Jesus will not meet my gaze, but looks down some hellish tunnel of sorrow that hallows the space between us. His face is grey, mouth turned down. He is wearing a sheer loin cloth that looks like it came from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I am embarrassed for him in his poverty, his utter abasement. Cheer up Jesus! You look terrible. The pear tree is laden with fruit this year!
He doesn’t seem to notice the fruit, though he must see it – his eyes are wide open. Pinned like a specimen to the cross where under his arms are gathered stately mourners, he bleeds in tiny spurts from hands and feet. Angels hover over his head in neat rows. One appears to be performing a liturgical dance. No – that’s no angel. It must be Christ on his way to heaven, ascending in a crimson mandala.
The crucified Jesus just hangs there. Has he no shame? It is I who squirm, not he. For his eyes pin me at the intersection of poverty and abundance where I hang ripening in the Kansas sun in mid September. O Jesus, how long must you hang there suspended in misery, wearing us out with that sorrowful stare?
With an introit of barking dogs, the squirrels soon will come to pluck the half-ripe pears with their agile paws, taking one bite from each, and then carelessly tossing them to the ground to rot. Pray God to preserve us from squirrels that raid at dawn, chattering and chasing up and down the branches, tempting us into thinking that we have been made to be consumed by squirrels. Pray God that we may be left hanging, suspended by the heart’s stem, hidden in the leaves until we’ve ripened properly. And then, at the sharp insistent teeth of need open our flesh sweet and tender to one another.
Then maybe that sad Jesus will get off that rugged cross and come eat the fruit of summer with us.
We went to Koger’s Variety Store for back to school specials the other day and painstakingly put names on new back packs, glue bottles, scissors, and Big Chief Tablets. We watched Dad’s jaw drop as he wrote the check for new clothes at the mall. Then last evening we noted it was getting dark so early.
The air is uneasy, a mix of the eager hope of a brand new lunch box and the painful regret that summer is over and we never got around to making those doll clothes or camping out in the back yard to watch the stars all night.
Jeremiah laments with us, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.”(8:20) And we find ourselves at the intersection of poverty and abundance where the kingdom of God is conceived. Christians seem to perpetually stand on the threshold of a new school year clutching our shiny lunch boxes in one hand and the forsaken dreams of summer in the other. Holy ground is the paradoxical place where we simultaneously live in the Pentecost fullness of the gifts of the Spirit and the power of the Risen One; and in the crucifixion emptiness and cry for redemption of the Suffering One.
Jesus tells us that of God’s own will we have been brought forth to be a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures. Like the firstborn child or the firstborn of livestock, the first fruits to come ripe in a season were sacred to God. “When the grain is ripe, ready to be given up, at once the farmer puts in the sickle because the harvest has come,”(Mark 4:29) says Jesus. When one is ready to die, then harvest is come. How odd to be ripening for death, to be growing in Christ only to be handed over.
Just as the cross is the joining of two opposite directions, we live in the creative tension of the union of poverty and abundance. The tension is great, and it is hard for us to stay in the center of the cross for very long. We want resolution. We are tempted to heave ourselves down one polarity or the other. But if we can hold both the pear tree laden with fruit and our ongoing need to be nourished, if we can accommodate both the Risen Christ and the Crucified Savior, then we may discover, out of the union of these opposites, new fruit conceived in us which will heal and sustain the earth.
The barrage of demands and the voracious appetite of a culture that seeks to devour, rather than savor its sustenance undermine a quiet patient trust in God’s seasons of growth and harvest. What is it that finally brings us to fruition? Is it not the sharp insistent teeth of need, our own poverty and the poverty of one another, that finally allows us to fall sweet and tender into each other’s embrace?
At Toys R Us — Oh my, toys are us! In Proverbs Wisdom tells us, “At the beginning I was playing beside him like a little child and I was daily his delight.”(8:29), I listened to a tinkling recording of “It’s a Small World, Isn’t It?” while watching a lion and a lamb, a giraffe, a hopping kangaroo, and a waving bear shimmer across a plastic screen. Nearby Cicelia plinked a xylophone in plunking delight.
Then in the department store she asked, “Are shoes alive?”
Her elder sister exclaimed, “No!”
But she persisted, “I saw one talking on TV.”
“Let’s see,” I said, and leaning over a cordovan Bass loafer inquired, “Are you alive?”
“Oh mom,” Diana sighed.
We tried on grown-up perfume. When the saleslady offered to help, we told her we were searching for a fragrance that was really “us.” A spray, and Cicelia, pressing her hands to her cheeks, giggled, “Oh mom, I know this one is me!”
Before boarding the escalator we tried on hats. Cicelia, in a large brimmed red felt with ribbons, and Diana, in a small black veiled cloche, gazed at their images in the narrow mirror on the best day of my life.
We took six dresses from a rack for Diana to choose. Cicelia was her handmaiden, letting it be according to sister’s word, carrying, doing buttons and zippers, and holding up the blue satin fabric like a swatch of heaven against each dress.
Jesus, I thought you were suffering, but I saw streams of light pouring from your head like a fountain, spraying colors – blue, azure, hues of red, green, yellow – shimmering rainbows irradiating in spurts and gushes and rivers from a still small body sagging on a tree. All day I played plinking magic while you spun streams of green leaves, jungles, hay fields in spring, purple hyacinths, beets, cerulean seas, dolphins, berries, mountain mist, and a single red rose flame out of the chaste and tender aureole of your pain.
There in the dance of creation and dissolution, there where our need is met with the abundance of another and our abundance fills another’s lack,
there where it is a small world after all,
there is our joy made complete.
My heart overflows with a goodly theme
as I sing my ode to the King. Psalms 45:1
“The kingdom of God will come when men and women are willing to be penetrated by bliss.” Her words stopped me in my tracks and resonated within me like a struck gong. Little seemed blissful in my life at the time. It was 1973. I was living alone in an apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working at a job I hated, depressed, and hurting deeply. These words of artist M.C. Richards penetrated my defenses, self pity, and sense of worthlessness like a swift shining sword. For the first time in a season of sadness I felt hope.
This notion that the rule of God, the peaceable kingdom, the promise of wholeness for all people is a function, not of ridding the earth of evil, not of righting all injustice, not in overcoming human sin and limitation, but rather our willingness to receive goodness and mercy into our being has animated my life ever sense.
“Put down your sword!” Jesus tells Peter in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter, in a desire to protect his master, had taken a sword to the ear of one of the Roman soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus. However, Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. It is a kingdom already here, present wherever one finds the Son of the King. It is within you and everywhere like a seed, common and transforming as leaven. The winsome, disarming Jesus manifested that kingdom wherever he went and invited his followers to do the same.
Two disarming black labs, my Elijah and Jean Luc, who arrived with some house guests, have been teaching me about bliss. The dogs met for the first time a week ago with that deep hearted delight of Adam, when God introduced to him the woman he had made of Adam’s rib.
“Ah, at last a fit companion! Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” Adam exults. Though not recorded in the scripture, I figure Adam then wiggled all over just like my dog, Elijah.
The best-friends-forever have been inseparable – wrestling, play fighting, swimming, fetching, and sprawling, here and there, exhausted and snoring. Holding back nothing, these fellows have allowed bliss to penetrate and animate every cell of their bodies. Bliss surrounds, follows them, spills out of their eyes, and rolls off their shoulders. Even the cat has a spring in her step and an amused quality to her feline reserve.
So, friends, on this July day in Kansas I believe the great challenge of our time and all mortal time is holding our hearts open to the rain of grace, the reign of delight that ceaselessly offers itself to the whole creation.
But, you say, what about the lives and shores devastated by the oil spill? What about your own personal crisis and impasse, your unemployment, your grief, your illness? What about the suffering ones in Haiti?
Could you, will you, permit a tiny possibility of joy to penetrate your darkness, to kiss you on the face, to pounce upon you from behind? Maybe, before you know it, it will jump up into your lap and go to sleep in your arms.
To notice, delight in, and allow ourselves to be penetrated by the goodness of God, does not mean we ignore the places where that goodness is obscured or sorrow and pain exist. Rather, receiving bliss is what allows God to transform that vortex of darkness, greed, and hate through us. What evil and sin target and destroy is joy, because joy is a unfalliable sign of the presence and power of God.
The world does not need our disgust, outrage, anger, and rage. It needs the Kingdom of God with its unfailing hope, faith, and love. The world, sucked into the whirlpool of suffering, will not enter the Kingdom of God through our anger, retaliation, and swords, but through our bliss, the utter delight and lab-licious joy of being children of the Father of Goodness and the Mother of Mercy.
Let no one and no circumstance rob you of such a splendid birthright.
Posted in Christianity, Contemplation, prayer, Kingdom Tide, spirituality
Tagged bliss, evil, joy, kingdom of God, labs, Psalm 51: 1, suffering