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.
Some years ago I wrote a Readers’ Drama for Pentecost, called “The Feast.” It is set in a small rural Kansas town at a shelter house in the city park. The people have gathered for a covered dish dinner. Before eating, however, they wait for the Holy Spirit. The drama is an imaginative exploration of the meaning of the Holy Spirit. Here is a scene from The Feast.
Act Three: He Breathed on Them and Said Receive the Holy Spirit.
Scene One: The Inhalation
Breath of God
Spirit of God
The wind brought the dust, like a thick dark cloud. It came up the hill and clung to their arms and legs, the backs of their necks, and drifted around their ankles. The dust knew its own. And with the dust came the seeds, pollens, spores, insects, and all manner of boring, digging, thrusting, grasping things, all looking for a place to root.
Across the world from the shelter house someone was weeping. The wind brought the sound. It carried the earth’s suffering – the scrapings, the debris, the underbrush, the grass cuttings, dandelion fluff, paper cups, plastic milk bottles, and old newspapers – scuttling down alleys and streets of cities and villages.
All that was loose came whistling up that hill, swirling around the shelter house:
a severed hand
a letter that said: Where were you? I waited as long as I could.
an invoice: Amount due – $30.00 for services rendered. This is our last notice.
a grocery list someone had scribbled on the back of a Time Magazine subscription card: apples, bread, quail, milk, honey, Easy-Off
a live chicken riding in a red plastic wastebasket with the words, “You’re in good hands with All State,” on the side
and a trailing scream like a long red scarf.
On the end of the scream like a long red scarf was a story of children with flies in their eyes who propped themselves like tinker toys against mothers whose breasts sagged empty as yesterday’s balloons.
And from the throats of the children came the sound – a rattle of dried seeds in a pod, a wail of sirens in the night, a whine of chain saws cutting living tissue.
Edith and Ethel and John and Maxine and Charles, your children are crying. They are weeping through the long winter night huddled on the stony ground, no covers for their thin legs, bones clacking in the chill, dreaming of rice and goat meat.
The scarf wound tighter around the shelter house. People, your children are calling for you! They lay in bloody heaps like rags in back alleys, motels, living rooms, battlefields, jails, and camps. Beaten, raped, shot, hung, strangled, poisoned, drowned, electrocuted, the rags writhe in terror’s arms.
People, don’t you hear their sobbing – in hospital beds, around kitchen tables, in automobiles on their way to work, their shoulders hunched like dustpans over their broken hearts?
The wind blew and the waiting disciples called the wind Spirit of God. That is important – getting the right name for things. Recognizing who is blowing into town. Is this a gust out of the south bringing a lot of the neighbor’s trash into your yard, or is it the breath of divinity declaring that my neighbor’s trash and grief belong in my backyard?
The truth about God’s ravishing Ruah is that she is not rude. She comes only where she is invited, where there is a welcome and room made for her. God’s Spirit enters into emptiness, fills lack; she is the mirror image of a black hole, the inhalation after the exhalation. She flows into hollows and crannies and searches for expectant openness. Those gathered sat and waited, like people holding their breath out until the need for air was so great, so deep that the lungs sucked in the breath quenching the vacuum with life.
The key is learning to hold the breath out, not to gulp the spirit, but to wait for her to rush into you, to wait until the body of Christ draws the spirit out of its own deep thirst.
Then we no longer breathe, but are breathed.
In this Pentecost season may the Holy Spirit blow
something wondrous into your being.
And may you have the courage to inhale.