So here’s the assignment: describe an event that changed your life. The essay is for an organization offering grants to students who “are seeking spiritual maturity.” (Yikes! I mean, I think I am… yes, definitely.) Their materials suggest that they are looking for candidates whose faith is worldly-relevant, as opposed to other-worldly. (That’s me, too.) You have two pages. You probably ought to choose a topic that shows distinction from other candidate’s likely topics, from world travelers, volunteers in social justice, people studying medicine, and other kinds of young’ns out to change the world. Make your small life seem more than a trifle—find a way to say, “changing the world within my four walls IS changing the world…”
Two pages is so short that I’m afraid I omitted all logical transition sentences and shortcut everything to make it sound like instantaneous change occurred—my apologies to anyone who knew me at age 24, 25, 26… it’s actually been a long change of direction. Hundreds of small events contributed, hundreds of mistakes were made along the way, and I’ve probably made ten thousand arrogant remarks before this shift of worldview-- and theology-- settled in well.
I also cut out an entire paragraph about Isak Dineson’s tale Babette’s Feast, about a small grace-filled life bearing tremendous fruit. It broke my heart to remove it, but there was no room. I’m afraid it disappeared on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
The complete scholarship application added up to fifteen pages. This is the third scholarship application I’ve assembled in six weeks…
Sometimes transformation is so subtle it can barely be seen: my professor read a passage from a book. This professor’s presence was a fluke and the entire course was later named a mistake. This professor flushed with radiance and tears flowed from the corners of his eyes for love of a book. Who was I, coming into this reading? Why did this fluke-within-a-mistake draw everything together? What brought me to kairos, high time for what I needed to hear?
In George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, a girl is cursed with “a lack of gravity,” no weight of character or body. She spends much of the story tethered with a golden cord, to keep her from floating into oblivion. While my birth to an auto worker and an upholsterer ensured some gravity and an un-princess-like childhood, still I can identify with that girl, floating away from troubles “below” by dreaming, reading, and living much of life in my head, and as little as possible with my feet in the muck. The life of my imagination seemed superior to my day-to-day life. A few pleasures tethered me: riding my bicycle, playing shortstop, walking the rural fringes of my town. But mostly the Real World seemed empty, grimy, filled with excess noise and ugliness. In my education, later, I learned the phrase Greek Dualism, or The Mind/Body Split.
Mine is the story of becoming an undivided person. Mine is the story of gravity.
I learned as a child not to trust in my body. I've carried that burden through my life
But there's a day when we all have to be pried loose…
I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless, and that was the straw that broke me open…
The Last Night of the World, from Breakfast in New Orleans, by Bruce Cockburn, 1999 Ryco Records
To name three “pryings-loose” from that weightless curse, first I entered a set of church doors as a teenager. A warm family asked me to share their pew. The four young children argued who would sit next to me, who would sit in my lap. Until that moment, no one in the world wanted my affection, let alone my physical presence. It was a cinder block church with crank-out frosted windows, so it’s not like I was transported to a place where Things Mattered. But I became a treasured person with a lap, worth welcoming. I grew immediately more comfortable, not only in church, but in the world at large.
In a second “prying-loose,” an ad on a college bulletin board enticed me to Estes Park, Colorado for a summer job in the Rocky Mountains. I knew nothing, no one, and I found I was hungry for anything, bold, and new as the day I was born. I’d never left Indiana for more than a few days. Even the air smelled exotic, like pine and vanilla and snow. My summer roommate spoke five languages and grew up on three continents. My co-workers were from places I’d never imagined, and they saw the world differently. Still, we all loved Colorado, and all we could taste, touch, smell, see and hear.
I grew frustrated that I’d been living my life on pavement, unconscious of the direction of the wind or the means of predicting weather. I grew frustrated that I’d wasted so much of my life watching television! I bought hiking boots, snapped photos, learned the names of peaks and wildflowers. I lived on earth, now, and loved its undeniable charms.
When I returned to my college, I understood Christianity to be suspicious of worldliness and pleasure, so sometimes I threw myself into my experience, and other times I held back. It’s not that I didn’t see instances of theology in action: my favorite professor showed me how to compost. I spent a week in inner city Chicago for a course on Social Justice, and spring break with Habitat for Humanity in Boston.
But there was a deep rift in my theology, a weakness where I’d grown up protecting myself. In my small town, mistakes are never forgotten, and one doesn’t outgrow timidity easily. So I more or less did everything right. And that’s who I was.
I trained to work for the world’s best college ministry, where I attended the fluke course on the foundations of Reformational thought. For the third prying-loose, the professor began to read. In The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Farrar Capon describes recipes and principles of cooking, physical heartburn and the inconsolable heartburn of longing for the kingdom of God, a love that is “vast and inconvenient.”
It is tempting, of course, to blunt [love’s] edge by caution. It is so much easier not to get involved—to thirst for nothing and for no one, to deny that matter matters and… to make your bed with meanings which cannot break your heart… such faintness is unworthy…
If I am to lift music [into that city of God], I must lay such hands upon it as not only give me power over it, but also give it power over me. If I am to be the priestly agent by which some girl with high cheekbones enters the exchanges of that [future] city, I must be prepared for the possibility that she may wind my clock beyond all mortal hope of repair…
…playing it safe is not Divine. ..God saved the world not by sitting up in heaven and issuing antiseptic directives, but by becoming man, and vulnerable, in Jesus. He died, not because he despised the earth, but because he loved it as a man loves it—out of all proportion and sense. (p. 189-90, Harvest/HBJ 1969)
Capon—and my professor—presented a God of extravagance and heft, a God of grace who loves every particle of this creation. That’s the God I love, I thought, the God I’ve always hoped to know. Matter truly matters! Alongside big ministry visions and dreams, I learned to cook, penciling notes in the margins, and bought my first bottle of wine. I began to look for the grace that creeps through the cracks of our lives, usually through the flukes and mistakes and the feeling that we don’t know what on earth we are doing. I embraced the mysteries my mind cannot touch. I didn’t give up on my teenage faith: I filled it, or left it open at last for God to fill to overflowing.
Over dinner, my husband asked about my essay topic, and smiled about Capon. My nine-year-old daughter asked why I did not write about her birth.
“I can write whole books of events that changed my life,” I said. “In fact I wrote a whole different essay that simply listed forty events that changed my life-- including your birth. But I like this essay better.” I needed to love this life to be capable of marriage and “being a body,” of childbirth and making a real home.
As a writer, it’s the real sensation of the world that inspires and gives power. As a mother, the scent behind my son’s ear spins the planet, and alertness to my children’s vulnerability colors each day. As a reader of biblical texts, I need us to see those characters as human, without the veneer of fantasy about good people “winning” and bad people punished. Culturally, faith seems confused with “morality,” an ungracious denial of this glorious and messy world God has created. All I can do to speak into this cultural vortex—all I can do is speak honestly of my experience, and to teach others to do the same.
It’s a small tale, this story of the simple incarnation of spirit in one woman’s life. I heard a magical call to live in the world I’ve been given, to love my world beyond “all proportion and sense,” for God’s sake. I see the effects, when I look at the people in my life carefully. It’s a joyous assignment, to live a life rooted in reality, by the best sort of gravity and grace.
Addendum: it’s a bit too much to claim, living in reality, when I am also choosing to live so much of my life with stories stirring in my head, and so much time at the keyboard ignoring the realities of the housecleaning, located just over my shoulder. I’m hoping they won’t see that massive inconsistency, though! If you see it, please humor me.
And wish me luck.