The Cubs won the World Series last fall, and I cried tears of joy, exhilaration and sadness. Yes, sadness. My dad and I were huge Cub fans, and although I was really happy to see them win, I was sad that he was no longer here to share the excitement with me.
My dad was my hero. He was a World War ll veteran, an ex-medic in the Army. He had the gentlest touch in the world. If I fell, cut or accidentally burned myself while baking, the only one who I allowed to take care of me was Dad. He could clean a wound, bandage a cut or place salve on a burn with a feather's touch.
Dad was the one who taught me how to throw a baseball (hard ball, not soft), hit a ball, catch a ball and field a ball. He taught me how to roller skate, ice skate, go sledding and throw a mean snowball. I’m afraid as the oldest child, and the only girl with all boy cousins, he taught me that if a boy could do those things, so could his daughter.
I loved wearing blue jeans and gym shoes, not frilly dresses my mom longed to see me wear. One year at Christmas my mom and grandmother decided to buy me a walking, talking doll. One look at it on Christmas morning and I burst into tears. Where was the bat, ball and catcher's mitt I had requested of Santa. Santa was obviously not listening, and that poor doll never came out of its box until my younger sister was born.
Dad taught me to ice skate in a pair of his old racing skates, and my joy in the winter was running home from school, grabbing those skates and cajoling my younger brother into going to the flooded park that freezing weather had turned into a great skating rink.
Dad also taught me how to fish. I had my own wooden pole. I never could put a worm on the hook, much to his dismay. As I got older, and femininity took over, my love for sports never waned. He and I never missed an opening day at Wrigley Field. Those were the days. You could go down to the front row and even talk to the players while they were practicing. And tradition dictated that you never left the ball park without eating at least one hot dog, a box of Cracker Jacks, an ice cream bar and peanuts.
Dad and I not only went to Cubs games; we even went to see the White Sox, the Black Hawks and the Bears. We watched the Bulls on TV. He had the patience to teach me the intricacies of each sport—from RBIs, to hat tricks, to first downs, to the zone. Those were the best of times.
And if you think it was only about sports, it wasn’t. My dad loved musical theater and fancied himself a crooner like Bing Crosby. He taught me ballroom dancing and to love old and new musicals and all the music from his and Mom’s time. I especially fell in love with Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman (to name a few) and many others of that wonderful big band music era.
Our favorite movie to watch together was “An Affair to Remember,” starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Cary Grant could say a million words without speaking . . . the story and feelings all in his eyes. And how we cried each time Cary discovered that Deborah Kerr had been crippled in a terrible accident the night they were to meet at the top of the Empire State Building.
Above all, Dad taught me that God was the one to turn to when times were tough—and there were many of those growing up in a family where hand-me-downs were the norm and sometimes not enough money for the groceries we needed. But there was always plenty of love of family. His most-quoted saying was: “Always treat others the way you would want to be treated, even if that other person is not very nice to you.” He practiced this each day of his life.
Such are the memories. My dad, my hero. My confidant, my mentor. The love of my mother’s life, and he hers. I miss them both every day, but am blessed that the Lord chose to place me in their lives, and I in theirs. Thanks for the memories, Dad!
Through a series of emails and Facebook posts, my oldest sister connected with a second cousin from my mother's side of the family.
"I grew up hearing stories of how your mother left the faith," cousin Rebecca emailed. What? My mother left the faith? Not so fast, newly found cousin. My mother loved and followed Jesus from the first day she trusted him at age 40 till the day she entered his presence at age 92.
My cousin had a different take on my mother. Raised an Orthodox Jew, my mother left her faith when she married my father who was a Gentile; becoming an authentic Christian ten years later made little or no difference to my mother's family.
It was strange to hear my mother described as someone who had left the faith and that got me thinking about that phrase—left the faith.
From a global perspective, we rightly use that term to describe Muslims who choose to follow Jesus. The downside to leaving one's faith is alienation, persecution and death as these believers know so well.
From a personal perspective, our faces become somber, our voices hushed as we announce the sentence of death when we say that someone has, "left the faith." We wag our heads, ready to write off the person—all hope is gone; there's nothing we can do to bring them back to the fold. Is this the way my mother's family thought of her? Discouraged and weary, we close the door and walk away from the person who walked away from the faith.
First things first. God has already announced the death sentence on all we like sheep who have gone astray (sounds a lot like leaving the faith to me). Then, in an amazing display of grace, he goes after the lost sheep to bring it back to the fold. He is that straying sheep's only hope of rescue.
That ought to give us hope for straying sons (mine among them), daughters, brothers, sisters, parents, spouses, cousins and friends. Their salvation doesn't depend on us or what we did or didn't do. If we couldn't save ourselves, we surely can't save anyone else. The sheep walks away from the shepherd, but the shepherd follows, ever seeking to rescue the sheep.
As much as we would like to close the door and walk away from our beloved stray sheep, we might not have that option. God's kindness compels us to keep the door open, his grace nudges us to pull the sheep from the thicket (again and again) and his loving providence reminds us that salvation belongs to him alone.
For all those people we know and love who have left the faith, let's constantly and gently remind them that the door remains open and the path home is a straight line to Jesus.
Mary carries me across the river.
She carries me
home from church.
She is my third mother,
on a team of three women,
made of Mother and my two older sisters.
Mary explains about boys
and changes that will come.
She knits scarves of many colors
to warm the cold winters when we move from the tropics to the bitter Midwest winters.
My bedroom is drab until she gives me curtains and matching bedspread in a pattern of bright blue ponds hopping with green, smiling frogs.
She teaches me how to clean house and babysit with thorough finesse; passing down odd jobs so I learn the dignity of work and earn money to buy elephant bell-bottomed jeans at the Bargain Center.
Wanting so desperately to be in love, during college, Mary wills her way into a young man’s heart and they wed. He welcomes her devotion, and then resents her. He does not love her as she longs. Their life twists into cords of strangling suffocation as the decades pass.
Mary carries me again helping plan my wedding as my adult life is just beginning.
Her husband goes into the night at odd hours, and her diaries clang with worry and jealousy over women she suspects he entertains. Her mind screams into the emptiness, why is he leaving? When will he return? She rocks their young sons to sleep. She finds love notes signed with flirting hearts and flowers in his closeted, tweed pockets.
Throughout her turmoil, Mary keeps an open house inviting us all for the holidays for years and years where we feast together enjoying warmth of family. The bubbling tension between her and her husband melds a crazy blend of beauty, delicious food, decorations, awkwardness and tears.
In this fertile soil where mostly misery grows between them, Mary begins to weave, sew and explore her own artful pursuits. Her home gleams with creative ingenuity. The air fills with aromatic recipes of tender roasts, and baked desserts as she plays the consummate host. She pushes her husband forward into many a juried art show, insisting he complete art projects that land him coveted art fellowships and national acclaim. She quietly frames his art, handling the business side of things, paying bills and collecting payments for his artwork.
Then comes news that Mary has terrible lung cancer. It is so advanced that surgery will not help her. Her husband dotes on her, willing her to live. He begs forgiveness, and clears the space between them. They suddenly become the fantastic, golden couple she always knew they could be. He is all hers those last few weeks.
Where oh death is thy sting?
Inflamed in the deathbed of my beloved sister.
Even knowing her death is swallowed up in victory, I struggle on this side of heaven.
Death looks for blame.
Why does she hide the shadow on her lung detected two years earlier?
She knows; for a long time, she knows. Why does she give up so soon? Is it soon though? She has been miserable and eaten up for years.
Why does this husband pay attention now so very late?
He breaks, and we are there for him. Maybe not so much for him anymore as for our dear grown nephews standing in military dress blues drowning in waves of tears as they memorialize their mother.
I do not want a heart of stone. It takes more than resistance to make that a reality. Paper covers rock in the game, “Rock, paper, scissors.” I need God’s blanket of grace to cover me completely lest I harden.
Soon after Mary’s death, our brother-in-law is engaged, and in a blink, the newlyweds stand declaring their undying love in the same church; on the same spot by the altar where my sister’s casket rested, and my brother-in-law draped himself weeping, one year before.
I struggle to forgive when I would rather forget. I don’t want a root of bitterness to grow in my fragile, mourning heart. I go numb. What is a root of numbness compared to one of bitterness? It may indeed be worse. After the wedding, I avoid, avoid, avoid. I don’t want to see him happily getting on with life. I miss my sister. Why did she die and now he’s so happy with this other woman? The smiling faces of congratulations clash in cacophony. Thankfully, we don’t live in the same town or state. Our paths needn’t cross. But family ties pull us together.
I’m planning a family gathering and I leave my brother-in-law and his new wife off the list.
It is for my sister. Is it? What would she want me to do to honor her memory? She and he reconciled and had their best few weeks right before she died. She forgave.
I read about doing unto others, and how I am to forgive others as God has forgiven me. I cannot imagine a life where I exist feeling unforgiven by God. I need forgiveness like water, air, and the God particle that holds my flesh together may well be his spirit of forgiveness. I think of Corrie ten Boom and the families of Christian martyrs, and scores of others who have forgiven much greater wrongs.
It is a small gesture, but I invite my brother-in-law and his wife to the family gathering.
Forgive me my debts as I forgive my debtors
As Mary carries me across the river.
A few days ago, while skimming through old files on my laptop, I came across one simply titled with the name of a friend. Opening it, I realized it was a powerpoint I’d created several years ago in an effort to more intentionally pray for this non-Christian friend. Some sections had prayers written on a nearly daily basis, other sections skipped weeks between prayers, but by the time the powerpoint fully loaded, there were more than a hundred slides of prayers spanning the last four years.
God has yet to answer any of these prayers. He has yet to answer many people’s prayers—the ones for sick loved ones, wayward children, unfulfilling vocations—and it only takes a cursory glance at the news to see he has yet to answer all (or even most) of our prayers for our nation or for peace abroad. Sometimes the silence of God in the face of our pleading is more than we can take; there’s a reason my powerpoint has long gaps in between. There is a peculiar and powerful kind of grief to praying for something over and over and over again with no measurable answer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality after finding that powerpoint. It’s one of those words we’ve managed to sterilize, and what is left intact is a mildly pleasant and generally risk-free image of inviting someone over for dinner. While there’s nothing wrong with cooking dinner for someone—a shared meal can be a powerful avenue through which true hospitality might occur—I think it’s far from encapsulating the actual meaning of the word. The Greek etymon for hospitality is xenia, and if you’ve read any Homer, you know that welcoming the stranger formed a vital part of ancient Greek culture. The epics are wrought with instances of hospitality, usually involving kings welcoming disguised characters into their homes for refreshment, storytelling and song.
I think there’s something profound about this inclusion of storytelling and song—it shows that hospitality is not simply offering physical nourishment but allowing someone to bring their stranger-ness to the table, so to speak, and partake in it with them. That’s what I understand hospitality to be: the host creating a space in which the guest enters in and the two then radically engage in intentional communion—giving and receiving, speaking and listening, self and other. The goal is not domination nor assimilation but generous participation. Henri Nouwen says it like this in his book Reaching Out:
Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion . . . But still—that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
I’m beginning to think of prayer—the words themselves—as an act of hospitality. Each of those hundred slides on my computer is not simply a petition to God but an intentional space where the fullness of who I am can meet the fullness of my friend—even if I am meeting her in her absence. It is my attempt to play the host, offering words that close the physical distance between us, that hospitalize the wounds caused by our fragile humanness, that tenderize the sometimes polarizing rhetoric (“non-Christian,” “unbeliever”), and leaves us as simply human. It’s creating openness to remind myself of who God is and who God knows my friend to be, and of all he has done and can do with the emptiness we lay before him.
In a Madeline L’Engle book, a daughter asks her mother why she prays if praying doesn’t always produce results. Her mom answers that we pray because prayer is an act of love. I don’t know if my friend will ever accept the gospel. I don’t know if any of your prayers will have the outcomes you hope for. I hope she does, and I hope they do. I ache with the hope of it. But I am reminded today that perhaps prayer is more about its shape than its results, more about what it gives than what it asks. If prayer is an invitation into a sacred and creative space, toward hospitalizing the stranger, whether that be a beloved person or a turbulent nation, then surely it is worth praying anyway. God knows we could use more acts of love.
On a boat toward Lesvos she lies
In wait for new world’s sky blue prize.
This family flees like Egypt of old
To life and death and new world gold
All in orange life jacket guise
The aged, the young; they dip and rise
To the manger island the boat plies
For generations to come this story will be told
Of the boat toward Lesvos where she lies
Let it be done, submissive, she sighs
Her prayer, like ours, faith’s surprise
As goods and lives, bartered and sold,
There’s no room in the inn, the tents unfold;
Herods and Judas debate, yet onward flies
The boat toward Lesvos where Mary lies.