Friday, April 25, 2014

Unseeing Eyes

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before?  What if I knew I would never see it again?"  ― Rachel Carson

I remember a time, many years ago, when my friend Karen and I took a walk together. We were students at Bryan College in Tennessee, and we had just had dinner in the dining hall.

It was a lovely, fragrant evening in spring. “I want to show you something,” Karen said, pointing to the budding leaves on the trees and bushes. “They weren’t here two weeks ago, and now, here they are. Where did they come from?”

I had never thought about it before. Leaves  they simply appear each year, as if pulled from a hat by a magician, as if rising from the phoenix ashes of autumn leaf piles.

That night my friend helped me to look with holy awe at the heretofore humdrum, the leaves in spring.

Then in my junior year, Mrs. Bentley, my teacher in an art history class, made an off-handed comment about how she was amazed by all the shades of green in the spring. And again, my eyes were opened. 

I guess that before that day, if you had asked me the color of the leaves, I would have said "Green. Duh." Suddenly I saw that leaves are a zillion different colors.

Though I am not an artist, I was inspired to do a watercolor painting of the trees with many shades of green. I was delighted at the way water colors can run together to capture a small spectrum of  nature’s palette. 

And I saw that painting is another way of seeing, and we non-artists of the world should do it more often. It's not about whether Mom would hang your picture on the frig. It's about what you see and feel while you're committing the act of creation.

Another revelation came my senior year, once again in spring — this time on a rainy day. I wasn't a fan of rainy days. Rain made my hair and my heart go blah. But I suddenly saw that the gray of the skies made the new green of the spring leaves glow like cat eyes in the dark. All the colors of the season popped against the gray. And suddenly I was hooked — on rainy days and the beauties they reveal to our eyes.

Leaf buds. Shades of green. Gray skies. It’s funny the things we actually remember from school, the things that comprise our real education.

I think that most of us are born blind. We need help to peel back the scales that keep us from truly seeing. I am grateful for the Wise Ones God continually puts in my life to help me see more clearly — friends, teachers, artists, poets, writers, children with disabilities, people of other races and cultures, laughing babies and wry great-grandmothers, and even voices that speak from beyond the grave, from ages past.

Many springs have passed since that night I took a walk with a friend, and I still don’t know where the leaves come from. Something from nothing, life from death — right before our eyes. It’s magic. It’s a miracle. It’s a mystery.

But though I can’t understand it, at least now I can see it. That is a great gift — and cause for celebration.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Inn at the Crossroads

No, wait! Please don’t go. Won’t you stay and have dinner with us? The things you said as we were walking on the road together -- we want to hear more, don’t we Cleopas?

Yes, this is fine, right over here. We’ll just order some bread. But as I was saying, I’ve never heard anyone explain the scriptures the way you have today. Let us know where your congregation is and we’ll come hear you some Sabbath.  

Well, actually, I don’t believe you said where you’re from. No, let me guess. Your accent is Galilean — maybe Cana or Nazareth? But you know the old saying — “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Ha! I guess you get that one a lot, eh?

So, you’re saying that Messiah had to die and to be raised. That’s amazing. I mean, it really is there in the text, isn’t it? I’ve just never heard anyone teach like this before. It's like. . .I can't explain it, but it's like you've lit a flame within me.

I have so many questions I want to ask. But I suppose the biggest question on my mind  on all our minds  is this. Was Jesus the Messiah? Or will we ever know the answer to that, now that he’s gone? We had put all our hopes in him. And now, our hopes are shattered. You just can't imagine what we've been going through.

Well, here’s the bread. Good, I’m famished. Cleopas! Don't eat until we have the blessing. Sir, would you do the honors and bless our meal? 

Wait  what's happening? Rabbi. . .your face is shining like . . . like . . . .

My God! Who are you?

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?    --Luke 24:32

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Parting Gift

Around the table, voices rise and fall -- some tired, some anxious, all clueless that creation has come to its crossroads. Amid the voices sits the Word, silent. 

He turns to the wine, as yet unpoured, the cups still clean. He knows the wine will be cold as death, dark as blood  -- knows he will see his reflection floating ghost-like in the cup. 

On second thought, I'm really not that thirsty. It isn't too late, even now, to back down. Why, God -- why do you ask the impossible? I'm a man, after all. Flesh and blood, like these.... 

Andrew is grousing about the accommodations. Judas is arguing with Matthew about the group's long range financial planning. Peter, James, and Mark are having a theological debate about whether a Samaritan can gain entrance to heaven. Bartholomew has fallen asleep with his mouth open and is snoring loudly.

I love them, Father. For all their faults, maybe because of their faults. Oh, I don't want to leave them. . .not just yet. 

He stands. 

"Can we eat now?" asks Peter. "I'm famished." 
"Soon," says Jesus. He unties his sash and takes off His robe. 

"Too hot for you?" asks Andrew. "We could open the door. . . .I knew we should have rented that place on the square. They have banquet tables and serving girls and. . ."

"Serving girls, is it?" teases Mark. "Our brother does have an eye for the girls." 

"I do not." Andrew blushes deeply. 

"Leave the door closed," says Jesus, tying the towel around His waist. He goes to the door to fetch the wash basin and then returns to the group. Judas and Matthew are still arguing. 

"You're just too short-sighted," Judas is saying. "You and the others. We ought to at least be drawing interest on our money. Doesn't our Master have a parable to that effect?" 

"If you ask me," growls Matthew, "you've got too much interest in this money already." 

"Ohhhh -- that's cold," shouts Andrew suddenly. Everyone turns to see what the commotion is about. "And it tickles!"

Jesus is kneeling in front of Andrew, and Andrew's dirty feet are soaking in a basin. The disciple's sandals are lying to one side. 

"Jesus, what are you doing?" asks James. Someone pokes Bartholomew, who wakes with a start. 

Jesus takes the towel and dries Andrew's feet. Then he moves, on his knees, to Matthew and starts to untie Matthew's shoes. Matthew looks first at the ceiling, then at the floor, finally out the window. 

"What's he doing? Let me see," demands Thomas. Judas folds his arms across his chest and sighs. 

James looks at his feet and frowns. "Oh, my," he says to Mark, "if I'd known He was going to do a thing like this, I'd have cut my toenails -- or cleaned up a bit. . .or something." 

"How could anyone know He was going to do a thing like this?" Mark replies. 

"You just never know what he's going to do next," Philip whispers. 

After drying Matthew's feet, Jesus moves on to Peter.

"No," says Peter, pounding his fist on the table. "You'll never wash my feet." 

"If I don't, you can't be my friend." 

"Well, all right then. . . .If it means so much to you, wash my hands and my face too." Peter holds out his hands. "Give me a bath if you want to." 

"You've already had a bath, I should hope." 

"If he hadn't, we'd all know it," says Andrew.

Jesus laughs. "Your heart is in heaven -- I know that, Peter. You're my rock. But your feet are still on earth, and they get pretty dirty  -- just look at the water! Of course, not every one of you is clean."

At this, they all look at each other funny and are afraid to say anything else.

For a time, the only sound is that of water wrung repeatedly from the washcloth as Jesus moves around the table. First one star, then two appear in the window. After He has washed all the men's feet, he dresses again and reclines at the table. 

In the silence, Andrew thinks he can hear the celery wilting. 

"Well. . .do you get it?" asks Jesus.

They look at each other stupidly. Peter starts to nod his head yes but changes to a no when Jesus catches his eye.

Jesus speaks slowly, as if explaining a problem in arithmetic to very young children. "If I, your Master, wash your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. You can't come into my Father's house with dirty feet, you know." Most of the men look down at their just-washed feet, relieved.

"Tonight, I am giving you a very great gift. It's my going away present to you."

They raise their heads again, more confused than ever. Bartholomew looks all around the room but doesn't see any presents.

Jesus sees only a blur of faces, like watercolors that have run. "I give you each other," he says, "and I give you the towel."

Then he wipes his eyes, so he can see to pour the wine.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Story Wizard: J. K. Rowling

My grandfather was a railroad man -- so maybe it's my family heritage -- but the sound of a train on a summer night can transport my thoughts to far-off places and times. I always wonder where the train is coming from and where it's going. Some little part of me wants to hop that train like a sooty-faced hobo and catch a ride to an alternate life. 

It's not that I'm unhappy right where I am, but there's just something wistful, something beckoning in the sound of a train. Who knows? Maybe I could be like Harry, Ron, and Hermione -- off to conquer the world and the Dark Lord on the Hogwart's Express. 

So many great scenes in the Harry Potter books and movies take place on trains and in train stations. Harry meets Ron and the Weasleys while looking for Platform 9 3/4. The boys meet Hermione on the train. Harry's first encounter with the Dementors happens on a train. Fortunately, he meets Professor Lupin at the same time. Even the afterlife scene is set at King's Cross Station. The train takes Harry away from the muggle world and toward a new life. And perhaps the same could be said for the creator of these stories as well.

Trains have played an important role in the life of British children’s author J. K. Rowling.

King's Cross Station, photo by Timothy Baldwin

Her parents met on a train travelling from King's Cross Station to the town of Arbroath in Scotland. The year was 1964, and both were on their way to join the navy. They later married, and their daughter Joanne was born July 31, 1965.

Emma Watson
(Hermione Granger)
Young Jo loved reading and writing fantasy stories. Rowling later recalled: “...The first story I ever wrote down (when I was five or six) was about a rabbit called Rabbit. He got the measles and was visited by his friends, including a giant bee called Miss Bee."

Joanne's teen years were sometimes difficult. Her mother had multiple sclerosis, and her father became distant. Jo still loved books and writing, and she later confessed, “Hermione is loosely based on me. She's a caricature of me when I was eleven, which I'm not particularly proud of."

Her best friend was Sean Harris, a young man who owned a turquoise Ford Anglia, like the flying car featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In fact, the character of Ron Weasley was partly drawn from Sean.

Fast forward a few years. Jo had graduated from the University of Exeter and was living in Manchester. In 1990, she was taking a train from Manchester to London, when there was a delay for four hours. While she waited for the train to move again, the idea for Harry Potter simply popped into her head. She saw a boy who is on his way to Wizard School. 

The ideas came in a rush, but she couldn’t find a pen—and she was too shy to ask anyone if she could borrow one. But maybe that was a good thing, because she had time to really think through the plot. She had been writing since she was six years old, but never had she been this excited about a story. She started writing it down that night, but events in her life soon put her writing on hold, just like a train with a delay. 

Fast forward again. After a bitter divorce, Jo was a single mom, struggling to provide for her child. She took the baby on long walks to help her fall asleep. Then she pushed the stroller to a coffee-shop where she worked on her story—as often as she could. With hard work and great determination, she finished Harry Potter and the Philospher’s  Stone, Book One in the series.

J. K. Rowling

No one knew then that the Harry Potter books would become the bestselling book series in history. Or that in just five years, Jo would go from a life of struggle and poverty to being one of the richest women in Britain.

And like so many other great adventure stories, it all began on a train.