Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dead Monkey Babies and Butterflies

Oh yea-ah! It's that time of year again. Actually, it's not. It's over now. The Ancient Christianity and African Americans Conference was this past weekend, but it was GOOD, GOOD, GOOD. And I get to tell you all about it.

It was in Detroit this year, and what a pleasure it was to have my friends in the Big Motor. All of the ACAA favorites were there. Father Moses Berry and Father Paiscius Atshul. Iconographers Father Jerome Sanderson and Mother Katherine Westin, and this year Dr. Albert Raboteau came. Holy Moses can that man speak! It was a treat in every way, and I can't remember being so happy in a long time.

My good friend Gina went with me on Friday morning. We left home a little after six in the morning so we could attend morning prayers, but Lord, have mercy, we ended up taking every imaginable wrong turn and didn't get there until just before the first speaker.

I can't describe what it was like to walk into the door. The familiar faces smiling at me. Big hugs, and bigger love. I always have this feeling that no one will remember me, but they did. I saw Mother Pachomia and waved and gave her a huge grin. Mother Nicole thought I was waving at Mother Bridget. Mother Bridget and my Godmother look a lot a like, but I'd never met Mother Bridget. I didn't even see her. My Godmother thought that I didn't recognize her, but I did. I'd know her anywhere (up close) from a distance, Orthodox Nuns in full habit can look an awful lot a like, and more than once I walked up to one only to have her look up and not be Mother Nicole. Here's a funny thing about not recognizing people, I took the time to curl my hair. My hair often looks a hot mess, or is covered. Coiffed hair is a rarity. Three people didn't recognize me! Including one who I go to church with and see much more than once a year. Ha!

Fr. Jerome spoke first. I knew his talk would be about forgiveness, but you know how it is, forgiveness is one of those words you gloss over because you really don't want to do the hard work of forgiving. I saw "forgiveness" in the program, but I didn't know this weekend how real it would get to me.

Fr. Jerome opened his talk with an utterly horrifying story about a mother monkey who's baby had died. She didn't want to let her baby go, however. I could relate. So, she just kept carrying the baby. Soon the baby began to decompose, but she wouldn't let the baby go. The story went on, but it was a little hard to concentrate because I'm visual, and I kept SEEING that monkey carrying her dead monkey baby, and the image was compelling enough to completely arrest my attention. Eventually somebody got that baby out of her arms, and I think it involved her falling out of a tree, or something, I missed it. I didn't miss her dragging around her dearly departed, however?

Father Jerome said we all carry our dead monkey babies. I know I've been dragging mine along (and I have a bunch of them) for years. No matter the smell. No matter the flies, maggots, and decay. No matter the people that it keeps away from us, or the living people who could be in our arms if we would open them to receive them.

I sat in my chair, listening, thinking about all the ways that I miss opportunities to forgive seventy times seventy (and more). The smallest slight from my husband, and I pick up a dead monkey baby. A reader says I mispelled something, and I go on a six hundred word rant (a literary dead monkey baby). I apologize dear reader. And I removed said rant. The gazillion times a day my own sins, past and present, beat me up, and I have difficulty forgiving myself. Not forgiving one's self seems so easy. Sometimes it actually feels good to feel bad about oneself, but unforgiveness, no matter who the recipient is, is just another dead monkey baby. I sat there chastised, sorry for the way I've held on to my past and in many ways kept Ken and myself somewhere we have long left behind. I'm sorry, baby. I'm sorry Claudia Mair. And I'm sorry to anyone out there who I have sinned against. Forgive me. Easy to say yes, but I'll truly try to treat you right.

Anyway, I was going to stay over at the retreat center that night, but I only wanted to go home and be with my husband. I lay my dead monkey baby down in the presence of my dear brother and sisters in Christ. I wanted open hands to hold the man I love when I got home.

Later that night, there was a special presentation at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. Father Moses had several artifacts from his own museum, including slave neck chains and leg shackles. He always brings fabulous antique quilts with him. I love to hear Father Moses speak.

Dr. Carla Thomas pulled a fast one on me that night. She said, "I'd like for you to read a poem." I thought if I said, "I don't have any poems with me," that would get me off the hook, but she just replied, with that maddening sweet smile of hers, "Start thinking." Is that compassionate? I think not! But there's something so good and holy about her, you can't say no to her, and the next thing I know I'm in the lobby of the museum furiously writing poetry. Oh. It was awful. It rhymed, and I never rhyme. I thought it would kill me to read bad poetry, but I did it.

When I was done, everyone cheered, and people yelled, "Beautiful." I so didn't deserve that, but I love that everyone was so kind. My kids had a great time. My husband and my mother-in-law had a great time. I had to run back in to ask Dr. Carla a question, and when I was done, I chatted with Father Moses. He was putting artifacts away. Out of nowhere I heard him say, "This is for you, Claudia." I looked at him, because he was folding up a beautiful quilt and it ain't no way he's about to give me an heirloom from his museum. But he did, he put that quilt in my hand, and when I said, "Oh no, I can't take this, it's too beautiful." He said, "I have to keep it in the family." Remember how last year I wrote how I'd found a father in him?

So I went home, with an antique quilt top of intricately designed butterflies. Isn't that apropos? The Lord topping off a perfect day of peace and forgiveness with butterlies. It's time to fly free with love and friends and family.

If we'd only believe, brothers and sisters, what would happen if we'd only believe?


Monday, June 26, 2006

My Soul Magnifies the Lord

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant."--from The Magnificat.

Last night I was at a conference, and at the end of the night, we all sat in a circle, passed the microphone like the talking stick, and told stories. I had to leave at some point earlier, to take my daughter and mother-in-law home, but I made my way, weary after a jam-packed weekend of conference activity. I didn't want to make the 45 minute drive back to Detroit and then come home again. It was already nearly 9:00 pm when I left Ann Arbor. At one point I turned around to go back home, and then, I turned around again and headed East, again.

I got there, and it was almost over, but I really wanted to read a poem. There was talk about how to serve the poor, and I thought about so much of my life. Still getting food stamps, even after I reported my income! Like I've told you before, I'm not Third-World poor, just good old American poor. I wanted to tell what it was like to get help from the Christian people who have helped my family. But somehow, when I begin my story, I ended up sharing what it was like when I lived in Takoma Park, and the man I loved was going to kill me.

I don't like that story. And there I was, being ragamuffin diva again, telling the worst of my life. It was hard. I told them I am bipolar. Have awful, chronic pain syndrome, fibromyalgia syndrome, and other stuff that makes it hard for me to have a "job", and how God helped us through my brothers and sisters in Christ until book money came in and I had some form of livelihood. Still, it was hard, both the living and the telling.

I felt ashamed afterward. I thought, "Again, I've told too much. I talked too long. And now the people who's respect I want are going to either pity me, or think I'm a psychotic who can hurt them. Some bipolar people are extremely sick. It doesn't garner positive public opinion. Anyway, I actually apologized to the priest, but he stopped me. God did something with that testimony. One brother thanked me for my witness. I hadn't thought of that. How it is a witness to the Love of God.

But the sorrow had already settled about me that comes from that memory, and I was mostly okay until I got home and was talking to Mary on the phone tonight. We were talking about how we'd always wanted to write, and about the hard things we'd been through, and then it occured to me that I was going to get my copy of Murder, Mayhem, and a Fine Man in my hands. My friends at NavPress Fed Exed me a copy last week. And then I cried like a baby right there on the phone because tomorrow I'll hold my book in my hand.

I remember, as I talked to my dear friend, how the man I lived with wouldn't let me say the name of Jesus. It was forbidden in "his house." We were strict vegans. I weighed 93lbs. I have pictures of me from that time. I look like a concetration camp survivor. He made me wear dresses three sizes too big so I wouldn't look attractive. Lord, have mercy. I don't want to say much more. Because we were vegan, and we lived in the Seventh Day Adventist capitol, and down the street from us was their college, they had a market and bookstore I used to shop at for food. But they had Bibles, and Christian books.

When I could go by myself, I'd sneak into the bookstore. I would go in there and it was like a magical land of safety. And oh, the longing for Jesus. I would touch the books, and finger the spines, and reverently hold the Bible. I'd read some passages, aching to be free. Once when the man I lived with was strangling me, and I thought, "this is it, I'm about to die," I just prayed to Jesus to forgive me for all my sins and remember me in his kingdom. I hoped he would. I hoped I could at least get to be with Him in death. He knew that. But I didn't die that day. I slumped onto the floor and the man let me go. He even tried to give me CPR. I felt sad, because I thought I'd be better off dead.

Yeah, y'all. I'd go to the bookstore back the day. I'd take my snatches of Jesus, and I go back home where I couldn't say His sweet, and life-giving name without being beaten or nearly killed. A near martyr in my own home. That was 13 years ago. It doesn't seem that long.

Tomorrow, my Christian novel is going to be in my hands for the first time. And I wanted to take a moment to tell you that "my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant." That was the Blessed Virgin's response to God's incredible gift to her. It is my response to my incredible gift. He gave her our Lord (really through her He gave all of us our Lord.) But He gave me a story to birth, and to the emaciated me at the Seventh Adventist market to buy vegan food, the thought of me publishing a Christian book years later would have been as miraculous as Virgin Birth.

When I stood in that bookstore, I didn't think I'd even survive, much less serve Jesus freely, without having to be beat up or strangled for it. And look what Jesus has done. He really shows off, doesn't He? My friends have seen my book, and they say how beautiful it is, and how much they love it, and even if they didn't love it, and it wasn't beautiful, it was my dream and God did it. How blessed am I? Even if I wasn't under contract for seven books, if it were just that one my joy would be full. And I can't even keep typing for crying right now. I cried with Mary. I cried writing Paula, and I'm weeping now. Because He heard me! He understood each ache and longing for him. He felt every touch on His face when I touched the Bibles and didn't even dare pray because I just knew my life was over. And then He turned the table and it is going to be my book in the Christian bookstore some hungry soul will walk into wondering if they will ever find Jesus again. And if they read it, I will tell them YES!!!!! Jesus is with you, no matter what.

So will y'all just say, "Thank you, God," with me? This lowly one, just trying to write for Jesus, despite myself, has her dream.

"The Mighty One has done great things for me, and Holy is His name."


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Love Stays

A blast from the past.

Love Stays
(a paraphrase of 1 Cor. 13:1-7)

If the words I write
broke the hearts of men,
and staggered angels
and I did not love
I am mere noise, needing
grace to silence me.

And if my prophecies, opened
the fragrant bud of mystery
and my faith, made mountains bow
and leap, and I did not love
what is the use of me?

If I emptied myself of myself,
and gave all I had to the poor,
and if I yielded flesh to fire
willingly, and on my knees
and I did not love
I should be pitied for my poverty.

Love stays.

Love cares for others more.
Love doesn’t ask for
what is not for love.
Love bows,
and love gives way.

Love doesn’t think too highly
of itself, nor does love
violate. Love doesn’t insist
that it has it’s way.

It doesn’t remember sins.
Love doesn’t make you beg.

It just lets it go.

Love loves when truth blossoms
like lilacs and gardenias
swollen with scents
sweet as a mercy

Love allows.

Trusts Abba always.

Love opens wide eyes
to see the best
and shuts them tight
to what is behind us;
It doesn’t comprehend
the past.

Love never,

Like God,
love stays.

Even better the second time around, eh?

Much love,

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Crowded House

I heard a knock at my door, and when I opened it, a crowd of sorrows stared at me with round, black eyes. They didn't look good, bald and ashen, and alien. Some of them stank.

I sighed, and let 'em in.

They stumbled into the living room, and immediately pillaged my bookshelves. There's nothing worse than a bunch of sorrows trying to read. I tried to distract them.

"Hey, is anybody hungry?"

They nodded their collective heads.

I hustled them into the kitchen, pressed my way through the throng and pulled the bacon and eggs out of my refrigerator.

"We're vegan," one hollow voice cried.

Great. A house full of choosy sorrows.

"How 'bout oatmeal?"

"Perfect," one of them said, slowly clapping his pale hands.

Jesus showed up.

The sorrows parted like the Red Sea to let Him in.

He helped me with the kitchen duties.

The sorrows watched in silence as we boiled salted water. I put the oatmeal in the stockpot, while Jesus stirred in milk and real butter.

"They said they don't do dairy."

Jesus said, "I know."

He was acquainted with sorrows, but he kept stirring anyway. Jesus added sugar, and one of them started in on complex carbohydrates. He silenced them saying:

"You could use something sweet."

We fed them one by one, sat them on the couch, and listened to their problems. I cried with every sorrow. They droned on, exhausting me. I put my head on Jesus's shoulder.

"There are so many of them," I whispered. He gave my arm a squeeze.

When it was time for them to leave, Jesus and I saw them to the door. We kissed each one and told them to be good. We waved and smiled, and Jesus, with His irritating hospitality, shouted, "Come again!"

I glared at Him, but He smiled, and shrugged.

I can't resist Him when He smiles.

When the last one had faded from view, Jesus pulled me back into the house and closed the door behind Him.

"Look at this place," I said, discouraged.

Dirty dishes piled everywhere, books scattered like ashes, the couch cushions sunken from the weight.

"What a mess," I said, feeling every bit like a sorrow myself.

"I'll clean it up," Jesus said, picking up stacks of bowls in His strong, carpenter arms. "Why don't you have a bit of nourishment?"

I nodded my heavy head, and ate the last of the oatmeal right out of the pot.

It was very sweet.

It helped me to sleep.

When I awakened, everything was clean. The sun shone through the open windows. The wind lifted curtains, with kind, delicate fingers.

Red roses in every room.

I looked around, stretched and smiled, sated and warm.

I decided to paint the shining white walls any color I pleased.