Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prayers for the Dead

"Rowing Slowly Through Eternity" by Anthea

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

That’s good old Billy Collins. The imagery makes me smile. I sometimes wonder about the dead and about the relationship between those who breathe light and those of us who are still inhaling oxygen. Halloween is tomorrow. All Hallows’ Eve. I remember last year seeing a small mass of slightly-older-than-my children running freely and costumed across the grass in a yard in our neighborhood on their way to ask for candy. It was a quintessential scene of childhood. While there’s much that’s unsavory about the way some celebrate the night, there’s so much that can be beautiful about Halloween. Illuminating smiling, carved gourds. Small heroes and princesses, animals and ninjas padding from house to house receiving kindnesses in the form of small edible things.

The holiday has its roots in Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival which usually takes place on the night directly between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the threshold opening onto the dark half of the year. It is traditionally a night of liminality, in which the veil separating this world from the Otherworld is opened and the dead can visit this mortal sphere. An intermingling of the seen and unseen worlds. I learned this from a humanities professor who specialized in medieval cathedral architecture. The class was called “Framing the Sacred,” an interesting notion, I think. How do you frame the eternal and unbounded in artwork or literature or liturgy? These were the questions we studied. She took our class to the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City one All Saints’ Day. As the choir music rained upon us and raised itself to the stained-glass cherubim circling our heads, I felt the veil thin.

My wife sits at the computer with my eternity-eyed infant daughter in her lap, typing names. Each name is a prayer of sorts—a testimony of Jesus Christ’s infinite, unbounded mercy—and of the role we play in grace. These names, gathered like blueberries from the bushes of old censuses and city records, will be carried with gentle care into holy temples and spoken with affectionate reverence, sweetness on the tongue. Prayers for the dead. “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?” asked Paul, “Why are they then baptized for the dead?” This in the middle of a discourse on the triumph of life over death, the energetic reality of resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? . . . But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

Almost all religions that affirm the eternality of the soul offer prayers in behalf of the dead, to keep them in remembrance, to ask special protective care as they enter that bright unknown. Catholics perform masses and offer prayers for the dead. Jews offer Kaddish—the prayer of making holy. There is a lovely Jewish prayer of mourning, memorial, and obsecration called El Molai Rachamim: “God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens’ heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.” The Shechinah is the radiant cloud of God’s presence. What a nice place to rest.

Like so many others, members of my church believe perhaps paradoxically that death is not the end of living and that every life matters. Our way of offering prayers for the dead is to perform sacred ordinances on their behalf. We are baptized for the dead, immersed in water in the name of someone who has crossed over the expansive river of death. There is a physicality to the prayer, a heft and a weight. There is a sheer loveliness to it. It is a sanctifying experience to stand in another’s shoes as it were to receive the ordinances of salvation. I often imagine the people whose names are read with such affection sitting near me, or floating above me. Sometimes I imagine them laughing at the prospects and possibility opened up to them through these ordinances. Sometimes I imagine tears of joy and gratitude. Once when I received the ordinances for a long line of men from Italy, I could almost smell the spaghetti and hear their warm, excited voices. Perhaps it is only my imagination. Perhaps not.

Joseph Smith once wrote of the practice, “And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” I’ve thought often about those words “neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” My soft-spoken mission president once told me that “the salvation of a soul always requires the sacrifice of another.” He said that for all humanity, that sacrifice was the Savior, but that each of us is called upon to give of ourselves, to extend ourselves, to offer our time and our energy and our love to bring another to grace. This is what happens in the temple. Christ’s was the great vicarious sacrifice, but unless I become like Him and empty myself out for the blessing and benefit of others, neither I nor they can be saved.

These ordinances take place in temples. The temple is a liminal space, halfway between heaven and earth. What happens there conjoins the worlds. The late, gentle, Swedish Lutheran, Krister Stendahl, who in his lifetime was Dean of Divinity at Harvard University, once said of Mormon temple worship, “In antiquity, . . . the Jerusalem Temple was a place where you went to carry out holy acts, sacrifices and the like. I feel that the Mormon experience of the temple has sort of restored that meaning to the word temple.” Stendahl was a thoughtful, lovely soul. Of baptisms for the dead, which his church does not practice, he said, “It’s a beautiful thing. I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That’s a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal — which, in a way, is what Christianity is about.” He speaks of “holy envy,” saying if we might speak of such a thing, he has holy envy for the Mormon temple experience. What a nice thing to say.

In September of 1842, Joseph Smith was living in hiding from the infamous Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs, who had it out for the Mormon prophet. He spent much of his time in the space between the rafters and the roof of Edward Hunter’s house in Nauvoo, Illinois. In this setting, he wrote some gorgeous lines about salvation for the dead. Truman Madsen calls it “a rhapsody in an attic.” If poets are the minor prophets, Joseph belongs to both camps, major and minor. Here are his words:

Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy.

Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.

 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

The temple is a house of poetry, of imagery and spirit and symbolism and beauty, like Emily Dickinson’s house of Possibility. It affirms the great mystical connectedness of humanity, of all hallowed ones, all saints, all souls. We matter to each other. This life matters to eternity. I always leave the temple more in love and more appreciative of this dark green living, this golden-bright autumn day.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Waiting for Aslan

I finished reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my two oldest tonight. “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be,” Aslan tells the children after they have run without tiring deeper and deeper and higher and higher into existence. What a line. The fourteenth century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “God wants to see / More love and playfulness in your eyes / For that is your greatest witness to Him.” So happy as I mean you to be. Gentle Lucy replies, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.” Aslan says, smiling, “Have not you guessed? . . . The dream is ended. This is the morning.” The real story begins then, the undying story in which every chapter is better than the last, perhaps the story Lucy read a fragment of in that magician’s room in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the one she “never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.”

For the past year or so, we’ve been reading these books together. My children lose interest a lot, but when Aslan shows up, they are all attentiveness. They love that Lion. So do I. For weeks after I saw the film version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I read my scriptures differently. I saw Jesus as the muscular, brawny, humble, gentle God-man that He is. I sensed His hidden, muted power.

When Lucy and Peter and Edmund and their friends ran up a waterfall at the speed of a unicorn without tiring, my kids’ thoughts turned to the resurrection. They trust absolutely and implicitly that death is not the end of life and that it’s not something to fear. They have been close to those close to death. When Julie’s grandfather died, Emerson was very small. For days after Sandy passed away, my small son would run into the room where he had stayed, calling, “Gampapa!” They know we’ll see him again. They sense the sense in that, the truth that life is too holy to ever really end. They often ask if we’ll see someone we know and haven’t seen for a while in the resurrection. Or someone from the scriptures. Or even from movies sometimes. “Does everything happen again in the resurrection?” Lydia asked one day. “What do you mean?” “I mean, like will I be a kid again? Or a baby?” “Well, I don’t know. . . . I think we’ll have a perfect knowledge and maybe a perfect memory. So maybe it’s something like that . . . .” When I was trying to teach Emerson to ride his bike without training wheels, he fell. “I don’t want everything to happen again in the resurrection!” he wailed, “Because I don’t want to fall off my bike again.” Well, if that’s the worst thing he’s experienced . . . .

As we were reading the last chapter of the series, Emerson said, “If I’m going to die, I just want to die soon. But if I’m not going to die, then I just want to not die.” I was a little confused, but Lydie caught his logic. “Yeah,” she said, “because I want to see what it’s like from Heaven, but I kind of want to stay here. Because Dylan’s here.” (Dylan’s the boy who almost kissed her once at lunch). They don’t fear death. It is another bright adventure, a foray into the radiant unknown. I’ve thought about this idea quite a lot myself—when I want to die and why. Because it’d be nice to be alive during the Millennium, but you’d miss out on the Spirit World completely. I’m not sure if this is really what I want, but it might be lovely to die with Julie two days before Jesus comes again in a cloud and in glory. We wouldn’t know the experience of being changed in the twinkling of an eye. But if our kids were still small, we’d be able to raise them in Millennial peace, we as glorified beings, and they as translated children. That is, if we died without them. We could be a whole glorified family. But I think it’d be nice for them to have some earthiness to them still. And then Julie and I would be able to experience disembodied-ness, to know what it feels like to have been physical and then to lose it. We’d be able to see what spirits see and know what they know. But the disembodied, they say, view death as a bondage. There are certain things that come with physicality. Like kissing. As I knelt across the altar at the temple the other day and heard words spoken of the morning of first resurrection, I imagined that bright morning enjoying the party but wanting to sneak off to some corner apart in this bright universe to be alone with Julie—to hold each other and kiss again like new lovers, like newlyweds. Yes, yes, the party is fine. Yes, yes. But that first resurrected kiss. Ah.

And then, we’d reunite with our kids in the air. They’d come flying to the beaming warmth descending from the east. Their bodies quivering with joy. The very air singing. We’d fall on each others’ necks and weep and kiss and join the dazzling song. Then we’d descend to the newly renewed earth and raise them in a world without sin. What will that look like? These are the sorts of questions Lewis gets at in these books. What will all this really look like?

One Saturday I was reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to the kids. I would usually read at night to Em but we were getting to the part in which the White Witch kills Aslan, and I wanted to read it in the daytime. So Lydie joined us. She had read part of it before with Julie but couldn’t remember much, so Em and I caught her up. I was impressed with how much my golden-haired boy had retained. (Tonight as we finished the last chapter, we read about how they approached the green hill and saw the tops of trees whose leaves were silver and whose fruit was golden. Emerson told me, “Silver is kind of like gray, but it almost has sparkles in it.” Lydia asked, “Dad, do you like silver or gold better?” I told her I like silver because it is the color of my wedding ring and my ring reminds me that mom and I will be married forever. Emerson told me he likes gold better because his hair is golden.)

Emerson could tell his sister the whole story. And they get the idea that Aslan is a symbol for the Savior. Anyway, I was reading the part where Aslan goes to be sacrificed, and I was telling them that Aslan was stronger than the White Witch and stronger than the giants and dwarves and hags and cruels and spectres and everything there. I wanted them to know that Aslan only got killed because he let them kill him, just like Jesus. “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels.” A Roman legion was six thousand soldiers. That would have been something to see: seventy-two thousand angels against a few men and boys with swords and staves. But the gentle, compassionate, powerful Son of God walked into their violent embrace. But as I was telling the kids all the people that Aslan was stronger than, Emerson looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Is he even stronger than you?” Good to know that in his misperceptions, I am strong. (A sidenote on that note: One night I was reading the Sermon on the Mount to my kids, and I was telling them that I think Jesus is the best teacher who has ever lived, that I love the way He teaches. Emerson looked at me in wonder and asked, “Is he even a better teacher than you?” Oh, yes. Almost as strong as Aslan, and almost as good a teacher as Jesus. That’s me, Emerson’s dad. I love the misperceived world from his good son’s eyes.)

I finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a few months ago to Lydia and Emerson. It was a holy experience. I started crying as soon as Reepicheep throws away his sword, and I pretty much didn’t stop until several minutes after we finished the last page. While I was reading, Emerson sat up suddenly and pointed excitedly at the ceiling. “I see a cliff that the people jump off onto a bridge! And a penguin going off the bridge!” Lydie examined the ceiling and declared that she saw the same thing, except the cliff. Emerson clarified that the cliff went all the way up to the wall. Then she saw it. And another penguin. When we got to the part in the book where Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund they will not return to Narnia but will come to know him, Aslan, by another name in their own world, I turned with tears running down my cheeks to Lydia and asked, “Do you know what that name is?” All choked up, she replied, “Yes. Jesus.” Then she started to sob. When we closed the book, she curled into me and shook with sobs. Emerson stood up and looked at the two of us in tears. “I’m the only one who doesn’t have to cry for joy,” he said, and he ran downstairs to find The Silver Chair. Lydie and I lay snuggling each other and sniffling a little. I kissed her forehead and told her, “I love you.” She choked back in a small voice, “I love you, too.” Then, to make sure I heard it, she said it again, this time a little louder. A holy experience.

We watched Prince Caspian one night when Julie had to work. You remember how it ends with that sad, lovely song by Regina Spektor as Susan and Peter tell the Narnians goodbye for the last time—Aslan has told them they will not return. It’s a wonderful sadness captured in song and story. Just the right sadness. Well, as we were walking upstairs to brush our teeth, Emerson, all choked up says, “I’m just so sad that Susan and Peter will never go back to Narnia.” “I know,” I tell him, and he begins to sob, a heartfelt, sympathetic, wonderful, cathartic cry. I look at my small, sensitive child and my heart dances with gratitude. He is a boy after his father’s heart. How I love him.

I have loved reading these books with my children. The process was an exercise in waiting for Aslan. So many apparently mundane moments. And then the arrival of the Lion. A glint of mane, a scent, a sense. I think our lives are like that—we live sensing there is always something more, waiting for Aslan to breathe on us, to sing, to roar. We hurt inside and hurt each other and hurt ourselves, but then the Lion comes and none of that matters. Our broken pieces are picked up and somehow, miraculously mended. We follow Him, a parade of joy into a city of light. This is the morning.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Liquids and Vowels

"Father and Child" by Brian Kershisnik

You know what one of my favorite words in the whole world is? Dad. Julie and I watched the movie “Courageous,” and it made me grateful to be a dad. We folded laundry as we watched, and as I was hanging clothes in kids’ closets, Oliver lay curled in his crib sleeping sweetly, Lydia stirred a little and stretched her skinny little heaven arms, and Emerson sat up and looked at me in the dark and said, “Dad?” That word shot electricity through me. I helped him lay back down and covered him with blankets, and I felt so grateful for fatherhood. For my own father, who has never left any doubt about what matters most to him, who has always fathered deliberately. And for Bob, and grandfathers still living and on the other side of the veil. For Heavenly Father. Dad.

I got to take Lydia to her dance class on Monday. She skipped ahead of me, skinny legs in pink tights tucked into white sneakers. She wore her hair in a bun high on her head and a blue hooded sweatshirt with colored hearts on the back. I thought about Lydia, seller of purple, and all the colors this little ballerina peddles—a whole rainbow without charge. Through the window I watched her dance, twirling and leaping like my heart, like David before the ark, like this fluttering bird in my old chest. Dad. What a word.

I love to hear Oliver say “Daddy!” as he toddles slantingly toward me after a day of teaching. He has taken to repeating something I or someone else has said and then following it up with, “Right, Daddy?” That will melt a heart.
This painful, exquisite love I have for these four small people who call me dad is true and salient even if sometimes in their sleep-deprivation-induced, too-much-parade-candy-aggravated mania they scream and scream when they should just be asleep and it makes me want to kick clothing and punch pillows and lock them in their bedrooms crying and weep and weep myself. Especially then, perhaps, this love is real.

Want to know another of my favorite words? Fongyloo. But don’t say it too loudly at our house, at least not near electrical outlets, because that’s where Spiderman’s family lives. And fongyloo is a bad word in Spiderman’s language. This Emerson told me as I tucked him in bed last night. Spiderman used to say it, until he turned three. As Emerson said his nighttime prayer, he prayed, “And please bless JonasJennyBirgithandKjell and NatalieandDevan. And please bless Spiderman that he won’t say ‘fongyloo.’” Afterward he told me that it’s alright to say fongyloo in a prayer. That made me rest easy. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t remember the word (I really wanted to—you know my fascination with expletives), so I asked, “Hey, Em, what was that word that Spiderman shouldn’t say?” “Do you remember?” he asked. “No,” I said, thinking that he must have also forgotten and now he would just make up another word. “I’d better whisper it in your ear, in case his family is close by,” he said. And he came close and whispered, “Fongyloo.” I laughed. What a memory. What a mind. What a word.

And I love the names of my children. I noticed the other day that the sounds that make up their names are mostly liquids and vowels. Each has three syllables, and the litany of their Christian names drips from the open mouth like praise, like alleluia: Lydia, Emerson, Oliver, Eleanor.

Months or weeks after they came springing, singing into this world, I took each in my arms and gave them a name and a blessing. That experience is reason enough to be a member of a church which believes that discipleship is not a spectator sport. Have I told you that the fact that God gives His priesthood to all of His boys is one of my favorite things about living in the dispensation of the fullness of times? Think about it, the ancient tribe of Ephraim didn’t get to bless their own kids. Most fathers in most churches don’t get the honor. But I do. So rad. So good. As a father, who has had the opportunity to spend a little time with this newly-minted soul in the strict sense (body and spirit), and who cares deeply about its future, I get to take the child in my warm, imperfect hands and pronounce a blessing. It is sacred. One of my favorite things of being a member of the Church. These verses are often in my mind at those times: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). And this passage from Gilead: “There is a reality in blessing . . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” To acknowledge the holiness of these bright infants. To hold them in a circle of men with the express desire to pronounce words which will sanctify their existence. I love it.

Julie pointed out the other day that certain aspects of their blessings have foretold defining attributes in their lives. Oliver was blessed with a sense of humor. He has the greatest, quickest grin. He laughs out loud for joy. He tells knock knock jokes with no real punchline, but with astonishing comprehension for a two-year-old, I think. “Not-nok.” “Who’s there?” “Peetga.” “Peetga who?” “Peetga ah ah.” Uproarious laughter. Emerson was blessed to be a peacemaker. This morning as we snuggled in my bed he said, out of the blue and with no antecedent, “Dad, you know why I want to choose two? Because sometimes I want Reese’s Puffs, but Lydia doesn’t like them.” “Are you talking about birthday cereals?” “Yes.” I told him that since his motives were selfless I would consider letting him choose two cereals for his birthday. (A few weeks ago was his birthday and he chose four: Reese’s Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Frosted Flakes, and Lucky Charms. I told him from here on out it’s just one, buddy.) Eleanor was blessed to stand in awe of this world. Her eyes are so wide. She opens her mouth to eat the world. She calms in the outdoors. She cranes her head to see things as we pass them. She is, I think, astonished. Julie asked if the blessings bestow these qualities or acknowledge some premortal reality. Perhaps a little of both.

Their names came usually after spending some time with them, with their eyes and their smiles.

Lydia was the name of Julie’s great-grandmother. When she was three, Lydie would say something like this: “My mom is Mommy, and Mommy’s mom is Nana, and Nana’s mom is Gam, and Gam’s mom is me!” We were considering naming her Tuesday. As we stared in wonder at her new face, Lydia felt right in our mouths. Her name has, in addition to liquids and vowels, one small central tap, like in the word “butter.” When she was younger, she took to over-enunciating everything, calling me “datty” and pronouncing her own name “Lytia.” I think the first thing I did after she was born after I almost fainted and then cried was to sing to her. Then I held her and turned to my mother, “There’s no way you love me as much as I love this baby.” “You wouldn’t understand it until this moment, Rob.” The name mostly just means “a woman from Lydia,” but there’s a meaning of “beauty” from questionable etymology. When we named her, I imagined it had something to do with light. “Lover of light,” or something like that. She was always staring at the lights. Lydia was a seller of purple who loved and helped Paul. She worshipped God. A girl “whose heart the Lord opened” so that “she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” She was full of hospitality. She sold a color. She is, in my book, lovely.  

Emerson was named for my wife’s grandfather, in a roundabout sort of way. Julie’s grandpa was an American literature professor. Julie’s dad once asked his dad why he got a PhD in literature. “I was reading Emerson one day and thought to myself, ‘I have a master’s degree in literature, and I can’t understand Emerson.’ So I got a PhD.” That was the way Bri was. He was a deeply engaged and engaging man. He could talk with anyone about anything. He was genuinely interested in life. And so intelligent and so gentle. Bob then asked his dad, “So, now do you understand Emerson.” Bri’s response was quintessential: “You don’t understand Emerson; you experience him.” That is a very Emersonian sentiment. His name is also a shout-out to books and bookishness and writing. He comes from a family of bibliophiles, and he is one himself. Emerson means “son of a good home.” It’s a hopeful name. His middle name is my middle name, my grandfather’s name. A sturdy, usurping name: James.

Oliver was a childhood friend of mine, the good son of good parents. His father was in love with laughter. He had a solid door—oak, probably. It hurt my small hands to knock on it. Was their doorbell broken? Why was I always knocking on that hard door? His mother was Chinese. They invited us to dinner one night and I fear we were far from gracious. There is little sense of others’ feelings in children, at least of adults’ feelings. Oliver and I reconfigured fireworks and invited people to pay money to come to a dazzling show. The first one had surprised us with how well it worked. The grand finale just began to smoke and then flame, like a log, like newspaper. I can’t begin to tell you the disappointment I felt. We rode bikes on dirthills and threw mud balls filled with dog droppings at our neighborhood enemies. There were Olivers in our family tree. Mary Oliver writes lovely poetry sometimes. I think I had been reading her poetry around the time I blessed him:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

That’s a good poem. And all those vowels. The name means “peace” or “kind one.” He has brown eyes, the only one. He also has my face and my wife’s grandfather’s name for his middle name: Willis. There are more stories about all these people than I have time to tell. So many people we love so dearly.

Eleanor is almost all liquids and vowels. She was named for my gentle grandmother, who was at that time dying and who used to give me cinnamon gum when I visited her southern California house. She laughed easily and never scolded. She baked and cooked and fed and nourished. When I held my infant daughter, I would imagine I was holding my own grandmother. It was a strange thought. She was ten pounds, two ounces, and our souls delighted in fatness. Her name means “mercy,” and she has been a tender mercy. She is beginning to roll all over this green earth and to smile a lot and to sleep mostly through the night.

And I roll on, day by day, swimming in the liquids and vowels, in the miracle of dadness. O’s and A’s and E’s and I’s of praise. Beautiful, good home, peaceful, merciful dadness.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Water's Edge

Friday night I held Eleanor’s small, perfect, pajama-clothed body against me to warm her and to be warmed by her as we stood outside on a rooftop and listened to human beings pour music out of their insides and out of their (mostly stringed) instruments. Ellie watched wide-eyed and happy. She cooed and sang and I felt her small head vibrate under my warm hands which perched atop her head in the attitude of blessing, covering her ears to muffle the sound and offering what heat or fire I could. The songs they sang were mostly about light and water. The water ones washed around my thoughts:

Now Jordan’s banks they’re red and muddy,
And the rolling water is wide.
But I got no boat, so I’ll be good and muddy,
When I get to the other side.

And when I pass through the pearly gate,
Will my gown be gold instead?

How many times did ancient Israelites cross the river Jordan into a new life, an unknown? Joshua’s priests, hoping against hope that this swelling spring river would stop when the soles of their feet hit the wetness. As a heap. Those priests carrying their precious ark got a little wet, a small splash on the robes, but the others passed over dry-shod to the unknown of those high walls of Jericho. A new life. Utterly different from the wilderness they had just left. Of course, their fathers had passed through the waters as well. From slavery to freedom. From relative comfort to uncertainty, too. And Elijah crossed that same river to board his chariot of fire, off to a life of certain light. A new and different ministry. But he left behind poor Elisha to pick up the mantle and cross back—lonely, confused, uncertain. He walked into a world of miracles, though. They usually did. And then the Savior walked into that river a carpenter’s obedient Son and walked out the very Son of God. Well, or so it seemed to His mystified neighbors.

And there was this song: Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. God’s gonna trouble the water.

A man sat by the pool of Bethesda—the pool of the house of mercy—waiting for an angel to trouble the waters. Troubled waters bring healing. But the waters came to him. A woman sat by a well, cracked like the worn jar in her hands. The Son of God said to her, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” How? You have nothing to draw with. “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” This woman spoke with the embodiment of Living Waters. The waters had come to seep into and soothe her broken soul. “Give me this water.”

So, then, just this: Maybe the water meant so much because I had come to that music from the baptism of a student of mine—a bright, glistering, good young woman who has waited a long time for this. It was good for us to be there. Baptism is a death and a birth at the same time. Every crossing of the waters is. “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” But this burial is into life itself, not in earth or under stone, but we are immersed in water, enveloped in life. “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Newness of life. “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” To die into living waters and to emerge transformed. The very air is different.

I don’t know the quality of life we will enjoy in the next world, but I feel somewhat certain that it will be life “coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” There will likely exist certain parallels between this life and that—for life is life. But we will glow. We will know. Life elevated. Death will be a birth into a newness of life. Resurrection always follows a passing away.

So, too, I suppose that the quality of Shain’s life will change dramatically after being immersed in that font of living water. She will breathe differently. When she came mewling into this world and screamed her first breath of mortal air, she began to experience something unparalleled in her existence. From the light of God into this diffused, slanted earthly light. But now embodied. Able to hold a hand and to hug a friend. To smell the wispy fresh-washed hair of an infant. That former life surely held its glories. But without dying to that life, I could never have experienced this.

For the past two days, I have bathed in a flow of Spirit and words. I love living apostles and prophets. My heart has hummed and sung and glowed. This new life. This new life.

When I was born, I was given a new name and a family. Every birth provides these gifts. My name identifies, distinguishes, and associates me. Shain too received a new name at baptism. She took upon her the name of Jesus—distinguished from the darkness of the world by her new relationship with the Light of the World and associated with the fellowship of the Saints. This is a family of open arms. She will stumble as she begins to walk in newness of life. She will stutter as she speaks with the new tongue—the tongue of angels. But she will grow up in this new life. She has come to the water’s edge. And she has crossed. I have come to the water’s edge now several times. Every crossing brings death, cleansing, and a resurrection to newness.