Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Certain Man Went to Jericho

The above is my favorite painting of The Good Samaritan, by English artist Dinah Roe Kendall. I can't tell you why I love it; like artistic Philistines everywhere, I fall back on the explanation that while I don't know art, I know what I like.

I love the story of The Good Samaritan, as much for what isn't written there as for what is. Why was the man headed away from Jerusalem, the High City of God, down toward Jericho, the lowest place on earth, accessible only by treacherous roads filled with hiding places for those wishing to do harm to a lonely traveler?

And why were the priest and the Levite on that road? Were they traveling in the same direction as the victim, or were they on their way back to Jerusalem? And what of that Samaritan? Had he been the recipient of the same kindness, been blessed by equal goodness, at other times in his life?

I know that the man who falls among thieves is meant to represent all of us -- fallen creatures in a low and dangerous world, a long way from the safety and protection of God. And Christ is the Samaritan, misunderstood, even hated, leaving the open road and moving into the shadows at personal risk to rescue one who likely sees Him as less-than.

But I want to tell you a story that puts a very sacred and personal spin on the tale of The Good Samaritan. I'm writing it primarily so that it will be recorded here to remind and bless those who participated and those who know about it through the telling of it.

Sometime, maybe 20 years or so ago, my father was an LDS bishop in the area where my family now lives. Those who knew my dad knew that he was a man of paradoxes: a no-nonsense guy with the instincts and right hook of a street fighter (a skill he once demonstrated in front of a group of 12-18 year old boys from our ward when a drunken man assaulted our bishop at a local fast food restaurant, causing my father to go all 'Bull in the Ice Cream Shop', leap over the seat, and with a single punch, lay the attacker out cold. My husband was in that group of stunned young men; he's never forgotten what happened when 'Brother Powers' felt inspired to defend a friend), yet full of laughter and tenderness. He kicked you in the butt when you had it coming, but usually that just meant he had your back.

And, as bishop, he took his pastoral duties seriously, watching over his flock and, occasionally using the 'rod of correction' to encourage those showing signs of straying back into safer paths.

One such parishioner was John, an ambitious young lawyer working hard to establish himself in his newly chosen profession, even if doing so meant working Sundays and sending his little family alone to church. Dad watched for several weeks as John's absence became regular, then consistent, and then headed toward permanent. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to pay John a visit.

John tells me that as he waited for the bishop to come to his house, he was feeling a mite defensive. He had his arguments all lined up for why his choices were justified, that those choices were temporary, and that Bishop Powers should worry more about people whose faith really was in trouble and leave solid church members like himself alone.

But for whatever reason, when my dad arrived, John said none of those things. Instead, he listened patiently, then humbly, as his priesthood leader promised him that careful observance of the Sabbath and the dedication of one complete, work-free day a week to his family would bring him professional, familial, and spiritual success in ways his current lifestyle never could. John believed him, and thanked him, and then allowed his bishop to lay hands on his head and give him a blessing.

It was a critical and permanent course correction in John's life, and the lives of those he loved most in the world have been blessed for it ever since.

Sixteen years later, in 2011, my family moved from Las Vegas to Stansbury Park, in part to be close to my mother after she lost my dad to an unexpected heart attack in the fall of 2009. And John, now a happy, successful attorney with a beautiful, growing family, was called as our youngest son's Sunday School teacher, as well as our Home Teacher.

There was an immediate connection between John and our family. Jacob thought he was the coolest guy in the ward, and John loved Jacob with sincerity and genuine affection. We all felt that same degree of love from John, and when he finally saw fit to recount the story of 'The Bishop's Visit', we understood a little better where those tender feelings came from.

Three weeks ago, Jake made a stupid, short-sighted decision that got him in trouble with the law. We emptied his savings account to bail him out of jail, hit Google to see what the maximum sentence was for the two charges against him, and worried and prayed and worried some more.

The next day -- Sunday -- the first thing Jake did was seek out John. John -- his teacher, his friend, and, thankfully, his willing advocate in the legal system.

John came over that afternoon. He prayed with us. He comforted and reassured Jacob that he would do everything in his power to rescue him from the trouble in which he'd placed himself. And over the following weeks, he worked closely with the prosecutor (a stranger, who has sought every opportunity to give Jacob the benefit of the doubt, based largely on John's advocacy on his behalf) to bring a frightening experience to a safe and secure end.

Tomorrow, Jacob stands before the judge to plead his case. John, and another wonderful friend of Jacob's, a man named Jack, were here tonight at Jake's request, joining Brett in giving Jake another priesthood blessing. Then John explained what he and the prosecutor had worked out.

One charge, dropped completely. No jail time. A plea arrangement that, after ninety days, would be expunged from his record -- and then, even that was reduced to thirty days at the prosecutor's suggestion, so that there wouldn't be a guilty plea hovering over Jacob's attempts to find a second job this summer. The fine normally attached to the charge would be reduced by half.

And above all, John would be standing right beside Jacob, placing his professional reputation on the line to defend and protect our son.

Jake smiled tonight for the first time since he was arrested. And cried. And told this great man how much he loved him.

Sometimes, we're the man on the road to Jericho. How we got there, and how we fell among thieves, is between us and our better judgment. And, if we're humble enough, we'll allow ourselves to be rescued, even by someone we feel may not have the right to get involved, regardless of his position in the church. Or maybe we'll cry out for help, and find a friend in a place he might not otherwise have been were it not for his own rescue at another time, on another stretch of the Jericho road.

And sometimes, we're the Samaritan, strong and courageous and able to reach out to a fellow traveler in need, even one whose own short-sightedness, hubris, or naivete may have put him in harm's way to begin with.

What takes us to the road to Jericho? God only knows. But what we do while we're there defines our humanity and our discipleship. And once we're bound up and healed of our wounds, the Jericho road may lead us to that upward path, safely in the direction of home.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

It's Bigger on the Inside

I found this picture on nourish the planet dot com.
I don't know if they own the copyright, but if anyone is inclined
to file a lawsuit, I invite you to go after them first.
As this blog post indicates, the most you'd ever collect from me is
a basement full of crap no one claims or indeed seems to remember
purchasing, owning, wearing, asking Santa for, or borrowing from their sister
ten years ago with the solemn promise to give it right back.

Lately, when things start getting the better of me, I turn on my phone and begin scrolling through pictures of tiny houses.
I honestly can't tell you why this has become my therapy of choice. For some reason, looking at photographs of 200 square foot living spaces calms my nerves, and, as likely as not, keeps me from strangling whoever happens to be in the room at the time.
The two are not unrelated, of course. The one inspiring the strangling is likely to be the one inspiring the need for a tiny house hit, a visual 'fix' that brings my blood pressure back to normal.
There is something fascinating to me about a little house that can still hold everything I might need. I don't really remember ever having that kind of fit. Does anyone?
When we first were married the world was somehow both cozy and immense. While full of potential and prospects and giant things like bills and car repairs and student loans, it was also complete and uncomplicated when we finally closed the curtains and were left with just us.
Over the years, as we added to the largeness of our lives, the smallness counterbalance continued. With each new child, our world became smaller, even as our need for a larger home and higher salary increased. Who could have imagined we'd actually forget to watch Thirty-Something because our baby was giggling at the dog, and we were absolutely, comprehensively enthralled? But there was so little time, what with working extra hours and teaching music lessons to pay for that larger home and provide for that giggly baby. 
When we grew up a bit more, and took on more responsibilities and voluntary obligations, the world was bigger as the calendar filled up, and smaller as things like PTA talent shows consumed absurd amounts of energy and earnestness.
Remember that? Remember being on the band fund raising committee and plowing through the month with the intensity of the Joint Chiefs attempting to thwart global annihilation? Remember when little things like hand made Halloween costumes were just huge? Wasn't that weird?
I realize that there are many of you who are saying, "Yes, DeNae. I remember. You're talking about last week."
But any more, I find that a lot of my reader-friends are on the same lap around the block as I, whose nests are emptying, then filling again as their fledglings find someone to add to the flock.
And so the world gets bigger again.
We have a daughter talking marriage, a son whose wife is expecting our first grandchild, another daughter who graduates from college in a week and will be returning home for a while. Our youngest surprised us with the announcement that he had reversed his original position of "not interested" and is now planning on serving a religious mission in the fall. The daughter with wedding bells clanging in her head did the same thing, only in reverse.
The basement is filled with bins and dressers and boxes of things that are either completely useless or more precious than Gollum's ring, but no one is around to make the call. And when the kids are at home, it usually involves dropping off something new. Last year's textbooks, the snowboard that mostly served to remind the owner that she spent her formative years in the Caribbean, a grocery bag full of knit caps that kept the boy's head warm last year but, inexplicably, ceased to do so when the fashion winds changed -- these all find a safe home downstairs, filed and not-quite-forgotten, curated by the apparent hoarders-in-training whose names are on the deed. So the house remains bottom-heavy, often lacking lightness and loft, true, but also solidly, firmly, there.
Bigger, smaller, bigger, then very small. Stretch, squeeze, twist, and twist again, add some color, add some flavor, roll it all out and chop it into bits. Midlife is life on a taffy pull.
So I sneak peeks at pictures of tiny houses, wondering what it would be like to live in a little, me-sized space. Not for long. Just until I can catch my breath and reconnect with this bendy, Gumby, Alice in Wonderland life we've built for ourselves.
'Drink me,' it says. 'Add a baby. Make room for an in-law. Retire, take a nap, then start a new career.'
And stay flexible. Like Alice, you can't really know in what direction you'll be growing.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Keepers

Clockwise from top:
Wendy, Me, Cathie, Sue Anne
The things we knew at fourteen...
Last night, I received a notification that a girl from high school had accepted my friend invitation on Facebook -- 24 hours after she'd died.
I wasn't surprised that it happened this way. I knew she was dying when I sent the request, hoping that someone in her family would add me to her list of friends so I would know that the end had finally come. I had included a message of encouragement, a promise of prayers. But I knew who would see them. And who wouldn't.
We knew each other, this girl and I, liked each other in that 'friend-in-law' way they talk about on television. Some of my dearest were her dearest, too, so we mattered to one another because we mattered to them.
After I learned of her death, I Googled the obituaries of other classmates, people I had laughed with and ditched with and cheated with on Spanish tests. Most of them I really only knew as kids. Reading about who they were, and who they'd left behind, was like meeting someone new, their faces familiar but older. Their parents' faces, perhaps. But not the faces I remembered.
Childhood friends are the keepers of brief and sacred chapters of our stories. Collectively, they hold stewardship over those years from our lives when everything was 'first.' First day of school, first kiss, first broken heart.
They were there the first time a boy I was certain I was in love with held my hand as we sang Christmas carols down his street. And they were in class the next day when, before the entire concert choir, that boy asked my best friend to the prom. I was at the piano, at the front of the room, and all 110 of them saw the look of shock, and shame, and betrayal on my face. Some knew what to say. Most just left me alone, a mercy, upon reflection. But they own that memory. The pain was mine, the picture, theirs.
I've known the girls in the above photograph since I moved to town in the second grade. All except Cathie, the latecomer, who arrived two years later. We know things about each other that no one in the world knows. Not just secrets, but millions of shared moments that came and went and left flecks of color on our young, clean canvases. We did the damnedest things together, things we would never talk about for fear that both our parents and our kids would overhear and never look at us the same way again.
We always wore dresses to school on Wednesdays, because we stopped at the church on the way home from Robert Frost Elementary to attend Primary. We took piano lessons together, hiding unpracticed music books in our teacher's milk box before ringing the bell, then sneaking back, commando-style, to retrieve them once we'd left her house. We cried with Wendy when her dad died suddenly, all of us too young to understand why or how a parent could just not be there any more. That was the first time I sang at a funeral, and I thought I would collapse under the weight of all that grief.
At times the friends of my youth and I were cruel and horrible, the way children often are when they're learning what it means to be human. Our mothers understood how hard childhood was, that 'innocence' was a two-edged sword, and usually loved us back to center. But they weren't there on the way home from school, when I decided to mimic one friend's walk simply because doing so made another friend laugh. No, I own that terrible mile -- I, and the other three girls on the road.
I watched a boy I'd grown up with and a boy who had tormented me for years beat each other half senseless outside the Junior High gym. I stood there in the crowd, appalled and mesmerized, witnessing my first out-and-out brawl. What no one knew, of course, was that I was silently cheering for my tormentor, as though he would know that I rooted for him and it would be enough to make him leave me alone.
This was also the first time I realized that sometimes boys felt so much free-floating anger that they lashed out brutally and with unchecked fierceness. And that sometimes, when exhaustion and pain finally muted whatever inner voice was crying for justice, they reached out and shook hands, declaring the issue done and forgotten. For reasons that were surely coincidental to everyone but me,  the nastiness from the other boy stopped after that fight. I knew my friend wasn't defending me. He had no idea what had been going on for three long years between me and that boy. But somehow, in a fistfight over who-knew-what, my friend had defeated my enemy, and I knew I would love him for it forever.
Late night walks around the block often ended on one front lawn or another, as we talked and shared until the night breeze blew the last of the day's warmth away and we would head down the sidewalk to stand, back to back, in front of the house that was exactly equidistant from both of ours. One, two, three, we would say, then shout 'bye' as we each took off to run home in the dark.
These are images, pages and lines on pages that are held by so few. Kids grow up, and meet other grown-up kids whose childhoods are tucked safely in the memories of still others we will never know. For most of us, the relationship pool expands as spouses, children, extended families, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow parishioners become the company we keep, and will keep for the last many decades of our lives.  
But the early years, those first years and years of firsts, are in the unique possession of our childhood friends, so that when one extends an invitation to remain friends even after she has died, the child within us understands, and accepts.