This article was originally published in Ransom Fellowship’s newsletter, Notes from Toad Hall, on November 2007.
When we stayed with friends Leslie and John near NYC in October — it was, I think, our second day with them, a Saturday. They were outside working in their pleasant yard with its meadowy borders of butterfly bushes, roses, and boxwood. I was relishing a nap in the cozy guest bedroom; the window was open and sounds of dirt scratching and pots thumping floated up. I was content to hear someone else purposefully engaged until John’s voice drifted in and I heard this snippet “Oh, by the way, Leslie, we have rats again, so don’t . . . ”
I sat up fast and looked around. Rats? Where? They didn’t mention rats when they invited us to stay with them. When there was no female shriek in response, I thought, either Leslie is one tough chick (who writes business plans for Bloomberg, anyway, without some self-possession?), or it’s just not that unusual to live in a sweet old neighborhood of Connecticut and have urban rats. I laid back down. Later, I learned they’d invaded their garage for the second time. Leslie was apparently unmoved by nests of black plague and gnawed foundations. She merely intoned her favorite saying: “It is what it is.” Oh?
Chickens and the Egg
While in New York we also visited with friends Joe and Becca Schwen who manage an organic vegetable farm at Stony Kill. This year they raised a little flock of hens which we stood around admiring. They were busy scratching for worms and being beautiful. One of the shiny black ones stood on a pile of wood and eyeballed us. She was giving innocent little praaawk praraaawks, but if you sat still in her pen for a minute she’d gladly peck your eyes out. You wouldn’t necessarily know that if you didn’t know chickens.
We talked about the strangeness of certain foods, and how did humans ever perceive what was good for eating, and did God give Adam and Eve some hints? Denis’s favorite food is the lobster which looks about as ugly and threatening as you can get. Becca’s is the egg. She told us that twice, by chance as she gathered eggs, placing her hand beneath a hen on the nest, it dropped a warm brown egg into her hand. She pulled it out and looked, wondering who ever saw this smooth hard thing that fell out of a chicken’s you-know-what and thought, I’m going to eat it? When you crack an egg open and see a sac of yellow oil surrounded by thick snot, what would give you the idea, now here’s a tasty little morsel?
It’s weird that despite the way an egg looks and the route it takes to open air, it is a nearly perfect food. You can serve it with almost anything that can be snipped, chopped, or grated. Fried, poached, scrambled — all good. Add it to any cookie or cake and it will be richer. Whip slimy whites to a tight froth, add them to butter, flour, sugar, and lemon and you get a soufflé that kills. And what crazy French person thought of beating olive oil into yolks until your arm breaks and suddenly you get mayonnaise? None of these things would exist if we had to rely on the way I look at things.
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Human perspective, at least mine, easily draws erroneous conclusions from what look like unassailable observations. I shouldn’t do this, but there it is. It looks to me like God, The Master of the Universe, wastes a lot of my time. Why else should I need to spend fruitless hours waiting in line to renew my license, waiting for the schmuck driver ahead of me to decide whether he is turning right or left, waiting for beets to roast (they take FORever), waiting for weariness to leave, waiting for renewed joy in work and ministry when with a wave of His wand all of these troubles could evaporate? Watching the hours and days escape one by one with unmet deadlines, duties left undone, e-mails unanswered (why did I begin a blog?) surely is not good for my health.
And speaking of health, I certainly have a rotting body. True, I should be thankful there is no terrorist organization after it, no rats are nibbling my feet, and I have a doctor who insists on adjusting my medications about every five minutes. But my body’s obvious deterioration disturbs me — funny bumps on the skin, wiggly waving triceps, and the only time it considers running is to the bathroom.
My need for severe adjustments in perspective is nearly constant. For help I often consider the wisdom of those who mentor me through their lives and writings — they seem a lot farther along than I am. In The Good Works Reader Thomas Oden writes about the Lord’s Prayer and the larger meaning of receiving our daily bread: “Ultimately the bread we most pray for is the clarity and truthfulness of our own purpose and destiny.” That is what I crave, I’m hungry to understand my purpose, to believe that human finiteness is okay, and to know and believe when God made us to live in dailyness He said, “It is good.” I’d like to live with a certain clarity that though the day inevitably comes with suffering, it’s still good, and I would like to gratefully receive that day with all its shuffling and waiting as a gift.
Virginia Owens startles me with her sweet patience and observations about bodies: “Caring for my mother has, as you might expect, changed both my perception of my own body and the rounding off of my life. I accept my aches and pains with better grace these days, knowing how hard my body has worked to do its job, uphold its end of the bargain. I realize now that however well I look after it, it’s still going to break down, first in one place, then another. I’m no longer impatient with it when it does, though, nor as frenetic as I used to be about staving off its losses. Joints, lymph nodes, retinas, I’m grateful they’ve carried me so far, filtered my juices, filled me with light” (Caring for Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye, by Virginia Stem Owens, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).
One of the characters in the Advent story whom we don’t hear much about — because she’s such a minor player — is Anna. What attracts me is that she’s old — I mean really old. Luke tells us “she was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:35-37). It seems she never forgot the memories of her young husband and his untimely death, which could have left her angry and bitter. Probably her joints ached, her skin sucked, and her eyes got gunkier each morning. From a modern perspective, she didn’t have much of a life, though her contemporaries did call her a prophetess. One morning, in walks this couple with a baby, one among hundreds, maybe thousands, she’s already seen, but she has the clarity of truthfulness and purpose that helps her recognize something different about this baby — He’s the Christ of God. She walks over to touch this child that all the world is waiting for, and there in front of everyone she blesses Him and thanks God.
In the chapter just before Luke writes about Anna, he tells us about Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, who says a profound thing, and I think it captures exactly what Anna was doing with her life. Zachariah says that the Messiah is going “to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). Which is exactly what Anna was doing, right there in the temple with corns on her toes and moles on her neck.
If I am busy considering either my body or time as enemies, then I have succumbed to a limited perspective informed by my senses and, more subtly, by cultural pressures that determine whether we are good, successful, disciplined, worthy people — thanks to iCalendar, diet, and proper exercise. Both body and time are gifts that enable me to serve God in holiness and righteousness “before Him (embodied) all our days.” That means being contented with 24-hour days — where God says it’s good to live — from babyhood to the end of life. If I understand Anna’s life correctly, this child she blessed has the power to transform our fearful concentration on self (in whatever form), forgive our complaints, and direct us in acts of service to others.
As Another Anna Sees It
Our friends in Connecticut have a gap in the hedge surrounding their yard where a path leads from their back porch to the neighbor’s back door where John and (by coincidence, another) Anna live, confined by age and poor health. Early each morning the Eddys carry a carafe of fresh decaf coffee across the dewy grass, up the steps, and quietly leave this small token of care at John and Anna’s back door. Each day, John totters back with the empty carafe. When my husband met his wife, Anna, who is bent and frail, Denis told her how many wonderful things he’d heard about her. She grasped his hand in both of her dry, papery hands, pumped them up and down and without missing a beat rasped, “My g-d, they LIE ALL the TIME!” We could see how much John and Anna adored this younger couple who have chosen to love them with something so simple as a cup of coffee.
Jesus said: “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42). It’s a matter of perspective to understand that those little acts of mercy can become large in the eyes of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Margie Haack is co-director of Ransom Fellowship, a ministry helping Christians engage postmodern culture in ways authentic to the Christian faith and hopefully winsome in its expression. She and her husband, Denis, like to invite people into conversation through their writing and their home, giving unhurried time and safe passage to talk about anything, perhaps share coffee and scones. Margie blogs at Toads Drink Coffee, and is editor of a quarterly newsletter, Notes from Toad Hall, where she writes about finding what’s funny, what’s holy, what’s suffering in ordinary, everyday life. She is also a grandmother, a lazy gardener, and a chocolate freak.