Hail Mary, full of ….fear?

the-annunciation

The Annunciation, photo by the author, taken at the Folk Art Museum, Kinsky Summer Palace, Prague, CK

I am not a Biblical scholar by any means, but isn’t it time to recognize Mary’s side of the story? I mean, an angel tells Mary she is going to have a very special baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and she responds in so many words, “Okay.” She wonders how it would be so, but she is reassured that it will all work out.

Jesus is born, his birth told but not described in Scriptures. Thousands of artists have captured in their paintings and sculptures a smiling and relaxed Mary holding her newborn. The scriptures were written by men, of course, for men in the early church to study, and so the feminine point of view was lost. In the book of Luke, Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s words. Men, are you for real? Is that it? What about the morning sickness? And the swollen feet? Mary was blessed among women, but she was human. And what about the pain? The Mother of God would not have just crouched down and pushed out a full term baby without extreme discomfort. I gave birth to two children. I know.

Courage is acting in the face of fear, and in my mind Mary had plenty to fear. She was poor, and if traveling alone with Joseph (according to the story), she wouldn’t have had the comfort of her mother and familiar village women to help her with the birth. Pregnant with her first child? That’s enough for many sleepless nights. Surrendering to God’s will takes courage, but courage is continually tested by human doubt and fear.

What was it like? A woman at the time of Jesus’ birth stood or squatted during labor, her back supported by trusted family and friends. Mary would also have had a midwife who applied oils for lubrication, used poultices to ease pain, and used sea sponges for gently bathing her body. The midwife would have also brought sweet and aromatic herbs such as penny royal and quince to revive the laboring mother. Joseph would not have helped with the delivery; it would have been unclean for him to touch any blood.

Mary is esteemed and even worshiped for her role in birth of our Savior. Full of grace, certainly. Interestingly, the Koran says more about Mary’s preparation than do the Scriptures. The Koran’s description of Mary’s childhood, overseen by Divine intervention, gives believability to Mary’s acquiescence to God’s plan. She was visited daily by angels , and she had frequent visions of God. While there are many theological issues that I am not prepared to argue, the Koran seems to support the notion that Mary was groomed for the job, so to speak.

There is more to the birth of Jesus than what we have been led to believe through Sunday School, carols, and sermons. No where in the Bible are we told that Jesus was born in a stable. There were no inns at the time like we think of them; the Jews were hospitable and opened their homes to those who needed refuge. Jesus was born and placed in a manger, a hay filled depression in the dirt floor, probably in the lower level of a guest house, maybe even a relative’s house, say Biblical archeologists. The lower level housed people as well as animals.

But the truth conveyed by the story of Jesus’ birth is not dependent upon whether Jesus was born in a stable or whether Mary was indeed a virgin. The story of the nativity is beautiful and enduring because it teaches us about humility and trust. The Son of God born into a poor family? Hmmm…a lesson in seeing God in the least of us. Surrendering to something we don’t understand so that the gift can be received? Reminds me of Lamaze coaching…don’t fight the pain,  surrender to the pain, embrace it as something that will bring you love beyond anything you could have imagined.

How many times do we turn down gifts because of our own fears? Fear of not being in control, fear of losing ourselves. I hadn’t considered until recently how we sometimes need to give up something in order to receive.

This Christmas I’m not going to ponder the mysteries of a Virgin birth or worry about stables and mean innkeepers who turn  away a pregnant woman. I’m going to ponder the gift of God on earth, in the form of a man, birthed by a very brave and faithful young woman named Mary. Mary, full of grace, who surrendered, perhaps with occasional bouts of fear and pain, to the gift of all gifts- God’s love Incarnate.

Resources for Pondering

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Hospital Slippers

Dad and I at an Eastern Star Luau 2001

Dad and I at an Eastern Star Luau 2001

I wanted him to live forever, but of course that was not to be. The journey of my father’s decline began with more frequent trips to the emergency room–congestive heart failure had hooked its talons into his increasingly frail body. One winter night, I took him to the hospital where the doctor decided that Dad needed to be admitted, again. The familiar routine of exchanging street clothes for the ubiquitous paisley hospital gown and slippers began.

“What do you think of your designer gown, Dad?”

“Lovely,” he answered with fake gentility.

Always the gentleman, my father endeared himself to the nurse who had apologized for how long it was taking to get him admitted and settled. “That’s why they call us ‘patients,'” he answered.

The nurse handed me a plastic wrapped package of slippers that were hallmarks of hospital fashion: grey yarn knitted into a facsimile of a foot and bearing cracked rubber stripes across the soles.

I took my time to slide the hospital slippers over Dad’s blue veined and knotted feet. I felt incredibly blessed by the opportunity to serve him, and I was overcome by love for the man who had been such a wonderful father.

His feet had carried him for over ninety years. They had toddled down the wooden staircase of his childhood home on East Vine Street, helped him spring upward for cheering on First Ward School, nervously stood at the altar for his marriage, walked the deck of the USS Jacob Jones during WWII, and survived my childish glee as I “danced” with him on his toes. His feet led me down the aisle at my wedding, and they carried him down the aisle for the funerals of his parents, his brother and sister, and his beloved wife.

I’m sure my father had no idea that my simple task had invoked so much love and so many memories. But I didn’t say anything; I just helped him with his slippers.

“There, Dad. You’re all ready,” I said.

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The Zen of Burping

Image from womenworld.org

Image from womenworld.org

My new granddaughter Katherine lay on my shoulder after a feeding, her head nestled into my neck. Full, but unsettled, she tucked her little legs up and made little mewing sounds and head jerks that told me all was not well in her three week old world. Air may be one of life’s critical elements (food, water, and shelter being others), but too much of a good thing, especially air in Katherine’s tummy, was bad. Not on my watch!

I, having taken the honored moniker of “Nana,” reached back into memories of comforting my own babies. I patted Katherine’s Lilliputian back with my grownup hand, which seemed to completely cover the squirming form beneath it. Pat, pat, pat. Firm pats. Memory served me and Katherine well. I heard two good burps and a discrete little toot from the other end. Katherine’s legs immediately relaxed, her eyes closed, and her cherubic face reflected a “life is good” serenity.

Even though she had burped and was easing into the curves of my body, I continued the patting for reassurance more than production. Falling into a simpatico drowsiness, I thought about the things that cause us grownups discomfort and take up unnecessary room in our souls. Guilt, for instance. Guilt is like an air bubble in the gut. An unwelcome guest, it makes us keel over and hold our bodies in a protective posture, and it keeps us from participating in the good things of life. We hold onto guilt, and like an air bubble, we can have a hard time letting go of it. A healthy belch, I might suggest, could advance our enlightenment.

Remember the childish admonition we used to sing? It’s better to burp and bear the shame than not to burp and bear the pain. Think back to your last satisfying belch—mostly likely in the privacy of your car on the way back from a stolen moment of junk food at MacDonald’s. You knew it was coming from the pressure in your chest, and you were alone. So you opened your mouth, and this deep rumble massaged your windpipe as the excess air made its way out. It felt good, didn’t it? And the rude sound was delicious to the ear. You probably smiled to yourself because it was just a little bit naughty—one of those things that you’re taught not to do in polite society. Imagine if that rumbling and explosive release of air was the regret you have about the inadequacy of your parenting skills or the opportunities you let slide because it was too much effort. And I won’t even mention the category of regrets and guilt that can escape from the “toot” end of our bodies.

We could all use a spiritual burp. Imagine your guardian angel delivering a rhythmic thumping on our backs with love and care instead of the punishing whacks we give ourselves. Then the soul, curled up against the rigors and disappointments of life, could relax and make room for the good things.  So the next time you are in the privacy of a car or empty kitchen and you feel a nascent burp, attach some useless guilt to it and let ‘er rip!

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Review of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a collection of related stories about a platoon of US soldiers in Vietnam. The book is more than a blood and guts soaked through in the leech filled rice paddy story. The author expertly, and with rich prose, returns again and again to the theme of what the soldiers in Vietnam carried, not only in their packs and in their hands, but in their pockets and their hearts. Some of the scenarios are gritty, to be sure, but what story about the Vietnam could NOT be gritty. The author served as a soldier in the 23rd infantry division, 3rd Platoon, in Vietnam, and his stories are magically woven into a combination of biography, autobiography, and fiction. One of the themes is the power of writing as therapy. The narrator is a writer who looks back to relive the war and learns to live again. He writes “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” The Things They Carried is a staple in many high school and college literature classes-deservedly so.

View all my reviews

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The Dog with PTSD

The author with her dog Tonto

The author with her dog Tonto

Tonto came into our lives in January 2013. He was nine months old and accompanied by his brother Ridley. The foster mom asked me which one I wanted. Two sets of big eyes and wagging tails tugged at my heart. I felt like King Solomon. How could I judge which dog belonged to me?

Of Labrador and German shepherd parents, the two dogs looked and acted differently. Tonto was more Lab. He was golden coated with a German shepherd tail and coarse hair. And he was shy. “Good,” I thought, “he won’t be obnoxious with guests.” His brother was a smaller version of Rin Tin Tin, my childhood obsession. And he was friendly, too friendly, and a little hyper.

I stood to the side and watched them check out the yard, deposit their “gifts,” and chase each other. Then Tonto came to me with a wagging tail. “He chose you,” the foster mom said. How could I possibly turn down such blind adoration? While we were signing the papers, Ridley nuzzled his way into my hand, and I had a brief moment of indecision. But the die was cast, and the foster mother drove off with Ridley in his crate.

Like most marriages, the honeymoon was brief. Tonto and I bonded quickly, but the story was different with my husband Tom. A pattern soon developed. In the morning Tonto was friendly with Tom…until he got dressed. Then Tonto would back up and bark at him. We discovered that our new dog was afraid of men’s shoes. Tonto would not even approach me if I put on a pair of hard-soled wingtips. Maybe it was the clumping way I tottered in Tom’s shoes.

We came to the conclusion that Tonto had been kicked or severely punished for chewing shoes, and our campaign for behavior change began. I suggested that Tom stay in his pajamas during the day, but surprise,  that idea was vetoed. The trainer said to put a pair of Tom’s shoes in the family room and fill them with treats, but Tonto wouldn’t then venture out of the kitchen. I tried spraying him with water when he barked. That worked some, but where was the water bottle most of the time? Our older minds could hardly keep track of car keys let alone a sprayer. The trainer suggested Prozac. Was it for me or the dog?

We’ve had Tonto for a few months now, and the barking-at-shoes dilemma has not been solved. Friends at the dog park have many recommendations, and we’re trying them all–except the one to give Tonto back to the rescue home. The soulful eyes, the silky ears, and the bounding-because I’m glad-to-see-you behavior overrides any repercussions from the trauma Tonto experienced before he came into our home.  Tom frequently goes barefoot, and I’m constantly misplacing the spray bottle. We decided that PTSD really means “Present Tonto Seems Divine.”

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The Responsibilities of Leadership

Lt. Walter Rudin

Walter M. Rudin, USN

The Fourth of July is more than barbeques and fireworks. If you’ve ever attended a parade and heard a fife and drum corps, you’ll understand the how the cadence of those drums embolden hearts and give courage to the men (and now women) going into battle.

My Revolutionary War ancestors were not on the battlefields. They provided support by transporting goods, signing oaths of allegiance, or ministering to the dying.

It wasn’t until World War II that our family had someone in the midst of conflict (that we know). My father was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and served on the USS Jacob Jones in the Atlantic and the Pacific. He saw German periscopes slip into the sea on moonlit nights, he witnessed flotsam pop up after ordering depth charges, and he spent one Christmas Eve on board in the middle of ocean, listening to nurses sing “Silent Night” on a nearby hospital ship.

Men and women need special talents and dedication to be leaders of troops that they will be taking into harm’s way. My great nephew John  is enamored with the Marines Corps. USMC insignia are emblazoned on his Facebook page, bedroom walls, and on his hats, etc. He is currently attending the Marine Military Academy summer camp, learning how to be a strong and confident leader. John’s grandfather, my brother, wrote his grandson a letter last spring about the profound responsibility of military leadership. I proudly share (with his permission) a portion of his touching and articulate message.

March 14, 2013

John,

…Military leadership is different than civilian management. It is both an honor and a burden. Preparing for and/or leading troops into harms way is an awesome responsibility and one not to be taken lightly. It is extraordinary because you may be called upon to lead men and women into combat whereby they risk injury or even death. These brave troops deserve the very best you have to give. They will depend upon your courage, your decisions, and your integrity. They are worthy of nothing less! If you are a good leader, upholding the traditions and values of an organization such as the United States Marine Corps, they will follow you to the Gates of Hell.

Your family, immediate and extended, has a rich and long tradition of military and public service, the Air Force,  the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, education, health care and law enforcement. Our collective spirit resides within you. It will give you the strength and courage to persevere. Military service is not easy, nor should it be. Its elemental purpose is to defend our great Nation and our way of life. Its defense requires men and women with a strong sense of duty, commitment beyond self, personal courage and strength; men and women willing to do violence in our behalf…

Regardless of your chosen path, we love you and are proud of what you have and will accomplish.

Well said, Brother!

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The Purpose of Prayer

I have added a new chapter, among other changes, to the revised version of “Treat Gently, This Gentle Man: A Daughter’s Prayers,” to be released next week through Amazon.com. I offer this chapter on my blog for feedback. Do my perspectives on prayer ring true for you? Is there more that I should be saying? I trust you, my readers, with this intimate portrait of prayer.

San Xavier Mission

San Xavier Mission

The Purpose of Prayer

Psalm 145:18

The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him sincerely.

At some point in each of our lives, regardless of religious conviction, we have had challenges so dire, so out of our control, that we know we are powerless. And we pleaded for God’s help. Yet when we have been extraordinarily blessed, most of us have also given thanks. In other words, we have prayed.

I have given hours of thought to the purpose of prayer, especially since so many prayers seem to go unanswered, at least from my experience. “Help me trust your will,” the prayer on the previous page pleads. What did I expect? A sudden feeling of peace and a total lack of doubt? Frankly, yes, that is what I wanted. I didn’t get it.

I have realized, however, that praying to get something is different than praying to understand something. I’m not saying that we can’t ask God to intercede in our lives. I believe that God wants us to come to him with our concerns, but requests, yes even pleading, are only a part of our relationship with God.

In the past year of putting my prayers on paper, I realized that I received the most comfort from using prayer to communicate not only what I needed and wanted but to also tell God, my most trusted ally, about my fears, my confusion, and my doubts.

An anonymous poem illustrates the next step: letting go.

As children bring their broken toys,
With tears, for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God,
Because He was my friend.

But then, instead of leaving Him
In peace, to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help,
With ways that were my own.

At last, I snatched them back
And cried, ”How can you be so slow?”
“My child,” He said, “What could I do?
You never did let go!”

God wants a relationship with us, and a relationship has two directions. I speak, you listen. You speak, I listen. In rich discourse, let us not forget that listening is more than hearing; it is taking in what is being said and considering the words not only from our own viewpoint but what those words mean to the person who spoke them.
So when we pray, are we hanging on to our words with God and not handing them over to trust our true needs for Him to know?  The very act of praying gives us the freedom to get to the very center of our relationship with God. Are we trusting enough to have an honest conversation?

Heavenly Father, I want to remember to have a conversation with you. As with my closest friends, encourage me to ask for help, thank you for my blessings, and to remember others in need. You are lovingly listening to me. May I hear Your words also.

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