Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

31 January 2010

A Recommendation for Lent (coming up in mid-February)

I'm snowed in. Eight inches of snow, uncommon in our area, have shut everything down, and there's a deep freezing fog. I can hardly see the birds at the feeder beyond my window. My family has abandoned me. Kris has risked icy highways to travel to faraway Oklahoma City to help Lulu with her calculus, mechanics, electromagnetics, and chemistry homework, (I'm no help there!), and Charlotte and friend, who'd been snowed in with me, finally got sick of the entertainments of this house (and me, probably) and were fetched away from here yesterday by the friend's dad, who has four wheel drive and knew not to drive into our hockey rink of a driveway, where his daughter's car was moored.

Alone. An uncommon pleasure, although not without its boredoms. For lack of anything else to do, and because Charlotte and her friend baked cookies and left behind all kinds of teenager food, I've been stuffing myself, just like the birds at my feeders and all the rest of the animals around here, who have gone into reckless food foraging mode, apparently expecting weeks of frozenness ahead will prevent them from getting food. The yard last night was full of deer, brazenly sniffing at the ice-glazed bedding plants, and, returning through the woods from my mother-in-law's house yesterday afternoon, I came upon a fresh pile—still steaming and rank smelling!—mountain lion scat.

Just before the beginning of the storm I started listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn't listened to it in many years, not since I returned to faith in the story it narrates after many years of atheism, so it has been a revelation. Not surprisingly, the work's overwhelming focus, the stress and hectic and desires and terrors and confusion surrounding Jesus' teaching for everyone involved—for Judas and the other apostles, for Mary Magdalene (seemingly a composite character of a number of women in the gospels), for Pilate and Herod, for Jesus himself, and for the crowds that followed him everywhere—has been impressing itself upon me from a number of other sources. I've been writing about John 6, where Jesus keeps trying to escape the crowds, into the mountains and out onto the roiling waters of the Sea of Galilee, and chastises them for just wanting things from him—food, healings, magic tricks—and not really believing in who he is. Not one of them believed he was who he said. Their collective refusal to believe him seems to make him doubt himself in an interesting reading of his begging, in Gethsemane, that God take the cup from him. The turmoil and misery of Jesus' human situation is so overwhelming and convincing in Jesus Christ Superstar, I keep finding myself sobbing at different parts of it.

I told Kris on the phone that I thought I'd assign it in my English 102 (Intro to lit.) classes as a drama, since we had only short plays in the syllabus. I want them to hear it. Kris seemed to think my mostly Christian students will be offended that Jesus doesn't rise from the dead in Jesus Christ Superstar, which I thought was an interesting. Of course, I would want them to be offended by something, the better to have something to say or write about the piece. But the fact that Kris is probably right—indeed, since he hasn't himself listened to Jesus Christ Superstar in eons, I'm guessing he remembers that this was the actual Bible Belt response to it back in the seventies when it was being performed—makes me think of it as the perfect literary experience for Lent: to coexperience the rejection Jesus must have suffered from, the abandonment and aloneness he must have felt even as he was surrounded by hectic crowds of people.

I'm entering Lent early this year, I realize. It begins 17 February this year. I got all off schedule as a result of working on a Lent article for Guideposts during my Christmas break, before I was even properly in the Christmas mood. I was working through Jesus' death even as I was trying to fold my mind around his birth as one of us.

One of us. Born like us. Being loved by parents, growing up, learning, having friends, disappointing parents, hoping like us, worrying like us (It says nowhere in the gospels that Jesus never worried, and I'm certain Andrew Lloyd Webber is right that he did!), surrounded by turmoil and stress like us, alone like us. Suffering and being misunderstood like us—surely worse than most of us. Confronting death as we all will. Dying.

How I came to listen to Webber's masterpiece is this: Kris has been reading Paul's letters to me in the morning, and the word apostle keeps coming up. Paul repeatedly claims to be an apostle himself, just like Peter and the rest of the twelve. He warns against false apostles—who apparently lurked about the early church believers, trying to get them to return to their Jewish obeyance of the Law or else believe something else entirely—and even seems to disparage what the NIV Kris reads from translates as "those 'super-apostles'" ("the very chiefest apostles" KJV; "these super-apostles" NRSV), which I take to be, contrary to what the notes in my NIV Study Bible say, the big churchy names of the times: Peter, James, John, etc.

Certainly Paul puts a lot of effort into locating himself among the real apostles, I have been thinking, but he also conflicts with them on several occasions. In any case, as always with me, it was a word, apostle, that baffled me. Why were the twelve referred to as "apostles"? It's used more frequently in the post-Resurrection narrative than in the gospels, where the twelve are often presumably lumped in with the rest of the disciples.

Judging from what my American Heritage dictionary and NIV Exhaustive Concordance have to reveal, the word appears to derive from the Greek word for send and means messenger. The twelve were Jesus' messengers, sent out to tell the world the wonderful news of the Messiah's arrival and departure from this world, and the false apostles were probably also sent by someone—Satan? Herod? the Romans who persecuted the early Christians?—to deliver a different message.

As I speculated about the word, a song from my teenage years sailed into my consciousness and remained there for days. Always hoped that I'd be an apostle. Knew that I could make it if I tried. Then when we retired we could write the gospels, and they still talk about us when we died. I don't remember attending a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in those days or listening to the song (was it on the radio then, along with Mary Magdalene's haunting "I Don't Know How to Love Him"?) or ever speculating about it. Certainly it's not one of the more memorable pieces in Jesus Christ Superstar. Nevertheless, I woke up with the wistful melody in my mind, those fame-obsessed words on my lips as I drove to work and home again. So I rummaged around until I found a copy of the CD (here it is on Amazon.com, with previews and MP3s available, in case you want to hear precisely the version I've been listening to) that I vaguely remembered someone had brought into the house some years ago.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, the senders of the different messages are some of the main voices we hear, and they are convincing and articulate and heartbreaking. They are Judas, distraught that Jesus isn't more of a people's hero for the Jews. They are Mary Magdalene, wanting Jesus to be "just a man." They are Pilate, perplexed and impressed by Jesus but too smug and afraid and angry to acknowledge his own assessment. They are the crowds of poor and sick and unhappy, shrieking out their miseries and expectations of him. They are us, confused one-time or would-be or current God-followers, each one of us determined to discover in Jesus not who he is/was/will be but whatever it is we are looking for. To be fed or healed. To be loved in whatever way we understand that difficult word. To be confirmed in our craziness. Jesus Christ Superstar is a caution to me, to us all.

So, it's my recommendation for Lent. Go out and buy it and let me know what you think. It's a great investment in a Lenten rethinking of what all was and still is involved in what Jesus identifies as the God-follower's work: believing in the One God Sent.

15 January 2010

Resolutions of a Yum-Yucker

The other day my daughter Charlotte called me a yum-yucker. I just googled this term and got, amazingly, no hits, so I'm guessing it's original to one of my colleagues, who also used it some weeks ago—the first and only other time I've ever encountered the term—in response to my response to his going on about summer sausage. It was the second or third time he'd mentioned summer sausage in a week. How he craved it. It was the season.

"I can't figure out why it's called summer sausage, though," he told me, "since it's only available in winter."

“I can’t figure out why you like it,” I told him. “It makes me feel a little sick when I eat it. Like those bottled salad dressings that have that weird aftertaste . . . ”

That’s when he called me a yum-yucker.

And Charlotte inherited the term from my telling the summer sausage story at dinner that night. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but she went even further.

“Your colleague was right. You’re a yum-yucker. You’re always yucking on people’s yums.”

Her supportive example (parenting tip: I always demand these from my girls, when they assert their views. It has made them both formidable arguers.): “Well, like, we go in a store, and I say, ‘Look at this skirt! Isn’t it cute?’ and you’re like, ‘Eeewww!’ That’s you. Totally. A yum-yucker.”

She refused to acknowledge the fact that, when we’re shopping and I like something she points out, I get all excited, in the positive direction. Or that I frequently find things I like and say, “Here, put this on. It’ll look really good on you.” And she does, and I’m right, and she buys it.

I call it being enthusiastic and honest. I’m just not into empty praise. Or vacuous or openly dishonest pep talks, like the ones my mother-in-law once told me she used to give my husband as a teenager whenever he left the house. “You look so handsome!” she’d croon, especially if he looked, as she put it, “down in the mouth”—her euphemism for depressed, a word she hates and refuses to use. I admire the impulse—to lift others up, an ambition that pretty much defines Mamaw—but, ever since she told me about those routine remarks, I’ve never trusted as genuineany word of praise she’s ever offered me.

Indeed, her praise often makes me suspicious she actually means the opposite. “Your car looks so shiny and clean!” she’ll tell me, and I’m suddenly aware that it’s way past time to do something about the salt and grime that’s been building up for months.

All this to say that my new year’s resolution—and my plan for Lent, which is coming up in a month—is to work on yumming others’ yums. To consciously seek out role models, rather than focusing, as I'm prone to do, on others' failures.

Not surprisingly, having made this resolution, I've gotten two lessons on the topic over the past few days, as the semester has started up again. One was from the head librarian at my university. I was telling her about the next book I’ll be working on, tentatively called Easy Burdens, on how the life of the believer really is supposed to be delightful, not a trial. Yoked to the powerful One God Sent, our burden, however heavy, should actually feel light. I started the book in response to an ongoing series of pep talks I’ve been giving to a beloved former student—possibly the most spiritually devoted person I've ever met, a woman whose every action seems imbued with the desire to love God back—who is crippled (as, secretly, I often am) by the worry that she doesn’t do enough as a believer. (In the book, in other words, I hope to convince myself as much as her of what I believe to be true about what God expects of us but nevertheless struggle to embrace.)

“Yes, I know a lot of Christians worry about not doing enough,” the librarian told me. “But I never feel that kind of guilt. I think it’s because of my father, who was always so encouraging and positive. There was nothing I could do that didn’t impress and please him.”

The next day, I was asking another colleague how he came to have the goal of being available to whoever walks in his door. Whether it's a student or a colleague or an utter stranger or just me, he drops everything, always, with a smile on his face. So inviting. I guessed he had been the victim of someone—probably a parent, such important formers and deformers—who was saliently unavailable to him in his past. Always too busy. Or too negative and closed. Perpetually yucking his yums. I figured he had made it his life goal to never be that way to anyone else.

“It was my dad,” he said. “He was a pastor.”

“Ah,” I commiserated. My father wasn't a pastor, but I could imagine that life: the endless flow of needy sheep, the neglected sons and daughters.

“You know,” he went on, “his door was always open—to me and to anyone else. ‘Nothing is more important than being there for someone who needs my attention,’ he always told me.”

“It’s hard sometimes," my colleague continued. "I mean, I get behind in things. But I figure, a lot of what I do”—he gestures at his computer, some open textbooks, a pile of papers—“is just fluff, and people are more important.”

I want to be like this man, the pastor’s son—and a pastor himself, though he may not know it. And like the librarian—Miss Mary, I call her, which is what my daughters called her in Sunday school—who not only never suffers from guilt but never causes it. I’m certain of this. I want to be like Mamaw, who prods and primps everyone around her out into the world with the confidence that things aren’t so bad. And I want to inspire my daughters to be like these people—to keep their doors open, to feel no guilt, to enter the world without suspicion but only buoyancy and blithe confidence.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t be wise to the dangers ahead of us. Like those potato chips coated in an oily powder that purport to taste like sour cream and green onion and that, if I break down and eat the one Charlotte thrusts at me in her enthusiasm, will make me burp artificial onion taste for days afterward.

Eeeewww yuck!