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.

28 February 2010

Grant the Glad Surprising!

I've been doing radio interviews about my new book this week—three back to back on my days off from teaching—and the discussions I've had have reignited my enthusiasm for the scriptural passage that forms the center of A Field Guide to God. In it, Paul summarizes all of scripture to a crowd of Athenian philosophers gathered to discuss the newest ideas: "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-27 NRSV).

I just can't get over the promises so efficiently offered here. That all of human history, that everything that seems to divide us, that everything that happens to us, however perplexing or upsetting, is part of a divine plan to make us seek God. That God greatest desire of us is to be sought. That God is always near us, waiting to be found. Inherent in the promises is also a clear plan for what God expects of us: namely, we should not merely seek but grope for God.

In remeditating on this passage anew, it occurred to me how much God's desire for us is like the desires imbedded in any relationship. I thought of how I have gone through days, weeks even, waiting for one of my daughters to get over some perceived injustice on my part, how I long the whole time for her, how I nudge opportunity after opportunity for reconciliation into every encounter.

I thought, too, of how, when my husband Kris is depressed or when he and I have had one of our rare fights (usually these occur sequentially: he gets distant and down, and I flip out and try to fight it out of him), afterwards I get in bed next to him and feel about as far away from him as it's possible to be. Far away in my frustration and hurt, in my inability to solve his stress and dread. Far away in my inevitable anger. Far away in my regret. Far away, even, in my underlying desire to repair what I have damaged and make things right again, which I know to be impossible.

Simultaneously, I know that it is possible for us to restore our usual love, that we will get okay with each other again. We always have, after all. I know that we could even now be on the road back to each other if I would just reach across the great chasm of sheets and blankets and coldness between us, reach up across his back and pull him toward me.

But I can't do it. Can't force myself. But he..., I lie there thinking. It's his ... He should.... And so it goes until one of us gropes past anger or hurt or self-righteousness for the other. Maybe not that night. Maybe not the next day even. Each of us wants and waits and just about makes that move, while the other is never far away, wanting, waiting, just about to move, too. And eventually, in a moment of "glad surprising" I sang about in a hymn this morning at church, love is restored.

It seems to me there is no greater thing in my life than those moments of restored love. Toward a husband. Or a daughter. Or a relative or a friend or a colleague or even a stranger who happens to displease me. What a joy it is to rediscover in myself the capacity to get beyond my own meanness, if only momentarily.

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for and perhaps grope for and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. What delightful promises from our creator and father and lover. What a call to action.

19 February 2010

Spring, Birds, Lent, Tiger Woods, etc.

"We saw a red bird," one of my students told me in class yesterday.

"It was a cardinal," I told her.

"No it wasn't. I know what a cardinal looks like, but this one was different. Its body was orange. And it sang this amazing song."

She commanded another student, the other half of the "we" who saw and heard this bird, to "do the song." He had a good memory for bird voices and made a convincing twiddle that ended in a falling whistle.

"Cardinal," I said. I knew for certain now. But the students were skeptical. "First off, there's no other red bird around here this time of year. Also, the immature ones range from brown to orange. Plus, that was the cardinal's breeding song you just heard."

Spring approaches, although it's still cold. The cardinals have quit their feckless cheeps of winter and are singing with purpose now—as, indeed, everything seems to be doing this time of year. Students linger before class in pairs, leaning toward each other. Despite the yellow ratty grass, despite the chill yet in the air, they yearn to go outside, as my girls used to when they were little: I'd look up and there they'd both be—having stripped naked when I wasn't looking and escaped—sitting in the mud puddle at the end of the drive with our dogs.

It always impresses me how spring motivates people. Suddenly, they're touching, dieting, exercising, cleaning, noticing birds, whistling, attending church services they've neglected for a long time, practicing disciplines—fasting, sacrificing, setting spiritual goals for themselves—that would never occur to them the rest of the year. It is as though the desire for renewal is built into us, just as it is in the color-tipped branches of the trees, in the surprising downpours of spring, in the woodpeckers I see chipping away at the trees to make their nests this time of year. Somehow, in spring, we all want to be new.

Charlotte called me from school on Ash Wednesday to lament that she had already failed, ten hours into the first day of Lent, in this year's goal of no texting.

"I got a text from one of my teachers, and I had to answer it. So it's not going to work. You have to help me think of something else!" she whisper-wailed. I tried to envision where she was at that moment. In the hallway between classes with her friends? In some class where the teacher let them use their *&#^^%!! cell phones? In a bathroom stall?

I suggested adding, rather than subtracting, something from her life, and she said she was already planning that, too. She had counted up the chapters of the four gospels and decided she could read it all during Lent at a rate of two chapters a day.

"I can't give up rich foods," she confided, "because I know I'd be doing it for the wrong reason—to get in shape. But what else is there?" After some more whispering—I felt as though we were planning a murder—she decided to scale down the no texting plan to the hours between 7 and 9 at night, during which time she'd read her two chapters.

I just now listened to Tiger Woods' speech of remorse to his friends and fans. Generally speaking, I have little interest in sports or celebrities and their flashy troubles, and, without a television in our house, my only way of even knowing what's going on is in the summaries of our weekly news magazines. I'm interested in apologies, though. So, when Woods' apology headlined in the Google news as I turned on my computer, I clicked on it and cried my way through the whole sad speech, his halting words doubly halting because of our slow dial up connection.

For the record, despite what the experts in matters public seemed to think, it sounded like genuine remorse to me. And, more movingly, genuine desire to be a new person. As I listened, I heard the voices of others I think about this time of year: Peter, Judas, Pilate. I savored, through this golfplayer's regret and hope, the sweet regret and hope of us all, as we grasp at new selves in the springtime.