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Fans of Margaret Guenther will welcome this salty and wise collection of reflections on her life journey her childhood in Kansas City, her college days, her career, her travels, and her slow awakening to transience of ...
Fans of Margaret Guenther will welcome this salty and wise collection of reflections on her life journey her childhood in Kansas City, her college days, her career, her travels, and her slow awakening to transience of all things. This writer and spiritual director looks back over the nearly eight decades of her life, tackling themes of childhood, friendship, moving, the magic of words, heaven, spirituality in cyberspace, asking the right questions, and things never to do again.
Readers of Holy Listening, On Holy Ground, My Soul in Silence Waits, At Home in the World, and The Practice of Prayer will delight in this book of fresh, humorous insights.
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.
God and Purple Loosestrife
A few years ago on a bus ride through New England I saw my first purple loosestrife. The summer meadows were spectacular, an undulating sea of spiky reddish-purple flowers. It was a visual feast, an excess of purple, a color that most decorators would use cautiously and sparingly. I couldn't get enough. As we rolled toward Newburyport, I wanted the little journey to go on forever.
Later I asked a local friend, "What is that gorgeous flower I saw in all the fields between here and Boston?" He looked at me with thinly concealed disgust and replied, "That's loosestrife." His tone suggested that I was maybe too naive to be let out on my own, that maybe I wouldn't be able to distinguish between a Norway rat and the Easter Bunny. His tone also suggested that "loosestrife" was a naughty word, almost an expletive. A little poking around the encyclopedia told me that this Old World marsh herb, now naturalized in the eastern United States, is regarded by farmers as invasive, noxious, and downright abhorrent. You rarely talk about it in polite society, and you most certainly do not admire it.
So I went underground. My love of this beautiful flower became my guilty secret, to be enjoyed from train and car windows but not flaunted to the locals.
I was therefore surprised last summer to see pricey pots of purple loosestrife on sale at our local garden shop. It lost some magnificence by being confined in nondescript plastic containers alongside the geraniums and impatiens, those reliable standbys of city gardeners. But restrained as it was, it was unmistakably the extravagant loosestrife of the summer meadow. "Can you actually sell this?" I asked the shop's proprietor. "I thought it was banned along with other controlled substances." He reassured me: this loosestrife was specially bred and guaranteed sterile. It would provide a magnificent splash of purple in my backyard but would be denied the gift and heritage of children.
That was last year. This year we have twice as much exuberant loosestrife, and there are tiny plants popping up everywhere. Our purple loosestrife, despite the assurances of Mr. Johnson, has turned out to be a promiscuous plant. I still love it, maybe love it even more because it refuses to be restrained. Its very name suggests abandon, prodigality, indeed a certain wildness that is lacking in my North European/Anglo-Saxon/Midwestern/middle-class being. As the deer longs for the water brooks, my soul yearns for the extravagance of purple loosestrife, maybe also for the equally prodigal thistle, beloved of goldfinches and despised by thrifty farmers.
It's so easy to second-guess God. It's so easy to forget that God created quite a few species that most of us would prefer s/he had left in the planning stage. Even as I am willing to co-exist with most snakes and actually like bats, I would happily forego garden slugs and mosquitoes. We might also hint to God that sometimes a little can go a long way, so that we could manage happily with less of some varieties. Out in Jenkins Hollow this has been an exceptional summer for poison ivy. Glossy, dark green leaves cover the old stone walls and fan out lavishly along the roadside. It is as beautiful as my loosestrife, but I find myself thinking that if I were God, I'd cut down on the poison ivy and encourage the wild grapes. They don't make anyone wild with itching, and they provide food for the foxes and raccoons.
In my more honest moments I can recognize my hubris. Speciesism—I discovered to my surprise that it is an honest-to-goodness word in the dictionary—is just one more ugly little "ism," maybe less virulent than racism, sexism, and ageism. But like all our ugly little "isms" it is based on selfish, limited judgment. It is an ongoing surprise to realize that my idea of what is good and worthy does not necessarily coincide with God's. It is unsettling when I am forced to realize, yet again, that God refuses to be confined by me, anymore than my promiscuous purple loosestrife could be confined in its plastic pot.
Quite a few years ago I was guest preacher in a parish that was still uneasy at the sight of a woman in the pulpit. I should have kept out of trouble, but by chance or graced coincidence, the gospel for that Sunday was the story of the Prodigal. It's amazing that I survived coffee hour, perhaps that I was not stoned as I left the parking lot. I had pointed out something in that familiar story that most of us (including me) manage to forget most of the time: the prodigal is not the wayward, wastrel son. The true prodigal is his recklessly extravagant father.
In a society that carefully guards property and property rights, this father has simply handed over a sizeable fortune to a greedy and irresponsible child. This father—before he has time to hear the story, while the delinquent and disappointing son is yet at a distance— runs to embrace him and kisses him. This dignified property owner of mature years runs to hug someone who has been living in a pigpen. And, although he has no more disposable wealth since the remaining share belongs by right to the elder son's inheritance, this father orders lavish gifts and plans a big party. He gives away what isn't his anymore.
This was more than that congregation of exemplary elder brothers (and sisters) could bear to hear. Maybe they had hoped that the story would turn out differently on this particular Sunday morning. Maybe they had hoped that this time their carefulness and hard work would be praised. They didn't like what they heard from me, even though they had no doubt heard it many times before.
Sometimes I think that we fail to realize the absurdity and the exuberance of this story because it's just too much for us. Most of us, even when we are not quite so self-righteous as the elder brother or so guilt-ridden as the younger, are more comfortable with a God who runs a taut ship. We'll obey—or break—all the rules and then wait for God to deal with the delinquents. We have our standards of what is useful and what is not, of who is worthy and who is not. A proper deity should also have standards and exercise restraint.
I'm still trying to get my mind around the prodigality of God. That might be an impossible task because it is quite beyond my limited left-brain. The God of purple loosestrife and glossy poison ivy is the God who doesn't always play fair, at least by my standards.
The overwhelming excessiveness of creation pales compared to the prodigality of God's love. This is love lavished with abandon and, by my standards, with poor taste. This is the God who pays the last-minute slackers the same wage as the hard-working folk like me, the ones who show up early and skip their lunch break. This is the God who then has the temerity to ask, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:15).
This is the God of thistles and purple loosestrife, the God of bats and garden slugs. This is the Prodigal God who overwhelms me with his prodigality.
Feeding the Multitude
The housewife in me loves the stories of Jesus feeding the four thousands and the five thousands (not counting women and children). The gospel writers must have loved them too since all four gospels include at least one version (Matthew 14:13–21, 15:32–39; Mark 6:30–44, 8:1–10; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–13). I can read these stories symbolically, as a prefiguring of the institution of the Eucharist, but most of the time I read them as real stories of real people who needed to be fed. That's a story I can relate to.
Goodness knows, there are plenty of times when I have put together a giant casserole of tuna, noodles, and canned soup to feed an unplanned multitude. It's not an elegant dish, but it's better than nothing. Maybe because she was feeding a fair-sized family during the Depression, my mother was even more creative than I. Her greatest achievement of making something out of nothing happened when I was about eight. We returned from a brief vacation to find the front porch full of distant cousins from Illinois. They had just dropped in for a visit—a visit of several days, of course. It was a hot August Sunday, and the stores were closed—this happened in olden times before malls and round-the-clock supermarkets—but somehow she produced an abundant meal out of nothing.
Jesus doesn't complain, but it'seems to be a recurring experience for him: just when he thinks he has removed himself from the crowds for a little rest and reflection, all those people turn up. Or else they are waiting for him when he arrives. I can imagine that he and his friends sometimes felt stretched to the limit, probably felt that they had nothing more to give. And then the crowds, like the Illinois country relatives of my childhood, are lying in wait for him, confident that he will be glad to see them.
This happens often in the gospels: Jesus can't get away. People are clamoring to be near him—to hear his teaching, to be healed, just to be with him. So the crowd is waiting for him when his little boat arrives. And it's a big crowd—five thousand men! Matthew's version of the same story adds "not counting women and children." This would increase the number drastically and might also explain where the baskets came from. Women are always carrying things.
As I picture the scene, it's been a long day of hot sunshine, and Jesus and his friends are surrounded by a teeming mass of all sorts and conditions of people. I'm pretty sure that they are not all nice, polite people. I suspect that they have come with a variety of motives, histories, and needs. There are probably even a few con artists and pickpockets in the crowd. Could there have been souvenir sellers? Maybe. Maybe it was something like a big, fairly peaceful gathering on the Washington Mall on a summer day.
When Jesus saw this great throng, he "had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd." In other words, he saw them as aimless, lost, and without clear purpose. So—no matter how he was feeling—he was able to put himself aside and to be present to them despite his own fatigue and concern.
The mother/housewife in me can imagine what the scene was like at the end of the day, after people had listened for hours to his teaching. The babies were crying, tempers were growing short, and there were a lot of people with headaches and growling stomachs. The disciples are practical: it's getting late, they say. It makes sense to send them off to get something to eat.
There follows a stunning example of the unreasonableness of Jesus, his way of calmly asking, indeed commanding the impossible: you go ahead and feed them. The disciples' response: with what? Where are we going to get enough money to buy what it would take? We don't have anything—except....
Except some little bits of bread and a couple of fish. Except We don't really have anything. Except.... Just enough for ourselves. Not enough to make any difference. What we have doesn't count for much. We don't have anything. Except....
But Jesus turns to his friends—and when I put myself in the story, I know that he is turning to me— and asks: How many loaves do you have? What do you have that I can work with? What do you have that we can—together—use to pull off a miracle? How can we manage some holy sleight of hand that will baffle the literal-minded for millennia?
It is easy to forget the humble stuff of miracles, the materials readily at hand: bread, the simplest, most basic food, and a few dried fish. If the story were taking place today, there would probably be some day-old Wonder bread and bargain-priced generic tuna, the kind that's just a jump ahead of catfood.
Yet despite the appearance of poverty and meagerness, the result is startling abundance. Everyone is fed. The five thousand and presumably the women and children have eaten their fill, and there are baskets of leftovers.
This is a story about real people—earthed, embodied, and physical. Jesus knows that people get tired and hungry and that they must be fed. In other words, he recognizes our neediness, along with our very human limitations, especially the sad fact that we are not naturally generous. I can picture myself standing among his friends, avoiding looking him in the eye as I mumble: I haven't anything anyone would want, really nothing worth giving. I haven't anything you could use. Except....
He is willing to wait for my answer, to wait for as long as it takes for me to look into my lunch box or brown bag or elegantly outfitted picnic basket, only to discover that there is a lot more in there than I had realized. It may not look like much, but it is the stuff of miracles.
Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:17)
What beautiful absurdity! These words from the Revelation to St. John, almost the very last words of our Bible, set me thinking about God the accountant, God the mathematician, God the economist. In other words: in ways I don't usually think about God.
There is a powerful message encoded in our culture: everything must add up. From the earliest days of our formal education, we are taught to sneer at the absurdity that two plus two might equal five. I still remember, after the passage of quite a few decades, the laborious tedium of drilling into my brain: two plus two equals four. Only the dullards would come up with five or three. Or try to defend their position. Discussion and dissension were not encouraged in our humble little school: this was a fact, this was to be memorized, this was the way it was.
Throughout our lives we go on making things add up, making sure the sides of the equation are equal. In my days as teacher/administrator, I kept a calculator in one desk drawer and a Bible in the other; and in the course of an ordinary day I was equally likely to whip out the calculator, just to make sure that things added up and that that holy document—the budget—was being honored.
We insist that everything must add up because we know that everything has a cost and we know all too well that resources are limited. That is, our material resources can be measured, meted out, and sooner or later exhausted. So we have our cynical clichés: You get what you pay for! There's no such thing as a free lunch! Unexpected generosity is frequently greeted with suspicion, for all too often gifts have strings attached and are not true gifts. Wisely, we learn to be wary of promises of no down payment, the "free gifts" advertised on television, the dream of something for nothing.
Everything has its price. In our shop windows, numbers and dollar signs seem to be our chief decorative symbols. We learn to beware of restaurants so elegant that the prices are not printed on the menu. And, rich or poor, we all, to some degree, cultivate the art of getting the most for our money. Two decades of living in New York made me an expert practitioner, with zest for the game even when it didn't really matter.
Not surprisingly, we are impatient with those who do not pay their way or "pull their weight." So society's "gift" of welfare assistance to its poorest and most helpless is a grudging one at best, and we are merciless with the cheaters (those who cannily or cynically beat the system) when they are caught.
Excerpted from Just Passing Through by MARGARET GUENTHER. Copyright © 2007 Margaret Guenther. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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God and Purple Loosestrife
Feeding the Multitude
FRIENDS AND SISTERS
Thank You, Betty Friedan!
The Spiritual Significance of a Sally Lunn Cake—Actually Only Half of One
Women Without Words
In Defense of a Woman Named Martha
Spiritual Life in Cyberspace
The Canaanite Woman
Learning to Read
So—What Was the Question?
Small Words To Be Used With Care
Whatever Became of Sin?
A Secret Word
There Is So Much to Hear
Reflections of a Septuagenarian
Notes from a Sojourner
The House I Live In
Who Is That Person in the Mirror?
Things I Will Never Do Again
Making It All Come Out Even
My Little Room
My Day Job
My Other Day Job
Priorities for Shepherds
Touch and See
LIFE GOES ON
I'm Proud To Be an Eagle
A Golden September Day
Prayer and Broccoli
Is That Bush on Fire?
It's Time for an Onion Sandwich
Moving Through the Wilderness
If Only You Would ... Yes, But
Planting the Apple Tree