Bye-bye, shells!

We are, as my friend Sarah has taught me to say, feeding two birds with one hand: visiting my husband’s parents means visiting the beach, and this time our visit is also a welcome distraction from an anticipated trip to the zoo falling through. Turning my daughter’s offhand suggestion of a visit into reality on the same day was an easy decision to make when faced with a few unscheduled summer days.

I love the beach as much as my daughter does, but like my husband, I was not so blessed as she is to grow up making several trips each summer. I do not remember the time my parents took me to Ocean City – I was just a baby. The next time I would make it to the ocean, I was nine or ten years old. But every summer, my grandparents made a trip to Myrtle Beach, and they would bring back a few special shells to my sister and I. I did not realize that you could not find shells like these just laying on the beach – they had been bought in souvenir shops. I still have several of those shells, and over the years accumulated more and more.

Today, when I go to the beach, I find myself picking up shell after shell. One has fantastic color, another a beautiful shape, another an interesting texture. My daughter picks them up too, but I am embarrassed to admit that I pick up twice as many as she does, and an observer would be as hard pressed to see what I see in the shells I keep as I am sometimes to see what she sees in her shells. Each one is precious and perfect as I pick it up – and I am growing to learn that each one is forgotten not long after I get home.

Today, sitting in the shallows with my daughter, I began idly picking up bits of shell fragments and tossing them into the waves. After explaining to her that, no, I was not throwing gobs of sand, she began tossing shells too. Then she got up, ran from the water, selected a shell, and threw it hard into the waves, calling after it, “Bye-bye, shell!”

She did this several times, until she came running back to me with a shell in her hand. It was just the kind I would have picked for myself – one of loveliest I had seen all day – a whole and perfect clam shell, streaked white and purple, inside and out. “Throw it into the ocean, Mommy!” she commanded. After hesitating a bit, I did. Then she said, “Now say, ‘Bye-bye shell!'” And I did.

“Come with me, Mommy!” I followed her away from the water, and began to pick up the first shell I noticed, but before I could bend down, she directed me, “Find your favorite one.” So I kept looking, and found a ruffled black oyster shell that reminded me of the skirt of a nineteenth century ballgown. “Now throw it in!” And I did. Over and over again, I found striking shells, shells that I would ordinarily be filling her sand bucket with, briefly reflected on their perfect beauty, and then tossed them into the ocean, with a shouted, “Bye-bye, shell!”

And then we found a very large piece of kelp, and my pint-sized spiritual director was transformed back into my three-year old daughter, as she carried it back to show Grandma and Grandpa.  I took her picture holding the kelp, and then had to explain that we could not keep it, because it would not be the same when it dried out – that it was prettier in the ocean. So she agreed to take it back to me, throw it into the ocean, and shout after it, “Bye-bye kelp!”

As I followed her back to the bit of sand we had claimed with blankets, chairs, and umbrellas, I was stopped by a woman calling out to me from her beach chair, “Miss! I think it is lovely what you did with your daughter, teaching her that the kelp belongs in the ocean.”

As so often is the case, I didn’t know how to respond in the moment. But now I would say, perhaps I was able to teach the lesson of the kelp to my daughter because she taught me the lesson of the shells. I enjoyed the beauty of each shell I cast into the ocean perhaps more than I do those I keep – though I do not like to think of myself as materialistic, my daughter’s easy surrender of her favorite shells inspired me to observe my own desire to possess.

This drive to possess is called coveting – wanting something that is not ours – and depending on how you count, at least one or maybe even two out of ten commandments tells us that we shall not!! It is this drive to possess that leads us to gloss over the fact that we are coveting, in order to justify ourselves – it is not ours yet, but neither is it anyone else’s, at least not yet, or not anymore, or not someone’s who would take as good care of it as we would, or appreciate it properly.

I have lots to say about coveting, but today it is enough to say that I got closer to the heart of my desire to possess the beautiful, and it felt good to notice that I did not need to possess the shells, that I did not need to take them home and keep them to myself – and that in that moment of throwing the shells back to the place from whence they came, I felt I trusted God more to provide the beauty I need when I need it – that I needn’t store my manna in a jar for a rainy day, but can consume today’s bread with joy and with thanksgiving!

Celebrating Itinerancy

My husband opened a letter in the kitchen after work this evening. And though I saw the familiar cross and flame letterhead – the same letterhead that came atop the announcements that Pastor Olive was leaving, that Pastor Duke is leaving, and though I heard my husband’s astonished exclamation, I did not expect the news he shared with me: Pastor Jaylynn is leaving, too. I felt totally deflated. How was it possible that we were only finding out now that our associate was going to be leaving in less than a month?

We moved into the living room, and as my husband and I began discussing the news, my daughter interrupted to ask me to tell her a Bible story.

“In a minute, sweetie – Daddy and I are sad.”
“Well, we were sad when we learned that Pastor Duke was leaving, but then we thought, at least Pastor Jaylynn would still be with us. But tonight we learned that Pastor Jaylynn is going to be going to another church, too. Pastor Duke is going to another church, and Pastor Jaylynn is leaving, too.”
She thought about that for a little while, and then said matter of factly, “We will be getting a new teacher.”

I just about leapt across the room to hug her! Of course we were getting a new teacher. “Yes,” my husband said, “His name is Pastor Taylor, and he is going to be our new Pastor. He has a little girl just your age.”
“I didn’t know that!” Hannah said excitedly.

And I told her the story of Daniel praying, and we lifted our arms up and said thank you to God, too – thank you for the many wonderful pastors we have known, and for our church, and for the pastor who is coming to us. And thank you that, as United Methodists, we know that we will always “be getting a new teacher.”

I served in a small town, just down the street from a Baptist church. When their pastor moved on to another church, they were left without a pastor for longer than a year. While itinerancy can present problems for pastors, tonight I am celebrating that my daughter can continue to be assured that we will be getting a new teacher. Amidst the sadness and confusion that accompanies this announcement, and with the full knowledge that every pastor is irreplaceable, I am nonetheless celebrating, because I am a United Methodist, and the loss of my current pastors does not mean that I have to wonder whether I will have a pastor when they leave.

… and do not hinder them

In the first pages of Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land, she and her brother David ride their bikes to a graveyard. She explains that their fascination with these gardens of the dead as born of the language of their fundamentalist upbringing – with the obsession with death and what comes after, with heaven and hell. But having just read the first half of the book on a rainy afternoon, I’d say that an obsession with death is a symptom of depression, and they had plenty to be depressed about.

Adolescence is the worst of times for children in loveless homes. 13 years of abuse is worse than 12, 14 worse than 13, 15 worse than 14. The cumulative effect, combined with the tantalizingly close but ever receding horizon of 18, is maddening. And then there is the increased ability and opportunity to make their own bad choices, without having been given much of a toolkit for making good ones.

It has been said that “storm and stress” does not describe the average person’s teenage years. Which is an assertion of great annoyance to those for whom the arrival to adulthood was never certain, to those who know some who were lost and others who barely made it, who know what a sizable minority these “storm and stress” teens are, and how they were kept in that place in part, oftentimes, by some of their placidly untroubled peers. To say that they are not the majority in a country ruled by the majority is almost to say that their suffering does not matter, or that they are somehow suspect for being different. What a strange and contradictory country we live in, where plurality is protected, but majority rules.

I don’t know if children raised in fundamentalist homes are disproportionately subject to abuse. I would like to think that instead, fundamentalists ab/use scripture to justify their latent abusive tendencies. The twin paddles labelled “Spare the Rod” and “Spoil the Child” point to how religion and abuse were intertwined in Julia’s family, but what are the roots of Julia’s mother’s inability to hug or touch her children, or tell them that she loves them? We don’t know.

Julia’s mother seems upset simply by seeing Julia and her brother have fun, squirting one another with a garden hose. How stifling to grow up in a house where you are not allowed to laugh. And how unChristian. What did she make of the assertion that God is love, or that the kingdom of God belongs to little children, or that David leaped and danced before the tabernacle of God?

Having visited her website, I know that Julia grew up to reject Christianity, and it is no wonder. There is nothing of the Christ I know in her parents.

When children raised in “Christian” homes reject Christ, what they are rejecting is their upbringing. Even the most religious go to church only a few hours a week – the rest of their Christian education is accomplished in church run/sponsored schools (for a few), and at home. Sometimes the forces outside the home are enough to keep the child in the faith against the inclinations arising from their upbringing, and sometimes forces outside the home push the child away – but usually not for long, for as my father is still fond of quoting: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6, KJV) And then he adds, “but note that it doesn’t say what they will do in the meantime.”

“Let the children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16, RSV) How do we bring children to Jesus, the one who was God incarnate, the one who was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Joy of Heaven to Earth Come Down”? By loving them in the name of Christ. How do we hinder them? By failing to love them, all the time invoking Christ. Those who eschew Christianity so often do so for the very best reasons – Julia renounces evil, just as we are called to do in our baptism. The difference is that, for Julia, the evil she knew was labelled “Christianity.”