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"You sure have your hands full!" said the older woman in Target, watching me try to corral four independent-thinking and adventur...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is Grace Really THAT Big?

Your friend is faced with a decision so difficult, that while you want to help, you also feel a twinge of gratefulness in your own heart that it is hers and not yours to make.

She's endured to the breaking point. Even beyond. No formula works or even seems to apply except in theory. Sometimes, there just isn't a right answer. Sometimes there isn't a fix. No simple platitude can change the reality. And she has to choose.

She's always been the good girl. She's evaluated the options. She's studied the ideals. Taken the advice too much to heart. But there is no ideal here. And now is the question: Continue suffering as you have been, in faith that the point is the suffering? Or try to exchange the known for the unknown, also in faith?

Whatever is not of faith is sin. Is there a converse to that? When the only options are to stand still or to take a step, both require faith, and both can be terribly frightening, especially for the ones who have been trained that we must be good, choose good, do right always. What if she's wrong? Who or what waits to respond--karma? Or grace?

How big is this grace, then? If she says, "I don't know which way is right, but I'm going to take this step," does grace still cover? Is it that radical? There is no certainty. There is only very little confidence. The term doesn't even seem to fit, that's how uncertain this is.

Is it really true that nothing can separate us from his love? Nothing? Is a step into the utter unknown, when done in faith--because at this point there is absolutely nothing left but faith--covered, even if in some mysterious cosmic scheme, it was "wrong"? Or maybe even only slightly more wrong than the other wrong. Where does grace fit in when the only options are two evils?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Dragonfly (And Why I Keep Its Symbol Around)

It has always been a personal delight for me to see symbolism in God’s creation. God is the greatest Artist there is, and in his design, I see revelation. I see evidence of his story told in the constellations in the sky, and in the blood-tipped white petals of the cross-shaped dogwood blossom. I see his mercy new each morning, illustrated in the smoothly washed sand when I’m the first person to hit the beach at sunrise. I wonder at his perfection every time the Fibonacci ratio makes its appearance again in yet another way, from biology to economics to architecture.

But one motif that keeps coming up in my life is found in the dragonfly. I think now, it’s time to tell about the dragonfly.

I grew up in the midlands of South Carolina on what was once my grandparents' farm. There’s always been a pond there, and around that pond for much of the year, one could always find dragonflies hovering, darting in and out. I’m not a big “bug” person, really. I don’t mind the little weevils in their sandy vortices that we would dig out as kids. I’m not big on actually touching crickets or grasshoppers, but for the most part, they don’t bother me. I simply cannot abide the presence of a spider though. Just being in the vicinity of one can push me close to the razor’s edge of insanity, fraught with panic and the soul-need for personal possession of napalm. But I’ve always liked dragonflies, never feared them, even sought them out when in a place they are likely to call home. I love their mechanical-looking bodies, reminding me of biological precursors to helicopters. I love the freedom with which they lift and take off, the unexpected speed, the complete lack of concern for gravity. I’ve never seen one crash. I also love the varied colors. What extravagance, that a simple bug would know what it is to offer up aqua and cobalt, royal purple and cardinal red, while moving at speeds often too fast for the human eye, at least, to follow!

A lovely art tile I spotted and could not afford. Clear evidence that others see the art in the dragonfly as well.

But the life of the dragonfly is really what makes this connection. The dragonfly lives most of its life underwater, in its nymph form. It doesn’t start there, though. A male and female dragonfly actually mate in the air. (OK, I think that in itself is pretty cool.) Then the female will lay her eggs in a pond or marsh and leave them. The eggs hatch and the nymphs may spend a season or several (up to four years) in that water. The nymphs are hideously ugly—brown and lumpy. Some appear to have a knot on the back, like a bent-over hunchbacked creature. Everything about them seems to imply being tied down, limited, bound to something less than that which they were meant for, considering they came from parents soaring above that condition in freedom. But the nymph doesn’t stay there. In time, when the days are accomplished, it will come up out of the water. The ugly brown exoskeleton will crack, and something totally new will emerge—the mature dragonfly, with, in many cases, vivid colors and more importantly, perhaps, the ability to fly. And away it goes, to its mature purpose of freedom and beauty and other-ness that the nymphs, I fancy, cannot possibly imagine.

I see a parallel in that for our lives. There is the before-knowing God imagery, in which we are lowly and bound and helpless, and can’t even see the purpose for which we were made. There is the idea of going into the water, not unlike baptism, and emerging a new creation, free to live the life more abundant. (I will here head off any objections, I hope, regarding baptism by immersion. I myself am, by choice, Presbyterian, and we pour or sprinkle rather than immerse, but I think both modes have validity that is supported in scripture. Remember that the ark which transported Noah and his family to salvation received the waters both from above, in the form of rain pouring down, and from below, when the deep rose up. Perhaps the two positions are even by God’s own design—as he does pour out his Spirit on us, but also calls us to die to self and rise again as one coming up from the depths of the tomb with Christ—and by arguing about the mode, we miss the greater point altogether.)

And then there is the end of earthly life transformation. The old, dead shell of the nymph remains behind, but the transformed creation lifts off and leaves the old world behind, at least for now, not unlike the spirit of a believer exiting the body at death. I see the metamorphosis like God’s promise to take his beloved to himself, even when the body has breathed its last. I see his faithfulness being promised in the example of the dragonfly.

So that is the background for this story, and how this motif has come to mean something to me. Earlier this week, I was in the traffic line waiting to pick up kids from school. A man from a car behind me got out of his car (in the pouring snow and sleet, no less) to come ask me what my license plate meant. I drive a bright blue Volkswagen New Beetle, and the plate reads DAMSLFLY. Next to it is a bright pink decal of a dragonfly, placed to replicate the angle of attack most creatures (but not the uniquely designed dragonfly) must take to achieve lift and break those surly bonds of earth.

And so, I told him the story of its significance to me. I summarized then, because of the cold and the terrible weather. Here, I am going to tell it in more detail.

One could just take the license plate at face value. DAMSLFLY is for “damsel/lady” and “fly” for “bug.” As a woman, I drive a VW bug, therefore it is the “ladybug.” That’s cute, perhaps, and sufficient. But it isn’t really what it’s all about.

Going on three years ago, my mother was in the hospital, near the end of her five-year battle with breast cancer. My family and I headed south to go see her. At the time we started out, we had no idea it would be the end. We did not even pack appropriate clothes for the days that were to come. Upon arrival, though, it was clear that in just the matter of the few hours it took to get to her by car, she was rapidly slipping away. She had moments of wakefulness, but her pain was great and her lucidity questionable. The next day, it was clear that the end was near. Very near.

My mother was the youngest of three children. Her older sister had passed away, also from cancer, six years before. My grandmother, however, was still living, having just celebrated her 100th birthday less than five months before. She was in a nursing home where she could get the daily care she needed physically, but her mind was still sharp as it could be. There was no way to keep from her the information that her baby girl was not going to come home from the hospital. As the daughter in the family, and the one who had first told her that my mother had cancer, it was my role to go to Grandmama and break the news to her.

On that Saturday morning, I prepared to do just that. I remember that I lingered at my parents' house—one more cup of coffee first. I was dressed and ready to go, but a bit reluctant, dreading the tears and grief that I was about to introduce. Practicing the words, how I would hold her hand. And then, right as I was about to step out the door to go to her, the phone rang. My dear grandmother never had to hear the words spoken that her baby was not going to live. After waking that morning, she ate her small breakfast and leaned back, content they said. She closed her eyes, and peacefully breathed her last. On Saturday, July 9, Grandmama slipped into glory, just moments before I would have been arriving to bring her the worst news a mother can hear.

I see great mercy in that, even though it was accompanied by great grief and no small amount of shock, to lose one of the most influential and omnipresent women in my life right before the other.

We all spent as much time that day and the next with Mama as we could. On Sunday, as the day grew late, my father and brothers and all our family members began to disperse to homes. I chose to stay with Mama. I wanted the time alone, near her, knowing there wouldn’t be much. She wasn’t conscious, and she was receiving a heavy infusion of pain medicines to keep her that way, actually. I sat on the edge of her bed and held her hand. I talked to her awhile, not sure that she could hear, but wanting to try, just in case. And then I arranged my comfort blanket—the fisherman’s afghan she gave me when I went away to college—on the guest sofa and prepared to try to sleep myself. I couldn’t. So I got out my computer and checked to see if any of my close friends were online at that hour. No one was. I browsed over to Youtube then, for no real reason, and somehow landed on a video of the life cycle of the dragonfly. Intrigued, as usual, I played the video. It may not have been this particular one, but if not, it was one quite similar:

And then, comforted, I closed the computer. Just at that moment, my mother stirred in her bed. I got up to go to her, and over the next few moments, it happened. Her spirit slipped from her, and left the empty shell behind. Of course, I couldn’t see the spirit rise up, but in faith, I know it did. Can the other nymphs beneath the surface tension of their watery world look upward and see their brothers and sisters’ freedom? Do they even think to try?

Thirty-six hours had passed between my grandmother’s transformation and my mother’s. A little more than thirty-six hours after that, on a July day that exceeded 100 degrees, we gathered under a tent to say goodbye to my grandmother. My mother had not wanted a memorial service of any kind, and we were craving closure and shared community. So again, in a way, the almost simultaneous timing of their passing seemed by design to fulfill a need for those of us left behind.

In addition to the cousins and family members who traveled in for the service, I was blessed to have two in-laws and two like-family friends come from across state lines to attend—to be there for me. Let me never forget the sustenance I received when I stepped from the car in the family processional to see them there, waiting to be nearby at such a difficult time. After the service, my two friends, Cathy and Jeremy, came to the extended family luncheon provided by the funeral home. Even though I imagine it might have been difficult for them to be there, meeting almost everyone all at once for the first time, for me, it was a gift. A piece of today’s home intersecting with the home of my childhood and my historical identity. I needed them, and they were there.

But while Cathy easily slides into group settings with skill and confidence, Jeremy is more one to support from the sidelines, and in this case, it positioned him well to notice something I never would have seen had he not pointed it out. Just outside the dining area were a pair of glass doors leading to the outside. And buzzing around persistently at those doors was a bright blue dragonfly. It would light on the stair rail, and then lift off to hover at the door. Then light again on the step, circle around and come back. My mother and grandmother shared the same favorite color: blue. And there was the very thing that God had used to comfort me just a day and a half before, in our presence, like a reminder: “I have not left you as orphans,” and “My word is truth.”

I was still marveling at the brilliance of the creature, there in the city setting, far from any known water source, when my mother’s first cousin, Pauline, approached me. She had a folded paper in her hand. “Rebecca, I want you to have this. I printed it out this morning. It’s a story your mother sent me. I thought you’d like to have it.” And right there, I unfolded that sheet of standard white copy paper and found this printed on it, in 14-point type:

The Dragonfly

Once, in a little pond, in the muddy water under the lily pads,
there lived a little water beetle in a community of water
beetles.  They lived a simple and comfortable life in the pond
with few disturbances and interruptions.

Once in a while, sadness would come to the community when one of
their fellow beetles would climb the stem of a lily pad and
would never be seen again.  They knew when this happened; their
friend was dead, gone forever.

Then, one day, one little water beetle felt an irresistible urge
to climb up that stem.  However, he was determined that he would
not leave forever.  He would come back and tell his friends what
he had found at the top.

When he reached the top and climbed out of the water onto the
surface of the lily pad, he was so tired, and the sun felt so
warm, that he decided he must take a nap.  As he slept, his body
changed and when he woke up, he had turned into a beautiful
blue-tailed dragonfly with broad wings and a slender body
designed for flying.

So, fly he did!  And, as he soared he saw the beauty of a whole
new world and a far superior way of life to what he had never
known existed.

Then he remembered his beetle friends and how they were thinking
by now he was dead.  He wanted to go back to tell them, and
explain to them that he was now more alive than he had ever been
before.  His life had been fulfilled rather than ended.

But, his new body would not go down into the water.  He could
not get back to tell his friends the good news.  Then he
understood that their time would come, when they, too, would
know what he now knew.  So, he raised his wings and flew off
into his joyous new life!

~Author Unknown~

It was all so surreal. The timing of both women’s passing. The mercy in that. The analogy I had made in the hospital room. The sense of being held upon seeing my out-of-state friends. One of those friends pointing out the timely visitor. The subject matter of the email. The undeniable feeling that a Person outside of ourselves wanted me to know that none of this is just random, that he is faithful to keep his promises, that what seems to be the end is not the end, and that we grieve but not as those without hope. Hope.

Among those of us who see significance in events like these, strung together, there is variance of opinion about what is going on. I, for one, do not believe in reincarnation. I don’t think it was actually my mother visiting us at that day. Nor do I believe that the dragonfly has now taken on some extra sacred identity. It is not an icon. It is simply a motif in my life—a recurring theme, which reminds me of God’s presence and power and trustworthiness, and his personal concern for me in times of trouble. I’ve said before that I don’t believe in coincidences. I also don’t believe that when God shows his goodness and mercy and faithfulness to one of us, it is for just that person alone. I think we have a responsibility to share how he has showed himself, so that others too can be encouraged.

And that is why I share with you now, this story of the dragonfly and its significance to me.

An out-of-place Cardinal Meadowhawk dragonfly, spotted outside the door of the Edisto beach house my brother, cousin, and my family rented to gather with our loved ones and remember the years spent there with Grandmama, Mama, and my Aunt Fran. Leslie saw it first and took better photos than I have to share.