Of Zacchaeus, Holy Week, And My Grandmother’s Favorite Song

Amazing Grace was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. I used to hear her humming it while the fried chicken sizzled in the Crisco of her electric skillet. Then, in the dreamy carefree vacation time when love was as simple as the measuring scoop sunk full in the sunlit flour of her kitchen, Amazing Grace was a song of summer. Each summer my family loaded up the station wagon and, like lost Okies, drove from the green California hills across the Nevada and Arizona deserts to the sun-baked paradise of Grandmother’s house in Oklahoma where love abided.

I was proud that someone had written such a beautiful song about my Grandmother. Grace Ensor was a kind, gentle woman who was true blue from the hair on her head to the loyal faith she had in those she loved. So, at the age of five, I wasn’t surprised that someone had written a song about her. I too thought she was amazing.

The only part of the song that confused me was that part about being lost and being found. I couldn’t remember my grandmother ever finding me. I could, however, clearly remember being lost.

It was the Christmas of my kindergarten year, and my parents had taken my brothers and me to the Cornish Christmas celebration in a neighboring town.  I was enthralled by everything that I saw: the costumed tommy-knockers who capered in the parade, the softly falling snow, the scent of the hot Cornish pasties for sale on the corner, and, most especially, the display of Christmas toys in the shop windows. Barbie with her platinum hair piled into a beehive waved from one window while Chatty Kathy called from another. Childhood offers tough decisions, but standing there I knew that if only I could have both of those beautiful dolls I would be happy until the day I died. I grabbed my mother’s sleeve, turned to tell her of my idea about the meaning of true happiness, and then everything I thought I knew came crashing to pieces.

The sleeve I had grabbed was not my mother’s. In fact, I could not see my mother anywhere. Or my father. Or my brothers. I knew then that silver haired Barbie and silver tongued Cathy meant nothing; my happiness, my whole world, depended on me finding my family again.

Of course, I didn’t.

I was too small.

The crowd was too large for a five year old to be able to find anyone in the crush of celebrators.

My parents, however, had realized that I was lost even before I knew it myself, and they had started a search for me. The place in my chest that had become empty and scary when I discovered I was lost overflowed with true and utter bliss when my mother’s arms scooped me back into her love, safe once more. So you see, my grandmother couldn’t have been the one in the song who found me. My mother had found me. I knew; I had proof; I had been there.

Little did I know then that being lost was a characteristic, a type of trait in the children of my family.  Perhaps this characteristic of being lost was what had drawn me to my husband when we were just young things in love. Perhaps I knew in some telepathic way that he too had been lost in his youth, had at the age of four rambled away from his mother in the mountains of New Mexico and had gone missing for eight hours. Of course, unlike me, he had delayed his finding like a true prodigal by refusing the assistance of those who found him. “Oh no”, he assured the man who found him. “I can’t go with you. My mother told me never to get in a stranger’s car.” So like all the lost who are found, his father and mother came to him.

Once when I was playful, I called him Zacchaeus. Just as my grandmother loved the hymn Amazing Grace, I loved the story of Zacchaeus. Because I could remember first hand the joy of being found, I could hear a million times the story of the short little man found in the tree by Christ. Like me, Zacchaeus had gone to see a parade, had been short, too short to find security in the midst of a crowd, and like me and my husband, he became the found, not the finder, despite his intentions.

If my husband and I bear the imprint of Zacchaeus, then the type strikes true in our son. Our similarities resonate in our offspring. Like his mother and father before him, our son is a master of getting lost. Far more painful than the memory of being lost myself is the remembrance of the time he disappeared in the blink of an eye from my side. He was four, we were walking one bright and sunny day into the museum where I worked, and then suddenly I was alone. He had taken a path different from the one I had chosen for us, and suddenly he was no longer with me, no longer where I could protect him and keep him safe.

Like my mother before me, I called the police, and we began a search for him which seemed to stretch for millenia. We searched every room, every closet, every nook and every cranny of that museum to no avail. It wasn’t until we had searched the surrounding park without finding him that the officer in charge asked for his complete description in order to put out an Amber Alert. At that moment I knew the true terror and despair of loss.

Beau, Beau, my son, my son was gone, he was lost, and I would have given my very life to find him and keep him safe. At that moment, before I could reply, I had to close my eyes, grip the reality of the torn and rough upholstery of the patrol car seat, and squeeze out from behind tightly closed eyes and mouth a heartfelt prayer, “Dear God, please find him; please find him safe and unharmed; please place him in my arms again.” Then, just as I opened my mouth to offer his description, the police radio crackled to life: “A man in white is waving in the parking lot; he appears to be carrying a child who matches the suspect’s description.” Soon, when I squeezed my son with all my being and asked if he had been afraid, he said with a wisdom beyond his years, “No. I knew you would find me.”

You see, somehow, even as a child, he knew – as I had not – that being lost is not about finding your way. It’s about being found, and Love is about finding.

Of course, by then I knew that my grandmother’s favorite song wasn’t just about her, and the next time we sang Amazing Grace in church, I suddenly realized that grace is only appreciated by those who have understood they are lost and who have suffered the emptiness such awareness brings.   Grace, like any true gift, is not sought. Like the love of my mother one Christmas long ago, it comes as a surprise and a great relief and brings joy more fulsome than I imagined at age five when I thought possessing beautiful toys would bring me happiness til the end of my days.

I share with my brothers, my husband, my son, Zacchaeus, the lost lambs of the Good Shepherd parables, and all of God’s children, a spiritual — not geographic — characteristic of being lost. Grace is the gift of the one who is searching. It was the gift of the Finder to all creation before our human history even began. And perhaps we remember this most appropriately in Holy Week, when our Father proved to us, to all of his children, that he so loves each of us, he would allow no power in the universe, not even death, to separate even one of us from him.

The last time we sang my grandmother’s favorite song in her presence was at her funeral. And that time, when the sunfilled emptiness near the flour cannister and skillet of her kitchen outlined so sharply the horizons of the love we had known there, the hymn was a comfort rather than a source of pride.

The Holy of Holies

This week, ten years ago, the second graders were in the atrium, and a young Hindu boy sat working alone with the Maxims (New Testament moral statements). Across the room, a group of boys sat with their backs to him while they worked with the blocks with which they could build the model city of Jerusalem. Despite my efforts and the attempts of teachers in other classrooms, this group of boys had persisted in isolating and mocking the young Hindu for his different skin color and belief system.

He brought to me the tablet with Paul’s words, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you”, and asked, “What does this mean?”

“What vision does it give you?” I asked, turning the question around for him.

He gazed in silence for a moment at the boys across the room then pinched the skin of his wrist, drawing it upward. “I think it means this is made from God, and so are they.” Here he pointed at his tormentors. “I think it means we must love each other; I should go to them.”

And he did.

Before this conversation I would have told you that God’s temple was the Holy of Holies represented in our atrium by just one of the blocks those boys worked with at the Jerusalem table. Forevermore, I see it now revealed in the faces of all those around me. To be a catechist with the children is to have such revelations of God incarnate unveiled daily before us; it is to live in a new spiritual world, a world of hope for the future and faith in the children of God.

What is death?

What is death?  How can it be that at one moment life isn’t visible and that at the next we stand holding a living, breathing, wriggling infant in our arms?  And where does life go, when the child we hugged goodbye as he left for school suddenly lies before us without movement or awareness or a spark of that life which made him so real to us?  This spirit which animates each of us uniquely and individually, which provides a personality to each of us which is so unlike any other living being’s, can it suddenly cease to exist or disappear into nothingness?

No.

That life, that anima is eternal, and for just a moment we may glimpse its presence in our lives, for just an instant we may be graced by it as it passes through one stage of its life.

Like the wheat seed we keep treasured in the grain elevators in our communities, the life of our loved ones is present in the stage in which we best understand it, can best hold it in our hands, only for an instant.  Trying to explain his coming death to his disciples Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.”

What does this mean?

Before the great mystery of life and death we are told not to hold on to the present way of seeing, not to try to hold back the growth and transformation of life as it breaks forth into something new, unimagined, and for us, for now, unseen.

Try to hold the wheat seed for ever in the grain elevator, and, at best, it only remains a seed; at worst, never being freed to its purpose, it becomes corrupted.  But once hidden in the ground, the mystery of life itself is revealed, and the life within is set free: free to sink new, deep roots; free to sprout in hope; free to leap joyously sunward.  The seed in the ground appears flat, emptied, where once it was full and rounded to our touch, only because the life within it has sprung exponentially forward into such a miracle of life unleashed that we would marvel over it in every chance meeting, every cup of coffee at the Dairy Queen, if only it weren’t so seemingly commonplace in the yearly cycle of our agricultural lives.

“But if it falls to the ground and dies, it grows and becomes much wheat,” Jesus continued to try to explain to his disciples.

Much wheat.  We can only imagine now how our physical beings are like the seed, holding within an eternal life that is waiting to explode into abundance of life when our physical being falls to the ground and appears empty and flat to those who see us “die”.   We can only imagine, believe, trust, and know in our hearts and faith that which has been promised to us, that which Christ tried through parable to explain to ears that couldn’t quite believe.  The passing of the body here is not the end; it is only the beginning of a new and greater life beyond, a life our loved ones who have passed from us enjoy in abundance and a life which we too will share in our own time.

So I believe with every fiber of my being.

Why?

I remember a time when I glimpsed for a moment that which was beyond this husk, this stage of physical life.  I remember the moment when driving from the ranch to Stratford the hole in the road suddenly appeared before me, and, before I could react, my car flipped.  I remember the impact of the roof in the soft soil of the bar ditch, the spray of glass and soil which struck my face as the windows exploded, the oddly calm thought which crossed my mind, “Well, darn. This is it.”

Yet more real than any of this is what I remember next:  the light, warm and bright, which rushed toward me from a point over my gear shift and which expanded to envelope me like a shield; a presence there of great comfort and peace and joy; a Love that invited and yet simply waited for me in loving patience.

How much time passed in that realm of light?  I would have said to you, years. It felt like, I believe it to be, years.

At some point however, the light changed, became like the ending of a hug withdrawn, and moved away until it disappeared entirely, and I was left to find myself unharmed, hanging upside down from the seat belt, the next verse of the song tinkling from the still playing radio.  The life before the roll, the return to life after, these were that which was unreal; it was the life within that light that was all that was reality.

Love is waiting for us to welcome us into the greatest reality of life, a life so vibrant it is beyond our imagining.  This I know; this I have seen; this I believe.

And I know that sometimes we are given the grace to glimpse this joyous life, that sometimes we are given clear signs which point us with great joy toward the certainty of that life.

I remember the small girl, four or maybe five, who sat bewildered in my school atrium, bewildered because everyone around her was saddened by the presence of her grandmother in hospice.  She had been with me as we had explored the gesture of the preparation of the chalice for the Eucharist, the mixing of the water and the wine.  She had listened to a classmate whisper in wonder, “If the wine is Jesus, then are we the water, hugged in the chalice by him?”  That day they came to pull her out of class, because the family thought the worst had come.

The next time I saw her was the week following the funeral.  As she and her mother entered the preschool doors she saw me, and, running to leap upon me in a flying bear hug, she said, “Miss Kay, my grandma died.”

I hugged her close and said, “I know.  I’m so sorry.”

“No,” she admonished me before bursting out in joy, “Miss Kay, we went to church for my grandma, and my grandma was dancing in the chalice with Jesus!”

Let us become as a child.  Let us see with a child’s eyes the miracle of life which surrounds us.  Let us grieve for the passing of what we could hold in our hands, and let us rejoice with all our being in the Life that goes forth into glorious abundance.  Let us honor the spirit which animated our loved one.  We know the source from which it came; let us not doubt where it has gone.  It is, it lives, and we shall meet again amidst an exaltation of joy.

By my hand . . .

As we prepare to enter Lent, I am reminded of a discussion held earlier in the year in my Level 2 (six to nine year old) room. The second graders were exploring together Isaiah 11, “A shoot shall come forth from Jesse”, and they were discussing what it meant “he will not judge by what his eyes see or by what his ears hear”. One seven year old girl suggested: “He doesn’t need to see or hear. We are part of him; we are his branches.” Another child said: “By his hand, he judges by his hand.”

The first child had linked Isaiah’s prophecy to Jesus’ great I AM statement in John 15: “I am the true vine, and you are my branches.” She had connected Isaiah’s promise of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament’s Jesus of Nazareth who promised at the last supper to love us as God loved him and to abide with us. Certain of her faith that we are indeed a part of Christ’s body, part of the true vine which she saw as the shoot from the root of Jesse, she lived without fear of punishment or rejection. The eyes of her faith saw judgment as healing or, as Christ says in the parable, a cleansing “by his Word”.

The other child, prompted by the Holy Spirit, brought forth that familiar phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures, “by his hand”. This phrase, repeated throughout the Tanakh, speaks of God’s mighty acts of salvation; in Exodus the LORD says, “by my hand I brought you out of Egypt”. Again, the child’s vision of judgment was a comfort, a vision of redemption.

For both children, God’s judge is not a figure of terror that raises emotions of guilt and shame, but instead is Christ revealed as Love, as the Word which cleanses us, as the LORD who acts in history to save us with the work of His own hand, as a savior to whom we are intimately bound and who invites us to abide as part of His very being.

If our children see God’s judgment revealed so clearly as an act of love incarnate, why then should we adults fear, rather than long for, the judgment to come?

The Song of the Shepherd

As a child growing up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just a little west and down from Donner Pass, I loved to escape into the forest with an apple, a book, and a sketch pad in my knapsack. I would head to my secret place, a circle of pines so undisturbed that the cushion of pine needles was several feet thick and silence was the music of the day. Scooping up the needles to form a mattress and pillow, I would lie back and become still, and in that stillness and quiet I encountered God.

The nimbus of light on the tips of the pines, the warm colors of the fallen needles which framed the wild tiger lily that grew at the edge of the clearing, the clarity of the luminous sky above: the visual sumptuousness of the space melded with the glory of its silence. I think I can trace my love of art, of poetry, of music back to the richness of that quiet clearing. In the silence of the forest and in the books I read there — the Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, and others — I grew to a deeper relationship with God. Yet when we moved away in sixth grade, my memories of that place and my conscious knowledge of God faded into the background.

I had always planned to be a doctor like my grandfather, but God’s plans for me were quite different. Originally a molecular biochemistry and biophysics major in college, I found my decision to become a physician suddenly turned upside down when I attended a history of art lecture with a friend. Something in the art pierced my heart, and although I struggled to maintain my interest in my science career, I found myself inexplicably drawn to attend more and more lectures in art history. What I then thought was the call of artistic beauty, later in life I came to realize was a response to the call implicit in the Biblical subject matter of the art. Yahweh calls each of us in different ways and reached my heart through slides of nativities and resurrections in university lecture halls.

Changing majors I traveled to Cambridge, England to pursue my graduate degree. It can be no accident that the midway point between my college rooms and the university library was King’s College Chapel. One evening I stumbled through its doors to escape rain pouring down from darkening skies and encountered again the silent music pouring down like grace from heaven. Like my circle of pines before, the Gothic stone forest at King’s College became the place of stillness in which I heard again the voice of God.

Determined to be the first woman director of the National Gallery of Art, I pursued a career in the museum field. God, however, pursued me and pulled me kicking and screaming to a small museum in the fields of the Texas panhandle. There I not only met the love of my life, my husband P.J., but I began a life of desert asceticism in which all but the most important things in life faded away. As a rancher’s wife living forty miles over unpaved roads from the nearest grocery store or Laundromat, I was given an abundance of time to read, be in silence, and think. It was during this desert sojourn that I expressed concern to our small town vicar that our church lacked a Sunday school program for my toddler son.

Before a week had passed, my vicar had sent me to Amarillo to attend a new Christian formation program for adults wishing to work with young children. Although I was a cradle Episcopalian who had attended church with my parents throughout childhood, I had always approached church as mainly a social obligation. Seen through this social lens the formation was stripped of meaning and was only mildly interesting until one day, the day upon which we were presented with the passion narratives. One of the formation leaders, who was both a priest and a catechist, gave a lecture on the origins of the last supper in the Passover traditions of the Jewish people, and somewhere in the midst of that lecture, I was shocked with the revelation, “Well, if this is true . . .” From that moment on, nothing has ever been the same.

I found within the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd both a way of life and a meaning for so many of the facets of my individual being. My love of art was expressed through the making of the materials for the children or the creation of cloths of honor to hang behind our atrium prayer table. My love of stories and storytelling found a purpose in the communication of the scriptures. The majesty of the silence found validation in the catechesis’ premise that the adult sits with the children before the mystery of God rather than serving as a lecturer. My love of music swells the songs with which we greet each mystery and celebration within the atrium. All my gifts could be gathered in one place through one program to be laid before the one God with children who constantly teach me ever more about the divine spirit.

Within three years — that number of divine perfection, I had left my professional job as a strategic development consultant for non-profits, and I found myself pulled into the unending canon of catechesis, first as a volunteer in my churches and then as a teacher in our local Episcopal school. Although I chose to step away from medicine and then later from executive positions which would have seemed to many to offer more in pay and privilege than I make as a catechist, I am richer that I ever dreamed I could be.

Yet still I hunger. I still feel a call to know more and serve more fully the God who whispers my name.  So I sit with the children, observing them, and capturing through my writing more verses of the song sung to them by the shepherd, in order to know better the composer and chief artist of the silent music, and in order to be able to bring back to the children who grace my life a deeper relationship with God than I know how to offer at present.