The Covenant in My Coffee

Amidst the multitude of wedding gifts which my husband and I received was one I set aside as insignificant.  There among the crystal, china, silver, and the linens – so exciting in their purity and sparkle – the small box with the two tear-shaped prisms seemed sadly out-of-place.  Now that I think back, I don’t even remember seeing them set out on the tables of gifts displayed at the reception; perhaps my mother herself thought them too small to display to the public.

I remember receiving them though, sitting on the couch and oohing and wowing at each beautiful gift box I opened at that one shower.  My husband’s maternal aunt had given them to me, offering her gift in her shaky hand as if the contents of her box were as precious as the rarest and most fragile jewel she possessed.

“These have meant the world to me,” she said as I opened her box.  “I always thank God for them each morning as I drink my coffee.  I don’t know how I would have found my way without them.”

Not really listening, I looked at the sad teardrops nestled in the yellowing cotton wool, and, already having dismissed them, already looking forward to the next gift, I murmured out some half-gracious reply and promptly forgot them.

* * *

Weeks later, after the honeymoon, I found them again while unpacking in my new home.  I am sorry to say that I nearly carried them to the barn and put them away in storage, but some memory stirred in my mind of the wistful joy I had half-heard in the voice of P.J.’s aunt as she offered me these bits of her life.  I washed them carefully, took a bit of twine, and – more to please my husband by honoring his aunt than for any other reason – hung them from the curtain rod above my kitchen sink.

And then I forgot about them again.  You see, the window above my sink faced east, and I have never been an early riser.  So I would come into the kitchen each morning long after the splendor of the morning sun had passed, and I would see only two chunks of oddly cut glass which gathered dust hanging in front of my window.  I wondered occasionally why they had been so special to my husband’s aunt.  Had they been gifts from her husband?  From a child?  Or perhaps from a childhood sweetheart?

 * * *

After our son was born, it became a tradition of mine to read morning prayer to him as he ate his morning cereal.  Belted in his high chair, he was a captive audience, and he responded to this attention with coos of delight.   As he grew older, outgrowing his high chair and his belt altogether, he outgrew this morning ritual too.  By the time he turned two, I had stopped including him in my reading for the simple fact that he had finished his breakfast and gone to his toy box before I would have even finished the reading of a psalm.  Even then, I began to anticipate having another child with whom I could resume this morning ritual.  Little did I know then that my son’s ability to sleep in with me in the morning was an anomaly; not all infants are born as owls who sleep more deeply as the sun begins to rise.

My second child took after her father and chose to be a lark.  Up at the slightest crack of dawn, she was impatient to get after everything the new day had to offer.  I don’t remember ever drinking coffee in the morning before Lauren was born; I couldn’t have survived the mornings after her birth without it.  Groggy and still half-asleep, I would carry her to her high chair in the dim half-light of pre-dawn, hang unsteadily to the handle of the microwave until her bottle and cereal was ready, and then slump into my chair with a comforting cup of warm, milky coffee in my hand.  Yet even in those painfully early hours, I hoped to recapture those joyful prayer sessions with my daughter, and when the warm caffeine began to flow through my veins, I would open my prayer book and try to begin.

Oh, alas, for young parents who expect all of their children to be alike!

Where my son had been attentive, my daughter was restless.  Where my son had been welcoming and malleable, my daughter was fiercely independent and well set in her opinions by the age of three months.  Where my son had had the attention span of a well-intentioned adult, my daughter was frankly disinterested within a matter of minutes.  So much for recapturing the joy of communal prayer in the pre-dawn hours!  As she fussed, I became more frustrated.

Then one spring morning, angrily giving up on yet another frustrating attempt to read even the opening collect of the office, I heard her coo with delight.  Looking up, I saw her reaching for my coffee mug with a look of joy and fascination.  There on my mug, covering my mug, dancing even in its interior rim, were rainbows.  The morning sun had pierced the window over my sink, and shining through the two dull prisms hanging there had made my coffee, my kitchen into a wonderland.

We shared that morning simply the joy of the rainbows.  I would chase them for her or make them dance madly by spinning the crystals in the window.  She would laugh in peals of glorious, musical laughter at the swirling colors around her.   Those rainbows brought us together as nothing in the months prior had, and as the rainbows in my coffee became a morning ritual for us, we learned to love each other more each day.

I would like to say that on that first morning I had a revelation about the prisms, but that would be untrue.  Over the years, as I sipped my milky coffee or made the prisms dance in the sunlight for my daughter, I thought about them, and only slowly did I come to understand what they mean to me and what a gift I was given on that long ago wedding day.

Those rainbows helped me understand the relationship I had not only with my daughter, but also my son, my husband, and all of the members of the community of God who I encounter in my journey through creation.

I came to understand that I was wrong to look to my daughter to be the reproduction of her brother or the replica of myself.  We were all of us, different as we were, like three adjacent facets on one of those prisms. We thought we knew clearly where our boundaries lay, where she or he or I began and ended, yet we did not know the greater things.  We had forgotten that we were not the maker of the prism, nor the source of the light which shone through us.

Long before our awareness even began, greater hands had taken a clump of wet sand and subjected the mud to so intense a fire that the sand was purified into crystal clarity.  Loving, unknown hands had carved this crystal to a design that only the maker fully understood, shaping each facet to reflect its own and individual beauty and binding each facet to its neighbors to create a greater beauty than any facet could present on its own.  A powerful and joyful light shone though us, giving us the ability to each, in our own way and in our own turn, release a small part of the great spectrum of that light into the world around us.

It is an uncomfortable fact of life that as we grow older we can no longer sleep in as we did when we were younger.  My bed no longer feels as comfortable to my fifty-year old arthritic body as it did when I was twenty, and so most mornings for several years now, I have been up and watching the rainbows in my coffee.  On most of those mornings, I see in my coffee those colorful reminders of the covenant of love which binds all of us in creation.  I believe that this daily reminder of God’s love for me, of my relationship to his other creatures and my fellow men, and of the precious gifts which he gives each of us to share with the world, has helped me be more loving and patient whenever trouble or discord has developed in my relationships.

I think now, on my daughter’s distant wedding day, I will take these crystals down from my window and carefully pack them in cotton wool in a beautifully wrapped box.  And then I will offer them to her as though they were the most rare and precious jewels I possess.  “Take them,” I will say. “These have meant the world to me; I always thank God for them each morning as I drink my coffee.  I don’t know how I would have found my way without them.”

I hope she will find the message in them that I found, and that she will be as grateful some day as I am now when I remember that dear, wonderful aunt of my husband’s whose hand shook as she offered her greatest gift to me.

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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 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.