Divine Hospitality

I keep thinking about bodies lately. My own body- as I pick something I can control, say my kitchen floor, and scrub it furiously, convinced that keeping it clean can fix things, change things, make things better. I think about Nancy’s body- and my presence with it, not only physically but, emotionally and spiritually. I think about Jesus’ body- what it meant that He even had one, that it got all banged up until it was unrecognizable. I think about that unrecognizable-ness while I rub Nancy’s feet, swollen and purple.

I lift a straw to her lips but she cracks a joke, so I wait with the water. I don’t want her to choke.

I’m re-reading Marjorie Thompson’s “Soul Feast” and her words are doing the healing work words can sometimes do. She calls the incarnation, God coming to us wrapped in human skin, “the second great act of divine hospitality”. The first, she states simply, was Creation. In both we are invited into action central to what it means to be human: eating, walking, dressing, conversing. God is hospitable to us by putting on a body and making these boring human-y things somehow, holy. Nancy’s body is currently dressed in a bright orange “Urban Immersion” t-shirt, and to the best of my knowledge, no pants. This, to us and to her, is a dignity upgrade from the starchy, breezy hospital gown. This is home- and at home one wears home clothes.

I watched her body in that orange T-shirt for a long time yesterday. I watched her one good lung heave to inflate, the other lung still enough to place a chess set on. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was watching her disintegrate in slow motion. Last week, the check-out guy at Trader Joe’s asked me how I was doing as I stood there dumbly- $70 worth of smoothie making materials on his counter for someone who could no longer swallow food. “Not great” I replied, and proceeded to detail why. He was surprisingly gracious to me. We fell silent as I watched him scan my items: protein powder, almond milk, chia seeds. I thought of a cheeseburger she ate last month in Mongolia that was so big we took a picture of it. She had to eat it in quarters. Then she ate half of my fries. I opened my mouth to tell him this story, but he was already done and handed me my receipt.

As my body sits next to her body, I appreciate the imagery and language of “divine hospitality”. But these are just words and words cannot fix everything. That is hard for me to admit because I want them to. I love words. I gather them around me like a hoarder, or people who have lots of cats, hoping their very presence will give me what I need. Sadly, words cannot take me where I need to go. My mind cannot ingest enough information, listen to enough sermons, read enough theology; my mind cannot heal a broken body- hers or mine.

Minute by minute this feeling grows stronger. I feel like I want to claw out of my own skin some days. It’s like my body needs to participate in grief in a way that my mind cannot. It’s like my internal world and external world are so incongruent that its making me crazy. I just want to spend all day in bed, or at least on my knees- that would feel more authentic. Instead, I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s and wiping my toddler’s butt and putting gas in my car like everything is normal. I feel like a fraud, and like maybe I might feel better if I could just go to the bank on my knees.

I know that doesn’t make any sense but the words coming out are failing me just as much as the ones going it- which is really disappointing. So instead, I’m making sure I’m early for church- I do not want to miss worship. My body does not want to miss that opportunity to align the inside with the outside. My body wants to be in my garden and rip out weeds with deep, tangled roots. It wants to do long, slow laps in the cold pool. My body finds people it can cry on, with no explanation or qualifiers. My body seeks out Hannah, the one-woman Ministry of Hugs, without which I’m sure our Church would not stand.

And I’m drawn to gratitude, of all things. I’m overwhelmed that Jesus would become one of us- to elevate our smelly, sticky bodies to holy status- to intimacy, to connection, to enjoyment. It feels like gratitude that these basic human tasks, eating, sleeping, urinating, become transformative simply because He did them too. I’m watching my husband and my brother, sister and father-in-law buzz around Nancy’s still frame. They act like caring for her body is the most important thing they could possibly do. They help her eat, and then manage all the variations of what can happen to the food after that. They bathe her, rub her, console her, turn her. A few days ago, Aya changed her abdominal bandage, reverently smoothing the edges of it, and when she thought no one was looking, kissed it gingerly.

Maybe my mind just needs some time to catch up to what my body has known all along- that to rub her, cool her, feed her is my ultimate act of hospitality, not only to her, but to God. When I open myself up to her suffering, I open myself up to Christ, who dwells in her, even as He dwells in me. I receive divine hospitality, when I welcome Christ in any way that He comes to me.

We read Scripture or sing her a song, watching as her struggle softens. Christ in her becoming bigger- taking up even more space than He already did. Pretty soon He will take over completely.


Running From My Shadow

I have recently, and probably temporarily, graduated from therapy. When I began two years ago, I recounted my depression struggles: the run-of-the-mill kind, the seasonal kind, the clinical kind and the post-partum kind. My therapist listened patiently while I told her my strategies of keeping the darkness at bay: my sleeping and exercise routine, my commitments to healthy eating and regular community. I confessed that although I teetered since stopping medication, I had found a way to stand on the edge of the canyon of depression without falling in.

My therapist let me finish and then shrugged knowingly saying, “Well, you knowwhat Jung would say about it”, and at that point I clamped my mouth shut. Ah, yes. Jung. Carl? My therapist often refers to me as a peer rather than a client. Since we obtained the same degree she assumes that I have retained the same information she has. She does not know that over the last decade and a half all of my essential marriage and family training has seeped from my brain and been replaced by episodes of Paw Patrol. Because I do not get out much, my starved ego is easily enticed by a professional treating me like a peer. This is one of many times where I will nod along knowingly. Carl Jung. Obviously! Yes, I know him. Please. Go on.

“He would say that you are struggling against your shadow side, and that you must learn to integrate it into your life.” Hmmm. I tapped my chin. Yes, excellent point. I side-stepped that landmine of conversation until I could go home and dig through dusty bins in my garage for my old psychology books. Flipping through pages it came back to me in bits; “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Generally, we understand our shadow side to represent negative or repressed emotions. The ones we all have but don’t want other people to know we have: anger, fear, resentment, shame. The Canyon of Depression. I thought about my own shadows, how I walk away from them but they keep following me around no matter how many things I pack into a day, and no matter how efficiently I do them. It was as if a spotlight had been turned on, and in its glare, my shadow’s edges sharpened. With clarity, I watched it cling to me wherever I went, turning with my decisions, speeding my heartrate, shaping my words. I felt keenly the amount of resistance I deployed to keep it from showing, tucking it firmly behind me in place. I began to worry that Jung was right and that my shadow was only growing stronger, stewed in waiting.

I wondered what it meant in 1 John, that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. What does it mean for me, a child called to live in the love-light of God, to integrate darkness into my life? I realized my resistance was partially tied to messages ingested from other Christians about the nature of darkness itself: that it is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst. Trade in those negative thoughts for positive ones! There’s a corresponding verse for each one! But under the spotlight, my shadow seemed less a barnacle to scrape off and more an attached appendage. And to deny it was to cut off a limb, becoming a willing accomplice in my own disability.

Also- I know better. I know darkness is the environment where God has historically done some of His best work in my life. Jesus liked to prove it to people so He talked all the time about growth, branches, fruits and the genesis of them all: seeds. He reminded His listeners over and over that the soil is what counts.  Unless a seed can burrow into the fertile, black underground- nothing good can grow. This is Jesus’ way, to fashion beautiful things in the dark for the purpose of bringing them into the light.

This year has been a good one to begin the practice of facing my shadows. My beloved mother-in-law is dying of terminal cancer and there is not a single thing I can do about it. My shadow has the upper hand, it hunches over me as I hunch over her: distended, suffering, moaning in a hospital bed. I can no more rip it off my back than I can pry myself away from her. This shadow I cannot turn away from, compartmentalize into neat, safe shapes, or attempt to outrun. This shadow keeps perfect pace and the only way forward seems through- to open up my arms and embrace it.

Yesterday, I sat on the edge of her hospital bed. The room was full of shadows and the beeping, rhythmic whir of her oxygen machine. Less than a month ago, I took her on one last adventure to Mongolia. Trying to manage her wheelchair and luggage I nicked her hand, the paper-thin skin tore instantly, dark magenta oozing out. The wound, now dark and purple, hasn’t even had time to heal. It wasn’t that long ago. It wasn’t that long ago that I fed her that piece of watermelon because the beans were too spicy and her face screwed up in laughter and mock-pain. It wasn’t that long ago- and I finger the mark that proves it. With my other hand, I turned to psalm 139. “Even the darkness is not dark to you”. I spoke into a room packed shoulder-to-shoulder with shadows: fear, anger, sadness, distress, pain, suffering. The corner of her mouth turned up, knowing these words by heart, knowing what I was doing; her smile a flash of beauty tucked inside the shadow of grief. I see you, I thought, inviting the beauty closer, even knowing grief kept pace behind. She gripped my hand and we faced them together. “If I go down to the depths, You are there” I continued, reciting ancient imagery meant to convey the epitome of darkness. “Even in Sheol,” I almost whispered, “You are there. Your right hand holds me fast.”