Driving into town this morning, passing by the refurbished diner, the town hall—its door wide open to the Coffee and Gab Saturday regulars, a friend heading into the post office, and finally turning into the Glendale Cemetery to check on a recent inquiry about a gravesite, I considered a book my friend Anne DeSantis has written about “ministering to the marginalized.”
Anne and I chatted on the phone yesterday, a hot, humid Friday afternoon when my body wanted nothing more than a cold drink, a whirling fan, and a soft bed. Yet as I listened to her describe the reason for writing her book and her personal mission to be present to the marginalized, I considered—who are the marginalized in my world? And who am I to them?
As Anne describes it, the marginalized are not necessarily “poor people” but rather those individuals who have been left out, shoved aside, demoted to untouchable in our society’s unique caste system. Amazingly, a wealthy man as well as a beautiful woman could be marginalized if they are valued only for their wealth or beauty.
This week, one of my middle daughters asked if we could visit the Volunteer Fire Department here in Fillmore. I asked around, and we were able to stop by on Tuesday evening. We were given a tour of the place, a detailed description of their work, and shown their impressive equipment. Laura, my usually quiet kid, asked a number of questions. Knowing that she volunteers at the Lighthouse in Vandalia and serves in our church, I wasn’t surprised that she wanted to know more about the volunteer fire department. I was surprised when she wanted to try on their gear.
The firefighters seemed happy to answer every question and suit her up. I was impressed. Not only with their kindness in responding to her but in the joy that I felt in experiencing their sincere passion for a such a worthy cause. Though there are hospitals in nearby towns, we live in the rural countryside, so these volunteers are the first to arrive on a local scene and offer immediate assistance—be it to a health crisis, a brushfire, a car accident, a house fire, or other situation where someone calls for help.
I’m reminded of the people of ancient times who maintained lighthouses to keep ships safe at sea, assorted medics who have served well beyond official capacities, service men and women who have protected their country not only in battle but in rebuilding broken homes and lives after battles, first responders who have risked life and limb to rescue victims after a disaster—noble souls throughout all of human history, serving all over the world.
Like a Hobbit in one of Tolkien’s stories, I am not a warrior or a leader. I don’t fight Balrogs or draw national boundaries, but I do encounter human beings every day. Most days my struggle might involve nothing more than a laundry issue or what to put on the table for dinner, but the person who needs clean clothes or is hungry is as important as any before God.
In a world of everlasting crisis, where hate and anger join in mindless destruction, there are both wounded souls and quiet heroes. With the same twenty-four hours in a day and an unknown lifespan, we have opportunities before us. We are not all the same. None of us have the same skill sets, strength, intelligence, opportunities, passions, interests, wounds, or limitations.
Zuri stomped forward, Melchior’s house silhouetted against the late afternoon sunlight behind, and grabbed the Cresta by his bio-suit. “Where is she?”
A line of sweat dripping from the side of his face, his golden eyes red-rimmed, and his suit smeared with road dirt, Tarragon reared back. “Don’t handle me!”
Abashed at his impetuous move, Zuri clamped down his anger, dropped his hands, and tried to form coherent words. “Where is my daughter?”
Brushing imaginary dirt off his front, Tarragon shrugged. “How should I know? She was playing servant girl with Sterling and that Luxonian boy last I saw.”
A group of men tromped out of Melchior’s front door and pounded down the steps. In boisterous conversation, they headed toward the stables.
Zuri motioned Tarragon around the far side of a shed. The scent of dried hay drifted into his nose, making him sneeze. He clapped his hand over his face, muffling the sound.
Tarragon snorted. “And you complain about my native sensitivity? At least I can control my bodily functions.”
Wiping his face with his arm, Zuri glared at the rotund Cresta. “So, she was all right when you saw her?”
“She was fine.”
“I don’t understand. She hasn’t answered one of my messages.”
With an elegant eye-roll, Tarragon started toward Selby’s old shed. “We can discuss matters in there. Knowing how superstitious these people are, they probably won’t use it again for a long time.”
Striding at the Cresta’s side, Zuri paced along, his anxiety settling into mild concern. “They’re going to burn it down tomorrow.”
Tarragon ducked his head as he entered the front doorway. “We have it for tonight then.” He stretched and sighed, staring longingly at the bed. “I have endured much to find you.”
Alert again, Zuri kept his gaze fixed on the Cresta. “What?” Alarm spread through him. “You said that Nova was fine!”
“She is.” Tarragon flopped down on the rickety bed. “But Mauve will never be the same.”
“Mauve? I thought she was at the Widow’s place.”
“She was. Until she got a little too inquisitive and discovered the Mystery aliens playing fools in front of everyone.”
“She found them?”
“And they, or he—the younger one—found her annoying. She was rather. But still. He took justice a tad far, me thinks.”
His heart pounding, Zuri stepped further into the dim interior, wishing he still had night vision. “Where is Mauve now?”
“Shattered to pieces on the rocky coast. Not a chance she can be put together again. I checked.”
Caught off guard by the violent image, Zuri fell back and sat down hard on a stool. “She’s dead, then?”
“Even a Luxonian couldn’t fix her. After an embarrassing incident, she planned to take revenge, so I followed and watched her saunter up to the Mystery-boy on the edge of the cliff. They chatted a few moments, but even from that distance, I could see; he wasn’t the fool she was. Poof! She was turned to a statue, and he nudged her over the cliff. People say Crestonians are cold! This was positively artic.”
“Oh, God, what about Sterling?” Blood rushing to his ears, a faint dizziness swirled the room. “If they are that dangerous, we need to get off the planet. We must get the children!”
“Calm yourself, Ingot. I don’t believe that the Mystery being meant any harm. He simply wanted to remove Mauve’s annoying presence. She planned to kidnap him; you know. Maybe he was just protecting himself. In any case, they haven’t injured anyone since we’ve been here, but they could have long ago. And they did try to warn her; she just wouldn’t listen.”
Exhausted but more determined than ever, Zuri pulled out his datapad and tapped it to life. “Start from the beginning, from when you first met Mauve, and tell me what happened. As soon as we have this on record, we’re heading to the widow’s castle to get Sterling and the kids.”
Tarragon waved a tentacle in the air. “I’ll make the report, don’t worry. But we’re not going anywhere. Everyone is heading here. All we have to do is wait for the family reunion.”
Teal braced himself as Kelesta sat on the edge of his bed and scooped strawberry ice cream from the bowl. She held the spoon invitingly before his face.
Teal waved it away. “I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat.”
“No, I don’t.”
“All right, you don’t, but it would be good for you, anyway. You’re not going to get over your depression until you start inviting cheer into your life. And there is nothing more cheerful than strawberry ice cream.”
Teal stared at her.
Kelesta laid the bowl aside and rose. She stepped to the window and lifted the white curtain aside, peering into the distance.
The sound of surf rolling on shore repeated in rhythmic rounds as two birds flew across the sky.
Teal tossed back the sheet covering his body and then, as embarrassment flooded him, shrank back. “Where are my clothes?”
Kelesta padded to a shelf, pulled rolled up pants and a shirt in to her arms and carried them to the bed. She placed them next to him and strolled back to the window.
Discombobulated by his unaccustomed blushing reaction, Teal unrolled the baggy cotton pants and tugged them on. Then he pulled the matching cream-colored shirt over his head. With a deep breath, he steadied himself and paced to at the window. “Thank you.” He glanced aside, startled at the somber look in her eyes. “For everything.” He shrugged. “I’m not a very good patient, I’m afraid. Not used to being taken care of.”
“You’re a parent. Being helpless isn’t comfortable.”
Teal pressed her arm. “Nova will be all right. Zuri knows what he’s doing.”
Kelesta shook her head. “We’re past our time—Nova will have to take care of herself soon.”
Teal swung aside, facing her more directly. “What does that mean? You have countless ages ahead of you.”
Kelesta gripped the window frame, the breeze blowing tendrils of hair off her face. “There is a price for everything. Zuri refused his neural transplants, all the attachments, for too long to turn back. I took on human form to have a child—and it has cost much.”
Tears stung Teal’s eyes. “But Song, surely she can help you—like she helped me.”
Her lips wavering, Kelesta met his gaze. “Song revived you. She can’t cure you.”
Taking his hand she led the way to the door, the rolling ocean waves, and bright sunshine.
Teal let himself be drawn along and understood, for the first time, what death really meant.
Omega picked up a slimy piece of broken clay from the foamy sea waves and stared at it. A strong wind blew over him, tossing his hair into his eyes. He picked up another piece and placed their jagged edges side by side. They didn’t fit together at all.
On impulse, he waved and a cloth bag suddenly hung limp in his hand. With a swift motion, the clay fragments floated out of the water and he opened the mouth of the bag, scooping in pieces, like a net capturing fish from the sea.
Once the bag was full, he splashed ashore and dashed up the trail.
In a quiet corner of the courtyard, he spread the broken pieces in the sun and laid them flat. He chewed his lip, perplexed. What to do next? He had never had to do anything like this before, and he wasn’t sure how to start.
“What you’ve got there?” A burly soldier tromped forward and stared over Omega’s crouched figure. “Oh, you broke something, eh?” He whistled low. “No putting that back together son. It’s ruined, see.”
He patted Omega’s shoulder. “Best to man up and face the wrath of the owner than try to hide the mess out here. She’ll figure it out eventually.”
Further disorientated but hopeful for some direction, Omega shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun and squinted at the older man. “How do you know I can’t put her back together?”
A snort and a chuckle accompanied the man’s grin. “It’s clay, young fool. Clay dissolves in the water—salt water most assuredly. I’ve never been so partial to a vessel that I called it a she, but my captain and I loved our ship; she was a beauty in our eyes.”
With a shake of his head, Omega rose to his feet.
Abbas marched across the hard ground with a stern look in his eye.
“My father is coming; I best meet him.” He scattered the clay pieces.
The soldier turned and faced the white-haired man coming his way. His face crunched in concentration. “Ah, you be the fool that entertained us. I only got to see you once—duty calls at unfortunate moments.” He smiled as Abbas stopped before him. “Good evening.”
Abbas offered a quick nod of acknowledgement and then stared at his son. “Where have you been?”
The soldier lifted his hand like a benevolent referee. “Don’t be too hard on him. Been trying this long while to put the thing back together, but it’s a lost cause; he knows now. So, he’ll pay restitution and be done with the fear and guilt of it.”
With an obvious swallow, Abbas choked out his question. “What did you break, son?”
His jaw clenched; Abbas gripped Omega’s arm as he nodded a polite good-bye to the warrior.
Omega trotted at his father’s side across the battered earth. “Where are we going?”
“To join the others—and away from here.”
“You don’t mind about Mauve? She was being annoying.”
Abbas dragged his son into the shelter of a dark corner and shook him by the shoulders. “You have no idea what you’ve done!”
Grieved by his father’s fury, Omega whined, “But I tried to put her back together.”
“If you thought putting her together was hard, you have no idea what you’ve just shattered. Our whole existence is based on absolute secrecy. You can be sure now, that not only are we known, we are hated.”
As if he had just tasted something very bad, Omega wrinkled his nose. Hated? What did that even mean?
I’m not overly fond of Lent. The whole discipline aspect sets my teeth on edge. Isn’t life hard enough? What good is it to offer up a bit of sugar in my morning coffee? Or stifling honest irritation over vexing situations?
Strangely enough though, by the end of the second week, I’ve changed pretty much all my original sacrificial intentions and come to a whole new perspective on what God is asking of me. No voice-overs telling me that He doesn’t need the blood of bullocks to make His meaning clear. Life does that well enough, thank you.
Perhaps the swelling buds on trees, the sun peeking over the horizon earlier each morning, the contrast of melting ice and nesting birds has something to do with my appreciative understanding. Or the natural fact that eating better, getting a good night’s sleep, and sticking to chosen goals actually makes me feel better.
Lent reminds me that I make choices on a daily basis, and if my life feels out of control, it’s on me to deal with it. There are a host of things that I can’t control. But Lent insists that I bear not only the power but the responsibility to acknowledge my part in human affairs.
On the weekends, some of the girls and I pick a television series to watch together. Fun and comforting as that can be, I’ve also found it to be discombobulating to the extreme. Nearly every modern show, no matter the setting or the venue, has heavily accented a homosexual perspective. Apparently, homosexuality is the new crisis of our age. Though not new at all, really. Like abortion, it delves into the messy, dark side of human experience—the oft repeated strangled scream, “No one understands my pain.”
And there stands Lent, refuting the foot-stomping message that no one understands. God does understand. He is our Creator. We are the created. That reality informs and shapes us, our families, friends, and the entire known universe. It’s a sticking point, to be sure.
Our human experience isn’t defined by current cultural crisis: our sexual orientation, when life begins, human rights, or what makes us happy. The crux of human experience—on the most basic level—is a matter of truly accepting God as God, our existence as Created Beings, made in His Image, with the freedom to accept or reject what that means for us, (personally and as a member of the human race) now and in an unseen future.
Lent demands self-discipline. Without some effort at self-control, offering up the silly to the sublime or making an effort at self-improvement, inside and outside, it isn’t really a Lenten offering.
Lent is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be Christian, a son or daughter of God, the created being of our Creator, who nourishes our lives at the root level, knowing better than we do what we really need.
And there lies the challenge. We don’t get to decide our parental DNA, our family heritage, our sex chromosomes, when life begins, or a host of other realities that we struggle with each day. We fight and argue, insisting that we know best—but do we?
Pushing against known boundaries has literally brought us closer to the stars. But has denying God’s Image at the core of our bodies, minds, and souls led us to the ends we really desire?
This year, when the kids and I plan our garden, though we have a great deal of freedom as to what to plant where, we still have to take into consideration factors that are beyond our control: weather, soil, time, and our own limitations.
Balancing human freedom within God-given realities does not make me less free, it makes sense of my existence. This human journey is not all about me. It’s about God and me and the rest of my human family. Lent reminds me that, like all serious relationships, this journey with my Creator involves sacrifice and self-control.
My coffee is more bitter of late, but beyond all expectations, my life is sweeter.
I can’t draw to save my life. Or play the organ, fix a computer, or discuss housing options with a cantankerous possum.
My gaze wanders from the twisting, twirling maple branches out the window to a still life painting hanging on the wall. God made the tree. My daughter painted the still life. They’re both gorgeous. Each appropriate in their own sphere of reality.
In my youth, I played the piano, and when the kids were little, I’d plunk out a tune, holding their little fingers so that they could make the connection between the key and the sound. In time (and with professional lessons), several of them became accomplished musicians. One plays the organ for church. Another plays the violin.
Back in the dark ages, I feared the computer would corrupt my kids’ morals. I fretted about a tool I could hardly understand, much less control. Now computers are a social and educational lifeline. Online teachers bring a universe of learning right inside my home.
Frankly, possums bewilder me. They look kinda cute—till they show their teeth. Then suddenly their resemblance to a rat hits home. I’ve had more than one decide to take unwarranted freedom with my flowerpots. And then my son does more than wave a broom, and it toddles off to annoy some other member of the earthly kingdom.
The good thing about limitations is that no one else has exactly mine. And I don’t have theirs. Of late, I’ve decided to completely give up any thought of becoming a prophet. Used to be, I could show off my yearly planner with pride. Now, I just focus on today. And I write in pencil. I make no predictions about the future or who can do what.
Accepting that wobbly stick people mark the high point of my artistic endeavors hardly means that I can’t relish the exquisite beauty of another’s painting. Though my piano skills never grew much beyond chopsticks, they did get my kids interested in music. Fear may have ruled my early computer encounters, but common sense and experience widened them. And possums… Well, I’ll let my sons deal with them.
My limitations do not define the world. In interchanging experiences, I encounter a universe I would never appreciate otherwise. As I admire the painting on the wall, I’m glad that I didn’t paint it. My daughter chose specific colors and textures, revealing her unique perspective on life. Every piece of music I hear takes me through the rivers and rainforests of another person’s passion. Computers are nothing less than approachable magic created by someone with synapses that can travel safely through such mysteries.
Every limit, unexpected encounter, and unpredictable event carries me from who I was a moment ago, to who I am becoming. Who I will be by the end of this life journey, I cannot say.