Saturday, June 05, 2010

Standing Knee Deep in a River and Dying of Thirst

This morning, as an observer rather than a participant, I witnessed the annual Race for the Cure event here in DC. It is, for those who may be unaware, a charity run/walk that has served as an effective means of raising funds to combat breast cancer. It also memorializes those who have tragically perished from the disease and celebrates those who have survived. Before I begin, I certainly do appreciate the sentiment and the work that goes into it putting it on, but there's a certain sort of commercialized, jocular, self-congratulatory aspect to the gathering that frequently makes me uncomfortable. At times this morning I felt as though I was in some sort of motivational seminar, the kind that businesses often mandate that their employees must attend. What I experienced firsthand today was a kind of glossy artifice when nothing could be more devastatingly real or raw than any person who finds herself or himself with a diagnosis of malignancy.

While on the subject, I'm also a bit unsure of how I feel about the assigned color to be worn to the event--pink. Since most breast cancer patients and survivors are female, I'm sure someone with good intentions decided that selecting that particular color would work best. My personal reservations stem from recognizing that in assigning one particular default color to one sex while assigning another proscribed shade to the other sex only reinforces the gender binary. To wit, not all women are extremely feminine, nor are all men extremely masculine. I never had any particular fondness for blue myself.

While at the recent Kansas gathering of fellow Quakers I attended, I met a woman who kept plain dress. At one time, most Friends dressed plainly in ways that the Amish and some Mennonites still do today. Now, only a small minority maintain that tradition. After we got to know each other, she talked at length about how her branch of Friends aren't the most demonstrative of people, nor the most outwardly affectionate. They don't hug or tell each other "I love you". A handshake is about the most can ever expect to receive, and yet, they share love for each other in different ways. Sometimes, however, this proves problematic.

That is to say, she is a vegetarian and most people with whom she worships are not. A frequent way in which her particular gathering of Quakers display affection towards each other is often through the medium of gifts of food. Many times she cannot accept these particular gifts, and that understandable fact notwithstanding, hurt feelings as well as pained expressions of rejection have been commonplace. There is much confusion and misunderstanding present, since, to most, a rejection of food is frequently perceived to be a rejection of love and fellowship. Of course, that's not how she intends it to come across, but that's often how it appears.

A woman from my own meeting tells a story about her late husband. Every time she was sick, he would bring her a particular kind of flavored tea. She absolutely hated the taste and surely the husband was well aware of it after a while, but nonetheless each time she was ailing, the same sort of tea was provided. Eventually she came to understand that her husband's mother had given him this same sort of tea when he was ill, and as such he associated the gesture with love and concern. And, understanding this, finally, she came to see it as a statement of unconditional love and less as an annoyance. Sometimes I think it might be worthwhile for us to examine how receptive we are to all gifts of love, regardless of their package, and in so doing question how we might not invalidate anyone else's good intention or present.

...Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.

Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what he was saying.)

Those of you who have studied the Gospels at any length know that Peter sometimes can be a bit of a lunkhead. He always means well, but he doesn't always think before he speaks. He has a genius for completely missing the point in lots of crucial situations, and yet Jesus loves him anyway. Here, in this situation, Peter wanted to act, when the moment called for worship and adoration instead. We need times of retreat and renewal, but only so we can return to minister to the world. If we stayed on top of a mountain, we might soon be changed from spiritual giants to giants of self-centeredness. We cannot escape the reality and problems of our daily lives, but perhaps we can take with us what we have learned in those moments of intensity and transformative power.

The writer Robert Fulgum wrote about how one of his children brought him a paper bag full of random items. He took it to work with him, saw nothing much of value in its contents, then promptly threw it away. After arriving home later that evening, the child came to him and asked for the bag back. You see, what had been shared were the child's most important possessions, and in lending them to the father, the intention had been an unselfish display of love and deep affection. Fulgum described this situation by use of a phrase that an associate of his often voiced. He called it "standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst".

The tokens of esteem or affection we receive from others may not be comprehensible to us at the time. They may be perplexing or perhaps even unintentionally offensive. But underneath it all, we do have a desire to let others who we deeply care about know the depths of our love for them. Sometimes they are present in unusual ways. At times, we may misinterpret them, or even invalidate them without even meaning to do so. In my own life, I have known many people who, metaphorically speaking, craved the approval of a parent-figure so that they might feel worthy and accepted. One of the basic facts about humans is that we have a need to belong and to be a part of whichever group, tribe, or gathering of which we identify. That we may at times go a bit overboard should be excused as simply part of our fallibility. We have all been Peter before. We have all been Fulgum's child. We have all been Fulgum himself. We have all been the plain dress Quaker. And we have all been the organizer of Race for the Cure.

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