Breaking the Alabaster Jar

As a little girl I loved to examine the exquisite bottles on Grandma’s dresser. She would open one and let me smell its sweet perfume, or wipe a bit of its lotion on my arm. I remember smelling lilacs out of season, and rich aromas that couldn’t be named—except in the creativity of Avon, which made most of them.

perfume snailOne perfume bottle was particularly intriguing:  a delicate glass snail, with gilded head and antennae, filled with a luxuriant amber liquid. I picked it up one day and twisted that head away so that I could breathe in its aroma.  Grandma turned just then and startled me with her reproof: “No, don’t open that one!  It will lose its scent if it’s opened.” Mortified, I hastily sealed it back up again and set it down among the other—evidently less precious—fragrances.

Within a year or two, when I was ten, Grandma died with that perfume still safely encased in the snail’s keeping. I asked my mom if I might have it, and she brought it home to me among the many other treasures she and her siblings had divided. It has sat on my dresser ever since, an ageless sentinel of inaccessible beauty.

After my mom died, I discovered that she, too, had similarly kept treasures she never seized the occasion to use:  candles, bath soap, dried apricots, and more. I said then that whatever I kept, I would use. No more holding on for “someday.”

I wonder if something like this was behind Jesus’ defense of the woman who poured out that alabaster jar of very costly ointment (Matthew 26). “If not for me, when?” he might have asked.

Let’s have no more forever sealed bottles, treasures, secrets, churches, hearts. Surely all of those things can be—must be—broken open, and shared, and savored. Surely Christ calls us to that. “Go ahead. For me.” Yes, Lord, yes.

Excruciating Intimacy

ForlornWho has touched you today?

It’s a question, for me, usually answered with a very short list, if actual physical touch is in view. My list expanded this week as I participated, as a staff member at the prison, in a yearly training aimed at enhancing our safety.  We practiced techniques to fend off an attack, and to end an altercation.

There’s an intimacy to this, with a lot of touch—much of it harsh—as we repeat defensive and directive moves, always with a partner. We get up close and personal with fellow staff members, female and male, in ways that don’t happen even with close friends. Nothing inappropriate, I assure you, and always in a most matter-of-fact way.

There is touch that we welcome, and touch we undergo for good reason, and the touch that is done to us.

This week’s training was in the second category. It is important that we do this. Although I have never personally needed to utilize these practices (thank God!), I understand that safety is enhanced if I, along with all other staff, remain vigilant and primed to respond.

Similarly, we undergo touch for good reason when we visit the dental hygienist, or the gynecologist, or schedule a colonoscopy.

I minister at the prison with women who have way too much experience with touch done to them, often violent, usually repeated. Repeated by the same father uncle stepfather boyfriend neighbor friend. Or repeated through a succession of such men. When it begins very young, and when mom grandma sister auntie friend pastor teacher don’t take action when she tells, she begins to think that’s just the way things are. Evidently, she’s kinda right.

It can lead her not to know or savor the welcome touch that is all some of us fortunate ones have ever really known.

And I quail at the necessary but uncomfortable touch of a four-hour training session.

As we celebrate mothers this weekend, or women, or the Christian home, or however we do this in our churches and our families, let us not forget the many—one in four, or one in five of us women—for whom intimate touch has sometimes been excruciating. They are in our midst. “We” includes this.

Under Construction

IMG_1961When I traveled to Washington DC recently, the expected grandeur of the U.S. Capitol building was marred. Scaffolding shrouded the dome, and plastic sheeting covered portions of the façade. A companion expressed her disappointment. “So much for the photo op.”

I was superbly glad for this glimpse of this symbol of our nation.

In the preceding days I had come face to face with injustices being committed in my name (and yours) through the enforcement powers invested in our government: The over-incarceration of our fellow human beings, at rates that far exceed most countries. Mandatory sentencing that falls unduly on persons of color, effectively making our criminal justice system the vehicle of what some have called a New Jim Crow. Detention of immigrants and their families, driven by quotas that benefit private prisons operating for profit. An inadequate response to human trafficking, which is happening not just in distant countries but right where we are.

That sight of our capitol building under construction spoke to me of a nation that isn’t done yet, a system that is still being built, needing restoration, renewal, new life.  I’m glad for that.  I pray that it’s true.

Indeed, the pics we snap of our churches, our businesses, our institutions—even of ourselves!—would be more real, more genuine, if the scaffolding were made visible. It’s always there, isn’t it?  Or it should be. The post-Reformation church has understood itself to be reformed, and always reforming.  The minute we think we’re done:  that’s the minute we’re in trouble.  We look out, always, through wreaths of scaffolding, with construction always in process.

If it were more obvious that we, and all these things, are under construction, perhaps we would be more patient with—and more resolute about—what isn’t done yet.

Farmer wave

I grew up with the farmer wave. It’s what you do when you cross paths with someone on a gravel road. It’s the barest flick of a finger or two. An acknowledgment. “I see you.”

Out in the world, no one waves. Traveling to Washington DC last week, I was reminded of the hiddenness we share when we are many. In our profusion, each is a stranger. Why notice one another? Walk as if you’re alone, eyes down—and even better if your earbuds show. Ooze self-sufficiency, disconnectedness, disinterest.

My country neighbors are no less self-reliant. Their outsized trucks won’t be cowed by any storm.  The effortless grace of their raised fingers isn’t about their naiveté; it’s about our perceived connection.  If we both have reason to travel down that same gravel road, then we are unquestionably bound.  We surely know one another, or our parents did, or there’s something that links us, which we would discover if only we paused to talk. The very act of sharing this gravel road belies the possibility that we are mere strangers. Your answering wave confirms that.

This simple custom makes me rethink the separateness of those I meet beyond my adjacent country roads. Those men and women on the sidewalk in Washington, were they not linked inextricably to me and to one another? precious children of God, neighbors, siblings? The fiction that we are mere strangers limits our vision, our imagination, what is possible in our life together. The outward differences that distinguish us pale against the larger similarity in our genes and in our hearts.

As I share the road with others, in whatever metropolis or village, I long for the energy and room to see that. I might even test it out, flicking a wave in their direction, or saying “hello” when others are silent. And sometimes their response will confirm what I already know: we are, all of us, more than strangers.