Triptych Excerpt I: Fathers

How do we make sense of God through human relationship?
How do the layers of experience and theology interleave?
How do the persons of the trinity show up in the formative altars of our lives?

Triptych grapples with the complications of the faith of incarnation and how their dimensions shift as we grow. Probing the implications of trinity, the memoir unfolds in three sections: Fathers, Sons, Holy Ghosts. “Fathers” wrestles through faith in childhood, trying to make sense of the lines of love and duty and how fathers represent a Father God. We begin there for a first taste of Triptych.

Bon appetit, my fellow pilgrims. I hope these words can whet your appetite for what’s to come.

Surrounded for miles by cornfields and woodlands, the farm was a worn spot in a pair of old jeans. Dusty and threadbare in the center—where gravel showed through like the knee-skin of the earth—the house, barn, and garden were stitched around the grass fringes under the crisp and stacked Minnesota sky. The mile-long driveway spooled from the square seam of the county roads to the house: a piece of worn 70s embroidery, the best efforts of a 23-year-old farm wife to craft style from hand-me-downs and a little colored thread. The barn, corrugated steel with button ventilation chimneys, sat outside the homemade curtains and past the yard and its rusting and prized swing set. The garden, a calico quilt square, laid in leafy stitches on the bottom side of the gravel scuff, a never-ending sampler.

Corn and soybeans in the fields, foxtails and wild grapevines in the ditches, the wind making everything wave just a little, the sun and the sky making smells: this place is the first home I remember.

The farm was tired, but the little family in it, mine, marched to the blooming of tomato plants and the drying of the tasseled corn. The fields were our calendar, marking days and seasons as they checkered the land, and the farm itself our timepiece, the round face of hours circling barn, garden, home. And as much as it’s been said before, it was true. This place was my first world: the canvas and the blank staff, the open book, the unrecited chant. It was, as Eliot says, the place we start from.

My father, slim and brown, his loose hair wavy and faded like his jeans, roamed the hazy light of the barn in the early mornings. In his spattered Red Wing work boots and Pioneer cap, he moved though the rows of sow stalls under the low ceiling, hot when the afternoons were hot and stoic when it was cold. A red paisley handkerchief hung out his back pocket for wiping his hands and glasses, the square brunette plastic of the 70s, and a pair of work gloves flopped from his right jacket pocket. If you caught him in the late afternoon in the dusty air of the barn, standing in the corridor of hay and rust-colored gates, it was hard to find him, to pick him out. Not because, like some men, his work suited him so well, but because he blended in with the light. Maybe it was simply he was as dusty as the air around him, but looking for him I always had to start down low, let my eyes run across the straw-scattered floor, and find his shoes: brown, scuffed, solid. Then, there he’d be, looking back at me, some kind of far-off question in his eyes.

I always had to search to find my father. In the barn in my elastic-waisted jeans or at church in a cotton floral dress and patent leather shoes, it wasn’t hard for me to see him, but it was always the seeing of watching. Watching him stand in a brown suit by the carpeted stairs of the sanctuary and nod in conversation with a few of the men, the deacons, his brows furrowed over marble-blue eyes. Or watching him jog over to help Mrs. Mattson carry a great dish of foil-covered casserole across the leafy parking lot.

My mother, I didn’t watch; her presence more like a smell than an image, an aroma to live in, she was the given, burlap warp to my weaving, shuttling weft. We’ve always looked so much alike—small-framed, large-eyed, with slender Welsh noses and small busy hands—people recognize me instantly as ‘one of Diane’s girls.’ My mother and I look and sound the same, but I am a daughter with her father’s substance. Even from the time I was young, barely to his knees, Dad and I have swung out from my mother’s quiet cord looking at each other past her fibers, our shared complement.

It may sound demeaning, giving my mother the substance of essence, only the weight of an anchor. But in it she’s blessed. Because she’s never been a symbol. Her chestnut hair and light coffee alto have always only stood for her: Mom, Diane. My father and I have had the great struggle of being to each other symbols. And so it is, we’ve watched. I watched because it suited me and because it answered me; they said in church God was like a father, so I had every reason for watching mine.

I watched especially at the beginnings and ends of days, the spaces where he had to cross boundaries, the moments between roles. From the wobbly dining room table, behind plastic cups and slick paintbrush, I would stop swinging my legs and try to see the slice between provider, father—what he was when he wasn’t supposed to be anything. This, I thought, the moment between gears, was the place to find the tenor of identity. A difference or a habit, when none was required, would show me the motor behind action, the vision that framed decision. From before I was old enough to think it, I believed this was the place to test where father linked to Father.

At the end of each day on the farm, when afternoon errands and chores were finished, my parents would meet each other in the kitchen, each empty-handed. Mom would raise her heels off the scuffed linoleum, and I would watch my father lean his neck down and their thin lips would touch. They always kissed with their eyes open: hers quiet but wide like they’d met too many flashes in the dark, his squinting like he’d spent his life examining the sun. I’ve always known my eyes, older, would be split between them: externally, large and round like Mom’s, internally, ground and sharpened by hard light.

My parents never lingered or rushed, but ended their kisses with the snap of their lips separating, a click like a latch rejoining. Then she would go back to stirring a bubbling skillet and he would walk into the house to clean up, both of us watching him go, while I puzzled out which pieces of life were which father’s choice. Even in my small mind, marking out the territories of love and duty.

No Place at the Cross

I’m Martha. I’m the prodigal’s big brother. I’m James shooing the chaotic children so Rabbi Jesus can get on with business, an early-hired vineyard worker, Zechariah. Some days I feel like there’s no room in the Gospels for first-borns. I feel the resistance of the indignant dinner guests appalled at the waste of $50,000— all that bread and medicine— seeping into the dusty floor.

Jesus praising Mary’s stillness over Martha’s industry or celebrating the irresponsible brother’s return has never been a relief to me. On my worse days I resent it, on my worst days I judge the Rabbi for his indulgence and award myself extra crowns for how little need I have for a savior.

There’s always been a place in Jesus’ tribe for sinners—prostitutes like Mary Magdalene, abortion clinic bombers like Simon the Zealot, AIDS patients like the lepers, Wall Street bankers like Matthew. But I empathize with rule-followers, reputation-minders, tradition-keepers and work-within-the-system folk. I won’t defend them, but my sympathies often bend toward the Pharisees. Jesus calls them snakes, accuses them of rotting on the inside. Their cruelty and blindness incite me, but there’s something familiar about educated, rational organizers spending their days debating the finest points of a text.

Being bookish, finding my way into the redemption story is partly about finding my place in the text. My nature is to ask Where am I in this story? but that’s also the nature of these particular stories. Much of Middle Eastern storytelling—particularly ancient, Jewish literature—assumes meaning in the text comes of listeners projecting themselves into the narrative. David B. Gowler notes that in many Jewish texts “the response of the reader or hearer is essential to the process of creating understanding.” When it comes to scripture, finding my place in the story is as much about honoring the text as about honoring my nature.

For decades, my inability to find a place in the Easter story has further complicated Good Friday. I hate Good Friday—but not for the reasons I should. I should hate Good Friday because “it was my sin that held him there” and because it proves we kill goodness even when it lives among us. I recognize myself in the mocking, betrayal, powerlessness, abandonment, anger, denial, abuse, blame, violence, apathy and cynicism of the crucifixion’s characters, but that recognition is symbolic; I identify with the trait—with Mary’s feeling, with the soldier’s action, with Peter’s impulse —but I don’t identify with the character. I’m certainly capable of denial (and have done so), but I’m not a Peter—it’s not who I am in the story. I hate Good Friday because the only place for me in the story is with the Pharisees. But the Pharisees are outside the story of redemption.

This year’s Good Friday service continued my frustration. In annual analogy, the pastor challenged us to imagine Jesus’ experience on the cross—the physical torture, the spiritual darkness. Spiritual darkness has never been particularly difficult for me to imagine and the wars of my lifetime alone affirm how capable the human body is of receiving pain. Receiving pain and being subjected to darkness hardly require divinity or supernatural love—we do it all the time. Imagining the Father’s position only added fury: in what reality is willing abandonment and death on your child a picture of love? Why would I ever want to join that family?

Then the pastor said something as obvious and grounding as a slap: “Good Friday isn’t just about the second person of the Trinity—all of God was involved in the nightmare of Calvary. There is no greater depth of unnatural pain that they could have experienced: it was completely against their eternal nature to be separated from each other. Jesus, eternally united in perfect love with the Father, who had from eternity never experienced one nanosecond of disunity, now experienced separation.”

There was a pain—and a love—I could understand. How much would I have to love someone to endure, for their sake, being separated from my child? How much would I have to love them to balance my suffering? How much would I have to love them to balance the suffering of my child? Almost more than I can imagine—but I can imagine it.

But I still can’t imagine being Peter, or John, or Judas: I wouldn’t have been one of Jesus’ disciples in the first place. I wouldn’t have been pure-hearted enough to be chosen as Jesus’ mother, I wouldn’t have been passionate enough to abandon my job to follow a traveling teacher, I wouldn’t have been political enough to be Pilot, or wealthy enough to donate a tomb, or desensitized enough to gamble for the dead man’s clothes. I would have been following the law—the Roman law, the temple law— keeping my mouth shut, and avoiding the scene all together. When the earth started rumbling and the sky went dark, I would have noticed, but I would have gone where any tradition-honoring Jew would go: to the temple. To do what any fearful human would have done: to pray.

Being there, I would have seen the temple curtain tear. Someone witnessed that. Someone had to see it.

Whoever saw it wasn’t strong enough to watch the death, wasn’t fearful enough to hide, wasn’t political enough to riot, wasn’t cruel enough to celebrate, wasn’t loud enough to be noticed, wasn’t remorseful enough to be hanging, wasn’t selfless enough to be comforting. Whoever saw the curtain tear didn’t have a place at the cross. But they had a place. And while it’s not a place at the cross, it is a place in the story of redemption.

Casting the First Stone

They remind me of Mary or the goddess: watchful, female guardians of peace. Their angular robes and faces receive the dappling mist with the same patience as the oaks. The crows shout in waves, calling to each other across the lake, their black forms punctuating nature’s claim on this land. Two of the statues have their wrists crossed over their hearts as they gaze at the autumn carpet at their feet.

They are cast, not carved, and that makes a certain difference. Their substance comes of filling-in rather than shaving away. It makes the angles sharper, and less violent. They seem ancient, especially beside the pewter lake, cloaked in lichen; but, I know they are of modern invention. Newborn in the 1950s, they were formed in the technology of concrete.

Less than a month from today, the people who live on and around this land will vote on a divisive amendment. It will determine if marriage will be constitutionally defined as the union of one man and one woman. Supporters have had plenty to say about traditional and biblical values. Opponents have had plenty to say about logs and specks.

Early last week, my father forwarded an email in which a local pastor encouraged support for the amendment on the basis that “God has established marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. 3,000 years of civilized history affirms this arrangement, as well.” He neglected to mention that the Bible and history also define marriage as a monogamous, life-long covenant with the primary purpose of creating and nurturing children—a definition that most American Christians could not uphold with any personal integrity.

Also this week, a student at the Midwestern Baptist university where I teach published an editorial in which he (a straight, evangelical Christian) decried the amendment in favor of gay marriage. He neglected to mention any of the biblical passages that define or exhort guidelines for sexual behavior.

Whether voting on such an amendment is a moral or legal issue—or whether those voting perceive any distinction between the two— is a significant question. Whether legislating behavior is a valid expression of love for neighbor is another. Whether sexuality is a definer of identity is yet another.

I hope the amendment fails. But I haven’t yet decided how I will vote. Because to cast (a vote or a stone) can mean “to throw” or it can mean “to build.” The men Jesus addressed in the Gospels were apparently willing to do neither.

Thunder tumbles over the roof and a soaking rain begins to fall. We’ve been in drought here as the seasons change and the rainfall shifts the color of walk and bark and stone. The guardian statues darken and recede, but because of how they’re made, they don’t absorb. Their gaze remains both downcast and peaceful, immutable before the weather.

Watching them, I fear that casting my vote for “biblical statues” and “traditional values” would be a weapon; that doing so would arm my faith. I fear that many of my spiritual siblings will vote this way as an attack or a defense, neither of which I can biblically justify. And yet, I’m unsettled about voting against a definition with which I agree. I do believe that marriage, before God, is the union of one man and one woman. But I don’t believe that marital status or sexual desire should have any bearing on dignity or worth—especially for followers of a single, chaste Messiah.

So I discover that I will likely vote “no.” Come November, I will likely vote to deny a definition with which I doctrinally agree because I want my casting to build rather than defend. I have no faith that voting for traditional values will do anything to build a more Christ-like society. And as I watch the rain nourish a parched earth, I want most to live a life that fills and builds: a life with angles that may remain sharp to some, but that are never violent.