The Watermelon


Every family has its stories. Tragedies, comedies, mysteries – each family has its share of stories of people on their best and worst behavior.

My family has a story about a watermelon.

My grandfather was widowed in his 50s and married a woman shortly after the death of his first wife. The woman’s name was Hazel. Hazel hadn’t had the happiest of childhoods and as a result, often felt left out, neglected or affronted by other people’s behavior. It was easy to wound her. Her default setting was self-negating, so it was difficult to truly connect.

One day, her stepson, my uncle, brought home a watermelon to share with the family. While I was not yet born, and can’t confirm the actual events of the day, the story has been told that for some reason, he did not specifically offer Hazel her own piece of watermelon. Maybe he was thoughtless. Being forgetful. Being spiteful? Maybe. Maybe he was simply assuming she’d take one for herself. Who knows? Her response was to stop speaking to him. And his response was to resent her silence, eat his fury, and write her off. For the rest of their lives, there was a tension whenever his name came up, or hers. Don’t mention that one! Completely unreasonable! Even after we had moved to the west coast and my uncle remained on the east coast, resentment’s ghost sat gloomily in the corner of the room. After all, there had been an affront, and you know what that means. Some things can’t be forgiven.

Now from the outside, this seems silly and small. One afternoon and a large piece of fruit should not steer the course of an entire life’s relationship. Yet it did.

I suppose the deepest wound really had nothing to do with the watermelon, but what it represented. Sharing food is elemental; we share with those we love and trust, we withhold from those we see as strangers. Somehow, that watermelon became a symbol of filial love, or lack of it; somehow, that watermelon got as big as the world and stretched both backwards and forwards in time, and drew a shadow over all of it. And neither my uncle nor my grandmother could ever find a way to step out from under the shadow.

I see this happen a lot, and it’s always desperately sad. I saw it a few weeks ago when a man decided to sit out in the lobby of the church and miss the entire service because he could not comes to terms with the woman sitting in the pew in front of him, holding a go-cup of coffee. She didn’t know him. He didn’t know her. He knew somehow that the woman in front of him wasn’t doing anything intentionally wrong, nor was she in any other way being distracting. She was singing the hymns, reading the prayers, responding in the same way as himself. But there it was, in her hand. He knew he had a choice – to reprimand her, or to ignore it and continue to worship. He knew that a reprimand would only bring embarrassment to both of them; to her, for being so thoughtless as to have a beverage in a cup, and to him for being the cranky old man who had to point out her obvious flaw.  He knew he didn’t want to do that. That would be awkward for both of them. Yet he found he also could not ignore the coffee, which represented to him a profound lack of awareness or grace.

And here’s where it gets interesting. At some level his discomfort grew to such a level that he left. He did not simply move to another pew, although there were many open and available. He didn’t choose to stand in the back. He left the sanctuary entirely. He exiled himself to the lobby. While his wife continued to worship inside. He left the service, the prayers, and his wife.


I think I understand. It was the shadow of the watermelon, looming overhead like a bloated zeppelin, threatening the skies.

Hazel already believed that she would never gain the love of her stepson after the death of his mother. She believed it so much that there was nothing he could do to reassure her, and everything he could do to reaffirm the chasm. Small imagined slights became fights. Small moments became epic battles of the will, retold and retold again. For the rest of their lives, she and he forgot any of the simple kindnesses that they might have done for one another. “You don’t care,” they said to one another, in every look, in every silence, in every missed opportunity. They blocked each other out, made it impossible to give or receive. And when 3000 miles finally separated them, they took that resentment and carved it hard and deep into stone.

I believe this man in the lobby might be tempted to do the same. If at some level he already believes that the woman, or others like her, will never understand or respect God the way he does, he begins to draw the line. If she can’t understand and pray to  God in the same way he does, then she probably can’t understand him, either. Maybe his wife can tolerate it, but he can’t. There are limits, after all. Day after day, in small ways, he relives the smell of  her coffee, watches the steam rise up from the cup in his mind, and begins to assign it a mythical symbolism. That coffee cup is disrespect. Next time, someone who looks like her will come by, and he will wonder if she drinks coffee in front of Jesus, too. If she even goes to church at all. He will remember that he had no choice but to leave. She made him leave. No choice but to sit outside, and stew, and resent. What else could he do? And pretty soon, regardless of what his wife says, he will stop coming to that church entirely.  Just like the last one he left. The last one was too full of unfamiliar hymns. This one, too full of coffee.

So – should the woman have left her coffee outside? Should my uncle have given Hazel a watermelon slice? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I don’t know. But was the reaction to these small grievances in balance to the perceived fault?

Should we expect the people around us to be acceptable to us at all times in order to be in relationship with them? Do we need to retreat from the risk? Or if we stay, what happens when they inevitably fail us, as we in turn fail them? Do we move then to another seat? Another pew? Another coast?

God does not exile us over watermelons and cups of coffee. God does not insist that we read each other’s minds and always respond proactively to each other’s unspoken desire. God does not even ask us to correct each other, except when there is first a framework of love and relationship, and then only sparingly. God draws no lines, expects us to live outside the lines entirely, and that makes us crazy. Crazy enough to walk away.

But God does not want us to walk away. Because when we do, we lose so much more than just a moment of prayer time, or a bite of refreshment. We lose the opportunity to know and to be known, to trust and to be trusted, to forgive and to be forgiven.

We lose more than a piece of watermelon.

We lose a piece of ourselves.



Which Hand?

There’s an old trick that kids play with each other, in which one kid has a penny in his hand, then waves his hands back and forth, then puts both of them behind his back and says, “Which hand?” If the other kid guesses correctly which hand the penny is being held in, he wins. But often, the first kid has time to swap out the penny to the OTHER hand just before the reveal, so HE wins. If the second kid never catches on, the first one can win this every single time.


My father passed away a little more than two weeks ago. I have not yet cried over this; in fact, with the exception of a vague, achy and persistent weariness, I have not felt much at all. Yet every night in my dreams, I am losing something, Sometimes I have lost my car in a giant parking lot; in other dreams, I have lost my locker combination, or my dog, or my wallet, or, in one peculiar dream, a vial of T-Rex DNA.

At first glance, these two paragraphs have nothing to do with each other, and neither one seems to have anything at all to do with church. And yet, they do.

I believe my heart is playing “Which Hand” with itself, by switching up my grief with weird dreams of losing random things of great importance. Especially the DNA. My dad was 95, and while that does not qualify him for having lived through the Jurassic period, it does seem to suggest that he was part of a past we’re not getting back.

And so it is with church. When I come across an older person who is standing aside, watching with forlorn amazement at the torn jeans and crop tops walking by, I begin to get it. When I hear a middle aged man talking about how it used to be quiet in church when HE was a kid, I begin to get it. And when I see a teenager sullenly ignoring the group of adults who have dragged him into their cheery post-church conversation, I begin to get that, too.

We can’t choose what hurts us, but we can choose how we mourn it. And often we do it without even realizing it. It’s called transference, but you could just call it the penny trick on steroids.

A mother begins to fear that her opinion matters less to her adult daughter these days, and so she sees the torn jeans and feels an odd resentment and loss. An older man worries that he’s not as strong as he used to be, and so the sound of boisterous energy and laughter begins to feel like a taunt. A teenager who suddenly finds himself less adorable and more prone to adult mistakes certainly doesn’t want to stand around with adults who are pretending they all know exactly what they’re doing about everything.

Which hand is the penny in?

It takes courage to lay out your wounds on the table like a deck of cards and take stock. They’re not pretty. Some of them ooze. It takes a strong stomach. And it’s not just a one-time deal. It requires daily, sometimes hourly dedication. It can be depressing. It can be daunting. It can give your hands a cramp, keeping that penny behind your back and switching it back and forth, back and forth, between your closed fists. Don’t be surprised if you fail, and often.

But the good news is, once you see the cards, and once you feel the sting of the pain, other things start to hurt less. The holey jeans become mysterious, but not insulting. The conversation may still be weird, but it’s not boring a hole in your chest. The laughter might actually make YOU laugh, too. It helps to know that we all have that deck of cards, we all are holding pennies. Nobody gets off free.

I have no advice for this process. I certainly can’t say I’ve mastered it, as I continue to dream about fossil DNA. But I can say, on the rare occasion when I kept the penny in the same hand and let my friend win, it wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was a relief.

Are you flammable?

I am. I can’t think of anyone who isn’t. When I watch the news and see the injustice in the world, I get hot around the collar. When I hear about the bullying that goes on in schools, and the racist comments that get bandied about on the internet, I get mad. When someone says something disparaging about children, or the elderly, or the disabled, I get righteously indignant. Actually, I take that back – better people than me get righteously indignant. I just get royally pissed. I create brilliant soliloquies inside my mind that are so compelling that the people I am angry at literally fall at my feet in wonder and penitence and sin no more. And when that doesn’t work, inside my head, I put them in fast cars so I can shoot out their tires and send them skidding into giant piles of manure. The worst of the worst die in a massive pile of poo. And then there’s a laugh track. Yeah, I am that arrogant inside my own head, I’m embarrassed to admit.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of legitimately horrible things in this world to get angry about, and I hope that I never get so cynical or so tired that I stop caring about those things. War. Social injustice. Poverty. The abuse of the natural world. These are things that deserve wrath, to move us forward and towards what is right. If I were to become too jaded to react anymore, it would be a loss of my humanity, to be mourned over just as much as if I lost my intellect, or my joy, or my health. I didn’t reach the age I am now just to become someone who is, God help us all, uselessly NICE.

And yet.

It’s much too easy for me to cherish those righteous, furious, punishing thoughts in my mind. They multiply like rabbits, and sometimes I cuddle them like rabbits. They are also pretty trinkets that make large booming sounds that thrill me like fireworks. They wrap around the inside of my head to insulate me from the discomfort of compassion. I almost love them. They give me a false sense of strength, of being a justice-seeker. They steer me dangerously close to Pharisee territory.  When I wander through the landscape of those thoughts, I am always the good guy, and I always correctly identify and vanquish the bad guys. I know this, because in that landscape, all the bad guys look and act nothing like me. Those thoughts are hypnotic, and even when I don’t act on them, they live behind my eyes.

Which brings me to their wicked little offspring – the glare.

Throughout the years, I have liked and loved people who at one time or another told me that they could never enter a church because – and here’s the weird similarity of their statement – “it would go up in flames.” Now you and I both know that the likelihood of someone stepping across the threshold of a church and it spontaneously bursting into flames is remote at best, unless the place is ancient and someone has just thrown a bale of hay on the devotional candle rack.

But upon closer inspection, there could still be a fearsome fire to walk through. Something like this:


I’m not saying that the Queen of England is going to show up at your church anytime soon and lay one of these on the parishioners. But there IS this face in the congregation somewhere, especially if you are differently dressed, or older, or younger, or darker, or fatter, or skinnier, or Other than the rest of the folks sitting there in their seats, self-assigned for the past 10 years. And if I were on the receiving end of it, I would definitely feel a little crispy around the edges.

My guess is that my friends who joke about the conflagration of hell at the church doors are really trying to be tactful for my delicate Christian-skinned sake. They’re not worried about flames, they’re worried about the queenly glare.  Because they’ve already been on the receiving end of it. And it ain’t pretty.

That’s what scares me. That these kind people are sparing me the embarrassment of calling it out. Not that the Queen of England can make that face. But that I can. And have. This look has shown up on MY face. It makes me wonder how many people’s hair I have singed just with a glance, and then, thinking nothing of it, moving on. After all, it was just a glance, right?

I am flammable. Rats. The thought of it makes me burn, but not with anger. With regret.

Is it really such a big deal?  I mean, I’m not robbing a bank here. I haven’t killed anyone. Maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe it is. Look at that expression and imagine it directed at you after you have just lost a job. Or a relationship. Or your idea of who you used to be. Or something you loved more than yourself. Or your self respect. And you walk into a church thinking maybe, just maybe, there’s something there for you this one time.

And you get this.

It’s going to take me the rest of my life to wean myself off of the pleasures of secretly righteous thoughts, and I have to be honest – I probably will never completely succeed. They are so damn seductive. It takes a lot of maturity to be able to tell the difference between the right kind of anger over what is damaging and evil in this world, and the wrong kind of anger when someone doesn’t live up to my expectations and invades my personal space with their vulnerable humanity. It’s too easy to have flamethrower in hand.

But I’ve got to try. I owe it to – well, myself, and you and God. So I ask of those around me – first of all, please know that my failings are not reflective of the God I am supposed to be serving. I may be Judgey McJudgersons, but He’s not. And secondly, please accept my heartfelt apologies for the heat of the glares that I and others have let loose over the years. Especially the bitter ones I reflected at myself in the mirror and then shot back at the rest of the world. Those are by far the worst. Nobody deserves them. Not even me. Certainly not you.

Yes, I am flammable. You might not want to put your asbestos suit away just yet. But on the journey towards being a real human being and not just a facsimile of one, I promise to not shoot out your tires with my mind.


Easter Parade

In the spring of 1971, when I was nine years old,  my mind was occupied with visions of large plastic baskets filled with shiny cellophane grass and, hopefully, all the milk chocolate and jelly beans in the entire world. Easter was just around the corner, and life was about to get delicious.

I also knew in the back of my mind that the adults were preparing for something religious, something which experience had taught me was going to require me to be uncomfortably kneeling for large portions of the morning. No matter. Eventually, mass would be over, and I would be given free rein to search about the house until the coveted basket was discovered, and I could spend the rest of the afternoon happily raising my glucose levels. I had my Easter priorities, as the adults had theirs. And theirs, mysteriously, was expressed in fashion.

Easter, it seemed, was all about The Holy Outfit. Dad and my older brothers were grudgingly shoehorned into pinstriped suits with starched Oxford collars around clip on ties. Shoes had to be polished and shiny enough that you could see a reflection in the bulge where the little toe rubbed. Mom’s new floral dress was suitably modest and mid-calf, while I was given a starchy flouncy little number that itched the backs of my knees. My white hat with the daisy ribbon, made from the same woven plastic as the basket would be, was firmly bobby pinned to my head. Even the priest at the altar was dressed in shining white. Holiness glared off his stole like sun on a windshield.

Once at church, I could see that other families were in similar standing – festooned in taffeta and silk, rayon and polyester,  stealthily rubbing ankles, necks and wrists to relieve the itch of new clothes from Sears and JC Penney.  Men took their hats off, women ran a hand alongside their hair, checking that their hats would survive a cat 5 hurricane. The poor men and women with allergies took out new starched handkerchiefs to ward off the fragrance of lilies. Respect and decorum in every row. Yes, I thought, this is Easter.

And it was, for a long time. And then, it seems suddenly, it wasn’t.

As I watched the crowds shuffle in last Sunday, I saw very few Easter bonnets, but I did see baseball caps. Some suits, but an equal number of khakis and jeans. Some tee shirts, some sneakers, too. A scuffed pair of Birkenstocks and bare toes. Some kids with cell phones, texting in their seats. One impressive beige Stetson. And so many sleeveless dresses, some with visible bra straps! My parents, God bless them, would have been terribly confused. What Easter looks like this?

And then it occurred to me to ask the question more deeply. What, indeed, does Easter look like? And from whose perspective?

From the outside world, it looks like a Sunday with reservations for brunch. From the pew, it looks like a religious observance that faithful people try to bring all the family to at least once a year. From the kids, it looks like a waiting game for plastic eggs and candy. But what about from God’s perspective? Does it give him joy? Is he bored? Disappointed? Triumphant?

I’d like to think it gives him glory, but it’s more likely it just makes him chuckle. We are working so hard to earn his love, get some brownie points, do the right thing, be respectful, protect the sanctity of our worship, praise his name, get the notes right, remember the salient points of the sermon, clear the parking lot for the next hour, pick up the kids from Sunday school, be on time for brunch, and above all, check the “holy” box for the day.

“Let the little children come to me,” he said, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

I’d like to think that I am more mature now than I was at age nine, but in fact, in God’s eyes, I probably haven’t changed all that much, and I suspect neither have any of us. Like a little kid, I still want to be known for being good, for having the correct answer, or attitude, or even the right Easter outfit. I want the holy pat on the head of approval. Like a little kid, I look around, not wanting to be stared at but desperately wanting to be noticed for somehow being RIGHT. I want everything to be fair, and familiar. I want it to look the same as it always did. I want it frozen in time. If I had to wear an itchy dress, well then, those little girls now should, too, right? And if my brother had to wear a suit and tie, why does your brother get to wear a baseball cap and jeans?

Hence, the chuckle of God. God is a father who knows his kids very well – and loves us anyway. We’re the little children, coming to him and bumping gracelessly into each other when we come into the church. We’re even thinking about lunch afterwards, which is not a far cry from my nine-year-oldish obsession with chocolate. We’re the ones looking backwards with nostalgia and forward with dread, and God is sitting right here in the middle of it, bemused by our confusion. “Kids, why be in the past, when its gone? Why hurry into a future you have no control over? Why not just be here, in the warm welcome of My presence?” And much as I hate to admit it, I’m pretty sure he also doesn’t really care what we’re wearing, anymore than he cared what the kids were wearing as the apostles tried to shoo them off his lap. He made it pretty clear from the beginning: nobody’s got it absolutely right, and everybody’s  welcome.

Easter, I think, looks like a family gathering of kids who are deeply loved and haven’t got a clue. And yet, he says of such as these is the kingdom of heaven.

So I tell myself, relax. Don’t bust your brain trying to understand. Settle in. Take a deep breath. Cut yourself some slack. Cut those folks some slack, too. The glory of the Lord surrounds us, even when taffeta and pinstripe does not. I didn’t wear my Easter hat this year, and somehow, he is still risen indeed. It’s not fair, but I am still welcome and so are you, and so are they. There’s plenty of room, so skootch in, we’ll all fit just fine.

After all, the Easter parade has many members, and all of them are beautiful.