Thursday, May 9, 2013

Infinite Grace 5

May is National Short Story Month and I'm feeling led to write some flash fiction. Here's my first short story about a parent's hopes for the legacy she has left her child through his own name, and how God's grace touches even this, whether realized or not. It is a real rough draft and not very good as I haven't written short stories since I left college! Your feedback will help me make it stronger. Thanks.

The picture, btw, is a Hawaiian Hibiscus that's blooming in the Garden of Grace right now. Orange, a friend told me, is the color of joy and I am totally filled with joy!

What's in a Name?

He liked two lines from my poem, The Yoke:
From ashes I come
To ashes I resist.

Ash. Resistance. Decay. Is this the legacy I have given my child, through his name? I wondered.

I was christened Grace and all my life I have tried to live up to my name. As a child I wanted to be good, and as I grew older, I longed to be graceful, gracious. In middle-age I have been blessed. Grace-filled beyond measure, a recipient of divine and human grace, I am, in very small ways, a giving vessel too. I try to pour myself out for others, not always, and sometimes not successfully. Still, the fundamental meaning of grace, in Reformation theology, is unmerited favor; grace is a gift, and it cannot be earned. I'll be wrapping my mind around this for the rest of my life. What an inspiring adventure upon which my parents set me when they named me so thoughtfully!

I want to encourage my child Ash, on an adventure like mine. His name had provoked much ridicule and bullying in school and the scars ran deep. Even though I loved the sound of Ash, what I knew, about the word ash – biblical or otherwise - wasn’t, at first glance, flattering or promising. The analogies of dust, sackcloth and ashes to the temporary and short span of our human life, repentance, and suffering, certainly overshadowed any remembrance of the Asher tribe, now lost. Asher is the name of one of the patriarchs, and the tribe descended from him, of God’s chosen people. Asher means happy. Ash was a happy child and it was a well-suited name. Surely, there must be much more and so my Lenten discipline began early this year. I started to explore and soon, I learned that ash is not only about death or happiness. The Bible as well as a study of word origins and ancient mythologies changed my understanding and The Power of Ash, a short meditative poem, flowed out o me, writing itself easily.

The breath of life
Living beings
Mysterious as air
Hearts of clay becoming flesh
Blowing in the wind
Dreams beckon
Visions arise
A mighty tree, a brave knight of great wealth,
Happy, swift, contrite, gentle, shiny and new
Ash is power and protection, God-breathed.

The word ash, in the singular, occurs in at least four different books of the Old Testament. The one I like best is Hannah’s Prayer. Hannah, a barren woman, cries to God. God answers her prayers for a child with the prophet Samuel. What grace! Ashes, in the plural, are remembered more often especially in connection with the Imposition of Ashes with which we begin our Lenten season and our annual walk with Jesus to the cross. But in reading the other stories anew, I was struck by the twin themes of judgment and righteousness on the one hand and humility and grace on the other that run through them. I had never noticed it before: Abraham who humbles himself to plead for lawless Sodom and God’s fantastic promise to Jeremiah.

The word ash also has at least three, perhaps four, distinct etymologies, formed from mythologies on the Indian subcontinent, Thailand, Old English, and Africa.

The longer form of the name, Ashvin means light in the Sanskrit language from India. Ashvin also stands for the Divine twins, the "Ashvins," considered to be the Hindu Gods of vision, in Hindu mythology. The feminine equivalent Ashvini is the first star that appears in the evening sky and in the Hindu constellation it is the head of Aries, the first of the 27 Nakshatras (stars). In Thailand, a variation of Ashvin, known as Asaween, stands for "brave knight." In Anglo-Saxon Old English, the variation, Aescwine means 'of great wealth, swift'. In the Celtic Zodiac the ash tree is one of the signs. The ancient Celts were impressed by the massive girth and height of the ash tree. Some of the trees were over 200 feet tall and their fantastic growth was possible because of a deeply embedded root system. “The mass, height, and deeply imbedded roots were all metaphors for the spiritually minded Celts (and us too). The ash speaks to us of growth, expansion, and higher perspective. If we think symbolically as the ancient Celts were apt to do, we can liken our own soul-growth with that of the ash. With greater (higher) attainment, the more we need to stay grounded (well rooted).” Some druid accounts hold that the realm between earth and sky were held together by the mighty ash. Ash is also associated with the elements of air and fire and since the wood of the ash burns even green, it symbolized ideas of resurrection and renewal for the Celts. In some creation myths from Celtic lore the ash was considered the cradle of life, a gentle giant and a protector of youth.

I like the Celtic symbolism of the ash tree but I would apply it quite differently. Ash signifies God given life, and growth in Christ, grounded, rooted, in him, a canopy of provision and protection for the suffering and needy in our world. 

Yoruba is one of the ancient nations in West Africa from where African Americans were brought as slaves to the Americas. In their sacred cosmology, Ashe is the creator and the power that animates all of creation but the scholar Coleman Wills writes about its use in African American Protestant worship. In this ecstatic form of liturgy, Ashe, something like an all-pervasive spiritual energy is also a term comparable to Amen and can be translated as “so be it.”

It was one of my last findings, the legend of the mythical phoenix rising from its own ashes that took my breath away. I had completely forgotten that early Christianity had adopted the phoenix as a symbol of various things: Renewal, resurrection, Christ's life, Mary, virginity, the exceptional man. Need I say more? Isn't this the universal human story too? We all have battles to face but in Christ, we rise triumphant from the ashes. We have new life. I will never look at ashes or Ash or indeed any other person with a "different" name in the same way again. 

Resistance and decay are not the legacy of Ash or the name Ash. The name connotes happiness, humility, light, God’s provision, and renewal. Ash is God breathed life, known intimately by him.  God’s grace placed Ash in a family where Christ is the head. In Christ’s family, Ash is loved, cherished, and valued not because of accomplishments but simply because he’s a child of God, created in his image and worthy of love and respect. God's grace has carried Ash safely through evil, comforted him in his suffering, and renewed him with new life and a vision. Ash is part of a happy tribe of his chosen people, and it is grace that is growing him into a mighty tree with deep roots, magnificent girth, and sheltering shade. Ash is the knight who comes swiftly to help, exceptional, a gentleman for God, with eyes on the needy and the outcast. God's promises are faithful and true not just in a name but in the whole breadth and depth of life too. I, his mother, have had my eyes opened. I now see, in yet another new way, the grace-touched living hope that nourishes parents in the commonplace chores and everyday realities of raising children. What's in a name? Illimitable grace.

This short story is part of a series I am writing on Infinite Grace; thanks to my pastor Scott's brilliant suggestion and encouragement. Another current series is Social Media. I am inviting guest blog posts on Social Media or any Christian subject of your choice but especially on the topics of grace, discipleship or hospitality. If you would like to write or know of a friend who might be a good fit, please let me know. Articles submitted will be vetted for theological integrity. Thanks.