The one who stays behind

Hear, O women, the word of the LORD, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament. “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.”                Jeremiah 9:20-21

My Godly community is reeling. We have lost one of our own, and we have lost her quickly and with hardly a warning. Her children feel like they belong to us, and therefore we ache with deep grief as we contemplate their future, one in which they will always think of their mother in the past tense.

When you spend hours in a hospital waiting room, you have plenty of time to think. Amidst the fervent prayer, I often offered laments to God: for her bodily suffering, for the unfair element of this great woman’s early departure from this world, and for God’s poor choice in taking her. You see, I do not hold on so closely to this life. Within it I move and love and work, but I do not cling to it tightly. My hope is in a grander life beyond this world, where love reigns and the pettiness of greed and hate do not exist. This earthly home is temporary for me. So, I railed a bit against God. I should be the one winging my way to my Savior. It shouldn’t have been her, who has a young child to raise and a grandbaby to cuddle. She was much better a follower of Jesus than I, having mastered the art of forgiveness, patience, compassion and love. And so I wrestle with guilt; because she, the same age as I, is gone and I remain behind. I know I am not alone, as over the years I have heard many elderly people contemplate why they stayed and someone they loved didn’t.

We do not get to choose who will be plucked from the field and who will remain. We do not get to make rational arguments for the choosing of one to go ahead while we linger back. Life cycles end and we scramble to collect the broken pieces of our hearts and lives and find a way to create a life that honors the people we lose.

Being the one who stays behind means that one is tasked with responsibility. Your time is a gift, a precious one that calls for attention and intention. How can you live into such an invaluable thing as an opportunity to hug your grandchildren and hold them on your lap? How have you centered your life in such a way that your children will rest easy in time well spent and love freely exchanged? Being the one who stays behind means learning a lesson from those who go on ahead.

Loving God, who we rarely understand, teach us how to live even as we grieve those who live no longer. Hold us gently as we lift our anger to you when we disagree with the ways of this world. Draw us in and lift our eyes to you. Amen.

 

Locked up for life

You are jaillooking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I should boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I shall not be put to shame,   2 Corinthians 10:7-8

We humans have a habit of assumption. We assume that the moral standards our parents and caregivers instilled and surrounded us with are solid. While they vary from household to household- what kind of work or benefit is acceptable and what is unacceptable, we are usually sure our teachings were right. When we fall short, we feel it-like the prodigal son and the moment he really felt his moral failings as measured by his work tending the pigs and choosing uncleanly work. Yet, there are assumptions of others we make that are universal: if you landed in jail, you were there because you made a wrong choice or broke a law. Rarely do we ask the deeper questions, such as “Does the punishment fit the crime?” or “Have we created a system that favors one group of people over another?” Even worse, have we considered that perhaps we have perpetuated a criminal justice system that is anything but just to the poor, the very people Christ calls us to protect and lift up?

A few months ago, two gentlemen from our town spoke at our Sunday School. They are ‘returning citizens,’ a term to denote their re-entry into society following incarceration. Both served time for drug possession and intent to distribute. Both have worked diligently to restructure and change their lives. They talked about their past and their present and then challenged us to learn more about a topic called Mass Incarceration.

Mass Incarceration is a term that defines this country’s extremely disproportionate number of prisoners that are people of color. Raised in poor neighborhoods, frequently convicted on drug charges, these non violent offenders receive astonishingly lengthy sentences and, once released, falter under the weight of court costs that, in left unpaid, will land them right back in jail. Compounding this situation is a society that is hesitant to hire an ex-offender, let alone rent one an apartment. Their white counterparts are offered rehabilitation programs, lighter sentences and are generally given the opportunity for a second chance at life, something rarely afforded to convicted criminals of color.

In my own lily white family, I have relatives that have been or are currently incarcerated. They arrived there by their own accord and choices. They were given opportunities for probation, which they inevitably violated. I am not painting those who break the law with one brush. I am, however, noting that we have a problem with race in this country and it has led us as an American penial system to incarcerate so many people that we spend more on prisons than education– and that speaks volumes about our values as a country.

We decided to learn more. We watched HBO’s documentary on mass incarceration, began a book study and we have invited our returning citizen friends back to discuss. This system we have is broken and we act as though that is acceptable because it doesn’t effect us. However, injustice to one is injustice for all, and Christ calls us to lift the oppressed and treat our brother as ourselves. According to Paul, authority is meant for building up, not tearing apart. Would you want your brother locked away for life for a minor offense? I challenge you to learn more, so that everyone has the opportunity to change their lives for the better.

Shady Living

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James 1:11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

I’m not a fan of the summer sun. I have skin the color of an American Standard toilet. Freckles of varying sizes and colors appear wherever the sun bakes my fair skinned body. Sure, I can use sunscreen and I do- SPF100 to be exact- but it feels uncomfortable to me: the flushing of my face, sweat everywhere, the literal heat radiating my tender flesh like a chicken roasting in the oven. I prefer shade.

I’ve been slowly coming to the realization that I can no longer exist in my present state. I’ve known this awhile, but as I have said previously, I am not a fan of discomfort. I don’t like to live my life feeling denied or uncomfortable. The idea of purposely putting oneself into a disciplined state of proper diet or the lactic acid after burn of a workouts feels vulnerable to me. Come to think of it, I’m not a fan of vulnerability either. I prefer remaining climate controlled.

But here’s the trouble: I really am not happy with this body. It isn’t flexible anymore, strong anymore or as light as it used to be before (and light is a relative term, believe me.) The problem with living in the shade is that shade can only exist because the sun exists. The sun allows the growth that provides the shade. Without its heat, buds would not awaken, without its light, chlorophyll would have nothing to convert to energy. The tree depends on the summer sun to gather its resources and nurture its soul for the long winter’s rest.

I encourage people all the time to lean into the uncomfortable. Break-ups, school, new hobbies, and especially, breaking old habits all cause a significant amount of discomfort. Perhaps I do that because I can bear a break-up, juggling multiple disciplines or tackling new hobbies without much fear. But this body of mine is a habit I dread breaking. When I ruminate on the terror of the exercise: waking early for the class, sweating, not having the stamina or flexibility, bearing The People of the Gym- I run in the opposite direction. Yet, as I say that I gaze upon the picture above and realize that to stay shaded means to live in the dark and no matter how comfortable that may be, and I am not a dweller of darkness. I am a child of salt and light. I bring leavening and drive out shadow. I am equipped to do that because of faith and my creation. Sometimes comfort can be more debilitating than our fear, especially when it comes to the disciple’s path. I am praying for courage and trust to live boldly into a new life out in the sun. Precious Lord, take me hand…

 

Our Duty to the Wilderness

A few years ago I was asked to preach during an ecumenical Lent mid-day service. The topic was forgiveness. I shared a story of the moment I confronted the man who had inappropriately touched me when I was a small child. The context itself- and how I ended up in that moment- was peculiar. I had been asked to supply preach at a church for 2 Sundays in a row. It turned out my perpetrator was the council president. I chose to preach a 2 part series on anger and forgiveness. The first Sunday, I spoke of the after effects for children when they are abused at a young age. I talked about the destructive nature of anger that can never be abated. I followed up the next week with a sermon highlighting the power of forgiveness and the freedom inherent when we step out of the spin cycle of bitterness.

Two things happened to me that first day. A young boy shook my hand on the way out of the church, eyes cast down, and said, “your sermon made sense to me.” I thanked him but didn’t get it until his mother followed behind with tears in her eyes. Then, I got it. This was personal for that boy. The next thing came after everyone else had left the church and I was retrieving my sermon text to leave. This man from my past asked for my forgiveness, but not before letting me know God had already forgiven him. In spite of, and perhaps because of, his words, I looked at this powerless man for who he was for the first time. In that moment I realized that for all my hurt and pain, it was he who needed compassion, not me. I was okay, I had overcome.

After I talked about that day in my Lenten sermon, I greeted people on the way out after lunch. There were the people who wouldn’t make eye contact, the ones who said, “nice message” and then there were the folks who squeezed your hand tighter or hugged for that extra minute. People like the young boy who communicated their understanding without explanation.

Every time I share my story of forgiveness I get that same reaction. A few words, a request to talk later, the squeeze of a hand. You may think that it is impolite to speak of unconscionable things in public, unnecessary to talk about the wilderness, but I do not agree.

How does one sustain the faith when surviving for forty days in the wilderness? How about forty years? You could be like Jesus and bear that hunger and loneliness all by yourself, but I doubt you could; because we are not the Messiah, we are the children of God and the children of God need each other.

So often we walk through this life secretly believing that whatever we are experiencing, we are unique in the struggle. From common medical complaints to emotional reactions, to deep pain from hidden assaults, how often have you heard someone say, “I didn’t know anyone else felt like that.”? I believe that we have a duty to the wilderness, and that is to share its experience. As the church, we are made up of those who are loud and open, and those who are silent and closed. We bear the same sadness and loss, the same burdens weigh heavily on us. It will be the open folks who will not shy away from the wilderness tale and how God has carried you through your forty days or forty years- whichever may be true for you. The closed folks will be silent, but they will appreciate the journey because they understand it. And for those who have never experienced that type of struggle, their eyes will be opened for the first time; and maybe they will see their loved one or the neighbor in a more compassionate light.

What if we knew nothing of Jesus’s temptation or his arduous, painful journey to Golgotha? What if Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t record the near misses of death by crowds or badgering by the authorities? How could we really imagine the miracle of our Messiah if we didn’t have the suffering of Mary and Martha when they meet Jesus on the road after their brother Lazarus had died?

We are, like it or not, one body. If one of us is suffering so likewise for the rest. The responsibility of the wilderness- let’s call it our duty- is not to survive the struggle and tuck it away shamefully, but to share the journey. Talk about your mistakes and where you learned for positive change. Live out the blessing of survival. When we own how the wilderness has formed us and share that formation, we communicate both aloud and silently the way in which Christ carries us through and compels us forward into the world, shining our light for all to see. This wilderness of mine was my shame until it became my blessing, and I pray yours will be a blessing as well.

The Devil’s Tongue

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photo courtesy of N.J. Stermer

 

I opened up my commentary from Luke and out of its pages came this photo. I received it a few years ago from a parishioner who shared it along with some fascinating information. Called Devil’s Tongue, the flower is filled with flies, and stinks with the smell of a dead water buffalo- to attract the pollinators she said. She noticed it alongside her house, but never remembered planting it or seeing it before.

I held on to the photo because it is, in many ways, the personification of why we need Lent. More than a few of us walk this world looking beautiful and lush- draped in vibrant clothes and flowing with blessings and privileges.  We are flushed with greenery even while the world around us turns withered and brown. BUT, for fear of losing all our finery, we use our tongues to cast out into the world words of negativity and jealousy that create a stink that only attracts more people like us- people living in a state of greed, bitterness and closed mindedness. Outside, we are gorgeous and lush, inside we resemble Gollum from Tolkien’s tales, muttering about our “precious.” If someone pointed out our words and behavior, we might not remember how we accumulated this desire to protect ourselves at the expense of others who are different from ourselves. Perhaps we’d shrug and say it just showed up one day.

Lent encourages us to take stock of the flies we attract and the stink we emit. It challenges us to examine closely the less disciple-worthy things our devil tongues say, as well as what we do and think; and it asks us to cast them off for a month of so, to see how our lives change for the better when we are less angry, ignorant, jealous or resentful. As crazy as it sounds, it’s a lot to ask of a person- to profoundly change their emotional reactions and thoughts; perhaps even harder than giving up beer or dessert. Not as hard as giving your life for the sins of the world entire, but difficult nonetheless. And yet, in the process of letting go, we may just find peace where before we were unsettled and anxious. Also, we may find substantially less flies surrounding us, and that’s always a bonus.

Closed doors, open windows

I spent the month of December in a fog of resentment and deep sadness. Even Christmas, with its silent night and yule logs did not abate my foul mood. I did my best to conduct myself appropriately while out in the world, but I truly was in the pits.

And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, I received a call on my post Advent vacation that my dog was ill. The lovely soul that called me offered to take her to vet, which led subsequently to a diagnosis of an aggressive cancerous tumor in the lungs of my sweet almost 11 year old German Shepherd. I returned home early to euthanize her, rather than wait the month; which was the life expectancy she had until the tumor killed her. And so, on December 31st, my last act of 2015 was to bid goodbye to my beloved pet. It was a terribly sad time.

Believe it or not, this became the turning point for me. I grieved the loss acutely, and I did not apologize for it, because this creature was a part of my life every day for nearly 11 years. She mattered to me. And yet, after the loss of her, compounded with the loss of my husband’s physical presence back in December, something just clicked. I fell into the rhythm of life on my own. Suddenly, I wasn’t angry or bitter. I was finding my way, establishing a new routine and feeling unapologetically peaceful while doing it.

There’s an old adage about loss- be it opportunity or people or love- that says that when the door closes, if we stare too long at it, we may miss the window that has opened in the meantime. As someone who knows a thing or two about obsessive focus on unhealthy emotions and subjects, I fully understand the message this quote inspires. But my recent experience has taught me that there are times when we stare and times when we open the window ourselves, because we need aired out and the simple act of opening sets us free. No one can open the window for us, or we will feel rushed in our grief. Nor should we bar the doors or nail closed the windows, for fear of losing the grief that orders our world.  

I have found gratitude in my loss and in my rebuilding. Gratitude for people who asked after me and expressed sorrow for me, gratitude for the women who loved my dog gently and paid enough attention to notice her pain, and gratitude for feeling better far sooner than I anticipated. Nothing crosses our path without teaching us or awakening us to the grace apparent in the world. Call it God’s will, call it destiny or fate- your language means little. What matters is how you are shaped by its knowledge and will you carry out the lesson for the next soul who needs you. Cause in the end, we need one another.

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Luke 1:38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

When I was 21 years old I had an appointment with my college advisor that happened to be timed quite closely to the end of one of my classes. As I joined the masses pouring out of the building, I lost my footing and tumbled down the stairs. I arrived late to my appointment, bleeding and a bit battered. My advisor asked why I was late. I explained my situation. She asked me if I knew why I fell down the stairs. I looked at her like you would look at someone who asked a ridiculous question. She told me I was too stressed and that is why I fell. I thought she was nuts for a very long time. Eventually, I figured out she was quite wise. I was a mess at that time- in fact I left college after that semester.

Last Friday, I took my dog to the groomer, then decided to walk to a nearby store and do some shopping. When I emerged 40 minutes later I walked up and down the aisles of the parking lot and could not find my car. I looked in my purse so I could activate my car remote. It wasn’t there. I realized that earlier that morning I retrieved the key from my coat and laid it in my console. My phone was on the front seat as well because, I reasoned, who needed a phone to take the dog into the groomer?

As these facts slowly sank in, I came to the realization that my car was probably stolen. With no phone, there was no way to call, and really, no one to call. I prayed- Lord did I pray- that mercy would trump my stupidity. As I looked around, desperate and sick to my stomach, there was my car- in the adjacent parking lot of the groomer and not the store lot I was walking around in. As I sank into the seat, giving voluminous thanks to God, I realized I was really, really losing it.

Five days earlier, my husband had moved out of our home. He had been vocally unhappy since we loved here nine months ago, but I assumed he needed time to adjust. Three weeks ago he called his former employer (eight hours away by car) and asked for his job back. By the end of the week he had secured his former job, signed a year lease on an apartment and quit his current job. I had not seen him so happy for a long time. Excitement bubbled over as he talked about his friends’ and family’s joy for his return. He babbled about the relief he felt and what he would move to his new apartment. We left for Thanksgiving with our son and he moved 2 days after our return, leaving with a trail of dust. Through all of this, I was silent. It seemed unreal to me.

I am trying to be a supportive spouse. I am trying to suppress my deep anger and resentment because I know unhappiness- it’s been my co-pilot my entire life. I have been packing his belongings this week for the mover to pick up, and I have been a bit of a mess. That day in the car, I cried and cried. Not only was I alone, I heard my advisor’s words coming back to me and the message was clear: you need to slow down and get it together before you make it worse. In my desire to forge on, I was on auto pilot and it literally almost cost me my sole mode of transportation.

I am slowly beginning to understand that I was operating on a theory that I had been patient and my time had finally arrived. I was sure that because I had waited it would fall into place. For many years, my husband’s career was our cornerstone. We could not move geographically, we rarely had him fully on vacations, and his life was tied to the business he had co-owned. It afforded us great things, and so the sacrifice seemed appropriate. But, once he moved on I assured myself that great opportunities awaited. And, they did. For me. What I did not figure on was my husband returning from whence we came.

I declined my husband’s request to follow him. At this point, I do not foresee that my decision will signal the end of our marriage, but time and distance can be funny things. It isn’t lost on me that this all happened during Advent, the season when waiting and watching is the name of the game. I have a habit of powering through this season, as I do in Lent, more concerned with schedules and tasks than living in the moment. I think about Mary, alone on the side of the road, declaring herself a servant of the Lord, even as she was in a fog of confusion and uncertainty. Her prayer is mine, that I could be both present and willing when all is out of my control. Precious Lord, hear my prayer.

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl I Used to Be

Psalm 38:9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.

My mother made the decision recently to move from the home I lived in from age 12 to 31 (with some occasional alternate living situations at college, Connecticut and York). To facilitate that move, I needed to remove the boxes of my things that were in the attic and barn. In all, that was about 25-28 plastic tubs and cardboard boxes of varying sizes. Each contained remnants from particular stages of my life- childhood, adolescence, college, and young adulthood. I was well aware that the volume wouldn’t be prudent to transport back to Ohio, I must reduce it down to the space available in my vehicle- a sedan. Going in, I knew it would be a lesson in letting go and knowing what really counts.

I only had a day, really. One day to go back in time through the magic of pictures and objects. To remember the awkward little girl longing to be pretty and popular, while living in a constant whirlwind of anger and fear at home. To linger in the space of a time when I was shining on the outside but dull on the inside, with loving friends and loads of self-induced drama. To watch myself stumble blindly through the consequences of my own choices that led me to jobs, people and zip codes without as much as a second thought.

And so I worked: a few spare minutes for the photos and souvenir glasses from my college student government formals, dressed to the nines with friends I now only see on Facebook. A minute to ponder if I should keep the letters I received from a friend of a friend who was my army pen pal. No romance there- although we flirted with it occasionally, more a port in the harbor for two people who needed a friend to talk to and the joy of a letter received. Time to ponder everything from the occasional report card from elementary school to college papers to artifacts from singledom- mugs bemoaning the lack of good men and warnings to all who “choose to mess with me”. There were crafts and hobby paraphernalia galore- much of which I would have liked to keep but simply could not.

It’s interesting to go back in time with wisdom in one’s eyes. As I looked at elementary report cards, I could see when our home was in chaos- because the teacher reported it unknowingly when she talked about uncontrolled emotions and other tell tale signs. When I read my diary, I felt a twinge for the little girl writing about fear, loneliness and disparity of power. I came across lots of my own writing- vignettes I chose to save for future incorporation into a larger volume. I was, and am, always walking the tightrope between creative and mundane, ebullient and pensive, powerful and weak. I wish I had appreciated the smooth, beautiful skin of my youth, as I now appreciate the journey navigating past perilous seas of bad choices, emotional immaturity and untapped potential.

In a multitude of ways, I am very much the girl I used to be: spirited, emotional and full of longing; but I have the gift of time, which has created a soft place for reflection, consideration and love. It is a gift to know oneself, outside and in, and to appreciate the journey; making peace with what will never be, all the while championing what was and will never be again. It was a rocky path, that cut my feet and more than once left me crying on the side of the road, but it was full of growth and unbelievable experiences. Well worth the trip.

Reflections on the journey

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. ~Psalm 139:14 

Today is my birthday. I am 44 years old.

Lord almighty, how can that be? Inside I am much younger. I am 8 years old, sitting at my grandfather’s funeral. I am 16 years old, kissed for real for the first time (not counting that kiss on the bus or behind the Mennonite church at bible school). I am 24, a college dropout who lives in a tiny room on the top floor of someone else’s house caring for their children 12 hours a day. I am 32, college graduate, engaged and in my first year of seminary- I am straddling the lives of being a almost wife/stepmother alongside student/pastor. I am 40, married, stepmother, scarred by miscarriages, disappointments and career struggles. Always, I am socially awkward and never really healed from the bullies- domestic and worldly.

I am 44. I spent today reflecting on who I am and how far I have and have not come on my journey that God set me upon. I contemplated forfeiting this life so many times over the years I can scarcely believe this is real. I was fairly sure that by this time I’d be more accomplished, more confident and have it all together. I was sure that I’d lose the nagging self-doubt and chronic fear of failure and inadequacy. I try not to recall the missed opportunities and wrong turns, but instead marvel at the unexpected blessings and the healing power of love. I think about my grandparents, lost to me at 8, 18, 32 and 42. I think about losing my father at 26 and making tough decisions in the years after his death- choices that drastically altered the path of my life, in many ways for the better.

I am finishing the night being grateful for the gifts my age has given me. It has gifted me with the knowledge that mean people never go away, but what they say isn’t always truth. I know what I am capable of achieving and what is worth striving for in this world. I know that my presence has had an impact on others; hopefully by the way I reflected Christ. I rest easy in the fact that God continues to place me on paths that stretch me and sometimes leave me broken, but stronger in those places. I delight in not losing my idealism; although it is clearer now and I am more receptive to embracing it and more realistic in its engagement. I am amazed at all the wonderful people, places and things I have encountered over four continents in 44 years.

I am 44 years old and I am loved.

I am 44 years old and I am blessed.

I am 44 years old. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Amen.

Hypocrite, party of one!

And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them.  Deuteronomy 29:17

I often preach on the lure of the earthly idol. Idols disguise themselves in our everyday lives, taking the form of whatever draws our attention and directs us away from the work of being the hands and feet of Jesus. Sometimes it’s money, when we pursue and protect it; other times it is the addictions that monopolize our lives and lead us to keep our families and friends at arm’s length.  I have come to realize that, for me, I was WAY dependent on my laptop computer.

I always regarded my computer as a device of convenience- after all computers as an everyday device didn’t occur in my lifetime until I was in my mid to late 20’s. The ability to surf while on the couch was a bonus- and don’t even get me started on wireless printers. Oh the joy! What I underestimated was how I would feel if that device of convenience suddenly disappeared.

A little over two weeks ago, a can of soda leaked all over my work bag, which included my 4 year old laptop. In the tech world, I was 2 operating systems and one version of Office behind; in my world I had a reliable device with a worn spot on my mouse. In the end, I said a prayer over my fried friend and prayed the hard drive (brain) wasn’t a goner. It wasn’t- a gifted soul extracted its golden information, another hard lesson in backing up your work. I ordered another device, which was painful and felt more complicated than it should have been. My haste to replace created another set of problems that we’ll leave for another blog on another day.

Essentially, in the 15 days that I waited (and yes, I counted them each and every day) I lived in a state of limbo. I felt uneasy using the computer at church or my old, tiny back-up. I put off any task I could that required intensive data work. I am embarrassed to say that I was  seriously impaired by my loss. And, yes, it felt like a loss even with the files intact. That, my friends, is when I knew I had some serious idol issues. Of course, admitting it might be the first step, but what is the next one? For that we consult the sages, the Savior and Sophia (Wisdom, as she is known in Hebrew) may we love nothing more than God, her children, and the one who unites us all. Amen.