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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Have a "Mary" Christmas

Yes, it is Christmas Eve and perhaps a little late for this particular reflection but as they say - "better late than never." I've spent the last few weeks, no doubt, as you have - shopping, visiting, and generally going about spreading good cheer with a smile and "Merry Christmas" planted firmly on my lips. Tonight I found myself rushing out to a department store on Christmas Eve - one of my "I will never do that" moments...but alas, in the busy-ness of the last few days, I had forgotten a gift that needed to be under my tree in the morning. As my husband and I rushed into the store he was noticing my posture - back bent, hands clenched, feet rushing, frown lines glowing red - and he asked if I was ok. Not really was my reply - I was worried about tonight's Christmas Eve service, was I prepared? I was worried about Christmas morning for my girls - had I forgotten anything else? Would they be disappointed? I was worried about tomorrows service - would anyone come? Would the media computer behave or act up again and if it did, what would I do? I was concerned with our busy time-table of trying to be 3 different places tomorrow. My dear sweet husband looked at me for a moment and said, "Wow, no wonder you are sore - that's an awful lot of weight you're carrying around." Hmmm, I hate it when he does that.

In one simple sentence, he can stop me in my tracks and make me see how silly I am. So, I did what any wife would do in that instance...I ignored him and kept on walking.  I decided to skip going with him and my girls to the Christmas Eve service at his church so that I could come early to my church and make sure everything was prepared and thus found myself alone in my office on Christmas Eve, beginning to feel a little sorry for myself that I "had to work" on such a night when other families were together.  But then I looked across my desk to my little prayer altar and felt the beckoning on my three candles and prayer book. So I closed my computer, put aside my script, lit my candles and curled up on my big pillow.

For 30 minutes, I went to my "spot" - I pray visually, so my "spot" is to imagine myself as Mary - not the "mother of Jesus" Mary but the "Martha and Mary" Mary.  See, I'm a self avowed Martha - work, work, worry, worry - so I force myself in prayer time to take the "better way" and sit at Jesus feet - that is where my "spot" is. Only tonight, our room was a stable, and Jesus was his infant self - and I was kneeled beside him...waiting to find out why I was there.  The word came loud and clear - Simplicity!

In the craziness of the Christmas season do we not have the tendency to complicate things with too many perfect expectations, a constant swarm of programs and parties, a calendar that looks more like a blueprint diagram - well you know what I mean - but is that really what God gave to us at Christmas? He could have done more - it could have been more complicated and showy - there could have been a great production - a mass incident of...well...biblical proportion? Yet, unto us a child was born - simple as that. In a stable, to a young couple. Amidst hay bales and the flicker of a flame the Messiah came into the world.  In my "Mary" mode I sat and imagined it all and I prayed...

My God, Why do I feel the need to be so strong when you were willing to become so weak? Teach me to claim the manger as my own - a simple place of humble weakness, which holds the power of a King.

And in that prayer, I gave my Christmas over to God - I handed God the power to make tonight's service what he will - I handed him the power to be all my children need and desire in life - I handed him tomorrow's worship service - to move freely in the hearts of those who seek him...and I gave Martha the weekend off. I'm going to have a "Mary" Christmas - and kneel at that manger and be awed.

"Mary" Christmas my friends,
May the light of Christ guide you, the love of God keep you, and the fire of the Holy Spirit warm you

Saturday, June 25, 2011

For the Love of Christ...

The ritual of going through the leftovers of someone's life is a mixed bag of emotion. There is the sadness of realizing traditions will end and new memories will not be made. There is also, however, some laughter and joy when a treasure is uncovered that you never knew about, or had perhaps forgotten existed.

Last night while visiting my sister-in-law she was showing us a book she had come across belonging to my father-in-law, Jim. It was a book one of the grandchildren had given him in which he could journal about his life and then someday return the book to them as a gift of treasured memories.  (Fantastic idea!)  She was reading random passages to us when she came across a great story - on how he and Peggy fell in love.

Thursday would have been their 60th wedding anniversary, had they not passed away within seven weeks of one another earlier this year.  So it seemed fitting on the day after their anniversary to read a part of their story. Jim wrote that he fell in love with Peggy on their third date, and so on that date, while driving down the road he said to her, "Peggy, I love you." To which she replied, "Yea, I've heard that before." - which sent us all into fits of giggles. How so perfectly Jim and Peggy - he the brazen romantic and she the cautious pragmatic.  He said he never asked when she had heard it before or from whom she had heard it, but I think it is obvious to all who knew them that he spent the next 60 years proving that he, above anyone else, meant it.

This life, this world, can burn us and leave us cynical to the point that when we hear of the joyous good news of Christ's love for us, all we can muster is a mild enjoyment while thinking, "Yea, I've heard that before." And yet, if we will remain cognizant to God's presence in our lives, we will no doubt learn that this time it is the real deal.  Christ does love us, he never tells us that flippantly or casually - for Christ, love is a matter of life and death.

Scripture refers to the church as the bride of Christ - which means we have moved beyond the "Yea, I've heard that before" and have accepted the true and precious love which He has offered. It is a promise not only for the corporate church but for all her individual members.  Jesus loves you! This you can know, this you can stake your life on.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Big is My God?

My cardinal and I are back in our regular afternoon spot. Me in my blue chair, he on his branch overhead, singing me an evening song. Even in the summer heat we are comfortable together in our semi-solitude as a breeze stirs the air and gathers in the smells of the neighbor's grill.  These are small things, yet they seem blissful and I am thankful for each one...for my blue chair, my cardinal, my breeze, my neighbor, my bug repellent, and my life....small things which honestly would mean nothing to me if I did not find within them, a bigger purpose.

Two weeks ago I was at another blissful spot, Lake Junaluska, getting ready to kick off the first worship service of WNCC of the UMC Annual Conference. I am one of those strange folks who actually love annual conference and usually I can't wait to get there. I can even tell you the exact moment where my joy is in that first worship service of conference, with the words "Let's stand and sing..." and the music begins and with power, might and majesty 2000+ voices belt out words proclaiming the great God we serve.  A smiles bursts from my lips, the hair on my arms stand on end and I get "Jesus bumps" at the power of that moment.  This is the Church...and she is magnificent to behold.

By the end of conference I am renewed and refreshed because I am ultimately reminded, through our worship, our sharing of stories, and yes, even our business, just how BIG and wonderful our God is. At conference we hear of God's work in transforming lives others count as lost...we hear of God's Spirit empowering small people to do bold and amazing things...we see God's love poured out, God's grace abound...we celebrate God's creation power, God's mighty acts of rescue and salvation...we remember and relive God's call upon our lives, even as we acknowledge we can't fulfill that call without God's indwelling Spirit.

And then, too soon, conference is over. We journey home and unpack our things...we are excited to get back to serving this big and awesome God we fell in love with all over again in the past week.  And then Monday comes...and with it, disappointment. I have struggled for a while to define what is lacking in most local churches today...I have named it "misguided," "lack of commitment," "selfishness," and so on...but I am beginning to see another possibility. What I believe I am witnessing is the latest in consumerism to strike the church.

If you have gone grocery shopping lately you might make note of the fact that they are charging the same amount for food yet they are packaging it in smaller quantities...or the newest thing in "healthy living" is to mini-size everything - that way you feel like you are eating less...and they can charge more.  I have watched our churches lately and now must wonder, have we mini-sized God?  I look at the American church today and I see a group of people of which the majority no longer seem to believe in an all-powerful, all-present God.  I see churches who would rather bicker over brick and mortar than spend time praying and seeking God's direction in saving lost souls. I see churches who are more interested in their own internal power struggles than in welcoming opportunities for God to reveal miracles and transform the broken and diseased. I see churches which would rather tear down and destroy a minister of God's calling, than to encourage and support them to stay true to the God who called them to serve in the first place.

Yesterday I read Psalm 106, a reminder of the wonderful and miraculous liberation of God's children...but as the story of how BIG God is unfolds- after all there is NOTHING God can't do - the author has to add "but they soon forgot his works..."  and "they forgot God, their savior, who had done great things in Egypt..."..."they grumbled"..."they provoked"..."they served idols"..."they became unclean"...  I am struck to the core by these words...Israel forgot how BIG God is...they kept getting caught up in the smallness of this world and failed to look at the largeness of God's Kingdom.

But then comes vs. 44-45..."Nevertheless he regarded their distress when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love."

On the Monday following Annual Conference I came home from work and sat down and cried. After a glorious time celebrating the BIGness of God, I came home and was faced head on with the smallness we have reduced God to in the American church. I wept and felt discouraged that we have forgotten...we are grumbling...we are provoking...we are serving other gods...we are becoming more and more unclean...we have mini-sized our great and mighty God by refusing to acknowledge and open ourselves to the power that is poured out around us.

Nevertheless God regards our distress...God remembers and shows compassion to us according to God's steadfast love.  I am not sure just how to proceed from here in my ministry - I am praying hard for God to make his power known in ways the Church can't miss and won't deny.  It is a frightening prayer...yet a necessary one. I yearn for the Church to remember who she is and, most importantly, whose she is.

As we carry out our committee meetings, bible studies, UMW, UMM, Youth, VBS, choir practices and other routine practices in our churches - let us remember God is not our mini-me....we are supposed to be God's mini-me.  We are the small ones whose power and control is limited and finite...but the God we worship is bigger and more powerful than any of us can imagine or understand. That is the God we worship and the God we can we not possibly find joyful hope and comfort in that? How can this fact not take precedence in all we do as a church?  It is time to remember!

Read Psalm 106 again...and ask yourself - How big is my God?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Song Birds and Lessons in Love

In the piedmont of North Carolina we had the pleasure of enjoying an actual spring this year. In the past few years it seems we went straight from winter to summer, 32 degrees one day and 98 degrees the next! But this year we enjoyed lazy afternoons in the backyard watching the many song birds dance the "twitterpated" dance of love we learned about in Bambi.  My favorite couple was a cardinal pair whose presence I enjoyed, for they sang to me as they courted one another...seemingly to include me as a  witness their love and attraction to one another.

We are now in to the heat of summer and I spend less time in the yard but I have noticed that only the male cardinal now keeps me company, his lover seems to have moved on, but Gabriel remains. I have named him this because I imagine that if I could speak the language of "Cardinal" I would understand he is bringing me tidings of great joy - proclamations of good news. And that reminds me of the angel Gabriel, who also came to bring good news and yet the news always started with "Do not be afraid."  Why would we ever be afraid of good news?  My husband says because every time Gabriel says this someone ends up pregnant, lol - true.  But perhaps there is a deeper truth too.

Gabriel's pronouncements are also about love, or more specifically, about the risky business of love.  When Gabriel calls us to sit and listen he is about to speak to the promise of God's love for us and the struggle for us to love God and one another unconditionally.

 "For God so loved the world that he send his Son..."  God certainly knew the risk involved in what he was about to do. There is always risk in giving our love away to another...will they return it? Will they cherish it? Will they abuse it? Will they deny it? Will they accept it unconditionally? Will they put stipulations on it? Will they misuse it? Mistreat it? Let it grow stale and unappealing?

In ministry I deal almost daily in the problems of love, or rather, the problems that occur when love is not realized as the wonderful gift it really is. I hear of parents who can't love unconditionally, of lovers who can't love faithfully, of children who can't love generously, of neighbors who can't love across the barriers of diversity. Why? Because they are afraid - what if I am disappointed? What if I am hurt? What if I am taken advantage of? What if I miss out on something better? What all boils down to the fact that we no longer want to risk love...What if we would rather not love and keep our hearts "safe" by throwing up walls of protection and defense?

What if God had done the same?

Yes, love is risky - we may be hurt by someone else's brokenness and failure, we may have to open our minds to another way of thinking - but God calls us to do it anyway...because he did the same for us. We have no doubt failed him, cheated on him, misunderstood and mistreated him in many ways and yet he keeps reaching out, he keeps calling us back.

My lovely cardinal, Gabriel, is without his previous companion, yet there he sits right now, singing to me his song of invitation, "Do not be afraid, I bring you great news...of love."  God's love...perfect and never ending.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 6, 2011

That's Just Who I Am

Oh how I have grown to hate those words..."That's Just Who I Am"  It would be one thing if they were words uttered by kind and generous souls who gave of themselves and spoke works of encouragement and strength to those around them...but they are never the kind of people who respond with "That's just who I am."

I hear that phrase from folks who have mastered the weapon of the tongue. Folks who in one flash of this strongest of muscles can bring even the best of us to our knees - praying for mercy and escape. No matter how hurtful and abusive they are, if called on it and told of their infliction of pain will simply say "That's just who I am...I speak my mind, I say what I feel, if you can't deal with it you can leave."  And the thing that gets me is they say this with pride and if their ability to draw blood with words is an art form to be coveted.

I have marveled at this since coming back to the church as an adult and seeing first hand the damage inflicted within churches by members who feel entitled to be rude and harsh by speaking just what is on their mind at all times. "That's just who I am so you have to take it and accept me because your a Christian." That is what amazes me about this whole attitude - those of us on the abused end of their tongue must respond with Christian understanding and love...while those on the abusive end of the tongue are allowed to say things that are hurtful, divisive, damaging and contrary to Christian behavior but feel they shouldn't be held accountable because - you guess it - that's just who they are.

We all, on occasion, fail to heed James' warning to put a bridle bit on our tongue and let our words be guided and directed by a power greater than ourselves (James 3). All Christians should feel a sense of shame in those moments, seeking forgiveness from God and from the person we have hurt. I also believe all Christians are to hold one another accountable to a more mature way to speaking with one another. We need to take care to remind one another often that the words we speak are a reflection of Christ in us. If Christ is in us our words should be filled with grace and mercy, love and peace.

If we proclaim to be a follower of Christ and yet our words are hurtful, judgmental, mean, and wound inflicting...then perhaps our defense is true - "That's just who I am" indeed proves who you are not - for you are not a person in which Christ is fully dwelling.

The words we speak to others do indeed reflect who we are...and whose we are. We will all do well to remember that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Liberating Martha

Quietly tucked away at the end of the tenth chapter of Luke's Gospel is a brief but powerful story of two sisters: Martha and Mary.  In a era where U.S. women, in many ways, seem to have been liberated from the male dominate oppression of previous times, we tend to view this story with a fist pump and a "take that Martha!"  After all, who do you think places Martha in that kitchen and told her it was her job to feed all those folks - some man right? Mary then becomes the poster child for women's rights - for she chose to do something different.

But, let's consider who really put Martha in that kitchen. When I read this story I am right there in the kitchen with Martha – not because someone else told me to be there – but because it is where I choose to be. I choose to be there because I enjoy serving people. I choose to be there because hospitality is important (the Bible says this many times!). I choose to be there because it is important to me that folks are taken care of, entertained, well fed, and content. I get this passion from the women of my family who did not see it as a burden but as a calling.

The problem comes when we realize that others don’t have this calling – AND – that there is something else we would really rather be doing. That is when the resentment builds. We get cranky and start to slam the pots around,  “Why can’t I be like the others, out there having a good time while I’m slaving away in here trying to make everyone happy!”  And there we have the truth…we – Martha – can be like the others – we simply choose not to.  All the courts and laws and constitutional amendments can liberate women but ultimately – we have to allow ourselves to choose liberation over slavery.

But wait! Isn’t service good? Didn’t Jesus call us to serve God and our neighbor? And there is the kicker of this quiet little story. If we look close we see that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha she is wrong for working away in the kitchen – he simply points out there were two choices to be made, to be in the kitchen or to sit at the feet of Jesus, and Mary chose the better way.  Not the right way…the better way.

Because of Martha’s sense of duty and self-imposed slavery to the kitchen, she had become “distracted” and taken her eyes off of the reason she was doing what she was doing – serving her master. She forgot who she served and instead made herself a slave to the wrong idol.

I am a “Martha” and I struggle daily with my sense of “obligation” and “responsibility” in serving others. What I have discovered is that if I give in completely to my “Martha” self, I will soon become distracted by the busy-ness of this life and before I know it I am overworked, cranky and snipping at folks, demanding they help me out.  All this because I have taken my eyes off of the better way – which is to sometimes take a moment to sit quietly at the feet of my savior and just listen. When I take those moments I find I am renewed and ready to let my “Martha” come back out and get back to serving those around me.

Some days, I have to remind myself to liberate “Martha” from her self-imposed slavery to ‘do it all” and instead, let “Mary” come out to play. I will not lie and say this is easy. I catch myself feeling guilty when, at the end of the day, I have no papers to show I worked – or no check list to show I visited folks. I fight the urge to defend myself when I come home and my husband says, “What did you do today?” and all I can reply is “I spent the day in prayer.” Yet, Jesus said, Mary has chosen the better way.

Liberating Martha frees us from the guilt of taking moments during a busy week to just be still and sit with God. It allows us to soak up much needed renewal and refreshment for the work and responsibility of serving God that lies ahead of us. It is, believe it or not, what makes us better servants.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Prison Break

"Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron."  (Psalm 107:15-16)

Several years ago the band Creed released a song which impacted my life in a great way. The song was "My Own Prison" and it speaks of the ways that we convict and lock ourself away in prisons of our own creation...."I cry out to God, seeking only his decision, Gabriel stands and confirms, I've created my own prison."  That song awakened something in me...the realization that my fears, insecurities, and feelings of unworthiness were the walls of a prison I had created.  I had tried to live up to the expectations I thought others had for me. I had the idea that I had to be in control or else I would be unhappy and dissatisfied with life. Yet, I also felt that I wasn't able to do any of those things well. So, I tried to hang back in the shadows. I didn't want to be noticed, I withdrew in many ways...and I was unhappy.

Surely Creed was correct. I had created these feelings that now trapped me. My insecurity had built the prison walls, seeking a secure place to be.  My fears had placed each bar in the window, seeking to keep danger at bay. My feelings of unworthiness had latched a heavy door to the cell, seeking to lock me away so others wouldn't notice how inadequate I was.  It was a great revelation that Creed allowed me and once I had identified the bricks and bars that were between me and freedom - I set out to dismantle each one. I was determined to make a great prison break!

Years when by and while I enjoyed some new freedom and greater confidence - I never seemed to stray far from my prison.  The walls, the bars, the doors were still there - I simply opened the door occasionally and stepped out...after all, I had designed and created this prison so escape was not that difficult. But eventually, I would find myself retreating back to the security of my own prison.

This week I headed back to prison. I was full of self-doubt, struggling with my worth and afraid of what others would think of me. Thank God, my husband and a few friends blocked the cell door and refused to let me enter. They encouraged me, pushed me, pulled me, and stood by me...especially God.  On the day of my great challenge I grabbed my bible and prayed - God, give me a word for this moment. And I opened my bible and it fell to Psalm 107..."for he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron."

In that moment I realize where I have made my error all these years of trying to break out of my prison! I was trying to break out of my prison...I...I had been trying to do it on my own. The Psalm reminds me that it is God who liberates me, who makes me free, who gives me my sense of worth, my courage, and my security.  I don't have to claw and dig my own way out - God is there to break me out, if I will just give everything over to him and let him take charge.

Whatever prison you have built - a prison of grief, suffering, hurt, insecurity - God is ready to break you free.  Psalm 107 says to those who are wandering in the desert, lost and lonely, hungry and thirsty - God will free you and fill you with all goodness. For those in the darkness and misery of chains - God will free you. For those who are sick and need healing - God will deliver you. For those who have fear and distress - God has a calming and safe refuge for you.  "He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water...he raises up the needy out of distress...let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord."

Consider the steadfast love of the Lord. In His love we find our worth, our security, our purpose. And it is in His love that we will draw our first real breaths of the fresh air of freedom.

Consider the steadfast love of the Lord for yourself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To Meekly Go Where Only the Bold Dare to Tread

"But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity." 
 Psalm 37:11

"When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness."         Acts 4:31

The bible, it seems, is full of contradictions at minute calling for faithful followers to be meek and then later proclaiming that God's presence upon His followers evokes boldness.  So which is it? Are we to be meek or bold?  The answer is "YES"

We tend to be a people of extremes, going through scripture and picking out the things that resonate most with us - either because they are easy for us to do or easy for us to stand against. Therefore, there is a tendency to read scripture with blinders on...only seeing the portions we wish to see.

In ministry I find myself running around putting out fires that I didn't start, watching others walk away to leave me standing in the smoldering ruins of a dream destroyed, praying I have enough resources to rebuild.  It occurs to me that most of those fires are caused when church leaders read scriptures with one eye closed...missing out on important guidelines of our faith.  For example, there are some leaders who proceed with much boldness, which, according to Acts, is a great thing to have.  And yet, they become more like a steamroller or a wrecking ball - moving so boldly that anyone in their way is knocked aside or  trampled.  There are other leaders who proceed with an attitude of meekness, much like the Psalm calls for. And yet, they move so timidly that they must be taken by the hand and led every step by someone else.  They don't dare to move on their own and so others get frustrated when progress is slow or so much assistance is needed to get the job done.

Does the Bible contradict itself? No, in this instance I do not believe it does. I believe the lesson of that Scripture brings to us is that we are called to be well-rounded individuals who are not extremists, but instead, are balanced and strive to be the best of every-thing we can be.  

What the church needs is more meek folk who will walk boldly and more bold folk who will walk meekly! If we could only accomplish that I believe most of our internal bickering and snipping would come to an end.  It really is simple...think about someone other than yourself and serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.  Hmmm, haven't we heard that somewhere before?

Imagine with me a church full of people who meekly go where only the bold dare to tread...a church where, with gentleness, kindness and compassion, folks walk boldly into the land proclaiming Christ to the lost.  Just imagine...

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Most Terrifying Prayer

It is a simple, two-word prayer. It should be easy enough to utter. It should roll off the tongue willingly. It should be the first thing we say each morning. It should bring us peace.

Instead, it sticks in my throat. It hesitates on my tongue. It comes to me each morning but I want to put a condition with it - follow it with a "But..."  It does not bring me peace, rather, it inflicts terror in the very heart of me.  A simple, two-word prayer...

"Use me."

It is a prayer I desperately want to say and mean it with all my heart and soul (I think). I want to be a servant of God, a worker in God's vineyard, a gatekeeper in God's temple...and every other metaphor and analogy the bible offers me...but...

"Use me" hitches in my throat. I can almost say it convincingly and with power...almost. Yet each time I manage to get them out of my mouth I dread what God will say next.  I fear what God will ask me to do. I worry what God will ask of me that might bring suffering, horror, heartbreak, pain, controversy...

But then I feel the fear and terror melting away in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, my great comforter and promise of God.  "Those are things of this world...I am here to lift you above that."  This world will inflict those things upon us but when we pray for God to "use us," that is when those worldly hurts and sufferings are overcome.

We tend to fear what God will ask us to do but does the real fear not lie in trying to do this life without God? Yes, when I pray "use me," I am inviting God to place someone unlovable in my life to move me out of my comfort zone and into a combat risk my own life in a fight for justice for someone damage my popularity for the sake of Christ's.  When I pray "use me," I am giving up control and letting God take over.  Yes, that terrifies me...and yet...

I cling to Acts 1:4, "wait there for the promise of the father."  What is that promise? The Holy Spirit. God's Spirit which dwells within those who believe.  I cling to those stories which remind us of the power available to us when the Holy Spirit is given control of our lives.

Yes, "use me" can be terrifying words to utter...and yet how can we not say them? The world needs God, not me...the world needs a Messiah, not a follower who won't give up control.  The promise of God is that the Holy Spirit will come upon us and give us all we need in answer to that "use me" prayer. All the boldness we need for conflict and controversy, all the strength we need for pain and suffering, all the wisdom we need for justice and forgiveness.  It is all ours, if we pray one simple, two-word prayer...

"Use me."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tears from Heaven

This morning, some of the followers of Jesus gathered along a busy roadway. Around a cross we gathered and heard again the passion story.  As the story reached its Jesus breathed his last...the first of a few gentle rain drops fell.  As the cross was hoisted upon the shoulders of the followers, the others fell into a somber and silent line. Slowly, we began to walk down the street - following the cross. The gentle tears from heaven fell softly upon our faces.

This scene never ceases to move me to tears. Even on those Good Friday's when the sun is shining and the day is warm, I feel the goosebumps and chill of pain as we take this journey. Today the sun is hidden and the air is chill with rain drops falling gently and sporadically upon us as we walk. It is a journey I have taken in three different towns over the past 16 years, but this year feels different.

In the past I have been moved by the pain Jesus must have felt, the humility, the defeat, the rejection... the heartbreak.  But today the pain of this walk took on a new meaning for me. Perhaps it comes from having shed so many of my own tears of grief this year but suddenly I realized that pain isn't just about is also about love.

There is no doubt that when Jesus carried the cross to his death he felt all those things I had imagined before (pain, humility, defeat, and rejection), but...what made that walk possible was love.  If Jesus hadn't loved all the children of his Father, our God - he wouldn't have been on this journey at all.  As my own tears fell I thought about watching my own children grieve during their heavy losses this year. I remember hating so bad to see them hurt and yet finding comfort in knowing that their tears showed that my children knew how to love well - for only out of great love could separation hurt so bad.

As we neared the end of our journey the rain fell in a heavy downpour, as if the heavens couldn't hold it's grief any longer. In a pouring rain we bowed our heads and said a prayer.  My heart is full and my tears are no longer for sorrow - they are instead praise and thanksgiving for God's love.

The journey to the cross did have pain...but it was first and foremost a journey of love.

Monday, April 18, 2011

1...2...3...RED LIGHT!!

Did you ever play that childhood game? It was one of our favorite in the cool mountain evenings of summer. One person (It) turns their back to the other children who are lined up some distance away. Then "It" begins to count...1...2...3...and then yells "Red Light" as they whip around and try to catch someone in motion.  Those in line are trying to take as many steps as they can toward "It" while he/she is counting but when they hear "Red Light" they must freeze before "It" turns and catches them.  If "It" sees you move you must return to the beginning - but if you can manage to freeze every time then you will eventually sneak up and tag "It" and win the game.

Let's be honest, as Christians we are told conflicting messages - "Go therefore..." and "Be still and know..."  Do I go? Do I be still? Sometimes it feels like we are caught up in a cosmic game of 1...2...3...Red light - trying not to get caught moving when we should be still and yet still expected to get somewhere!!  It can be quite difficult to navigate at times can't it?  Listening to God seems to be a fine balance in knowing when to move and when to stay still - knowing when to go fast and when to proceed with caution.  So how do we navigate the playing field with skill?

John 14:15-31 details the promise of the Holy Spirit: "...and he will give you another Advocate, to be with your forever....the Advocate will teach you everything..."

The Holy Spirit is indeed our greatest Advocate and teacher in knowing just when to "Go" and just when to "Be Still."  There are times when the Spirit drives us forward in boldness and courage.  There are times when the Spirit gently tip-toes us through a situation. There are also times, and honestly I find these the hardest, when the Spirit says "Be still, sit down, and watch me work."  Yes, that is the hardest because honestly, we humans would really rather keep control of things ourselves wouldn't we? And yet, in those glorious and amazing moments when I obey and simply sit still - I am awed by what God does.  Somehow, even in following the command to "be still," we are moved forward to victory - for we have obeyed and followed God's will.

Too often Christians have neglected the power of the Advocate in our daily lives. This is a shame since the Holy Spirit was promised to us by God and sent to us for a purpose - to help us "Go" and "Be Still."  The Holy Spirit is the one who abides in us and directs our steps as we follow God's will. The Spirit is the one who whispers to us when we pray and provides the words and answers we need to go on. To ignore the Spirit is to ignore the part of God that abides in us. And when we ignore the Spirit? Well, that is when we get caught moving when we should have stood still - and we end up back at the beginning, having made no progress at all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Eye of the Storm

 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness... (Psalm 25:10)

Several years ago I had the opportunity to fly to San Francisco for a long weekend. Up until that trip I had never flown before, I can't say I'm a big fan. But I will never forget the flight home for as long as I live. When we left San Francisco it was cold, rainy and foggy - yes, very surprising since near as I could tell from my one weekend there, it is usually...well...cold, rainy and foggy. As soon as we started taxiing down the runway I pulled my book out of my bag and started to read - there was nothing to see out the window but rain and fog.  But not very long into the flight the cabin was suddenly filled with a brilliant light. Startled from my book I looked out upon one of the most breathtaking sights I have ever seen.  A Brilliant blue sky above and below - the most incredible, white, fluffy mountain of clouds for as far as the eye could see. I was literally awe struck at this sight.  How could I forget that just because it is raining on the ground doesn't mean the foul weather extends all the way to the heavens - there is, after all, sunshine above the clouds.

Today I had a similar revelation while driving down the road.  We have severe storms all day and in between cells, I ran out to the store.  Suddenly I noticed up ahead a sunny spot in the road, when I looked up I saw that for just the briefest moment the clouds had parted and there was a beautiful round hole - past the dark rain clouds was visible a wall of white fluffy beauty and when you looked up further a gorgeous glimpse of blue sky. Then just as quickly as it developed, it was gone. 

Up until that moment I had been having a sad day...not a bad day, I just felt sad over a lot of things. But seeing that and being reminded of San Francisco awoke something in me.  It reminded me that no matter what is happening on the surface of my life - there is one thing that is sure and unchanging and that is God's love for me.  No matter how much rain may fall upon me, no matter the storms that come or the sadness and dreariness that mark some seasons - the light of Christ, the warmth of the Son, the love of God, the clearness of God's mercy and goodness are a constant.  I may not be able to see them, cloaked as they are behind a curtain of rain - but that doesn't mean they aren't there...they are always there.  I may have to wait out the storm, or travel a little higher and a little longer to find it...but it will always be there...waiting to warm me, nurture me, love me, welcome me, cheer me, forgive me, redeem me.

In the midst of the storm look for the eye, gaze upward and see that the perfect sunshine and beauty are still is God.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Prayer To Be Swept Away

A few years ago my family took a road trip to Canada. Of course no road trip to Canada is complete without a stopover in Niagara Falls. Now, I'm a mountain girl and  I believe I have visited every waterfall in North Carolina, some are impressive...some not so much...but I have enjoyed all of them. None of them have been traumatic for me...until I met Niagara.

My palms are already starting to sweat as I type this. I will never forget my first glimpse of the water - I had been looking at a map or book or something and not paying attention, so when Tim pulled the car into a parking lot and I looked up there, just a few short feet in front of me, was a RAGING river. I had, at that moment, the first panic attack of my life. I felt like I couldn't breath, my palms were sweating, my heart was pounding and all I remember saying is, "How can there be no fence or handrails? What is wrong with these people?" All this before I could even see the falls, we were still upstream!!

I wouldn't allow anyone out of the car and made Tim get back onto the road to take us into Canada immediately - I had to get downstream so I could breath again.  Sure enough I felt better there, until we walked right to the edge of the water. Again, the shear power of the water literally took my breath. There is no withstanding water like this - you fall in and you are totally at its mercy - totally out of control.

Today my Psalm meditation was Psalm 93: "The floods have lifted up, O Lord...more majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the name of the Lord."  I was immediately drawn back to the edge of Niagara Falls, realizing that as all powerful and mighty as that water seemed - I worship a God which more powerful and mighty than that.

O to be swept up in the raging power of God's will - to be washed away and totally at his mercy and control. What seems terrifying in the destructive flood of water seems glorious in the life giving springs of God.  Can you imagine being caught up in the holy current of God's purpose, love, goodness and glory? To leave behind the burden of trying to be all and do all ourselves but instead, to let God sweep us into his will and direct our destination and life?

Take me with you Father! The floods have lifted up - lift me too. The floods have lift their voice - hear mine also. The floods lift up their roar - let my roar be a witness to the power and might of God. Wash me away in your love and power, sweep me along the current of your will.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What Was I Going To Say?

"Holy One, there is something I wanted to tell you,
but there has been errands to run, bills to pay, meetings to attend, washing to do...
and I forget what it is I wanted to say to you,
and forget what I am about or why.
O God, don't forget me please, for the sake of Jesus Christ"
(attributed to a poem by Ted Loder)

There used to be a popular television commercial showing a housewife going about a hectic, but probably typical, day.  The dog is barking, the doorbell is ringing, the baby is crying, the chores are waiting and finally she can take it no more and she looks to the heavens and cries - "Calgon! Take me away!"  And the next scene is our harried housewife is now relaxed and smiling in a tub brimming with Calgon bubble bath. She is saved.  Wouldn't it be nice to have such salvation in a bottle?

In the season of Lent, Christians are expected to spend time getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We are called to deny our busy-ness and instead be still before God - find peaceful, quiet solitude with God and listen as He speaks.  It doesn't sound like it should be hard...until you try it. Commitment to daily scripture reading, prayer time, meditation and contemplation are essential to deepening our relationship with God - and one would think that if it is essential it would be easier for us to accomplish - until you try.

There are always errands to run, bills to pay, meetings to attend, washing to do...and before you even get a grip on a new day, it is gone. Soon it is bedtime and you are trying to cram God into the last few minutes of your day...only now you are too tired to listen, to distracted to focus. The poem above is adapted from a poem by Ted Loder - it is a quote I read last night in a book about the importance of seeking God and strengthening our soul in ministry. It really hit home for me - not just for my journey but for all of us as Christians. How often have we tried to fit God into our busy day only to forget what we had to say? 

Salvation in a bottle? No. We have a salvation that is much better than that. It is not the comfort of a bubble bath which will soon turn tepid and unpleasant. It is the lasting, steadfast comfort of a Holy Trinity - Creator, Savior, Advocate. Our busy day will not yield itself to this Holy Trinity - it is up to us to yield ourselves for it.  

As we enter this coming Sunday into the Passion Week, let the Church sit ourselves down in the quiet and let Jesus take us away into a place of reflection, devotion, repentance and redemption. Jesus hasn't forgotten us, let's not forget to spend time with Him.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ode to the Wind

  Is it crazy that I love the wind?
I sit alone - a blue chair upon the green grass,
my eyes closed.
I am kissed ever so gently by the wind.

Breathe deeply.
She carries with her the fragrance of Wisteria.
Just a faint touch
but it is glorious

She brings the sound of a child's conversation.
They walk home together from the bus stop,
she laughs with them.

Her rustle of leaves takes me to a different place,
a different time.
I am alone on a beach, the waves sing to me.

The ebb and flow of an ocean current
are heard now in my backyard.
She beckons me to remember
and relax.

Breathe on me, Breath of God
Breathe on me.
Once she came in a mighty rush
and all were filled with fire and power

Breathe on me, Holy Spirit,
Breathe on me.
She has
She does
She will

Is it crazy that I love the wind?
I think not

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Family Matters

"For you, O God, ... have given me the heritage of those who fear your name."  Psalm 61:5

There is, following death, the dreaded ritual of letting go. Not just of the physical person - but of their physical belongings. It is a difficult thing at best...a stressful and weary one at least.  Suddenly, an entire life is boxed up and stacked into a gathers...items are shared...stories are told...decisions are made.  No matter how much time has gone by, it still feels wrong to be prowling through things that did not belong to feel guilty and greedy - even though you aren't.

Yesterday I read the 61st Psalm and was struck by verse 5. After I read it I laid down my bible and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to God for my own heritage.  Not only the heritage of faith I have adopted and been grafted into as the bible tells me...but the heritage I come from in my earthly family. I shared thanksgiving for family, both by biology and by marriage, that have shown me more about grace, forgiveness and love than I could ever imagine learning elsewhere.  Thanksgiving that they learned those things by being followers of Christ. Some in better ways than others, but all - even in their failures - teaching me something, setting an example.

Today, round one of the parting ritual is over. And as difficult as it is to carry home some treasured items that a few months ago were not mine to treasure, I look at them with thanksgiving and joy.  They are symbols of that heritage: my husbands baptism gown, a framed photo of Queen Elizabeth (a great story for another day, lol) - not at all worth anything of monetary value - but instead reminders that the great stories of faith will go on...we will retell them...pass them down...and the ritual will continue.

Thank you God for the heritage of those who fear your name - they have done well.

Friday, April 8, 2011

May I Have This Dance?

Recently, my husband and I did something we had talked about doing for over 20 years - we took dance lessons! Shag Lessons to be exact. It was so nice to do something fun together that didn't revolve around children or church (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I've never been a dancer but I figured surely I can do something right? But I didn't expect to have trouble with the most simple of all things...letting my husband lead.  On the first night of class the instructor announced that the first rule of shag was that the man got to lead. I was startled when everyone in the class, and I mean everyone, who knew me turned, looked at me and laughed.  Really? And sure enough, they were right...98% of the time when we mess up it is my fault because I get in his way - trying to take the lead.

In a culture which teaches us all to be strong and dominate over others, I am not alone in my struggle. We are now taught at an early age to "take charge" of our lives, to not let others tell us what to do or push us around.  WE are to lead and get others to follow, that is the rule of the game.  But Shag lessons have forced me to really step away from that teaching. I have to be conscious when I dance of not thinking ahead at what is next - I simply have to wait on my husband to give me direction and I follow. It takes work, concentration and willingness - but when I can let him lead, our dance is smooth, graceful and enjoyable.

How wonderful it would be to take that same lesson and apply it to discipleship. One of the hardest things for a Christian disciple is to let God do the leading. We want to direct the steps of life and determine the next movement. Too often we forget that God is supposed to be the only authority in our lives...he is the one leading...the one directing the steps and movement we take. When we keep trying to lead ourselves we step all over God's plan and will - our dance (our life) will be awkward and halting - more frustration and fulfillment.

If, however, we can keep ourselves in check - if we can remain conscious of not trying to think ahead of where we are going to go - if we can just be still and wait on God's whisper and direction to what we should do - then suddenly our dance (our life) becomes smooth, graceful and, yes, even enjoyable. On the dances I've been able to let go and let my husband have total control - I was relieved to be able to just live in the moment and follow his lead - no pressure, no decisions - just follow.  I can't help but think that with enough practice of following God's lead, I might find the same relief...and peace. All I have to do is let go and let God.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Puppy Love

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.         John 15:12-13

That is me and my pal - Asbury. It is hard to find a greater love on this earth than the love a dog gives its owner. My dog is never in a bad mood, never snaps at me needlessly, never talks back, and never fails to run around in excited circles and leaps when I come home. He is my first welcome after a long hard day.

Today my daughter and I decided to walk around the neighborhood and because she had already taken Asbury on a walk, we left him behind - he is 14 after all.  He soon made it apparent that this was not an appropriate arrangement as he ran back and forth yelping and barking and begging to join us. I should add that he has a wireless fence system which will deliver a mild shock if he ventures too far from our home. (Two good reasons for this: 1 - he eats cats and all our neighbors have cats! 2- he's kind of dumb and tends to run into traffic)

As we came down the road on our second lap around I noticed that he was quiet but he was still running wildly back and forth - only something was different. I watched in amazement as he prepared to run through the wireless fence - he knew he was going to get shocked but you could see it in his face - he had decided it was worth it. And sure enough - it seemed as if he counted to three and just ran!! Right through the invisible line he came, joyfully bounding down the road to greet us. He was one happy puppy.  Needless to say, we let him walk with us the rest of the journey.

Jesus spoke about the kind of love we are to have for one another. A love in which we are willing to lay down our own life for another - or run through an electrically charged fence at least!  A love that says I will go through hurt and risk and danger just to be close to you, just to love you, just to be in relationship with you.  My dog gets it...why is it so hard for the rest of us?  Why is it that those of us who proclaim to follow Christ and his ways have so much trouble with this loving our neighbor section?  

Why would we rather focus on our differences and use them as battering rams to beat one another over the head? Why do we prefer to judge and condemn a book, a church, or a denomination without ever even reading it, going to it, studying it? Why are we constantly seeking to tear down rather than built up? Why do we think we can bully and berate someone into repenting their sin rather than taking the time to love them as Christ does and let God do the work of redeeming and transforming them as He sees fit?

I'm so happy that my dog loves me enough to put his neck on the line to be with me...I'm so awed that my Jesus loves me enough to lay his life down for me...I'm so humbled that I deserve neither of those wonderful things - but I receive them anyway.  It seems wrong to me to take that amazing grace and the sweetest form of love and twist it into something hateful and bitter.  As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure Jesus warned against it.

We worship a powerful and mighty God who has consistently used saint and sinner alike to achieve his work.  We worship an amazing and miraculous God who had taken the most hardened of sinners and transformed them into the greatest of God's warriors.  We don't want to interfere with that powerful, mighty, amazing and miraculous God. So, why don't we love God, love our neighbor as ourself (even the ones that sin and the ones we don't agree with) - and let God do what God does best - redeem us all.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ma and Jesus: Bringing Light into Dark Places

"...the Lord opens the eyes of the blind..."
Psalm 147:8a

My great-grandmother, Della "Ma" Bradley, was a sweet, wonderful woman. When I was in middle school, her husband, "Pa," passed away and Ma was afraid to stay at home by herself. So our family got together and worked out a schedule where each family would take one night a week and stay with her.  Our night was Wednesday, so that afternoon we would pack our stuff up and head two doors down to spend the night with Ma.  Her bedroom had two double beds covered with her hand made quilts...many many hand made quilts, and that is where my sister and I slept.

Yes, I am a good 'ol mountain girl from good 'ol mountain stock.  Ma still cooked on a wood stove, as did both my grandmothers. And when we first started staying there she still had an outhouse - although once the family started staying there it was funny how quickly we suddenly found the time and money to install indoor plumbing.  But, I digress....

Every night when it came time for bed, my sister and I would get tucked into one of my Ma's double beds and she would go through the exact same ritual.  First,  she would walk to the end of the bed to remind us where the "slop pot" was if we needed to "go" in the middle of the night. We always giggled at this and I guess she thought we were laughing about "going" but the truth was, we were laughing at the thought of being able to even get out of bed - there were so many quilts piled on us it took both of us pushing up just to wiggle out!  But, I digress again...Then she would climb into her bed and say, "Now girls, I'm going to turn out the light. Close your eyes and count to 10 and when you open your eyes it won't be dark, you will be able to see!"  And every Wednesday we would eagerly close our eyes and count - always amazed that no matter how dark the night, she was always right - we could see.

I have been thinking about Spiritual blindness lately - particularly the story of Jesus healing the man blind from birth in the 9th chapter of John's gospel. Jesus had stepped into a big mess my healing a blind man on the Sabbath - something that Jewish law would have prevented by the interpretation of the Pharisees. So, needless to say, they are upset that Jesus has broken this law and they begin a trial of sorts to accuse Jesus of this crime. What interests me about this is that no one cares at all that the blind man can see - no one except the blind man that is. The rest just want to argue and fuss and judge and condemn. It is only the blind man who 'sees' that God has shown up in a powerful way. The religious folks, who are supposed to be the God professionals - they don't see it. They are so caught up in their own drama, their own arguing, pride, and self-assurance that they are blind to the fact that scripture is being fulfilled right in front of their face.

It makes me wonder how many things of God I am blind to every day. How many times has God shown up and I was too busy, too prideful, too preoccupied with my own agenda to even notice he was there? Aren't we all guilty?

I have recently taken up meditation in conjunction with prayer and scripture reading, and today I realized that meditation is like my grandmother's nightly routine. When I take time out of my day to close my eyes and turn my mind off worldly things, I realize upon opening them again that I see better.  Not physically but spiritually. Once my eyes are open I have adjusted them to the darkness of this world and can suddenly see in light of God's world. It has made a huge difference in what I 'see' throughout the remainder of the day because now my spiritual eyes are adjusted and God is so much more visible to me.

Thank you Ma and Jesus - you have both opened my eyes to see.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Go War Eagles! (A Tribute to your Coach)

Yesterday was an incredibly hard day for the Davie High School community and the family and friends of Coach Daric Beiter, because yesterday we had to say goodbye.  It was heart wrenching to see and speak with his wife and his family. It was difficult, to put it mildly, to watch his Cross Country team come in together, holding one another up - weeping.  It struck me, watching my own daughter's heartbreak, how many lives Daric had affected in just a few years. The Principal spoke about how students had told him stories of how Daric had talked them out of suicide, how he had convinced them life was worth living. Others spoke of how he had helped them through hard times. He was like a second father to my oldest daughter and even my youngest was telling me stories of how, even though she never had him for a teacher or a coach, he still would come talk to her and give her advice - everything from what teachers she should have to dating tips.

I never had the chance to turn and see the entire crowd gathered but I know the crowd that came to say farewell to this wonderful man was huge, and all had a story about how he directly or indirectly had touched their life.  Today, I marvel at this thought.  He was only 37...he had only taught at Davie High for 12 years...he had only been married for 9...he had only been my child's mentor for 3.  So little time, and yet, look at what he had done! I've officiated at a lot of funerals in my ministry - most of them were adults much older, who had lived and died in this same small county - and yet so few had the impact in 60 - 70 - 80 years, that Daric Beiter had in 3, 9, 12, or 37.

Psalm 139 was laid before me this morning - The Psalm of the Inescapable God. The Psalmist says that God knows us intimately - every part of who we are, how we are formed, and I guess even how we might be malformed. "In your book are written all the days that were formed for me...", the Psalmist writes.  I immediately think of what I witnessed yesterday at Daric's funeral, how I had marveled at the love and care and nurture that Daric a had poured out to everyone he met....a lifetime of love, care, and nurture crammed into a few very short years.  It is as if God knew all too well the limited time we would have to experience all the gifts, talents and beauty that Daric God helped him cram it in to the little time he had. 

It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from the movie Steel Magnolia. In the scene, Shelby is announcing to her mother that she is pregnant. Her mother is devastated by this news because Shelby has a kidney disease and doctors have told her that her body cannot take the strain of pregnancy and childbirth, it is too risky. So Shelby's mother angrily chastises her daughter for taking such a risk. But Shelby just wants to be a mother, despite the risk. So she tells her mother that she knows all too well that she might die younger for having done this, but adds "I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special. 

Today our hearts are still broken and our mourning will go on for a while, but there is one thing I know we can all agree on to say...Thank you, God for the few years of wonderful we had with Daric - because, even in the pain, we will gladly take that over a lifetime of never having known him.

I truly believe that each of those weeping faces I saw yesterday will now go on to be better people for what they have endured this long and tragic weekend. It is so easy for us to get busy and take for granted the goodness and light that is around us, but Daric's death has stopped everyone in their tracks and made us all look and take notice. It is now up to us to create our own 30 minutes of wonderful rather than a lifetime of nothing special.  So you go, War Eagle community - and show the world a little bit of the spark of God's goodness and love that Daric modeled for you! You go, make the world a more wonderful place - even if for only 3, 9, 12, or 37 years.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Psalm of Recovery

Last night I slept very little. They say one should ever go to bed angry with their spouse, I have determined we should perhaps not go angry with God either.  I woke still heartbroken, exhausted and very much in need of God's comfort. So I got up and retraced the same steps I took yesterday out to the beach. Yesterday there were dark ominous clouds gathering at a distance, the wind whipping wildly. Today, the sun is warm, the sky is blue and the cool breeze refreshing.

I sat on the steps, overlooking a calm and surprisingly blue ocean (it is almost never blue here, more a murky brown) and I prayed. I explained to God that yesterday I had just needed to rage at him and I wasn't at all interested in what he had to say in his own defense...I didn't want to hear it. So I hadn't taken the time to listen.  Today is a new day and I pled desperately to hear his voice. I sit and watch the easy waves roll up on the beach and soon they are singing to me..."All who are thirsty, all who are weak, come to the fountain wash your heart in the stream of life. Let the pain and the sorrow be washed away in the waves of his mercy as deep cries out to deep..."

In the stillness God sings me a song and as I burst into a new set of tears, God spoke..."Let go of the why," he said, "and carry the cross of what-is while keeping your eyes on the yet to be." It was a startling sentence and yet somehow, as I began to unpack it,  it put me back on firm ground and brought me a new level of peace.

Holding on to the "why" of death will be a frustrating and painful place to remain...there is no answer to why. But, finding the beauty of God and a good purpose (a better way to live and be) in the horror of grief - that is our "what-is" ...and it can only happen with a belief and trust in the "yet to be" - the promise and glory of a resurrection and new life.

The "what-is" of grief is a cross to bear for it is a heavy burden - a journey that is long, slow and is not the journey of ALL there is.  The journey of grief carries us through beautiful places, amongst loving faces and deep into peaceful valleys - even if all we can see is dark shadow and tears. But the other, the beautiful, is there, waiting to be glimpsed and discovered...waiting for us to look beyond the heavy cross we carry and see...glory...victory...resurrection. Waiting for us to glimpse the yet to be of the Easter people.

Why takes us nowhere, but "what is" painful as it is...moves us forward.

Tears still fall, hearts are still broken...we are not healed but we are in recovery. For now, we are all kinder to one another. We are all wondering how to carry this beautiful legacy forward out of this gapping hole of absence...and I am confident we will find a way...a way out of "why" - through "what is" and into the "yet to be."  It is the hope God gives us when all seems hopeless...thanks be to God.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Psalm of Grief and Rage

I have often wondered how the Psalmist went from raging at God to praising him in only a few sentences. How can rage be dispelled that easily and quickly?  Today, I need to rage at God. I am angry. I am hurt. I am heartbroken…I am sick of tears. So I do what I always do when I need to have my deepest discussions with God – I go on a walk.  Normally I find the steadfast beauty of creation to be a comfort – God speaks to me through the earth and I find peace.  Not today.

I am at the beach and I come back from my walk offended. I am offended that the ocean remains so calm and tranquil while my soul is in the midst of a raging storm. I am offended that I had to walk among flocks of sea gulls, looking happy and blissful in the warm rising sun. In truth, they feed on dead things…and my bones have been picked clean in death. They don’t even pay me mind – I have nothing to offer them but tears.

Now I have returned to my room and I feel no better than before, which is new territory for me. I think again of the Psalmists. How did their rage turn so quickly to praise? My answer…what other choice did they have? If we lose our faith and hope that God will indeed comfort those who mourn, what are we left with? An endless, empty hole. If we stop believing in his steadfast love and goodness we are doomed to stay in the darkness of evil.  We have to praise…we have to rejoice that God is good and that all things have opportunity for good and glory…because the alternative is terrifying.

Much of my ministry I have dealt with death and I am the one who offers the words of comfort…God cries with you…God did not take your loved one but he has received them well…God is good and will carry you through.  I have believed all these things and I believe them now.  I suppose I am not as angry at God as I thought – perhaps it is the earth I rage at…the world which takes the good from us at too young of an age…the natural order that can’t guarantee that those who hold such promise and give so much to making this life better, will not live long lives.

My daughter has lost three very significant people in her life in a matter of months, this last a great mentor and friend…a wife has lost her soul mate and best friend…a family has lost a kind and loving person…a school has lost a valued teacher, his colleagues a dear friend…students have lost a mentor and big brother figure who guided them through the turbulent teenage years…a track team has lost their coach and leader…a parent has lost someone she could never thank enough for the blessing he brought to her family with his nurture and love.   Rest in the Peaceful arms of Christ our brother, Deric Beiter

I will praise God for the goodness shared for a time – I will thank God for knowing this man and for the influence he had upon my daughter and our family….I will. But today…I can only rage.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Songs Amidst the Thunder

I woke this morning to the sound of thunder (and yes I am hearing Bob Seger in my head as I type that line) and heavy rain. It is very hard to get out of bed on a morning like this and so I took the luxury of lingering there for a bit. I did not sleep, I just listened...and prayed...and listened some more.  I would like to say I heard God speaking to me and leading me toward some great epiphany...but I did not. I tried listening harder...I still heard nothing.  So I stopped listening...and oddly enough - that is when I started to hear.

I stopped being so intent on hearing God's voice and instead I just let the sounds around me begin to nurture me. The rolling thunder - this isn't a violent storm, it has the gentleness of a lover, the murmur of lovely words whispered adoringly in your ear.  The falling rain - mostly a steady heartbeat, sure, even, strong, never threatening. And then I hear the unexpected - birds singing joyfully! In the midst of a storm even the birds have found a song worth singing this morning.

It occurs to me that in church circles we often talk about the raging storms of life and how God is there to calm the seas and get us through - and this I believe to be true. also occurs to me that sometimes the storms in life are gentle ones.  These calm and gentle storms are the hardest, for we don't always see the need to seek God and cling to him as we do when the storm is raging and violent. In the gentle storms we are lulled into a sense of peace that says, I've got this God - no need to busy yourself today.  And there we languish in our own sense of self control and assurance.

I've been in the midst of one of those calm storms for a while and today as I listen to the birds sing I am finding refuge and redemption in the midst of this storm. I have sought to put God back in his rightful place as Lord of my life and I have handed the reigns of control back over to him. I have found peace and comfort in his refuge. I have found redemption in his forgiveness.

Now I lay here, listening to the birds sing...we share joy. They say to me - sometimes a storm is just a storm - relax, listen and enjoy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Glimpsing the Masterpiece

Late last year my daughters and I had the opportunity to return to one of our favorite cities - Washington D.C.  I normally allow the girls to choose our activities but they had both visited more recently than I so that day I decided to be selfish and demand some time at the National Gallery of Art. The girls believe this to be a total waste of time so I left them to sit on a bench and listen to their ipods while I flew through as many galleries as I could before they could find me and drag me out...which didn't take long.

As I entered one of the gallery rooms I immediately noticed a painter in the midst of his work.  This surprised me that they would let folks with paint within 100 yards of these priceless works of art - but nonetheless, there was a man obviously copying a portrait of a woman.  From my angle I could only see the copy being painted and not the original.  I was very impressed, he was obviously a man of great talent and I wondered how it felt to be copying someone else's work when he obviously had the talent to create his own.  I stepped in for a closer look. She was beautiful, the colors, the slight shy smile on her face. I could see why he was drawn to paint this particular portrait. It truly was a great work of art.  But by then I had moved close enough that I could look past the easel he was painting on and see the original masterpiece on the wall in front of him.  I think I might have actually said, "Oh my" right out loud.

His painting was gorgeous and I thought it was perfect - until I saw the original - then it was obvious, his was just a painting. It looked like a painting. The colors, the proportions, the detail were all there in his copy but the original looked as if you reached out to touch it, you would feel the warmth of her skin, touch the curl of her hair, slide your hand upon the yellow silk of her dress.  Her skin glowed with a light that can only be described as "life" - she really gave the appearance of life and dimension!  I'm sure you can tell by my fumbled attempts to describe this scene that I don't know a lot about art - but that day, I saw for myself the difference between a painting and a masterpiece.

I thought about that painting today as I took a ride through the country. Watching spring come alive, even though we had snow and ice this morning. I saw pale rays of sunlight dancing through the new pale green leaves. I thought about all we do in the name of we build, how we landscape, how we paint and create and shape and form.  And yes, sometimes we do create beautiful and wonderful things...but if we are not careful, those beautiful creations will end up blocking the view of the masterpiece behind it all...God's creation!  There can be nothing more beautiful, nothing more stunning and full of life than the created world we call Earth.  God has indeed poured upon it all manner of glory and wonder for us to feast our eyes upon - but how often do we stand still long enough to notice? How many times do we bother to shift our gaze past the "art" of this world and look to the original masterpiece of God's work?

Yes, I know Spring has backslid into mild winter, but tomorrow, brave the cool dampness anyway - take a walk, take a ride - but go and see a real work by the real Master. Prepare to be astounded - it is glorious to behold!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Quilt Maker's Hand

I was graciously and mercifully spoiled this past week while on my retreat. It was as if God knew I would be missing the loving warmth of my family and so he warmed the earth just for me. I had plenty of sunshine and warm, breezy days in which to get out and walk.  But just in time for my return home, to the warmth of my family, the wind has turned chill and I have to break the coat out once again.

It is one of those days where I haven't really wanted to climb out of bed, it has been dark and misty - not very inviting. I want to draw the quilt around me tighter and just stay snug in my little cocoon.  Instead, I ponder the is worn, faded and stained. I look at the stitches...every one almost the same length - tiny stitches, some crooked, some straight.  I remember the hands that made each and every stitch.  Geneva's hand...soft, warm, always busy with some household chore. My Granny made quilts for all of us over the years. It was something she took great pleasure in, but never pride. She never felt her quilts were anything special - but to us, they are a great treasure.  I know I should stop using them - pack them away and protect them from more wear and tear. But every time I cocoon myself in one, or place one over my feverish child, it is as if we are wrapping ourselves in her loving care one more time. Her hands go to work...healing...comforting...being.

It occurs to me that the beautiful things of the Earth can be similar expressions and remembrances of God's loving care for us. Wrapped in the warmth of sunshine...comforted by a sparrow's song...healed by the solitary quiet of a mountain breeze or a valley's wide, lazy river.  If we stop, look and feel the beauty of the patchwork quilt we call Earth, we will see God's hands at work...healing...comforting... being.

Suddenly the chill of the day is gone...I want to go out and feel God's loving care in the world - to see the trees turning green with new leaves, to see the tulips pushing their way through the soil - tiny stitches created just for us...healing...comforting...being.  The Quilt Maker's hand at work.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Silence of the Latte'

Well, it is the final day of my Spiritual retreat. In a few hours I will head toward home and the loving embrace of my family and friends.  I have had a long journey this week. I have learned things...I have relearned things...I have let go of some things...I have picked up others.

One of the most important things I relearned is the gift of silence. To sit in silence and not think about anything but my walk in silence and contemplate God in the pray and offer silence so that I can hear the conversation God offers back.  Silence is fairly easy to come by on Spiritual retreats - they are designed to give you time alone. I've sought out solitary gardens and out of the way spots. I've eaten alone most days and I have sat quietly in my room with the TV off most nights (although I couldn't resist watching the Duke game last night).

But now, I will go home and I wonder - will the silence go with me.  As I sit in Panera this morning I am only mildly aware of the chaos around me.  There are a multitude of conversations - some loud, some quiet. There are children running around and elderly watching on with a smile of remembrance. There are business meetings and friend meetings and so there is a loud mix of humanity all around me.  And yet, I sit and seek out silence...realizing that we can't always withdraw from life to hear from God - we must instead train ourselves to seek and embrace the silence, even in the midst of noise and chaos.

Is God in Panera on a busy weekday morning? Oh yes :)  He has nudged me to have patience at the disorder at the counter and allowed me instead to see the kindness of folks helping one another. He has been glimpsed in the hugs and kisses a mother is sharing with her little daughter as they enjoy a morning out. His peace is found in the faces around me, pleasant, kind, gentle.  I look around me and realize that life viewed from a distance is its own dance...its own has a rhythm and a movement that, when seen from the silence of prayerful contemplation, has its own beauty and glory as the image of God is made visible in remarkably ordinary ways.

"a few words together and don't try 
to make them elaborate, this isn't 
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which 
another voice my speak."  
                  ("Praying by Mary Oliver)


Thursday, March 24, 2011

It is Well With My Soul...and my body...and my mind...

At midnight a new day blew into town....and I do mean, it literally blew in with a violent storm beating at my hotel window. I lay there listening to the rain, wind, and hail...and I wondered, will anyone tell me if I should take cover? Will I know if danger is approaching? Needless to say, I couldn't get back to sleep for a bit, I just laid there and listened to nature roar.  All this fuss because the temperature was going to change - a cold front moving in and a warm front moving out - not a big deal it would seem but at the line where the exchange occurs - turmoil, chaos.

How like life that is.  This week I have been making some changes of my own - trying to get healthy again: body, mind and soul.  I have hit the gym every day. My muscles have been stretched and crunched, pushed and pulled. I am feeling muscles I never even knew I had and they are not happy to have been awaken from their long slumber.  They rage, they hurt...or at least they did. Today they are more alert, they are not screaming at me every time I try to take a step or rise from my chair.  They are starting to wake up. My trainer tells me this is normal and ok - waking up sleeping muscles is painful business but the pain won't last and the benefits are worth it.

How like life that is.  I have discovered that waking up a slumbering soul comes with its own pain.  Pain in knowing you have pushed God to the sidelines. The pain of realizing your own ego has hindered or hijacked the work you were called to do.  Stretching the soul to take deeper lunges of thought...pumping the soul to more weightier issues...these things are accompanied by their own pain.  But I am assured that is ok, it is normal. I am also assured that the pain won't last and the benefits are worth it.

This journey with God - to Barnes and Noble, to the Garden, to the gym - has been an incredible, insightful and healing process. It has not been without pain...but that's ok. The pain has not lasted and the benefits are already felt.  

In the calm sunshine after the storm, God has spoken..."Feel my warmth? See my light? Hear my call? You have weathered the storm, all is calm...all is well."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eyes Wide Open

I am going to dinner with a friend. This may seem like a small thing to some but for me it is a great sign of hope and affirmation.  "Hello, my name is Karen and I am a recovering introvert."  I have journeyed to this spiritual retreat to refill my soul - this is an important and necessary job for us introverts (I can hear your amens from here.)  In introvert is not necessarily anti-social; they are not people-haters or recluses. We can do all the same things extroverts can do! I can be the center of attention comfortably enough, just ask anyone who knows me! I can stand and sing or speak in front of 100's of people with barely a butterfly.  The deal with introverts is that when we do those highly social things, even if we love doing them, we expend a lot of energy in the process.  While an extrovert will draw more energy from the crowd and socialization - an introvert can only renew energy by being alone - by seeking solitude and self-care.

I came on this retreat to re-fill my depleted energy. I came desiring to retreat and withdraw socially for a bit. But this morning I woke up and thought, "I don't want to eat alone again."  With a smile I rejoice, I know my levels are back up - I can re-enter the world.  A recovering introvert, if they are honest, will tell you that even as they rejoice, this step brings a level of anxiety with it. "What if I'm not ready?" "What if it is too soon?" This is especially true when coupled with a Spiritual aspect. "What if, when I re-enter I can't find God again? or as easily?"

There is the anxiety that the work of the last few days to re-fuel the spiritual tank and to reconnect with God might be lost amidst the gathering chaos and noise of re-entry into the "real world." I can already feel that anxiety - I only have 2 days left!!!  But then words of comfort...

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path 
   that leads to the door...

And, simply said, all the rest.
                  (Musical Notation:2 by Mary Oliver)

It is silly to fear that I won't find Him upon re-entry...for He is everywhere and all is His. The only way I will miss seeing, is if I stop looking.