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Christmas 1956

I cannot recall a time or a memory in which God was not present. This doesn’t mean I was never angry with God or that there were not times in which I felt utterly abandoned. This is a paradox, I know and I am sure anyone who reads this may wonder at my meaning.
My earliest memories include a sense of God as Father. Perhaps I am reading God’s presence into the past. My own parents were a mass of grief-based pain, anguish and anger. They had been chastised by fellow church members at the their Bible Church for the death of their first born son. They were advised by these Job’s comforters that it had been a sin in their lives that caused his death.
Unbelievably, my parents continued to attend this church. The church was an amalgamation of the Gospel Tabernacle which my mother’s family attended and the German Evangelical Church which my father’s family worshipped. They actually met each other at a going away party that the Young Peoples group threw for my Dad and other young men who had joined the Navy towards the end of World War Two. Shy Dick Gathman soon became one of many men in service that my Mom entertained with chatty letters and silly photos. I think the photo of her in a swim suit sitting on a snow bank must have clinched the deal.
So it was the only church they really knew. Regardless of the Job’s comforters, the church was also home to brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and a loving pastor by the name of Dale Harris. In 1955 my second brother was named for him. Pastor Dale had wept with my parents and became a source of God’s comfort and substance. There was no grief counseling available nor would such a service be deemed as Biblically sanctioned. Instead my parents felt pressured to be an example of faithfulness and joy. No wonder they argued all the way to church every Sunday!
My father would only be comforted by me. I had been schlepped from one neighbor lady to another and perhaps an aunt or two for the last nine months of David‘s life. Is it any wonder that God as both comforting parent and needy demanding Father became my template for understanding the Holy?
I can still remember the green and gold flecked sofa of the lady I knew as the Graham Cracker and milk lady. She was sweet and loving and to this day some 60 plus years later I can recall her freckled face and loving eyes and beautiful smile. Daddy picked me up every day when his shift as a milk delivery man ended. Because of this unique time together and probably because my Mom was pregnant with Dale, I became a total Daddy’s girl. Within 18 months of Dale’s birth, son Number 3 (Thomas Arthur) was born. I thought of him as my own baby. I actually remember praying to God to give me my own baby after Dale was born.
This seems very strange to me now. I still have the wooden cradle that my Daddy made for me before Tom was born. It was featured on a Christmas photo card with two month old Tommy laying in it and Dale and I next to him. Baby Tommy my answer to prayer? Actually, I now know that we were all, Dale, Tom and I answers to prayer.  Christmas is now celebrated miles apart with little bits of family here and there.  Now we are all senior citizens, my Dad has gone on before us, reunited with David.  Our Mom refers to herself as ancient and we are, each of us, grateful to be a part of a family that loves each other in thick and thin.  Merry Christmas!

 

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I am not usually a procrastinator. I am far more likely to cross my bridges before they come to me. I was given an assignment of documenting where I see God at work. This did not sit well with me and so I procrastinated. Though I journal often, I don’t do it quite in this way. I well remember asking others to do the time when I was their pastor. I wonder now what they thought then. Now it is I who resist. It seems like an assignment to dissect the numinous and therefore almost sacrilegious, even blasphemous to do so. For me, God’s workings are impossible to categorize at this point in my life although it was not always so.

I have been most aware of the presence of God in the depths of my sorrow but I can not put that into words. And I am not in those depths of pain these days though I am quite aware of the brevity of life. I hear my mother’s antique school clock ticking the seconds away of her life (and mine) as I listen to her day each evening by phone and I am aware of the finite nature of each breath we take. Mom laughs as her cat jumps on her lap and demands attention. Her voice changes as she tells this lithe and furry creature of her love and I thank God as my own fat and fluffy cat sleeps soundly on my own lap. God loves.

An old friend sends a post to me in jest but between the lines I learn that my words and my posts have led him to a bit of healing of his chronically depressed spirit. “To be a vessel for God’s grace” has been my lifelong understanding of the purpose of my life. It sounds like delusions of grandeur when I write it now but it has been my talisman for decades. I know that this is what my life is about but the words cannot match the awesome reality or the essence of this when I find out this poor vessel did pour holy oils on troubled waters.

A friend entrusted us with the care of her 11 year old son for the weekend. We adore him. We are the surrogate grandparents – our own live hundreds of miles away. My husband and I were both single parents at one time and we see the stress in younger single parents and their children as they traverse this chaos. Yes, God is clearly in that chaos as he carries us through and comes to us with skin on. I loathed the chaos in my life but oh God’s presence was sweetly felt even then, deeply then.

The clock chimes 1 pm. I have an hour to spend in prayer and meditation. An hour in the silence when I intentionally dwell in God’s presence. It is in this silence that I have come to know that I too am God’s dwelling space. Where is God at work? God is always and everywhere, in all things, even the most ghastly of things, even in moments of horror. God is.

I found this beautiful poem among my clippings.  I do not know exactly where it came from but found it too beautiful not to share.  It’s origins are noted at the end. I share it because for me accepting my physical and often unlovely, uncooperative body as something meant for holiness has been a life long and continuing journey.  But somehow God has used my impairments more than my momentary beauty for holy purposes.

We awaken in Christ’s body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him.
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
–Then open your heart to Him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body.

Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 219-220

Many years ago, when I was the Senior Pastor of a big, important church, I had two – three seminary students for whose mentoring I was responsible.  I remember being terrible at it.  I could barely handle  pastoring this big, important church much less teaching anyone else to do it!  I was in way over my head and crumbling under the pressure.  The students themselves were truly a blessing to me and to the church.  The church loved them, for the most part and in part because they were all the preferred male gender.  One sweet gentleman often told me he thought I was a wonderful pastor but still wished I was a man.  I grew to adore that man and to appreciate his honesty. He was truly a blessing to me.

One of my student pastors had the disconcerting characteristic of weeping at the drop of the hat.  Scripture moved him to tears.  The knowledge of the suffering of anyone, distant or near reduced him tears.  Leading the pastoral prayer was excruciatingly emotional.  The big, important congregation didn’t care much for such displays of emotion and I was instructed to set him straight.  They didn’t like my Midwestern emotions much either but I was a woman, so what can you expect?  Most could not see his beautiful soul.

This young man with taught me so very much.  Once we were having a philosophical discussion about why God created us mortal beings.  With tears in his eyes he said, “We were created to be a blessing.”  I love that.  I think of his words daily and when I am most true to God within me, I heed his words.  I see the harried grocery clerk, read his or her name tag and thank them by name.  I listen attentively knowing that it is such a rare experience to be heard by another.  I counter my judgemental thoughts with a prayer of blessing and remember that we are all just dust or a big hot mess as my friend Amy would say. The odd thing is, being a blessing does more for me than it probably does for the one I intend to bless.  And when I realize this, I too have tears in my eyes.  Yes, RR, you know who you are and you indeed are a gift of God and a blessing to all who know you.

“I hear, yes, I hear Ephraim lamenting: “You disciplined me, and I learned my lesson, even though I was as stubborn as a mule. Bring me back, let me return, because you are the Lord my God. After I turned away from you, I regretted it; I realized what I had done, and I have hit myself — I was humiliated and disgraced, and I have carried this disgrace since I was young.”

Isn’t Ephraim my much-loved child? Don’t I utterly adore him? Even when I scold him, I still hold him dear. I yearn for him and love him deeply, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 31:18-20 CEB
http://bible.com/37/jer.31.18-20.ceb

I loved the old V-8 commercials where people hit their forehead after eating something bad for their health and said “I could have had a V-8!” I much prefer the old ones to the new ones where someone else doe the hitting. I do not take kindly to being reprimanded and criticism immediately gives rise to a sick feeling in my stomach. I feel the heat of shame rise up my neck and I want to run but my knees are too weak for such athletics! Eventually, sometimes weeks, months or years later, I am able to hear the reprimand as useful discipline. I’d really rather have a V-8!
M.Scott Peck wrote in the Road Less Traveled that self-discipline and is self love and that such discipline is the only road to freedom. I think of that every time I look at the piano keyboard my loving husband bought for me one Christmas and wish that I had disciplined myself to learn to play it well back when my parents paid for lessons. Because I did not, I do not have the freedom to get lost in music of my own making.
Discipline is not beloved in this current world system. We resist even the word itself and are entertained by the recklessness of others. It is rare to hear words of truth much less such words spoken with love. There is, however, no experience with of God that does not contain truth. “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free! ” says the Lord of Salvation. The fact that the truth might hurt our fragile sense of self is of no consequence. To know the freedom of dancing with the Spirit the discipline of facing the truth must be our daily practice. Oh my knees ache at the thought as I bow down on them to sit before burning bush of God’s presence to hear the truth, to bear the discipline of being embraced by Love even as I sit in shame.

Broken for You

The fact that the Church is literally changed into Christ is not a cause for triumphalism, however, precisely because our assimilation to the body of Christ means that we then become food for the world, to be broken, given away, and consumed.

-William T. Cavanaugh

Sitting around the fire pit on the patio in our garden, neighbors in the wisdom years of life reflect on the shock of being on the waning end.  We have unexpectedly elderly parents who need us, adult children who think they don’t and grandchildren who delight us.  We are each surprised that despite our various successes in life, we are not soaring professionally higher but coasting lower.  We have each been broken in one way or another.  It is the brokenness that we now find is life giving.  Recent studies indicate that we are generally happier as we get older.  Interesting.  Perhaps it is not success that brings happiness but meaning, strength, the wisdom of knowing that the greatest joys in life are quite simple and as fleeting as the flames that once burned but now bring the comfort of wisdom.

Mess Maker

I made a mess today in spite of all my good intentions, not an unfamiliar experience. The mess happened in the most sacred space in our home. I have a little space on the top floor of our house that is my meditation and worship space. The central feature is a beautiful quilted wall hanging made by a parishioner for me in 1995. An antique chest passed down to me from my great grandmother is covered in a prayer shawl I used for many year. Three jarred candles top this along with mementos of the spiritual journey. The purpose of such a space is to utilize muscle memory and mental repetition to ease the discipline of daily meditation.

It works for me, sometimes too well. As I light the three candles to begin my daily practice, I speak “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And when we have a power outage, I light the emergency candles and speak the same words without thinking! For decades now, the Jesus Prayer has been my mantra. Sometimes I resist the phrase in the last part: “have mercy on me a sinner”…well, just the words “a sinner.” My monkey mind goes off in another direction as it argues “sin, that just means missing the mark….why is that so bad….and I’m not that much of a sinner….” Yeah, right. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.

This conversation with the multiple strands of thought that go on in my mind at any one time, even while practicing a familiar ancient prayer was on my mind as I finished my prayer time today. As I looked up, I noticed that this space needed some cleaning. I kept the chant music playing as I went downstairs to get a basin of soap and water and some shears to prune the plants on either side of the chest. Pruning accomplished, I moved the plants to get at the windows which were smeared with the sap of plant leaves and began to apply elbow grease. As I stepped back to examine my work, I stepped right into the basin of sudsy water which completely spilled over like a waterfall over the loft wall down onto the sofa and carpet below. What a lovely clean mess!

I rushed down the spiral staircase to gather towels and didn’t know where to start! Throwing a towel on the sofa, I climbed back upstairs to sop up the source. Using my feet to move the soapy wet towels around I was able to clean the whole floor. And I remembered again that although sin simply means missing the mark, that in itself truly makes an awful mess. As I cleaned up the leather sofa I noticed all the dust that I had previously ignored. The damp towel from my mess became a useful dust cloth and I remembered all the times in my life when God has used my messes to set something else right. When I tried to quickly make my messes go away I just made another mess. God used even that.

I’d so much rather just get everything right and never miss the mark. That will not happen in this lifetime. Lord, have mercy on me, mess maker, mark “misser”, yes, sinner. Have mercy.