Sunday, December 10, 2017

If Isaiah Could Talk About It...


I took a bite of a mini Snickers the other day, and instead of just enjoying it, I remembered it as the illustration of my pastor’s sermon: It is one thing to know all about Jesus—quite another to experience him for ourselves.  We had talked about Snickers and then eaten one given to us.  And the point, activated in my memory by all my senses, stuck.

I pulled laundry out of the dryer a few weeks ago and as the clothes tumbled out, so did a tiny plastic shovel.  It also was a reminder of a sermon, given to us to serve as such.  Just as God had asked the Israelites to dig trenches in the desert that he could fill with water, God asks us to create time and space for him in our lives, to carve out places where we can anticipate Him filling us with new hope. I don’t know how this token had survived our recent move, ended up in someone’s pocket, and appeared in a random moment in my day.  More remarkable was that even though the sermon was months past, the little shovel served as a trigger to my failing memory and helped me recall the truth it represented.
I kept intending to tell my pastor about these events.  These moments where seeds planted in faithful, creative ways sprout in my soul, grow roots, and stick.  There is so much distraction, so much information; in the deluge of all that floods my mind every day, many of the best things get washed away.  Somehow, God uses these little tokens in my life to help me learn and remember, to illustrate something in a way more profound than if I had heard it in words alone.

So here’s where it gets really personal. I’m not sure if this will be uplifting, but it is most certainly real. It is the very graphic way I believe God chose to speak to me. (and since I don’t claim that often, I feel a sense of urgency to write it all down.  Record it. THIS happened.)  Today I watched last week’s sermon from home.  When my pastor got to Isaiah 64:6, I started to cry.  In that verse, and his explanation of it, I realized that this time, God had given me the token.  The parable.  The physical evidence that evokes all my senses to drive a point into my memory and make it stick.

On Thursday, I came to the disturbing conclusion that I was in danger of developing a dangerous infection known as toxic shock syndrome.  Previously to this situation, I didn’t believe that-to put it euphemistically-menstural apparatus could get lost inside oneself. 

It’s recovery and disposal was traumatic and horrifying.  It was.  I know it’s absolutely sick to even talk about, and you’re probably cringing in embarrassed disgust right now, wondering how I could be so nasty to talk about bloody menstrual stuff.  Believe me, I get it. (and hopefully you’ll understand why in a bit) I felt like I wanted to gag. Afterward, I got into bed and cried.  In a weird, inexplicable way, I felt a deep sense of shame. I felt dirty. Gross. The least attractive and loveable in a concrete, provable way.  But after I settled down a bit, I also felt profoundly, deeply, overwhelmingly relieved.  Relieved that this thing that could literally cause my death through a dangerous infection was gone. 

So where is all this going?  And why would I share something like that?  What purpose could possibly be served by it?

Isaiah 64:6
We have all become like the unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away.

Even the prophet Isaiah didn’t think it was a cheap trick to evoke all our senses to drive home a point.  In a culture where women were sent away outside the city if they were even on their period, I can’t imagine that this reference would have been casually slipped in with little notice.
 And yet, here in the sacred Scriptures, it is mentioned as a way to help me see that this is what even my best efforts at righteousness are on my own.

But do you expect to hear a verse like this from your pastor? In a sermon?  I didn’t. And yet, the very week I have my own painful experience with a “menstrual rag,” this is the verse our pastor reads.
I find this amazing.
This scripture is shouting at me.  Ablaze in my memory (mixed with my own experience), it makes me aware in a new and terrible way that all my scrabbling, all my efforts, all my striving is just plain vile.

“What a wretched man [woman] I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Romans 7:25

So I admit.  Before God and man: I’m a sinner in need of grace.  All my little efforts and best (unfulfilled) intentions, all my inconsistencies and hypocrisies.  All my outright sin and all my hidden sin.  All my secret judgey thoughts and maliciously spoken ones. All my kindnesses I hope you’ll notice and all my oversights I hope you won’t.  All of it.  Just one big mess of sin and self-effort and self-delusion.
Even the parts that I think of as “not bad” or “pretty good”: dirty rags.
After sitting with all this for awhile, I managed to dry my tears, stop writing, reading, and talking to God about it all and unpause the sermon to hear what the next couple of points were.

Point 4: Reaffirm your dependence on God.
Isaiah 64:8
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

And this is where the great hope of my heart finds a landing place. If I am clay, mere clay, I don’t have to fix myself.  I don’t have to fashion myself into something lovely and useful. I don’t have the power to, nor is that anyone’s expectation, least of all the potter’s. If I can find my home on his wheel, then the potter can do His work and I can find my rest. I can depend on a loving Father who sees my filthy rags and says he can replace them with spotless robes. 
Renamed, reformed, repurposed.

So Advent begins.  And God moves and speaks in unexpected ways to me this season. I am not left hanging in a state of shameful despair.  The last three points of the sermon were: Expect God’s presence. Enjoy his presence. And Embody his presence.  I'm looking forward to seeing what that means in my life this year.


If you’d like to watch the whole sermon, you can follow the link here.  I think it is the first one he has ever done like this, in video format en route to Africa, and while there. I strongly suspect that there will be something else, altogether amazing and unexpected that God will use His word and this servant to give you this Advent.  I hope you’ll share it with us when He does.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

No Rescue

 Ever have something small at work shine a spotlight on something much bigger and important to you?

The other day at the library, I found myself talking to a woman sharing new research about a disease she had been beating the odds of for years--even while it exacted its cruel toll daily.  She was passionately intense, hopeful and heartbroken at the same time.  Why did she want to dive into the deep end with me, a stranger, about a difficult topic, possibly an uncomfortable one?

I'm not sure.  But I think when people sit with ongoing grief or suffering, sometimes the broken bits can sit right on the surface like shards of glass--making them prickly and difficult-- or sometimes, blindingly beautiful.  But one thing I've noticed, they don't waste a lot of time on small talk.  And for that, I love them.  People who share pain make me feel part of a larger story of our humanity: the way we all suffer, feel lost, betrayed, broken.  The way we all long for redemption, beauty, belonging.

So there I was, completely engrossed.  There weren't any other patrons in line, or even politely hovering in proximity-- waiting to be noticed but not wanting to commit to queuing up.  There weren't any materials needing to be shelved.  There was just this woman, our shared desk, and her profound wish to be heard.  Oh, and then a phone ringing.  How pesky.  I looked around for my colleague to catch it since I was occupied, but she must have been busy too, because I couldn't see her anywhere.

The persistent ringing demanded my response so I picked up,  preparing to ask the caller to wait a moment so I could properly conclude with the lady in front of me.

Instead, it was my colleague, calling from a back office with the equivalent of a "rescue call."  She might have even used that word.  Something about noticing I had been talking to this lady for awhile (five minutes? eight?!) and did I need to be rescued?

Did I need to be rescued?

From what?

Suddenly, strangely, I simply felt old.  Like I had stepped out of the past and into our present pace and perspective I can no longer match.  In a world where Facebook Likes (and sad faces, hearts and wow faces) is a standard form of connection, did my extended conversation seem like a lavish indulgence to my colleague?  She had good intentions of helping me, but I wondered why she thought I was too meek or passive to wrap up the conversation in a gracious way.

Maybe it goes back to what I've already said about suffering and shards of glass.  Maybe she just didn't want anything too messy at the workplace.  It's a fair wish.

The other night I went to dinner with two friends.  The food was secondary to getting a few hours of uninterrupted conversation.  It was a late night, one that we knew we'd pay for in the morning.  But we were investing in other important things.  We might each have felt a little scratched up from spending so much time with two fellow sufferers, but if we did, I think even that was worth it.  When I sit with true pain, it is hard.  Well, it is painful.  But when I stop trying to spin my life in best-case-scenario glimpses and show what a broken mess I really am, well, that's when the light gets in.  Then that light bounces around all my broken bits and shines back to someone else who needs it, too. And quite remarkably, though nothing is fixed, or even better, three friends feel a little more hope.  A little more love.  A little more sense that God isn't finished with us yet.

I wasn't once hoping for a rescue text or call from all that.

Sometimes, when we shed the small talk in spaces large enough to hold what comes next, the beauty of Real is what we feared and needed all along.







Sunday, August 27, 2017

This is not Theology. This is the Mystery.

I have wanted to write for so long.

I have wished I had the bandwidth, the vulnerability, the courage and the energy to write.

But these things are never mine on the same day. So maybe I will have to try while I'm still stretched a little too thin, feeling guarded, scared and weary.  And maybe I will hit publish, and maybe I will just try.


I've never been one to believe in receiving "signs" from people who have passed away.  Neither did my mom. In an odd conversation that left us both wondering if we had seriously just agreed to this, I remember her telling me how she wasn't a big believer in signs from the other side, either. "But if you can send one, will you?" I asked. "If I can, I will, but I don't think I will be able to, so don't spend too much time looking."


When the calendar rolled back around to the day my mom died a year ago, I knew I didn't want the day to be like every other. But I didn't know how I wanted it to look differently.  It wasn't a celebration. It wasn't a memorial. The kids and I ended up meeting my dad at the cemetery. It didn't bring comfort. Seeing the years of her birth and death carved into stone was a visual reminder of the finality of her time with us here.  People use the phrase, "Nothing's carved in stone" to suggest options remain. When you stand before the stone, and it is carved, you are reminded that no options remain.  We remembered her, and missed her, and sat with the heavy absence and the heavier weight of grief. And there wasn't much to say or do, just be.

I planned for us to go across the street afterward to a park to find a geocache. I didn't know how we would do at the cemetery and I suspected we'd want to end on a different note than the one I thought the visit might evoke. I still had my three kids with me, after all.

We found the cache and my dad had the wits and patience to figure out exactly how it had to be shaken to guide a key out of this complex internal maze and out a tube to unlock it.  It was so clever.  So tricky. I really doubt we ever would have gotten it open without his clear thinking. I would have just kept shaking it, hoping for dumb luck, and just as I may have figured it out, don't you know one of my kids would have insisted it was their turn?

Larger geocaches come with all kinds of trinkets-stickers, little balls, happy meal prizes, little plastic toys.  Usually there's nothing of value, or even of interest to my kids.  We've seen all of it before. But on that day, there was a silver key chain with a single silver die, studded with diamond rhinestones.

Now to most of you reading this, a die with fake, but sparkly gems where the numbers should be doesn't lead you to much.  For me, it was a profound moment of recognition.  It was her sign.

My mom was an avid Farkle player. (a game in which you roll six dice for combinations like Yahtzee and Bunco).  She collected all kinds of novelty dice and little containers to put them in.  If a new player rolled a particularly rare combination, or won by a stunning amount, or seemed to enjoy the game even a little, she'd pull out her collection and urge them to pick their own set of dice and the container to store it.  She had little boxes from around the world, vases, handmade pottery jars, leather pouches, miniature suitcases.  She had dice as small as an eraser head, dice as large as walnuts.  She had wooden dice, marble dice, hollow plastic dice with dice inside them...the girl loved her dice.  But it was more than that. When something really pleased my mom, she just couldn't help but share it.

So back to the geocache and the sparkly, silver dice.  To me, it was like my mom's insider way of saying, "Things are good. Oh, and all that stuff about streets lined with gold?  Yeah, that's kind of real. Things are so stellar here, even the Farkle dice are studded with diamonds. Diamonds! Can you believe this? And I'd love to share it, but I can't right now so I'll just arrange with the higher ups to put a mock-up in a container I know you'll love. And you can work together and shake it out and  marvel at the mystery of how it ended up there one year to the day since I've been gone."


We remembered her, and missed her, and sat with the heavy absence and the heavier weight of grief, but it was a good day.





Sunday, February 5, 2017

When I Think of the Refugee

She didn't want her family to see her uncovered head.  I doubt she very much wanted me, a foreign stranger, to see it either, but life had flung her far from anyone who would know how to help her with her thick, black hair, and landed her in a suburban bathroom complete with an unfamiliar hair dryer and running water.

We made our best attempts to understand one another, but the bridge between us stretched so far, we couldn't find understanding in the middle.  As she moved her garments around to lean her head into the sink, I saw the scars.  Lines on her back and shoulder that suggested something brutal had happened to her.

She is a refugee.  Her country suffered a civil war and she ended up on the wrong side of the the power. Her gorgeous, regal features were despised for whatever ancestry they suggested to the oppressors.  She fled her country and resettled in a neighboring one--into a camp that was beset with almost as many dangers as the war zone she left behind.  She had more children at the camp.  Her older children died there, too. Family members went permanently "missing."  After seven years of living in limbo, her family finally made it to the United States.  They made it through the long vetting process and passed all the requirements to become refugees here--many hoops to jump through before landing among us.  How she and I ended up in this position of vulnerable need is another story altogether, but when I think of the refugee, I see those scars.

I remember that bereaved mother, her improbably optimistic husband, her five resilient children.  I remember how they had to adjust to a new kind of exile from their homeland, with all the comforts of its language, food, culture and community, and scrabble for a new normal with a new kind of poverty.  Theirs was the poverty of being without wheels in a metro area with highways instead of paths.  Theirs was the poverty of being without style in a culture so overclothed that the distinctions are based on the kind, cut and creator of clothes.  Theirs was the poverty of being without community in a culture that saw their head coverings as a suspicious affront, their language as an obscure hassle to translate, and their intellect as somehow diminished for not having been shaped by exposure to modern technology.

My family was part of their transition team for six months.  Six months of watching our toddlers speak an international language of giggles, our boys, the international language of LEGOS.  Six months of sporadic visits, generous food, few words, lots of smiles.  Six months of memories--the infamous zoo trip, playing Uno and other games, helping them register for school, introducing them to the budget-saving wonders of thrift stores.

I read that our country has halted all refugees entry for four months.  I can't pretend to be an informed citizen into all the reasons behind that decision.  I know it's a big, complex issue.  I haven't felt in danger from refugees, and I don't feel safer now knowing that none are coming for four months.

When I think of refugees, I remember a woman, my age exactly, who has been through more than I can understand or imagine.  I wonder what her back would look like if she had been asked to wait four more months.  I wonder if we would have met even fewer of her kids.  I wonder what enemy intent on our harm would go through such a long, arduous process, of wait lists and medical examinations and years of life in an overcrowded camp to get to the top of a refugee list, when there are faster and more efficient ways to get here.

And I wonder why we are so quick to want to trust that our multi-billion dollar government can create any program at all to ensure our safety, to weed out every threat, to encase us in a bubble of secure comfort.  How many people's suffering is it ok to ignore to raise our own safety by small percents?