Sunday, July 19, 2015

No Longer Strangers

Watchword for the week of July 19, 2015

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints
 and members of the household of God.  Ephesians 2:19

To wake up in a place you’ve never woken up in before—to be smothered in a feather bed when you’ve always slept on a coil-system mattress and box spring, to have bright sunlight stream through wobbly glass windows on the opposite side of the room from where flat light usually seeps in, to breathe in the vapors left behind by the room’s regular inhabitant when you’re accustomed to the scent of your own Herbal Essence shampoo on the pillow—to awaken in such a scene is purely disorienting. And then to remember that you’ve been traveling, and that you are now 4,325 miles from home, and that you are visiting the European branch of your family tree, and that you don’t really know how to find the bathroom in your aunt & uncle’s  rambling German farmhouse—this all coalesces in an immediate wave of homesickness that does not resolve when cousins whose names you do not know greet you with, “Guten Morgen,” and you are reminded that nobody in the household speaks the same language as you.

This is, maybe, a little bit, what it feels like to be a stranger, an alien. The feeling lessens when the jet lag wears off. And when your host beckons you with hand motions to sit at the kitchen table. And when she sets out Frühstück (breakfast). And when, even though the food is unfamiliar, it looks and smells delicious. And when the rest of household members take their seats and fill up the room with cheery chatter. And when they pass you platters and encourage you, through cajoling gestures and made up sign language, to try die Brötchen (warm rolls that most certainly are served in heaven!). And when, by the end of the meal you have learned the meaning of Frühstück and Brötchen.  And when you become comfortable enough to even laugh with the folks around the table. 


To belong. Is this not what everyone everywhere longs for? To be included. Is this not a universal desire? The very Good News is that God’s household is barrier-free. With no cultural restrictions to keep us on the outside, we are welcomed directly to the inner circle of kinship. We are free to learn and laugh and love without risk! And if this is disorienting, it is only so because we might be unaccustomed to such a complete and beautiful experience of inclusion. Thanks be to God!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Circle of God's Presence

Watchword for the week of July 20, 2014

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:  I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Isaiah 44:6

Do you know the cooperative playground game “Catch the Dragon’s Tail?” Players arrange themselves Conga line-style, each one placing her or his hands on the forward person’s shoulders. The goal is for the player at the front of the line (the dragon’s head) to maneuver the entire chain of players (the dragon’s body) in order to reach and tag the player at the back of the line (the dragon’s tail). Of course, the player at the back of the line tries to evade being caught. Lots of running and whip-cracking motions ensue, the line bending and responding, the participants laughing like crazy. But when the front does catch up with the back, the group is no longer a line. It is a circle. For a moment, there is no first or last. There is just an unbroken flow of exuberant life.

When the Old Testament prophet Isaiah quotes God as saying, “I am the first, I am the last,” in my mind and in my heart, I link those definitive points together, coming up with an image of God that is infinite and encircling and imbued with energy. A glowing neon tube bent around a youngster’s wrist at a carnival on a summer evening. A life-giving bracelet of presence.

Over the course of the last few weeks, some compassionate friends have given me gifts as visible means of support through trying times. Interestingly, these gifts have come in the form of bracelets. One brassy circle bears a charm—a dove—reminding me that God’s Spirit is always at hand. The other is rather like a wearable collage of metallic tiles bearing meaningful symbols (cross, heart, fish) and essential words (faith, love, hope). Together, the bands have served as talismans, as armor. I am both empowered and protected by the firstness and lastness and everything in betweeness of my everywhere and always God. (Thank you Jill and Bob & Laura Ann!)

God is constant. Always has been, always will be. I will bear that and wear that assuredly.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Condemnation to Renovation

Watchword for the week of July 13, 2014

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1

When my husband and I were first married, our inaugural apartment might have been known euphemistically as “graduate school housing,” but we affectionately referred to the place as “The Tenement.” The rundown 2-story had at one time been a single-family dwelling, but had long since been converted into multiple units. We occupied the main level and were privileged to have access to the cellar, a subterranean cave we could peer at through wide gaps between the splintery pine floorboards. We legitimately feared getting our feet caught in the holes and breaking our ankles.  Down there in the dank recesses was an abandoned shower stall. Former tenants told legendary tales of all the bars of soap that had been gnawed on and dragged away by nocturnal critters. The floor above our living space housed 2 additional apartments, and every time one of those neighbors entered or exited, our windows would rattle as though they might have been perched directly atop the San Andreas Fault. By far, our favorite amenity was the refrigerator which, and I swear this is true, contained NO shelves. Storing food was an ongoing game of Jenga.

Fairly regularly, one of us would turn to the other and say, “I’m pretty sure this place is on the verge of being condemned.”

A condemned structure is a doomed structure. A damned structure.  Irreparable, irredeemable, hopeless. The foundation has crumbled, the joists have rotted. Neither Bob Villa, nor Norm Abram, nor any of the celebrity hosts in the HGTV line-up would be willing to take it on.  Das ist kaputt.

Speaking in all seriousness about condemned, kaput buildings, the photo below was taken at this time last year when my friends’ home was crushed under the weight of an ancient tree uprooted during a summer storm. Though quite miraculously no one was injured in this disaster, building a replacement home on the footprint of such devastation proved to be a healing (if not often daunting) task.

Condemnation. Can you imagine a soul so wrecked, so damaged, so without merit as to be irreparable, irredeemable, hopeless?  Apparently, Jesus cannot.

Sometimes our situations are so grim that we need to rebuild our lives from the ground up. Sometimes, it’s more a matter of remodeling. And sometimes it’s really just redecorating. The size and scope of the problem determines the size and scope of the solution, I suppose. No matter, when we seek to redo something—anything—about our brokenness, it is the Spirit of life in Christ (Romans 8:2) that revokes the order to vacate the premises and gives us hope to imagine and achieve a fresh renovation.

*I offer prayers of gratitude to God for the Spies family on the 1-year anniversary of the event that will have forever marked time in their lives, and I give credit and thanks to Jennifer Spies for allowing me to use her photo.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Nickel's Worth of Graciousness

Watchword for the week of July 6, 2014

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love
Psalm 145:8

I had an opportunity to be gracious today. The transaction went down in the Soft Drink and Snack Food aisle of the grocery store. As I loaded up the cart with three 12-packs for $9.99, a friendly young woman approached me. “Hey, how’re you doin’?” she asked in a croaky voice.

“I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?” I answered back politely.

“I’m great!” the stranger explained exuberantly. “I just got back from my sister’s house. I was there a whole week.” She stood stalwartly on pudgy legs, and although she efficiently blocked me from making forward progress, she was without malice. She smiled broadly. Happiness registered not only in the curve of her mouth, but in the twinkle of her up-slanted eyes.

“I’m glad you had a good time,” I said. “It’s nice to get away on vacation.”

“Can I have a nickel?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Can I have a nickel?” She lifted up a small package wrapped in white deli paper and pointed to the price sticker. $1.05. “I have a dollar in my pocket. Can I have a nickel?”

Her unashamed persistence melted my heart. I began fishing in my purse for change. While I hunted, she waited, patiently expectant. I located a quarter and handed it over, but she shook her very round head. “No. A nickel.”

I stifled a laugh and searched further. Eventually, I came up with the correct coin. I placed it in her open palm. She curled her stubby fingers—characteristic of Down syndrome—close around it.  She thanked me loudly and moved on. As I continued to stock my cart, I heard her making conversation in the next lane over. “I just got back from my sister’s house. I was there a whole week….”


This real time, live action parable provided an episode of delight along with a measure of insight. I found joy in being able to meet the woman’s immediate need (all for the bargain price of 5 cents). In this life, it’s not often that a problem can be solved so simply and perfectly. To be able to respond to a request with kindness and completeness flooded me with the pleasing sensation of goodwill.

Is this the sort of payoff God gets for being gracious with us, I wonder?

And what if, as with the woman who refused the quarter because she was set on getting a nickel, God has even greater blessings in store for us than we are primed to receive?  Are we foolish for expecting God to dole out mercy, patience and love in Dixie Cups when, indeed, God is poised to pour from an unrestricted garden hose? Maybe God stifles a laugh (or holds back a tear) when we are stingy about what we are willing to receive. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Seeing God in Creation

Watchword for the Week of June 15, 2014:

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Psalm 8:9

 I’m at church camp this week, somewhere where it is very easy to notice God’s majesty. In the height of the skyscraper pine tree, in the breadth of the beryl lake, in the flash of a Baltimore Oriole flying past the cabin window, Creation cant’ help but stand out. To stare out at a meadow white with clover or a sky powdered with clouds is to spend a moment in God’s presence—a moment I far too often skip during a “regular” week. I breathe in uncharacteristically cool June air, and I feel blessed.

But the magnificence of Creation is not at all limited to the natural landscape. The peoplescape is also a wonder: middle school kids shining with the light of life (if you can catch them in an unselfconscious instant), confident older teens mentoring the younger ones, and caring grown-ups leading, cooking, nursing, teaching, playing, praying and nurturing, all while giving up vacation days for the chance to do so. Who knew that some of God’s finest handiwork would be dressed in t-shirts and flip-flops?

All week, some of us have been keeping an eye on a particular camper. M is precious and fragile, like a figurine of colored glass or an orchid. M has autism, and though she interacts quite well with her peers, it is apparent that she slips into herself at times, oblivious to her surroundings. This happens when music plays. M’s body becomes one with the music, and she’ll solitarily respond by raising her hands skyward, or spinning in a circle. With willowy arms, her movements are graceful, an impromptu ballet. She sings, boldly allowing the melody to overtake her. She projects her song heavenward, communing with God, unaware that she is inspiring everyone around her. Observing M is like watching a prayer. Being moved by her is like offering one.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Soundtrack of the Soul

Watchword for the Week of June 8, 2014:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service,
but the same Lord. 1 Corinthians 12: 4,5

I’m listening to Pandora Radio right now. I have it tuned to an ambient/classical background music sort of channel. In case you’re unfamiliar with Pandora (or other similar services), it is a way to listen to highly customizable music choices through the internet. If you have a taste for East Coast Hip Hop interspersed with dashes of 70’s Rock and Orchestral Metal, or if you’re in the mood for a mix of Motown plus Michael W. Smith’s Greatest Hits along with a splash of Broadway Show Tunes, this is a cheap way for you to develop your perfect playlist.  In fact, Pandora goes by the slogan: “It’s a new kind of radio—stations that only play music you like.” With Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, Serius XM and all the others, there is really no reason in this world to ever again have to listen to a song you don’t adore. Just press “skip.”

I applaud that there are so many varieties of music easily accessible these days. If I want to find a fiery Brazilian samba or a haunting Andean folk melody, a wild Zydeco tune or the national anthem of Fiji, it’s all available to be discovered. But it’s also all available to be avoided.

I sometimes lament that we seem to be lacking a common soundtrack for our times. For those of us hovering around the half century mark, who among us didn’t listen to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem every week? Sure, it meant we might have had to endure a Fleetwood Mac song while waiting for an Abba song to play (or visa versa), or we may have been exposed to one of those country crossover hits while knowing we wanted to hear Styx (or visa versa).  But didn’t that, in some ways, bind us together generationally? Didn’t that, unbeknown to us at the time, encourage us to appreciate something outside of our own tastes and interests? Didn’t that, in a subtle way, shape a smidgeon of patience within us?

Our world offers us a smorgasbord of choices in most arenas, and through technology, we also have quite a lot of control. However, I rather fear that the trade-off for all of those plentiful choices and all of that control is isolation. Instead of being united under the broad category of “music,” we’re left alone and lonely with only our ear buds to share in the refrain.

Unity has been on my mind a lot lately, especially unity as it pertains to The Moravian Church. In my understanding of what it means to be a Christ follower in the Moravian tradition, unity is a pretty big deal. Relationships—with Jesus and with one another—are what we live for. It’s what we call fellowship, and fellowship is one of the wondrous ways we express the Gospel message. Fellowship is our expression of LOVE.  To keep up our fellowship, though, requires that we be generous with one another in our differences, and that we seek to remember what we hold in common, or rather, who we hold in common. To keep up our fellowship, we need to whip off the headphones that trap us in discordance and prevent us from hearing the graceful chorus of God’s Spirit.   

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pinching Back the Petunias

Watchword for the week of June 1, 2014:

 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5: 7

With coffee in hand and laptop tucked under my arm, I head to the front porch to take up residency this morning. The Boston ferns and thriving white impatiens offer an inspiring backdrop, the patio furniture a comfortable workspace. But before I can get down to writing, I must attend to an unsightly distraction. I have to pinch back the petunias.

They’re of a variety I’ve not seen before—petite, lemony flowers just a fraction of the size of the standard purple trumpets I often pot up in hanging baskets. These otherwise cheerful sprays are blemished with the shriveled brown vestiges of blossoms that have already peaked and withered. I deadhead the spent blooms, working my fingers through the foliage and judiciously plucking away the decay. I preen the plants not just because it helps them to look better in this moment, but because removing the debris encourages them to produce new growth, to set forth future cascading clusters of yellow beauty.

As I groom the containers, I ponder the Watchword, and before long, I am imagining that each depleted posy is one of my worries—one of the sad, sundried anxieties that cling to me, and that must be removed if I am going to be my best today and flourish tomorrow. Garden variety concerns: how to pay for the unanticipated car repair; how to lower my triglyceride numbers; where is my kid and how come he hasn’t answered my text; how will I ever accomplish what’s on my to-do list, much less my Bucket List; why did I let those angry words slip and how will I fix the situation…. These sorts of things that keep me awake at night are what need to be tossed on the compost pile. And so, I fire off a prayer, and before I know it, I am imagining that God is wearing gardening gloves and is caring for me by gingerly culling what is waste from what is life.

Ah, that’s much better.