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. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

TripTik Jesus

Watchword for the Week of May 18, 2014

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. 
No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

The last time I took a road trip to an unfamiliar place, I typed the address into my smartphone and let it design a route. It looked okay to me, but just to be sure, I checked my destination’s website for directional advice. It did not match the plan my phone had laid out, so I pulled up on my laptop and printed out the turn-by-turn instructions so that I could make comparisons. I have a GPS in my vehicle and could have programmed it, but I don’t really like having a disembodied voice snidely announcing it is “recalculating” my driving decisions as though it were oh-so-superior, so I didn’t plug it in. But I did grab a couple of paper maps and toss them on the passenger seat, just for good measure. After cross-referencing all of the information and still feeling like I needed to flip a coin at every choice, I found myself longing for one definitive answer. I wanted a TripTik.

The TripTik was the gold standard for travel planning when I was a kid. Pioneered and perfected by the American Automobile Association, the AAA TripTik provided customized road trip itineraries long before ordinary people had access to the Information Super Highway. With just a week or so of notice, AAA could plot out a personalized, dependable path which would then be assembled into a tailor-made, vertically-oriented, spiral-bound notebook. Each page represented a leg of the journey—an isolated stripe of highway, about a hundred miles in length, detailed with exits and rest stops, and yet streamlined, the course unmistakable. It made navigating a breeze, and for the bored children in the back seat, it provided an anticipatory thrill whenever the car came to the appointed mile marker and it was time to turn to a fresh page. In my family, the TripTik was decisive. There was nothing to do but follow where it led. Simple!

Don’t get me wrong. I like having choices. I like knowing that for any challenge, there are countless combinations of solutions limited only by lack of imagination. But sometimes it gets to be too much, this overwhelming access to infinite possibilities. Especially in the critical moment (“Must I cross three lanes of speeding traffic to make that exit coming up in a quarter mile, or is it okay to stay on this road awhile longer?”), it’s a relief to have an unambiguous answer.

Jesus gives an unambiguous answer about which route is guaranteed to bring a spiritual traveler into unending relationship with God. He says that HE is the route. HE is the road. HE is the TripTik. Whatever tracks Jesus lays down, whoever follows in them is bound to end up where Jesus is—inhabiting downtown accommodations in the place where God is.

But is the unambiguous answer also an exclusive answer? Some say that in order to arrive at the hoped-for eternal destination, it is necessary to invoke Jesus’ name as though it were the exclusive currency taken at the toll gate. But here’s something I’ve noticed: If I want to arrive in Chicago, I don’t just speak the name “Chicago” and, poof, find myself teleported to the western shore of Lake Michigan. I still must traverse the network of highways. And while it may be important for me to know which direction to head, the road itself doesn’t particularly care if I call it I-90, I-94 or the Dan Ryan Expressway. The fact that I’m following the road and trusting where it leads is what matters.

To trust and follow Jesus is to tailgate him, to keep just inches off his bumper. His way is the way of selfless love and deep compassion. To go there is to leave behind whatever appears in the rear view mirror and move forward, ever closer to the spot that’s circled on the TripTik—ever closer to that place in the heart where God resides.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Gates and Doorways

Watchword for the week of May 11, 2014:

Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” John 10: 9

When I was a very young girl, my mother worked in a most amazing building. I had no idea what she did there, but I loved paying her a visit in the impressive white-columned, dome-topped structure set squarely in the middle of Downtown.* With gold ceilings and polished stone balconies, green marble walls and peacock-hued mosaics, the building’s interior was even more stunning than its exterior. But above all the grandeur, what captivated my pre-school imagination more than anything else was the revolving door: enormous frames of dark wood surrounding mesh embedded glass panes bisected by bronze push bars I was not weighty enough to budge. If we were to make progress, Daddy would have to stand behind me in the pie-wedge compartment and push off. He would also have to tell me when to hop out, something I was afraid to do. More often than not, we would have to make several revolutions before I saved up the courage to shoot through the opening and enter the lobby. This gateway both fascinated and intimidated me, but it always beckoned.

Jesus never identifies himself as a revolving door (which is not surprising since the first one wasn’t designed until 1881), but he does use the gate metaphor to describe himself and his mission. You probably know this already, but in case not, when Jesus speaks of being a gate, he is talking about the threshold of a sheepfold. A sheepfold is a rustic, roofless, community corral where shepherds can secure their flocks while they catch a few hours of sleep. It’s really nothing more than a low-walled box with a gap in the perimeter. The gap is the entrance/exit. It has no door, per se. In order to block the gap in the wall, a shepherd stretches out across it. A shepherd becomes the door. A shepherd prevents the sheep from wandering out, and predators from wandering in. A shepherd is the entire security system. A shepherd personally takes on the risk and the responsibility of the flocks’ welfare.

If Jesus is watching the gate—being the gate—what a relief that should be to his followers! If Jesus is checking ID’s, that’s one less thing the rest of us have to worry about. If Jesus is assuming all risk and responsibility for who is in and who is out, then we can relax. Secure and unburdened from needing to judge one another, both the ones on the outside and the ones on the inside, we are remarkably free. With that freedom, we move from the protected enclosure, encouraged to wander out beyond the walls to discover nourishment and fulfillment. We are saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Coming and going. In and out. One reason buildings are outfitted with revolving doors is because they allow people to enter and exit efficiently at the same time. They encourage smooth traffic flow. Had Jesus ever said, “I am the revolving door,” he might have been inviting the Church to keep moving—for disciples to step inside as needed for shelter, but then to turn it around and head back out to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Had Jesus ever invoked the metaphor, he may have been teaching us that there’s nothing static about the life of a follower, that the business of transformation is one of movement and change. Had Jesus ever elaborated on this, he may have been reminding us that, although he is the door, we might need to work collectively and give one another assistance to give an extra heave in order to advance. And he might have been highlighting the truth that pursuing the life in Christ, while alluring, sometimes requires a moment of courage when it comes time to hop out.

(*Later in life I puzzled together that Mom had served on the staff of the State’s Attorney General, and that the office I admired was located inside the Wisconsin State Capitol.) 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Refrigerator Reflection

Watchword for the week beginning May 4, 2014:

You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  
1 Peter 1:23

What ultimately turns out to be perishable doesn’t seem so at first. A bouquet of broccoli, a glossy polished apple, a perfect pint of blueberries—the Farmers’ Market yields a vivid assortment, plump and juicy. An eggplant, purply smooth and taut as a pregnant belly, evokes the vivacious promise that all of life is wonderment, beauty and jubilant possibility.

But to grasp what it means to be perishable, all I need to do is tour my own refrigerator, a museum holding a full array of good-but-failed intentions toward the goal of fresh and healthy eating. Beginning with the upper shelves, I view the untouched packages of tofu, both silken and firm, hiding behind the partially-consumed carton of organic Greek yogurt. Proceeding downward past the skim milk and orange juice jugs, I take in the amassed collection of plastic leftover containers archived by date, the most recent scoops of soups and casseroles toward the front and the oldest, molding samples at the back. (This is where the penicillin develops.) And for the finest examples of putrefaction, I visit the fruit and vegetable crisper bins where the carrots and onions are holding up pretty well, but where a couple of cucumbers inside a grocery store produce bag have turned to mush, a lime has dehydrated, and the cabbage I was too lazy to shred has decomposed and is emitting an unpleasant, sulfur-scented cloud.  

What is perishable, no matter how promising, is impermanent. It’s a good thing that tomorrow is Garbage Day.

“Imperishable” isn’t a word that often comes up in my everyday conversations. The closest thing to it would be “non-perishable,” as in: “The Youth Group is collecting non-perishable items for the local Food Pantry. Please bring your donations with you next Sunday.”   Non-perishability conjures the kind of dependable permanence attached to SPAM and canned beef stew, tins that reside in the darkest, lowest shelf of a kitchen’s corner cupboard. What is non-perishable is stable, but not especially vibrant.

And that is far different from what is imperishable. What is imperishable is permanent, yes, but also exquisite. It is the perfection of sweet, sun-kissed strawberries, but sweet, sun-kissed strawberries that never go out of season or give way to decay.  What is imperishable is perpetually luscious and steadfastly delightful.   What is imperishable is eternal. What is eternal cannot yet be known by us who are oh-so-very perishable. And yet we get a taste—a delectable, lingering taste—every time we take in the essence of love. The flavor of love—pure and saturated--tantalizes us in the present and causes us to crave after more of the same. Love will be, one day, what satisfies us completely and perpetually. Love, splendidly cultivated, sumptuously ripe, and forever fresh—this is what we expect the imperishable seed is always growing into.