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.