An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Eight

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Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, The Message

God, you smiled on your good earth!

    You brought good times back to Jacob!
You lifted the cloud of guilt from your people,
    you put their sins far out of sight.
You took back your sin-provoked threats,
    you cooled your hot, righteous anger.

I can’t wait to hear what he’ll say.

  God’s about to pronounce his people well,
The holy people he loves so much,
    so they’ll never again live like fools.
See how close his salvation is to those who fear him?
    Our country is home base for Glory!

Love and Truth meet in the street,
    Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
    Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty;
    our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,

I do so love to discover what Eugene Peterson does with familiar passages! This is a glorious psalm, one of my favorites. And I love this version from The Message. This is a song of deep hope, based on the promises of God. And it paints a picture of the future that is delightful — living right, living whole, love and truth — they meet up and embrace/kiss each other! We’re moving in that direction, friends. I know it doesn’t much look like it at times — maybe, especially true in the times that are NOW — but it’s coming. It is coming. And waiting for that time is a central part of this waiting we do during Advent — recognizing and celebrating that God isn’t done with the world yet. Not by a long shot! Were heading toward heaven — ‘the new heaven and the new earth’ — where all the promises of this lovely song will be fulfilled. Thanks be to God.

Help me to wait well, Lord. Give me patience, the patience that can only come when I allow YOU to be my peace. Help me to rest in Jesus, to trust that though the process seems slow and arduous to me, when looked at in the light of eternity, I am moving toward that wondrous place in the time it takes me to blink! 

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Seven

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Micah 5:1-5a, NLT

Mobilize! Marshal your troops!
    The enemy is laying siege to Jerusalem.
They will strike Israel’s leader
    in the face with a rod.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
    whose origins are in the distant past,
    will come from you on my behalf.
The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
    until the woman in labor gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
    will return from exile to their own land.
And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
    for he will be highly honored around the world.
And he will be the source of peace.

Such a lovely promise, made centuries before Jesus ever appeared on the scene. The early church poured over the scriptures we call the Old Testament, searching for connections to all that they had seen and heard when Jesus walked the earth. And this beautiful passage was tailor made! From the tiniest, most backwater town (population? about 300 souls at the turn of the 1st century), comes the promised leader of God’s people. Not at all the kind of leader that they thought they wanted. But oh! So much the one they — and we — needed. A Shepherd-Leader, one who tends and searches out the lost, who protects us from robbers and who brings us into abundant places of rest, relaxation and refreshment. Not all the time — we all know that! But maybe, in a certain way, it IS all the time . . . in our heart of hearts there are green pastures and flowing streams, always. No matter the chaos that surround us. Why? Because wherever the Shepherd is, we are safe. No matter what. No matter what.

Blessed Savior/Shepherd — thank you that you bring refreshment and nourishment with you. Thank you that we can find peace — your special peace — deep within us, even when everything around us is insane. Thank you that you came from ‘the past’ right into our present. And that you go before us into the future, too. Thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Six

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Micah 4:6-13

“On that great day,” God says,
    “I will round up all the hurt and homeless,
    everyone I have bruised or banished.
I will transform the battered into a company of the elite.
    I will make a strong nation out of the long lost,
A showcase exhibit of God’s rule in action,
    as I rule from Mount Zion, from here to eternity.

“And you stragglers around Jerusalem,
    eking out a living in shantytowns:
The glory that once was will be again.
    Jerusalem’s daughter will be the kingdom center.”

So why the doomsday hysterics?
    You still have a king, don’t you?
But maybe he’s not doing his job
    and you’re panicked like a woman in labor.
Well, go ahead—twist and scream, Daughter Jerusalem.
    You are like a woman in childbirth.
You’ll soon be out of the city, on your way
    and camping in the open country.
And then you’ll arrive in Babylon.
    What you lost in Jerusalem will be found in Babylon.
God will give you new life again.
    He’ll redeem you from your enemies.

But for right now, they’re ganged up against you,
    many godless peoples, saying,
“Kick her when she’s down! Violate her!
    We want to see Zion grovel in the dirt.”
These blasphemers have no idea
    what God is thinking and doing in this.
They don’t know that this is the making of God’s people,
    that they are wheat being threshed, gold being refined.

On your feet, Daughter of Zion! Be threshed of chaff,
    be refined of dross.
I’m remaking you into a people invincible,
    into God’s juggernaut to crush the godless peoples.
You’ll bring their plunder as holy offerings to God,
    their wealth to the Master of the earth.

Yowza. These prophets don’t pussy-foot around, do they? They tell it like it is and like it will be and sometimes, it is hard to read. But here and there, like beautiful bread crumbs, there are phrases, ideas, hope. That was one of the jobs of the prophets, you know — to be harbingers of hope to God’s people in times of devastation and loss. Yes, they also brought plenty of bad news and the despair that accompanies such news. But woven throughout, there are words of life and of promise.

The truth is, we don’t know what God is up to when things are looking bleak. We cannot see the ways in which the painful circumstances of today will be redeemed as gifts tomorrow. And yet that is what happens. . . eventually. We may not live to see that redemption. I frequently need to remind myself that there is a 400+ year gap between the OT prophets and the great good-news-gift of the gospel. There IS a big picture, a very long through line. That’s what we need to grab hold of when times are tough. Look for the seeds. Look for the seeds.

Lord, make me a seed-finder, please? Some days, hanging onto hope is tougher than others. But hope is there. It is always there! Advent waiting reminds us of that powerful truth — so . . . help us to hang on.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Five

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Psalm 79, TLB

O God, your land has been conquered by the heathen nations. Your Temple is defiled, and Jerusalem is a heap of ruins. The bodies of your people lie exposed—food for birds and animals. The enemy has butchered the entire population of Jerusalem; blood has flowed like water. No one is left even to bury them. The nations all around us scoff. They heap contempt on us.

O Jehovah, how long will you be angry with us? Forever? Will your jealousy burn till every hope is gone? Pour out your wrath upon the godless nations—not on us—on kingdoms that refuse to pray, that will not call upon your name! For they have destroyed your people Israel, invading every home. Oh, do not hold us guilty for our former sins! Let your tenderhearted mercies meet our needs, for we are brought low to the dust. Help us, God of our salvation! Help us for the honor of your name. Oh, save us and forgive our sins. Why should the heathen nations be allowed to scoff, “Where is their God?” Publicly avenge this slaughter of your people! Listen to the sighing of the prisoners and those condemned to die. Demonstrate the greatness of your power by saving them. O Lord, take sevenfold vengeance on these nations scorning you.

Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will thank you forever and forever, praising your greatness from generation to generation.

These are hard words to read. As I get older and grow deeper in my own knowledge and experience of God’s goodness, I find these kinds of words increasingly difficult to reconcile with my understanding of who God is and how God operates in this world.

And yet . . . I immediately recognize the emotional turmoil behind them. Those strong feelings of betrayal, of loss, of confusion. We all want to think that because we love God, our lives will be . . . easier? Less marked by grief? And yet. . . every single person that I know can personally testify to the powerful presence of loss and grief and pain in their lives.

So . . . maybe these words are really less about God than they are about us? These wailing words somehow give us permission to rail at God once in a while — to take our angst right to the Source of Life. And then . . . to leave those feelings there, safely held by the God who is good, who is loving, who weeps with us when we suffer, the God who gets it.

Thank you, Lord, that you do get it. Thank you that Jesus came to us, lived among us, suffered as we do, died as we do. Thank you that you are the original empathizer . . . that you have been where we so often find ourselves to be. Help us to lean into you when the hard stuff happens — to know that we are safe with you, all of us is safe with you . . . even those strong, negative emotions. Thank  you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Four, First Sunday of Advent

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1 Corinthians 1:3-9, NRSV

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I gotta tell you — finding these lovely words in the middle of a lot of readings from the prophets is like stumbling over a diamond in the desert. Yes, we need the prophetic voice. Indeed, we do. But . . . we also need these kind words of grace. I want to pray these words over my family, over my friends at church, over my neighbors. I want to pray them over my husband and myself — and over you, too. Not one of us is lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the coming of the Lord. Not one. It is important, of course, to remember that every good gift comes to us ‘from the Father of Lights,’ as John’s epistle reminds us. But. . . they are given to US. God IS faithful, and we have exactly what we need to get us from one end of Advent to the other. And from one end of life to the other, too.

Oh, Lord, help me to remember this powerful truth. Especially on days when I don’t feel well, or when someone is angry at me about something, or when I’m unsure about what might be the next, best thing for me to do. Remind me that I have enough, that I am enough . . . because of you. Thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Three

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Micah 2:1-13, The Message

Doom to those who plot evil,
    who go to bed dreaming up crimes!
As soon as it’s morning,
    they’re off, full of energy, doing what they’ve planned.
They covet fields and grab them,
    find homes and take them.
They bully the neighbor and his family,
    see people only for what they can get out of them.
God has had enough. He says,
    “I have some plans of my own:
Disaster because of this interbreeding evil!
    Your necks are on the line.
You’re not walking away from this.
    It’s doomsday for you.
Mocking ballads will be sung of you,
    and you yourselves will sing the blues:
‘Our lives are ruined,
    our homes and lands auctioned off.
They take everything, leave us nothing!
    All is sold to the highest bidder.’”
And there’ll be no one to stand up for you,
    no one to speak for you before God and his jury.

“Don’t preach,” say the preachers.
    “Don’t preach such stuff.
Nothing bad will happen to us.
    Talk like this to the family of Jacob?
Does God lose his temper?
    Is this the way he acts?
Isn’t he on the side of good people?
    Doesn’t he help those who help themselves?”

“What do you mean, ‘good people’!
    You’re the enemy of my people!
You rob unsuspecting people
    out for an evening stroll.
You take their coats off their backs
    like soldiers who plunder the defenseless.
You drive the women of my people
    out of their ample homes.
You make victims of the children
    and leave them vulnerable to violence and vice.
Get out of here, the lot of you.
    You can’t take it easy here!
You’ve polluted this place,
    and now you’re polluted—ruined!
If someone showed up with a good smile and glib tongue
    and told lies from morning to night—
‘I’ll preach sermons that will tell you
    how you can get anything you want from God:
More money, the best wines . . . you name it’—
    you’d hire him on the spot as your preacher!

“I’m calling a meeting, Jacob.
    I want everyone back—all the survivors of Israel.
I’ll get them together in one place—
    like sheep in a fold, like cattle in a corral—
    a milling throng of homebound people!
Then I, God, will burst all confinements
    and lead them out into the open.
They’ll follow their King.
    I will be out in front leading them.”

Ouch! Micah has little patience for anyone claiming to be a God-person who is not interested in justice for everyone. I like the fact that this reading has been chosen to be a part of our Advent rotation. It’s good for me to remember that not everyone in this world is as materially blessed as I am — and that my own particular set of blessings are not the result of my own ‘good’ behavior, but only of grace and circumstance.

Micah has no patience for prosperity gospel crapola, does he? He refuses to fall into the trap of believing that, “God helps those who help themselves.” No, we are called to help one another. We are called to make space for God to help us — never to ‘go it alone,’ or to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.’ There is a much-needed call in these words to balance our self-care (which is a good and necessary thing) with other-care. And to remember that our God looks on our hearts, sees our true motives, and wants to help guide us into a life of generosity, sensitivity and gracious giving.

Lord, I need help here. Open my eyes to the spaces around me that need my hands, my eyes, my attention. I don’t want to sing the blues because I have failed to ‘do justice’ in my community. Help me, Lord, to respond well to the needs of others, to resist judging anyone, and to own up to the truth that I have far more than I will ever need. Maybe it’s time to share it a little better?

 

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day One

Today is the first day of Advent, Year B in the Common Lectionary. Today, we begin again on our annual travels through the 25 days of waiting leading up to Christmas Day. Before diving into today’s scripture and reflection, I wanted to remind us what is is we do during this season and why we do it. Here are words I wrote in 2011 for the Advent Journey section of this blog.

A daily journey through scripture, prayer, photos, exploring the time of waiting that we call Advent.

Waiting for what? For whom?

Waiting for Jesus.

Yes, we wait for the celebration of the incarnation, the birth of the Baby of Bethlehem. But we also wait for Jesus in other ways, at other times.

We wait for him to show himself, small and mild, in the situations of our daily lives.

We wait for him to show himself, wild and magnificent in the beauties of the world he breathed into existence.

We wait for Jesus to come again, to break the sky with glory and grace and to shout, “The strife is o’er, the battle won!”

These twenty-four days are set aside for us to turn asideto pull away a little bit from the over-commercialization and increasing noise of ‘Christmas’ as it’s celebrated in this crazy culture in which we live.

So for each of these Advent days, including Christmas Day, there will be a brief devotional in this space to remind us that waiting can be a good thing, a centering thing, a hopeful thing.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come.

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Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, NRSV

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
  before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
    the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

And so, we begin again. Today is the start of a new year on the Christian calendar, did you know that? Advent marks the beginning, every single year. Twenty-five days set aside to reflect on what it means to wait with expectancy and with hope. I think that’s a great place to begin again, don’t you? So you are invited to step into . . . waiting. And as we take that step, the words of the psalmist seem appropriate: “Let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

It is a very good thing to remember that we need saving. We are creatures who struggle, whether we like it or not! Life is rich, wonderful, blessed — but also, difficult, dangerous and exhausting. Finding our way through the thicket is tough work, work that requires a little help along the way, especially when the ‘bread of tears’ is choking us and looking very far into the future feels bleak and overwhelming. 

So, open your heart to the shepherd as we step out into Advent once again. Let the comforting steadiness of God’s presence guide you along the path that leads to Christmas Day. Remember that we have a Savior, and that he is good.

Lord Jesus Christ, our Shepherd, hear us when we pray1 Help us to step in synch with you as we begin this journey again in 2017. For we need saving, we surely do. From circumstances we cannot control, from people who wish us harm, from the most dangerous enemies we know — those voices of condemnation and anxiety that live right inside our heads. Deliver us, O Lord. “Let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Wretchedly Familiar: When Life Feels Unfair — SheLoves, November 2017

Have you ever had a really bad day, or an even worse week? How about a terrible month? Try multiple months? Yeah. That’s kinda like where I’ve been this year. So I did some reflecting on that over at SheLoves this month. The theme this month? “Return.” Please come on over and join us!

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Wasn’t it just two months ago that I wrote about lament in this space? I checked, friends, and yes, it was. In September. Today, I find myself needing to return to those songs-in-a-minor-key for a while longer. October’s theme opened my sad heart to a season of rejoicing, for remembering all of the gracious things in my life for which I can joyfully and loudly thank God.

But at this moment in time, as I sit down to write for November, I find the syllables of lament are oh-so-necessary. I am returning to the language that lets me enter my own sadness, that gives me permission to fully experience the pain of this moment on the journey that is my life.

One month ago yesterday, an ER doc told me that I had blood clots in both lungs and that one of them had caused an ‘infarct,’ which means tissue death (!!), thus causing the sudden, severe back pain of the previous 30 hours. He sent me home that evening with a new blood thinning medication, to be taken twice a day for the next month. I was also told to visit a long list of specialists, including the hematologist who had been working with me for the last seven years. He would prescribe a new drug at a new dosage to try and prevent this from happening again.

Because, you see, it had already happened once. Which is exactly why this particular ‘returning’ was not on my bucket list. The first event in 2010 put me on the only blood thinner available back then – Coumadin, a drug difficult to manage and which complicated my life for five years. In 2015, I managed to tear a muscle in my abdomen, causing significant internal bleeding and sending me to the hospital for two days. At that point, they reversed the effects of the Coumadin and took me off blood thinning meds, hopefully forever. Hooray!

Now, I am back on them — this time, for good. There are newer versions today, easier to manage, but not without risk. That is sobering. I am seeing a long list of specialists to rule out any other kind of damage to heart or kidneys and must take it easy for another couple of months. And all of it feels so wretchedly familiar. I did not want this to happen again, but . . . it has.

So now, what do I do about this particular ‘return’ in my life? Part of me wants to put on my big-girl pants and suck it up. That’s my go-to, life-long pattern. It feels familiar and even a little comforting. But the reality is, I am now seven years older than I was the last time this happened. And I’m in a season of grief and loss. SEVEN people close to me have died since my mom’s death in April. Two others (three, if I include myself) have received difficult medical news, all involving ongoing treatment, one with a terminal diagnosis, most likely in the next few years.

I feel inundated by sadness, overwhelmed by all the pain in the world at large and in my circle of family and friends in particular. And far more than action, or even re-action, I find that what I need is . . .

Click right here to discover what is helping in this season . . .

Making Room for Lament: SheLoves — September 2017

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In the months from April to August of this year, we have attended five funerals and sent a eulogy to be read at a sixth. These were services of worship and remembrance, held in honor of people we loved, people whose lives intersected with ours regularly, even when those lives were very short.

It began with my mom’s death on the 19th of April after a 7-year journey through dementia. At the end of May, we dealt with the shock of an accidental drowning — a 2-year-old grandson in our extended congregational family. That death was followed about five weeks later by the loss of a dear woman friend and leader in our community. She died only 7 months after an abrupt diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

The week we came back from vacation in early August, we attended an emotional farewell for a dear 8-year-old boy who was born with only half a heart, and whose life had a lasting impact on our entire city. At the end of that same week, we listened to parts of a life story we had never heard, as we said good-bye to a faithful woman in our congregation who passed away at the age of 105. In the middle of last month, I received news of the anticipated death of a former colleague and partner in ministry who had a heart attack and a brain bleed while in the physical therapist’s clinic. We traveled 100 miles south to be there for his stunned widow and adult children.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the most self-descriptive word I can come up with these days is, ‘weary.’ Although I ‘do not grieve as those who have no hope,’ I grieve nonetheless. I don’t think I have begun to fully internalize all the facets of my mom’s death, what it means to be an orphan in this world. That truth tells me that there is even less space inside to grieve well for each of the other losses which have left such huge holes in our lives.

So the words I want to amplify in this particular season are the beautiful and necessary words of lament. Those words that speak the pain in us out into the atmosphere, those words that call us to be fully human, acknowledging that it sometimes hurts to be alive when others are no longer breathing beside us. I want to make space inside — and outside — for the tears that bring healing, tears that tell stories, tears that say, “I loved them and I can no longer whisper that truth into their ears.”

So let me say this as loudly and as clearly as written space in an e-magazine will allow: lament is required when we walk through the valley. Imagine that I am using my big-girl, outdoor voice when you read those words, will you? Because this is important: there is no such thing as loss without pain and suffering. The bromides and clichés that are too often bandied about at such times are less than useless. In fact, they can be harmful. People do not want to hear about “God’s plan” when they are in shock, when they are completely exhausted and empty, when they don’t know how they are going to get through the next hour, much less the next year. . . 

Please click here to read the remainder of this reflection and to join the conversation at one of the finest magazines on the interweb.

The Land of Tears — SheLoves, June 2017

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            From The Little Prince: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
                                                                     — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This land is a place I’ve visited many times over my life, a strange and secret country, indeed.

I could say it feels familiar, except that it doesn’t. Not quite. Each visit is unique, bringing its own sadness, regret, emptiness, and eventually, fullness and replenishment as I wend my way back to the familiar terra firma of ‘regular’ life, whatever the heck that is.

After a winding journey of several years, my mama died from Alzheimer’s disease in April of this year. There have been tears all along the highway of this Thief of Time and Remembering, of course. Oodles of them. But none quite like the ones that spilled that Wednesday afternoon in April, standing by her hospital bed. I saw her leave us — an open-eyed gaze, two loud gasps, followed by the strangest silence I’ve ever experienced. I will be forever grateful that I was able to say good-bye . . . thank you . . . I love you.

Or the tears that sprang to my cheeks as I drove out of a doctor’s parking lot one week later, remembering how I have always planned my medical appointments around mom’s schedule these last few years, and wishing fiercely that she could be next to me in my car just one more time. I know there are many tears that have not yet worked their way into the air that surrounds me, tears I carry in this body, waiting behind my eyelids, behind my heart. Each one, shed or yet to be, remind me that grief is a land of secrets, of strange and sudden surprise.

I understand that losing my last parent at the age of 72 is a rare thing. I am grateful for that truth, grateful for her long life, and for my own, glad that we could be together more closely these last few years. Nevertheless, this feeling of loss is real. It winds its tendrils around me in ways that surprise and perplex me, showing up in simple things — like driving down a particular street or watching a television series we used to enjoy together. It stings when I see the bags of clothing waiting for the Goodwill truck or when I pick up a photograph. Though I’ve been here before, this trip feels particularly treacherous and very, very lonely.

We held her memorial service a full month after her death. It was a lovely afternoon, full of memories, scripture, and sweet, old songs. There were digitized home movies, good Mexican food in our backyard after the service, and lots and lots of shared stories. She would have loved every minute of it. In fact, I’m quite sure she did.

The next morning, life moved on. It was time to be ‘the pastor’ for a while, six years into retirement. I led in worship, preached a charge to our fine new confirmand, then went home and collapsed, eager for some space to weep and rest.

But it was not to be. Why?

To find out why it was not to be, please click on this link and read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today. Join the conversation!