The Truest Advent

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I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twelve

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Psalm 146:5-10
Ruth 1:6-18
2 Peter 3:1-10

Ruth 1:6-18

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Oh my goodness, how I love these words! I love this story. I love these characters. There are lots of reasons for my abiding love for the story of Ruth — there is the obvious one — my mother’s name and my middle name match the title of this book. It’s a story about women, and those are few and far between, especially in the Old Testament. It’s a story about family commitment on many levels, Naomi and Ruth to one another, Boaz to Ruth and Ruth to Boaz. And it’s a story with a beautiful, fulfilling ending after a painful beginning.

Most of all, however, I love this story because I believe it’s given to us as a picture of God’s immense loyalty and love for his human family. And the character of God is female — who knew?? The character traits exhibited by Ruth throughout this tale are ones that the Old Testament frequently uses to describe the character of God. Chesed,  faithfulness/loving-kindness/loyalty. Ruth has that in spades. 

And these particular words are famous anywhere the Bible is read. I suppose they are most often used in wedding ceremonies, which is a little bit odd, when you come to think about it. After all, they were spoken by one woman to another, by one generation to another, by one homeless wayfarer to another. There is nothing traditionally romantic about them at all. They are fierce words, aren’t they? They show grit, determination, conviction and commitment. Maybe that’s why they show up in weddings, eh? The whole idea of commitment over a lifetime is in exceedingly short supply these days. Maybe it’s time to dust them off and use them in as many settings as we can think of! What do you think?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Ten

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Psalm 21
Isaiah 41:14-20
Romans 15:14-21

Isaiah 41:14-20

Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
you insect Israel!
I will help you, says the Lord;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
Now, I will make of you a threshing sledge,
sharp, new, and having teeth;
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
and you shall make the hills like chaff.
You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away,
and the tempest shall scatter them.
Then you shall rejoice in the Lord;
in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.

When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
the plane and the pine together,
so that all may see and know,
all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.

I gotta say, the pickins for today are SLIM. At least at first read-through. But then I read through the prophet one more time and was immediately struck by all the water imagery in the second verse up there. Look at that magnificent word picture, will you?

When the ‘poor and needy’ need water, where must they go to find it? To God alone, that’s where. And though many of us are far from poor economically, we are all poor in spirit, poor in resources, poor in faith, poor in trust. And God promises not to forsake us in our thirstiness. Water will appear in unexpected places — on the ‘bare heights,’ in the ‘midst of valleys,’ in the wilderness, there will be pools, and in the dry land, springs will appear. God alone will put in trees, a wide variety of shade and even fruit bearing green things for our comfort, enjoyment, nourishment. The needs of our senses will be met, as well as our spirits. These trees are even sweet-smelling! 

And God will do this as a sign — a sign to the wider world of God’s activity in that world, of God’s provision for your deepest and most basic needs. A sign of hope.

I could use a little of that just now. What about you?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Nine

Today’s post is a little bit different. I offered the prayer of consecration and supplication in  yesterday’s worship service and am posting that prayer here. It comes out of the same set of readings we looked at yesterday and seemed an appropriate way to launch into this third week of Advent. We will be back on schedule with our daily readings/reflections tomorrow.

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An Advent Prayer

2nd Sunday, December 4, 2016

Montecito Covenant Church

It’s the Sunday of peace, Lord, and we gather now around your table
to remember how you chose to come to us,
as one of us,
to be our peace.

Yes, it is your death we remember
as we gather round today.
When we come to this table, we remember your sacrifice on our behalf,
and we thank you, with our whole hearts.

But on this particular Sunday of the year,
we also remember your life among us,
as one of us, and we remember it from that very first moment
when your mother heard 
a special word from your Father,
from our Father.
And oh, we thank you for that, too, with our whole hearts.

We also must admit that some of these hearts of ours
feel far from peaceful this morning, Lord.

Some of us are grieving the loss of a person we love very much;
some of us feel utterly exhausted — by school, by life, by illness;
some of us are worried about people we love; some of us are frightened about
something we ourselves are facing into right now.

In this moment of silence, we lift those concerns before you now.

— SILENCE —

And now, as we gaze on this bread,
as we consider this cup,
will you help us to remember
that this ordinary, torn-up loaf
and this common purple liquid
become something more, 
for us and in us, on this day.

We offer these simple things to you now,
and ask you to bless them, to set them apart,
and to make them uniquely beneficial to us, in body and in spirit.
May they become emblems of your love,
and strong, clear symbols of your Peace.

Even as Gabriel spoke to Mary those strange and wonderful words of invitation,
may you speak to us through
this time at the table.
Help us to hear you,
help us to be open to whatever invitation you are extending to us,
both individually and communally,
and help us to say a resounding,
“YES — let it be to us according to your word!”

And then, Lord, as we gather our belongings and turn to head out the back door into the sunlight and the friendly chatter of the patio, will you help us to remember that there are “Elizabeths” all around us today — male, female, young, old — all sorts of folks who have in some way or another experienced the reality that for you, “nothing is impossible.”

Give us eyes to see and ears to hear
the miracle stories that are all around us.
No, not all of those stories have what we might label a ‘happy ending’ —
Mary’s story wasn’t exactly all sweetness and light, was it?

But all of us who have walked with you for a little while or for a lifetime —
all of us know
that your faithfulness can be trusted,
that your goodness is unassailable,
that your peace is ever and always available,
even when the tough stuff happens.

Help us to live those truths, those stories, out loud, Lord.
Help us to be encouragers in all our interactions with one another
and within the larger communities
where we live and work.
Help us, dear Lord,

to seek peace and to live it.
For Jesus’ sake.

Amen.

 

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Eight

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2nd Sunday of Advent Readings:
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Romans 15:4-13

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I love it when Paul pulls the threads together like this! He digs into the scriptures he knows and loves and he builds a beautiful argument for the work God has given him to do: evangelize the Gentiles. Read that first line over a few times and sit with it for a bit.

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”

Exactly. Our scripture is written down for our instruction and encouragement so that we might have HOPE. These words of ours are never meant to be used as weapons, threat, or excuse. They are designed for our good — to teach us, to encourage us and to inculcate hope within us. And Paul takes those words — which he had previously used as weapons and threat and excuse for his inexcusable and hateful behavior — and because of his encounter with the risen Christ, he learns to handle them with loving care, prayerful attention and a listening heart.

And voila! He discovers the truth that he longs for and that he now lives: the Gentiles are included in God’s mercy and plan. Think about that for a minute. The same one who was hell-bent on destroying all the followers of The Way, the same one who stood collecting the coats of those who were stoning Stephen to death, the same one now sees something entirely different in the scriptures of his youth. 

As we grow in our faith and in our understanding of the heart of God, we, too, will discover things we never knew were there. Maybe even things that are exactly the opposite of what we had always supposed to be there. Maybe even things that will turn the world upside down.

Which is exactly what happened to our friend and mentor, Paul. Exactly.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Three

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Psalm 124
Genesis 9:1-17
Hebrews 11:32-40

As I gathered together this year’s readings for Advent, I noticed that there are several about covenants, those special ‘agreements’ God made with people that are scattered throughout the Old Testament and then grandly fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. Today’s Genesis reading contains the agreement God made with Noah, once he and his family were released from their long siege of forced isolation on that strange boat.

Covenant agreements are always initiated by God and overflow with God’s promise of presence and blessing. But this one is unique. Why? Because God very deliberately makes promises not only to Noah and his family, but to all of creation:

“I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

The rainbow is set in the sky as a reminder to God to keep those promises, and three more times, God repeats this phrase: “my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” THREE times. Do you think maybe it might be important?

ALL creatures matter to God. Isn’t that remarkable? We humans so easily place our species at the center of everything, don’t we? Yet in this Old Testament covenant, God intentionally includes all the things on earth that breathe. And if God values these creatures, maybe we should too? I think a biblically mandated argument for conservation and environmental protection can be made from passages like this one. What do you think?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey – 2016 — Day Two

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Psalm 124
Genesis 8:1-19
Romans 6:1-11

For a whole lotta years, I collected Noah’s Ark memorabilia. Friends and family gave me a wild variety of artifacts and collectibles: wall hangings, stitcheries, figurines, greeting cards, even an adorable waste basket. And all of it decorated my offices at both of the churches where I served on the pastoral staff.

And then one week, I drew the straw to preach on that text in Genesis — and I was overwhelmed by the terror of it all. All of my cute things no longer seemed quite so cute. Yes, I kept a few, and use them now in my home office. I had too many sentimental attachments for me to divest fully. But these days, I don’t feel the same way about that story at all. This is not really a story for children, is it? It is a story about the horrors of sin and the darkness of evil, when human beings make choice after choice to invite that evil into their hearts and then live out of darkness rather than light. And it’s about God’s exhaustion with all of us, about God’s disappointment with his creatures.

Ouch.

Thankfully, it is also a story of redemption, rebirth, and promises kept. It is also a story about God’s bow in the sky. It is also a precursor for the ultimate story of redemption that our season of Advent marks out for us. It serves as a pointer to Jesus, a reminder from pre-historic times that God seeks us out, that God welcomes us to begin again, that God wishes for us to flourish.

That’s the part we need to tell our children, right?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 – Day One

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Our bodies still groaning from exorbitant amounts of delicious food spread generously across our tables during the biggest holiday of the fall season, today’s move into Advent feels abrupt and vaguely out of focus.

Nevertheless, the time is now.

Now is the time to prepare for his coming.

Now is the time to begin the long wait.

Now is the time to light the candle, to sing the old, sweet songs, to read from the prophets and the gospels, to pick up the subtlest hint of evergreen in the air.

Now is the time to make space for the longing, to seek the ‘desire of the nations,’ to turn our eyes and our hearts toward Bethlehem, towards the truest home we can ever know this side of heaven.

Are you ready?

Welcome to Advent!

A Legacy — SheLoves, November 2016

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She fell down yesterday. No one saw it happen, but when she winced while they were getting her dressed, they spotted the fresh bruising, all down her flank. What happened? everyone wondered.

Who knows?

I was in telephone contact with the nurse and the staff and in text contact with my son the MD. Yes, she can bear weight. No, she was never unconscious. No, the doctor has not returned our FAX.

And so we waited it out. And I had to make some hard choices during that long night. If she broke something, would I authorize surgical treatment? No, I decided. I would not. At age 95, with only fitful eyesight, hearing and balance, and no working memory, surgery would wreak havoc with her diminishing brain cells and would not improve either the length or the quality of her life.

So I decided. And I wept.

And then today, when I went to see her, to assure myself that nothing had been broken, I carefully hugged and kissed her and said, “Oh, Mama, I am so sorry you fell down!”

“I did?” she asked, with an extremely puzzled look on her lovely face. “I have no memory of that happening.”

She was right. She has no memory. Of anything.

BUT I DO.

I remember — and still see —

I’m up earlier than usual over at SheLoves this month. Come over and read more of the memories I try to carry for my mother, why she is the one I consider my ‘legacy’ champion.

This Broken Life

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It began with a glorious sunrise, pinks and purples spreading across the landscape, a low layer of fog sitting right over the city below us. We moved to this home, this new-to-us-home, because as we gazed out at the future, we began to see . . . brokenness, the brokenness that comes to each of us as we age, as we wend our way through space and time. The great gift that landed in our laps when we chose to step into rather than avoid that inevitable kind of broken is this: this view of mountain and sea, of city and sidewalk, of sky, sky, sky.

A few hours later, the glory of early morning gave way to a sweet, crisp clarity at midday. I slipped behind the steering wheel and drove down the hill to my mama’s ‘home,’ that room-with-a-bath in the dementia unit, the only home she has had for the past four years. “I’ll take her down to the beach today,” I said aloud, to the closed chamber of my Honda CR-V, maybe saying it to God, as well. “She’ll love that.” 

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Mama and I have been living in the middle of a whole lot of broken for a long time now, the kind of broken that cannot be mended, this side of heaven. Our twice-weekly lunches out make her smile and because she cannot remember anything further back than the last two minutes, each trip is brand new to her, and therefore, quite wonderful. 

The conversational themes for this particular outing are a trio of repeated questions: “How did you come to find me and take me out today?” “How long has this place been here?” “Do you live near here somewhere?”

I pray for patience as I answer each query, over and over and over again. “I found you because I know you, because you are my mother and I love you.” “This town has been built over the last 250 years of so, Mama.” “Yes, Mom, I do live near here. Just a little ways up that hill.”

She is surprised, as she always is, that I am her daughter, that I have always known her. On this day, she does not turn to me with that anguished look and ask, “What is wrong with me, that I don’t know that??” This day, I don’t have to carefully tell her that her memory is broken and cannot be fixed. This day, I don’t have to see the sweet relief flash quickly over her face when she takes in the truth that something really is broken, broken beyond repair.

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There is a table available, right on the concrete that abuts the sand at Leadbetter Beach; I carefully steer her walker towards it, pulling out the plastic chair, being careful to seat her exactly right and then pushing her safely beneath the table. She spreads her hands out in front of her, crying out: “Oh, lovely, lovely! The sun is so warm! I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for bringing me!”

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And just like that, the broken fades away for a moment and I can drink in her delight. Ann Voskamp, in her beautiful new book, “The Broken Way: a daring path into the abundant life,” talks about, “losing the day in love,” and finding a way to “break brokenness” by letting it fully come. 

Slowly, slowly, I am learning to let the brokenness of aging come. I see it in my mother, I see it in my husband, I see it in myself. And I am asking the kinds of questions that Ann asks: 

“Why are we afraid of broken things? . . . Why are we afraid of suffering? What if the abundance of communion is only found there in the brokenness of suffering — because suffering is where God lives? . . .What if I made a habit of every day pressing my wounds into the wounds of Christ — could my brokenness be made into a healing abundance for the brokenness of the world?” – pg. 34

I do not want to be afraid of aging, I do not want to be afraid of dying, I do not want to be afraid of the brokenness that is part and parcel of who we are as human creatures. I want to learn more about embracing the broken bits, about discerning the differences that Ann references between ‘good’ broken and ‘bad’ broken; I want to live into my identity as the Beloved for as long as I breathe. And then I want to celebrate the goodness of God in that place where every bit of our brokenness will be redeemed, transformed, burnished to a high gleam and offered as a gift of gratitude to our Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer — Father, Son, Spirit.

Mom and I enjoyed our lunch, even though, as soon as she withdrew her hands from the warm sunlight in the center of the table, she became vividly aware that the breeze was cool. At least three times she asked me if the visor I was wearing was helping me to stay warm by blocking that breeze. Three times, I tried to explain that a sun visor only works against the sun, not the wind. Finally, I took the visor off of my head and put it onto her lovely one. And she relaxed, convinced that now she would be warm enough.

On the way back to her unit, she began to sing, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Most of the time, I join with her as she sings in the car. But this time, I listened. And I thanked God that broken as she is, my mother knows who she is. She no longer knows her own name, nor any of the details of her story. But she knows who she is — she is a friend of Jesus.

And there is nothing broken about that. Not one thing.

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I received an Advanced copy of Ann Voskamp’s book in exchange for writing about it and featuring it on social media. It is my joy and privilege to invite you to read this book for yourself, to take your time with it, to read with a pen in hand and with fingers ready to turn down a page here and there. This one is a keeper.