My Mom – A Woman of Valor: Guest Post at RHE

I am undone at the news of Rachel Held Evan’s death in the early hours of the morning today. Rachel was one of the bravest, smartest, kindest women I’ve ever ‘met’ on the internet — gracious, perceptive, open, gentle-yet-firm, good to the core. Her honest questions and brilliant answers have helped more lost people to find their way back to Jesus than almost anyone I could name. She leave a remarkable and supportive husband and two very small children — and more than any death in recent memory, this one leaves me filled with questions. In 2012, when blogging was at its peak, she ran a long series on her blog called “Women of Valor.”  A long and varied list of contributors was invited to contribute a piece and I was one of those blessed people. So, in her honor, I am re-posting this from December, 2012. You can follow the links over to Rachel’s remarkable space and read a tribute to my mom — one of two I submitted and the one she much preferred! Rachel was a mensch and a true, true, TRUE Woman of Valor. Eshet chayil!
My beautiful mom, picture taken by my sister-in-law, Sandy Gold, on Thanksgiving this year.
 

It is my honor to be posting in Rachel Held Evans’ series on Women of Valor today. Last month, I told you I would give you a link to this essay when it came up today, and I will do that in just a moment. 

I submitted two essays to Rachel about mom – one outlined her wonderful life with a list of facts and tidbits. The second, which you will find if you click on this sentence came pouring out of me after I had submitted the first one. This is the one I believe the Holy Spirit wrote in me and it tells more than facts, it tells truth in so much love. I love my mom more than I can even begin to put into words – she has been an anchor in my life for all of these nearly 68 years. So watching her fade into this fog has been agonizing on many, many levels. But she is THERE still and some part of her always will be. And all of who she is, her story, her present, her future — all of it is held safely and lovingly by the Shepherd she has followed since she was a teenager. Thanks be to God.

I invite you to read more at Rachel’s place today. Thanks so much.

P.S. I was wrong! This is not the last essay in the series. It will continue until year’s end. Such a wonderful list of valorous women!!

Being Placemakers — A Book Review

Christie Purifoy’s GORGEOUS new book is an absolute must-read.
It is now on my husband’s stack.

Christie Purifoy’s new book, “Placemaker, Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty and Peace,” is — hands down — the most beautiful book I have read in a long, long time. As I read, I was reminded of so many favorites from my past reading life — Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw, Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor, Walter Wangerin to name a few. She skillfully and creatively takes the stuff of everyday life and weaves from her own story, from the books she reads, and from the places she has lived, a gorgeous tapestry of discovery, commitment, serendipity and joy. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Placemaker” takes us on a journey. It’s not necessarily a straight ahead trek, but then is anything worth doing straight ahead? She uses trees, gardens, family anguish, wilderness wanderings, joyous homecomings, showing us her own deepening sense of what it means to be home.

Is there any more glorious word in the English language than that one? It’s what we all long for, reach for, sometimes touch and, if we’re really lucky, occasionally find. And home is multifaceted, involving places and things — buildings and gardens, brick and mortar, dirt and compost; it involves stories — including history and personalities from the past, the literal and figurative meaning of very particular trees in very particular places; and, of course, it also involves all kinds of people — spouses and children, siblings and neighbors, friends nearby and far away.

Our current small home on the Mesa, overlooking the entire city of Santa Barbara and the mountains behind, with a tiny peek at the harbor way off to the right. It’s part of a tract of homes built in 1950 and sits at the top of a hill, just off one of the main drags of this town that connects mountains and ocean. It has been a good growing-old-together space.

As I read about all the homes Christie and her husband have made over the years of their marriage, I couldn’t help but think about the ones Dick and I have made over our many years together, a few of which are featured in this post. Subscribers to my monthly newsletter have already seen some of these, but as I continue to respond to Christie’s lovely storytelling in this place, it seemed ‘right and good’ to lace my own stories into the mix.

The gift God gave us when we made a major move 120 miles north in our 50s for me to take a pastoral job. Four months without a home base, eleven months to sell our home in Altadena and then this glorious spot for retreating and entertaining — a ranch style built in 1960. Our son and his family have enjoyed it — and renovated it a bit — since we downsized almost four years ago. We lived here for 18 years and worked with a friend who was an architect to make significant changes.

I found myself in tears at several points during this read — good tears — tears of recognition and gratitude and remembering. She writes lyrically about things like beauty, longing, the importance of limits, the role of dead and dying things to the ongoing life of the planet, the necessity of wilderness experiences, the different values found in moving from place to place and staying put in one, letting our roots sink deeply into the soil of a particular kind of life.

A formal Mediterranean style built in the 1920’s — the largest of our 3 homes in Altadena — and, in some ways, my least favorite. BUT it was the place from which seminary was launched and completed for me, our son graduated from both high school and college and our two younger children’s significant others made great use of the guest room, living with us anywhere from a summer to a semester. We were there for 8 years.

A recurring thread through all of this lovely story-telling is Christie’s growing hunger for and acquisition of very specific kinds of knowledge. She learns about trees — what’s indigenous to where, and who planted and cared for them over the years. And she learns about cooking, gardening, planting seeds — both literal and figurative — in every new place. She shares her knowledge with us, telling us about beautiful public gardens, about people from the past who made the present as lovely as it is by planting and tending those gardens. What a gift to be educated as well as enthralled, instructed as well as lovingly entertained.

The heart of our family story, built in the early 1930’s — 13 years here, until our eldest daughter was married, our second girl off to college and we were down from five to three,
with our son still in high school.

Always, this knowledge is used in service of placemaking — of intentionally cultivating beauty and hospitality everywhere the growing Purifoy family lives. Spiraling through all that intentionality, readers are privileged to see an exquisite mix of sorrow and joy, gain and loss, settledness and restlessness, peace and struggle.

Placemaking, it seems, is never easy, but it is always, always good.

Get your own copy just as quickly as you can. You will not be sorry.

The first home we owned, not the first one we made — 1940’s tract home in Altadena CA. Arrived in 1970 with a 2 year old and a newborn, left in 1975 with 3 kids, ages 3, 5, 7.

A Re-Post in My Birthday Month

Nearly fifty years ago, I was a stay-at-home housewife with three children under the age of five, wildly in love with my kids but often overwhelmed by fatigue and feelings of failure.

Forty years ago, I had three teenagers, served as an active volunteer in church and community, loved entertaining large groups of people in our home and was oblivious to the truth that this good, rich time of my life was rushing by me.

Just under thirty years ago, I walked across the stage to pick up my master of divinity degree from Fuller Seminary after four years of study, all that studying done while managing a small floral business in my home, watching each of my children move into committed relationships and becoming a first-time grandparent.

Fourteen years ago, I was nearing the midway point of my pastoral life here in Santa Barbara, discovering the harsh reality of death in our family circle for the first time, trying to balance (what is that, anyhow?) home and church, family and congregation.

Today, right now, I am retired from parish work; I offer spiritual direction from my home; I write very occasionally on my blog, and a few other places on the internet and in print; I have children older than most of the people I meet with or write with; I am married to a man I love deeply, a man who stays home most of the day because he, too, is retired; I am now without parents, a truly motherless child; and I am Nana to eight grands, two of whom are on their own, working and in committed relationships, two of whom are college students, none of whom are babies, in any sense of the word. And one is getting married in the spring. Good grief.

And at this moment, on a chilly California afternoon, I am reading this list and wondering . . . who do I want to be going forward?

If I am blessed by continuing good health and even the moderate level of agility which I currently enjoy, I may live another ten or twenty, maybe even twenty-five years at the most.

What will these years look like when I stand there, in the future, and look back at now?

What do I hope for, dream about, pray for, purpose in my heart to do — or maybe more importantly — to be during how ever many years remain?

Here, in no particular order of importance, are the things that rise to the top as I ponder that question.

I want to laugh, a lot, even if it gets raucous and unseemly.

I want to cry easily and regularly, most especially when I’m with someone who is suffering, when I see someone dear to me, when I remember love.

I want to pray more with my body — with my hands and my feet, with my heart and my soul — and a whole lot less with my head and my mouth and my words.

I want to sing — even though this old alto quavers and cuts out from time to time — I want to sing, sing, sing, in harmony, out loud, and often.

I want to move — to sway with freedom, to dance with my grandgirls, to walk on the beach, to stand up and cheer for the next wave of women and men whom God will raise up to lead and to love.

I want to love my husband well as we move together into whatever comes next. We’ve been through some scary crises, the two of us, we’ve watched people we love suffer terribly and we’ve had a few major health issues ourselves. But now, right now, and for the foreseeable future, we’re good. Often tired, getting older by the minute, but good. I want to enjoy the good for as long as we’ve got it.

I want to encourage my children and my grandchildren to be and become women and men of faith and fortitude, of love and loyalty, of commitment and concern — for themselves, one another and others. I want to do this without words as often as is humanly possible.

I want to slowly and carefully divest myself of much of the ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated over these years — not all of it, I love my stuff a lot. But I want to be more concerned about the inside than the outside, more generous than acquisitive, more open and less protected and protective.

I want to keep on learning — about myself, and how I’m wired, about this world, all its gifts and its flaws, about people and how they work, about life and how rich it is, about God and the mysteries of our faith.

I want to send roots deep into the beauty of life, to stand in slack-jawed joy at the wonder of it all.

I want to be brave and kind and encouraging.

I want to admit my flaws, own up to the messiness, look in the mirror without hesitation, and tell the ugly voices within to shut the hell up — because that’s exactly where they come from.

I want to raise my hands to heaven with gratitude at least a hundred times as often as I raise my fists in frustration.

I want to lean into the future with anticipation, come what may. I want to own my wrinkles and my cellulite, to celebrate the long life that has thinned my hair and thickened my waistline, to embrace the inevitable losses because of the inestimable gains.

I want to stand there when I’m 80 or 85 or 90 (really???) and look back at 74 and say: That was a great decade, wasn’t it?

I want to live until I leave. Every minute, every heartbeat, every breath — a gift.

This post originally appeared at the lovely site of A Deeper Story/Family 5  years ago. It seemed time to take it out, change the numbers around a bit and re-commit to what I said then. Because I still believe it, I still want to live this  life as fully as I can for as long as I can. How’s about you??

A Living Hope — Remembering Lucille Peterson Johnston

I had the privilege of giving the homily and pastoral prayer at the Witness to the Resurrection Service for one of my dearest friends, amazing Lucille.  A mentor to me for 43 years, she lived a full, rich life, fully using her gifts of leadership, hospitality, generosity, inclusion, encouragement, creativity and joie de vivre. I thank God for her. I am posting this short piece here for anyone who loved her and was unable to travel to Santa Barbara today for the service. I wish I could give you the entire time — the memories, the singing, the piano music, the laughter. Maybe this will give you a tiny piece of the whole.


They’re all gone now — all of my mothers. My own mom, the one who birthed and raised me, died last year at the age of 95. My husband’s mom, the one who welcomed and included me, died in 2014 at the age of 98.

And Lucille, the mom who mentored me, who saw gifts in me I didn’t see in myself; the one who challenged me to begin the slow, steady work of becoming a pastor — now she is gone, too, at the amazing age of 102.

And I feel each loss profoundly.There are no substitutes for any of these remarkable women. None. Each one was a gift of God in my life — planting seeds, modeling courage, living a life of faith and faithfulness, fully and well.

So I join with Cindy and Curt and Jim and their families in grieving today. There is a huge hole in the universe that opened last weekend, one that will never be filled in exactly the same way. And it’s important to say so, to acknowledge and make room for the tears, to pause and let it sink in that someone with a larger-than-life presence is no longer touchable, no longer filling that unique and particular space in our lives and hearts. And that is painful.

But here is something else that is true, perhaps even more true than the pain: even in death, we have a living hope. That is why, as I stand here and you sit there, we can all link arms and give testimony to this truth:

          our gratitude is wider, deeper and greater than our grief.

And if Lucille were here with us, I’d offer to help her design a needlepoint purse that says exactly that!

            Our gratitude is greater than our grief.

All week long, I have been overwhelmed with the depth of my gratitude — to God for the gift of this woman in my life, to Lucille, for being who she was, and to all of you for sharing her so generously with all of us. There is no one like her — never has been, never will be.

Now we all know, she wasn’t perfect. Not one of us is. But I gotta say this — she came really, really close, didn’t she? She had strong opinions and she shared them. She liked to be in charge and she was scarily good at it. She never garnered a long list of degrees after her name, but her intelligence was through the roof. And she adored her family — every single member of her family — the ones she bore and the ones some of them married, and the kids they bore and the kids they married, and now the kids the kids had!

And then, there were all those cousins and aunts, her amazing sisters, the two remarkable husbands and an entire step-family. All of you were shining stars in her universe and I hope you know that, way down deep inside you. Because to be loved by Lucille Peterson Johnston — that is a rich gift, one with lasting impact and importance, one that changes you from the inside out.

In the midst of my own remembering, and on the rising tide of my gratitude, I’ve reflected on why that last point is true. Why is it that the love of a person like Lucille has the power to change us?

I think it’s this: Lucille was the embodiment of what it means to live firmly situated in the ‘living hope’ that Peter talks about in the first chapter of his first epistle. Lucille walked the talk. She knew God, up close and personally. She radiated energy and life and hope, which, if you think about it, is a pretty risky thing to do. Because when we allow ourselves to hope, we open ourselves to the strong possibility — maybe even the likelihood — of massive disappointment. Sometimes, living in hope can feel tenuous, uncertain, even frightening.

But here’s the thing about the kind of hope that Peter is talking about here, — this living hope is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, “oh, I hope, I hope, I hope I get what I want” kinda deal. No. Peter’s kind of hope — God’s kind of hope, Lucille’s kind of hope — is alive — it has wings and a beating heart and it can move us to do remarkable and world-changing things.

“By his great mercy,” Peter wrote to the church, “God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (NRSV)

It begins with the mercy of God, and it continues through a life lived in hope, and is brought to completion when we reach the moment of our inheritance. And that is where our dear Lucille is right now, friends. She is experiencing the completion of the living hope that was her life on planet earth. She is enjoying the company of God in ways we can only imagine, and she is surrounded by nothing but love. Nothing.

Harold and Roy are there, of course. And her mom, whom she moved across the country to care for so many years ago. And sweet Drake, who left us way too soon. And her sisters, Doris and Betty, and so many friends, too many to count. And before we know it, we will be there, too — some of us sooner than others.

But between now and then, we have work to do, don’t we? We have the remarkable task of carrying on her legacy, of letting that living hope empower us to be the truest, fullest, richest persons we can be. Because here’s the wonderful truth — Lucille knew herself. She knew who she was, what her gifts were, whom she loved. And she was the very best Lucille she could be, wasn’t she?

That’s what the mercy of God can do, you see. That’s what living in hope births in us — a growing awareness of who God is, yes, indeed. But also a growing awareness of who WE are, and a deepening desire to live these lives we’ve been given fully aware and fully awake.

So thank you, Lucille, for being you. For showing us the way to the good life, for calling out the best in us, for reminding us, with that ever-present twinkle, that there is always more to come.

And thank you, God, for giving her to us and for giving us to one another.

 

Will you pray with me, please?

 

Loving God, Risen Savior, Gentle Spirit,

How we thank you for the gift of Lucille. For her grace and beauty, for her warm hospitality, for her generous and thoughtful gifts of love and inclusion to so many people. We miss her. And this family misses her most of all. Enliven us with your presence, even as we sit together in grief. Remind us of that hope with wings that Jesus makes possible.

We pray especially today for all these ones in the front rows, the family Lucille loved so dearly. Will you bring the healing balm of tears and of laughter, the soothing comfort of memories, of photographs and family history, of things shared only by them?

And will you bring to all of our hearts and minds our own special and sweet remembrances of Lucille’s endless gifts — rich gifts of creativity and hospitality and leadership. And empower each of us, by the work of your Spirit within us, to live our lives as fully as possible. To know ourselves, to deepen our walk with you, to reach out to others with the kind of welcome that Lucille modeled for all of us, the kind of welcome that she experienced because she knew you so very well.

No, there will never be another one like her, Lord. And that is exactly as it should be. Thank you for your loving design, O God, your careful and invigorating breath of life, that Spirit that is uniquely breathed into each and every one of your human creatures. Thank you especially that the Wind you breathed into Lucille blew our way for so many years.

It is all gift.

In the name of Jesus, the one who loves us and walks with us, we pray today. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Let Go, Let God — for Addie Zierman’s LinkUp

So, this whole ‘let go and let God’ cliche from so many voices in the evangelical world. I’ve written about and around and through this whole idea from lots of different angles over the years, most especially as this cliche morphs with others — like, ‘he must increase, I must decrease,’ or ‘more of Jesus, less of me.’ There’s something about the whole ‘dying to self’ mentality that has gotten more than a little bit twisted over the decades. The longer I live — and clearly, that has been a lotta years now — the less I like any of it. In truth, I believe that this particular worldview has done far more harm than it has good.

When we advocate for the annihilation of the self — and at its core, this phrase is advocating for exactly that — we are lying to people, big-time. We are teaching something that is diametrically opposed to the kind of life Jesus invites us to live, the kind of life Jesus modeled for us, the kind of life we are designed to inhabit. We are, in a word, deeply devaluing the Incarnation. God took on our flesh — that’s how deeply we are loved. That’s how valued human flesh is — every single human-fleshed person ever exisiting — every.single.one.

Please hear me clearly here: I am not in any way disparaging the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross, nor am I saying that we are destined for an easy, comfortable life. If the gospel shows us anything, it is that a life lived well is a life lived with generosity, kindness, tolerance, joy and acceptance. It is also a life marked by suffering, loss, sorrow, grief, tragedy and sometimes unspeakable horror. We are human persons, living in a world of beauty and of terror. Life lived here will always be a mixed bag. Yet we are promised joy in the midst of all the mess and mayhem. How is that possible?

Well, it doesn’t happen by abdicating our selfhood. It doesn’t happen by waiting for some kind of robotic activity within our zombie-like bodies under the strange spell of a god who is outside of us and chooses to use us like puppets on a stage.

It does happen when we are open to the possibility of partnership.

When we say ‘yes’ to the sweet voice of the Spirit who woos us with an invitation to join the dance.

It happens when we spend time, energy, effort — and money, as needed! — to discover who we are and how we’re wired. It then becomes our ‘job,’ if you like — our primary task in life — to experience God’s delight in us and to realize that it is God’s delight that both invites and empowers us to use our unique mix of gifts and talents in service of the kingdom dream. And that is going to look different for every single one of us.

There are no duplicates in God’s design. And we will never, ever become clones of anyone, not even Jesus. Hopefully, there will be in us — as in an old, married couple — an increasing similarity, striking ways in which we begin to resemble one another and our elder brother. But letting go of who we uniquely are at the core of our being is not what is required. Not at all. On the contrary, it is when we discover and release our ‘who-ness’ that God is most delighted and most honored. Ireneaus got it right, all those centuries ago, “The glory of God is a human person, fully alive.”

There will always be things to let go of, oh, yes, there will. Most particularly, we must learn to release all the accretions of time and choice that are keeping us from knowing and being our truest selves. Things like pride, fear, obsessive drives of any kind, besetting sins. Those things we must part with — or at least, keep working on!

But that center piece, that true blue, loving, imago dei?  Oh, no — not that. Not ever that. YOU are designed in the image of a loving, creative, hard-working, knows-when-to-call-it-a-day, merciful, justice-seeking, lovely, kind and joyful GOD. A God who sends some spark of divinity right into each and every soul that draws breath on this planet. A God who sees, knows, loves, and draws forth that spark, over and over and over again. A God whose desire is for our good, for our growth, for our mutual embrace. A God who — beyond our power to reason, imagine or sometimes, even believe — wants human beings to jump into the circle and DANCE.

Don’t ever let go of that.

Joining this reflection with Addie Zierman’s, “Let Go, Let God” link-up. Oh YAY for link-ups!

4:38 p.m.

27

They tell me there was snow on our mountains for about five minutes this morning. I never saw it, but I believe it was there.

I know in my head that my mother has been gone for exactly one year today, but my heart does not yet fully comprehend this truth.. It seems I am able to believe in the snow without ever seeing it, but unable to wrap my head around tangible things right in front of my face, like a clock or a calendar. 

Even though it is the way of things, even though death comes to every one of us at some point along the journey, even though my mother’s death was, in many ways, the very best way for death to happen, this losing a much-loved mother is hard and it is painful. At times, it still feels strange, unnatural and weirdly disorienting. Tears spring at the oddest times. Some small piece of decor or clothing will catch  my eye and I realize I am smiling sadly, even nodding slightly, as if offering a brief moment of homage to the force of nature who was my mom.

One year today.

We walked her last journey together, she and I, and it was not an easy one. I remember lovely sunlit moments along the way — sitting by the pool at her residential facility, each of us in a large sunhat, drinking in the ocean air, bird sound, and bright blooming vines that surrounded us. I remember laughter, her wonderful, rich laughter. I remember a smile as big as whatever room she was in, welcoming one and all. I remember how beautiful she was, even as age and disease slowly ravaged her.

I also remember deep confusion, the devastation when she no longer knew I was her daughter, her tears of frustration and of fear when she tried to make sense of something that was no longer within the sphere of her cognitive ability. I remember trips to the emergency room, her terror and embarrassment when strapped to a gurney she did not want or need. I remember deep bruises from falls, and the firm conviction that, ‘this is not my room, I’ve never been here before in my life.’ I remember a growing disconnection from things like seasons, days, time itself. 

I also remember her leading my Brownie meetings, teaching my 11th grade Sunday School class, bending over her beautiful stitcheries, and I remember with glee her bawdy sense of humor. I was deeply aware of how thirsty she was to learn, to read, to discuss, to ponder and wonder and observe. I remember how feisty she could be — and how volatile!

I remember how much she worried over me. Oh, my, how she could worry!

Now, at this late stage of my own life, I know all of that was because of her deep love and concern for me, but then? Then, it felt suffocating, limiting, inhibiting. She worried over my height, my weight, the way I walked, the fact that I might be “too smart to ever catch a good man.” She dragged me to multiple dermatology clinics because of my dry and sensitive skin,  she always wanted me to be ‘more social,’ and regularly encouraged me to invite classmates over to hang out. She also wanted me to enjoy athletics, something she was good at and I most definitely was not.

We found our way together, yes, we did. I was her first child — longed for and loved and cherished. As does every first-born, I bore the brunt of her inexperience and the leftover wounds of her own, sometimes chaotic, upbringing. But she was smart, my mom. And she was good. She learned from her mistakes, she apologized easily, she loved deeply and well. We found our way to one another during my adolescence by reading books together and writing each other notes about them. And we laughed. A lot. 

We also shared a deep love of beauty, in all its permutations. Today, on this anniversary, and as my computer clock tells me it is now exactly 4:38 — the moment of her death, one year ago — I want to remember and reflect on that most of all. She was the embodiment of beauty in so many ways — in her face, surely. But even more so, in her spirit. Yes, she could be ugly, too. Aren’t we all? But the beauty of her is what I cling to now.

Gasping at a glorious sunset, tenderly arranging flowers for the dinner table, creating a cake or a sketch, looking for and finding the beauty of others, even eventually encouraging me to reach out past the boundaries she herself had always drawn around me, as a female child. She didn’t fully understand my call to ministry at midlife, but she supported it. She wept when I told her — through my own tears — that I never could have considered going to seminary if my husband didn’t make enough money for its cost to have no impact on any other person in our family. She wept because she knew that wacky belief came directly from her own fears and prejudices, her own false picture of what it means to be female in this world. 

My mother learned. And she kept on learning, right up until dementia moved in to stay. And while she learned, she continued to love us all so very well. I thank God for her every day of my life. And I thank you, my dearest Mom. I miss you more than words can say.

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A Beautiful Book — Book Review: “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey

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Those of you who subscribe to my monthly newsletter already know that this one was on the top of my to-be-read pile as April began. It took me exactly ONE DAY to read it, and I am re-reading parts of it regularly.

This book is the real deal. Combine a tender heart with a first-class brain, a fierce streak of independence with a humble desire to yield, add to that a stubborn commitment to do it right and do it well, what do you get? Hilary Yancey.

She is young — younger than my eldest grandson. She is SMART — working toward a PhD in philosophy at Baylor. She is a wife and mom — married to author and soon-to-be Anglican priest, Preston Yancey, and mom to Jack and June (short for Junia). Over and around all of that is this truth: she is a force to be reckoned with. Also? She is an earnest, open, willing-to-admit-questions-and doubts follower after Jesus. 

She writes beautifully, with a lyrical style and startling honesty. They tell me poetry and philosophy often go together and this book makes me believe that, big-time. “Forgiving God” is the story of Hilary’s first pregnancy, just six months into marriage. This particular journey into motherhood was difficult, mystifying, troubling, terrifying and ultimately, salvific. It is both humbling and inspiring to see how she and Jack not only survived a troubling pregnancy and a 43-day stay in the NICU, but somehow managed to triumph over every setback, every complication. 

At what was thought to be a routine 18-week ultrasound, her son Jackson was diagnosed with a rare and severe facial deformity. With each week that passed, her now high-risk pre-natal care visits brought more and more difficult news. Teetering between praying for a miracle and trying to learn all she could about how to deal with what could come for her newborn boy, Hilary takes us into her own dis-ease, disappointment, and wonder. She also shares with us some of the pieces of her journey as a graduate student, eloquently positing big ideas about God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge. She does both — the personal story-telling and the philosophical musing — exquisitely well.

I am grateful for this book because of its beauty and power as a ‘good read.’ More than that, I am grateful for it in my practice as a spiritual director. I meet regularly with friends who are dealing with all kinds of issues, some of them extraordinarily difficult. Hilary’s thoughtful, intelligent, and ultimately hopeful words have already helped some of us find solid ground in the midst of what often feels like very fluid terrain.

This is a memoir that is a gift to read — and to re-read. I highly recommend it. Buy it, give it away — and then write a short review at as many places as you can think of. Hilary is not doing the usual big promotion push, so any help we can offer would be grand. 

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Fifteen

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Philippians 3:7-11, The Message

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.

I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

You do know that Paul doesn’t actually say, ‘dog dung’ here, don’t you? Nope. He uses a flat out swear word. Yes, he does. But we have sanitized it — to our loss, friends. To our loss. There are some things in life for which there is no more suitable word than a swear word! And this is a prime example of exactly that. Everything of value in this world is pretty much worthless in comparison to the riches that are ours because of Jesus. Now that does not mean that the things of this world are worthless. Far from it, truth be told. They are worth so very much, that Jesus came walking right into the middle of them, to redeem and save them. But in comparative terms? Well, yeah. If you pile up all the beauty, wonder, achievement and success of the human race next to the Savior? Pretty much, it’s dog dung. (Stronger word allowed!)

Thank you for the reality of Paul’s language, Lord. For the depth of his insight and for the wonder of who you are. You came to us, you love this place we call home and yet . . . you are so much more. So.Much.More. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Thirteen

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Isaiah 4:2-6, the Message

And that’s when God’s Branch will sprout green and lush. The produce of the country will give Israel’s survivors something to be proud of again. Oh, they’ll hold their heads high! Everyone left behind in Zion, all the discards and rejects in Jerusalem, will be reclassified as “holy”—alive and therefore precious. God will give Zion’s women a good bath. He’ll scrub the bloodstained city of its violence and brutality, purge the place with a firestorm of judgment.

Then God will bring back the ancient pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and mark Mount Zion and everyone in it with his glorious presence, his immense, protective presence, shade from the burning sun and shelter from the driving rain.

When these words were penned, the author had no thought of Jesus. Or what we have come to call, “the second coming.” Others, looking back at them in light of Jesus, have given them that weight. They are surely prophetic, but most likely meant to describe something that would happen within the more near future at the time they were put down on papyrus.

But here’s the thing about prophets and prophecy — they don’t always know the import of their own message. Today, we read this and think, “Yes! Jesus did come like a green sprout. And Jesus will come back again someday and all the messes of the past (including those we are making right this very minute!) will be behind us!” But the prophet who said them and then wrote them down? Not so much. And there are prophets still speaking into our century, our culture. Do we have ears to hear them? Walter Brueggeman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Ann Voskamp, and a whole host of others. They’re out there, speaking God’s truth. Can we listen? Will we hear?

Give us ears to hear, O Lord. Ears to hear the truth of your powerful, life-changing love for this beat-up place called planet earth. Help us spot your prophets and help us to listen well.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twelve

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Psalm 27, NRSV

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of theLord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of theLord,
and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face,Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of theLord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for theLord!

In 2002, I was forced to take an 8-month sabbatical from my job as an associate pastor. The forcing did not come from anyone but me — my own body and spirit were simply exhausted. I was anemic, frazzled, and wondered where I was headed. So I took time away from work — with the blessing and encouragement of my senior pastor and my congregation — and spent some concentrated time building my physical, emotional and spiritual strength. It turned out to be a gigantic blessings in disguise. For those months, I spent every morning in a chair in my living room, working through the morning prayer of A Celtic Daily Prayer. And it began, every single day, with these words from Psalm 27. “One thing I asked of the Lord, this is what I seek . . .”

YES.

ONE THING. The most important thing of all — intentional time in God’s presence. When I returned to work, it was to begin one of the hardest and most wonderful seasons of my ministry life: my boss left to take a denominational position, we began a huge building project that had been on the books for 10 years, we hired an unknown interim pastor who turned out to be the perfect person for the job, we lost almost every other staff member over the next 24 months, but replaced them with people who are still serving the church, and we eventually dedicated our gorgeous new sanctuary and office complex and hired a senior pastor who served us well for eleven years. THESE WORDS helped prepare me to be the ‘glue’ during that season of upheaval, the one who stayed through all the changes. And we did see, “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

Thank you, Lord God, for your faithfulness over time. For your commitment to our good. For your presence, which brings with it healing power, inspiration and encouragement and the peace and strength needed to make it through all of life’s curve balls. Thank you. Thank you.

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