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!

Out Here, on the Brink — SheLoves, September 2018, “Edge”

It’s lonelier than I imagined, this aging thing. I remember being impatient with my dad when we pushed my parents to move from their much-loved last home, built 15 years earlier, into a retirement community a little bit closer to us. He was suffering from Parkinson’s and atherosclerosis and my mom was wearing herself out as primary care giver. We thought the move would provide extra help for her, a bit of respite care. At that point in time they were 85 and 81. As I tried to help my mom get herself organized for the move, Daddy slipped into a quiet much deeper than his usual taciturnity, muttering, “Those places are where you go to die.” I tried to reassure him they were places you go to live before you die. He was having none of it.

I get it now. I’m still a decade behind where they were then, but I can smell the 80s coming at me and I’m not a big fan of that scent, to be completely honest. This is not a culture that values elders, generally preferring those past 75 or 80 to stay out of the spotlight and keep quiet. Part of me is keenly aware of the reasons for that truth: I discover, on an almost daily basis, that the inevitable effects of time and life are sometimes painful and humiliating and not particularly fun to watch. And I get that, too. But still . . . it feels lonely from time to time, out here on the doorstep of eternity.

Don’t get me wrong — there are definite benefits to being ‘retired.’ Opportunities to travel, to read more, to binge on Netflix as needed, and to serve in capacities suited to advancing years and garnered wisdom — these are gifts of this season. But let’s face it, I am on the edge — the edge of the end — and everybody knows it. Maybe I’ll live past my 100th birthday like my maternal grandmother. Maybe I’ll be gone next month. Who knows? And which is preferable? That, too, is open to debate!

In the meantime, I am trying to practice saying ‘yes’ to whatever life remains to me. My father’s choices shut him off from us. Part of that was disease driven, but part of it was his lifelong pattern of choosing isolation when things got difficult. I don’t want to do that. I’d like to dance myself off the cliff, if at all possible, so I’m trying to figure out what that might look like in this aging body, with this aging brain.

 

Please join the conversation (and the conclusion of this reflection!) over at SheLoves by clicking here. 

A Prayer for Those Needing Hope

As is my custom, whenever I am asked to offer prayer in public worship, I post it here. Today, I also had the privilege of leading the worship service, in the absence of both of our pastors. Another congregant, Dr. Greg Spencer, Professor of Communication at Westmont College, preached a powerful word on learning to hope well. This prayer was built on two passages — Psalm 33:18-22 and John 11:1-44. Immediately before this prayer, the congregation sang 3 verses of
“Be Still, My Soul.”

I want to invite you to still your souls for a few moments. To quiet and center yourselves in the presence of the God who loves you,
the Lord who is on your side,
the One who is your best, your heavenly friend.
I will extend this same invitation to stillness
at several points throughout today’s prayer.

 

Please pray with me:

Faithful Friend,
Loving Father,
Beautiful Savior,
Winsome Holy Spirit,

Blow through the cobwebs,
loosen the grip of fear and anxiety,
free us from the distraction of the various responsibilities we carry,
open our minds and our hearts to YOU.

Help us to remember you are consistently guiding us to a future which you can see, but we cannot. You are not controlling us or condemning us, you are guiding us.You are coming alongside, you are a companion on the way. A companion who knows us, inside and out . . . and loves us anyway.

Part of what keeps us distracted, what makes it difficult to still ourselves, are all the lists we carry around in our heads. One of those is the list of ways in which we have fallen short — fallen short of who you’ve designed us to be and fallen short of what you’ve called us to do.

So, in the silence of the next moment or two, help us to still our souls, and to offer that list to your tender care. Help us to also receive the forgiveness and acceptance that your grace makes possible.

Hear our prayer, O Lord:

+++Silence+++

There are other lists inside our heads, too, Lord, lists we sometimes fail to recognize
or acknowledge in ways that might bring us life and joy. A primary one of those is the gratitude list — all those things, which, if we take just a minute to think about it, we are deeply grateful for — things about our life, our work, our community, our home, our relationships. It’s a good thing to be grateful, God, a very good thing. So hear our words of thanksgiving now, as we sit, quietly, with you.

+++Silence+++

And as a gentle word of encouragement to those sitting nearby us, we offer to you one or two items from that list out loud, all together, right now:

+++Shared speech+++

Oh, it’s lovely thing to say thank you! And we truly do have so many things for which to say it. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Then there is different kind of list, a heavier one. That’s the list of people and situations that feel difficult, maybe even hopeless to us — physical, emotional, mental, financial, political, relational — all of them places of pain, in our lives and in the lives of others whom we love. Hear and answer, O Lord, as we silently lift to you some portion of that list which we each carry in our hearts. Have mercy, Lord Jesus. Hear us as we pray:

+++Silence+++

Last, but far from least, in that pile of lists we carry with us is the one which holds those things we hope for — events, milestones, healing, newness, times of refreshment,  moments of reconciliation — this list is unique to each one of us and yet the hope is something we share, at a level deeper than words. Will you help us to hope well? To trust that you know best? To learn from our mistakes, to focus on your faithfulness, and to practice resurrection as we wait? Help us in this moment of stillness to verbalize or to visualize those things for which we hope:

+++Silence+++

God of all hope, thank you for listening. Thank you for the invitation to be still in your presence, and for the assurance that though the way may be thorny, the end, ah, the end, is filled with joy.

Be with our brother Greg as he breaks open the Word for us this morning. And bless our pastors this day, Lord God — Ian and his family as they find rest and recreation in the Sierras, and Jon and his family as they meet and worship with the congregation in Salem on this day. May each one of them find moments of soul-stillness, moments when the assurance of your loving presence fills them, and us, with joyful expectation.

We pray all these things in the blessed name of Jesus, the Christ, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John 11:1-44
“Well, what did you expect?”

 

Here you are reading this. You anticipated something, or you hoped for something, right? “What did you expect?” is a question we often hear—and it has a hint of criticism in it. “Aren’t you shrewd enough to know what’s coming next . . . that there would be traffic . . . or a negative answer . . . or that you would need your sweatshirt?” Expectations are part of how we think and talk about the future. So are anticipations and hopes. Jesus cares about how we live in relationship to the future. He wants us to “anticipate well” by keeping our insistent expectations about this world low and our hopes for what God can do high. Sound like a hard line to walk? We’ll walk through it together this Sunday morning.

A Prayer for Those in Need of Goodness and Mercy

Whenever I am invited to pray in public, I try to post those prayers in this space. Sometimes, people ask me for a copy and this is the easiest way to make that happen. In our church community, we find ourselves in a surprising season of discord and misunderstanding. We’re working on it! And the sermon for the day helped, as did the song that just preceded this prayer, “Psalm 23,” with the chorus that begins with, “Surely goodness, surely mercy” Yes, indeed. Please, Lord. (Our primary teaching text was Zechariah 8)

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Oh, Good Shepherd, we gather together in this place,
at this time in our history and in the history of the world, to acknowledge —
out loud and with all of who we are —
that we stand in need of goodness, we stand in need of mercy.
Every last one of us as individuals, and all of us together as your people at Montecito Covenant Church. All of us.

We need to remember, and to give thanks for, the truth that You are on our side,
even though the valley be dark and the way ahead, uncertain.

Lead us, O Lord, into green pastures. Restore our souls, refresh us with the water of life, remind us that we belong to You, and remind us that You are good.

Even as we acknowledge that goodness in You, O God, we must also own the truth that we are sometimes not so good.

We step on toes, 
we say harsh things,
we talk about others when they are not present,
we make judgments with incomplete facts,
we make assumptions,
and stand on entitlement,
and fail to practice grace and peace.

Forgive us, O God. Forgive us. And help us to forgive one another, too.

The climate in the world around us right now is not particularly conducive to forgiveness, nor to goodness and mercy. So it seems even more important than usual that we — as members of Christ’s body — practice what we preach. Will you help us to do that, please?

The text before us today reminds us of some of those things we preach, and we need to hear them, we really do. Bless Pastor Jon as he brings us your word for today. Give us ears to hear, O God, give us hearts to understand, and give us feet that walk out that truth into our world, beginning with the patio, and then the lunch tables we will share together a little later today. May your grace and joy infuse every conversation, guiding us into wisdom, and good decision-making.

Most of all, Lord God, will you help us to let your goodness and mercy inform what we say and do in our day-to-day living? That is not always easy for us. Some of us are in the throes of deep grief during these days of summer —

loved ones die,
relationships dissolve,
circumstances take a nosedive,
hard decisions must to be made,
ugly voices rise to the top in too many dialogues,
children suffer,
politicians seldom tell the truth,
poverty of all kinds surrounds us,
wars never end.

To us, the world feels a shambles, and we forget about goodness and mercy.

But we are not YOU, O God. Help us to look around us and see what you see — a world in need. . . yes. But a world that is also deeply loved, a world held in place by a Good and Merciful Sovereign, a world in which we are invited to partner with that Good Sovereign in the necessary work of restoration, reconciliation, recovery, and renewal.

We give you thanks this day for the evidence of that good work in the lives of those graduating from Bethel House and the Rescue Mission last night, celebrated right here, in our sanctuary. And we give you thanks for the changed hearts in thousands of teenagers, including some of our own, who were at the CHIC conference in Tennessee this past week. Thank you!

Bless and encourage every hurting heart in this room, O God. And use each of us to make that blessing real. Help us to be good neighbors — to each other, and to all those we meet day by day. Because everybody, from the grocery clerk to the rude driver behind us, needs a little goodness and mercy in their life, too.

They need the truth that we already know: that all of us belong to you — every last, mixed-up, weird and wonderful one of us.

Glory be.

In the name of Jesus — who loves us, who died for us, and who, by the power of the Spirit, was raised to new life, the One who dwells today in the church, including this one, in that name, we, together say,

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining Terms — For SheLoves, May, 2018

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time will know that the content of this month’s essay at SheLoves has appeared, in slightly different form, here and in an ebook I put together about five years ago. It’s a BIG topic for me, essential to my spiritual and emotional health and sanity and I’m happy to have another venue in which to speak it true. I believe this to be one of the most important truths of our faith, one that can help us navigate any misguided theological input from our past. I’d love it if you would click over and join in the conversation at SheLoves.

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You – that’s how you spell JOY.” And I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me,” and the older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word ‘abandon,’ and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things. . . all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

There is lots more to these thoughts — come on over and join us at SheLoves!

A Wide Believing — For SheLoves, April 2018

I took a month off from SheLoves in March, but I’m back in the April edition, pondering some words that I found in the memoir I reviewed here last week — “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey. Come on over to their site to finish this reflection. Click here.

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“If I could ask anything of us, this ragged band of us looking for a way home, crossing the Jordan River, it would be to believe wider for each other.” — Hilary Yancey,
in “Forgiving God: A Story of Faith,” pg.57.

 

I have heard the truth that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. This is a phrase shouted by voices around the world in recent days, words that flow from the painful experiences of those who are oppressed, victimized, traumatized, ostracized, threatened, abused and neglected. And these words are true. Thoughts and prayers are too often not enough, at least in the way ‘thoughts and prayers’ are so often understood and defined.

I find myself wondering if we have allowed our language about prayer to descend into the realm of cliché because we have not fully grasped what prayer is and what prayer can do. I am in the late autumn of my life and I still do not fully comprehend either the definition or the experience of prayer. It is an idea we use (and abuse) far too easily, I think, a word better saved for deep times of soul connection and firm commitment. It is no small thing to promise someone that you will pray for them; no, it is not.

Hilary Yancey’s words, quoted at the top of this post, are from her new memoir . . .

Please do click this link and come join us at SheLoves. After a month off, I’m back in that good space today with some thoughts about prayer, about widening our understanding, definition and practice of it. Just click here!

Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Ten

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Romans 4:1-12, The Message

So how do we fit what we know of Abraham, our first father in the faith, into this new way of looking at things? If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it.But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”

If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.

David confirms this way of looking at it, saying that the one who trusts God to do the putting-everything-right without insisting on having a say in it is one fortunate man:

Fortunate those whose crimes are carted off,
whose sins are wiped clean from the slate.
Fortunate the person against
whom the Lord does not keep score.

Do you think for a minute that this blessing is only pronounced over those of us who keep our religious ways and are circumcised? Or do you think it possible that the blessing could be given to those who never even heard of our ways, who were never brought up in the disciplines of God? We all agree, don’t we, that it was by embracing what God did for him that Abraham was declared fit before God?

Now think: Was that declaration made before or after he was marked by the covenant rite of circumcision? That’s right, before he was marked. That means that he underwent circumcision as evidence and confirmation of what God had done long before to bring him into this acceptable standing with himself, an act of God he had embraced with his whole life.

And it means further that Abraham is father of all people who embrace what God does for them while they are still on the “outs” with God, as yet unidentified as God’s, in an “uncircumcised” condition. It is precisely these people in this condition who are called “set right by God and with God”! Abraham is also, of course, father of those who have undergone the religious rite of circumcision not just because of the ritual but because they were willing to live in the risky faith-embrace of God’s action for them, the way Abraham lived long before he was marked by circumcision.

 

That guy Paul
sure knows how
to lay out an
argument.

Clear, precise, to the point.
And that point?
God comes first.
Love comes first.
Mercy comes first.
Forgiveness comes first.
Grace comes first.

All we have to do
is say ‘yes.’
YES.

And then,
spend the
rest of our lives
learning
how to lean.

Book of the Year — A Review and a Hearty Recommendation

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Admittedly, I am way behind on my book-reading and reviewing. Some of that is due to illness, a whole lot to long-term grieving, a smidge or two to laziness. 

But this book, I read.

In one sitting.

And so did my husband.

This is, hands down, my favorite book about church, people, love, living life well and true, community, belonging . . . you name it. I read a lot of non-fiction, good books, finely written books, some of them written by friends of mine. Not one of them comes as whisker close to truth as does this fictional compilation of letters. Maybe it’s because our church was going through its own search for a new pastor at the time I received this slender tome. Whatever the reason(s), this one struck a nerve. Better, it struck THE nerve, that one that goes to the core of who we are and begins to resonate when we find true north.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I simply cannot. It is tender, true, sensitive, heart-warming, and yet challenging, in the very best of ways. Is this the kind of pastor I have been? And want to continue to be, in the limited ways that remain available to me? Is this the kind of congregation my community is, or wants to be? Are we wrestling through the hard questions well? Are we welcoming others — all kinds of others?  Are we listening to the Spirit, together?

Built around the seasons of the church year, these 165 pages consist entirely of letters, most of them written by pastor-to-be, then new-pastor, then seasoned-pastor-approaching-his-first-sabbatical-leave Jonas McAnn. It is what is known in the trade as an epistolary novel and it is a hum-dinger. Herewith a sample — then get yourself to your favorite bookstore (clicking on the picture should take you straight to Amazon) and order up a copy . . . or two or three. This would make a perfect gift for every single member of a search committee or a church leadership board.

Maybe these words from the opening letter, written by a crusty woman member of the search committee to all potential candidates will give you a glimpse of the power and beauty I’m talking about. This one was signed by the entire committee (all 4 of them) after several frustrating months. The one candidate who answered honestly is the one they called:

“We do have a few questions for you. Perhaps we’re foolish, but I’m going to assume you love Jesus and aren’t too much of a loon when it comes to your creed. We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Wendell Berry now and then. Oh, and we like a good guffaw. I’ll be up front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs — we’ll put up with a lot, but that one’s a deal-killer.

“Here are our questions: We’d like to know if you’re going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience. . . Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church thing straight? Or might we hope that our church might be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?

“In other words, the question we want answered is very simple: do you actually want to be our pastor?

“I’m trying to be as straight as I know how: Will you love us? And will you teach us how to love one another? Will you give us God — and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with hope and wonder in your heart?

“Will  you tell us again and again about the ‘love that wilt not let us go,” not ever? Will you believe with us and for us that the Kingdom is truer than we know — and that there are no shortcuts? Will you tell us the truth — that the huckster promise of a quick fix or some glitzy church dream is 100 percent BS?” — pp. 5-6

See what I mean? Thank you, thank  you, thank you, Winn Collier for telling it true. And beautifully.

In Praise of Light — SheLoves, October 2017

The theme of the month at SheLoves is ‘LIT.’ This is what came to me as I reflected on that interesting word.

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I love lights — strings of lights. I have about four long ones, composed of large, clear globes in three colors, strung across the arbor outside the back of our home. Every day at about 5:00 p.m., I turn the switch so that their blue, green and white sparkles can be enjoyed as the evening covers the day.

My sister-in-law gave me a string of lights hidden inside colorful paper umbrellas. I loved that little string so much, I immediately hung it above my baking counter in the kitchen.

Just last month, I found a new website that specializes in inexpensive strings of solar-powered white lights. I have woven 5 strands through the low hedges that demarcate the back edge of our property. Every evening, I wait for their twinkling to begin and every evening, I smile as I see them.

Don’t even get me started about Christmas lights, okay? I’ve got bits of light spread all around my house from early December through Epiphany — on the tree, to be sure. But also? Across the mantle, on a smaller counter-top tree, stretched along the top of my china cabinet, around my front door.

Yeah, I love lights. They make me smile, they lift my spirits, they give me hope when I’m feeling down, they remind me that the darkness does not and cannot win, even when all around me says otherwise.

I want to be a person of light, too. Someone who shines, even in the darkness, who holds on firmly to hope and joy, no matter what set of curve balls are being tossed at my head. I want to be someone who is lit from within, someone who carries light with me into every dark and difficult place life’s journey brings my way.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, not so much. I wrote last month about lament and I sometimes think that I could write about that topic no matter what the theme-of-the-month might happen to be. After all, life is hard, people get sick and die, relationships fall apart, addiction is real and sometimes deadly, failure is endemic to the human condition. And our scripture gives us a language for these seasons of sadness.

But.

It is also important and necessary to acknowledge the flip side of that language of lament. It is good to sing songs in a major key, too, and doing so can help us acknowledge the presence of the Light, even in the midst of some dark and scary times.

So today, I want to sing a song in praise of light, to say thank you for the people and places, events and circumstances that have brought light into my life:

To see my list (and to add some of your own, in the comments) please follow this link and join the conversation over there.

One Last Good-Bye

 

It’s been a weekend.

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for my mother. My brother was well enough to travel south and as soon as he, his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Rachel, arrived at our home on Friday night, I put the women to work creating this wonderful photo montage for the reception after the service.

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Both of them are talented artists and I was relieved to pass along this last task connected to what was a grand day of celebration and thanksgiving. About 75 of us gathered in the chapel at The Samarkand. Together, we worshiped God and celebrated mom’s life. It was a gift and a privilege to share stories, to laugh, to tear up from time to time, and to mark the passing of this valiant, vibrant woman, the last of her generation to leave us.

I’m including the words of remembrance that I shared yesterday so that family members who could not be there can read and remember with us. Some photos from the day, too.

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A lovely collection of snapshots covering several decades of mom’s life.

“For the first few years of my life, she was ‘mommy’ to me. From about the 3rd grade on, she became simply, ‘mom.’ And during these last, hard years, the name that most often came to my lips was, ‘mama.’

“I think that choice was the natural one because she had become so very frail and ‘mom’ seemed far too robust to use. I also think it came naturally because it has a tender sound, a diminutive feel. She became smaller and smaller over these last four years at the Samarkand. With each move, we re-distributed more and more of her material belongings until little was left. Her life, her surroundings, became smaller and smaller. And she herself began to shrink away from us. As she stopped even wanting to eat, she gradually became quite tiny, almost wraith-like.

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Eileen, Harold, Ruth, Al, in the back. I think Mom was about 12 in this picture.

“The irony in that, of course, is that it was her lifelong desire to be smaller than she was! Oh, how she wrestled with her weight. And she passed that wrestling right on down to me, in all kinds of ways — some of them undoubtedly genetic. But some of them, having a lot more to do with appearances, with wanting to please others, with a deep yearning to be something, someone, other than who and what she was.

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Days gone by (long gone by!)

But here is what I have I learned as I have walked with my mother through this last, long part of her journey on this earth: the truest thing I know about my mother is that she was BEAUTIFUL, in every way I can think of. The saddest thing about my mother is that she never really knew that.

Oh, how I hope she knows it now!

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Al passed away in his early 50’s, but mom and Harold and Eileen lived long and stayed close.
Mom was the last to leave us.
My dad’s distant cousin, Jan Baylor (whom we called Earleen – her middle name, after her father Earl), was a fun friend for mom, especially during the middle decades of her life. She’s in the bottom left photo and the very bottom one,  which you can barely see — in identical swimsuits (unbeknownst to them until mom visited Jan at her trailer near the beach!)

My mother radiated light. At her best, she was the most fun person I’ve ever known. She had a bawdy sense of humor and a great laugh; she took delight in her children and her grandchildren, adored her husband — even when he frustrated the daylights out of her — and she particularly loved seeing and creating beautiful things. She had an artist’s eye for color, enjoyed a minimalist, mid-century sense of décor, and could become rapturous over a sunset, a seascape, a forest or a tiny baby.

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See that look of delight on her face? Yeah, we saw that a lot at Christmas! That’s my brother Tom, back in the day . . .

Every once in a while during these last years, I would catch a glimpse of that great sense of humor and it always delighted me. Here are two small stories I recorded in my journal, one from Christmas of 2014, the other from April of last year:

Story number one, from Christmas Lunch in Heritage Court at the Samarkand:

“After lunch, we went back to her room, and she asked the same set of questions that she’s asked the last few times we’ve talked. And when I answered I tried to speak clearly. But her hearing is so bad, that she struggled to understand. Finally, the third time she asked me to repeat myself, I spoke very loudly, very slowly, very distinctly, and she looked at me, smiled and said, ‘THANK YOU,’ at the top of her lungs! It struck me as something the ‘old’ mom would do. And it made me laugh out loud. I was so tired and emotionally vulnerable — I got started laughing and couldn’t quite stop. And I remember thinking, ‘well, it’s better than crying.’”

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Goofing it up at a Christmas spent in Tom and Sandy’s cabin in Julian CA

And another story, from a year ago April, during one of our twice-weekly lunches out:

Today’s theme song was, “The Old Rugged Cross” and she sang pieces of it through our entire time together. I was able to find a couple of versions of it online and play them in the car as we drove south toward the water.

She does love taking this drive. She comments on the cars, on the houses, on the large numbers of people. The confines of her world these days are very restricted, very limited. When I take her out into the wider world, she is struck with wonder.

It is good to see where I live through her eyes, as I too often take it all for granted. We ate at Longboard’s, overlooking the harbor. And there was a cruise ship in town today, unloading its throngs of people to sit on various tour buses and populate the local seaside restaurants. The wait staff was extremely slow because of the increased numbers, and as we were waiting for our food, she said, rather than sang these two lines from the day’s theme song: “so I’ll cling to the old rugged Cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”

And then she said, “And sometime between now and then, I’d really like a little something to eat!”

And we both busted up. These sweet moments are flashes of the mama I have always known, and I am so grateful for them.”

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There were two of these glorious arrangements for the service. We left one for the chapel service this morning and took this one home to re-use it as table decor for the family dinner that came after the reception at The Samarkand.

She was, as I told the staff here and at Hospice, the most flaming extrovert I have ever known. She loved people, was a caring neighbor and built friendships that lasted for decades. A friend reminded me the other day that on that first Valentine’s Day after my father’s death in 2005, she went to CVS and picked up a half dozen small boxes of chocolates to take to all the widows she knew at Hillcrest, their retirement community in La Verne CA. She knew their sweethearts would not be remembering them on that day. She kept up the chocolate-giving until she had to move into assisted living in 2012.

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Each of mom’s grandchildren participated in reading scripture for her service. Our three are in the top photo, doing the Old Testament readings — L to R, Lisa, Eric, Joy
The bottom picture includes Jacob Gold and Jeremy Morgan, my brother Ken’s two sons, and Rachel and Dylan Gold, Tom and Sandy’s two children.

The disease that took her life is a cruel one, a thief with no mercy, slowly stealing memory, cognition, discernment, even personality. But in my mother’s case, dementia was never able to destroy the core of who she was.

And the core of my mother was her faith.

From about the age of fifteen, my mother was an ardent follower after Jesus, wanting to go deep, to learn, to practice resurrection from day to day. Even though her background was conservative, she and my dad somehow managed to grasp the truest things about the Christian faith and to let go of much of the judgment, fear, simplistic jargon, and insider/outsider mentality that has come to characterize too much of the modern church.

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It was a beautiful and VERY WARM afternoon for an early dinner, planned and executed by my three kids and their spouses — thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to each of you.

She was grateful for her roots, for the women at Trinity Methodist Church who befriended her and encouraged her leadership skills, even paying for her to go to a special training event put on by Henrietta Mears, one of the first women leaders in the Presbyterian church of the 20th century. But she was always searching for more – and she read widely and well in order to learn more. She was not a perfect person — who is? But, man, she was a good one.

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Our funky but fun covered atrium entry greeted guests with bright colors, wooden signs . . .

I believe, in the deepest part of me, that what I saw in my mom as she slowly faded away from me, was a reflection of the light of Jesus. She always let it shine. Always. Just about 40 hours before she died, she reached out to kiss my hand as I straightened her bedding. Days before she left us, she offered that beautiful smile and those kind words — ‘thank you so much!’ ‘You look so beautiful today.’ ‘I love your hair.’ By that point, almost nothing else she said hung together with any kind of sense. But those short, kind compliments? They remained. They remained.

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. . . and some glorious blossoms, too.

Now Tom and I could tell you tales of tears, of anger, explosive and sharp, of deep-seated insecurities that often made her fearful and sometimes harsh. But you know what? As hard as those days were for us — and they were — over the span of our lives and hers, they amounted to so little. As she grew in her faith, as she and dad grew more deeply in love over the years of their marriage, and as she experienced more and more of the Love with a capital “L” that she and I believe is the power that sources our entire universe, those hard days became less and less frequent.

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My dear brother, Tom, with his amazing and talented wife, Sandy.

I had the gift of a good home and that enabled and instructed me in creating what I hope was a good home with Dick for our kids. Over these last years, I have been struck again and again by how central my mother was in my own formation and ultimately, in the formation of my kids, and now my grandkids. She came from such a place of damage, with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked full-time. But she was found by God and loved by the aunts who helped to raise her, by those women at Trinity Methodist, and then by my dad. And that made all the difference.

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Although our brother Ken passed away in 2009, his kids were part of the day — R to L,
Christina and Jeremy Morgan (I had the great gift of marrying these two five years ago; they have an adorable baby boy who did not make the three hour drive with them); Jacob Gold and his fiance, Kevin Herrera. 

Of much deeper importance than the scars I bear from my early life, are the graces that mark me because of my mother. She was the primary spiritual influence on me for many years and I am so very grateful for that truth. She modeled the honest, searching spiritual journey. She also modeled loving hospitality, and a great sense of fun and creativity.

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Our eldest grandson Ben, who arranged for some fun home movies to run on the TV in the reception hall at The Samarkand and made a video of the service, catching up with our son-in-law, Marcus

What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. My brother Tom said it on Facebook this last Mother’s Day, “Ninety-five years with us. Loving, smart, funny. Give me a choice of all the mothers in the world and I’d choose the one I had.”

Yup. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had.

In a heartbeat.

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Several long-time friends from Pasadena made the drive north and stayed for dinner.

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A gaggle of granchildren

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I discovered this sweet note which I believe was created by the 11-year-olds and signed by a couple of the older grandkids. And late last night (after I had collapsed into bed!), my youngest granddaughter had her mom send me a text telling me she was sad that my mama died and that she loved me. I discovered it on my way out the door today to lead in worship — another story I’ll post about later this week. It was a rich, rich weekend. But. . . we’re really, really, REALLY glad it’s over now.

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One of the best things about memorial services is the reunion piece. It was wonderful to see cousins re-connect at three generational levels, to sit and visit with old friends, and to savor the beauty of a life, well-lived.

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We miss you, Mama. But we had a GRAND time saying good-bye. You would have loved it.