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!”

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fifteen

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The longer I live, the more I welcome and appreciate the celebration of the sacraments — eucharist and baptism. Setting aside everyday things like bread, wine/juice and water, and then inviting the Spirit of God to bless those simple things in an extraordinary way — well, it’s the best thing going, at least for me. Which made my experience of communion this month difficult for me. The truth is — I was distracted. We had guests whom we did not know well seated with us, I was singing in the choir, which required me to to exit my row just before the words were spoken and then take the elements in the balcony, where things were a tiny bit confusing. All of it added up to my not paying attention well and thereby missing the point.

Paying attention is important in lots of ways, it seems.

When I was on retreat in early September, the tiny group of us gathered at Mater Dolorosa enjoyed a small, intimate service of communion together in the beautiful chapel on the grounds there. The goblet and plate pictured above were part of that service.

Sometimes in small communion services, the leader will invite people to go forward alone — to partake when they feel ‘ready.’ Always, always, always — this jars me and I cannot do it. My understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Table is that it is communal — even if the community is as small as one bed-ridden parishioner and one pastor — and that the elements are offered, one to the other. They are received, not taken. That might seem like a pretty fine distinction to some, but for me it’s an important one. So my good friend, Sherry, who was seated next to me (and with whom I’ve had conversations about this very thing) whispered to me, “Would you like to go up with me and offer it to one another?”

And so we did. Then each of the other three opted to receive them from one of us, too. It felt right to pay attention to that small detail and I’m glad we did.

Our church community enjoyed the second sacrament a bit unusually last month. The picture below is of our beautiful baptismal bowl, made for us by the same talented Seattle artist who designed all of our stained glass windows. I love it’s curves, its soft turquoise color and the way the water is both visible and invisible within it. In our tradition, we offer both infant and adult, or believer, baptism. This particular baptism was an ‘adult’ one, but it was for a 4-year old boy. A special 4-year-old boy who had talked it over carefully with his parents and with his pastors and very clearly said that he understood what it meant and why it was important. And so, all of us together, listened to and then spoke the words together, the beautiful words that signify our remarkable passage from death to life, the words that commit us to one another as a body of believers.

And I loved paying attention to every word.

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Liturgy is important in my life. What about you? Do you enjoy beautiful words of worship that are familiar and frequent?

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twelve

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Even though it came in the midst of a month of retreats and over-commitment, I signed up for a poetry workshop a few weeks ago. You need to understand that I am a lover of poetry, but not a writer of it. In point of fact, I find it terrifying and more than a little bit intimidating. But this small workshop was offered at our beautiful Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and was led by a favorite person, Dr. Paul Willis, Professor of Literature at Westmont College. So I gulped, and sent in my registration. We met in the beautiful library and quickly learned that we were going to spend 90 minutes together. During that time, we would hear a variety of poems, talk a bit about what we heard and then spend time practicing poetic thinking as we wandered the beautiful natural setting surrounding the museum.

Paul introduced us to a wonderful and practical way to pay attention. We were divided into groups of 4-5 people and told to wander the grounds for about 20 minutes, led by one member of our group at a time — in complete silence — to some slice of creation selected by that person for us to observe for a few minutes. Then, we were to write out a metaphor in poetic form about what we were seeing. That much ‘poetry’ I was willing to try!

Of course, I grabbed my camera for our silent walk. There were four people in my group and throughout this month, I’ll be interspersing both the picture and the words that came to me on that Saturday afternoon, with a bit of commentary, just for fun. Our first ‘leader’ was a young man, a recent graduate of Westmont, who fairly quickly took our quartet over to this bushy shrub. Not a lot to look at, you might think. But we each came up with something. It was such fun to read them all — just within our group of four — at the end of the workshop. Here’s mine . . .

a 4-sided star
brightens the
dark-hued stem,
waiting its turn
to darken
and fall

It’s hard to see from this photo that the leaves were in quartets on this shrub. I noticed that almost all my metaphors circled around a common refrain of transition/change/aging. Hmmm. . . wonder why that might be?

I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise and heartily recommend it as a practical way to practice paying attention. Give it a try and let me know how you like it!

The Seven Sorrows

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I snuck in through the back gate, carefully closing it so that the family of deer grazing nearby could not enter the enclosed garden. Miraculous rain had fallen during the night and the air was crisp and cool, with a slight breeze from the west. The small labyrinth on the grounds of Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center was my first target that morning — I love to walk and pray, and if there is a dedicated pathway for such walking and praying, I head straight toward it. These deer were just to the east as I slowly wound my way to the center of that stone-marked pathway and back out again. They were lovely – young, strong, alert.

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The garden site took me to an entirely different place, one of tears and remembering, of death and dying, though there was beauty to be seen on all sides. The wisteria arbor pictured above was the first thing I saw as I clanged the gate behind me. Stretching out on both sides to form a circle, the entire 15-feet wide pathway fully enclosed a special, set-aside space: The Garden of the Seven Sorrows. This is a space marked for contemplation on the sorrows that Mary carried throughout her life as a mother, an idea new to me, and a surprisingly welcome one.

We Protestants don’t often think about Mary, do we? We tend to forget the depth of her spiritual maturity, her shocking availability to God. Would you be so open? Would I?

There are six niches around the circle, each with an exquisite and colorful mosaic depicting the sorrows that are mentioned in the gospel narrative. There are benches, a variety of both green and blooming plants, a fountain in the center, and a striking bronze statue duet, life-sized and haunting in its detailed depiction of mother and son locking eyes as Jesus drops the cross on his way to Calvary. That statue represents the seventh sorrow, and I saw it first from the back.

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I walked around, under the arbor, to begin my pilgrimage at the beginning, stepping into each niche in turn and then returning to the center magnificence to further contemplate that bronze tableau, this time from the front and from the side. I invite you to come along with me as I walk, enjoying a more distant view and then a closeup of each sorrow in turn. Take a moment to savor the detail, to reflect on the moment captured by the artwork. See what rises in you.

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It began in the earliest days of her motherhood experience, didn’t it? Taking her new little boy to the temple for blessing and dedication, Simeon had a hard word for her
“. . . and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

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Joseph holds the infant Jesus and the heart of Mary beats almost out of her chest at Simeon’s heavy words. Eight days old and her heart is filled with foreboding.

The Second Sorrow focuses on the flight into Egypt. With a toddler in tow, Mary and her husband were forced to flee their homeland, not knowing exactly when they might return. This is, to me, a poignant picture of the plight of so many refugees in our world today — forced out, running away to a foreign place, uncertain about the future, wanting protection and safety for their family.

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Sorrow Three comes twelve years later, when Jesus remains in the temple, worrying his parents by his absence, and then by his response: “Didn’t you know, Mother? Didn’t you know where I would be?” 

Do we know where our children are? Can we?

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img_0634The artist has managed to capture Mary’s pain and confusion, using just small pieces of colored ceramic. Jesus is rapt, his hand raised and open. Always, his hands were open.

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And this is Sorrow Four — the only one not specifically recorded in scripture, but one that surely could have happened — Mary meeting her son on the road. I do not know who the artists were, for either the mosaics or the sculpture, but I am grateful for them and to them. This is one of the most moving sights I’ve ever experienced. Contemplate the detail on their faces with me, won’t you?

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Deep grief marks a person in every way — physically, emotionally, spiritually. Her tears elicit my own.

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And Jesus turns to look at his mother, his mama. How difficult this entire event must have been for both of them. The gospel writers give us tiny glimpses; artists take those glimpses and give us wider, deeper vistas.

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I think he must have been a strong man — I like the musculature outlined here. But he was also a very weary man at this point in the journey, a heartbroken man. And all of that shows in that face. All of it.

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Though I do not subscribe to the Catholic doctrines about Mary, I completely understand how they developed. The mother-son bond is a strange and wondrous one, and like it or not, we moms are of primary importance to and a strong influence on our children, daughters and sons alike. While I believe the Catholic church has overplayed the importance of that bond, I fear we Protestants have seriously underplayed it. 

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And here is the one we are probably most familiar with — Sorrow Five — Mary watching her beloved son die on that tree. The apostle John appears to the right, turned away from the sight; Mary looks, but weeps. What must that have been like?

img_0642The Sixth Sorrow is the one made famous by Pietas across the ages — Mary holding her son as he is taken down from the cross. “Has there been any sorrow like unto my sorrow?”

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The final sorrow comes at the gravesite. The women are all there and it is hard to know which one is Mary. Who do you think it is?

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The rose bush effectively hid all of their faces, but I snuck my camera around the blooms and thorns and got each of them:

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As I walked this beautiful, yet somewhat strange new circle, I found myself saying, ‘thank you,’ over and over again. Thank you to the Son, yes, of course. Of course. But also — thank you to the mother, the dear mother, the one who said ‘yes’ to the mystery, who opened herself to unspeakable pain, who loved her child with her whole heart. She was not perfect, but she was deeply good and I am grateful.

As I turned to leave this glorious space, I noticed a flash of color just off to my right. Two colors, to be exact — two colors of the church year, in point of fact: red (this one was pinkish) and purple — red for sorrow and purple for royalty. Seemed fitting, somehow. Perfectly fitting.

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We will return to this same retreat center in 18 months. You can be sure that the Garden of the Seven Sorrows will be a part of my own meditative experience in 2018. It will be springtime then. How lovely!

Remembering Who We Are — a Sermon

Preached at Montecito Covenant Church, Sunday, June 19, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

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Have you ever had one of those days when you wonder, “How in the heck did I get here?” Yeah? Well, me, too. In fact, today happens to be one of those days! How in this crazy world do I happen to be standing here, in this pulpit, struggling to find words that might bring both hope and challenge in the midst of the unspeakable pain, fear, and hate that seem to be exploding all around us in recent days?

Despite the fact that words of all kinds have been flying fast and furious — over the airwaves, across the internet, in conversations by the water cooler or on the street corner — very few of those words have been either hopeful or challenging. Gratefully, I discovered that the words set before us this week in the Common Lectionary are exactly those kind of words: ones that bring both hope and challenge,

You’ve heard three of our four texts already this morning — the beautiful psalm that we sang at the beginning, the one about the longing we sometimes feel for the presence of God; and then the words that Anna Sung so beautifully read for us earlier in the service, those strong words of encouragement in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Galatia, contrasting the work of the law with the work of the Gospel; and the narrative from Luke, the story of the man released from a legion of demons and restored to himself.

As sometimes happens in the lectionary design, all of these readings help to point us in the same direction today — the direction of hope, the direction of transformation, the direction of remembering who we are.

 Well, at least they point us in the direction of who we say we are, those of us who show up in this place on Sunday mornings. We claim to be those whose hearts long for God, people who are set free from legalism, women and men released from all kinds of demons, being brought back, day by day by day, to our best selves.

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And now, Scripture lesson number four speaks to those things as well. For this reading, we turn to Elijah, that wily, wiry, complicated, faithful, sometimes cranky, always interesting old prophet. Elijah is perhaps second only to Moses in the pantheon of great forerunners in the Old Testament. And like Moses sometimes did, our man Elijah finds himself in a hard place in today’s lesson. His world has quite literally gone to hell in a hand basket, and he is feelin’ it.

In the chapters just before the one we’ll look at today, Elijah has been very, very busy. Busy doing the good and difficult work of a being a prophet, and God has looked out for him in some miraculous ways. But . . . here’s the hard truth of this deal: God has also given him a job for which no one is ever thankful. That’s the problem with being a prophet, you see. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say. Yet, what a prophet says is almost always of utmost importance, can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, can sometimes even change the course of history.

I encourage you to read this saga for yourselves sometime later today — all of Elijah’s adventures in 1 Kings are found in the two chapters preceding the one before us today, chapters 17 and 18. But before you hear today’s passage from chapter 19, I want you to understand this: Elijah is a good guy. His very name means ‘faithful to Yahweh,’ the very personal self-chosen-title that God had given to Moses, so many centuries earlier.

Also important to remember is that Elijah has just come through an experience of demanding spiritual warfare, up there at the top of Mount Carmel, a place where the God he serves showed up, big-time.

In a perfect world, Elijah should have been celebrating at the beginning of our chapter today. He’s experienced some real success as a prophet, working in a dangerous time, with some very dangerous people. But enjoying success is not where the man is. No, not at all.

Listen for yourselves. I’ve invited some friends to read it for us today — open your Bibles to this text, by all means. But for now, just listen. Take in the story.

Insert here a 3-voice readers’ theater version of the morning text.

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 Oh, how I love this story! I really, really do. Why do I love it so? And why do I think it’s an important story for us right now, at this moment in time? First of all, I think it’s important because of two things that are found in most biblical narratives: this is a story that teaches us about ourselves, and, this is a story that teaches us about God.

Most of all, though, I love this story — and I believe it to be a story that is immediately applicable to the current state of the world and of the church — I love this story because it is TRUE. This is a story that is true in the biggest sense of that word. Whether or not what we have here is marked by incontrovertible, historic and factual accuracy or not, (and I choose to believe that it is), this narrative is one of the truest depictions of the human condition I’ve ever read anywhere. It speaks profoundly to our deep need for connection — to God, to ourselves, and to one another — and it also speaks to our need for a sense of purpose, especially when life feels overwhelming. This is a story about flight that becomes pilgrimage, of exhaustion transformed by refreshment, of deep discouragement relieved by renewed purpose.

And underneath it all, it is a journey that is at the same time inward, upward and outward — three words which pretty succinctly describe what is of primary importance for this moment in time, as well as for the old prophet on that long ago wilderness trek.

We begin with inward. I think all the best journeys begin this way — AA, in step 4, calls it ‘taking a searching and fearless moral inventory’ — and it’s tough to do. Hitting the wall is not fun, reaching bottom is, quite literally, the pits. But, oh!, it is so important.

Our friend Elijah is just plain done. And he says so, loud and clear. “I have had enough, Lord!” he cries. “Kill me now!” The man has worked hard, hard, hard. He’s been faithful and true. He’s been obedient to the word of the Lord as he understood it. And Jezebel was one scary queen. She had tremendous power and was viewed as the earthly mouthpiece for mighty Ba’al, the foreign god she and her husband Ahab were encouraging the Israelites to worship. So a threat from her, is a threat indeed. King Ahab didn’t seem to phase Elijah much. But Jezebel? He was outta there.

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Now intellectually, he must surely have known that Yahweh was greater, right? He’d just seen ample evidence of that on the top of Mt. Carmel, in the great battle of the Dueling Altars. Yet somehow, these words from Jezebel — coming to him through the mouth of a ‘messenger,’ we’re told — these are the words that finish him off.

Elijah is isolated, lonely, undone. So he runs immediately for the border, dumps his faithful servant, and then heads out into the boondocks, more alone at this point in time than he has ever been.

Why is it that when we’re feeling most alone, we so often do everything in our power to make sure that we ARE alone? Some scholars see this act as Elijah’s way of making a clear statement that he is DONE with the propheting gig. “See, Lord, no servant. Therefore, no work to do, right?” Whatever his reasons, the man who feels alone, is, now, indeed, alone.

Except.

Something quite wonderful happens. The text uses the exact same word here as the word applied to Jezebel’s servant — mal’ak — messenger. And because this entire story is told in a favorite Hebraic literary form called a chiasm, the double use of the word fits beautifully. A chiasm is an elegant structure that sets up parallels in a story or a poem from beginning to end, so that if you look at an outline of the entire story you can see how each piece from the beginning is resolved at the end.

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So, a messenger — called an ‘angel’ in most of our English translations — meets Elijah right here, in the middle of that vast wilderness, as he struggles to find a little shade under the scrawny branches of a solitary broom tree.

You know, I’ve never seen an angel with wings and a halo. But oh-my-word — I’ve seen lots of angels with flesh on ‘em over the years. Just this weekend, a ‘messenger’ from God spoke to me in a moment of panic and uncertainty. Three times. Three different angels from this congregation sent me single line texts, at exactly the right moment, saying they were praying for me as I worked on this sermon. So no matter what this particular messenger/angel looked like, I believe this person was a divine visitation. And here’s what I want us to pay particular attention to: the angel/messenger knew EXACTLY what Elijah needed most at this moment: he needed rest, he needed something to eat, he needed something to drink.

When we or someone we love — or even someone we don’t know personally, but care about very much, like all those who have suffered from the latest abominable massacre in our country, this horror in Orlando — when people are suffering and struggling, the very first and best thing that we can do is to see that their immediate physical needs are met. That’s why relief agencies step into crises with tangible gifts — water, food, cots to sleep on, counselors to meet with.

What is not needed in that first moment of crisis are words of condemnation, judgment, criticism, or conjecture. Elijah didn’t need that messenger to tell him he was acting like a coward. He didn’t need a voice labeling him an unforgiven sinner. He didn’t need any response other than the one he got: a gentle acceptance of his exhaustion, and the fulfillment of his at-the-moment, most pressing needs.

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And after those first needs are met, what Elijah received next was of equal importance: he heard kind words. Yes, he heard kind words, laced with empathy and understanding: “Get up and eat some more,” the messenger said to him, after he’d had some sleep and some food and some water. “Get up and eat some more, for there is a long journey ahead of you.”

Some translations write that last line this way: “For it is too much for you.”

Exactly.

“It is too much for you.”

What has happened to our LGBT brothers and friends is too much for them. What has happened to our rational, peace-loving Muslim sisters and friends is too much for them. The ugly, hate-filled, side-swiping verbiage happening in our recent political conversation is too much for all of us.

And the best thing we can contribute — after any and all physical needs are met — the best thing we can offer in the midst of exhaustion and hatred is this: kind, sensible, true, loving words.

And only those words. In the immediate aftermath of crisis, we all need to sit down next to the person who is suffering and offer a kind and loving presence. There will be a time for action.There will. But not now.

And so, having slept, eaten, been refreshed by water, our hero sets off across the desert, heading for the Mount of God, called Horeb in this text, an alternate name for Mt. Sinai, that fabled place where Moses met God, and received the tablets of the law.

When I hit the wall at the end of 2001, while I was serving here as Associate Pastor, I took care of my physical needs first. I was exhausted and discovered I was also anemic. So I began to treat that. I was taking some medicines that were making things worse, not better, so I stopped those meds. And there were a few, not a lot, but a few, friends who called or wrote or visited and brought me kind words, too.

But the single most important thing that happened during those months of recovery was that I began to sink into worship, daily worship, using a big red book called “Celtic Daily Prayer” with an accompanying CD. I loved that book — and I used it so often the cover fell off! Experiencing deep periods of worship was what eventually restored me to myself, and to my ministry here.

And that is exactly where our friend Elijah is headed. He is headed to meet God.

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Forty days and forty nights he traveled, which is an old Hebraic way of saying that this trip was perfect, it was complete. And he heads now on the upward part of his journey, both physically and spiritually — up, up, up, he climbs, landing himself inside a cave — maybe the very cleft where Moses had been lovingly placed for his own protection when HE met God on that very mountain.

And then . . . And then we get this remarkable interchange, this wonderful doubly-done conversation. God asks a simple question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Wow. What a question.

What are you doing here, Diana?

What are you doing here, Jon?

What are you doing here, Jim?

What are you doing here, Linda?

What are you doing here???

 Holy mackerel — the question of the ages, right?

What are we doing here? Are we being the church? Are we loving our neighbors? Are we engaging in spiritual warfare, as our pastor as so eloquently instructed us these last four weeks? Are we offering kind words to one another, and to the world around us? Are we living love, all day, every day? Are we open to the very real possibility that God might be doing something new and powerful in us, in the church, in the world?

What are we doing here?

And Elijah gives answer. And boy, it’s a pretty self-serving answer, isn’t it???

“I’ve done my job, Lord. I’ve done what you told me to do. And these people — the ones you sent me to — these people, they’re the ones who’ve messed up. And now I AM ALL ALONE. I’m the only one. Just me. Just little ol’ me.”

And the Lord is so deeply kind in response: “Go outside your cave, friend,” he says. Stand there before me.”

But I want you to catch something here. The text says simply that Elijah ‘stood there’ in verse 11, just as the Lord begins to ‘pass by.’ But skip over all the drama for a second and look at verse 13. Do you see it there? The wind, and the earthquake, and the fire go by, bringing with them majesty, chaos, destruction, HUGE reminders of the power of God. Yet the text very carefully tells us that God was not in ANY of these. No. After all the bells and whistles, there comes the ‘sound of a gentle whisper,’ or the ‘sound of silence,’ as my favorite interpretation puts it. And at THIS, verse 13 tells us, Elijah wrapped himself in his cloak, and THEN, he stepped to the entrance of the cave.

Unlike Moses, whom the Lord placed into the cave for his own protection, God invites Elijah to come out of the cave and to stand before Yahweh. And somehow, Elijah cannot even respond until . . . the silence is as overwhelming as the loneliness. Isn’t that interesting?

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Now whether this is evidence of Elijah’s superior and astute judgment about what constitutes the presence of God or yet another example of how truly out of it he was, or a beautifully drawn picture of how deep his need was, I don’t pretend to know. The text doesn’t tell us those things.

Whatever got him out there on that ledge, Elijah now stands in the very presence of God and hears God ask the very same question Elijah has already answered: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And here’s the kicker: Elijah gives exactly the same answer.

There is no sudden stab of insight. There is no increasing clarity or sign of intelligence. There is only, and I use this word very carefully, there is only obedience. The Lord says, “Stand here.” He’s late to respond, but he does it. The Lord asks, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah answers. Again. But I gotta say, something is happening here. I’m not completely sure what it is, but I have a few hunches. Because here is what happens at the very end of our narrative today: the Lord says to Elijah: “Go back the way you came.”

Go back the way you came?

Yes! The journey is reversed. The inward and upward journey is now, once again, the outward journey. Much like walking the prayer labyrinth, we walk in, and we walk out. But it is what happens right there at the center that makes the difference.

What we don’t see in the text of the morning is what comes next — and it’s important, too. God gives Elijah new marching orders — basically, he is re-commissioned as a prophet. BUT, this time, he is to find and anoint his own successor, so Elijah knows there is an end game in view.

And then — and oh, how I love this little add-on — and then, God carefully and clearly says to Elijah, “Oh by the way, you are not alone. You have never been alone. There are 7,000 — count them! — seven zero zero zero others who have been faithfully worshipping me all this time.”

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How gracious is this whole conversation? One worn-out, burnt-up old prophet, wrapped in his cloak, still feeling old and tired and done. And one remarkable God, who sees Elijah — all of Elijah — and says, “You belong to me, old man. Warts and all, weaknesses and all. And I am not done with you just yet. No way, no how.”

God calls Elijah to remember who he is. In the midst of his sorrow, even in the midst of his inability to truly see the goodness that is right around him, in the midst of it all, God says, “You. You right there. I’ve got work for you. Good work. So, take a deep breath, take a good look at me. And remember who the heck you are, okay?”

Oh friends. When we face days where we wonder how the heck we got here, can we remember this?

Can we remember the goodness of God?
Can we remember the truth that we are NEVER alone?
Can we look for angels in the faces of the people who help us?
Can we go deep into worship, seeking the presence of the Living God?
Can we climb whatever mountain is in front of us, confident that we won’t be alone                            there, either?
Can we reach out in love to individuals and groups who are being unjustly treated                              and persecuted?
Can we engage in spiritual warfare with the only real weapon we’ve got, the ever-                                present, all-inclusive love of God?
Can we be ready to answer that ages-old question: What are you doing here?

Can we remember who we are?

Oh, I hope so. I pray so.

Let’s begin by singing, with courage, the powerful words of the song in our bulletins —

             “Through it all, my eyes are on you, through it all, all is well.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the Whole Truth

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“Oh, Diana,” friends tell me, looking into my eyes with tenderness and concern. “You are so lucky to have your mom still with you!”

I offer a small smile, nod my head and reply, “Yes, I know that I am.”

And I do know that. I do. But there is also this other truth, ever-present and insistent. The hard, hard truth that the lovely old woman inhabiting my mother’s body is not at all the mother I have known for most of my life. She is beautiful to see, kind to everyone around her, breaks into old hymns multiple times an hour, and loves to visit the outside world.

But she is not my mother. At least, not in the ways that I wish she could be.

That woman, that mama, has been slip-sliding away for nearly a decade now, steadily losing pieces of herself. And as she drifts further and further from me, I feel as though there are large chunks of me fading into the ether right along with her. Huge chunks of my own history are gone forever, never to be found again. 

I miss my mother. I miss being known by her. I miss sharing history with her, I miss swapping stories, wrestling with hard truths, reading books, going to the movies, taking trips, making fudge, having her give me driving directions, watching her interact with my children and grandchildren, marveling at her insight into people and situations, laughing at her ribald jokes. 

She is here with me in physical form, and for that I give thanks. But she is not here in any of the ways that make her my mother. She is a beautiful, loving, sometimes forlorn, and very old woman. On July 6th, she will be 95, a fact that startles her every time I tell her. Last week, she turned to me and asked, “I wonder who I am?” 

I wonder who I am! 

Ah, Mom. I wonder, too.

 

As I stood under the shower’s spray this morning, I offered small prayers of thanksgiving:

     “Thank you, Lord, for hot water and plenty of it.”
     “Thank you, Lord, for my good husband and his careful attention to our finances.”
     “And thank you, Lord, for my sweet mama . . .”

And with those words, I found myself sobbing. Not gentle tears these, but hard-wrought, heart-felt, gut-wrenching sobs. “Where is this coming from?” I wondered. Most of the time, the tears are far away these days, leading me to believe that I have come to some place of peace and acceptance about the way things are. But today’s meltdown reminds me that below the surface, my own emotions about mom’s situation are deeply unsettled.

My only brother arrives today and I will be glad to see him and his wife. But we four aging children must have a difficult conversation this afternoon. We have a scheduled meeting with the finance guy at Mom’s care facility, that place where she is safe, well-cared for, loved. The cost of her care is climbing while her small investment account is diminishing, so we’re looking for answers today. How can we best manage her care? Will she be alright?

The better, and I hope bigger, part of me is not worried about this, trusting that there will be enough, that God will provide a way for this daughter, this faithful Jesus-follower, this disciple. But I found myself crying out to the God we both love this morning, asking how long? and, are you there? and, why? 

No answers appeared in the shampoo bubbles. Not one. Nothing but the strong sense that the invitation continues to be this one: trust meTrust that I see your mama, that I love her, that she is safe. Trust that your own love and care for her are enough, that you are doing the best you can, that she has not been abandoned. Trust that there will be enough.

Enough.

And so I will choose to do so. We four will be as careful, mindful and loving as we possibly can. And God will carry us through. 

In the meantime, I will call to mind that image I was given over four years ago now* — that image of my small mama, held safe within the immense sacred heart of Jesus Christ, the One who was present before the universe was breathed into existence, the One who sees each of us with eyes of love and concern, the One who is the only place of true safety any of us will ever experience.

I am trusting that that image will carry me through whatever lies ahead.

 

*I wrote a lengthy post with lots of photos about how that image was given to me here.

 

Full to the Brim . . .

Some days are like that. Just full, mostly of good stuff — gratitude, relief, satisfaction, contentment. Today was that kind of day for me. This helped:

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a 15-minute power walk on a wide beach this afternoon

The last few weeks? Not so much.

Two different days in the dentist’s chair, two overnight, quick turn-arounds to southern CA, one for a Grandparents’ Day, one for a memorial service for a friend of forty years. Unseasonably hot weather, with a rainstorm thrown in here and there, aching muscles from who knows what, a shorter fuse than usual, which I always find slightly disorienting. Who’s here right now, making me feisty and discontent?

It was Lunch with Mom Day again today, something I love more each time I do it. The change in my mom’s meds has wrought a near-miraculous change in her demeanor and happiness level. As I gazed at her sweet face across the table from me today, I found this glorious sense of fullness moving right up into my eyeballs and then spilling gently out onto my face. I am stunned at how much I love her, how grateful I am to see glimpses of the mama I once knew, to celebrate with her the change we both observe and take delight in. I have no clue how long this will last, but I am determined to inhale all of it for however long she’s here.

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she is savvy enough to recognize that my phone is also a camera these days!

On Saturday afternoon, we sat packed into the downstairs of our former church home, remembering with joy and gratitude the life of Roland Tabell, the Director of Worship in that place for almost 40 years. He planned his own service pretty much, and I thought some of it might be awkward and difficult. As it turned out, he knew better! About 250 of us sat and listened to a recording made about 35 years ago of a musical drama he had co-written and I helped to produce. And immediately, we were back there, rejoicing in the Lord’s gifts to us during those years. 

I think maybe that’s why our Scripture urges us so often to remember. It is good to tell our story, to celebrate it, not to wallow in it or regret it, but to re-connect with God’s work in the past as a means of re-discovering God at work in the present and anticipating its continuation into the future. We too often forget to do that, especially when we feel discouraged about the state of the world, or the state of our own souls.

People traveled from across the state and across the country to be there. Long threads were re-gathered into a lovely afternoon tapestry, one that will help sustain us, even as we return to our separate stories now.

I am grateful today. What about you?

________________________

I include here the words I was asked to share at Roland’s service on Saturday. Some who read this blog knew him and could not be there with us. And I would like to put this ‘on record’ somewhere. He was a hugely important part of our story, Dick’s and mine, and we miss him already.

Remembering Roland
by Diana Trautwein (with help from Dick)
April 16, 2016 at Pasadena Covenant Church

It was the summer of 1963. I had just finished my first year at UCLA, where I met and began dating a guy named Dick Trautwein, and that summer, Dick was recruited by some friends to join their church softball team. That church was this church. As a player, Dick was required to attend one worship service per month, and we opted to come on Sunday evenings. We sat up there in the balcony, enjoying the breeze that wafted in from the then wide-open stained glass window, listening to Paul Larsen preach and watching as Roland Tabell led the congregation in worship from the piano.

Flash forward to 1975. We were now married, the parents of three little kids, aged 7, 5 and 3, living in Altadena, and looking for a neighborhood church after six years of commuting to my home church in Glendale. We chose to come here, at least partly because of that lovely summer experience twelve years earlier, and from the moment of our first Sunday morning worship service here, with Mel White preaching, the sanctuary filled with color and creativity and Roland Tabell still leading worship and also . . . directing a choir, a really good church choir — I knew immediately that I wanted to sing in that choir, I wanted to sing in Roland’s choir.

That was the beginning of a 21-year relationship with this community and a 40 plus year relationship with Roland and Betty. I would say that those two relationships — this community of people and the denomination from which they sprang and the Tabells — have been among the very best of God’s gifts to us over the course of our 50 year marriage.

I’d sung in choirs my whole life but this church choir was different from any of them, primarily because Roland was different from any choral director I’d ever seen. He was beyond gifted, never indulged in histrionics of any kind, was uniquely open to creative new ways of doing things, was always prodigiously arranging, researching, selecting anthems of power and beauty, helping us all to be the best possible singers we could be on two hours of practice per week.

He was soft-spoken, humble, nimble at the keyboard, thoughtfully reflective, always reading, asking questions, thinking things through from a different angle. I volunteered in his office two mornings per week for about a dozen years, helping to produce both of the musicals that he and Bryan Leech created together, gathering props, organizing costumes and music folders, even painting the choir room and hanging mini-blinds in those fall colors so popular in the 1970s and early 1980s. I have photos somewhere of Clara and Larry Spence helping me to hang those dang blinds!

During the early years of our friendship, Roland and Dick discovered a shared love for tennis, and played singles with each other weekly for twenty years. As couples, we traveled together to Hawaii, with Roland doing all the planning, finding great accommodations for not much money, even setting up side trips and must-see tourist experiences for us all. I remember stepping into one of those boats at the Cultural Center on Oahu and some other tourist recognizing him from a band they’d played in together years before –a Hawaiian band. Hawaiian band? Roland? When we all questioned him about it, he tossed it off, like he tossed off the years of music in the army, and the broad knowledge he had of all musical permutations from Gregorian chant through slack key guitar. He traveled easily through every musical genre (with the possible exception of hip-hop and rap), using it all to the glory of God and the enrichment of his chosen community of worshippers.

But here’s what I remember the most about this man, and here’s where his life intersected mine in ways that were profound and transformative. Roland saw gifts in people, and he called them out. He was the first person to ask me, in all seriousness, “Hey, have you ever considered being a pastor? You’ve really got the gifts for that.” That was in the late 70’s, after I had to fill in at the last minute for someone who became ill and ended up leading an entire worship service on the fly. It took about ten years for me to heed those words and to see in them God’s prophetic call on my own life. Time and again, he gave me opportunity to use my gifts — musically, administratively, devotionally. He pushed me and he pushed others into the front of things, always ready to step back, to stand in the shadows, providing encouragement, insightful critique, and even a little arm-twisting, from time to time.

He was such a gifted man. Even more remarkably, given the depth and breadth of those gifts, he was such a good man. His presence in this place was gift, from beginning to end. He was faithful and true, strong and steady, winsome, occasionally quirky, and always interesting. I thank God for his life, I thank God for the ways in which his life intersected my own, I thank God for Roland Tabell.

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A Lenten Prayer for Dusty People — A Companion Column

Every two months, it is my privilege to write a regular column for a newly re-formatted denominational publication called “The Covenant Companion.” I write these columns approximately two months in advance. The most recently released edition contains a Lenten prayer I wrote at the end of last year. I was tired, distracted by the holidays and had just arrived at a lovely motel for an anniversary getaway with my husband. On December 18th of last year, we hit #50. The deadline was looming and I was out of ideas. I knew this issue would appear in the middle of Lent, so I chose to write a prayer. The words that came tumbling out seem quite appropriate for the quagmire in which our nation finds itself politically just now. And once again, I am amazed at God’s grace and the Spirit’s prescient power within us, even when we haven’t a clue. Here is that column/prayer:

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This is what the LORD says—”Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland…I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”

O Lord, how we long for you to do a new thing in our midst.

How we long to see the way made in the wilderness,

            the stream flowing through the wasteland.

For we are indeed your people, formed to praise you.

And so we do.

We praise you that you are the God of new things.

            That you are the God of wilderness way-making,

            that you are the God of life-giving water in the midst of life’s wastelands,

            that you are the God who reminds us to ‘forget the former things,’

            because you are in the business of making all things new.

Start with us, please, Lord. Start with us.

Make us new, inside and out.

Teach us to live as new creatures –

            not because we’re fad-hungry

            or driven to own the latest new tech device;

            not because we’re bored with life and need a new kick;

            not because we’re in need of a diversion.

Make us new because we need your transformational energy at work within us

            in order to live as whole and holy people.

Make us new because we’ve worn out the old ways,

            we’ve tried them repeatedly and learned the hard way that they just don’t work.

Make us new because we want to be people

            who radiate the fruit of the Spirit of Jesus –

            that amazing, multi-faceted, lovely fruit-of-nine-sides that Paul listed out for us:

                        Love, Joy, Peace,

                        Patience, Kindness, Goodness,

                        Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control.

So…start with us in this making-new business.

Because if we’re truly open to the newness your Spirit can bring,

            and if we truly live out of the fruit your Spirit grows in us,

            then we can carry that newness into every situation and relationship

                        we find ourselves in whether that’s

            our family home, our dorm suite, our place of business,

            our classroom, the grocery line, the traffic jam,

            the blog comments, the political debate,

            the kitchen table or the table at our favorite restaurant,

            the well-worn beach path or hiking trail,

            or the sidewalk right in front of where we live –

wherever our lives lead us –we can bleed newness, your newness, into our world.

So, we ask that your church worldwide might be a sign of newness,

            a whisper of beauty, a word of kindness,

            a presence of hospitality, a ray of civility

                        in an increasingly uncivil and terrifying world.

Convict us when we fall short of this worthy goal;

            convince us that we, with you at work within us,

            have the inside scoop on the hope this world needs.

Consider that we are but dust – but then . . .

            continue the work of new creation even in our dustiness.

 

And please, bless our very dusty leaders, denominational and political,

            who are engaged in important decision-making on many fronts.

Grant us peace in our churchly dialog and in our civic discourse,

            wisdom in our personal and our national decisions,

            and grace with one another when the day is done.

Thank you, Great God of all things new,

            for your everyday goodness and grace,

            for your mercies which are new every morning

                    and which sustain us our whole life long.

In the name and for the sake of Jesus, your son,

                    who makes it possible for us to be made new each and every day.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Touching the Holy

Every once in a while, life grants me a transcendent moment. Often, this happens when I am out of doors, gaping at the sea, the mountains, a redwood forest; snorkeling above coral reefs, standing in the wind on the deck of a ship, or staring down at the world from 35,000 feet. These moments are gifts, glimpses of the Mystery, those thin places between earth and heaven, a place/person/? which I choose to believe is much nearer to us than we can imagine, close enough to touch.

And once in a while, we do.

Music is often an entryway to heaven for me. Especially choral music. I’ve written before about my lifelong love for choral singing — listening to it, but mostly, singing it. Standing with a larger group of singers, making Beauty together is a privilege and a joy; I do not take it for granted.

Here is an example of a small piece of music that was instrumental in my own deeper awakening to the Spirit about twenty years ago. It is an audio recording of a piece that hit me right between the eyes when first I heard it up in the tower office that was mine when I worked on staff in our home church. I have listened to it hundreds of times and always, always  it moves me to tears and wonder. I had the privilege of singing it (though we did not sing it very well, I fear) in the choir I joined last year. This is one piece of nine that are part of a spectacular requiem mass written by Maurice Durufle, a French composer from the early-to-mid 20th century. There are frequently changing time signatures and many different keys throughout the entire mass, but this piece is one of the simpler ones, as written. But it is the most difficult to sing exactly right. Robert Shaw and his famous Chorale got it exactly right. Close your eyes and let this music wash over you.

“Sanctus” – by Maurice Durufle, using the text of the requiem Mass:

Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth,
pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis! Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis!

Holy, Lord God of hosts.
The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He Who cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Do you see what I mean? Or perhaps this particular piece doesn’t lead you across the threshold in the same way it did me. I’m willing to bet however, that somewhere in your life there is one piece — or perhaps several — that help you to do just that.

Last week, our choir met again to prepare for our spring concert. We are doing a variety of anthems and folk songs, about five of which we’ve looked at so far. Of those five, two of them, TWO OF THEM, opened that door to the Holy in me as we sight-read them. The act of sight-reading is exhilarating, all by itself. It is one of my favorite things to do in the world: to take a stack of unseen music and work through it for the first time. So fun.

But these two? Oh, glory! The words simply stopped me. STOPPED me. And the close harmonies and moving choral parts? Well  . . . that was three days ago and I am still awash with gratitude and glory.  This first one pretty well sums up what I believe and have experienced with music . . . sing me to heaven, indeed.

“Sing Me to Heaven,” words by Jane Griner, music by Daniel E. Gawthrop

In my heart’s sequestered chambers lie truths stripped of poets’ gloss
Words alone are vain and vacant, and my heart is mute
In response to aching silence, memory summons half-heard voices
And my soul finds primal eloquence, and wraps me in song
If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
sing me a requiem, sing me to Heaven
Touch in me all love and passion, pain and pleasure
Touch in me grief and comfort, love and passion, pain and pleasure
Sing me a lullaby, a love song, a requiem
Love me, comfort me, bring me to God
Sing me a love song, sing me to Heaven

And number two? Yes, yes. This is the cry of my heart for me and for all those I know and love who are struggling to see God in the midst of their pain, to believe in the midst of crushing doubt, to take a step into the unknown when it feels dark and murky and above all, lonely. 

I invite you to take steps into the holy, my friends. To look for thresholds in your day-to-day living, to ask for eyes to see and ears to hear. May you find small moments when loneliness recedes and hope rises, rises, rises.

“Even When He Is Silent” – music by Kim Andre Arnesen
          The text for the piece was found in a concentration camp after World War 2:
          The key signature encourages director and singer to set the metronome for 54 per quarter note and adds these remarkable words, ‘with hope.’ Indeed, indeed.
I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I feel it not.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Out of the Ether — OneWord 2016

On January 1st, I sent out my first Tiny Letter of this new year. This is a project I have come to love and I am grateful for the friends who have subscribed to these missives, most particularly for the much smaller number who take the time to send me a response of some kind. Thank you!!

In that letter, I said that I was still waiting for my ‘word’ for this year to reveal itself to me. I was even so bold as to say I hoped it would be an easier word than the last few have been. My word for 2015 was ‘STRETCH,’ for 2014 it was ‘OBEDIENT,’ and for 2012, it was ‘WAITING.’ (Not sure what happened to 2013, but apparently, a word never materialized for that 12-month stretch!) Not one of those was easy, in any sense of that word.

After writing that letter, as I readied myself for sleep and turned out the light, I asked again for a word to appear. And lo, out of the ether of near-sleep, a word appeared. I thought I heard it as . . . slow.

Well, yes, that surely fits. 2015 was the year of Falling Down a Lot and every time I hit the ground, I thought to myself, “Woman, you have GOT to slow down!” So slow seemed right somehow.

But that sense of rightness lasted all of 30 seconds. Because coming immediately on the heels of that word was this one: ‘STEADY.

Ah, yes. I’ll take it! I said into that ether. I.will.take.it.

I’ve been chewing on that set of seven letters ever since, trying to conjure up images/ideas/connections as I reflect on the year just past and lean into the one so recently begun. Here are some of my initial thoughts and a few recent photographs to illustrate them.

 

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After the turbulence of 2015, the entire concept of steadiness comes as a welcome gift, one that I am still unpacking, one that I am confident will be multi-layered and complex. For example, have you ever watched sea stars? They are among God’s steadiest creatures, I do believe. They only move when hungry or in danger and they cling to rocks, coral, wharf poles — anything sturdy and stationary. On top of that, they’re gorgeous — brightly colored, a pleasing shape and they have this incredible ability to regrow injured limbs. Hoping to make this a year of Not Falling At All, I want to learn from these guys and cling to the sturdy stuff. And, of course, it never hurts to look as good as possible whilst clinging, right?

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Living in a beachside community provides easy access to one of the grandest of reminders that steadiness is a virtue and gift. The waves keep on comin,’ you know? Sometimes they’re slow and piddly; sometimes they’re muscular and wild. But no matter the weather, the time of day or night, the condition of the beach (or the presence of frail human bodies!), those waves are steady. They roll on, without end or interruption. I’m hoping for NO interruptions this year, at least none of the unwelcome and/or difficult kind . . . like emergency room visits or moving all my earthly belongings across town.

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Now I will admit that some human bodies are less frail than others when it comes to those waves. We spent a fair amount of time watching surfers while we were away celebrating our anniversary last month. This particular guy was not young. No, indeed, not young at all. And he managed to catch a ride with some frequency. It’s true that a surfer’s steadiness is a temporary and usually short-lived thing. But while it lasts? Oh, GLORY. Even just a few moments of glorious steadiness would be welcome, welcome.

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Now this old codger knew how to be steady! He clambered up on the edge of the Pismo Beach pier, folded his large webbed feet underneath his feathers, sat down firmly and drew his great neck and beak into the warmth and softness of his feathers. He remained watchful and alert, but he sat there, perched on a narrow plank for a good long time. When a nearby fisherman caught a small fish, he was instantly across that pier, waiting for a taste — he got one, too. Being steady does not mean being unwilling to move. Rather, I think it implies an alert readiness to change course, as needed. That’s the kind of steady I need.

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And then, of course, in any central coast California beach town, there are the bluffs, those large, yellow-to-peachy-pink rock formations that rim almost every sandy cove between Ventura and Pismo Beach. I love them — they’re craggy, uneven, vulnerable to erosion, yet somehow one of the steadiest things in our landscape. They are ever-present, providing grand vistas of the broad Pacific, reminding us that we are truly tiny creatures with short life spans. They are a regular reminder of beauty and strength, two of the many facets of ‘steady.’

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The oak trees that are ubiquitous in this part of the world remind me of the value of hanging in, hanging on, standing strong, offering shade, and withstanding both wind and drought. They are, in many ways, the epitome of steadiness to me. We don’t have oak trees in our current neighborhood, at least not very many of them. We were surrounded by them in our former home and their presence is one of the few things I miss since our move. I’m glad they’re EVERYWHERE in our town, because I enjoy being around them. I’d love for 2016 to be a year of hanging in/hanging on/standing strong, etc. Praying in that direction these days, that is for sure.

DSC05922I did a quick biblical search for the word, ‘steady,’ and got back a grand total of four. I may reference one or two of them in the year ahead, but this one, from the beautiful book of Isaiah, seemed wildly appropriate for me at this point in my life:

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Isaiah 35:3-5

Yes, Lord. I am relying on you to provide both strength and steadiness as needed in the year that is unfolding before me. And I relish this picture of an inordinately long-lived rainbow as a reminder of the way in which you, O God, keep your promises to humankind. As always, 2016 will be a year in which you are the steadiness I seek, the steadiness I need.

Do you have a word for 2016? Share it in the comments — I love reading what others are living with/wrestling with/hoping for!