Hold My Hand

06-05-2010 08

The first time I called Janice I did it out of obligation. I was the newly appointed leader of our church women’s group, a role for which I felt supremely ill-suited, being a classic introvert and therefore disinclined to initiate any social interaction. But I also have a strong sense of duty, so, with pounding heart and shaking hands I dialed her number. I paced the short length of my kitchen as her phone rang, hoping she wouldn’t answer. She did. One hour (and about three thousand steps) later I hung up the phone and smiled.

Phone calls soon became visits, obligation friendship. Janice and I did not have much in common. She was elderly and sick; I was young(ish) and healthy; she was from North Carolina; I from California; she was refined; I, hopelessly dowdy. But her stories of adventure, travel, romance, heartbreak and faith delighted me to no end.

Unfortunately, by the time I connected with Janice her health had begun to fail. Hours spent immobile on her bedroom floor, unable to summon help, finally sent her to the hospital from which she never returned, other than a brief interlude at a rehabilitation facility. Myasthenia gravis: “a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, which are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs.”[1] I’d never heard of it before and it took me a while to master the term. At first it was just a sudden inability to stand, mostly controlled by periodic “infusions.” But the disease progressively stole more and more of her ability to move . Not long before the disease took over, she had lost her husband after his protracted battle with Alzheimer’s. She’d expected his passing, though heart-breaking, to free her to go out more, enjoy life, even travel. “I’m only eighty-three!” she once lamented. “I didn’t expect this!” I still smile at her optimism.

One time I brought my sixteen-year-old daughter, in need of some perspective as sixteen-year-olds are wont to be, to visit and asked Janice to retell some of her stories. Shortly thereafter my daughter moved out, but she remembered Janice. I received a text from her: “Tell Janice that she’s making a difference. I was talking to a friend today and I shared with him the things Janice told me. Later, he texted me to tell me he’d been struggling with some personal, unexpressed concerns. The things I shared from Janice were just what he needed to hear.” I told Janice. Janice, who could scarcely feed herself, who couldn’t walk to her bathroom alone. She was making a difference!

As Janice’s health continued to deteriorate, she lost her ability to speak at times. She would write in shaky nearly illegible script on her little white board, “Talk to me.” So, I’d ramble on about the news of the day, my kids, my husband’s job search, my piano students, church lessons. When she was too tired to listen I would just quietly hold her hand. When neither speaking nor writing were possible, a small twitch of her finger said, “Hold my hand.”

It wasn’t until after Janice had passed away that the significance of one of her stories hit me. Some missionaries visited her family when she was just a child in rural North Carolina. After listening to their message she wanted to be baptized so they offered to baptize her in a pond near her home. She was afraid of that pond; being a southern girl she knew its dark waters might harbor snakes of which she was terrified. “Don’t you be afraid!” one of the missionaries told her. “Just hold my hand. I promise you’ll be just fine.” With the faith of a child she grasped his hand and confidently stepped into the water.

“I will hold you by the hand. Don’t be afraid. I am here to help.”[2] You are not alone. Whatever you face, we face it together. A message we all need, so that we may say, “though I walk through the darkest valley, even the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”[3]

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[1] Website: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Myasthenia Gravis Fact Sheet

[2] Paraphrase Isaiah 41:13

[3] Paraphrase Psalm 23:4

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Why Should my Love be Powerless to Help Another?

Mary
Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato/WikiCommons

I have a file called “Questions and Answers.” I smile now with affectionate condescension at my youthful (mid-40’s) self who started this file and invited friends and family to ask the questions which I, in my…arrogance? naivete?…assumed I could answer—assumed had “an answer.” Consider this question from a friend: “I can see a lot of personal benefits to prayer, but how does praying for someone else help that individual? Are our blessings dependent on others’ actions? Would God withhold blessings because not enough people prayed? If we tell others we’re praying for them, the sense of community might help; but if just telling them works, is the prayer even necessary?” Profound questions like this defy my quaint notion of answers.

But maybe that’s ok; I’ve noticed that Jesus rarely offered pat answers to questions. Though we crave certainty and closure, he accepted complexity and invited conversation, both by responding to questions with questions[1] and by telling stories[2]. So, instead of an answer, I offer my friend:

Questions…
“’Why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another?’ I can only answer with the return question, ‘Why should my love be powerless to help another?’…. If I love and cannot help, does not my heart move me to ask him to help who loves and can?…Will he answer, ‘Child, do not trouble me; I am already doing all I can’? ….But how if [God] should say, ‘Child, I have been doing all I could; but now you are come, I shall be able to do more.’ How if he should answer, ‘Pray on, my child; I am hearing you; it goes through me in help to him….I help and you help….We must work, and not lose heart.’”[3]

…And A story
Last summer I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem which shelters the Nativity Grotto, a small cave commemorating the place where Jesus was born. Originally chosen for its peaceful obscurity, today it draws throngs of pilgrims. Very pushy pilgrims.  As my friend and I awaited our turn to enter, the impatient crowd pressed together till we could scarcely move. Suddenly my heart started racing. I broke into a sweat. I couldn’t breathe. “I have to get out of here!” I gasped.
Just then a Spanish-speaking tour guide began mobilizing her troops: “Link arms! Make a chain so we’re not separated! Don’t let anyone pass!!” My friend, fluent in Spanish, quickly intervened in my behalf—would they let me pass? Could they hold back the crowds, allowing me a moment of solitary worship? The opportunity to help created a palpable mood-shift; actions taken to prevent interlopers infringing on their efficient site-seeing, were transformed into a means of protecting a single person, a stranger who, by their intervention, could approach divinity. As I tried to catch my breath within their circle of safety, my friend began to speak indicating a woman in the chain: “She says she has claustrophobia too. She will pray for you; you will pray for her.” I returned the woman’s encouraging smile. We nodded in solidarity. United in our struggle, in our prayers, we would come to Christ. Together.

Note: Several times in Matthew, in the context of teaching and answering questions, Jesus asks, “What do you think?”[4] I would love to hear what you think. What other questions could be asked about this topic? What other stories could be told? So much learning occurs in conversation, instead of one person giving a definitive answer, so please share if you feel so inclined!

 

 

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[1] E.g. Matt. 21:23-27; Mark 2:7-9; Luke 20:1-4; John 18:33-34

[2] Matt. 9:14-17; Luke 10:25-37; Luke 12:13-21

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Man’s Difficulty Concerning Prayer

[4] Matt. 17:25, 18:12, 21:1

Courage to Love

Court dancing with Hari Krishnas at Spanish Steps 5

When I applied to a theological master’s program a few months ago, I’ll admit it never really occurred to me I wouldn’t get in. My GPA was far above the minimum required; my experience was broad in time, scope and geography; my essays had been proofread by my university-professor husband and pronounced error-free and creatively relevant. So I was surprised and disappointed at their terse rejection: “You have been denied admittance. We must consider what is best for all of our students.” “Is it because of my religion?” I wondered. Surely not. There must be something wrong with me.

Still, when I found another potential program, I decided to call before applying. The receptionist was “happy to answer my questions.” I had several. I only asked one.
“Do you admit people of my faith?” Her confident perkiness lapsed into awkward stuttering.
“We don’t…we have here that…umm…members…. Th-that church is ‘in-incongruent’ with…”
I decided to put her out of her misery.
“I understand. Thank you so much for your honesty and for taking the time to talk with me.”
“Have a good day!” she chirped with evident relief.
My hands were shaking when I set down my phone.

Now, I don’t pretend my minor frustration compares with the serious discrimination others have suffered. But it was eye-opening to someone who’s spent most of her life waltzing through almost any open door she pleases. Suddenly:

*I can see the frustration of wondering, “Was my denial due to my own inadequacy? Or did I check the “wrong” box, thus landing myself straight in the reject pile?”

*I can feel the shame of being silenced, the hope that someone perhaps at least read what I wrote and suggested that I might have a voice worth listening to.

*I can understand the sting of being “incongruent”—incompatible, different, not fitting in, not suitable, disagreeable, flawed—the pain of the insinuation that my opinions, my conversation, my mere presence is not only unwanted, but deemed harmful to a community I feel connected to.

As a friend said, this setback is cause for disappointment, but not discouragement. In fact, I feel encouraged–that is, inspired with courage–to resist division and discrimination. From now on I will try harder:

*to see Christ in all people.[1] Even “The face of the enemy is…in the image and likeness of God.”[2] I have no right to thoughtlessly chuck anyone in the reject pile.

*to listen. “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.”[3] Attention invites engagement; listening begets love.

*to reach out. “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you…thou shalt love him as thyself.”[4] The stranger, the foreigner, the “incongruent”: so easily overlooked, so quickly rejected—the one I must embrace; the one I am called to love.

 

 

 

 

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[1] Col. 3:11

[2] Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn_GpV5dbFc

[3] Psalm 116:1-2 NIV

[4] Lev. 19:34

Rise

10-09 007 American Cemetery Normandy

I read a quote recently: “If you’re a little better today than yesterday that’s good enough.”[1] I know this is meant to be encouraging, and it does help to remember that growth generally occurs incrementally, not all at once. But I couldn’t help wondering, “What if I’m not a little better today? What if I’m worse?” Because life, at least my life, in no way resembles a gradual, consistent upward trajectory. Some days I progress over the day before; other days I swan dive off my pinnacle of self-improvement. So…what if today I exercised less and ate more? What if I read less and watched TV more? What if I served less and played games on my phone more? What if I smiled less and grumbled more? What then? Am I not “good enough”?

For the author of Proverbs, being good enough has less to do with consistent progress and more to do with consistent effort: “The righteous fall seven times and rise again.”[2] Or, as my daughter put it, “Just keep showing up!” Interestingly, the strength to rise again…and again…comes, at least in part, from a confidence that, regardless of where we are today, we are good enough—for love, acceptance, forgiveness, respect—for the chance to try again, and for “grace to help in time of need.”[3]

A local hospital chaplain who ministers to those whose todays are often worse than their yesterdays,  describes himself as a “grace-bearer.”[4] Leery of the softness they associate with grace, detractors often accuse him of “letting people off the hook.” He wisely responds: Bearing grace isn’t about “letting people off the hook;” it’s about letting them know that wherever they are in their journey—experiencing the rush of ascension or the despair of rock bottom—God loves them, for “whosoever feeleth that, though he fall a thousand times in a day, doth yet rise again a thousand times, and is sure that the mercy of God is upon him.”[5] Remember, it is grace, not writhing in hopeless agony at the end of the proverbial hook, that enables Paul to “labor more abundantly.”[6]

So, if you were a little (or a lot) worse today than yesterday, let yourself off the hook. Be sure the mercy of God is upon you. Rise again. That’s good enough.

 

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[1] Attributed to David A. Bednar: https://www.mormonchannel.org/blog/post/daily-quote-a-little-bit-better.

[2] Prov. 24:16

[3] Heb. 4:16

[4] I wish I could remember his name, but he preached at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Provo, UT, May, 2019.

[5] Ralph S. Werrell, The Bold of Christ in the Theology of William Tyndale, p.109

[6] 1 Cor. 15:10

The Beginnings of Grace

Copy (2) of Don, Renee and Lauren Fichter

Mom,

Do you remember when I found that newborn picture of myself in my baby book and I said, “I look ugly.” You said, “You were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” At such a young age I already had the idea that I was loved because I was pretty. You opened my eyes to the idea that I was beautiful because I was loved, that I brought joy just by being me. “The LORD your God … will take great delight in you; [he] will rejoice over you with singing.”[1]

Do you remember the night we came home from vacation to find that our dog had attacked our ducks? You held the poor, dying creatures in your lap to be with them, comfort them as they left this world. And we both cried. “Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more….The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”[2] Love and loss; joy and pain. It’s all part of life. Even for the Resurrection and the Life. “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved… [and] Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!'”[3]

Do you remember when I was in fifth grade and we moved from our beautiful little town full of friends and family to the big city, and the kids in my new school were so mean to me? There was that one girl who backed me into a cement wall and yelled in my face while she punched me over and over. And the two girls who walked right behind me on the way to lunch and talked just loud enough for me to hear:
“I hate that new girl.”
“I hate her too. She’s so stupid.”
I came home, fell on my bed and sobbed. And you sat by me and rubbed my back. Sometimes there’s nothing we can say to make a difference; sometimes there’s nothing we can do to ease the pain. But a gentle touch says, “I’m here. You’re not alone.”
“The Lord says…As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”[4]

“It is profitable,” said John Bunyan, to call to mind “the very beginnings of grace with [our] souls.”[5] Mom, when I look to the beginnings of grace in my soul, you are always there, showing me love, teaching me how to love, exemplifying God’s love. You may not remember, but I do. I love you!

 

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[1] Zephaniah 3:17

[2] From the movie Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis

[3] John 11:33-36

[4] Isaiah 66:13

[5] John Bunyan, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners”

House of Kindness

Bethesda
Robert Bateman, The Pool of Bethesda, 1877

“Now there is at Jerusalem…a pool, which is called…Bethesda.”[1] Beside this pool lay a man, an invalid, one among many, hoping to avail himself of the pool’s healing properties. When Jesus asked, “Wilt thou be made whole?” he answered, “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.”

“I have no man.” I am alone. I sit daily in my pain as others, also in pain, overlook me in their desperation to relieve their own suffering. I see my salvation within reach. I strive to grasp it, my weak, trembling arms straining to drag my useless body forward. But I never get far before someone stronger rushes past, leaving me here, broken, invisible, alone.

Arise,” said Jesus. “Walk.”
“And immediately the man was made whole.”

“What would Jesus do?” we are to ask ourselves. And I find myself wondering why, because I can’t do what He did. I can’t make the lame walk. I can’t perform miracles…

I stood panting, paralyzed, at the top of the low hill which led to the final stretch of my dismal high school cross-country debut. Within two minutes of the start I was so far behind I couldn’t even see the next runner in front of me, so I had run the entire winding, wooded course alone. Now, to finish, I’d have to leave those woods, run down the hill and around the track in full view of the crowded bleachers. Alone. The humiliation was more than I could bear, so I just stopped, sat down and cried.
Soon  I noticed a boy on our team—athletic, popular—walking up the hill. “You’re almost there,” he said softly, encouragingly. “Keep going! You can do it!”
“I can’t.” He seemed to understand it wasn’t simply physical exhaustion keeping me from moving forward.
“You can,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”
He offered his hand. I grasped it, stood, and together we jogged slowly down the hill, past all those people, across the finish line.

“Do not wonder that [you] may become an imitator of God. If you love God, you will be an imitator of His kindness…Not by ruling over [your] neighbours, or by seeking to hold…supremacy over those that are weaker… On the contrary he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour; he who, in whatsoever respect he may be advantaged, is ready to benefit another who is disadvantaged; he who, whatsoever things he has received from God, by distributing these to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive his benefits: he is an imitator of God.”[2]

Bethesda–the  “house of  kindness,”[3] where Jesus saw, spoke, lifted, and healed is at Jerusalem—and wherever people imitate His kindness. It is where the powerful put others first, the strong lift the weak, the blessed share their blessings, the busy slow down, the capable patiently help, the suffering notice the pain of others. It is where everyone has someone and the broken are made whole. It is where miracles happen.

 

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[1] John 5:1-8

[2]  Epistle to Diognetus, ch. 10, 2nd century CE, emphasis added, slightly rearranged

[3] https://biblehub.com/greek/964.htm

Think No Evil

new-lizzy-01.png

“The closer you get the slower I drive,” smugly advised the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. My mind flashed back to a late night some years previous. My husband was frantically trying to exit the freeway, but the driver in front of us, irritated at what he perceived as our aggressive tailgating, took it upon himself to teach us a lesson by driving slower and slower. Our panic increased in proportion to his deceleration, till finally my normally conservative husband swerved the family minivan off-road, careening past our would-be educators. I’m sure the other driver cursed us in his righteous indignation.

What he didn’t know: I was having a baby, and my husband, in a complete state of panic, was trying to get me to the hospital before that happened. (Breaking several more traffic “protocols,” we made it. Barely.)

The Apostle Paul cautioned that we “know in part,” we “see through a glass darkly.” [1] Our perceptions of each other are no better than the distorted, defective reflections of ancient bronze mirrors, making our presumptions of superiority foolishly arrogant. So “beware of self-righteousness, and be limited in the estimate of your own virtues, and do not think yourselves more righteous than others.”[2]

Instead, exercise charity—be patient, kind, humble, forgiving—and “think no evil.” Rather than implying an absence of “sinful” thoughts in general, this admonition refers specifically to how we think about others. It has been translated “don’t be resentful,” “don’t keep track of wrongs,” or “don’t impute evil to others.” Don’t jump to conclusions, don’t suppose you know what’s in someone else’s heart, don’t hastily assume ill intent behind another’s actions. Or, to frame it positively, give others the benefit of the doubt; assume the best. I love George MacDonald’s invitation to creative charity—imagine plausible excuses for your offender’s behavior:

“We do our brother, our sister, grievous wrong every time we ignore the excuse that would ease the blame.  Such a thing God never does, for it would be to disregard the truth….It may be he makes excuses which the sinner dares not think of….A man is bound to think of all just excuse for his offender, for we are called to imitate God.”[3]

As for me and my husband, we frequently find ourselves remarking, as we travel our local thoroughfares, “Maybe his wife’s having a baby!”

 

 

 

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[1] 1 Corinthians 13 for all scriptural references to charity

[2] History of the Church, 4:606–7; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Apr. 28, 1842, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Eliza R. Snow

[3] George MacDonald, The Lady’s Confession, p.143