It Is My Place

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“My dad will help you.”
It was the second time in as many days that my two-year-old granddaughter had uttered this sentiment. “My dad will help.” Her dad, unfortunately, was in Hawaii vacationing with my daughter, which was why I was there in the first place, battling—and losing to—the Diaper Genie. The first time she’d said it, was the evening before while we read bedtime stories. The little pig in the book was clearly distraught, tears shooting in great arcs out of both his eyes.
“Aww, he’s sad,” I narrated. “His kite is stuck in the tree.”
She met my sympathetically woeful expression with reassurance. “My dad will help him.” 

Now, sitting there amidst Genie parts, a “diaper sausage,”1 and a long string of unused bags, her repeated message led me through frustration into contemplation. My train of thought flowed something like this: Wow, my son-in-law is an amazing dad! She knows he’s always there to help. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had someone like him in life? Am such a person? A recollection of my response to a recent petition for help bluntly answered that question.   

Victor Hugo pegged me in his reluctant curate who, when asked to comfort a condemned prisoner demurred, “That is no affair of mine. I have nothing to do with that unpleasant task, and with that [scoundrel]: I…am ill; and besides, it is not my place.” You can almost hear the sputtering. A bishop, loftier in status and bearing a greater weight of responsibility, yet more humble, replied, “’Monsieur le Cure is right: it is not his place; it is mine.” Then, “he went instantly to the prison.”2  

“It is not his place; it is mine.” No selfishness, no rationalization, no disengagement. Instead, ownership, compassion, action. Imagine the good we could do, the positive change we could effect by adopting this philosophy: “It is my place.” It is my place to respond kindly to anger. It is my place to protect the weak. It is my place to feed the hungry. It is my place to speak to the lonely. It is my place to bridge the gap. It is my place to be “father or mother, brother or sister, friend.”3  It is my place to be a “refuge and a present help in time of trouble.”4 It is my place to uphold, to rescue and honor.5 It is my place to answer when someone calls.6 It is my place to say, “Fear not … I will help you.”7 

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1 This is the technical term! Apt but disgusting. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaper_Genie 

2 Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, p.25 

3 Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, p.25

4 Psalm 46:1 

5 Isaiah 41:10; Psalm 91:15 

6 Psalm 91:15 

7 Isaiah 41:10 

Hold My Hand

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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

Do What is Beautiful

10-07 024 Flower at Chenonceau

Jesus said to love your neighbor. He also said to love your enemy. A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” I don’t recall anyone asking, “Who is my enemy?” I suppose we’re all pretty clear on who “they” are. Interestingly, Jesus’s answer to “who is my neighbor” turned out to be the “enemy.”[1]

Loving your enemy is, as a friend recently understated “A tough admonition to put into practice.” Take another friend—she’d drop anything at a moment’s notice to help you, she regularly visits people who are lonely, she makes amazing cupcakes—and even she was pushed to write this after a particularly harrowing encounter with a government employee: “I hate everyone. I didn’t start this day wanting to hate everyone. They made me do it….They did it with their stupidity, uselessness, ridiculous rules…” You get the idea. I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt the same way.

So, how do we love our enemies? One biblical translation completes this injunction with a striking suggestion: “Do what is beautiful to the one who hates you.”[2]

Lately I’ve met (via Netflix[3])some amazing examples of meeting hatred with beauty.

Daryl Davis is an African American musician from the south. He likes to talk to members of the KKK. “How many people have called you crazy?”
“Everybody!” he laughs. But he believes people can change, and it all starts with one conversation. “If you sit down with your worst enemy for five minutes you will find something in common.” Spend a little more time and soon you have a friendship.

When Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper attacked David Abitbol for his Jewish beliefs on Twitter, he at first responded in kind. Then he changed tactics. He began asking questions rather than hurling insults. The relationship evolved from adversarial, to civil, to friendly. “Kindness is powerful,” Megan says. “More powerful than hostility, aggression or anything else.”

Mariya, a member of the Tutsi tribe and Filbert, a Hutu, both grew up in Rwanda, believing their people were natural enemies. “You have to kill Tutsis,” Filbert was taught. So he did. One night he and his gang set fire to Mariya’s home, then murdered her husband and sons as they tried to escape. When Filbert first approached Mariya to ask forgiveness she was uncertain she could offer it. But God, and living as Filbert’s neighbor in a “reconciliation village,” have helped her make the difficult journey. “We are simply good friends now,” says Filbert. Mariya smiles.

Do what is beautiful to the one who hates you: believe he can change, start a conversation, meet anger with kindness, apologize, forgive. Love your enemy; it turns out he’s your neighbor. And possibly, given time, a friend.

 

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[1] Luke 10:25-37

[2] Matthew 5:44, Aramaic Bible in Plain English

[3] Netflix series “The Story of Us,” hosted by Morgan Freeman. I highly recommend it, along with his other series “The Story of God.”

Light and Life

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Thirteen billion five hundred and twenty million years ago (roughly) the universe was a dark, dark place. Then, suddenly, a star was born and light began to shine into the darkness. The “moment of first light,” the “cosmic dawn.” Then another star, and another appeared “until eventually the universe was filled with light.” With this starlight, new elements were formed that would eventually create life, humanity. Light and life.[1]

“I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. “the light of life.”[2] The motto of Columbia University, taken from Psalm 39:6 is: “In thy light, we shall see light.” The rest of that Psalm: “For with thee is the fountain of life.” Light and life.

It was at Columbia that Thomas Merton experienced something like a “moment of first light.” This was where “the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light.” His “chief means…through which he operated,” however, was not a direct encounter with God—it was through “human friendship.”[3]

“What is the meaning of life?” Robert Fulghum facetiously asked the speaker as his lecture was winding down and people stood to leave. But the speaker held up his hand and said, “I will answer your question.” He then removed a small piece of broken mirror from his wallet and explained that he’d found it in the street as a child during WWII. “I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places….As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life…I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and change some things in some people….This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”[4]

Today you will meet people who are in a dark place. You…you are a star, a disciple of the light of the world, a broken fragment of mirror, a friend. Shine your light. “How’s it going?” a friend casually asked me once. I could barely speak, things were so dark. “You don’t want to know,” I choked out. Her countenance changed from casual recognition to concern, to light, to love. “I do want to know. I’m your friend.” Light and life.

 

 

 

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[1] Sarah Knapton, “First light which ever shone in universe picked up by astronomers in ‘revolutionary’ breakthrough,” The Telegraph, 28 February 2018; Netflix: The Real Death Star (not as goofy as the title makes is sound)

[2] John 8:12

[3] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography o Faith, 1948, p.194

[4] Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire when I Lay Down on It (I think, recorded this story before I realized the value of citations)