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 

Show Me Your Power

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Near the village of Ain Dara in Syria lie the ruins of a remarkable Iron Age temple. Its most distinguishing feature is a set of giant footprints at the threshold, the mark of a colossal god entering his or her sanctuary. We mere mortals often feel small in the face of life’s challenges; it’s comforting  to believe there’s someone out there who’s bigger than us, wielding awesome power in our behalf, someone who can control what we cannot control, who understands what we do not understand, who can change what we cannot change.

The current global pandemic has brought on, suddenly and shockingly, many of life’s challenges, including isolation, illness, unemployment and, perhaps most difficult, uncertainty. I’ve listened to friends and family describe their feelings: anxiety, fear, paralysis, self-doubt, uselessness, despair, depression, helplessness, hopelessness. Feeling small, we reasonably look to someone bigger than ourselves—God, government—for help and healing.  And they are doing their parts, no doubt.

But we small ones have a part to play as well, and more power than we sometimes realize.

When my daughter commands,  “Show me your power!” her two tiny children stop whatever they’re doing and strike a pose. Amusing, yes. And  lately, inspiring. It’s as if this crisis is accompanied by a silent invitation: Show me your power! Stop whatever you’re doing—worrying, panicking, hoarding, retreating—and, just for a moment, show me your power. Leave behind a loaf of bread for the next person; post something funny; tell someone, “We’ll get through this together.” Believe that the “ineffectual”—say, a song sung from a balcony—is not “meaningless.” “A completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word … has value.” [1] Has power.

It is the meek, said Jesus—those with the smallest footprints—who will inherit the earth.[2] Perhaps because they are so instrumental in saving it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] George Orwell, 1984, p.136

[2] Matt. 5:5

I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me

“In Matthew 25,” I asked my husband, “who do the ‘sheep’ help?” Barbara Brown Taylor says she’s noticed that people often leave out one particular group; [1] I expected my Ph.D.-in-religion husband to defy her prediction.
“Let’s see,” he responded thoughtfully. “They feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked…and visit the sick and the prisoners.”
Sure enough! like the rest of us of us tend to do, he’d forgotten the stranger.

But the problem isn’t failure to perfectly recall a scripture; it’s when we actually overlook, ignore, or even disdain those who are different, people we are obligated to welcome, include and love:
“You are to love those who are foreigners.”[2]
“You shall treat the stranger…as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”[3]
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”[4]
And of course, Matt. 25:35: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Quite some time ago, as a friend and I strolled through our religiously conservative neighborhood, we passed a home where a gay couple had recently moved in. She lowered her voice and asked suspiciously, “Have you met our new neighbors?” Her question, and her tone, alerted me to my negligence. I had overlooked and ignored my neighbors, who, in this particular community, were probably keenly aware of their “stranger” status.

So soon after, when I saw the men working in their front yard, I walked over to say hello—and learn a lesson in Christian hospitality. After introducing myself I pointed to our house. “I live right there.” Their response surprised me. “Oh! Are you Lizzy’s mom?!” Well, they already knew where I lived so there was no denying it now.“Yes…” I replied, wondering what my impish six-year-old had been up to. “How do you know Lizzy?”
“She rode by on her bike while we were moving in,” they began, now with obvious delight. “She noticed we were hot and sweaty, so she brought us popsicles!”

I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was hot, and you brought me popsicles.

Jesus, says Taylor, “smuggles himself into our midst…showing up as a stranger in need of welcome”[5]—and often, like the “wondrous little stranger”[6] of long ago, appearing dismissably ordinary, even undesirable.[7] If we look too hard for Him then, we may, like the surprised goats of the parable, with eyes firmly fixed on the kingdom[8]—miss Him in others, and thus miss Him altogether.

Looking for Jesus this Christmas? Don’t forget the stranger.

 

 

 

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[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, p.290

[2] Deut. 10:19 NIV

[3] Lev. 19:33-34 ESV

[4] Heb. 13:2 ESV

[5] Taylor, p.290

[6] Hymn: “With Wondering Awe”

[7] Isaiah 53:2

[8] Matt. 25:41-45

Shine

Visit with Sara and Jen 04
We’ve been lighting up each other’s lives 1980

Driving down I-70 through Colorado, I saw several road signs warning, “Cell phones down! Eyes on the road!” Cell phones?? I thought. If you want to eliminate distracted driving, you’re going to have to do something about those trees! Towering granite mountains blanketed with dark evergreens were seasonably splashed with flaming yellow aspens, ignited by sunlight—the mountains breaking forth into singing, all the trees clapping their hands and singing for joy![1] I laughed aloud at their contagious delight.

The next morning when I read, “Christ will shine on you,”[2] I remembered those trees. Beautiful in themselves, the sunlight made them glorious. Christ’s light, shining on the beautiful human soul, glorifies it—exalts, honors, dignifies, enobles, beautifies, lights up brilliantly[3]–and “Everything that is illuminated,” writes Paul, “becomes a light itself.” Our glory, like that of the trees, is meant to be contagious. Christ shines on us so that we will shine on each other.

There is beauty all around[4], but sometimes only those who shine recognize it. “I passed two young fellows on the street the other day,” remarks the Reverend Ames. “They work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing…just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes….They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me.”[5] Grimy, rascally, wicked…beautiful boys.

Yesterday morning I dashed out of my house in a baggy sweater and messy bun. My bangs were a little bent. I hadn’t showered and if there was any makeup on my face it was smeared leftovers from a couple of days before. After accomplishing some stressful tasks on an empty stomach I popped into Kneaders. “I’ll have the veggie avocado on honey wheat,” I stated. The girl at the register gave me a pensive look. Oh gosh, I thought, she knows me. I searched my memory for her face and wished I’d taken more care for my appearance. What she said completely blindsided me. “You…have such a natural beauty!” The unexpected direction of the conversation, along with the surprising compliment left me at a loss for words. Responding to my bemusement, she elaborated: “You know how sometimes a place just feels like home? You’re like that, only with your beauty. You are beautiful, like home.” Well. What does one say to such beauty shined into an average day? I thanked her and tried, unsuccessfully, not to cry. She came around the counter and gave me a hug. When I sat down at a nearby table to wait for my sandwich the elderly lady also waiting there said, “Looks like you ran into an old friend!” “I’ve never seen her before in my life,” I answered wonderingly.

“I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. And, “You are the light of world.” Light it brilliantly.

 

 

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[1] I Chronicles 16:33; Isaiah 55:12

[2] Ephesians 5:14

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glorify

[4] Love at Home, hymn composed by John H. McNaughton (1829-1891)

[5] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p.7

The Space Between Us

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It seems we’re headed for a collision. The “smashup” between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies is due to occur in about 4.5 billion years.[1]  The word “smashup,” however, is somewhat misleading. Watching computer simulations I find it hard to believe, but it turns out the extreme distances between stars make the odds of them actually smashing into each other very low. All we’re likely to notice from Earth is a newly configured night sky.

I wonder, is it the same with people? Do we collide without connecting? Is the distance between us so great that that we pass, barely apprehended, through each other’s space? Gilead’s Reverend Ames, struggling to comprehend a friend’s self-destructive lifestyle, posits, “In every important way we are such secrets from each other….We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”[2]

This image of humanity’s lonely journey through the universe leaves me melancholy. And yet, there is gravity, that perpetual resistance to distance, insisting on the potential for connection—a representation, perhaps, of God’s hope and intention that those who are “far away” be “brought near.”[3]

Because separation is painful. After a final farewell, my oldest daughter watched her best friend walk out our front door, heading for a new life in a different state. Then, standing alone in the living room she bowed her head and began to sob. At that moment her little sister sauntered into the room. Though unaware of the preceding scene and ignorant of what had precipitated this consuming heartbreak, spontaneous empathy overcame her. She froze, wilted; then, bursting into tears, ran to her sister and embraced her.

When Jesus said to “become like a child,”[4] maybe this is what he had in mind, this intuitive responsiveness to others’ needs, this innocent yielding to the gravitational pull of compassion. “Heaven,” he said, “is made up of people like this”[5]—people both bold enough, and humble enough, to traverse distances others see as untraversable—distances imposed by age, lifestyle, language, religion, politics—people willing to believe that the space between us really isn’t so vast after all.

 

 

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[1]Mike Wall, “We Finally Know When Our Milky Way Will Crash Into the Andromeda Galaxy,” Feb. 8, 2019, https://www.space.com/43267-milky-way-andromeda-collision-later.html

[2] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p.197

[3] Eph. 2:13

[4] Matt. 18:3

[5] Matt. 19:14 Holman Christian Standard Bible

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

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

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“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

Outdo the Destroyers

Thanksgiving-Mark and Destinay at the beach

We have a twelve-year-old foster daughter. She’s been through a lot, but she chooses not to show it. Usually. As I helped her with her math once, she mentioned that her teacher hadn’t taught them “those”—and pointed to a fraction.
“She probably assumed you already understood them,” I explained. “You normally learn fractions in about 3rd grade, I think.”
“My 3rd grade teacher said I was an idiot so she wouldn’t teach me anything,” she stated with remarkable indifference.

“The words of the reckless pierce like swords….the perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”[1]

After Israel had been crushed, quite literally, by the Babylonians and faced the daunting task of rebuilding—a city, a wall, a temple, a people—the Lord offered these words of encouragement: “Your builders outdo your destroyers.”[2]

This phrase struck me because, frankly, it sometimes feels like there are a lot more destroyers out there than builders. But then I noticed, it doesn’t say your builders “outnumber” your destroyers. It says your builders “outdo” your destroyers. So while the thoughtless and malicious leave desolation in their wake, the wise and gentle can pick up the pieces, speaking words of healing, refreshment, “good for building up…[ministering] grace unto the hearers.”[3] “Slowly but surely mending, Brick by brick, Heart by heart.”[4]

“Praise everybody,” advised Thackeray. “Never be squeamish, but speak out your compliments both pointblank in a man’s face, and behind his back…. Never lose a chance of saying a kind word.”[5] Thus, I determined to outdo that 3rd grade teacher. To her peers and church youth leaders, to social workers and therapists, and pointblank in her face I praised our girl’s efforts and mastery in math.
“You caught on to that concept so quickly!”
“Look how much faster you did those flashcards!”
“Wow! An “A” in math! You worked hard for that!”

“What’s good in your life?” the judge asked her.
“School,” she answered.
“What’s good about school?”
“Math!!”

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones…compassionate hearts, kindness….Let your speech always be gracious….encourage one another and build one another up.”[6] Outdo the destroyers.

 

 

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[1] Proverbs 12:18

[2] Isaiah 49:17 NRSV

[3] Prov. 12:18;Prov. 15:4; Prov. 16:24; Eph. 4:29

[4] Stephen Schwartz “We Can Build a Beautiful City,” from Godspell

[5] William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, p.216

[6] Col. 3:12; Col. 4:6; 1 Thes. 5:11

God–and Others–In My Heart

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(Two of my AWESOME piano students)

Along with the command not to judge comes the admonition to “judge righteously” (John 7:24). What does this mean? Some scriptural insight: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” for “he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35-36). “If someone is caught in a sin…restore that person gently” (Gal. 6:1). “Receive the one who is weak…and do not [dispute] over differing opinions” (Rom. 14:1).  Once, after I’d issued an apparently disappointing parental decision, I found my three-year-old wandering the house muttering angrily, “I’m right. You’re wrong. I’m right. You’re wrong…” When we see people’s ingratitude, sinfulness, weakness, even differences, it can be easy to judge—not righteously, but self-righteously. “I’m right. You’re wrong.” How do we get to the point where we can judge righteously? The answer is found in a 500-year-old hymn: “God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in mine eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking” (Sarum Primer, 1538).