...suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us..

  –Romans 5.3b, 4, 5a

Lately, I’ve been asking the question; Why is God so good?!

It is both rhetorical and genuine inquiry.  I don’t know the answer.

The question usually stems from an encounter with God’s grace and love poured out, poured over my life in ways I don’t expect and could never deserve.

I experience it as Goodness. And then, I say to God, “Why are you so good?!”

I want to hug God. I want to sing. I want to cry..and usually do.

This morning is one of those times.

I went to bed last night despondent. My husband and I have some problems looming large. They are not on the horizon; they are right in front of us. They are complicated and interrelated. They involve our needs and the needs of others we love.

I like to think of myself as a problem-solver. I have been given a good brain that is logical, systematic, and creative. I can often come up with solutions that work and have been able to apply these gifts throughout my career. However, as one person said, “This is a pickle.”

Last night, I cut up yellow construction paper into squares. I wrote a word or two on each square representing a specific need and concern–a particular part of the whole—with a Sharpie. Then I divided them into two piles: Things we know and things we do not know.

There were sixteen squares in the ‘don’t know’ pile and four in the ‘certain.’

I was overwhelmed.

I went out on the back deck and this is what I said, “Ok God. You see the problems. They are too big for me or for us to solve. But your word says in Isaiah 55 ‘My ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts.’ You are the Intelligence of the Universe. Would you please figure it out?”

Then I went to sleep.

This morning I woke up with two new ideas that could solve quite a few of the problems and take care of many of the squares. I called David. I felt hope.

Do I think they were my ideas? No. Clearly they were a gift when I had given up.

Emily Dickinson writes that hope is a thing with feathers. But I think hope also has feet.

I am learning more and more to trust God with everything.

God is so good.

First Things First

January 29, 2011

I watched a video last night—A Dog Year—which I do not recommend. Jeff Bridges plays a fifty-six year old writer who is depressed, angry, and suffers from writers’ block. He adopts a border collie who has been abused. The dog is a disaster and so is the writer’s life. Together, they begin to muddle through and…well, since you probably won’t see it, both their lives improve.

I am almost fifty-six, am a writer, but thankfully, do not have a ‘problem’ dog or writers’ block. However, I do have many problems, or to put them in a more positive light, challenges. My life isn’t quite a disaster but certain things need attention. I can no longer avoid them, or as a friend said, “Stall.”

Thus, I am attempting to do each day what I have done all my life as a professional: make lists and prioritize. It is harder when one is unemployed and has much time on their hands to waste a lot of it and to meander within a twenty-four hour day without much direction.

It seems it should be the opposite, that much should get accomplished; old projects sewn up; a svelte body sculpted in the gym; at the minimum, the dishes washed. But that is not how the days go. Each one bleeds into the next.

During the light of the week, as dismal morphed into sun, and the thermometer climbed, I have shaken myself loose from the inertia and remembered old skills and habits.

I am making lists. They may be short and under-ambitious, but at this point, they are good because they keep me focused and are doable. I am checking tasks off one by one.

Yesterday, I heard that no one really multi-tasks. It is not possible for the human brain. Instead, the brain shifts from one task to another, back and forth. It may manage to function in such a manner at a fast pace, but is actually less efficient than if it focused on one thing at a time.

I’m not certain this is true, but it makes sense to me.

The older I have grown, the more I know that multi-tasking is not healthy. Not for the brain, the soul, the nervous system, or the body. It taxes everything in ways which are not necessary and lead to distress. We can only overload for so long.

So…this day, I have made my list. It is very simple. I have prioritized and after prayer, breakfast, vitamins, next is the blog.

Now, I can check it off and go sit in the sun, my next priority. Then, I have to wash the dishes..

I Found a Church!

January 25, 2011

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to assemble, as is the habit of some..

   —Hebrews 10.24, 25a

I won’t have long to write this blog because I am headed to Mass. I am very excited because I am going to join this church.

It has been a long time coming. I have visited several churches over the past year and each has been filled with loving good people who worship God together. But when I walked into the vigil mass last Saturday of this particular church, I knew it was the one.

Hebrews says, “Do not forsake the assembly” , in other words, go to church! The corporate body is vital to our growth and well-being as Christians. I have been neglectful.

The inverse is also true. The Body needs all its parts to function well.

I recall a story I heard once, and have preached for years, about a minister who went to visit a man who had quit going to church. He hadn’t ‘darkened’ the doors of the sanctuary for years for a host of reasons.

They sat together before the fireplace and talked about many things. The man gave all the reasons why he did not go to church anymore and the minister said nothing.

But as they sat there talking, the minister took the fire poker and separated a coal from the rest of the fire. They sat in silence, watching the coal burn. It flickered and sputtered and soon, it went out.

The man said, “You’ve made your point.” He sat on the front pew the very next Sunday.

We need one another for this journey of faith.

 We need the Body. We are the Body. The Body needs us.

Dissipate

January 22, 2011

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted..to comfort all who mourn..to give them beauty for ashes..

–Isaiah 61.1-3

My daughter-in-law is smart and also a scientist. I learn from her all the time

Over Christmas, she used the word ‘dissipate’ and I thought I knew its meaning, but had to look it up to be sure.

She was speaking about smoke—and in particular, the smoke in our living room.

We heat primarily with a wood fire in a wonderful stove that belonged to my parents-in-law. It sits on a stone hearth that my brother-and-sister-in-law and niece built. The wood stove is efficient, cozy, and heats the entire Little House. I love it.

However, as we start the fire, it puts out smoke. It’s not really the stove’s fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It is simply a result of building a fire. (Sometimes the wood is wet and steams at first; sometimes the wood is greener, more difficult to start and the doors have to remain open longer as we mess with it; sometimes the logs are long and the fire is too close to the door. As the fire matures and the heat builds, the smoke goes up the pipe as it should).

Usually, the smoke is faint. Just a wisp of white floating a short distance. Enough to provide a wonderful aroma. But sometimes, it is more like a cloud.

That’s how it was that particular day at Christmas The whole room, the house, was like a dry ice machine. We could barely see one another.

I suggested that we open a window or door, a repeat of the pumpkin bread fiasco you might recall.

But this is what my smart scientist daughter said, “It will dissipate”.

She was right. It did.

Before long, and gradually, all the smoke disappeared and was gone. I wondered where it went. 

I believe there’s a lesson here about the way God works in our lives when we are in gray gloom, a cloud that hangs heavy around us. When we cannot see through the fog of sadness and are disoriented and confused. When our clothes smell of ash.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God gives beauty for ashes.

The gloom will dissipate. It will disperse gradually and completely disappear. And in its place, we will see clearly the Love of God which was always there.

God binds up the brokenhearted. He comforts those who mourn. He gives us beauty for ashes.

Confusion

January 21, 2011

..for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.

   —I Corinthians 14.33

We read in the opening chapters of Genesis that God creates light out of a formless void and separates it from darkness. And that was just the first day.

God goes on to create out of nothingness, something so beautiful and ordered we still reel from its wonder.

We see pine needles sparkle with sunlight, a sky so blue and vast we want to swim in it like the sea. We feel the wind as it nudges us forward like the Spirit. We breathe in long drafts of contentment.

Sometimes, things are not so clear, and the days are dark and dreary, filled with clouds and obscure. It is more difficult then, to remember this God we love who brings order out of chaos and replaces confusion with peace.

Paul writes to the church at Corinth these words: for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace. A different version uses the word ‘disorder’.

The baby Corinthian Church was struggling with the gift of tongues and worship which had become disorderly. Paul seeks to teach them the importance of interpretation and praying, not just with the spirit but with the mind. He writes, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

He also instructs women to be silent in the churches in this chapter, but that is a whole other issue. There are logical reasons for his concern, having to do with the new found freedom women had been given in Christ and Paul’s pragmatic approach.

Suffice it to say, the worship services in Corinth were disorderly and loud in their confusion, and he needed to put a stop to the chaos and redirect.

The Old Testament tells us about Babel in Genesis 11 and the tower built to reach into the heavens. Let us make a name for ourselves, the text says. The inference is clear: the people of one language and the same words seek to be great in their construction, to depend on themselves in pride and vanity. They have forgotten who saved them from the flood. They have inverted the order God intended.

God reaches down, we don’t have to build up. God confuses just enough to make us dependent on Him. God delivers us from our own arrogance and stupidity.

Another time, perhaps, I will blog about Pentecost and how it reverses Babel, where we are all one again, understanding each others’ languages and voice.

But for now, this is what I want to say when the sky is blue and the light shimmers: God is not the author of confusion, but of peace. Trust that.

There is a local radio station—The Fish—that I listen to quite frequently. It plays contemporary Christian music and has been a source of inspiration and worship for many in the Atlanta area for years. Its frequency is 104.7 and is set on my car radio.

I really like the station, except for this one thing: the slogan it uses over and over–Safe for the Whole Family. Every time I hear it, I want to say, Since when?!

I know the station managers mean to convey that small children can listen to it without hearing vulgar, mean, or immoral language and ideas. That teenagers can be protected from the sexual and violent lyrics and angry sounds often found in secular music such as rap and rock. But the slogan misrepresents the truth of what I know it means to be a family of faith.

A more appropriate slogan for a Christian station might be: Risky Business.

Following Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God—who are one and the same—means many things, but it rarely means “safe”. Not even for children.

I wish it wasn’t so. What mother doesn’t want to protect and ‘save’ her children from any pain or hardship? But to follow Jesus means to sacrifice all. And is always fraught with risk for the entire family.

Just ask Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Or Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. Ask Rahab and her family in Jericho or Noah and his wife and children on the ark. Ask Joseph, his eleven brothers, and father Jacob. Ask Elizabeth and Zechariah and their son John. Ask Joseph and Mary and Jesus. Ask Simon and Andrew, or James and John and their father, Zebedee. Ask Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Ask yourself.

Each of these families, and many others which are unnamed throughout history—early Christian households who were eaten by lions in the Coliseum; missionary families in dangerous conditions; families who harbored refugees and the persecuted, who protested injustice and marched together for civil rights…so many families–parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters–have risked it all for love.

I don’t mean to suggest that following our Lord always means suffering for the family. So much of the life of faith is filled with immense joy and comfort and peace and wonder and beauty and goodness, but Safe for the Whole Family, it is not.

I used to be a birder. I guess I still am, although my ‘bird list’ is inactive.

In 1978, I went on my first ’bird watch’. It was at a Georgia Conservancy conference at Callaway Gardens. They offered an early morning excursion with the then president of the Atlanta Audubon Society. I put on my tennis shoes, grabbed my binoculars, and met the little old ladies and other birding enthusiasts on the golf course.

I knew very little then—sure, I could recognize a cardinal, a blue jay, an English sparrow and mourning dove but the skills, knowledge, and trained eye and ear which are fundamental to a true birder, were not yet mine.

The Audubon President, a very seasoned and passionate bird watcher, began with a little talk. He presented basic information about what species of birds we might see in the open, grassy terrain of a golf course, with the possibility of water birds on the pond, and woodland dwellers in the forest nearby.

Suddenly, a large bird landed behind him on the fairway. I pointed and said, “Look!”

He rotated his head like an owl, turned back towards me, and clearly enunciated each syllable with exaggerated lips, “COMMON-CROW.” It was said with more than a little disdain that I had interrupted him for such an ordinary bird. (fyi: he is a good guy; I dated him for a while after that. He must have wanted to prevent me from embarrassing myself further. I gradually became better at identifying hawks, owls, herons, even warblers from a distance. In my defense, the crow was far away and the light was dim. For gosh sakes, I knew what a crow looked like even then! I had seen the Wizard of Oz).  

But this is what I wanted to say to him then and to everyone now: There is no such thing as a Common Crow. Every single one is a miracle.

Do you know that birds’ feathers zip up like a coat? Do you know that their bones are hollow so they can better fly? Do you know they can fluff up their feathers to create air pockets to insulate them from the cold? Do you know that birds eat half of their weight or more in food each day just to sustain their incredible metabolism and provide needed energy? If you say, “You eat like a bird” to someone, you are calling them a glutton.

Do you know that woodpeckers’ heads and skulls were studied and imitated to invent the hardhat and football helmet? Do you know there is a Ruddy Turnstone who is camouflaged on the shore and that birds at your feeder take the same route each time as they approach from limb to limb? Do you know that a mother bird with a nest on the ground will divert your attention from her young by feigning a hurt wing?  Do you know that blue jays harass crows and crows harass hawks and hawks, well, they can ride thermals for hours without beating a wing? Do you know that swans mate for life and Peregrine Falcons have adapted to the city? That an owl’s flight is silent to better surprise its prey? I’m sure you are aware of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s migration to Central America and that it doubles its weight before departure, but do you know that Bar-tailed Godwits have a non-stop flight of 11,000 km from Alaska to New Zealand? Or that a mother wren feeding her chicks will bring food back to the nest 1,200 times in 24 hours? Have you ever tried to build a bird nest?

Crows are considered one of the most intelligent and social of all the birds, the whole family—including two-year-old immatures–works together to raise the young. They have been known, as reported by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to fashion tools from sticks.

Over the years, I have seen a Painted Bunting on Cumberland, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in St. Petersburg, the migration of hawks from a mountain. I have watched an Osprey hunt over the Snake River and a Bald Eagle pose on a tree in the Boundary Waters. And I have seen–and heard!–thousands of crows. But not one of them is common.

Smooth

January 18, 2011

Last night, I went to a mediocre Italian restaurant with a friend. The ambience is good in this chain and actually, the chicken marsala wasn’t half bad.

We had a waiter, twenty-something, who greeted us this way, “How did I get lucky enough to be able to wait on the two prettiest women in the restaurant?” My friend and I looked at each other from across the table and wanted to say, “Save it.” We tried to be nice. My friend said, “Oh, you’re good.” I said, “We’re too old for you to be smooth with us.”

But he didn’t stop. He kept right on going down the same track. When he offered us a taste of the house wine, he said, “You don’t look old enough to legally drink.” My friend is forty-something and I am almost fifty six. We were there to discuss some serious things. I wanted to throw up and bowed my head.

As we progressed on through the meal, things shifted. I cried as I shared some painful news with my friend. The waiter caught it from the corner of his eye.

Smooth turned to sincere in a heart-beat.

His entire approach changed. Where he had been full of flattery and insincerity, he became genuine and compassionate, even sensitive. No longer did he view us as customers he could charm for a big tip, but as human beings who were hurting.

He poured coffee quietly, he gently offered to box up the food I barely touched, he refilled water glasses with respectful silence. He looked at me in the eyes with tender humanity.

That is what pain does for us, our own or someone else’s. It brings us to our knees in its wake. We have no choice but to bow before its tears.

I am thankful that smooth can become sincere in a heartbeat. That the hurt of another transforms us.

O God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast,

And our eternal home.

   —Isaac Watts, O God, Our Help in Ages Past

 

Last night, I went for a ride.

It is interesting to be back in the place where one grows up, in your old ‘stomping ground’.

I’m not sure what that expression means, because in my case, I did not do much ‘stomping’ to my knowledge, except perhaps when I was mad. However, I did do many things.

As I drove a big loop around Marietta, I could see myself in various stages of my life. I went past my childhood home where I played hopscotch and foursquare in the carport, the elementary school that I walked to, the Coca-Cola plant where I posed for an ad in the yearbook. I rode by the house where I lived with two roommates after college and the creek where I sailed wood chips.

It was simultaneously humbling and beautiful to imagine who I was then and who I am now. I’m not sure there is much difference.

What is different is the perspective I have on my life and the hand of God which has always guided, protected, and blessed. It didn’t matter what age I envisioned myself, the good and not-so-good times I remembered, I had a very real sense last night of the prevailing presence of God all along the way.

The Psalmist says—it is not really a question—Where can I go from thy Spirit? The answer, of course, is nowhere.

For Sure

January 14, 2011

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate, day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.

  —Psalm 1.1-3

People say, “There are only two things of which we can be certain: Death and Taxes.”

I disagree. There is so much more of which we can be sure: Love, Goodness, Light, and a God who is all three.

People also say, “Life is tough and then you die” and to this sentiment I say, “Life is tough and then you live.” You/we live through the toughness into the Goodness and Light. And it is Love which gets us there, to the other side.

Love is prevenient. It goes before. But love is also behind and around and underneath and above and through. Scripture assures us of these things. St. Patrick wrote of them.

In his prayer Breastplate, contained in the ancient Book of Armagh from the early ninth century, a prayer to strengthen himself with God’s protection, Patrick wrote these words:

Christ, protect me today..Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left..

That about covers it.