Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy Anniversary

December 28, 1952 was another century ago. So much has changed since then.

1952: before Barbie, Elvis, color television, microwave ovens, push button phones, Tupperware, The Beatles, facebook, polyester clothing, Bic pens, zip loc bags, $100 tennis shoes, $50,000 cars and trucks, and children with their own cell phones. And there is so much more.

"What is this world coming to?" they would surely have said had they known what would unfold over the years to come. But they did not know, and that is part of the blessing. There is a place for innocence in our lives.

58 years ago my parents married as two young lovers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Only 19 and 20, they found each other early and so began a lifetime together, building hopes and dreams on the only foundation they had: a shared faith and commitment to build a family together. They were undaunted by obstacles that would derail many today.

While they had no money, they had the talent and drive to work hard and persevere during some very lean years. I have seen the physical copies of her handwritten budgets from the early 1950's showing enough money every few months for my mom to buy a 75-cent tube of lipstick or rouge. And drugstore lipstick starts around $7.50 today! But we know about inflation, and I am not stunned by that price disparity alone. The beauty is how they worked together....as a team....and through many years....to accomplish this task of building a family and life together. She did not demand that she needed more than $.75. She knew what was available and worked together to determine how to manage it. My mom was always and is still an excellent manager of resources. She is capable and trustworthy.

I cannot help but contrast this to the young moms I have heard who complain that their husbands do not give them enough money, compared to others of their friends. I hear so many folks today talk - and I have done my share, I confess - of pitting themselves against their spouses as though they were two opponents sparring instead of two partners working together to accomplish a common goal. We can totally miss the boat with this attitude.

They had the emotional support from loving family members who believed in them. This is no small task. Each couple who marries has the potential to be successful and grow together in unity, though statistically over half of them will be divorced in a few years. We covenant to support new couples in our families, to undergird them and help equip them to weather the storms they will inevitably face. But naming storms is not the task of a newlywed; they are more inclined to name dreams and face an uncharted journey in their boat with arms linked and eyes forward.

Somewhere along the way Life happens.

When we say 'for better or for worse,' we do not think it will get worse.
When we say 'for richer and for poorer,' we do not think we'll become poorer.
When we say 'in sickness and in health,' we do not expect to become sick.

The wise couple learns how to face their reality - and sure and certain stormy weather - and remain together in their little boat. Sometimes it calls for a pail when we take on more than we think we can withstand. Sometimes we need a shelter in a storm. Do we know where to turn? Do we have a compass setting for a safe harbor - a place or person to help us and restore our bearings until we are seaworthy again? We can help be that port in the storm for one another when we are willing. And we can help steer one another toward Jesus, Lover of our souls, whose resources are never depleted and whose ability to love is not based on performance or mood.

I am thankful for 58 years of marriage in my parents' lives, and for their example of working to overcome the odds against this feat in our society. My sister in law said today, "I think they are over the hump."

I think so too.
May you have smooth sailing in the year ahead, and, as the old Irish blessing says, may the wind be always at your back.
I love you more than you can imagine.

Image taken from a 1880's marriage certificate. Graphics Fairy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In the Still of the NIght

A few thoughts from today's scripture:

Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

(See also Luke 2.1—7)

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been
engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy
Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public
disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of
the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take
Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son,
and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place
to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the
Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she
had borne a son;j and he named him Jesus.

1. Verse 19: Joseph had a plan. He had reasoned it well in his mind, and it probably made sense. His plan even called out his most noble, generous nature to have Mary put away quietly when it would have been sufficient in his society to publicly handle the matter and save face himself. By all accounts, it was a good plan.

We, too, like a good plan.

2. Verse 20: Note: 'just when he had resolved to do this....an angel of the Lord appeared....' Sometimes we encounter situations that cause us to re-evaluate our plan. But, we also can be so committed to our agenda that we do not allow room for another voice to break through and call our action or plan into question.
We dismiss others' opinions that may challenge our course.
We justify our actions and rationalize our behavior and silence those who oppose us.
But Joseph heard the message of the messenger of God and changed course.

3. Verse 20 continues: The unusual message begins with words of comfort and assurance: Do not be afraid. Do we see how God offers these words whenever we encounter the Person or the message of God in Scripture? God already knows the tendency of humans to be in awe and frightened by such a communication, so there is always the accompanying message of 'do not fear'. Etch it in your hearts as I undertake to do as well; we need never fear a brush with the Holy. God is beginning even before we hear a message to meet our needs.

4. Verse 20: The message came to Joseph in a dream. This dream could have been while asleep at night or during an unusual experience any time of day. But I think of it as something that occurred during the night during sleep. During the night watch, as I like to think of it -- that time each day we go off duty, when we let our guard down, when we can rest in temporary peace if possible.

We may sleep, but God does not. Sometimes God does life-changing work in us and for us when we least expect it. God can change our plan and have us do a complete turn around after contemplating a matter with God's inspiration.

5. Verse 24: Joseph was obedient and ditched his plan. He certainly took the harder road when it would have been far easier to proceed with his own idea. Something in that nocturnal encounter was powerfully compelling!

Have your ever awakened from sleep to have a clearer picture of a situation, or possess understanding that had previously eluded you? These may be rare experiences for us, but they are possible and, I believe, to be expected when we seek God's inspiration at all times, not merely at designated hours of the day or limited to Sunday worship. Look to the night watch as a time of great possibility for spiritual growth. Ask the Lord to move in us and through us and for us, always acting to do His good pleasure in our lives for the Glory of God.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In the Window Seat

Without doing some exhaustive word study, let's just take the verse a dear friend just sent me at face value:

"In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength." Isaiah 30:15

Do you see anything in that passage about having it all together? Or having a wonderful life without worries? I do not.

What I read is a reminder that we are saved and strengthened by these things:

Repentance is acknowledging to God that we have gone astray in some way - that we have (once again....) messed up and done what we did not intend to do, both in our actions and in our inclination. [This inclination aspect is what we mean when we speak of a sinful nature, but here, I am addressing the 'habitual breakdowns'.... the little foxes in the vineyard that nibble away at our best intentions....which some friends of the heart and I had been discussing and which prompted this post.]

And, repentance is also the accompanying action of turning in the other direction....doing an about face....so that we demonstrate that we do not want to do [that thing] again. (Fill in the blank with the struggle du jour: yell at your children, worry, become abusive, give in to lying, anything....that is the subject of personal turmoil).

Then, in order to actually make good on our promise and quest to live accordingly, we must rest in the promise of God that Jesus and our faith in him enables us to live empowered by the Spirit so that we are not left to our own devices....to our own best intentions....to our own strength. We rest in the promise of God and in the efficacy of the action of Jesus to secure our salvation when we trust in Him.

We are strengthened (spiritually and even physically) by preserving that space of quietness and trust in our lives. We do so by practicing ways of demonstrating our gratitude for the grace gifts of God. No one is measuring the minutes or clocking us in. This is not tit-for-tat, or some pay-back scheme, or some legalistic formula designed to measure our worthiness. The point is that we are completely unworthy of God's grace!

If we do not reserve that place in our day for time for prayer and meditation, we will not lose our salvation. God is not sitting around the corner to jerk a stick and lower the trap on us like some neighborhood bully. This is not the way our Heavenly Father's unlimited love manifests itself. But we will lose the joy of experiencing time with Him. We will have an absence of intimacy in spiritual communications that we say we desire to experience. In defaulting to Too Busy status and rendering prayer time or Bible study lowest priority, we settle for so much less than our best offered to God. I do it way too often. I know.

So there is an important place for quietness and trust: habitually practicing spiritual disciplines that are designed to enhance our receptivity to the Spirit of God in our midst.

When babies are born it is not unusual for bilirubin levels to be a bit high in the first week of life. Photo therapy uses light to treat infant jaundice while in the hospital, and ordinary sunlight if the baby is at home. I remember being told to place our firstborn in the window so that the filtered light would surround him as he slept.

Put him in the sunlight? How low-tech. It sounded so simple' I found it hard to believe they were serious but it was the treatment of choice. And it worked.

Sometimes we need to put ourselves in the place where the Son can surround us, where we are immersed in the warmth of God's love and strengthened by the Presence of God's Spirit.

We need to put ourselves in the window seat - figuratively speaking - where we can be intentional about living in the nearness of God.

A window seat - though I have never had one - is a place I can imagine comfortably settling into as one curls up with a good book, so this imagery works for me. For you, it may be stretching out in the sunshine of a beach walk or the solitude of fishing or of flying to remember what it is to soak up the rays.

 It is an imperfect analogy, but one that lets us mentally put ourselves in a place to receive whatever God is dispensing and to make a priority of delighting in God's Presence. Or of learning how to approach this idea, if for the first time.

Any time we approach God's unfailing love, we remember:
Do not be afraid.
Come as you are.
God is near to the brokenhearted.
God will not dismiss one with a contrite spirit.
God does not send us away empty handed, but accepts our incomplete and jaundiced selves as we draw near to The Healer.

Go forth into this day in the strength and knowledge that our loving Heavenly Father is steadfast when all around us shifts and changes. His mercies are new every morning and are never extinguished. Great is His faithfulness!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Calm our Anxious Hearts

One following the thread of recent conversations with assorted friends this week will hear the anxiety, hurry, fear, disorganization, and even worry evident in our collective voices in person or through writing. We ARE busy these days.....and there is no potion or cream that will make the demands of each day simply vanish away like fine lines or wrinkles are rumored to do.

Let us remember in the midst of a dirty house, unwrapped Christmas gifts, unaddressed Christmas cards, and piece-meal living that:
God is bigger than our fears.

God beckons us to draw near with a heart of a trusting child....one who believes it when God says "Do not fear"....that God will never leave us alone, not even when we cannot seem to follow through on everything we attempt with the best of intentions.

God in the Spirit has a way of soothing our hearts with a gentle breath....with a reassuring stroke that is only discernible by a sense we can't identify, but we can know anyway. Let it soak into your heart right now, that God-Presence.

God can calm our anxious hearts.....and we so need that calming.

So when we face this week's hurdles ahead for many in our midst: surgery, pregnancies, child care, parent care, home decisions, marriage realities, relationship challenges, financial struggles, and health questions, we are wise to remember that we are not desperate people. We are normal people! We just may not be operating in the proper gear for where we need to tread. We need to shift gears into spiritual 4-wheel drive and get some traction that will help us traverse this road of Life. We cannot get through life coasting downhill, because sooner or later, we have to climb back uphill again. That's the rhythm of it.

And having done it once, we take heart that we can do it again....with God's help.

The first step is, do not be afraid. Fear prepares us to do two things: to run or to fight. God designed it that way! But drawing near to God requires neither fight nor flight. Let the fear go.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10

Let the fear go. And then invite the Presence of God to fill that space where fear habitually resided. Where there is a vacuum, something will move in to fill it. Let the Peace of God descend into our lives.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In the Fullness of Time

Some days are far from the romanticized images of childhood picture books. There are just not enough hours in the day. We find ourselves out of time and out of gas. We are like the obviously pregnant young woman who shopped in our store late this afternoon.

Betty said with a smile, "I know we're not supposed to do this, but -- when?"

"Tomorrow. " The cute mom-to-be in the purple sweater practically exhaled the words.

Her Christmas shopping days were over. She had finished her list. She had laid by her provisions, as they used to say. Now the hard work begins.

When young moms ask, 'Will my life ever get back to normal?" I answer encouragingly, "Yes. But normal is different now."

Nothing stays the same. Life is dynamic, always changing. We learn to adapt, if we are wise, rather than to cling to what was.

Sometimes we only think we are busy/overloaded/stressed during a season of life, only to discover later that we had not yet begun to know what busy is; however, that stress was all we could handle at the time. But we learn that we can do hard things. We grow the way most living things do: by stretching.

Each season of life brings its own challenges. How do we ever prepare for them?

1. Seek wise counsel. Study. Read. This includes learning from those who have gone before. We need not reinvent the wheel when we can learn from others, yet some part of us still retains that vestigial message: 'I can do it all by myself' attitude not reserved only for toddlers.

2. Pray. This is like the instruction on every shampoo bottle I have held since the 1960's: Shampoo, lather, rinse, repeat. One would think that we'd get it by now -- that they don't have to keep telling us how to wash hair. The admonition and call to prayer is always present: you'd think that we'd get it by now too. But rather than a first line of defense and a forward strike against a threat, prayer often becomes our last resort.

So even on the busiest days when we think we cannot add another item to the list or tackle another challenge, we do not know that we are truly capable of greater things. We just cannot do it all alone. And we never have to. The promise of God's word is that God will never leave us nor forsake us.

I pray that young woman we saw today knows the power of the Presence of God tomorrow during this life-changing day for her family! And each of us will benefit as well, even if it is not our birth day. Thanks be to God.

Deuteronomy 31:6
Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.

Isaiah 41:10
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Hebrews 13:5-6
For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." So we may boldly say: "The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?"

Photo: Festive Family Christmas from Antique Holiday Postcard Scenes - 2006 Lord & Taylor Holiday Window Displays

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

"In quietness and in trust shall be your strength." Isaiah 30:15

How counter-cultural.... how needed in my life.

"Lord, Make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."


Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We Remember

My sister's birthday is today. She was Kacky Boo-Boo as a toddler, and now she is a beautiful Kathryn....or Boo, which lingers on with love. As a child, I remember that folks would suggest that we should have named her Pearline since she was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7. Others have said she should change her birthday not to have it associated with Pearl Harbor. I could not imagine why.

Not having lived that event personally, I felt disconnected with the depth of feelings - anger, betrayal and retribution - that many Americans of that generation experienced. I came to understand through the unfolding of the decades more fully, and see how that event as a part of the war surrounding it was a defining moment for countless Americans. It was the furnace where white-hot coals seared memories and convictions into the hearts and minds of millions. It is like many things in life: you had to be there to understand. I was not.

But I glimpsed through stories of family members' military service told with immense pride and of my father's efforts as a school boy to sacrifice for the war effort, a patriotism not palpable to my generation during the 1960's and 1970's. We missed it. We were the generation of Vietnam protests and flag burnings on the nightly news. We might not have shared that view, but we were surrounded by such images shrouding our view of service to country and commitment to defend the home of the brave.

Then September 11, 2001 happened to ignite a flame under the collective consciousness of another generation of Americans who were inexperienced at being attacked on our soil. A new righteous indignation surfaced, creating a swelling popularity of American flag displays on cars and homes by people who had been fat and lazy, patriotically speaking. American flag sales soared. Magnetic flag decals appeared at convenience store check out stands, and people were buying them! The national anthem was actually sung by some at fall 2001 football games - I remember well - rather than merely listened to by sports fans.

Those events and our nation's subsequent efforts to counter future attacks have changed the way we 'live and move and have our being' more than we might have imagined. Who could have envisioned the present preposterous protocol for air travel: undressing and being patted down by strangers before boarding a plane?

And yesterday I learned where my nephew, a proud United States Marine, will be serving this nation as his generation continues the thankless task and relentless pursuit of defending the land of the free and the home of the brave. The legacy of honor and duty continues.

Thank you is too small a word for the debt we owe those who have served with courage and valor. Most of us will never know what it cost...and it is our loss. But we can remember. And give thanks. World War II veterans are a dying breed of great Americans. An 18 year old who enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attack would be 87 today. Count the number of 90 year old men you know.

So here's to Mr. Ridgway, Mr. Powell, Mr. Sorey, and others we know among the dwindling corps of servicemen who sailed and flew and belly-crawled in places we know nothing about.
We are grateful.

Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Center. Donation of Dr. Robert L. Scheina, 1970.

NHHC Photograph.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"If I'd known you were coming..."

Cakes have a way of making memories - or at least of marking occasions. We may have a favorite birthday cake, plans for a wedding cake, or just enjoy the current plethora of cupcake stores that abound.

Today was a beautiful day of food, music and friendship. The minuscule remnant of a devil's food creme de menthe cake with my favorite white frosting under our cake dome is all that remains from an evening shared with friends at one of those pot luck parties where the food 'works out' more than I do.

Comfortable conversation around a crackling fireplace, candlelight, and a bit of music from Ree's fingertips on the grand piano filled the air. The hearty hum mingled with laughter, clinking glasses, and coffee cups, and I wondered, how many years have I known these friends? At least 21...and some many more. I am so thankful for the memories we have shared. We have marked births and marriages together. We have stood beside one another at the funerals of husbands, parents, and alongside dear friends who are hurting. We remembered together the death of one dear friend three years ago. We have journeyed from crest to trough. Though we might prefer smooth sailing, we do not get to choose. We get it all in this package deal called life.

Life has a way of unraveling, so we are wise to keep friends close who know how to mend. Some are gifted menders. I want to be one of those! And I paused tonight to give thanks for many friends and family...and to give warm hugs for those nearby.
The way to the house of a friend is never long...

And God, too, is in the mending business. Broken hearts, broken relationships, broken dreams....nothing is beyond repair and no one beyond redemption. It was a grand plan to come and dwell among us as Emmanuel. Christ was and is and is to come. Celebrate the glorious mystery that is ours at Christmas!

The evening among friends included a favorite holiday memory since childhood: A gifted soprano looked lovingly among friends and, with a gentle accompaniment, sang "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" as beautifully as I have ever heard it. Impromtu. No rehearsal. No rehearsal needed - because Connie knows the song. Knows, as in, she could sing it in the dark. Without piano. With her eyes closed. This song is in her heart before it is on her lips.

We cannot speak what we do not know. It will not ring true. Sooner or later, it will be found out. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my hearts be acceptable in Thy sight..." Let us be the kind of friend who walks with integrity and who shoulders the load of another for a season if needed. I think sooner or later, we will need a friend like that.

The little cake I baked was a toast to friendship tonight - a meager offering for such a precious gift! Let the gladness begin.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Racing Through Advent

Little children can identify the green light with ‘go’ and the red light with ‘stop’. “What does the yellow light mean?” I asked years ago.

“Hurry up and go!” our three year- old answered.

Does that not sound like us in December? We have a call each year to CAUTION……SLOW DOWN….with Advent….a time of waiting expectantly and preparing for the Gift that we remember at Christmas, and yet we have a way of making it, ‘hurry up and go.’ And since some seem to believe that yellow lights are made for running, it does not surprise me that we race through Advent as well.

December is a stressful month packed with exams for students, Christmas programs for children, cooking, feasting and social gatherings for some, pressures of family togetherness or lack of it, cold weather hardships and illness for many, and year-end financial stress. And we are being asked to slow down and wait during Advent? To contemplate? Many of us are racing headlong into Christmas with an empty tank - spiritually - pausing only for a brief pit stop of a splash and go devotional.

So here it is: today’s Word on the Way. The number one rule of racing teaches us...

1. Know where you going before you try to go fast.

My brother, a racing instructor and driver for almost 25 years, teaches this fundamental. We must ask:Where are we going so fast? Is our goal to arrive at the end of this year fiscally and physically drained, with yet another few pounds to add to the new year’s resolution list, joining the majority of Americans? Or is there another road less taken? How can focusing on Advent help us know where we want to go? Advent is a call to sharpen our focus and train our vision on something God - not the American economy – does. We make a choice.

The number two rule?

2. Your hands will follow your eyes: Look where you want to go.

This principle is true in racing, highway driving, and life: Look where you want to go, and your hands will follow your eyes.

Look up! Look through the turns. Look at the road ahead, not at the bumper of the car in front of you. Keep your eyes on the road you want to take, not on the car stalled on the side of the road. You don’t want to hit that car? Then don’t look at it. This amazing phenomenon accounts for the highway accidents where drivers literally run right into cars stopped on the side of the road! It takes tremendous discipline to keep our curious eyes from straying onto those things that beckon for our attention - on the highway and in life - but we learn to train our eyes onto those things that are for our ultimate good and safety. Our hands really do follow our eyes. That truth is a basis for temptation as well: we are attracted to that which appears delightful to the eyes, pleasing to the senses, and we want it. It's an old story. The next step is to see how to have it. So it really does matter where we look.

So, look where you want to go.

If our desire is for a more contemplative December this year… to anchor us while we experience stress in our lives….to free us from fear and anxiety…..to be set free from our sin….and to know a sense of peace and rest even in the midst of our culture’s chaos and busyness, then we must look at those places where we can find peace….joy….rest.

The way of wisdom teaches us to keep our eyes on the Lord God through a discipline of prayer to fill us for this day’s needs. Seek the path for today, trusting God to make our way clear. And we must keep our eyes on the road. This beloved Advent hymn helps me to focus:

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee….By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone. By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.” (Words by Charles Wesley, 1744; Music by Rowland H. Prichard, 1830)
Merciful God, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may celebrate aright the commemoration of the nativity, and may await with joy the coming in glory of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever more. Amen.
From the Book of Common Prayer

Friday, December 3, 2010

On the Mother of Mary

I wrote a devotional that was published in a Galloway booklet today in the character of the mother of Mary, as requested, but it did not go well, if you ask me. I do not write fiction, and could find
neither my voice nor hers in the process. I did, however, completely ignore some things I learned in the process including new awareness of extensive references in
my reading to Saint Anne, traditionally regarded as the mother of Mary throughout the past millennia in the
Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other churches, as well as Islam. Protestants are conspicuously absent among those who regard Saint Anne highly. She
is virtually invisible and outside our tradition. Case closed.

Yet I found myself caught somewhere in the
tired argument of one church saying, ‘we’re right and they’re wrong.’ And I have pondered that position.

I also discovered images of this woman to pair with a name I had not known before. I could now identify
this subject in my art history class decades ago and in museums when my children asked just two years
ago, ‘who is St. Anne?’ and I could not tell them. Represented in religious art frequently as the woman in red with a green stole
holding a book and the child Mary who is holding the Infant Jesus, this encounter bridged a gap for me –
a gap I did not know existed.

So here I sat a few weeks ago, composing an advent devotional and thinking: I cannot write about Saint Anne at Galloway because we do not believe in her, yet I was free to create a
fiction with a little artistic license. Cannot a wise person entertain a point of view without adopting it? In putting myself in the
place of ‘this woman we do not believe in,’ I wrestled. It caused me to ask other questions.

How do I respond upon encountering an experience or point of view that does not square with our/my
tradition? Do I summarily ignore or invalidate it before holding it up to the light of God’s lens for clarity? Do I allow God to enlarge my understanding and to change my mind about things as I move through the day?
The participants surrounding the birth of Jesus experienced God’s moving in ways far beyond their own

Many are content with a sweet birth narrative as a holiday tradition but refuse to allow God
to intersect our hearts and minds today with fresh insights. When we are quick to respond with our
rehearsed sound bites, we leave little room for God’s whisper in our present. What understanding would God have me bring into the Light of God's presence today?

That place of dissonance or discomfort while we wrestle with what is valid and what is real is the place
the Holy Spirit meets us every time. Count on it.

Shown above: Saint Anne with the Virgin Mary and Saint John and the Infant Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci. 1499-1500. National Gallery, London

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Lessons from the Heart Fund Jar

In these weeks before Christmas, there is the near-audible buzz of children making Christmas lists of stuff they want. I recall our own children making lists, but we first made a list of things they could do for others. That was the real Christmas list! Did doing so dampen a child's desire for a new toy or invalidate the wanting of it? No, and that was not the purpose. But as a parent we help frame so many experiences as our children are learning to view life in this world - experiences we may not remember years from now, but the child might.

We are always watchful for moments to teach small ways of habitually seeing others' needs and, lovingly, of recognizing selfishness when it presents itself at the front of the line. I recall an experience from my childhood lodged firmly in memory...

Do you remember the feeling of wanting something so badly, but it was just out of reach?
February, 1963 was Heart Fund Month in Monticello, and the race was on to see who could
raise the most money for the heart association. Each of the girls in town- 1st grade through high
school - had a jar in which she collected donations. Picture the mayonnaise and mason jars
with valentines and photos of the girls taped on them, many of them placed alongside the cash
registers at check out stands in the grocery store – prime real estate! I was only in the third
grade, but I was eager to win. My parents would not let me put out my jar ‘in town’, much to
my disappointment; I was left to earn money from chores and to collect spare change at the
end of the day. It became clear that I hardly had a chance.

February 14 drew near, and my anxiety grew. The prize, you see, was to be queen – Queen of
the Class! - and the Overall Heart Fund Queen for the town got the grand prize: a trip to the
Governor’s Mansion in Jackson where all the statewide queens would gather for lunch. The rumor spread quickly that they had a solid gold bathroom there!

Let me set the stage to show how important this was to be queen for a town of little girls. This was 1963. Mary Ann Mobley and Linda Lee Mead had recently won back- to- back Miss America as Miss Mississippi. As a third grader, I was impressed. I had been on the front page of The Daily Mississippian sitting in the lap of my aunt who had been crowned Miss University. I was starstruck. These elegant, glamorous big girls had it all! Surely there was a crown in my future…

On February 13 I had assessed the class totals and knew that - barring a miracle - I would not win.
So the night before the big day I prayed my little 7 year old heart out, asking God to please let
my daddy put a twenty dollar bill in that jar before morning. Nobody would come close to that!
I knew he could do it. I believed.

I awoke the next morning with eager anticipation, and there sat my jar: no twenty. Didn’t my parents want me to win?
It was within their power to make it happen. It would have been so easy.

No, I didn’t win….not even the top of my little third grade class. At the end of the day, however, I do remember how pleased my dad was to learn that Lucy, a high school senior had won. I did not know her, but Lucy was one of his favorite patients, a young woman stricken with polio who moved through the halls of the school with her crutches.

When I voiced a little disappointment – okay, I was 7 - my father put his arm around me and hugged me close. He had a different perspective on this quest for queendom and helped me frame the disappointing experience:

“Marita, you’ll have many chances to go to Jackson in your life, and you'll see the governor’s mansion; but Lucy never dreamed she’d have a day like this!”

The whole town celebrated her being Queen and proclaimed a day named for Lucy with her picture on the front page of the paper!

Here is my point with that ancient history lesson etched in memory.

Sometimes our prayers are like my childhood prayer: “God, you can do this! It is not too hard for you.” In some ways we still ask for the thing we think would put us over the top. It may not be ‘please put a twenty in the heart fund jar’, but fill in the blank for your own personal crisis. We tell God precisely how to fix a person or situation. And just like my lesson 46 years ago, we still don’t get what we ask for.

Does that mean we didn’t ask in the right way, with the correct
incantation to make our prayer acceptable to God? Maybe we didn’t toss in ‘in Jesus’ name’
enough, or begin by praising God long enough to make it work? I do not believe that proper verbal tweaking was or is the missing link. Sometimes what we desire just does not come to pass. Prayer is one of life’s mysteries.

Sometimes the things we earnestly seek are not in our best interest, though we cannot imagine why not. Such was the case in my example. From my limited point of view, the answer looked easy, but my parents had a different perspective, a bigger picture in mind, and the quick fix I wanted was not the best for me.

It’s easy for us to sit here now and smile at the little girl who
would be queen, but I remember it with all seriousness as a child.

When we are in the midst of true disappointment now as adults, facing times of real anxiety that many of us are living in today, we implore God through prayer. We give thanks for what we call answered prayer when what we seek comes to pass. But the place of anguish is when we do not get what we want about the really big things in life. We may not see a way out barring a miracle, so we ask God in the only way we know how: pouring our hearts out honestly and sometimes begging for the solution we seek. God is big enough to take it all.

Our God remains steadfast to meet our deepest needs, though help may come in times and ways
we cannot anticipate. God is trustworthy.

I am thankful for the lessons I learned from my parents in countless ways,
and the case of the heart fund jar is among them even all these decades! And though I have never been queen of anything - that desire having died a natural death - I have indeed had many chances to see both Jackson and the Governor’s Mansion.

My father was right. As always.

We have taught our children what might be dubbed the gospel according to the Rolling Stones:
You can’t always get what you want….but you get what you need. Put another way,
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” 2 Corinthians 9:8

And, who knows....there may still be a crown in our future.
We run the race with certainty and compete for an imperishable crown…” 1 Cor. 9: 25, 26

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sleepwalking Through Life

Sleepwalking is an interesting slice of human behavior. We may find it both amusing and confusing to be in a netherworld of apparently conscious awareness and sleep at the same time. I have only observed sleepwalking twice: when a sibling stepped into the bathtub fully clothed in pjs and proceeded to lie down comfortably with a glazed look on her face, and when a child awoke and walked into the kitchen to carefully wash hands for a long time.

Both were well after bedtime and both seemed to walk as though they knew where they were going. Both seemed to be on autopilot, doing something they had done many times before. But they did so with little expression and little recognition of interacting with others. Sleepwalking interests me. Is it like dreaming in that we do it even if we do not remember doing it?

There was a 1959 hit, "Sleep Walk," on steel guitar and guitar with a rather peaceful if whiney tune that I associate with the subject. It hit number one on Billboard and was a gold record, back when they had records. The piece's longevity in the hands of an impressive guitarist earned Brian Setzer a grammy on an album in 1998, and it is still played today. Pretty amazing for a little tune with no words...over fifty years and counting...*

And it is the counting part that brings this topic to mind. I am learning each day how to value time and to invest in what is important - in people, in relationships, by doing an honest job in exchange for confidence placed in me, in working together for the kingdom of God in ways big and small, among others. I understand that in our English language we have one word for time viewed chronologically and in measureable units. This approach seems normal and necessary for us, and we do not typically question it. Other languages vary. German has another word, DER TAG, an expression for a specifically appointed time calling for a decision.

In Greek, as my friend, Connie, said yesterday, there are at least two words for time: KRONOS (the measureable calculation of time) and KAIROS (the quality of time - not quantity - or 'God time', as some say). Kairos refers to the moment in between the moments, as I see it. It can be that in-between condition that happens while we are doing something else. Kairos also refers to a broader way of seeing 'the times', but is not about viewing time sequentially - that would be kronos, from which we get our word 'chronological.'

It is in experiencing life in both dimensions - living within the chronological passing of time as well as participating in Kairos time where we glimpse the moving of God in our midst - where we find ourselves. As Christians, we live in both the temporal and the eternal reality. It is one of life's mysteries and one I am contemplating, but just brush the subject here.

The point I hear clearly is: Do not just sleepwalk through life. Do not move mechanically through the motions of this precious gift we have of LIFE and TIME. Let God bless our time and our times with God's Presence, and let us live into our time fully and meaningfully!

"So teach us to number our days that we may apply a heart of wisdom." Psalm 90:12

*Because you asked: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_z7lgxReWgw&feature=related for a piece of the original, though shown here on 78 rpm vinyl.

Memory Lane Note for the ipod owner viewer: That machine playing the record is about the size of a chest of drawers. It held dozens of vinyl records and mechanically lifted and played each one in sequence after users inserted a coin (3 for a quarter?) and pressed the button (such as A-3 or J-5) corresponding to the location of the desired track. This one was a little before 'my time'. I never saw a 78 Wurlitzer, only 45 record players, commonly called a juke box since these things were not in homes, but in commercial establishments or 'juke joints', or in my childhood, in The Spin-a-Cone in Monticello. There. Cultural history and devotional thought in one entry!

In 1988, on Garrison Keilor's show, Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke play Sleep Walk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5oExc78IKE&feature=related.

And plenty of options in the 21st century with Joe Satriani and Brian Setzer. Here's one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c8nanTCPz0&feature=related. Just a few seconds will yield a recognizable version of the simple 50's theme.

That's a long way from a 1959 vinyl record to your personal phone or laptop. Amazing the times we live in!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Seeing the Invisible

Lately I have been reflecting on how we see things. How we see ourselves...how we see others...how we see God - all of these figure largely into our outlook on Life.

If we ever find that we are spending a little too much time contemplating ourselves, there is an effective antidote: Do something for someone else. I had several such moments today.

Today our church hosted a Thanksgiving Feast and worship service downtown for those who call the streets of this city home. Men and women of varying ages who are homeless and likely have no family around whose table to gather Thursday, made their way to festively decorated tables. Volunteers had prepared abundant food and served plates to each one individually. Moms, dads, children, grandchildren, college students, retirees, single adults - the host of servers defied categorization.

This event is not a one hit wonder, a tip of the hat to doing a good deed for the homeless that pays some collective guilt dues for proximity to a growing homeless population in this capitol city. Grace Place is the ongoing ministry that provides a place each day for homeless men and women to get a hot meal, shower, get in from the weather, and exposure to new skills and hobbies ranging from rooftop gardening to produce food for meals, to art, music, personal management, and counseling. After another center closed this fall, Grace Place attendance jumped from 30 to 100 overnight, I was told.

One artist-dad member who is an exquisite portrait painter and his five year old son volunteer each Thursday at Grace Place. They paint and do art projects with the guests of Grace Place. One man paints with dots. Painted dots beside painted dots adorn his paper. He calls them 'skittles'. The young boy, at first tentative when accompanying his father in this new venture, has developed his own confidence in connecting with the people. Today little Ren brought a pack of skittles to give the man; A simple gift from a young child said, "I notice you."

One man joked with me to put that plate of food in his friend's drawstring bag so he could eat it later. They laughed that hearty cackle-laugh they must have done many times and pulled out the only contents of the bag: a yellow polytarp with grommets for tying a shelter. That was all he had on his back. A rather haunting sight lingers as I reflect and end the day in my comfortable home.

Another church member/volunteer with distinctive British accent was sitting at the table next to a homeless man (even the way I write that looks as impersonal as it is, doesn't it?). My friend said, "This man has the bearing of one who could be a CEO of a company. Can we not make some connections between him and others and see how to find him some mentors and perhaps help him find a job?" He was not content merely to serve a few plates and go back to work. No discharge of a duty for this man. He was ready to dig a little deeper and help find solutions for challenging problems. All this from a man who has faced the death of his son a few months ago and who now is trying to reach out to others to keep them from dying inside from the painful malady of hopelessness.

Cicero, a poet in residence at Grace Place who is a self-described recovering drug addict, gave a poem he had written as a part of the worship service, "How Can You Say 'No' to This Man?" referring to the love of Jesus.

A choir of voices - homeless all - sang a medley of praise songs and hymns that they had only rehearsed four times. Though they had folders with sheet music, I'll wager that not all could read. But they sang their hearts out, ending with "We Are an Offering." They were.

And at the end, my daughter exited quickly and, before I knew it, was bending beside Cicero seated in his wheelchair, to talk about his poetry and thank him. My heart was strangely warmed.

Food and homemade desserts were abundant. No one was turned away. Refills and seconds continued to bless the hungry and the filled alike.

Some of us will have another Thanksgiving feast on Thursday with warm kitchens and fragrant aromas,traditional dishes, family favorites, and someone who cares enough to make special desserts and prepare your sweet potatoes with marshmallows or cinnamon pecans depending on how you like them. But I met some folks today who will not have that option. No one has the porch light on for them.

Thanks be to God for willing hearts and hands who notice those who are invisible to some people every day among us....who can see through the street dirt, the brokenness, the hard edges sometimes... and who find beneath it embers of life that are not yet extinguished and a shared humanity that needs a second chance. We love and serve the God of second chances.

"I never give up on anyone, because God never gives up on anyone." Rev. Dr. Ross Olivier

And I'm thankful for folks like Sally and Leslie, who may not have eyes in the back of their heads, but the eyes of their hearts are open wide, and they know how to see rightly!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Invisible Made Visible

Someone wrote who had just seen the Hubble/NASA IMAX show over the weekend and said it was fascinating. It is worth a drive to see it if you can. The show is a film of the space shuttle voyage to repair a critical part of the Hubble space telescope and includes dialog of the astronauts living and working together on the vastly larger-than-life screen.

Among the most memorable to me is a segment on the star nursery, * a place where stars are born. Beginning with a bright star in the night sky that we might see from Earth, the film moves in for closer and closer shots, zooming in as only Hubble can do. Breathtaking camera work and never-before-seen photos fill the expansive screen as they drive the camera deeper into the nebula to let us, too, discover this place beyond our sight. Through this lens, we have the means to view this heretofore invisible world--a world completely unlike the the one we inhabit on Earth, but real just the same. We just cannot see it with our eyes, unaided.

How like the things of the Spirit this is! I stand amazed at this reminder. We are indeed blind to so much that exists in our world, both physically and spiritually. Through the lens of Hubble, we have the means to view a small portion of the majesty of this physical world that otherwise eludes us. God allows us glimpses of a spiritual reality as well that exists beyond the capacity of our sense of sight . Such glimpses of God's Presence transcend our physical senses. Is this other reality a function of our heart or mind or soul? Some profess an easy answer, but I cannot pinpoint precisely where this vision is processed. I only know that it happens.

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, I pray - imploring God to grant a vision far beyond our own limitations.

This star shot is described as the “largest stellar nursery in our local galactic neighborhood.” The image, taken in ultraviolet, visible, and red light by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, spans about 100 light-years.
According to experts, this group of stars is called the R136, which is only a few million years old and resides in the 30 Doradus Nebula. This Nebula is a “turbulent star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.” The 30 Doradus Nebula is the largest and most prolific star-forming region in our galaxy.

Many of what we see as diamond-like icy blue stars are massive constellations that can only be seen in the 30 Doradus Nebula since it is the only nebula that can house such amazingly large group of stars. These “hefty stars,” are believed to transform as supernovas in the coming years.
This shot of the R136 were taken between October 20 and 27 this year by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. The blue lights are from the hottest and biggest stars, the green lights are from oxygen and the red lights are from hydrogen. Hubble /NASA photos are in the public domain.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

More than meets the eye

I love the night sky. In sixth grade I determined to become an astronomer. (That later changed to a spy, but I can dream.) Hubble telescope photos intrigue me, and the Hubble IMAX NASA voyage is not to be missed, if you can find it.

The cosmos is too grand to comprehend in distances and measurements of time. Human brains cannot grasp extremely large and extremely small numbers; we have no frame of reference for them. But there are small lessons to be learned even from things we do not fully understand.

The photo above tells me that even when all we see above us night after night is a canopy of black sky with varying degrees of sparkling lights of starlight...or changing phases of the moon...or changing cloud cover, there is infinitely so much more beyond our limited view. Who among us would know of the swirling displays of light and blasting energy showing forth just beyond our sight were it not for scientific confirmation through recent technology? Even with the most sophisticated 'spyglass' we cannot peer into the sky and see fully what is there. We still 'see into a glass darkly' ( 1 Corinthians 13:12) with imperfect images, but one day we shall see face to face. I believe God allows us to glimpse a world and a life that is bigger than a one-dimensional, provincial, status quo substitute for the abundant life in Christ.

Leave room for the mystery of God.
Allow for the majesty of the cosmos to teach us something of the magnificence of the Creator.
Consider an ancient source for reflection:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world...
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear [awe and respect] of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

July 6, 2010: Like a July 4 fireworks display, a young, glittering collection of stars looks like an aerial burst. The cluster is surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust—the raw material for new star formation. The nebula, located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina, contains a central cluster of huge, hot stars, called NGC 3603. Star clusters like NGC 3603 provide important clues to understanding the origin of massive star formation in the early, distant universe.

This Hubble Space Telescope image was captured in August 2009 and December 2009 with the Wide Field Camera 3 in both visible and infrared light, which trace the glow of sulfur, hydrogen, and iron. Photos in public domain.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fret Not

Following up on the points about worry and anxiety recently, I offer some thoughts from this reminder which is dear to me. Psalm 37 is the Fret Not psalm - a good one to mark if worry is a constant companion.

"Trust in the Lord, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass...Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him...Do not fret - it only causes harm." Psalm 37:3 - 8

1. The first word is hard enough: TRUST. Trust not in our own abilities and instincts, but in the Lord. Trust in the Lord, and go about doing that which is good....pleasing to the Lord. It suggests both attitude and action.....outlook and activity. There will come a time - or many of them - when we have to decide how to answer the question, "Can you trust Me with your life?" (or with your child? or with your future? or with your money?).

I have chosen to answer that with a Yes. Not, "Yes, if you will protect them..." Or "Yes, but you owe me..." It doesn't work that way. I'm all in.

This 'yes' does not come with an insurance policy giving a force field of protection around those I love. Storm clouds will gather, and we will suffer casualties that I do not want to imagine. We live in a broken world. But we do not live life alone. So I want to learn how to trust.

Yesterday I heard two TV commentators discussing salaries. One was talking about how much money he has been giving away: "You know what I'm doing: I'm trying to buy my way into Heaven!" The other man nodded approvingly and said, "Haven't we all."

That exchange revealed both their attitude and their action. They were trusting in their generous distribution of wealth to secure a post in the hereafter. "Doing good" is a worthy directive to follow to be sure, but we must not leave trusting God out of the computation.

2. Dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness reminds me that we are to be in a place of God's provision. God does provide. Jehovah Jireh is my beloved Hebrew exclamation when God provides, and is a very name for God, since the ancients approached YHWH with such respect as not even to speak the name aloud - barely brushing by the designation - even writing it so that it was incapable of being pronounced.

How far we have come from that stance! As a society, we have blasphemed and mocked the name of God, stripping it bare of respect and awe. To feed on His faithfulness is to remember times in the past of God's faithfulness, and to tell the story again. Write it down. Memory fails. Keep it fresh. Note when it happens again. And again. This present tense verb indicates continuous action.

"Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with Thee. All I have needed Thy hand has provided, great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me...." *

3. Delight yourself in the Lord, and you will receive the desires of your heart. That was how I recalled this verse from memory, even writing it down that way recently in a journal. It would be easy to loosely translate this statement, "If you act like you are delighted in the Lord , then you will get what you are hoping for." That approach is even preached in some churches. However, when I went to the source to find the cite for Psalm 37, I found that it was not written as I had recalled.
"Delight yourself in the Lord,
He will give you the desires of your heart."
Do you catch the difference? God does the giving! God plants the desires into our hearts! God is able to establish what it is that we long for...what we love....where our heart's desire is. God is able to change our minds and hearts, to do miraculous things in our lives, to recalibrate our very thinking when we live with delight in the Lord.

Are you out of love? God can sow a fresh desire for your spouse or loved one when you think there is nothing left to breathe life into. Out of resources? Let the One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and created all that is show us how to manage or create in another way. Out of time? God does His best work in tight spaces. It is only the 11th hour to us; God has all the time in the world!

Our part is to 'delight ourselves in the Lord' and leave it to God to give us the desires of our hearts. I believe it is then that a circle of sorts completes. We may find that we desire the things of God....that we delight in the things of God....and discover a unity of Spirit and purpose as we live life with the Spirit of Truth abiding within. (See John 14 for more on the Spirit.)Blockquote
4. Commit your way... Trust in Him. He shall bring it to pass. Our part is to trust. God does not owe us anything. We do not contract or bargain for God's provision. This is not Let's Make a Deal. We often get hung up on the 'it' part, above. Some think that means that God shall bring to pass 'what we want.' I disagree. I believe God is sovereign and eminently trustworthy.

5. Rest in the Lord. Wait patiently for Him. Resting can be hard and waiting patiently harder still. We are people who do not wait well.

In making small as well as big decisions, use the time to contemplate and pray. Usually our decisions are made out of habitual responses or because we are seeking to please ourselves. Allow space for God to influence our responses. The more we delight ourselves in the things of God, the more we come to know the mind of Christ and to tune into the Spirit that God has allowed to dwell within. This is not a matter of how well we manage to do the task of 'delighting' (which would make it all about us), but is a matter of God's gift of faith allowing us to trust all the more.

6. Fret not. It only causes harm. Not only is worry not helpful, it is counterproductive - even harmful. The connections of worry and tension to physical maladies are clear. Worry does absolutely no good.

Look at the worrisome situation so as to break it down into smaller pieces. Identify those parts that we cannot change. Some things are outside our control or influence to alter. Acknowledge it, and begin to let it go. It may want to 'fly back home' out of habit, perhaps, and stay with us when we are accustomed to ruminating and worrying as a default setting. Changing such a pattern may take time and intentional effort, but we can learn to deliberately set aside the things we cannot change. We then begin the process of acceptance.

The Serenity Prayer is aptly named:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference.

Next, we take up the parts that we can change. Name them. View them one at a time. See what comes to mind in reliance on our skills set and experience as well as the creative capacity and wisdom of God who inspires and encourages us in all things. Most things we worry about did not get in the worrisome condition overnight, and will not be resolved instantly. This life is not a sprint. We need patience...trust...waiting....rest....and endurance for the journey.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart.

Pray that you will be strengthened with all of God's glorious power so that you will have all the endurance and patience you need. Colossians 1:11

* Hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness inspired by Lamentations 3:
"I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for Him'" (Lamentations 3:19-24).

photo by Rob Kiser

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Security and Acceptance

Security is that safe feeling that comes from knowing that what you need cannot be taken away from you. Dr. John L. Cox

I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over
you. Psalm 32:8

I have had several conversations recently with friends who worry. Fears and free floating anxiety cripple their minds, and the bent toward worrying weighs them down. Others live in the grip of fear -- paralyzing fears that make no sense, but are real just the same. Even those with common fears people learn to live with, can remember what it is like to perch in that place of anxiety, wobbling a bit and wondering if we can make it through. The times we live in may contribute to this anxious state of mind, whether fears stem from economic uncertainty or they are derived from other relationships. We are wise to let these concerns air out in the light of day. Sometimes exposing them to light and air by uncovering them with a trusted friend helps greatly to reduce their impact and to minimize their strangehold on us.

Another key coping skill calls us to live in the moment. Being attentive to the present and living in the 'now' are ways of bringing one's self back to the present when fear spirals outward and anxieties threaten to derail us. To live in the now is to say to the swirling, out-of-control fears: "No, that is not happening to me. I am here, and this is now..." or some such mantra that fits. Many attest to this exercise's power to reel back in a fearful mind and set our feet securely on solid ground.

To be anxious and insecure is not a comfortable place to be. Even the most sure-footed among us may find herself or himself there unexpectedly. What are some lessons here? The way of wisdom teaches me that when we look outside for things to bring us security we set ourselves up for failure.

In fact, our culture fairly well demands the result of failure if we buy into its system of defining success and significance with outward stamps of approval related to a combination of financial standing/youth/beauty/fitness/killer wardrobe/expensive toys/high powered job and education (and apparently both of the latter can be dispensed with and eclipsed by income alone if it is sufficiently large or comes with a professional sports contract), and other regional requisites that dominate in parts of the country. People are busy collecting stamps or branding themselves with the stamp of someone who gives a seal of acceptability or achievement. Logos and brand names come and go through the decades but keep changing often enough to always leave some on the outside wanting in and some in last year's model needing an update. We can always find a fix it up chappie who can, for only a few dollars more, hook us up with a stamp of acceptability. See Dr. Seuss's Sneetches, while we're on the subject.

Being in the cool crowd (or not) may have made initial impressions in junior high, but we did not leave peer pressure there. Adults continue to use membership in 'cool groups' of many kinds to display the stamp of Arrival. And this equal opportunity venture is not limited to women: Men have their own stamps that either whisper or shout, "I am Somebody." We like our stuff! Toys for men of any age, hunting clubs, golf clubs, associations for business transactions, cars, even clothing, travel, their hobbies, and sports -- all are ways of asking and answering the big question in one's search for significance: Do I have what it takes? Do I Matter? Am I somebody? We as a people seem to keep looking outward in ever-widening circles for someone's stamp of approval to say, "There now! You've done a great job!" Certainly there is space for merely enjoying hobbies and pursuits of happiness in this life. Everyone who does so is not scrambling to impress another, but the allure is there, nonetheless, to draw us into a lifestyle punctuated and defined by our stuff. For too many, having the right stuff equals success.

It is complicated to know what drives people's anxious moments and deep fears. As long as we continue to be led around by what Dr. John Cox calls the harness of external security, we will live anxiously trying to be connected to the external things that may shore us up in the eyes of others and perhaps even make us acceptable to ourselves. But this is a losing battle. Valuable time -- a commodity that cannot be generated again -- is lost while chasing after this phantom of acceptance and significance.

Some of our fears are not related to striving for recognition or acceptance, but reflect our yearning for protection and provision for those we love. How do we live in the tension of this world where this is danger, disease, evil and distress, and yet, we want to experience God's peace in the midst of it? It is as though we have one foot in this world and one in another, trying to bridge an ever-widening chasm so we can have it all.

Can we learn to accept the truth that God's love for us is not based on our performance? This understanding runs counter to everything we absorb from our American culture, so while we may give nominal assent to it, we refuse to alter our thinking or behavior in response to God's moving in our lives. Our bedrock upon which all other security is built is that God loves us and has redeemed our lives because God loves us, not because we earned a spot on the list.

No, this understanding does not magically erase the worry-habits we have formed so well for decades, perhaps, nor does it makes us bulletproof for temptations and fears. In fact, I think it makes us all the more a target - a target for the enemy's attack on our faith and commitment to live lives connected to God. But when we live with an increased awareness of God's Presence with us in the present, strengthening us for whatever we endure, and when we can allow God's Spirit to permeate our being with the Peace of God's making which far exceeds the breadth of any accomplishment we can generate on our own, we can experience security in a profound way. This is a security that cannot be taken away from us, no matter our circumstances.

Tell that grip of fear that you are unavailable - that the One who speaks and all creation listens abides with you, giving power to the faint and strengthening you for fear's onslaught. Speak boldly, and back it up with prayer that keeps you connected to God.

Speak the same truth into anxious moments and doubts. Speak from that place of knowing that you are a beloved child of God who has inadequacies and frailties common to humanity. Feed Scripture in your heart, allowing God to refresh your weary self with fresh springs. Put yourself in a place to listen to God and to receive these good gifts.

What we need as the basis of genuine security cannot be taken away from us. We are accepted and loved! Even if that fundamental need was met imperfectly by others in your life, do not lose heart. We have an identity that is not dependent on our record of success or on our accumulated belongings. Let it go. Even if we lose all the stuff of this world, we have not lost who we are: beloved child of God, beautiful to behold!

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish:neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.

John 10:27-28 is a good reminder that we are held by Jesus, cradled securely. Can there be a place of greater safety and love? I don't know it....Praise God for this picture to counter the fleeting images of fear and insecurities that cloud our minds and threaten to define us in terms of anything but our relationship with the One Who first loved us.

Dr. Cox is a clinical psychologist practicing in Jackson, MS and Atlanta, GA.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

All Through the Night

Someone asked me recently, "What is this Night Watch?"
Simply put, it is nighttime, but there are different ways of understanding night.

The ancient Hebrews, like the Greeks and Romans, divided the day and night into segments - shifts if you will - for determining who would be on guard and serve as sentinel or watchman for the protection of the community. Some say the proper Jewish division originally was for three watches: first watch 6 p.m.-10 p.m., (Lamentations 2:19); middle watch 10-3, (Judges 7:19); and morning watch 3-6 a.m., (Exodus 14:24).

One of the results of Roman domination of the region was that these designations changed to correspond to the Roman order of four watches.
The first watch of night corresponds to 6 p.m. - 9 p.m. (Even); 9 - 12 midnight (Midnight); then 12 - 3, and fourth watch or morning watch 3 - 6 a.m.

The key thought to me in the past and the present is that somebody's watching. That's what the night watch is all about. People were most vulnerable to attack at night and depended on one another to stand vigilantly, watchful for anything that was out of order. So it is with each of us. We have our neighborhood lampposts with names like Silent Sentinel purporting to offer security and peace of mind. Sophisticated alarm systems line our windows and doors and send signals via fiber optic cable to command stations and calling centers linked to the local police and fire departments. So the simple night watch system has developed into various industries as we have responded to the same bundle of anxieties 'fear of the dark' brings in our day.

But it is not just darkness itself that is fearful anymore. Darkness is not limited to nighttime hours; rather, darkness is that place where people can be alternatively alone....fearful.....confused.....tumultuous of spirit....unable to rest well.....conflicted..... in danger. The 'dark night of the soul' has become shorthand for a state of intense personal turmoil and suffering. And so it gives comfort when one is in that place to know that we have the companionship of the One who never slumbers nor sleeps. God still keeps watch all through the night. (This was my favorite lullaby for my children, "...sleep my child and peace attend thee, all through the night...") The Holy One of Israel continues to speak, "Do not fear" through the ages.
Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior... you are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you." Isaiah 43:1-5

If you find yourself in the dark, take heart. When you awaken in the night, know first that you are not alone. If you need insight into a problem you are facing, or seek discernment, or just need to be refreshed in your spirit, take these things up with the Lord at night. There are no business hours posted with God. Let your 'heart instruct you in the night seasons' as referenced in the psalm, as much as during intentional prayer during the day. Meditate on God in the night watch if you lie awake. For me, this opens an entire segment of the day that had lain out of bounds previously, as though God were off duty if I were asleep.

Delight yourself in the Lord in the night watch. May it enrich your day and night to contemplate the vastness of the Creator God of the universe.

New Testament references include these time periods as well: See Luke 12;38, Matthew 14:25, Mark 13:35.
Photo: NGC 6934 and NASA/ Hubble

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Southern Women's DNA

There's no denying it - we know we are different. The rest of the country always thought so too, but we did not know why until now. I read it in the paper: It's all about the funeral response.

"It comes from a spontaneous response and subconscious call to arms that is buried deep within the Southern woman’s DNA. It is a single strand of genetic code that, when isolated and deciphered, uncovers a lengthy and complicated mathematic equation..."
The writer suggests it is this programming that enables the Alpha Funeral Female to move into action with precision, guiding the ranks of troops to action, and maintaining the starch -to- entree-to-desserts ratio at acceptable levels.

But don't take my word for it. Read the author himself, a colorful and celebrated writer about food and all things southern. Find Robert St. John's column at http://robertstjohn.com/2010/11/01/funeral-genes/.

And - because no funeral food article would be complete without it - it comes with its own recipe for potato salad, the time-honored accompaniment to the ubiquitous funeral ham. (Is it any wonder we are killing ourselves?)

photo above is labeled 'grief food' - you gotta love it - and among listings for resources such as Being Dead's No Excuse, The Official Southern Ladies' Guide for Hosting the Perfect Funeral a clever look at our own traditions and quirks.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Last Words

Today I prayed for a man who is only in his forties and nearing death. He is blind and in kidney failure. It will not be long, they say. His family suspects he has given up. Facing the end of life with no wife and no children, there is only one thing he responds to: the voice of his mother.

As I prayed it came to me: This same voice that was the first to be heard in utero may speak the last words heard as her son departs this life. There is such intimacy in that realization. My heart was heavy for them both.

How powerful this voice of a mother is in our lives! How beyond comprehension is the connection to heart or soul or spirit - not merely to our ears - is this voice of a mother. Do we appreciate the opportunity that is ours to speak words of wholeness....of loving...of forgiving...of encouraging into the lives of those who have been given to us?

This is not just my hunch. Scientists found the link between a mother's voice and the 'hug response' indisputable. U.S. endocrinologists' findings earlier this year at the University of Wisconsin Madison and published in a U.K. journal, showed a mother's voice had the result of calming teenage girls whether heard in person or on the phone. Her voice alone was able to lower elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and boost levels of oxytocin. * And the benefit continued after the stressful encounter of the testing was finished; there were lasting benefits in keeping cortisol lower, it said. I hope we are listening.

I know moms who recklessly assail their children with barbs and caustic remarks just as toxic as drain cleaner, leaving them raw and wounded for a long, long time. Not surprisingly, these patterns tend to repeat in families. We never know what happens in the homes of others and what hurt children carry with them from damage inflicted carelessly from mothers and fathers. You may be the neighbor, or the teacher, or the best friend's mom, or the coach, or aunt who will be the one to step into that place of loving affirmation and offer another model for a child whose mother could not or did not live into her highest calling. Being a birth mother is not the requirement. There are adoptive moms who have embraced motherhood as the gift it is and bridged a gap making a new way of life possible for a child.

Do not wait to have the last word to speak words of healing and love and wholeness of spirit. Live with as few regrets as possible. Lord, let us seize that privilege while we can.

* http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/12/mother-phone-call-study-us-oxytocin and http://psychcentral.com/news/2010/05/14/mothers-voice-calms-stress/13825.html