Monday, February 28, 2011

Birthday Reflections

Once there was a word for birthday parties: cakeandicecream. Nothing is as simple as it seems, but for some of us of a certain age, childhood parties were pretty subdued occasions compared to today's main events.

Susan - most of us had names like Susan, Mary, and Cindy back then; I did not know a Caitlin or Kristen until years later - always invited the neighbor children for cake and ice cream on birthdays. Her family had the first color television in town since they owned the RCA/Zenith store. I remember the week it arrived. We traipsed across the yard between us on the hour to watch the NBC peacock spread his glorious and previously black and white wings. For birthdays we walked over and sat at their Formica dinette for her mother's homemade caramel cake, vanilla ice cream and Hawaiian Punch. I can hardly recall a party without children bearing red "got punch?" mustaches, come to think of it.

Sometimes we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey or Red Rover or Simon Says. We played. That's it. We called it fun.

Once a mom booked a local teenager who knew magic tricks to come and pull scarves out of his sleeve and make his magic wand go limp in the hand of a certain unsuspecting and embarrassed party guest. There were never any rental tables and chairs, no balloon arches, no rent-a-clowns or inflated jumping castles. Funny, we never thought of ourselves as disadvantaged. Life in a small town was simple that way.

The delight of riding bikes everywhere we went - safely and all over town - was common to anyone who had a bike. The cross section of friends from town or from the country was a blessing we took for granted as well. It often works that way with our blessings: we fail to recognize the value of what we have been given until much later.

The ramping up of children's activities four decades later has brought big changes to the birthday scene. Birthday shindigs have become major events spawning party specialists to handle the myriad of details ensuring that the honoree has what we used to call a good time.

I am not criticizing a good party; I thoroughly enjoyed each one in our family. Some parties bombed (the scavenger hunt where no one was home in the neighborhood to answer the doorbells one Saturday morning), and some were surprise hits (citing the tiny half bath papered in aluminum foil with a blue light bulb and doubling as a rocket ship). But I hear that they have upped the ante significantly in the ensuing years after my day with elaborate arrangements far eclipsing backyard cake and ice cream.

Many young moms have lamented the prevailing state of partydom, saying the favor their child received cost more than the gift given the birthday child. I read of one recent two year old's party, amusingly described as retro, where they spread an elaborate candy and cookie bar serving 'milk shots' for youngsters, custom water bottles and soft drink labels with the monogram of the birthday boy, and signature martinis for all the moms. Not a Hawaiian Punch can in sight. I had to smile. Retro? Seriously?

Parties are big business. They may escalate much more upwardly mobile in direct proportion to the child's age, which raises the question of what do you do at 13 or 16 if you start out with a red carpet worthy event at age 4? Resisting the whirling draw of the children's party vortex requires facing adult peer pressure, a circumstance one does not leave behind in adolescence. We try to teach our children to just say 'no,' yet parents can find this hard to do to our own children. The goal of parenting for many is simply wanting children to be happy.

Short-sighted and anemic, happiness as an end goal will not long endure when circumstances change - and they will - leaving us scrambling for new and improved ways to up the happiness quotient. Better, I think, to seek contentment and joy in the long haul of life. There are countless teachable moments we share with one another to express love and gratitude with whatever we have. Have we forgotten how to find joy in simplicity?

Today's young moms are probably duly impressed with the dizzying details of the elaborate party scene, but it leaves me wistful. And I wonder if some of the kids would just as soon play in a big TV box with their friends in the back yard.

Oh, wait. You cannot play in a TV box anymore.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Relatively Speaking

"The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty and truth."

Any idea as to the author of these words? Perhaps a poet - maybe Emily Dickinson? Or a theologian.....or philosopher? Someone who speaks the language of a lover of beauty and goodness would likely be one with a tender heart and magnified soul.

It came as a surprise to me to see Albert Einstein's name beneath this statement. He is one who seems to have lived by the hard and fast laws of science and quantifiable statements....who functioned in a world where what mattered was defined by measurement and accuracy not by virtues and ideals.

Quite a guy, that Einstein. His stupendous brain conceived concepts of relativity - both general and special - and he contemplated Joules, energy and antimatter in ways I do not even begin to express. The language of the scientist seems incongruous with the words above, and yet they spring from the same source.

His is a striking example of the human capacity for versatility in spanning disciplines. Scientist, mathematician, writer, violinist...he did it all.

The life of Albert Einstein also reveals a sort of contrapuntal tension - a dissonance and irregularity between what he said and what he did. His closest relationships were marked by great upheaval and estrangement. This seeker of goodness, beauty and truth had a hard time making his own commitments stick and finding joy in his own family.

So we are just as fully human as he, without the mc squared.

There is a great contradiction within us: humans possess a tremendous affinity for both virtue and depravity.
We have the capacity to express love and tenderness, to appreciate beauty and to search for that which offers us the joy of living. Einstein himself said that happiness and comfort alone were not fit to be goals for living, except "for a herd of cattle," as he referred to those unthinking masses who live for happiness as the end game.

I do not hold him up as a standard for life. Role models surround us for the choosing, but some of the most celebrated and popular offer only fragmentary particles of truth and beauty suspended in a residue of our cultural waste byproducts.

I seek a source who far exceeds the limitations of men and women to illumine our own path and to cast light on the 'joy of living' as Einstein puts it. I prefer to seek the fount of wisdom, the creator and maker of all that is, and the lover of our souls. God sees us as we really are and acts to redeem us and to reconcile our disjointed, dysfunctional lives. The One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills is not intimidated by the writings or diatribes of even the most illustrious of our shared humanity's herd of cattle.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Beauty in Unusual Places

Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was asked by her husband how she felt as she was dying.

"Beautiful," she replied, her last word. She died in his arms in Florence where he tended her alone.

Inventor Thomas Alva Edison said just before his death in 1931, "It's very beautiful over there."

Beautiful. Can it be?

There is a great mystery in dying that has gotten my attention in recent years. A favorite book, Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly, is an important guide and resource for those suddenly thrust upon the final-illness scene; yet it is even better if we have no such prospect looming but simply want to live with greater understanding of a topic we generally like to keep far away from us.

Written by two hospice nurses who speak from experience of thousands of deaths, Final Gifts acknowledges that while each person's death is distinctly one's own, there are patterns and stages common to most that we likely will experience.

Preparation for dying draws me - not in a macabre or gruesome way - but with a spiritual intensity that longs to be prepared physically and emotionally as well. I have shared this pursuit with others who are facing near-death situations themselves. Yes, tennis might have been a more pleasant hobby, but for this season (and for the past number of years) death bids me to take a closer look.

Each of us will experience death and dying of those dear to us, perhaps many times over our lifetime. While I would choose to wedge the door shut if that would keep the unwelcome intruder at bay, I want to learn from those who have experienced this aspect of our shared humanity. I want to be as prepared as possible for a possibly incomprehensible loss.

I say I do not fear death. (I have yet to be fully tested on this hypothesis, you understand.) I do, however, fear grief, and I dread living without the presence and companionship of those we love. I have named my fears, and grief is at the top of the list.

Death is a part of life, an essential stage of moving from this life to the Life we cannot glimpse until we pass its threshold. We are not kidding ourselves to avoid it, or to act as though it might not happen to us. But it need not have the last word.

I believe there is an inaudible 'beautiful' that awaits us as well.

A young Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,

"There are so many mercies close around me that God's being seems proved to me, demonstrated to me, by His manifested love."

That loving presence would be tested a few days later when she learned of the death of her only brother, Edward, in a sailing accident with friends. She had parted with him with 'pettish words' on the day he left, and her grief was complicated by her intense remorse over that unreconciled quarrel. For years she could not hear of the sea or of her brother because of the lingering anguish she felt.

Only later in life did she write,

"Once I wished not to live, but the faculty of life seems to have sprung up in me again from under the crushing foot of heavy grief. Be it all as God wills."

She is not alone in expressing such a sentiment. Grief is oppressive. It settles in for a season - maybe a long season of drought and barrenness of spirit. The fog hangs even heavier when embedded within it is guilt for harsh words exchanged, or forgiveness withheld, or unexpressed love and appreciation. We long for the opportunity to settle emotional accounts.

The faith I embrace gives perspective that all do not share, I realize. Chief within it is the call to love and to forgive. Forgiveness is not easy, and it is not optional. But it does go a long way in resolving conflict and easing the burden we bear after last words are spoken.

Everyone has struggles and challenges, even those who appear to live a lovely life. Elizabeth's subsequent love for and marriage to Robert Browning is a 19th century love story that would inspire millions today, but their life together was not easy. Her father had forbidden his daughters to marry - a prospect that terrified and saddened them - and, though Browning thought he could speak openly with her father about the stance and persuade him otherwise, Elizabeth knew her father's edict to be firm, and they eloped. She pleaded for reconciliation with her father for the rest of his life, but he refused to speak with her and later returned all her letters to him, unopened - a final insult, it seems to me.

She knew something about suffering. Her mother and brother had died early in life; her poor health kept her confined to a room. She could not walk. Robert carried her up stairs or across the brooks near their home. She experienced real life: satisfying life and love mixed with unreconciled issues, family conflicts, and lifelong grief. And yet she could express devotion to God and rest in God's provision even though her life was filled with hardships to endure.

And she called it beautiful.

I want to know what is true....what is bedrock...what is helpful on this part of the journey....and I pray that God will guide through shared experiences and from impressions of the Spirit on this quest to live life to the fullest and to face the end of this life with courage and grace in the presence of the Lord.

God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." Hebrews 13:5

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." Psalm 34:15

Be strengthened in the Lord if you are facing an uncertain road ahead. Know that you are not alone. May we see 'common bushes afire' with God's loving Presence and have spiritual eyes to see something beautiful beyond our sight.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Language of the Heart

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Prayers of thanksgiving can be whispered words standing alone, or beautifully composed sentences preserved in books of poetry. Our prayers transcend definition by literary genre and known languages of the world's people; they become the language of the heart.

O, that prayer would become our native tongue, that first language we speak before we translate our deepest thoughts into spoken words. When we begin to offer our thanks, praise, confession, cries for help and pleas for others, the words may follow unfettered.

And in those times when words fail, and our prayers seem bound or silenced, know that the Spirit prays for us in a manner unconstrained by the limitations of language.

With all due respect to Emerson, words are overrated. God looks upon the heart and knows - yet still loves - us.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your name, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14

Monday, February 14, 2011

Beautiful Love Letter

I mentioned last week the national outlay of $14 billion dollars on this holiday called Valentine's Day. Quite a large sum for ribbons, cards, flowers and gifts that - to hear a man at the bank say today - are "merely obligatory, being devoid of meaning entirely because someone has decreed that men must pay out or else." Sort of like negotiating with hostages, he said: "nobody wants to do it, but sometimes you just have to."

"I hate this day," he said again. "Women have just set us up."

I wonder if he has found ways to creatively express his love for his wife 364 days a year given his dislike for February 14?

By sharp contrast, I have another picture to offer of love today.

It will never enter the national retailers data bank nor will anyone report on its significance economically. But if you can find a more powerful picture of what love is, I want to see it.

When you can take a moment of quiet and give the attention without skimming, please read a powerful tribute of a young husband to his wife.

I marvel at the inspired words of Eric for Sarah, friends of Sam and Bennett in Houston:

Sarah's Transition

February 14, 2011:

Sarah is currently in the process of transitioning out of this life... away from her current worn down body and into an indescribably beautiful one. She is very close to leaving the cocoon and becoming the butterfly she has always been so symbolically drawn to. Her condition has dramatically worsened over the past several days, and given her current symptoms, we are being told that the time for her to pass is very near. Currently, she is having few lucid moments, and the ones she is granted are spent straining for those three precious words that exemplify her life... "I love you." Rest assured that she is certainly enveloped in love. Please pray for a painless and peaceful transition, and those of us here struggling with the huge void caused by the loss of her presence.

I think Sarah's light has shown so bright that this earth can no longer contain it. It's time for her to go to the true source of that light, to stop being the lone lantern shining into the darkness, but to join the grand symphony of radiance. It would seem selfish to keep her after she has worked so hard and is this close.

Shine bright firefly, shine bright... with tears in our eyes we cherish the path you illuminated.

-Your husband


Come quickly, Lord Jesus. And mend the broken hearts left behind.

We understand that Eric is paying the high cost of loving, a price we all have to pay sooner or later. May we pay willingly, though painfully, when we know the priceless gift that is ours in love. May God grant us strength and courage to face an uncertain future because we trust that God is faithful to accompany us the full distance of the journey. We do not go alone.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13: 1-13

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Beautiful Reminder

The Light of God surrounds me.
The Love of God enfolds me.
The Power of God protects me.
The Presence of God watches over me.
Wherever I am, God is.

Prayer for Protection, attributed to James Dillet Freeman - 1941

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shared bounty

Love grows when shared.

It's almost time to cut back roses and remove the dried, stalky remnants of white mop-headed hydrangeas that litter our yard in February. Today's sunshine beckons but I'll not answer the call just yet; I can find much to do indoors. But just seeing the beautiful colors above reminds me that spring is not far away.

Mary Jane Henley, a dear lady and beloved grandmother of Mary Jane Davis Meyer, shared these delicate roses and wire fern from her yard with me in the fall. She also brought the luscious guava - an unusual fruit I had only known in a Barbara Streisand song decades ago - that she uses to make guava jelly. Her graciousness in giving in many ways touches the lives of anyone in her path. It is her roses that I am smelling today, even if only in a photo.

We stop and smell the roses anytime we pay attention to beauty...or we pause and take delight in our blessings...or we choose to look at something with a fresh appreciation for its value. I think it is a wise way to live.

Let us not run slipshod through life, content with hitting the high points as though we are skimming some required reading just before class, expecting we'll have time to get it right later. This is the real thing! This day is its own, never to come again. We KNOW that, but we rarely live its truth.

Except for a precious woman named Sarah. She gets it. Sarah knows the value of a day....of 'each second of my life' as she speaks into her laptop recording her blog note, Sarah's sense of urgency in appreciating the day that is hers stimulates my own desire to make the most of the time we have.

When Sarah leaves M.D. Anderson hospital tomorrow, she will go 'home' to a home that is not familiar to her. She will move into Bennett and Sam's first floor home because she can no longer climb the stairs to her own. She and her husband, Eric, will begin a new chapter in their sixth month of marriage in a borrowed home with loving friends, Dustin and Elizabeth, who are helping to care for them. She displays great courage and faithfulness in her young life. I stand amazed. This is the body of Christ in action.

So maybe that welcome sunshine outside is calling my name after all on this Sunday afternoon, even if just for a brief walk. It has been icy and dreary and cold for so long. Sarah would walk in it if she could and not think twice. But she can no longer walk.

What am I waiting for? I'm taking my own advice....

Do something to savor this day. And pray for Sarah.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

And a little child shall lead us...

I heard a little child today, and I had to turn aside to see the sight for myself. That's what Moses did when he saw the burning bush, remember? Something caught his attention, then he deliberately turned to pay attention. Life gives us moments - large and small - where we choose a response. How many times do we miss the moment because we are preoccupied or too busy to take notice. Far too many, I'm many, that we get used to it and pass them off as insignificant. Sometimes our filters are so restrictive that we do not even notice our surroundings.

But today, I caught a little sparkle from a stranger's pixie dust. A little tidbit of a girl was standing between a man and woman in a booth, and she had her own little laugh fest going on in the Beagle Bagel. She was laughing that throw-your-head-back kind of laughter and couldn't seem to stop. She had laughed herself silly. We can remember moments like that and smile at the simple joy.

Laughter is good medicine. A healthy heart holds both joy and heartache. In the most dire circumstances, we can still find delight in something.

Most of us have had the embarrassing experience of inappropriate laughter that may not be so inappropriate after all. There is an invisible release valve that is tripped, I suspect, when we have a good laugh....or a good cry. The physiological explanations for it I will leave to someone else. All we really need to remember is to look for smilestones in each day - little signposts along the way that highlight reasons for joy in the heart - and be willing to crack yourself up from time to time.

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22