Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Soul Stirrings

They took away what should have been my eyes
(But I remembered Milton's Paradise).

They took away what should have been my ears,
(Beethoven came and wiped away my tears).

They took away what should have been my tongue,
(But I had talked with God when I was young).

He would not let them take away my soul -
Possessing that, I still possess the whole.

-Helen Keller

Helen Keller writes of losing her sight and hearing, using the phrase "they took away." Such an immense loss at only 19 months of age must have been utterly confusing for little Helen and her parents. She spent the next four years blind, deaf, and unable to speak and was said to be half-wild. Can we imagine the trauma this family experienced? There were no social supports or schools in the late 1880's to offer help for them.

But a miracle worker emerged who relentlessly and passionately gave herself to the child, defying all odds, to teach language and communication to Helen through her fingertips. The breakthrough moment arrived with the pumping of w-a-t-e-r splashing onto Helen Keller's outstretched hand. Anne Sullivan stayed with her through childhood, adolescence, even through college at Radcliffe where Helen graduated cum laude in 1904, with Anne interpreting all lectures and class discussions.

Helen later traveled the world lecturing in 25 countries and bringing hope to millions of blind and deaf people. Though we may marvel that one person could do so much, we quickly remember that it was not one, but at least two -- two passionate, dedicated people who would not let 'no' be an obstacle.

Upon re-reading her lines above days later, I am struck by something new that was not apparent initially. She refers to her lost senses not as "my sight" or "my speech", but as "what should have been my sight..." Do we catch the difference? For all appearances, she had lost each one, but her declaration is that in entrusting her soul to God, she still possessed the whole. The essence of Helen Keller was intact. How beautiful.

We may have the sense of sight and be able to hear ambient sound, yet many of us are still living in darkness. We see, but have no vision. We hear, but do not listen. We tune out a call for self-denial and resist the whisper of a still, small voice.

May we consider the weight of this strong Southern woman's words over 100 years later as a point for thought when we are tempted to complain of all that we do not have. May we remember that there is unbridled beauty in even the most bleak circumstance if we look beyond our limitations. And how do we define our limitations? How do we set the boundary of what we cannot do? What would we do if we were not afraid of failing?

Let us not have our limitations define us. What a reminder her words present in a human example: think back to what we know first! If Helen Keller can find joy and power and inspiration and vision summed up in her brief words above, surely we can take courage and face our day with renewed grace and power from God's Presence.

Sometimes those who do not have a crisis looming or a huge, identifiable loss are the very ones living in the darkness.

We can become so acclimated to low-light conditions and low-level living that we are unaware that we move through our days with self-imposed limitations and unexamined minds. May light and truth penetrate our hearts as God 'draws in our palms' the message of unconditional love....of living w-a-t-e-r...and awakens our souls to live with the mighty power God provides.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Never Enough

"To Americans, usually tragedy is wanting something very badly and not getting it."
- Henry Kissinger

This statement is convicting to me. Our collective identity has become quite consumer-focused. Need is created, and discontent stirred up, as I read this week in Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow, resulting in our longing for more and better stuff. We need a new phone...need a bigger house...need a new car....need more money....need more time. It is a familiar refrain no matter our lot, until something happens to jolt us out of consumerism into a place of desperately seeking after what matters - whatever they may happen to be - in time of crisis.

The hierarchy of needs becomes clearer in times of crisis. Tokyo, highly industrialized and representing perhaps the ultimate in technological, swanky consumer goods, has a new must-have for its residents: a bottle of water. That's it - just a cup of cool water to drink. Who'd have thought it possible?

Life happens, and it has a way of adjusting the order of what's important for us. The price tags switch overnight, it seems, and what we once dismissed as commonplace or mundane becomes highly-prized. Funny how that happens.

Just a nugget for thought as we think of all the things we need this week.

One's life does not consist in the abundance of things possessed. Luke 12:15

Lord, make us grateful people. Help us to value the immense provision you give us in each day.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hide and Seek

Costumes are a great way of trying on another personality or donning an acceptable disguise. I would not embarrass our children with specifics of their actual photos, but these vintage costumed children remind of me many dress-up days in the past. Our costume box still holds a treasure trove of memories.

When our children were very young, their favorite bath time game for awhile was to hide under a towel and see if I could find them. They would ball up on the floor with faces hidden in hands and little curved backbones simulating a miniature dinosaur emitting muffled giggles because they knew they were invisible. Since they could not see us, they thought we could not see them. I would search around the room, then with great fanfare uncover the little one to peals of laughter and hugs. There was such delight in being found! This game never got old, though it ended the same way every time.

There must be universal appeal in playing variations on hide and seek. We love to hide, and we also like to be found. Remember what it was like to hide, and no one came to find you? Maybe the other kids had found each other and had moved on to another game, but to the one who was left hiding, the feeling was definitely a let-down. We were left out. Overlooked. Abandoned.

That does not happen in our relationship to God. This is good news.

God is always seeking us, ever drawing us out and inviting us into fellowship. The Lord God is not content until all God's children are found. We call this working of grace in our lives God's prevenient grace: That which goes before us, whether or not we are aware of it - and I love this old-fashioned word - this grace woos us, drawing us tenderly toward Love. What a picture of a loving heavenly father and nurturing parent who seeks out a hiding child as though to say, "I know you, and I love you. I take great delight in you."

A favorite children's book, Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney, is a memorable illustration of going to attention-getting extremes to prove the point of one's love and devotion. Little Nut-Brown Hare discovers that love is not an easy thing to measure. It's a nice read for adults too.

Someone else expressed this sense of wonder beautifully centuries ago, marveling at God's nature - God's ability to be utterly present with us:

If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there Your hand shall lead me,
and Your right hand shall hold me fast. Psalm 139: 9-10

There is no place we can flee from God's presence. In our discomfort or embarrassment, many times we run and hide. We hide and sometimes declare we don't want to be found. And just as children do, adults have a hard time admitting what is at the root of our emotions. We tend to blame others and lash out. When will we ever learn?

Even when we are not intentionally hiding, in the deepest pit when we may feel abandoned, we are not abandoned. We are held fast - securely. Attributing hands to God Who is spirit need not be a stumbling block. The expression occurs frequently in scripture and is an acknowledgment of God's power, authority and exalted position.

There is a memorable song by Natalie Grant, "Held" which I love. The chorus reads:

This is what it means to be held
how it feels
when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive.
This is what it is to be loved
and to know
that the promise is when everything fell,
we'd be held.

This is what it means to be held...

We have occasions to think of that often. Life doesn't grant a reprieve from pain and loss because we profess faith or belong to a particular denomination or house of worship. We remember that the rain 'falls on the just and the unjust.' But we can know the companionship of the One who will not leave us alone nor forsake us.

And, at the end of the day, we are never left 'hiding under the towel' believing that we've so cleverly disguised ourselves that no one will know the real us. We may fool ourselves for awhile, and we may even distract others along the way, but there is One who sees us as we are - naked and bare under our disguises - and loves us anyway.

This will be an everlasting love!

Friday, March 18, 2011

As The World Turns

When I was a young girl, Japan and China and Egypt were exotic countries and foreign cultures depicted in our Weekly Reader on newsprint, or in glossy National Geographic magazines in my grandfather's collection. I once thought their citizens - whether dressed in red silks or finely embroidered obis or white linen - were as different from the folks I saw every day as the traditional dress of the Dutch girl in wooden shoes and white winged hat. People of the world seemed to fit neatly into color-coded countries on an aged globe. They were on their side of the world, and we were on ours. If asked, I would have said we were more different than alike. I have changed my mind.

Two things we often discover as we get older: our parents get smarter, and the world gets smaller. While my parents have been smarter for a long time, lately I realize that our world has been shrinking. The globe is morphing into something that more nearly resembles Pangea with a unified land mass of related though conflicted people groups. There are many influences stimulating our willingness to see our world in a new way. I heard Thomas L. Friedman make a convincing case pitching the idea among others in The World is Flat years ago. And perhaps the best teacher is personal experience.

Our access to information is instantaneous and voluminous. Even my trusty little relic of a phone will call anywhere in the world with the push of a button. And I remember waiting in line to use a WATS line to call long distance once a week in college; to call it a land line would be redundant. The world is at our fingertips now.

Instant digital feed of gripping images from Japan this week shows the heartache of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers on the other side of the world fleeing rising water and searching for survivors. There was no ceremonial traditional dress or neighborhood of paper houses with raked gardens in these photos and footage - none of the things that might distinguish 'them' from 'us.' There was only destruction and loss and fear and anguish. The photos could have been you and me. And one day soon it just may be you and me. The human condition is common to us all. Disaster is the great equalizer.

Earthquakes in China, riots in Egypt, flooding, wars and rumors of wars abound. As long as we draw clear lines between them and us, it seems easier to block out the painful images or to temper the sharpness of their loss. But, as my friend, James Loftin, reminds us in http://jamesloftin.com/, when we submit our lives to Christ, we can expect "an increased sensitivity to the suffering of others" and to be transformed. James and Carolyn know something about moving from Mississippi to the other side of the world in their commitment to mission and ministry.

Transformation is not window dressing...not a buff and polish...nor a cosmetic nip and tuck; transformation is a process of becoming a new creation. Our hearts no longer break only for people who are just like us, but for the human family. As long as we see ourselves front-and-center of the universe, and everyone else on the back side or merely waiting in the wings while we - whomever we believe 'we' to be - take the chief role, we live life through a distorted map. If the map is sufficiently cropped, we can put ourselves in the center of any picture, and block out all others as extraneous.

And what does 'people who look like us' really mean? Do not the searing images of this week's natural disasters and international violence reveal tears streaming from anguished faces to be the same? The heart-wrenching losses we can see in Japan or China or Egypt are common to the human family; the joy of unexpected reunion, likewise, we celebrate together.

My little childhood world was rather homogeneous. My son's school photo this week shows friends and gifted, accomplished medical graduates who, while many are Americans, are also Indian, Korean, Chinese, Syrian, among many others we met. They reveal a variety of cultures with distinct individual differences which I do not diminish or gloss over with a "We Are the World" soundtrack playing, but also a shared humanity and vulnerability. I have also come to know and love friends who share a different cultural heritage. Are we not collectively enriched - not threatened - when we weave friendships across the lines that could so easily divide?

Another book title comes to mind, Same Kind of Different as Me, as we think of drawing clear lines of them and us. We shortchange ourselves when we draw the circle too closely around ourselves and keep others out. We may make far too many judgments and conclusions drawn from appearances alone. That fact, too, may be a shared human condition.
Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. I Samuel 16:7

The challenge to me is to live wisely with healthy respect and deep patriotism for our nation while viewing the world's inhabitants not as bad or good, or as enemy or friend, but as God's children too. Yes, it is idealistic. And it is also realistic.

May the ideals that guide our lives enlarge our view so that we see ourselves and others as they really are and not as we once thought.

May we not turn a blind eye to what may be a new reality for us, a new way of understanding, no matter how threatening it may be.

When necessary, may we shed the skin that no longer contains us as we grow and mature, no matter our physical age.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Waiting with Purpose

Wait for the Lord;
Be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:14

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Let The Path Teach Us

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you and watch over you.
Psalm 32:8

Just a brief word on the way. As Paula D'Arcy writes in Love That Beckons, a Lenten devotional booklet, let the path teach us. I've been living with that thought lately.

The road we travel will inform our steps and change our course as the terrain changes underfoot, I find. Some days call for sure-footed hiking boots; others allow breezy sandals to fairly skip along a smooth pathway. All the jokes about women's affinity for shoes notwithstanding, our shoes can be part of the arsenal in our day's spiritual preparation. Shodding our feet with the gospel of Peace is a wise addition to our footwear.

Pam Holmes's photo above of the Honduran child is a touching reminder of the many children we met who had no choices in their footwear. There were no DSWs, no zappos.com, no TOMS available to them. Whatever they had was what they wore. Too big or too small? No matter. They wanted to go wherever we were going every day. Through mud, through dusty streets, through the rural village, they were skipping along and holding onto the big teenagers with us, riding the brawny shoulders of the boys and clinging to the hips of girls and adults as well. We bore as many children as we could carry or hand-hold at any time. Some would try to step in our footprints as we walked, like a child on a beach which they had never seen. I saw the little muddy feet after each afternoon's rains as they scampered through the village leading us to the work sites and homes. They knew the way and wanted to share it with us.

Do we order our steps after the One who alone knows the path? Let the path be our teacher as we travel this road.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Road Maps for the Journey

Life does not come with color-coded road maps and Google or Mapquest directions. We have many choices to make along the way and can feel weak and inadequate relying on our own assessments. We are not alone. Many great thinkers and those perceived as wise spiritual leaders have experienced such struggles common to the human condition. Take heart.

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

- Thomas Merton

And from another source, who knew what it was to be both confident and sure of himself and later - after an encounter with the risen Christ - confidently assured of God's Presence, we read:

"And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for
my strength is made perfect in weakness."
2 Corinthians 12:9
The apostle Paul traveled to Rome, a magnificent city in his day, though he saw it from a prison cell where he wrote, according to some scholars, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon between 61 and 63 A.D, a few years before his death. Thomas Merton, whose life, too, reveals wide swings in his search for identity and calling, intersected the streets of Rome in about 1933 during his stay there. These two very different people present honest searching and multiple attempts at 'theological correctness' as prevalent in their time as in ours.They changed their minds about what they held to be true and recanted or divested themselves of a former position in favor of a latter. Each moved from strict unbelief to a deep, abiding consciousness to the reality of Christ's coming into the world. Criticism and upheaval accompanied their journeys along the way; theirs were not stories of neat, tidy lives walking rose-strewn paths.

May we be willing to cast off anything - habits, traditions, public opinion - anything that holds us back from hearing a still small voice in our search for truth, in our quest for God's moving in our lives. We need encouragement to live boldly, proclaiming a word of witness, in a world as fascinated with the idols of our time just as those in ancient Rome. We each have to walk it one step at a time.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Codes from a Sixth Grade Spy

Samuel F. B. Morse's name rings a bell back in a textbook of American history as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code, the means of high-tech communication in his day. His invention allowed the transfer of data via pulses or tones in on/off series of dashes and dots corresponding to letters of the alphabet or numbers. Letter-by-letter messages were sent to faraway places without a pony or rider ferrying the missive. This virtual express mail debuted in 1844.

"SOS" may be the most familiar message with simple letters: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. Every school child knew how to peck out that distress signal. The tapping tempo was something like, "There she was, she was walking down the street, singing doo-wah-diddy-diddy-dum-diddy-do," for the uninitiated. There was no short cut, no predictive texting. This process was labor intensive, but the thrill of a code was worth it.

And for those of us who loved secret codes, the tantalizing concept of writing messages in lemon juice, then holding a flame below the paper to make the letters appear as brown 'ink' made us virtual CIA agents living sixth grade lives of intrigue and espionage. We saved Blue Horse notebook paper points to redeem for prizes and neat spy gear, but invariably settled for the little logo beanie instead: a blue felt tribute to immediate gratification.

The Cold War was hot then, and we believed it to be a matter of near-national security to be vigilant and prepared by conversing in codes. The Honey West Club and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. Club were my training grounds for spy-readiness. Still, I am fascinated by means of communication we use. Today's instant transmission of voluminous data is impressive.

In retrospect, Samuel Morse's two element system of dits and dahs (or dots and dashes) was quite revolutionary. And lest we consider him merely a primitive figure of history and his code assigning each letter a symbol an ancient relic in a high tech world, remember another development in our time.

The binary code in our computers is a language using only two symbols: 1 and 0. Each letter and number is assigned a combination of 1's or 0's (bits) transmitted in on/off pulses. Sound familiar? The SOS bit sequence, for example, is 01010011, 01001111, 01010011. Hmmmmm. Morse's dots and dashes seem a bit more advanced than I had previously thought.

When we need help, we do not write SOS as a lengthy string of 1's and 0's. We do not have to; the language is doing it for us while we are expressing our words. It is built into the programming to translate the code, if you will, whether we are aware of it or not. Even the most evolved languages and codes for transmitting information can be comprised of the simplest building blocks. What can be simpler than 0 and 1? The most elementary combinations can be the most effective.

The words I AM come to mind. A fundamental building block of our language and many languages is the first person, present tense of the verb to be. This three-letter sentence can be a building block of faith as well.

This profoundly simple answer to Moses' question of God still echoes through the ages. I accept this transmission over thousands of years as instructive.

"I AM," the LORD God spoke of the Divine's mysterious name. Perhaps that answer was as unexpected as a dot or dash.

Just, I AM, or also translated, I AM THAT I AM. These words still confound some who want to de-code the mystery.

Our linguistic utterances are skeletal means of encoding a small portion of information. We hang so much information on our words, and we ask them to bear more meaning than some can carry well. Some words come pre-loaded with baggage we do not intend. It is not a perfect system, but our language serves as an effective shorthand for broader meaning.

I believe that this name of God expresses beautifully the Person and the Presence of God. I AM may lay the foundation for our understanding of God as Emmanuel, God with us. It also provides meaning and context for the seven I AM sayings of Christ in the Gospel of John.

Though we may acknowledge that we cannot fully know the ineffable mind and heart of God and Christ, we can continue to savor scripture's authoritative transmission to us - bit by bit. And when the distress signals sound above the chaos in our lives, may we know where to turn for help. SOS is as near as our next breath.

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 fill me with life anew, 
 that I may love what thou dost love, 
 and do what thou wouldst do. 

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 until my heart is pure, 
 until with thee I will one will, 
 to do and to endure. 

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 till I am wholly thine,  
till all this earthly part of me 
 glows with thy fire divine. 

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 so shall I never die, 
 but live with thee the perfect life 
 of thine eternity. 

Text: Edwin Hatch, 1835-1889

Music: Robert Jackson, 1842-1914 
This hymn's writers were actually living during the time of Samuel Morse....interesting.

Bonus question: Grade school tests used to ask students, "what were the first words transmitted over the telegraph?"

"What hath God wrought?" from Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844, a reference to Numbers 23:23

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Passing Through the Waters

Torrential rains soaked most of the U.S. yesterday, and all of that water has to find a way to do what water does best: seek its lowest point. I took out my phone and snapped this shot of a beautiful rushing waterfall atop Lookout Mountain. No framing, no composition. Truly a snapshot to help me remember a beautiful sight.

The woodsy fragrance of wet, densely-packed leaves and the powerfully soothing sounds of rushing water tumbling over ancient boulders reminded me of summers from many years ago on that mountain. Days were simpler as junior high campers hiked in the early morning hours and shaped canned biscuit dough around a green stick to cook over an open fire before filling the cooked 'dough boy' with butter and jelly. The laughter of girls permeated the patchwork of memories woven into these woods near Camp DeSoto. 

Boys, too, have claimed a stake on Lookout Mountain since the 1950's at Alpine Camp, and countless young people have been blessed by spending summers on the mountain. I have traveled this road many times since 1967, and the sights and sounds of running water brought back an album of mental images. I am thankful to visit that familiar place again.

The relentless pounding of water created cascades high above the road we traveled yesterday and and carved channels underneath it as well, with sparkling rivulets streaming in unexpected places. I marveled that the entire road bed had not been washed off the side of the mountain after all these years. How can it endure the onslaught of high winds and rain season after season? Yet, people make their way up and down it every day.

Sometimes we get to experience life's blessings as a trickling mountain stream, nonthreatening and beautiful to behold. A running brook moves peacefully, lulling us into some expectation that all of life should run that way. It doesn't. 

Life comes at us with a storm's fury on occasions. Learning to accept our lot, our portion that we encounter, with courage and grace is a goal I press toward daily. When we find ourselves in the midst of a storm may we take heart. It is common to feel overwhelmed and unable to keep our footing when the path we've known before seems to be shifting under the weight of each new step.

Timeless words come to mind as signposts for the journey. Isaiah 43 and 2 Corinthians provide meaningful bookends to shore up a road bed that threatens to weaken underfoot. Take a fresh look:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Isaiah 43: 1-3 ESV

But we have this treasure in jars of clay,
to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed...
So we do not lose heart.
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 16-18 ESV

Passing through the waters.....What a picture that presents.

I only drove through the waters today, but the days will come when we will experience this expression in a different way. May our God strengthen us as we grow in faith and learn to trust in God's provision along the way.

We have the promise of God's own Presence! Amen.