Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Emerging to a New Life

Beginnings and endings surround us on December 31. It's what we do, this year in review scrolling past anywhere we look.

Some send the old year out with glitter, bubbles and flashing lights. It's all about the flash, even if for a day. 

For others, it's more about the flashback, the reminder that things are not as we had expected. Forget the fireworks or watching the ball drop in Times Square. For some, each day is a painful reminder of how we've dropped the ball in our responsibilities, our relationships. 

We yearn for new beginnings.

We want to believe change is possible. 

Remember the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life?" We know how the story ends, yet millions tune in each year to see George Bailey's transformation. George's character debuted in 1946, nearly 70 years ago. How refreshing that popular culture still allows space to air the movie and call it relevant. But I suspect that clock is ticking on old George. What film is waiting in the wings to take its place and pick up the story for new generations?

 Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?                  

          ~ Clarence to George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life"

My mother says it slightly differently when asked about her life:

"I wouldn't change a thing. Because if you change one thing, you change everything."

So true.

Bidding farewell to a year sinking into history reminds me that I did not pen or type much upon these pages in Meditations in the Night Watch lately. I may make time to do more next year. I surely hope so, because doing so gives me the chance to explore and think and write from a place that needs exercising in my life. My soul needs exercising more than triceps or abs or anything else that fills the pages I am seeing in media  touting the importance of self-improvement in the new year.

Lists abound telling us the Best of 2014. More lists offer resolutions and solutions for 2015. One year is not done before the new one is already skewered and readied for improvement. Beginnings and endings keep turning around on the spit.

Beginnings and endings.....Birth and death. Whether we are ready or not, they keep coming.

I continue to be wonderstruck by the similarities shared by these seemingly-opposite life events. Perhaps human birth and death do not occupy opposing ends of a linear continuum as we often think. Perhaps that line arcs, bending gently into a circle of life. 

I think so.

2014 has brought the birth of precious ones in my life and has delivered many loved ones into 'the land of no more tears', as I read one brave dying woman call the end of life. It has been a great year, and I am grateful to have lived another one surrounded by family and friends. Most of all I am grateful for the Presence of God who loves with an everlasting love and holds fast the faithfulness we offer imperfectly. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving grace and abundant mercy you extend. 

In a world of changing times and rolling calendars, how good it is to count on the steadfastness of the love of God. Such an assurance gives confidence as we face a new day of life and death and life beyond death.

If your body is no longer serving you well, step out of it and go on with life.
~ Barbara Brown Taylor

Go on with life--Abundant Life.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Working the Night Shift

"ғaiтнleѕѕ iѕ нe тнaт ѕayѕ ғarewell wнen тнe road darĸenѕ." J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien and his contemporary, C. S. Lewis, brilliantly used the ancient means of story to transport truth to children and adults alike. They infused their works with images and narratives that blend reason and the vivid imagination for which each is known, conferring on their characters the power to communicate ideas of faith. In looking at the world around them they sought flashes of insight into what they saw as the fundamental nature of things.

Fundamental. What is fundamental anymore?

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are among the unalienable rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.  We seem to have elevated achieving perpetual happiness to the gold medal position on the podium. Many strive to maintain the illusion of happiness and success, as though any alternative is tantamount to failure.

We may coast through some days in life, but sooner or later we are put on the night shift.  The night shift--that season when life presents what we never dreamed would happen or that which we feared to face.

Our days and nights are not our own anymore on the night shift. They’ve been usurped, taken captive by that new thing, that no longer mythical monster that holds us in its grip. Cancer does it for some. Any sudden interruption of our lives will do this.

Crises have a way of reordering our priorities. They reveal our character. They give us the chance to step up to the podium and present ourselves authentically as wounded but walking, as pierced but persevering. We may choose to be honest and press on, accepting this new life experience as an opportunity to grow—to grow in ways we would rather not but find we must. But we need help, companions on the journey.

"O Lord, do not be far from me," the psalmist says.

There is so much about sickness and pain we do not understand. C. S. Lewis wrote from his deep loss about suffering and its value. Some would dismiss the refining fire of suffering as pure myth, but not Lewis. The witness of many is that we experience redeeming grace during what I call the night shift.

We may never understand suffering; I can accept that as a limitation of our human condition. But there are some things we can know as bedrock:
That God is always good.
That God is always loving

May I dare say that suffering is one of those things that is transformative when we encounter it: We are changed in it. Fundamentally. I have come to believe it, but do I have the guts to write it here, in this place where I am sitting up writing in the night watch feeling healthy while some of our friends or family members are in the fight of their lives? How dare I say such without sounding glib and utterly insensitive?

Because I have seen it done. Writers give us examples to point to a truth until we may accept it for ourselves; Real life examples shine brightly for me.

I have seen the example up close when a friend chose to allow God to move in her life in the presence of intense suffering and pain. She gave us glimpses of grace, pictures of what suffering looks like over a period of years.  She remained full of grace and faithfulness because she refused to give into bitterness. She denied a place for the bitter seed to take root every time it raised its persistent tendril. I want to face adversity like that!

For the faithful, that's what we do: 

We carry the Light when the road gets dark. 
We hold the lantern for one another.  
We learn to walk faithfully the path we have even when we would rather take another road of our own choosing.

In prayer we can freely offer the desires of our heart and then trust in God's provision. The trusting part can be hardest. It is the task of a lifetime. And it is not the American way of self-sufficiency and prideful independence. But when we understand another bedrock truth—that God is always trustworthy—we can rest in the care of the One who created us and loves us and will never let us go.  

Offer God our pain and broken dreams when the road is dark. Pain only festers when buried and denied.

Offer suffering so that it is shared, and then we can learn how to bear it. “Pain that is not transformed is pain transferred,” writes Fr. Richard Rohr. We pass it on.

Pursuing happiness for itself is ephemeral, not fundamental. The love of God is deep and wide, reaching to times and places we do not see and holding us fast in the embrace.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Lessons from Tumbled Stones

The stones are still there, sloped-shouldered chunks of their former grandeur lying in Olympia. Smoothed by time, water and wind, the rough edges are made plain. The elements have a way of doing a number on us as well, with repeated exposure to sun, wind and rain. 

Do we grow smooth in response -- adapt and overcome? -- or toughen and tighten our way through life?

I had the chance to visit this landscape in the 70s and again a few years ago. In 35 years, the rocks were not perceptibly changed; the country of Greece, however, was transformed from its provincial self into a cousin of its former self: it bore the marks of family resemblance but no longer showed its distinctive local identity. Cable television, I am told, was the thief in the night.

Cable and satellite TV fed the desire to have what others are having, eating and wearing. There was no turning back. The temptation to live the good life American TV shows portrayed was everywhere. Suddenly, it seemed the old ways were not enough. The old way of life had lost its value to a new generation. 

Taking in scenes above from tumbled stones in Olympia and visiting the elegant carved marble sculptures of Achilles remind me that thousands of years ago, men and women sought wisdom, pleasure, heroes and significance from a myriad of places, as we do today. The ancients did not need TV to generate their entertainment; they lived among heroes and gods. 

Just as in the story of Achilles, each of us has a place of vulnerability. We may stand strong only to fall unexpectedly when pierced in that place. Vigilance is essential. The attack may come to us dressed as temptation or as an assault by fear, reducing us to rubble.

How to protect oneself from attack in the vulnerable places requires a heightened NORAD-like awareness of us and our surroundings. I’m speaking personally, not militarily, though the NORAD emblem of wings encircling the globe with a well-placed sword centered over North America is an interesting visual that could be a graphic designer’s take on an old hymn. The point is one that scouting still teaches: Be prepared.

Be prepared.

Gird yourself.

Anticipate needs and work to meet them.

Don’t live life on autopilot.

Be fully present.

Live with gratitude for what we have, not with an eye on our deficits.

Life is not “set it and forget it.” The gift of life still calls us to respond daily, I believe, with focus on the needs of each day.

Temptations come to us in that heel of vulnerability. That which never was a temptation in one season of life can become a strong desire when we least expect it. One whose radar is down, if you will, becomes easy prey.

When we say smugly, “I don’t have a problem with that,” we just got a problem with that. Anything. Credit card debt? Infidelity? Deceit of any kind? Dishonesty? I believe that when we set ourselves up as master over anything, when we say pridefully what we would never do, take cover: We just put ourselves in a place to be tested, perhaps to experience an encounter that helps reveal our character.

It may not be apparent for a long time, but stay alert. Temptation comes to us looking alluring, appealing, not as broken and twisted, for that would be too easy to recognize. It only becomes tempting when offering something we want. Temptation has a long fuse and a long memory. It may wait until a more opportune time to return. It is an old story made new every day, but one to be faced, not feared.

 Fear is that Achilles heel for many. Fear shows up as a debilitating dread that holds some in its clutches. Fear of failing, fear of not measuring up to others' expectations, fear of intimacy--the list continues--with a paralyzing result in not fully living this life we have been given.

We were not made for a half-hearted attempt at life. There is freedom from the bondage of fear and from the destructive arrows piercing our vulnerable selves, and it comes to us through love.

I have read that the opposite of fear is not courage; it is faith. I find that faith generates courage as well.

 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I John 4:18

"No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it." I Corinthians 10:13

The Christian has the heavenly Father’s help in resisting temptation. God is faithful.

"...But with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it."  If temptation is common to all, it is wise to consider the way out. But the way out may be like that Bear Hunt: sometimes we have to go through it. The way through it--the various trials in our lifetimes--is the way of endurance. 

Endurance is not merely the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.  William Barclay 

Monday, September 1, 2014

First Aid by Ear

“What first aid treatment in shock is administered by ear?”
I read these words in Cutting for Stone, expressing Abraham Verghese's lingering question that echoes long after I read it.
The answer is one every first responder needs to know: words of comfort.
Words of comfort speak directly into the heart and soul as first aid for the weary. Words of comfort--like friends who show up with good food-- are welcome anywhere. While reassuring words may not change our circumstances, they remain an audible reminder that we are not alone.

New parents are advised to soothe their newborns with a shushing sound directly into the ear. Whispering with gentle cooing has a role, but not for this practice. No, “Hush, Chile” from the old days will suffice here.  The modern shushing technique must be loud enough to transmit the rushing wind sound over the baby's distress to induce calm and security. It works.
It all goes back to what we know first: That primal, pulsing, whooshing that surrounded the baby before birth continues to bring comfort when applied to soothe.
Hmmm, rushing wind. Pulsing breaths. Something sounds familiar.

The ancient Hebrew word for both spirit and breath is Ruah. "Breathe on me breath of God"..... Y-H-W-H. The sound of many waters. Images flood my mind as I give it line and let it run free.

We encounter God in various ways. I have experienced God's greatest revelation in Jesus Christ, and also I remember God is said to speak in the sound of thunder (Psalm 18 and Psalm 29) and in the sound of rushing waters (Ezekiel 43:2 and Revelation 1:9-19). Some may dismiss the value of these references as simple poetic devices in ancient literature, but I am on the side of the psalmist and prophets: they offer a picture of God's speaking words of comfort administered by ear into the heart of a distressed child.

The holy hush.

God whispers above the cacophony of the world, above the tumult within, to calm and soothe and to remind us that we are always—always – God’s beloved.

Sometimes we may experience a gentle but firm shushing in a new way that gets our attention. We may have occasion to sense a whisper of sorts loudly enough to be felt and heard over the tumult where we live.

When we, like the fretful, inconsolable infant, most need reassurance and redirection, we may experience a fresh resonant Presence that surrounds us even in the midst of our ordinary lives. This caress of the Spirit that never leaves us nor forsakes us reminds me that I never doubted Jesus for a moment, only myself.

We will all have fretful days and fitful nights.
Life casts us into seas of turmoil that challenge our notions about safe harbors and security. Our brushes with crises, whether health, family or financial; marital breakdown; heartache and loss of many kinds all threaten to overtake us and drag us in the undertow. Even when we know to expect such difficulties as a part of life, they can take us by storm and by surprise when they make landfall at our doorstep.
 But it came to me clearly upon waking in the wee hours one morning, this holy hush.
And it came among the promises of the Lord to attend to us even in the night.

“When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watch because You have been my help; therefore in the shadow of Your wings, I will rejoice.” (Psalm 63:6, 7)
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of one who has been taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word the one who is weary. Morning by morning He awakens my ear to hear as the student, as one who is taught.” (Isaiah 50:4)

“…How to sustain with a word the one who is weary.” There it is again: words of comfort.  First aid by ear. 
Each of us is a first responder in someone’s life. We need to know where to turn in times of crisis ourselves and how to initiate first aid for others. To give a warm embrace accompanied by caring words requires no special training or certification. The effect, much like swaddling a newborn to keep arms from flailing in distress, will begin to soothe a frantic soul. 

"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:8).

“He strengthens the weary and increases the power of the weak. He renews the strength of those who hope in Him” (Isaiah 40:29-31).

Darrell Creswell's image used with permission.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Salute In Memoriam

A common fear among those who have lost loved ones is that others will forget them. Upon request I offer a tribute that aired on public radio ten years ago this week of one who deserves to be remembered.

Aaron Holleyman was born in Rankin County, grew up in Clinton and had family ties to Monticello and Carthage. I knew him as Glenda Carpenter’s son. Good people, his family: the best among our Mississippi towns. 

Holleyman was 26, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when on August 30, 2004 his last-in-line military vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Khutayiah, Iraq. He had been injured on a previous tour and did not have to return, but chose to do so despite his hearing loss, at the time of his death. 

There is always a back story—everybody’s somebody’s baby—for each of our casualties of war. And our task, as I see it, is to remember.

American flags like sentries line the iron fence leading into the Monticello cemetery. Crisp standards whip in the faint breeze beating back the Mississippi afternoon heat, unaware that they set more than the stage, they set the tempo. They define the moment.

Cars crawl into line along the gravel shoulder as friends from long ago emerge and cluster a respectable distance from the tent, giving warm hugs and fleshy handshakes, waiting for over an hour in the sun to pay respects. The family arrives in the company of Special Forces officers. The human wave undulates to allow them passage to the green turf-covered chairs in the shade.

Once the playing field in this small town was striped with white, and crowds cheered, and sweaty teams fought to the finish to see who would win. Now we know that was child’s play. Another playing field has claimed a friend’s child, and today we honor them.

Not a number anymore. 

Not a statistic on the nightly news.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Holleyman has a name. Now he has a resting place.

Special Forces:  The 82nd Airborne. Fifth Special Forces Training group. Even the uninitiated among us knows they have something we don’t: They’ve been tested and proven worthy. They serve their country. And they bury their dead.

Soldiers snap to attention. 

The triangle of blue and white is pressed into the hands of his mother, our friend and high school classmate. Collective tears fall onto the dust at the sight of them – proud, aching, faithful—all at the same time. The young fatherless child leaves her daises atop the casket. The bagpiper compresses humid air into strains of “Amazing Grace,” then seamlessly moves into “The Green Beret.” 

            “Silver wings upon their chest.
            These are men, America’s best…”

More tears and silence.

A sharp command, the only human sound before the crack of seven rifles firing as one, fails to dislodge the lump in my throat. And they fire again…and again. It’s too much, and a community cries the tears of a grateful nation, for this is our hometown hero now.

His family will not mind our tears, for they celebrate his life and his faith. They hold no grudges, harbor no malice, and offer only words of gratitude and pride for his service. 

And right beside them strides his brother, Daniel, wearing the same uniform, marching in the same brave footsteps as soldiers before.

America’s best indeed.

It’s been ten years since I tapped out these words because I couldn’t not do so. My feeble effort at verbal tribute was the only way I could process the emotionally draining military burial and compassionate response of the local folks who showed up to say goodbye to a shared son and grandson.

We’re all extended family in Mississippi. 

Aaron is one of many we lost too young. Each man and woman deserves to be remembered so that their sacrifice will not be in vain. A preoccupied, forgetful nation may pay a steep price for neglecting history and memory.