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.