Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The rims of what I cannot imagine

I have not written in weeks, at least in this blog or on the computer.  I have, however, been writing volumes in my thoughts, taking notes on my phone, scribbling on every scrap of paper, searching for a pencil at stop lights, trying to capture words to describe a hike two weeks ago that my husband and I took in the Grand Canyon.

Even now, I feel like a reluctant third-grader, sitting at the kitchen table with an assignment the night before it is due, a one-page composition to write, "What I did on my family vacation."  There is no first sentence, there is no final word.  And that which is most profound is not what we did, but how we are changed.

I struggle to write the words, not because it is hard to find them, but because there are so many.  I cannot wrap my mind around them or tie them neatly with a bow.  But this morning, the words pressed hard against me.  "Write something," a composer friend suggested over the weekend.  I cannot tell all, but I can begin, even though it feels like weakly whistling a tune from a resounding symphony.

We met the small group of people with whom we would hike over the next several days, rim to rim.  The seven of us would be bonded by doing life together for this very short time, moving from awkward strangers into the beginnings of friendship, the sharing of stories, the meshing together of our lives, and the glad fellowship of peanut M&M's.

The first day, we traveled for hours through scrub land and cactus.  A rare beauty emerged from what most would deem a wilderness.  And I was reminded as in so many places that Bill and I have lived and moved, unfamiliarity does not mean a wasteland but what has yet to be discovered. As the van followed the solitary pavement through flora foreign to my eyes, I felt like one of our toddler grandchildren, asking over and over, "What dat called?"

A splendor spread out before us, and we were drawn to it.

Suddenly and without explanation, the ground broke off --snapped like a saltine --and revealed what was below the surface, beyond our own vision to an awe that had no language. There was suddenly the canyon, a mile deep and ten miles wide, and a mighty river below, thick and red.  We stood silently.  No words could describe what lay before us, beneath us, over us, beyond what we have known or can ever know. If the road hadn't stopped, or if we had traveled hundreds of years ago, we would have driven right over the edge.  It came without warning.

It was not that there was a gradual sliding or even a suggestion of what was to come, but an abrupt vision, a breaking through, an acknowledgment of what is real and what is not, a strong intimacy in an unfamiliar place, and somehow, a recognized voice calling us home.

None of us could help but being changed by it. I wished for proficiency in a thousand languages to be able to describe "wow."

Early before dawn the next day, we arose in the darkness in great anticipation of the sunrise.  But we found already before us, crowds of tourists transformed into sojourners on a religious pilgrimage.  The same reluctant people who at home hit the snooze alarm every morning stood shivering in the darkness and expectant on the edge of the cliffs, waiting for the break of dawn, these pilgrims of the new day. The sun's brilliant rays inched up over the edge of the horizon, breaking forth and bathing the world in a different light,  right on time.  There is something more here.  Something much bigger beckoning in my life. 

There are always explanations for what cannot be explained, the movement of powerful waters, tectonic shifts of massive shelves, layers of rock, a careful arrangement of massive colors and textures, monumental walls, the mysteries of what unfolds before us.  There is no stirring of the human heart in a geology lecture or a rock collection.  But here, in this place and time, we were all in awe.  That which is beyond us is a presence that we miss in our tiny myopic worlds.

Later that night in the lodge, a seasoned and uniformed ranger presented his power point slides, his memorized script about how this came to be, a mantra repeated so many times it was devoid of life, no excitement, just words strung together to form complicated explanations of what happened, his charts of what "the experts" said could have happened, a particular ordering of events, myths that periodically shift trying desperately to account for what is ancient and true and unchanging, and theories taught as facts. We cannot help but know there is a reason why.  Nothing just happens.  And certainly nothing like this. 

As we exited that beautiful man-made lodge and wandered outside the lecture room, the cliffs were illumined by a billion stars that we rarely see because of our own limited vision.  We stood silent and amazed with our heads thrown back.  We swam in the universe with the stars, floated among familiar constellations, and were pulled under by the warm currents of the Milky Way, laughing because that was the closest emotion at hand.  I am aware that the immensity of stars surround us even when we do not see them.

But when we finally look up, what accounts for the wonder?

To whom then will you compare Me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
       who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
       calling them all by name;
by the greatness of His might,
and because He is strong in power
               not one is missing.

                        Isaiah 40. 25-26

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The odd, the awkward, and the redeemed

I found myself in an awkward situation yesterday. What helped me get a grip on it is realizing that it is not what I just happened to wander into.  It is not what is random at all. God fulfills His purposes even in that which I did not plan, nor even in what I cannot see coming, even in what may always remain a mystery to me.

It is not the unknown to God.  My part is to be faithful.

What have You put on my plate today? Make me faithful. What have You placed on my radar? Help me to be aware not of my line of vision but Yours.  How can I be mindful of You?

Even in this.

And He is before all things
and in Him
        all things hold together.

                      Colossians 1. 17

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Carrying a tune

Our three year old grandson reminds me of my mom.  There is not a moment in his waking day -- and maybe even as he sleeps -- that there is not a tune rambling around in his brain.  And consequently, those melodies cannot be hidden.  He hums that which I recognize and notes that seem to be connecting simultaneously as he hums them, not even aware of what he is doing.  This little fellow has about driven his parents crazy.

But I get it.  I grew up with that.  Our house was never silent, because music was the very air my mother breathed. There was always some form of music in the background or in the forefront.  I awoke to violin students taking lessons before school.  I could hear my mom practicing in the bathroom in the middle of the night, the notes working their way through the noise of the ventilation fan which she turned on to muffle the sound.  I would return from school and be greeted as I entered the house by a tsunami of sound -- a symphony or concerto turned to full volume on the stereo or radio.  I would discover mom in the living room on a folding chair, playing along on her violin as if she were in Carnegie Hall -- and perhaps that is exactly where she was.  I often expected to find mom swimming in those unfathomable depths and irresistible currents of sound.  She rarely saw my brothers or me come in the door.  She was miles away.

I learned to block out what I considered that "background noise."  I didn't hear it anymore.  But I didn't realize its deep engraving.  Even now, many decades later, I can hear a few bars of a melody and recognize it vividly.  I've heard those same pieces a lifetime ago, probably from even before I was born.

And I realize that those little tunes that Adri hums and sings and can't hold in are just a singular line of sounds often from a great symphony (which he hears on the television show Little Einsteins).  This one-dimensional collection of notes, a composer thought up, dreamed of, found himself humming, and then applied layer upon layer into something astonishing, the score for full orchestra, intricate in detail, bold in repeated themes, and after often hundreds of years, still leaving the audience breathless.

Last weekend, my husband and I attended a performance of Mahler's 2nd symphony, otherwise known as his Resurrection Symphony.

The notes, the melodies, the sheer force of every instrument and every voice came together so powerfully that when the conductor finally lowered his baton, the audience audibly gasped and rose to its feet.

I looked up the word "music" in my dad's old dictionary this morning.  I was amused.  It read:  "technically, the effect produced in the human mind when regular periodic vibrations from a sounding body reach the sensitive auditory nerve."

Is that how our culture explains the sacredness of the universe? The manifestation of beauty, the feeling of awe, or the presence of God?  Periodic vibrations? There is a lot more going on than that, a profound dimension unexplained.

And for what on the surface appears as unrelated experiences strung together, in and through those things that I cannot understand nor may never comprehend, I realize that God is building layer upon layer His purposes and His faithfulness.  I cannot even carry a tune for what God is doing in my life, full orchestration of what I can only hum a few bars, a redeeming sound that can't help but come to the surface.

I cannot manipulate.  I cannot orchestrate.
But God can do so much more.
That which is beyond my abilities,
far beyond my vision,
  and definitely beyond my control
is right in His hands.

And I am sure
that He who began a good work in you
   will bring it to completion
at the day of Jesus Christ.

                       Philippians 1. 6

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Two pieces of stale bread, a couple of squash and a block of government cheese

My husband's grandmother lived most of her life on scrub land in southeast Alabama where gnats flourished, the summer heat was unbreathable, and where she was related to everyone around by blood, marriage or sharing.  Friendship was not based on social connections, but on sheer survival.

In her life, nothing was wasted, because there was nothing to waste.  She was the queen of recycling before it even had a name.  Everything was used and re-used, and when it was broken or worn out, well, she found another use for it.  There were two freezers side by side in her tiny dining room, one stocked with every imaginable vegetable frozen in reused Colonial bread plastic bags, her summer's work that would get her through the winter.  The other unit was deemed irrepairable twenty five years before, and was used as a cupboard, storing old platters, dishes, and tiny jars of homemade preserves, pear, plum, and whatever fruit a neighbor would leave on her doorstep.  The glass jars had the labels scrubbed off years ago, and were recycled and recycled again.

On the other side of the dining room was an old washing machine that someone had given her at some point.  A dryer was an unthinkable luxury.  Clothes fluttered dry on the outside line beneath the broad-limbed pecan tree, the only source of shade and respite from the blazing summer sun.  Her fingers were permanently scarred from shelling pecans which she picked off the ground by hand well into her 90's. The deep brown nuts were packed and stored in empty wax milk cartons that had been rinsed out and air-dried.

She knew hunger.  She knew hardship as a single mom raising two young daughters.  She fought the mice that invaded every crack in that tiny cottage.  Life was tough.  But she was tougher, a tiny woman who could have commanded an army.  Her fragile frame was deceiving.

She knew how to make something out of nothing, when nothing was all she had.  Which was -- pretty much -- all the time.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong and fear not!"
...For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert...

                         Isaiah 35.  4, 6

Sometimes her hope in the LORD was all she had left.
And that was enough.
There were times she could not sleep for worry, times when she didn't know how to go on, but she personally knew God's faithfulness in a thousand different stories in her life.

I celebrated her creative spirit last Sunday by making her famous Squash Casserole, a blessing that emerged from a place of need.  She could have written three volumes of cookbooks on what she concocted out of her monthly allotment of government cheese, her widow's mite.

When she passed away, we found carefully ironed scraps of cloth ready to be made into yet another quilt, a thousand rubber bands saved for when she might need them, and a ramshackle cottage impossibly held together, full of life, pressed down, shaken together and spilling all over.

And so I salute the day when all she had was two pieces of stale bread, a few old saltines, a couple of squash in her garden out back, and that omnipresent block of government cheese. Because she made a party out of them.  

Oma's "Fear Not" Squash Casserole

2 heaping cups yellow summer squash, sliced into coins, cooked and drained
1 large onion sliced and cooked with the squash (or 2 tablespoons dehydrated onions)
2 eggs, stirred together
20 saltines, crumbled
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Buttered bread crumbs (2 slices of bread and a tablespoon of butter ground together in a food processor)

Cook the squash and onion in boiling water in a saucepan, until tender.  Drain.  Put squash and onions in a casserole dish.  Stir in 2 eggs, saltines, milk, and shredded cheese.  Top with buttered bread crumbs.

Bake uncovered in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Paying it forward

Just wanted to share with you something I learned about forgiveness that hit me broadside just a couple of weeks ago.  An African believer was quoted in a random newsletter which had landed in my email and somehow survived deletion. It was, as if, the words were marked with a highlighter pen as I read them, the testimony of a believer in Monrovia, Liberia, a place where people have experienced great turmoil and suffering:

"True forgiveness is accepting the blood of Jesus as the full payment for what your offender did.  When you refuse to forgive, you become the one in bondage, not the offender."

So it it not me granting forgiveness, but accepting the payment of Jesus for it.

Full payment. Done.  Paid for.  I cannot add to it.  I cannot work for it.  I just need to accept it.

We ALL struggle with forgiveness in varying degrees in our relationships with other people and even for ourselves.  How can I make up for that?  How can I pay that debt?  How can I make it right again?

Jesus already has.  Am I willing to accept His currency?

Forgiveness is not condoning someone's transgression, nor excusing my own, but letting go of the bitterness and allowing God to heal the brokenness. Forgiveness unleashes the profound goodness of God in impossible places. God redeems in ways I can never comprehend, nor may ever see, too powerful to understand.

Out in east Tennessee, there was a historic community tucked in a basin of the mountains.  An early settler there in the early 1800's was John Oliver.  One of the few things that is remembered about him is that a neighbor in the valley once deliberately burned down John's barn and consequently killed his horse.  John never retaliated.  Just a few years later, the perpetrator passed away, and his family did not request the local pastor to speak at his funeral, but John Oliver himself.  Which he did. When I first heard that story, I thought, "this is what forgiveness looks like." That singular act of grace still changes the hearts of people two hundred years later.

Why is forgiveness so hard?
     Because I can't do it.
But Jesus can.
That is why He came.
          That is why He died.

When our church celebrates communion, I often visualize people dragging up to the altar invisible burdens too heavy to bear, and then leaving them there at the feet of Jesus.  But last night, I thought about the word "communion."  We are not leaving anything at all, but joining in with Jesus. A commitment, a conversation, a deeper intimacy.  Something very different going on.  All things new.  And that would be my heart.

But there is forgiveness with You...
For with the LORD
        there is steadfast love,
and with Him,
        plenteous redemption.

                     Psalm 130. 4, 7

And that is the whole message of the Bible,
the scarlet thread
                cover to cover.