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 is 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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Just looks like a big mess to me

It was a wild flower-strewn hill where the deer would roam in the early morning light.  And in the evenings, they would convene for appetizers before they would descend as a group to the all-you-can-eat  feast on our oak-leaf hydrangeas.  I loved watching for that tribe of deer, their sleek bodies blending among the the trees and flora on the hill.  "Oh, look, there's one, and another over there."  They moved silently and swiftly, appearing often like phantoms when we least expected them.

I went away for a couple of days, and all of that solitude and beauty disappeared, just that suddenly.  After more than ten years as an empty lot, there is suddenly a lot of activity.  And there is suddenly a lot of dirt.  A couple of skip loaders are moving things around, shaving down the hillside, uprooting trees and creating chaos.  It just looks like a big mess to me.  No obvious sense to me.  No evidence of design.  Just big men joyously living out the ambitions of five year old boys, playing in the dirt.

But there is not just a reason for it.
there is a purpose,
there is a plan,
there is a design,
     even if I cannot yet see it.
And the outcome
     the big picture,
          even the details,
 are not dependent
     on my own personal understanding.
It may not be about me after all.

What God is building into me,
what God is doing through me,
how God is working
      does not require a building permit signed by me,
      nor subject to getting my approval.
Despite what appears to be a mess on the surface,
God is working deeper still,
                  even in mystery.
That is what trust is all about.

If I don't understand,
      God's answer is still there.
Dig deeper,
     follow Me into it,
     trust Me anyway.
That is part of what worship is.

About one-third of the Psalms cry out,
"Where are You?"
"What are You up to?"
"We do not like what You are doing!"

And throughout the Psalms,
the answer is manifest:
                God is there.

But as for me,
     my prayer is to You, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of Your steadfast love
                                 answer me.

                           Psalm 69. 13

The Psalms that start as a cry for help
    end up with praise to our God.
The refrain so often repeated in the Psalms
         "But God..."
 does not point out a different perspective,
      but marks the reality of His Presence.

 And the reason we don't understand
     the roadblocks,
     the hard places,
     the unexplainable "glitches,"
     and in what appears to be inconvenient timing,
is because God is God.
And we are not.

Today, it is a mountain of loose soil
              with no apparent purpose.
   well, let's see what amazing thing God does with it.

A sign should be posted:
                  God at work.

And remember once again,
that time in the past when God did the unexpected,
that it was the LORD who brought me through my own "Red Sea,"
        Who did not pluck me out of that impossible situation,
     but Who walked me through on dry ground,
spelling out another story
                        of His faithfulness.

It is not that God doesn't know what He is doing,
               but me.

What I view as dirt,
       God sees differently.
God redeems.

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

             Colossians 1. 17

Monday, September 12, 2016

Skid Marks to Remind Me

Summer seemed longer this year, more oppressive, the air too heavy to inhale, mid-90's no matter whether Nashville or New York.  We were all ready for fall by the end of July.  Will the heat ever end?

A week or so ago when I opened the back porch door at dawn, a cool breeze welcomed me to the day.  In the late night hours, September had crept in on its quiet little feet.  I could breathe again.

I celebrated the changing of the seasons by going for an early run, audibly grateful to God for the coolness of the morning.  Halfway through my run, I came to a section of  level trail where I felt like I didn't need to be quite so careful.  The path narrowed because of late summer foliage trespassing its boundaries.  I was praying for a friend in the hospital.  I was thinking about a million other things on my plate.  I ran around a man walking his two dogs.  I wasn't really paying attention, and that, my friend, is always a generous ingredient in the recipe for trouble. 

Whomp!  Down I went, skidding to a halt.  If I had been a cartoon character, I would have had x's for eyes and stars rotating around my head.  There was no one around.  I rolled over and pulled myself to my feet.  I couldn't just lay there, eating humble pie for breakfast. Nothing was obviously bruised but my pride, my clothes were covered in dust, and skid marks engraved both arms.  There was no evident cause for my fall but a few small rocks hiding in the dirt, a couple of shadows, and my own inattentiveness.

What brings us down are not the huge boulders in our lives,
those big sins that we know we should avoid,
     and watch out for,
but the slight crack in the pavement,
that bad attitude underlying my thoughts,
that lack of forgiveness I make excuses for,
that critical spirit that changes what I see,
those little innocent rocks
    that just add to the scenery
and reach out to grab your shoe as you pass by.

I have skid marks on each arm to remind me.

As a pastor once said years ago,
(and I wrote down in the margin of my Bible),
"We live in a world where
     careless Christians go under."

     gird up your minds...

            1 Peter 1. 13

I may not be able to prepare for all contingencies and hidden temptations, but I can avoid the obvious potholes.  When I align my heart to God's, He will not just bring me through, but even help me with what I never see coming. 

But as for me,
I will watch expectantly for the LORD,
I will wait for the God of my salvation.
My God will hear me.
Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy.
Though I fall, I will rise.
Though I dwell in darkness,
the LORD is a light for me.

                        Micah 7. 7-8

And though I fall, I will rise again,
 and a little more responsive to the path ahead of me.

I know that others are watching us,
to see how we respond in the hard places
                      when they come.
People are desperate to know
that this God that they have seen
       living out in the everydays
is real in the crisis. 

God did not say that the path will be easy,
       but He promises,
      "I am with you."

When he falls,
he will not be hurled headlong.
Because the LORD is the One
     who holds his hand.

                         Psalm 37. 24