Darkness Can Still Teach Us

This post was first published in September, 2017. The world is still a scary and dangerous place. But we can still learn from darkness.

For me, 2017 has been a year of heaviness and darkness. I am not depressed or guilt-ridden; I just  feel the weight of the world’s chaos and pain. Perhaps I have been gifted by the Holy Spirit with a greater sense of compassion in my later years

Perhaps I have been tempted by the Evil One to accept the tornado of forces he has unleashed and to give up on expecting calm days and blue skies. This convergence of emotions plus a deeper grip on the reality of sin has resulted in my overwhelming recognition of the power of the darkness.

In his Daily Meditation on September 5, 2017 Richard Rohr says: “Darkness is a good and necessary teacher. It is not to be avoided, denied, run from, or explained away. First, like Ezekiel the prophet, we must eat the scroll that is “lamentation, wailing, and moaning” in our belly, and only eventually becomes sweet as honey (see Ezekiel 2:9-10; 3:1-3).

I suspect that most people over forty would agree that “darkness” can be a teacher.  I wonder, however, how many of us try to avoid, deny, run away from, or explain away the darkness rather than settling back into it and letting it teach us. How can the darkness teach us?

Theologians and philosophers have written thousands of words about this. I take my cue from  Eugene Peterson, pastor and poet, who wrote an entire book on the phrase “eat this book” from the passage in Ezekiel quoted by Rohr. This metaphor for absorbing the words of scripture into our lives gives me some help in allowing darkness to teach me.

When we eat, we consciously open our mouths and take in the food. Then we chew it. Then our systems take over, process what we need, and provide for the elimination of what we don’t need. So how do we accept, chew, process, and eliminate the darkness of “lamentation, wailing and moaning?”  First we take it in. We do not try to make it go away. We do not try to fix it (unless this is chronic depression); we live through it. We open our souls to the reality of the darkness without blaming God for causing it. We “chew” on the darkness and “swallow” it.

Secondly, we allow the Holy Spirit to help us digest what we are learning.  We trust that in time with the Spirit’s guidance we will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. We affirm (or re-affirm) that on earth we must live in the midst of suffering, walk through darkness and uncertainty, and become comfortable with mystery. We trust the grace and faithfulness of God to be with us in times of light and dark.

Richard Rohr has also written that “there is every indication that the U.S., and much of the world, is in a period of exile now. The mystics would call it a collective “‘dark night'” (Daily Meditation for September 11, 2017). Perhaps we can use this “dark night” to challenge our preconceptions, biases, false narratives, and contradictions and recreate our journeys as individuals and as a society.

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From My Reading – June

“I wasn’t old enough (11) to realize that the knee-jerk repulsion I felt [about swimming in a pool with black people] was the inheritance passed down to me from literally hundreds of years of white people propagating and benefiting from this learned reaction to black bodies. They were impure, dirty, somehow threatening, a source of revulsion, a cause for fear — views forged in the crucible of a brutal chattel slavery system that spawned such feelings and attitudes in order to bolster and enforce it. I had absorbed – or Calvin would say, inherited as sin – these feelings, most of them still inarticulate, from the white world I inhabited. Despite my liberal upbringing they were pressed into my being with excoriating force. These days, we would call this kind of inheritance ‘unconscious bias.'”(Serene Jones in Call it Grace, Finding Meaning in a Fractured World).

“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – es- pecially in the wilderness – you shall love him” (Frederick Buechner).

“Just as God cannot be ‘caught’ or ‘comprehended’ in any specific idea, concept, opinion, or conviction, he cannot be defined by any specific feeling or emotion either. God cannot be identified with a good affectionate feeling toward our neighbor, or with a sweet emotion of the heart or with ecstasies, movements of the body, or handling of snakes. God is not just our good inclinations, our fervor, our generosity, or our love. All these experiences of the heart may remind us of God’s presence, but their absence does not prove God’s absence. God is not only greater than our mind; he is also greater than our heart, and just as we have to avoid the temptation of adapting God to our small concepts we also have to avoid adapting him to our small feelings” (Henri Nouwen).

For many of us, the word “apocalypse” conjures thoughts of the rapture, fear, a vengeful God, and violent and exclusive religion. It is an overwhelming judgment on Western Christianity that it is drawn to such beliefs. But despite its misuse, I’m convinced the biblical meaning of apocalypse is a helpful and ultimately hopeful framework. A quick etymology of the word will help: kaluptein is the Greek word for “to cover” and apo means “un,” so apokaluptein means to uncover or unveil. While we primarily use the word “apocalypse” to mean to destroy or threaten, in its original context, apocalypse simply meant to reveal something new. The key is that in order to reveal something new, we have to get the old out of the way” (Richard Rohr in Daily Meditation, April 25, 2021).

Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part life (Parker J. Palmer) 

Immediately after Jesus was lifted out of the cool river water by John, God’s voice tore through the skies declaring: ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:11). A miraculous affirmation of tenderness and love, one in which, I believe, is sung over each and every one of us. We’re all beloved children of God (1 John 3:1). But what’s the result of being loved by God? of having a divine father? The next verse in Mark’s gospel answers the question, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).” To be loved by God, to be his child, is to be driven into the wilderness, the place of preparation. For it’s only when we’re stripped of essentials, that we uncover the essential. It’s only when we venture into inhuman landscapes, that we find the terrain for becoming human” (Jonathan R. Bailey).

I have decided to stick to love . . . Hate is too great a burden to bear” (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King).

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“Solidarity: No Man (or Woman) is an Island

According to John Paul II’s definition, solidarity is a commitment to an objective standard called the common good. The common good isn’t the sum of individual interests, as though the greatest number of students getting their way were the greatest good for the classroom; it’s the greatest good for society as a whole, the sum total of social conditions allowing all people to reach fulfillment. Although it doesn’t bow to individual interests, the common good is thus very much concerned with the flourishing of individuals: “the good of all and of each” (Sister Dominic Mary Heath, OP, in Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2020).

I have been upset for months now since a new neighbor moved into the apartment above me. She ushers her two small yipping and barking dogs out onto the balcony at least four times a day for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. And they bark bark constantly. She has a couple of bird feeders (not allowed in the apartment complex) and at least daily sweeps herdeck. Seeds, shells, and other detritus go through the cracks in the decking and onto my patio chairs, table and floor.

I am increasingly annoyed, and have often lost my peace of mind. Back and forth I go:

This isn’t fair! Those constantly barking dogs are bothering everyone in these apartments. Dogs shouldn’t even be kept on the balcony.

I shouldn’t get so upset about barking dogs. I’ve already complained to the manager. There’s nothing more I can do. Just keep the door and windows shut and ignore it.

Why does she keep sweeping these seeds and shells onto my patio? Doesn’t she see the spaces between the decking? Where does she think her mess ends up?

Karen, it won’t hurt you to sweep your patio everyday. (Well, actually it does hurt my back to sweep, but . . .).

She’s been told to get rid of the birdfeeders. I put mine away, the neighbor next door put several away. What makes her special?

All this frustration is ridiculous, Karen. Stop with the aggravation and calm down. She’s obviously doesn’t see any need to change.

That loud, aggressive barking that erupts from these two dogs startles anyone who comes up the walkway to my front door . . . and when those visitors come in the house, they track seeds everywhere. It isn’t fair!

. . . . . .

Today, I read about solidarity, about the common good leading to the flourishing of individuals – which means, I suppose that the common “ungood” leads to the diminishing of individuals. I am convicted.

And then I read my favorite writer, Frederick Buechner, who puts it all in place: “The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked together. No man is an island.” Now I am mortified.

My caustic remarks about this woman to another neighbor come back to me. I think about her attempts to stop the dogs from barking because she knows they bother me. I cringe over the “gossipy” comments I have shared with her about the dogs and the seeds and the woman’s lack of neighborliness. And I realize that with every complaint I think and/or share, the chance for flourishing (in myself and in each of these neighbors) ends. I am SO guilty.

So how do I touch my neighbor for good when in my soul I am torching her for ill? How can the “common good” be reached among just these three people when I share the ill will that festers in my mind? Can I ignore the barking or loud music from upstairs? Can I sweep the seeds and leaves off the patio without complaining? How can I hope for solidarity between races or political parties, or religious groups when I can’t create it with an unknown neighbor I have never seen or spoken to?

I know the answer, of course. It takes listening to the Holy Spirit. It takes loving my neighbor as I love myself. It takes spiritual discipline. It takes willingness to grow solidarity in the world and recognizing that it must start with my upstairs neighbor. I commit to working toward the “common good.”

And it starts right now . . . she just let the dogs out on the porch, and, of course, they are barking.

About four hours after I wrote this, the neighbor upstairs upended a large, full child’s swimming pool over the deck raining . . . onto my deck. I lost it! I opened the door and stepped out and yelled, “Why did you do that? You drowned my plants. And I have furniture out here.”

No response. I went back inside and then out again. “Lady,” I yelled (I don’t know her name) “Why did you do that?

She responded,” You don’t seem to like anything I do.” That is partly accurate because I know nothing about her except what she does on her deck.

“I could have been out here (and with a guest)!

She said, “You neve go outside!”cand went inside. I was astonished. I went back in and stewed and then the irony of my attack after writing about solidarity hit me and I felt “convicted” and “mortified” and “guilty” for the second time today. Now what?

Stay tuned

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EUGENE AND ME

I recently gobbled down the new “authorized biography” of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier. It was superb; everyone who has ever appreciated the voice of The Message should read this book. One of the themes that Collier tracks was Peterson’s choice of a professional career. He started his working days at 5 years of age in his father’s butcher shop where he polished the glass cases, swept sawdust from the floor, carried out the trash, and pushed chunks of beef into the big meat grinder. Several years later he was given a razor sharp knife and learned to carve meat. As a grown man, Peterson debated back and forth between being “an academic,” a pastor, or a writer. Eventually after his retirement from the first two, he spent his days writing – including The Message – and talking and listening to people from everywhere and from all walks of life.

The story of Peterson’s life-long choices of vocation prompted my reminiscing about my own work journey. Like Peterson, I had jobs when I was still in elementary school or teen-ager, the first of which was picking blueberries. I was a rank amateur compared to the migrants I was working with (even the 10 and 12 year-olds) who were faster pickers than I was). But I learned the value of working as hard as I could all day long. I prided myself on a “clean” bucket – meaning no leaves or green berries. If I couldn’t be the fastest picker, I could at least deliver a bucket of fresh blue berries. My second job as an early teen was as a summer baby-sitter for two young cousins all day five days a week. To be honest, I was not ready for such a responsibility, but we all survived.

Like Peterson who as a child and teen idolized his preacher mother and dreamed of following in her footsteps, I began thinking early about what I would do when I grew up. When I was about 8, my parents got tickets to “Beat the Clock” a popular TV game show in New York City. We were chosen to be contestants, probably because, my parents said, I was the only child in the audience. When the host “interviewed” me, he complimented my red purse and then asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I looked up solemnly at him and said, “A missionary.” He almost dropped the microphone. The audience applauded which gave him time to recover his composure

In 8th grade civics we were given the assignment to research three careers we were interested in. I chose teacher, librarian, and, again, missionary. In the summer between my junior and senior year as a member of Future Teachers of America, I spent 6 weeks on the campus of Northwestern University learning and practicing what it meant to be a teacher. By the time I started college, my future occupation was a foregone conclusion. My grandmother and my mother were teachers; all three sisters and my brother eventually became teachers or trainers.

BEGINNING A CAREER

My first and last public school teaching job was about 30 miles from my home, I was hired to teach grammar and writing to 7th and 8th graders. A college classmate was hired to teach literature, so we spent three years commuting together. As the youngest and newest teachers, we joined the new social studies teacher (also a first year teacher) in experimenting with what years later was called “team teaching.” I was only 20 and an easy mark for 14-year-olds who once put a dead gopher in my desk drawer, but I loved the work the three of us did together. Unfortunately, the older teachers thought that combining a reading assignment in Literature about an event that was being taught in Social Studies and writing about it in English class was pretty ridiculous. All three of us got M.A. degrees during those three year, but we were pretty soured on teaching. The literature teacher got a job in a community college and eventually became a college president, the social studies teacher got a job in the newly forming teacher’s union in Michigan, and I joined The Church Herald, the denominational magazine of the Reformed Church in America as the “rewrite editor.” None of us taught in public schools again

MOVING AND GROWING

So began 45 years of wandering from job to job – most of them very new to me – and learning something from each of them. After three years on the editorial staff, I resigned to stay home with two small children until I needed something more. That something ended up being the assistant to the director of a brand new mission in Holland, the Good Samaritan Center (which still exists and does wonderful work in the community). I eventually headed up an adult literacy program and spent summers in migrant camps directing English as a Second Language classes and supervising activities for migrant children. I became very interested in Adult Literacy and began a Laubach Literacy Program training adults to teach reading and speaking English to other adults.

Soon my first husband became interested in being a high school principal and we moved to two different cities in southern Michigan for his job. In Imlay City, I volunteered to begin a volunteer program that tutored children. In Lapeer, I was hired to teach Reading in an adult high school. This program allowed adults of all reading levels to study reading for high school credit. I soon learned that many of them were not even close to reading on a high school level. So I began recruiting and training volunteers to come in to the class and help those who were reading under the sixth grade level.

Eventually I saw that this approach produced much better results. I resigned my teaching position, took all my volunteers, and started the Lapeer County Volunteer Tutors Association, an adult literacy program which eventually became the Family Literacy Center which still exists. I left after 20 years of learning how to raise money including writing applications for local, state and federal grants, how to do promotion and publicity including public speaking, how to work with a board of directors, how to test and diagnosis reading problems, how to motivate tutors and learners – and on and on.

DESPERATION: FROM JOB TO JOB

Now began a period of time when jobs were sought out of financial desperation – and each of them taught me something valuable. Several months after I quit the Family Literacy Center, my new husband had to leave his computer job because of illness. Suddenly I had to be the sole earner. I was attempting to start a business called Terra Nova with a partner. We were training people (particularly in government agencies) in the leadership principles of Stephen Covey, as expressed in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which had been extremely helpful to me. That business was growing and well supported in by the community, but it wasn’t making enough money to support me and my partner. So we closed down the business.

My next job was filling in as a church secretary for several months, I hated it, especially typing church bulletins! But it brought in steady money.

When that ended, I pitched a book title to a religious publishing company which had a line of books for new adult readers. (I had already written two novels for adult new readers for New Reader’s Press.) The editor loved it and bought the rights to it for $500; I wrote the book in a month – just in time to pay the next month’s rent. Then I got a third-shift stocking job at Meijer which lasted for about 4 months; I couldn’t stand the irregular schedule of the night shift. Next I did a garage sale that brought in $500 because we sold one of my husband’s old computers.

Now what? Fred was still sick and was beginning the process of applying for SSI (Supplemental Security Income) but that looked like a long process. I needed something permanent. I started looking at want ads in the Flint Journal. I found a job with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society as a volunteer administrator. The base of the Michigan MS Society was in Southfield, MI, but this was a part time opening that covered Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, and as far north as Alpena. I could work from my home in Lapeer. In that position, I supervised educational programming and self-help groups for people with MS and their families and trained volunteers for a variety of programming positions.

Unfortunately, this part-time job did not pay enough, so I went back to the Flint Journal Help Wanted ads and found a position with the U of M Social Research Center interviewing welfare mothers as part of a three-year study which I could do on my own time (mostly nights and weekends). In this job, I learned about implicit bias, about flawed welfare programs, about the strength of welfare mothers. I also learned how to supervise other interviewers on long-distance conference calls – harder than ZOOM calls. I also worked on a mental health study which required driving to suburbs of Detroit for interviews. This gave me a whole new understanding of how poor women are treated (or not) by mental health laws and organizations.

Eventually we left Flint and went back to Holland where I commuted to Grand Rapids now as a full-time as a Senior Manager for the MS Society in the West Michigan area. Of course I needed a second job, so I found a job at Hope College (my alma mater) supervising college students who were calling high school seniors who had showed interest in Hope College to promote the college. I worked in Grand Rapids until about 4:30 and then drove back to Holland and supervised the calling program.

At this point in my life, I had become totally fascinated with and absorbed by the principles of spiritual formation. I decided to retire from the MS Society at age 64 and 1/2 and apply for a Master’s of Spiritual Formation Program at Spring Arbor College. The program was informally affiliated with Richard Foster and the Renovare Program which made it very enticing. Of course, I had no money, but members of my spiritual formation group funded my first life-changing year. When it became clear at the end of the first year that I could not financially continue the program, I met with the Adult Discipleship director at my church and we began a process of revitalizing that program. I eventually began working part-time as a volunteer and when he retired I became the Director of Spiritual Formation for about three years. My last job!

SUMMING UP

I learned a lot from reading about Eugene Peterson’s tussle with careers. He loved being a pastor but didn’t always agree with church administration priorities and certainly did not want to spend his time on “church growth.” He loved teaching, but it didn’t leave him time for writing. While he was writing, he missed the stimulation of the academic world. When he was employed by a university, he missed the pastoring – sitting and listening to his congregation members. Eventually a longing for home (Montana) and a quieter life . . . and the desire to complete his book ideas . . . and the possibility of writing The Message! led him to settle on a career of writing and some speaking which he pursed until his death.

My path was full of twists and turns that I really didn’t see as related, until I wrote this very long (probably too long) summary of my career. My biggest take-away is that God was always in and around and above and below and opposite me -leading me, giving me empathy and teaching me hope and helping me recognizing that nothing he gave me or taught me was wasted.

Here are some specifics about what I learned:

As difficult as it was to support myself and my husband for nearly 30 years, God always provided. I didn’t like working third shift or keeping church attendance or driving to Warren for an interview or trying to keep college-level readers motivated in a class full of elementary level reading students, or asking companies or foundations for money, or speaking to Rotary groups. But it was work. And it paid. And we survived.

Every job I had required me to use all my skills, to pray for bravery, to adapt my teaching style, to get along with people from all backgrounds, of all races, of all levels of leadership and all personality strengths and weaknesses. I used my interest and skills in writing in every job I ever had: newsletters, board reports, promotional articles, newspaper articles, books for new adult readers, grant writing and on and on.

Every job I had required interaction with people, my worst nightmare as an introvert. But I was able to enjoy almost every interaction I had with young and old and especially connected with “the least of these.” When I let go of my fear and nerves, the Holy Spirit stepped in.

I was nervous and afraid while looking for all these jobs and in the learning processes of tasks beyond my experience for most of these 45 years. I was often stymied, but I l could learn way more than I expected from myself. And there was always someone who could teach me, if I just asked. All of my gifts for organizing and teaching and writing and goal setting were useful in any job I had. I taught junior high English in public schools and reading and GED material to jail inmates, and the seven habits of successful people to Department of Social Services staff and how to deal with dyslexia to volunteer tutors. I led board members through goal setting sessions and tutors through workshops on teaching reading skills, and church members through numerous spiritual formation classes and retreats.

I am now a still-sad widow who has multiple health issues and a limited income. I doubt if I will have another job; sometimes it’s too tiring to even write a post like this. But I have learned in 78 years of living that with God’s help and guidance and the support of friends, and with a personality that has learned to adapt and accept and try harder and forgive more easily, that each day’s challenges can be met and life in God’s kingdom on earth will go on until I am called to “slip these earthly bonds” and move into the eternal Kingdom.

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Dreams for the Church

The following post was first published on January 29, 2021. I’m running it again after being inspired by Brian Keepers’ blog, “Finding My Heart Again: A Dream for the Church,” posted on May 17, 2020 on The Twelve, a blog published by The Reformed Journal. I encourage those who are steeped in the Christian Church, or even put off by the current iteration of the Christian Church, to imagine their own dream for that body of believers and share it with others.

I Dream of a Church

Inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, I Dream of a World, NPR’s Morning Edition resident poet Kwame Alexander and host Rachel Martin suggested that listeners write their way out of the unprecedented events of the past year and into a space of possibility. After the poems were submitted, Alexander took lines from some of the pieces and created a community crowd-sourced poem.  Alexander and Martin read the poem on air on January 28, 2021. (You can find the story on the Morning Edition website.)

I happened to be lying in bed waiting for my back and leg to be somewhat influenced by pain medication so I could start my morning. I tuned in just as they started reading; I was in tears before they finished.  

That joyful experience prompted me to start my own  poem called, I Dream of a Church which follows:

I dream of a church where the Holy Spirit carries gracious power and sprinkles it into the souls of believers – and the power of money and tradition and multi-generational membership is shattered and swept out the door.

I dream of a church where theology is wrapped in so much love that when people disagree  love wins. 

I dream of a church where gratitude is the oxygen that fills the sanctuary and makes breathing in the atmosphere a blessing.

I dream of a church whose members are on a pilgrimage, walking toward lives of deep companionship with Jesus, inspired by other pilgrims (past and present).

I dream of a church where awe and wonder float and settle in the hearts of believers.

I dream of a church where my proud black husband would be welcomed for the person he was and was becoming and not shelved by their negative and unwarranted expectations.

I dream of a church where shared pain, sorrow, disappointment, and doubt are welcomed, held in careful hands, and then returned, blessed by grace and understanding.

I dream of a church where the words and lived experiences of a Howard Thurman or a John Lewis or a Sojourner Truth are as much revered as those of a Billy Graham or a Richard Foster or Barbara Brown Taylor.

I dream of a church where shards of beliefs and traditions of world religions are not stomped on but are appraised like diamonds and saved in a jewelry box created to preserve thoughts worth considering.

I dream of a church where no member is helpless or hopeless or hungry or homeless because fellow disciples, filled with empathy and love,  take action.

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From My Reading – May

“Sin is easier to write about than grace, I suppose, because the territory is so familiar and because, too, it is of the nature of grace, when we receive it, to turn our eyes not inward, where most often writers’ eyes turn, but outward, where there is a whole world of needs to serve far greater than the need simply for another book. I was too occupied with my job to think much about the next novel I myself might write, but it occurred to me that, if and when the time ever came, it would be the presence of God rather than his absence that I would write about, of death and dark and despair as not the last reality but only the next to the last” (Frederick Buechner).

♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦

“Living a spiritual life requires a change of heart, a conversion. Such a conversion may be marked by a sudden inner change, or it can take place through a long, quiet process of transformation. But it always involves an inner experience of oneness. We realize that we are in the center, and that from there all that is and all that takes place can be seen and understood as part of the mystery of God’s life with us. . . .

“All these other things,” which so occupied and preoccupied us, now come as gifts or challenges that strengthen and deepen the new life that we have discovered. This does not mean that the spiritual life makes things easier or takes our struggles and pains away. The lives of Jesus’ disciples clearly show that suffering does not diminish because of conversion. Sometimes it even becomes more intense. But our attention is no longer directed to the “more or less.” What matters is to listen attentively to the Spirit and to go obediently where we are being led, whether to a joyful or a painful place?” (Henri Nouwen).

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“[Jesus as teacher] wants us to experience his freedom. . . . He wants us to enjoy his self-realization, his union with the Source of Being, whom he calls Father. It’s his own interior experience that he wants to share.

This means that the rest of us are to have this kind of experience. Whatever is reported of Jesus, therefore, is to be replicated in us. Just go through the Gospels and find out what he is like. It’s a revelation of what is in store for you, what is expected of you, what is promised to you, and what you in your profoundest reality always already are. What he experiences in his consciousness, we are to experience in ours. We are to enter into his very heart, the center of his being” (Beatrice Bruteau, Radical Optimism: Rooting Ourselves in Reality).

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Like stained glass which refracts sunlight into the inner world of a church sanctuary, or like sacred images which channel the eye of the beholder outward to the person who is the fullness of what the image contains, every human bears an imprint of an image, an image which, in Christ, might be set aflame with heavenly light. We who know and follow Jesus are illuminated images, made to reflect the divine light of Jesus to a world in need, acting as sacred depictions of God’s love which might redirect longing eyes toward the fulfillment of their desires in him.

And we are able to be such expressions of grace not only because of our witness to the light but because we are seen by the light. As Christ-bearing images, we receive the love of a Father who has adopted us as sons and daughters. The delight we behold in the aspect of his eyes is the love He has for us, and the joy he takes in bearing forth the life of his light through his Son in us” (Joel Clarkson in Sensing God).

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 “I’ve come to believe that few things are more powerful for the good of the soul and society at large than gratitude. I was recently praying about a situation that I wanted changed, and as I began my earnest petition I felt prompted to first list out all the things I was grateful for about the situation. I didn’t much like this idea and at first found it extremely difficult, but after some time I was able to discover a number of wonderful things that were directly a result of the situation. By the time I had finished my list, my perspective had shifted so much that I no longer necessarily wanted the situation to change as so much good was coming from it. Gratitude brought me to the ability to collapse into God’s providence, and so with a playful smile I relinquished — ​Oh you just do what you want with this situation and I’ll say thank you” (Nathan Foster, Renovare Weekly Digest, April 23, 2021)

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NEW EVERY MORNING

On the shelf of the pass-through between my kitchen and living room is a sympathy card preserved in a navy blue frame.  It is a beautifully calligraphed version of Lamentations 3: 23.  The words are surrounded by pink and purple and yellow and blue flowers of all types and sizes.  The verse, one of my favorites and the source of one of my favorite hymns reads:

 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

After years of suffering from a variety of illnesses my husband died last October. We had experienced the steadfast love of the Lord many, many times. Now he had died rather unexpectedly, and I had to remember that steadfastness on my own. I stored the rest of the sympathy cards in a basket and read them all, often on Sunday mornings. But this card I placed where I could see it dozens of times a day every day as I cook or wash dishes or get a drink. I knew it would be an important tool in my quest to find reasons for gratitude during a time of deep sorrow. I didn’t realize how my connection with simplicity and gratitude would become a new blessing.

My history with the spiritual discipline of simplicity goes back decades. I vividly member sitting in a room at Spring Arbor University listening to Richard Foster speak about the spiritual practice of simplicity.  Someone asked him for an example of simplicity. He pointed to his yellow sweater vest and said, “Wear your clothes until they wear out!” I’m sure that was a foreign concept to most people in the room, but I was immediately drawn to it.  I began to watch during the rest of the week and sure enough he wore the same vest, pants and shoes every day. And no one cared, least of all him. I decided to work on that discipline.

I didn’t own (and still do not) a lot of clothes, so showing up in the same clothes was not difficult. The adjustment was purging the embarrassment and the caring about what other people might think of me for wearing the same clothes over and over again. After all, Richard Foster had shown nothing but pride about wearing his sweater vest. I learned that it wasn’t a discipline about clothes; it was the discipline of changing my attitude how important those clothes were.  As I practiced letting go of what I thought I needed to be happy, I was rewarded over and over with gratitude for what I had.

Now that I am on my own physically and financially, I am grateful for what God has shown me through these two spiritual disciplines.  After Fred died, living expenses became a prime focus.  How would I financially survive the years that are left to me on my own? Slowly I realized that I already knew the answer. I would focus on gratitude for what I have and continue practicing a lifestyle of simplicity.

Soon I saw the mercies that never come to an end. Some examples:  A friend saves the local daily newspaper for a month and then brings them to me.  Papers for free and plus a regular visit from my friend! A few months ago, I realized that I was driving very little since Fred died, so I checked with our agent about a reduction in my premium since I was reducing my monthly mileage. Now have a fancy Bluetooth device that tracks my mileage and adjusts my monthly payment each month.

Living simply means buying only what groceries I need; I have to watch the cost more since I now have them delivered.  (Living simply means taking care of my back, too.)  Sometimes I get great cost reductions based on what I regularly buy from coupons in the mail. These can’t be used via the delivery process.  Practicing gratitude has taught me that people want to help, and I am learning to accept the gift of help.  So, a friend takes my coupons to the store, shops for me, and then stays for a visit after she delivers them.  She enjoys being helpful; I have learned to enjoy being helped.

Recently a close friend whom I had not seen for years called and asked if she could visit. I was thrilled; I had missed her. Soon she began describing her new job with Instacart. She shopped for other people and then delivered their groceries.  She said she really loved the job because she could spend time with a special-needs relative in her family who really loved shopping.  Then she said, “I don’t need this income so I want whatever money I make each week to be deposited in your account.” I was about to argue, but was stopped in my tracks by the verse on the card over my sink:  God is faithful and his mercies are new every morning.  So, I accepted her gift. After she set up the account, she texted me about how fun this was going to be!

And that gave me a new realization:  God’s mercies are new every morning . . . and it is delightful for everyone to see how they work out.

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If We Just Smile at Each Other

This story about a hot summer day in the park with my husband (who died in October) was first published on July 7, 2018. I’m glad I found it again because it is a lovely memory and a great lesson all in one.

We are in  the midst of a sweltering heat wave. It is the morning of the 4th of July, and my husband wants to “get out.” I want to stay in! Stress from family relationships, angst over the political  atmosphere in America, and the comfort of our concrete-walled apartment (no air conditioning needed though it has been in the 90’s for a week) all contribute to my lethargy.

The Holy Spirit blesses me with feelings of compassion and mercy, so we head out to our favorite park in downtown Holland on the shores of Lake Macatawa. As expected, the parking lot is already full. The park is dotted with blankets, lawn chairs, and coolers on picnic tables. Dozens of families have already gathered in the shade of leafy trees. Most of them will stay all day in anticipation of the afternoon entertainment and the evening fireworks.

I quickly grab one of the two remaining handicapped parking spots right by the boardwalk with full view of the lake – and gratefully hang the handicapped parking tag. We debate staying in the car out of the heat.  I spot a bench on the board walk so we decide to brave it. Immediately I notice five or six fishing poles stretched along the railing, carefully watched by three or four Asian fishermen.  Suddenly a pole in front of us bends. Artfully, one man reels in the fish and positions it in front of the net where it is netted by another man – a feat of precision and grace. Suddenly a plump, foot-long fish is swinging over the rail and released from the hook. One of the men looks up, a big grin on his face. My husband, an accomplished fisherman, smiles back.

I’m not one to start conversations with strangers, but now the fisherman is smiling at me, so I ask, “What kind of fish is that?” He excitedly answers, “It’s a fresh water trout!” That means this trout has traveled from Lake Michigan through a channel into Lake Macatawa right into his net. As we are talking, a white man comes up hand-in-hand with a young black boy. He asks, “What kind of fish is that?”  An older couple walking on the board walk stop to look. A man with a sun-burn  joins them and revels in the catch.

The fisherman places the fish in a large cooler. When he looks up, I ask, “How many have you caught?”  He grins triumphantly. “At least 20.” Now the man with the little boy is back with his African-American wife and an older black woman, perhaps his mother-in-law. He asks if the boy may see the fish again. The fisherman smiles. “Sure,” he says. The cooler is opened and the fish brought out. The father then asks if he can take a picture of the boy with the fisherman and the fish.  When that is accomplished, each family member is posed (the older woman, reluctantly) with the fisherman and the fish.  Fred and I watch in amazement.

Soon a group of friends (two black and one white) sit on the bench next to us. I smile at them. One of the black men asks me, “What kind of fish are they catching?” I tell him. He shares a story of watching some people from Chicago pulling fish right and left out of that same spot earlier in the day.

Within minutes, another fish pulls on the second line, and the process is repeated. Then another pole about 20 feet away needs attention. A crowd of spectators gathers there. The man with the net runs down the boardwalk and is met by an Asian woman who grabs the fishing pole. (It dawns on me that all these poles are “manned” by a family.) The fish is reeled in, the net is carefully placed, and a third fish is captured. All in less than ten minutes.

Observing the scene, I marvel over the fact that young and old, black, brown, and white complete strangers are bonding on the 4th of July over lake trout! I turn to my African-American husband and say, “See, we all can get along if we just smile at each other!”  He smiles.

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