From My Reading

“Though the light has come into the world people have preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, to prevent his actions from being shown up; but whoever does the truth comes out into the light, so that what he is doing may plainly appear as done in God” (Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved).

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“The Resurrection unhinges the assumption that this world is something we leave behind. Instead, Easter promises that what God does in the resurrection of Jesus is God’s intention for the entire creation. The Resurrection contradicts the assumption that Christ resides on an ethereal cloud in a distant heaven. Rather, we find him on the dusty road that leads to the real stuff of our ordinary world. If our eyes are open to see him, we can find him everywhere!” (James A. Harnish, Easter Earthquake)

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“Brothers and sisters, if we don’t believe that every crucifixion—war, poverty, torture, hunger—can somehow be redeemed, who of us would not be angry, cynical, hopeless? No wonder Western culture seems so skeptical today. It all doesn’t mean anything, it’s not going anywhere, because we weren’t given a wider and cosmic vision of Jesus’ resurrection. Easter is not just the final chapter of Jesus’ life, but the final chapter of history. Death does not have the last word” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, April 21, 2019)

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“The Greek word traditionally translated “desert” or “wilderness” is erémos, and it doesn’t mean hot and dry. It means uninhabited, lonely, with no human population. The erémos is a desolate location, whatever may be the reason for its desolation. The word can even be applied to people, in the sense of being without friends or supporters, or simply solitary. In a word, it means deserted. . . .

[In] a sense everyone who has chosen the life of commitment to God has chosen the desert. Even if we have not entered a convent or a hermitage, once we have decided to love God ‘with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength’ (see Mark 12:30), we have subordinated everything that we have and are to the will of God. The glad realization that God is worthy of an all-embracing sacrifice brings with it the sobering reality that we will be called upon to make that sacrifice … enter the desert way.

The truth is that we must simply learn to live in the desert, must try to remain oriented toward God as we go on through the misery. The divine presence is not the way out of the desert, it is the way through the desert. Remain attentive to God, stay utterly dependent on God – this is the lesson of the desert” (David Rensberger, adapted from the Upper Room Blog,  Adapted from Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 2001.)

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“There are two ways to be fooled.  One is to believe what isn’t true.  The other is to refuse to believe what is true” (Soren Kierkegaard).

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“At times our evangelical fervor has come at the cost of spiritual formation. For this reason,  we can end up with a church full of believers, but followers of Jesus can be hard to come by” (Shane Claiborne quoted by Richard Rohr in Daily Meditation, Jan. 22,  2019).

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So Be New!

Did you ever have the experience of walking through your home filled with your favorite things and suddenly noticing something you have not really paid attention to for ages?  That delightful surprise happened to me this week when I noticed an etched glass plaque given to me by the wife of an intern I had supervised in my role as Director of Spiritual Formation. Part of Cody’s responsibilities were to participate in and then teach the Apprentice of Jesus curriculum created by James Bryan Smith.* His wife joined him in this adventure.

Etched on the glass and surrounded by a bright white frame were the lyrics of a song with which we closed every session of every class of every year of that life-changing program: So be a New and Different Person. She had created it as a thank you when she and her husband left to serve their own church hundreds of miles away.  Here are the words to that song: 

So be a new and different person,

filled with his love,

and filled with his Holy Spirit

with a freshness and a newness in all the things you do

so be new!

I carried the etching into another room, sat at my work table, and read it over and over again.  As I did, the experience of singing that song with fellow West Michigan Apprentices of Jesus during classes, conferences, and celebrations flooded over me. The words that reverberated for me now were the same words that filled my heart when I first heard the song.  I was being directed by the Holy Spirit to live with freshness and newness; I was to become a new and different person,

The words hit home – hard.  2919 has already been difficult. My husband’s illnesses, the devastating cost of medications, the political atmosphere in the US and world-wide, my decreasing mobility – all have pummeled my spirit. It is now time to live with freshness and newness. It is time to allow the Holy Spirit to make me a new person – one filled with hope, not despair, with joy not sadness, with peace, not turmoil, with spiritual energy, not exhaustion.  

So, let’s be new! 

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* The Apprentice of Jesus program is based on three books by James Bryan Smith:  The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community, published by InterVarsity Press.  I highly recommend them – as would the more than 200 participants in the program at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan if you had the chance to ask them how their lives have been transformed.

 

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Praying a Penitential Psalm

“The Psalms express everything we are capable of experiencing: exuberant praise and reverent meditation, but also questioning, doubt, victimization, lament, pain, penitence, and repentance. Most of them, two-thirds in fact, are prayed by men and women in trouble of one kind or another. Of these the early Christian  community early on designated seven of them as ‘penitential,’ prayers prayed out of a sense of need and inadequacy. These are prayers prayed by those who ‘don’t have it all together,’ prayers prayed out of shame and sorrow for sin.” (Eugene Peterson, The Way of Jesus).

Here is a way to pray  when guilt or shame crowd your soul: 

  • Choose one of the following penitential Psalms: 6, 32, 51, 102, 130, 143
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what you need to hear.
  • Read the Psalm all the way through with a listening spirit.
  • Then read more slowly, highlighting or underlining any word or phrase that seems to pop out.
  • Reflect on a word or phrase that pops out at you.  Ask, “How are you revealing yourself to me.  What am I to see and understand?”
  • Pray about what you have learned – express your gratitude, confession, lament, relief or praise.
  • Think about how you are being called to obey. How is this encounter with God changing you?

Continue your daily activities (or sleep peacefully) knowing that God understands and forgives.

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Where is our Moral Compass?

A redacted version of the Mueller report was recently released exposing to careful readers a multitude of attempts to obstruct the Mueller investigation and to mis- characterize its conclusions. The controversy around that report reminded me of this post, published on February 22, 2017. Unfortunately, questioning our moral compass is just as pertinent today.

A PBS story about Rachel Carson, new information about my father’s participation in WWII, and a comment about evangelical Christians in Sojourner came together in a “perfect storm” in my mind.  Here is the result.

Rachel CPHOTO: Rachel Carsonarson (1907-1964) combined her love for nature and biological research with a gift of lyrical writing. Embedded within all of her writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly. Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson felt called to warn the public about the long-term effects of misusing pesticides. She published her research and counsel  in the book Silent Spring (1962). The book challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, calling for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. As word of her research spread, she fought two simultaneous and courageous battles:  one against the breast cancer which took her life in 1964 and one against the attacks by the chemical industry and some in government, who called her an alarmist and tried mightily to discredit her research.

 This tiny woman with a brave voice was one of the first to sound an alarm and remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem – and the ecosystem must be saved if we are to be saved. She changed the way we look at the world.

My father, the Rev. Rowland Koskamp (1916 – 1945), left the church he had served for two years in Raritan, N.J. to volunteer as an Army chaplain during WWII. He was attached to a medical unit. Twice (that we know about) during his nearly three years of service he refused to leave the wounded he was serving. The first time was after the fight for St. Lo, when the Germans “threw everything they had at us with good effect.”  He writes that “a lot of men needed to brought out of the woods for treatment” but that the woods were considered too “hot” to go after them.  He persuaded an ambulance driver to bring him and some litter-bearers into the woods and “[we] “went about our business.” He received the Bronze Star for this action.

Three weeks later during the Battle of the Bulge, he, two of his aides, and some wounded men they were treating hid in a schoolhouse in an area that was supposed to be free of the Germans. They were caught off guard when a German tank repeatedly attacked the house, destroying it (It turns out that  a jealous American officer refused to tell the commander of this group of soldiers that the Germans were on the move.)

My father came up out of the basement and negotiated a surrender with a German officer, rather than risking the deaths of all in the house. The group was put in boxcars (half the size of American boxcars) with 3,000 other captured soldiers, 60 men in a car. The train eventually attracted American bombers. The German guards ran away. Some men locked in the boxcars were killed. My father escaped this friendly fire, but after several months in a POW camp, he was killed by another American bombing raid on a train as he and other liberated American prisoners were walking to freedom. Two weeks later the war ended.  

I thought about these two stories, similar only in their display of bravery and moral fortitude in the face of brutal attack, when I read the following statement by Lisa Sharon Harper in the March, 2017 issue of Sojourner:

“I hail from a theological tradition that places the highest value on epistemology, the study of how we think about God, yet invests little energy on ethics, the study of how we are called to interact in the world  . . . .  Here is the question that  haunts me: Has the Trump presidency revealed evidence of a truth we [white evangelicals] have not wanted to see?  That the one who said “I am the way?” (ethics), “the truth” (epistemology), and the
life” (shalom) is increasingly irrelevant in evangelical America.”

This week I heard the moderator of a political talk show ask, “Has America lost its moral compass?” In the era of “Make America Great Again,” racial, religious, and cultural bashing, and seemingly unrepentant lying from our highest officials (a model of behavior demonstrated by the president himself) what is our anchor?  I think the debate about our moral compass should top the list of sermon topics, become the focus Bible study groups, and find its way onto the agendas of all American churches.

Jesus Christ gave a clear moral compass and a soul – stirring model for his disciples to follow. Do we know what he taught? Do we remember how he interacted with his world? Do we care? Do we have the moral courage to stand up for others the way that Rachel Carson and Rowland Koskamp (and many others) have done? What would that look like for each of us?  When the chaos and the lying and the mudslinging get us down, the only thing we can do is stand up and be counted. 

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For more information about my father, Rowland Koskamp, go to this earlier post.

 

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Buying $3 Worth of God

I was hopscotching through some of my early posts the other day when I found this quote:

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please” (Wilber Rees in Leadership, Vol. 4, No. 1).

First, I just sat back in amazement. What beautiful, lyrical, saber-like writing! Then I sat in conviction! How often am I satisfied with $3 (or even $1.99) worth of God. Do I even think about asking for a $1,000,000 worth of God?  Do I really want God to open the heavens and pour himself out on me? If not, why not? Am I afraid of an “exploded soul? Do I worry how much responsibility asking for more and more of God will bring?

And what is an “exploded soul?” A soul that is filled with so much of God that it bursts its self-created seams?  I recently read the words of Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power, that he spoke to the Sanhedrin.  His soul exploded – and he was stoned for it.  Paul’s soul exploded when he saw the Living Lord in a vision  – and he ended up in prison. John’s grew and grew and finally exploded at the feet of the cross and at the sight of a risen Christ – and he ended up alone and in exile.

Martin Luther King’s mission to expose racism and achieve justice was ended by a bullet. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and pastor, joined the plot to kill Adolph Hitler and was sent to an extermination camp and hung after the plot was discovered,  A. J. Muste, peace activist, gave up everything for his cause – all of these men experienced the exploding soul. This is not to say that all who give their souls completely to God have tragic endings.  But it does force the question: What about  me?  Am I choosing warm milk and snoozing the sunshine? Or am I available to give so much of myself to God that my soul will explode?

And what about transformation and new birth? How often am I on the brink one or both and turn back because it’s warmer in the womb?  How often am I called to change myself or my world but choose not to disturb my “sleep” – my comfort zone.

Finally, how often do I operate under the well-disguised illusion that I can “buy” a piece of God? Attempts to buy God may include stellar church attendance or tithing or careful attention to looking pure or holy or even being involved in service to others. What temperament do I try to create to make God love me more? What does it cost to purchase a cup of grace or unconditional love or approval?

What can I do to atone for a miserly attitude toward God? How do I gain courage to move from bartering with God to asking for a soul full of God? Perhaps practicing surrender or detachment can lessen the fear of God answering prayers for his presence. Perhaps practicing listening will make hearing less difficult. Perhaps immersing ourselves in the life of Jesus will teach us what it means to live in anticipation and acceptance of everything God wants to give.

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From My Reading

“I so much want you to be with me. I so much want you to be close to me. I know all your thoughts. I hear all your words. I see all your actions. And I love you because you are beautiful, made in my own image, an expression of my most intimate love. Do not judge yourself. Do not condemn yourself. Do not reject yourself. Let my love touch the deepest, most hidden corners of your heart and reveal to you your own beauty, a beauty that you have lost sight of, but that will become visible to you again in the light of my mercy. Come, come, let me wipe your tears, and let my mouth come close to your ear and say to you, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ “(Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved).

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“[Jesus] did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, April 14, 2014).

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“When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them. (Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall, The Blessings of an Imperfect Life).

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“We must imitate His life, we must let it all the way into ours, absorbing His eternal action and recreating it in our actual living. This principle of absorption, intrinsic in the act of imitation, is crucial. Because virtue isn’t learned like an academic discipline. We learn virtue like we learn to ride a bicycle, not by someone lecturing on balance or memorizing some formulas of forward motion. But by being given a little push, by being held as we get the pedals round, by being lifted up when we fall down—and then repeating that process over-and-over. That’s how we learn virtue, in relationship, in collaboration, or to put in the words of our Christian ancestors, by imitation “(jonathan@jonathanrbailey.com).

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“As Christians committed to social justice, we are not called to merely put our fingers in the air to detect which way the wind is blowing, as so  many politicians and candidates do. We are called instead to change the wind” (Jim Wallis in Sojourner, May, 2019).

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A Season with Jimmy – by an Anonymous Guest Blogger

The author of this post is the director of an Alternative Education Program for high school students.  A member of one of my writing groups, she often writes moving stories of childhood trauma and abuse.

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He was a small child, no taller than my waist.  With coal-black, straight hair cut around his ears, and big brown eyes, he seemed built to be agile, quick and strong. When I first met him at a basketball game after Christmas break, Jimmy didn’t understand a word of English.  I tried to use my Italian with him, but all he’d give me was a funny look.

 “Ciao, come stai?” as I asked him how he was doing.  With a curious look, he’d respond, “No entiendo” or “I don’t understand,” and shake his  head.

Often, with a flourish, he’d turn and run off, climbing on the bleachers, sliding along the top row or bottom flopping over and over as he went up or down. He’d often come back to our group for popcorn, purchased by “Uncle”, or my friend, who also had a daughter who was a basketball player. Early on, Jimmy was curious about my daughter, which one she was out there and what she was doing.  At the start, when Uncle and Auntie wanted to talk with him, they’d use Google translate and let the translator do the talking. Jimmy would speak into the translator, and the translator would respond with English.  Uncle or Auntie would speak into the translator and the translator would respond with Spanish.  It was pretty ingenious. 

GETTING TO KNOW JIMMY

After a few basketball games, Jimmy and I began greeting each other with “Hola.”  I learned that Jimmy was alone, although he had a younger sister in another Michigan town. He had traveled from a Central American country to the U.S. with another man named “Uncle” who had disappeared. His story was that his mom, already living in the US, had paid this man to bring him. Little was known about mom except that she worked in California and Jimmy eagerly talked with her when given the chance to make a phone call. Jimmy had come to Uncle and Auntie, my friends, after they were contacted by the agency tasked with providing care for Jimmy.  Jimmy had a short history of not settling in well to a family, and he urgently needed a place to stay. They drove to pick him up within hours of the call, and they spent 65 days being his family. 

Over the course of those days, there were many basketball games. Almost every game afforded opportunity to interact with “Jimmy”, the Americanized name that had been settled on. Sometimes he was distracted with his cars or snacks; other times he was engaging and wanted to interact. Often, he’d sit with one of Uncle and Auntie’s children and simply seemed to be a part of the family. After a month or so, he began cheering on the team with words he was taught by the other family members.  I found out that he was 8 years old and a quick learner.

Within a few games, he began greeting me with “Hello, How are you?”  “Good,” I’d say, “How are you?” His response was generally, “Good”, or “Bad.”

Some games, he didn’t approach me. Those days, I heard later, were sad days. After a bit of time, the agency placed restrictions on Jimmy’s ability to have a weekly phone call to his mom.  Similarly, he was no longer permitted to visit his 4-year-old sister living in a nearby town on the weekends. She was settling in well with her host family and the agency decided it best to rescind visits. Sometimes, he’d come home exhausted from his school, a special school for unaccompanied minor children. On those days, he’d often repeatedly ask Auntie or Uncle if they could go home. He would spend these games sitting off by himself on the empty bleachers, never leaving the gym, but sometimes getting as far away from us as he could.

One time, on Valentine’s Day, I arrived at the game to find Uncle and Auntie distracted and Jimmy sitting off by himself. It was late in the basketball season.  He didn’t call out “Hi”,  and he was definitely not good.  His eyes were glazed and he was quietly watching the game.  I heard that on this day, he had lashed out at school.  Several Fridays had passed since he had talked to his mom. Today, the school counselor held a group therapy session where they talked about ‘”who they loved”. Jimmy had been taken out of a class party complete with Valentine’s Day cupcakes to have this discussion, and when he returned to class, he became violent. He knocked some things over, fought with a teacher trying to restrain him, and then left the school. After some time, he was found, but the school’s ultimate response was that Jimmy no longer could be there.  He was a liability.

THE POUT-POUT FISH

And then, only a few ball games later, it was Jimmy’s last game. He was to be sent to a detention center in Texas the next day. The agency tasked with caring for him had nullified their contract and removed him from their care. Uncle and Auntie were heartbroken, and I felt their sadness.  Jimmy greeted me that day with a tap on my shoulder.

“Hi, how are you?” he said.   “Hi, Jimmy,” I responded.  “I’m good. How are you?”   “I’m HAPPY!” he retorted, with a big smile.  My response of “I’m so glad!” was met with Jimmy scurrying back to his seat by Uncle.

I learned from Auntie that he knew he was going to Texas. They had showed him on a map where Texas was – and how close it was to California. All Jimmy could think about was how close he could be to Mom. This spin on a traumatic situation was working to give Jimmy hope, but it was devastatingly painful for the rest of us. We knew that being “so close” was potentially even farther than Michigan to California. If Jimmy wasn’t provided communication with Mom or sister here in a family situation, how could we have hope when we knew he would be once put into a system where no one was his advocate?  Jimmy was being taken from the opportunity to start again and put back into a system that saw him as a number and another child, the refuse of a broken system.

Yet, this account is not a hopeless one. Uncle and Auntie believe deeply in the power of hope and the strength of love. They had a children’s book that Jimmy had chosen almost every night before bed since he had begun living with them. Titled The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, the book chronicles a grumpy “pouting” fish who initially views the world and life with a pout.  Although encouraged by each of his ocean friends to smile, he reminds them that his life isn’t one that supports this attitude. He has too many worries – until a fish comes along out of nowhere to kiss Mr. Fish:  “She plants a kiss upon his pout and then she swims away. “

The story ends with Mr. Fish changing directions and becoming a Kiss-Kiss Fish who spreads cheer and kisses to those around him. Auntie and Uncle sent Jimmy to Texas with the book and a family picture, complete with Jimmy, inside the front cover. They also taught Jimmy to memorize their family phone number and celebrated with a cupcake party on Jimmy’s last night with them.  Auntie and Uncle embodied the story in their actions; they built a path to resilience in a road of despair. Jimmy wasn’t left alone to worry or pout; he had been surrounded with love and kisses, encouraged by strangers to believe in the reality of being loved.

Jimmy’s story before coming to Uncle and Auntie’s was fueled with trauma. Separation, isolation, single-parent or no parent home, arduous travel and struggle – each of these gave weight that Jimmy had to carry. Yet, for a season, these consistent loving adults in his life encouraged something else in him, a strength that pushed away the weight for a time. All it takes is one caring adult, and he had multiple. Even in parting, Jimmy knew he was loved dearly and no one can take that truth away.

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“Times they are a changing”

These days, I

  • ask my husband to call my phone to find my phone.
  • read 30 pages of a book before I discover that I have already read it.
  • leave the trunk of the car wide open and begin to drive away after I unload my garbage into the apartment complex dumpsters.
  • Put my phone, keys, glasses,  watch, and water bottle on the kitchen counter at night so I don’t forget to take any of them in the morning.
  • put the big kettle of homemade soup on a burner . . . . and turn on the wrong burner. The result when I take the cover off to stir the delicious soup: cold raw vegetable soup.
  • am  so familiar with the Colgate brand (Red, white and blue tubes) that I brushed my teeth with Cortizone 10 (Yuck!)

My life as a 76-year old is one minor, sometimes hilarious, humiliation after another. But I am finding ways to cope:

  • don’t try to multi-task.
  • do make multiple, exacting lists.
  • do have a routine for everything.
  • do let go of your pride and your vision/illusion of being perfect at anything.

“We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived our lives.  That’s why this book is not about growing old gracefully.  My life has been graced, but it certainly hasn’t been graceful – I’ve done more than my share of falling down, getting up, and falling down again.  

My life has not been graceful either! I have, however, worked hard to understand my falling downs, to appreciate my getting ups, and to forgive my falling downs again – even if  they are the same fallings as before. These blessings bring me peace and comfort as I stand “on the brink” of the rest of my life and my physical death.

I have made peace with my personality instead of trying to become Cinderella. Now I have the emotional time and space to enjoy who I am, how I think, and how I live.  In A Year with Thomas Merton, Merton advises that we can “make our lives what [we] want” if  [we]  don’t “drive [ourselves] on with illusionary demands.” To which Palmer replies,

I don’t think it is entirely true that I can make my life what I want.  But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.”

Amen! Mr. Palmer.

The biggest change that I see as I age, I think, is my ability and willingness to accept the unknown, to pay homage to the questions, big and small, that life still throws my way, instead of celebrating the certainty of the answers. I now enjoy the bigness of the universe, both physical and intellectual. I can relax into my doubts or unknowns instead of feeling anxious, or worse, shameful. I love becoming much more than having arrived.  I am quite sure that this is the appropriate view of life to carry with me through the experience of death and into the eternal kingdom of God, where becoming who I was created to be will no longer be an issue.   

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