Feed My Sheep

In my last post, I shared that I had recently done a deep dive into the statistics associated with this blog. One thing I learned was that within the last week or two 17 people had read the following post published on Nov. 1, 2014. I wondered how they had all found a nearly 8-year-old post! It is one of my very favorite memories – and posts. So here it is again. I hope it moves you as it did me when I read it again.

He was eighteen and strong and funny – and lost.  He walked into my adult high school reading class with a swagger before there was such a thing as swagger. I liked him immediately. He was ready to help (like moving a piano to the back of the classroom), but only after a wisecrack. He was willing to do what I asked, but only after he complained. He was an excellent reader so I put him in the highest group, the one reading popular, but important, novels.  We talked after class quite a bit.  I encouraged him to make the most of his potential; he deflected any compliments and denied any interest in changing his attitude or his life.

Then one spring day, he told me he was moving to Texas.  He never came back to class again. I was so very sad to lose him.  Suddenly I had an inspiration.  I sent him a note with a copy of some beautiful words by John Powell from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?  It starts like this:

“Don’t be fooled by me.  Don’t be fooled by the mask I wear.  For I wear a thou-sand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them are me. Pretend- ing is an art that’s second nature with me, but don’t be fooled.  My surface may seem smooth, but my surface is my mask.  Beneath dwells the real me in confusion, fear, and loneliness.  But I hide this and panic at the fear of being exposed. That’s why I frantically create a mask to hide behind, a nonchalant, sophisticated façade, to help me pretend, to shield me from the glance that knows.  But such a glance is precisely my salvation and I know it.  That is, if it is followed by acceptance and love.  It’s the only thing that can assure me of what I can’t assure myself –  that I am worth something.”

I hoped for a response but I didn’t hear anything back from him. . . . until the following October when I got a letter from Houston.  He told me what he was experiencing and learning in Texas.  And then he wrote:

I still have a lot to learn about myself, but I do have more confidence in confront- ing people with who I really am – and that is me, not a mask. That’s what started this letter. When I came down here, I didn’t bring much but I did bring my book of prayer and in it the story of the masks. The first time I read it, it hit me very hard and opened my eyes to what I was doing to myself. Thank you for sending it to me. It means a lot. And you mean a lot more even if I don’t have the guts to tell you face to face.  I know God is with you so all I can say is take care.

This was more than 25 years ago, but as I re-read the letter just now, I thanked God for giving inspiring me with the idea of how to show this young man how much he was loved.

Posted in My journey | Comments Off on Feed My Sheep

Random Thoughts

Usually, I collect the thoughts of others that inspire me into a monthly post called From my Reading. This one from Frederick Buechner is so stunning I couldn’t wait to use it. If only someone had shared this “object lesson” with me decades ago:

“If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and indivisibly the one and only You” (Frederick Beuchner)

_______________

I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer, in late 2014. You can read about that diagnosis and about the thoughts that life-threatening disease aroused in me in the series Who Am I When My Body Fails Me on this blog. (To find it, go to the home page and check the category list for this title.) The disease has been “controlled” for nearly four years, but this summer I learned that it has returned; I will have to resume chemotherapy soon. The resurgence of this disease (and my husband’s death in October) have prompted me to think more seriously about the process of death and dying.

I have just finished J. Todd Billings’ book, The End of the Christian Life, How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live. Dr. Billings is a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mi where I live. His diagnosis of blood cancer several years ago prompted the writing of his first book Rejoicing in Lament. Both books are a stunning look at the value of facing and lamenting pain and sorrow and then accepting and rejoicing in the process of dying. The closing pages of his discussion of the meaning of death and the necessary process of dealing with dying give us this ringing affirmation:

“I want to join the birds and the trees and the rest of creation in the grand melody of adora- tion to the everlasting Lord. I live in hope that the frailty and decay of my body will not be the final measure of my life, but that on the final day my renewed body will lift up a voice to join the multitude in the song of praise. I sing now as one whose life is “hidden with Christ in God.” From that place of hiddenness, I look forward to the end. “When Christ who is your life is revealed, the you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col.3: 3-4).

(Two other moving and encouraging books on death and dying are An Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.)

___________________

My “contract” with Word Press ends in September and I have been debating spending the money to “re-up.” I seem to have writer’s block more often than not and wondered if the energy it takes to write is worth the effort. One day I was on the stats page of my blog and discovered the following data.

My first blog was on Sept. 12, 2012. It was actually a statement of purpose and was all of 87 words long. Here it is:

An apprentice is someone who is learning from a master.  As Christians we are learning from the Master, Jesus.  Our apprenticeship is life-long.  As Eugene Peterson says,(quoting  Friedrich Nietzche, of all people, who used the phrase in a very different context),  it is  “a long obedience in the same direction. This blog will suggest some stepping stones on the journey to a transformed life . . .  a life that every day looks more and more like the life of Jesus

So I have been blogging for nearly 10 years. In that time I have written 974 posts. My blog has been read by people in 168 countries (16 of which have only had one reader each.) To me the most astonishing figures came from China (432 views), Hong Kong (348 views) and Singapore (352 views).

After years of serving as a care-giver for my husband, I now have a lot of extra time. I have filled it with hours of reading, for which I am grateful. But a few months ago, I started asking, “What’s the point, God?” I am weak and ill and it seemed that I wasn’t very useful anymore. Everyone with whom I shared that thinking said, “But, Karen, you have your blog.” Those comments and this pursuit of statistics have been very useful. I’ve decided to renew my plan with Word Press. See you all next time!

Posted in My journey | 2 Comments

From My Reading, July

“When Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body which is broken for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24), it’s hard to believe that even in his wildest dreams he foresaw the tragic and ludicrous brokenness of the Church as his body. There’s no reason why everyone should be Christian in the same way and every reason to leave room for differences, but if all the competing factions of Christendom were to give as much of themselves to the high calling and holy hope that unites them as they do now to the relative inconsequentialities that divide them, the Church would look more like the Kingdom of God for a change and less like an ungodly mess” (Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark).

♦     ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

“When we are brave enough to sit with our pain, it deepens our ability to sit with the pain of others. It shows us how to love them” (Valarie Kaur).

♦     ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

“Many so-called celebrations are not much more than a painful moment between bothersome preparations and boring after-talks. We can only celebrate if there is something present that can be celebrated. We cannot celebrate Christmas when there is nothing new born here and now; we cannot celebrate Easter when no new life becomes visible; we cannot celebrate Pentecost when there is no Spirit whatsoever to celebrate. Celebration is the recognition that something is there and needs to be made visible so that we can all say yes to it” (Henri Nouwen).

♦     ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

“Doubt need not be the death of faith, it can be, instead, the birth of a new kind of faith, a faith beyond beliefs, a faith that expresses itself in love, a deepening and expanding faith that can save your life and save the world” (Brian D. McLaren).

♦     ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

“Are we on the verge of a new reformation? I rather think so, I even hope so. So much is falling apart in the American church at least, but sometimes falling apart is exactly what has to happen in order for something else new to grow. The process is always messy and bewildering and painful. But the process belongs to the Spirit, and that means surprises are always coming” (Deb Rienstra, The Twelve blog, June 5, 2021).

♦     ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

“. . .[T]he Bible is not afraid of a dynamic and unfolding understanding of God. The notion of “The Lord” clearly evolves with many other iterations in the Hebrew Scriptures. For the New Testament writers, these images inspire the Christian notion of Jesus and lead to the utterly relational and totally interactive doctrine of the Trinity. A dynamic understanding of God is not only rather obvious in the Bible, but also necessary—and surely exciting. Remember, the only language available to religion is metaphor. God is always like something else we have experienced visibly and directly” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for May 30, 2020).

 

Posted in Quotes | Tagged | Comments Off on From My Reading, July

Simple Can Be Spectacular

This piece was first posted on May 5, 2018. Since COVID-19, the tulips have faithfully bloomed but the celebration of Tulip Time a nationally known event, has dwindled. In 2021, it arose again, bringing thousands of people ready to rejoice to our little city. But reading this blog again reminded me that God provides blessings just as spectacular when we are alone.

I live in Holland, MI, a city (population of about 33,000)  that plants 467,000 tulip bulbs – every year. We even recycle them. Residents are invited to come to three parks in early June and dig up bulbs, filling a five-gallon bucket for $10. I have read that the area surrounding Holland (which includes a tulip farm) boasts of more than five million tulips! Meandering downtown and crisscrossing residential streets when these signature flowers are all in bloom is a feast for the eyes and heart.  

This year, a cold spring has descended on Holland; it does not want to budge. The tulips are still stems and buds, the trees are just beginning to bud, and the grass is barely greening. I have been itching to beautify my balcony again with pots of colorful flowers, but it is not time yet. I went for a walk last week and found some daffodils growing by the roadside. I’ve plucked a couple of these spring beauties twice now and they are ensconced in a place of honor on the pass-through shelf right by my sink. And yet I am still impatient for more spring.

So last week I bought a small gerbera daisy and put it on my kitchen table. Two pink blossoms popped out of dark green leaves that remind me of lettuce or kale. One of the joys of this kind of daisy is that it sprouts healthy buds that you can barely see until they are several inches tall. I began peeking into the plant hoping to see a bud a few days ago and was overjoyed to discover two small  ones hiding in the safety of the foliage. 

Our culture is attached to the idea of “more is better” and complex is better than simple. Many yards in Holland feature tulip beds, but there is something truly spectacular about seeing hundreds, even thousands, in one place. However, my two daffodils and a potted daisy are reminding me that less can be better; simple can be spectacular. The delicacy of a daffodil is more easily appreciated when there are only one or two blossoms to take in. A bud in a pot of pink daisies can be a lovely miracle all by itself. My life and your life are just as beautiful and just as valuable in God’s economy as the crowds of lives that surround us.  This truth gives new meaning to the old standby: “Stop and smell the roses” – and daffodils and daisies.

Posted in My journey | Comments Off on Simple Can Be Spectacular

Solidarity – Part 3

I have written two posts about my interactions (battles) with the neighbor in the apartment above me. The idea was to encourage solidarity with others in our bitter world (Part 1) and to share the concept that solidarity starts with compassion (Part 2).

Soon after I posted Part 2, I was reading in my living room when I heard a huge splash of water outside. I got up to look. My entire patio, chairs, table, and all plants (which certainly don’t need it after a week of rain) just got buckets of water dumped on them. It was also flowing through the space between the floorboards of the deck above me.

I said calmly (I’ve benefited some from my philosophical and theological musing), “Why do you keep doing this?”

A disembodied voice (I’ve never seen her) said, “Doing what? It’s raining; can’t you see it?”

I said, “That’s not rain dripping through your deck boards onto my furniture and killing my plants. That’s what you just dumped over your railing.”

She said, “Why don’t you move to an old peoples’ home where you belong?”

I stood in unbelief, and finally said, “You must have had a very hard life” and went inside.

By the next morning I had made a decision based on many years of trying to embody the Serenity Prayer. I removed the patio furniture (which I have not yet used this summer because I never knew what she would do next) and returned it to the garage. Then I arranged more than a dozen beautiful potted plants into rows against the outside wall of the apartment so her floods couldn’t reach them.  It looks a bit strange, but at least they are alive!

I can’t seem to find enough compassion for this angry woman to create solidarity with her, so for now I have to rearrange my thinking (and my patio) in the attempt to maintain peace of mind. I’m hoping this is the end of the story.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Posted in My journey | Tagged , | Comments Off on Solidarity – Part 3

Solidarity – Part 2

God brings his image to perfection in us slowly, offering a thousand small ways to follow Christ in solidarity with our neighbors. Let us, then, give our all to human hearts to God and to one another” (Sister Dominic Mary Heath in Solidarity Means Giving Yourself in Plough Quarterly, 2020).

Some of you may remember a post I wrote about solidarity which, according to Pope John Paul II, is a commitment to an objective standard called the common good, which means the greatest good for society as a whole. Solidarity is the sum total of social conditions allowing all people to reach fulfillment: the good of all and of each.

I then told the story of my difficulties with the woman in the apartment above mine who seems to understand “the good of each” (meaning herself), but couldn’t care less about the “good of all (meaning, me, too). I have issues about her constantly barking dogs whose recreation area and bathroom is the deck above my patio. In addition, I have a strong objection to her dumping gallons of water over her railing on to my patio.

I didn’t like the anger she stirred up in me nor the behavior that resulted.  I was hoping to find “solidarity.”  I decided that I needed to have a conversation with her. This was definitely something I was NOT looking forward to. I went to see the manager of the apartment complex, (who is a good friend) about my problems and my concerns about how badly I was thinking and behaving. I asked for her name so the next time I heard her on her deck, I could call up her.  She gave me the name, but warned me not to talk to her. She said, ”She is a very angry lady. Everything is always about her. She comes into my office every week and unloads on me.  Just let me handle her.”

Well, that was a relief! I had prayed about this and became willing to speak to her but now I didn’t have to. Maybe this was solidarity at work for “the good of all and of each.”

A few days later I heard a loud thud outside my front door. I couldn’t tell where or what it was and I was reading a good book, so I ignored it. Soon I heard a knock on the door.  My next-door neighbor beckoned me outside and pointed to the edge of my patio.  A huge rectangular planter built to fit over a railing had dropped from my upstairs neighbor’s deck to the ground. It landed right on top of my favorite (and most expensive) plant growing in a planter which is now no longer useful.  I lost it! – my temper and the plant. My neighbor wanted to take a picture of the destruction and show it to the manager.  I said, “No, I don’t want to start something else. Let’s just see if we can salvage my plant.” We picked up the beautiful black dirt off the ground and pushed it together with the various chunks of the plant. I watered it and we found a place to put it on the patio.

The upstairs tenant came out to her deck few hours later in the rain and started to re-arrange her deck to, I assumed to create a better spot for her fallen planter. I thought about all the plants she had lost and the work she has to do to  repair the damage.  I was feeling sad about my poor mutilated plant; she must be feeling a lot worsen about all of hers. I checked an hour later and the planter was gone. Only a small, damaged tomato remained.

I sat for a while and thought over my reactions to this event. First anger over this new loss. Then the decision not go to the manager with the story. Then my compassion for her loss.  Then astonishment that I had gone from anger to compassion in less than two hours and had longed for the good of all and each.  Maybe I am closer to solidarity than I thought.

I didn’t have long to wait about that “maybe.”  The next night the woman upstairs poured gallons of water over her railing and drowned my patio and some plants.  I went out calmly and called her by name.  “Why are you dumping water all over my patio again?”  She yelled something I couldn’t understand.  I went back in the house.  I’m pretty sure that my goal of solidarity fueled by compassion will continued to be tested until it becomes my go-to response.



Posted in My journey | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Solidarity – Part 2

Going Deeper with God: Ephesians 3: 14-19

Eugene Peterson’s book Eat this Book teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Use this pattern of Bible study to go deeper into Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19.

Ephesians 3: 14-19 (The Message)

“My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth.

I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in.

And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

CHEWING

I chose The Message version of Ephesians 3:14-19 because I just finished reading Winn Collier’s masterful biography of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in my Bones. After Peterson spent decades studying, serving as a pastor, teaching, and writing dozens of books, he devoted his final years to writing this beautiful version of Scripture: The Message

In the verses preceding this passage, Paul reveals to the church at Ephesus that helping people understand and respond to the God’s message is his life work. He admits (shouldn’t we all?)) that he is preaching and writing things that are way over his head: the inexhaustible riches and generosity of God.

And then he begins to pray for his friends in Ephesus and (by extension) us:

  • To be strengthened in our hearts and souls by God’s Spirit
  • To join be rooted in the extravagant love of Christ.
  • To explore that love and test its dimensions so we can live in the fullness of God.        

DIGESTING

Don’t you love the description of a Creator Father who “parcels out all heaven and earth”? Spend time praising God for parceling out your special spots on earth. Describe what makes them your favorite. Share your findings in a journal or with a friend.

Paul encourages us by saying that Christ will live in us as we open the door and invite him in. In other words, Jesus will teach us to live as apprentices, but we have to ask first. Think about what you need to learn and practice to become Jesus’ helper. Perhaps you need to overcome your fear of sharing yourself with others. Maybe you need to live more deeply in Scripture. Perhaps there are practices or habits that you need to give up. How strong is your trust that Jesus will do what he says he will?  Make your list of wishes and tell Jesus the door is open for him to help you grow.

Peter is someone with whom I can easily identify. Pick a favorite Bible character and re-read some stories about his/her life. What characteristics that made him/her a beloved friend of God? What mistakes did he/she need to correct on the journey to becoming an apprentice?

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“If you have been to Yosemite or Sequoia National Park you have enjoyed the beauty of the majestic Redwood. They are so huge that cars can drive through them, and dances can be held on their stumps. There is an interesting fact about the giant Sequoia Redwood trees. These trees, which reach so high you can’t see their tops, have a very shallow root system. The roots practically lay on top of the ground. When you consider the height and weight of the trees and the high winds in the Sierra Nevada’s, it is amazing that these trees don’t come crashing down during a storm.

Why don’t they? It is the grove factor, the tree growing in close proximity to one another, that help the great Redwoods to withstand nature’s onslaught. What happens is the roots reach out in all directions and they get tangled up with the roots from other Redwoods. The roots grow together, intertwining with each other and creating a stabilizing root bed that helps each tree continue to stand. A lone Redwood tree growing by itself wouldn’t last long, but a Redwood Forest can last for thousands of years.

That’s the way it should be with us as believers. We need to be “knit together in love” to grow strong, to be stable and to be able to stand as people of faith. God has established the forest, which we call the church in which we are to grow. We sink our roots into the local body and become entwined with each other’s lives. Then when the storms of life start blowing, we too, are stabilized and able to withstand the winds of affliction, temptation and/or persecution” (Dr. Keith Wagner from Sermon Writer)

Posted in Going Deeper with God | Comments Off on Going Deeper with God: Ephesians 3: 14-19

Life as it is Now

                                                          

Yesterday I woke up at 4:30 a.m. from a very weird dream, missing my husband, who died less than a year ago, dreadfully. My habit when I had an awful dream was to spill it all out to Fred and then watch for his grin and wait for him to say, “What was that all about?” Then, of course, I would spin my psychological interpretation, and we would both yawn and go back to sleep.

This time I could not go back to sleep.  I couldn’t get closure on my dream and the pain in my legs and feet were making sleep impossible. And I desperately wanted Fred’s company.

I waited until 5:00 a.m. and gratefully reached for my phone (a Christmas gift from my son) and turned on Morning Edition on NPR  – the app for which was installed by my son (another gift).  I listened to the radio for about 2 hours and then got up and tried to start my day.  I was still bummed out, so I told Alexa who lives in my Echo (a gift from my son on Mother’s day) to play Neil Diamond music. 

Neil kept me company as I piddled around the house doing little odd jobs that I had been putting off for weeks. And then, thankfully, I realized that my gratefulness for my son, the journey through decades of songs by my favorite singer, and the rhythm of the work I was accomplishing  plus the company of the Holy Spirit who made me grateful for the life I still have) had turned my day around.

And then last night, I watched a PBS documentary on the life of Sam Cooke. As soon as I heard the song, “A Change is Gonna Come” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEBlaMOmKV4) (written by the singer after he and his group were turned away from a hotel during a tour), I began crying. I cried because it is a beautiful and powerful song. I cried because of the wonder of Sam Cooke’s voice and his graceful stage presence. I cried because the lyrics reminded me of all the wrongs that Fred had endured: the physical mistreatment, the slams and slurs and insults, the opportunities he was denied, the pain of rejection that was an everyday occurrence. I cried because his inner turmoil caused physical damage, and the life he could have led slipped away.

I cried because he didn’t get to listen with me to the music of an artist, someone whose music he had probably sung in many cities as his high school band toured Michigan. I cried because I didn’t get a chance to ask him what Sam Cooke’s lyrics meant to him. I cried because of the racism that is still overwhelming this country. I cried because few people who are not Black know of “the troubles” these brothers and sisters have seen – nor do they care. I cried because Sam Cooke is gone and Fred is gone and life will never be the same.

Posted in My journey | Tagged , , | 2 Comments