Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hairpin turns on a foggy night

Beve and I are sitting here at the crease of the year.  In about 18 minutes we'll unfold the crease and begin the drive into 2009.  Well, actually we'll simply pull back the covers and crawl into bed as soon as we make a nodding aquaintance with the new year.  Beve will probably send a text or three, but the year will still be in its infancy eight hours from now, with the wrapping paper still cllinging to it by a piece of tape or two at the corners. 

It'll take a while to discover what 2009 will bring.  In fact, it'll take exactly 365 days to really know what it will be about.  It's only when we look backwards that we know for sure where we've come.  There's no map for chronology, is there?  The road usually looks a little like the old Lewiston Grade.  I realize that only those of you who are my age and older and lived on the border of eastern Washington and northern Idaho, as I did, know what the Lewiston Grade is, so let me tell you.  Think of hairpin turns, a narrow road stuck on thin ledges snaking down a steep hill, and you're beginning to get the picture (A couple of decades ago, a new, less windy road was built down that hill and I began to breathe well enough I could actually ride down it without having to bury my head in a pillow).  Add fog so heavy you barely see to the end of your headlights.  That's the road of life, I think.  No crystal ball, no blueprint, just driving in fog as thick as pea soup.

So no matter what is on the calendar for 2009, it's only when we've reached the end that we'll know what turns we've taken.  So as I sit here (now a mere 4 minutes away from midnight), instead of trying to guess ahead, I thought I'd take a look back since the only fog in that direction is within our memories.

2008 was a patchwork quilt of joy and sorrow  for us personally.  In the first month of the year we said goodbye to my middle brother, whom we'd last talked to nine years earlier, never having reconciled.  And in the last month of the year, it's very clear we're saying goodbye to my mom, even though her body may outlast not only 2008, but 2009 and beyond.  Between, we welcomed new members to our family--a sister-in-law and a niece--at two weddings that were great family parties. We drove E away to Colorado in January and I thought that, for the most part, she would never claim this address as her home again.  Nine months later, she drove back home to find a job.  J began the year in his own apartment and ended it back under our roof as well, a refeathering of our nest that we're glad to do.  SK started the year as a theatre major and ended it as a music major, but barely missed a beat (get it, music and beat?).

We've had wonderful conversations with a plethora of people, interactions that have changed us forever.  I just finished reading a memoir about a woman whose parents are both deaf. As she was writing about relationships, she quoted Helen Keller, (I can't find the exact quote at the moment) that the loss of the blind is things, but the loss of the deaf is relationships.  This settles once and for all the childhood debate I had with my sister about which would be preferable, being blind or being deaf (one of our grandmothers went blind from glaucoma and our other grandmother's sister had been deaf since she was a toddler). It's one thing not to be able to see the sunset, but quite another to not be able to communicate with those I love. After all, communication is sematically related to community, and as a compulsive communicator (as Beve calls me), I am always all about community.  And one of the big losses of this year is about community. After a long, painful struggle, we left a church for the first time in our marriage, and that leaving brought ripples of hurt, for us and, unfortunately, by us.  Such a thing should never be done lightly, and certainly neve without marinating the whole process in prayer.

We took in a kid for a season and what came of that pushed us to our knees more and more.  And what it was about I'm still not sure, but we survived it, and maybe that's enough.  But it colored the year in African hues, I think.  And between all these 'events', we lived ordinary days, days of work and exhaustion on one hand, and of laughter and fun and simple joy on the other.  And for most of those days, I wouldn't trade my life for another living creature on the planet.  I began a blog chronicling those days and the extraordinary God who speaks, one way or another, even in the smallness of my ordinary life.  This blog, I have to say, is one of the best things about this year.  It's given me back the joy in my writing. Sometimes it's a little odd to think of all of you (those whom I know reads this, and those of you I don't), thinking of the inequity of our connection--you know such a large swath of my life while I don't even know who you are--I feel connected to you, whoever you are.  I started this blog thinking it would be like my journals, but my journal entries don't have themes, just meander around like the Lewiston Grade.  This blog knows there are people listening.  That makes the trip to the end of each post more straightforward--like the new highway that has just two gentle curves down the Lewiston hill, and can be driven without fear of falling off.  There's an audience for this blog, and I never write a post without focusing on you.

All in all, as I close my eyes, I'm glad to put turn off the road of 2008.  And I'm ready to face the adventure of 2009.  No matter what it brings, what sorrow, what joys, what rubberband stretching I might have to do.  I have great companions on this foggy road, and One other than me is driving those hairpin turns.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bucket List

Beve and I are sitting in our cozy living room, where I'm curled up beneath the spectacular afghan his mother knit for us many years ago.  I look at the intricate stitches and am awed by the talent of her needles.  We're watching 'The Bucket List,' which we've apparently seen before, but I don't remember much of. Anyway, though I wrote a list of post ideas this morning (priming the pump of my creative juices, so to speak--and I'm telling you, they're good ones!), this movie is making me consider what would be on my own bucket list, what places, things, adventures I'd want to experience while still alive in the body.  It's not an easy list to make, but not for the reason you might think. It's not that I hesitate to think of my own demise, though it is also possible that were it a reality rather than a hypothetica, I would scurry away from the thoughts. But most of the time I am so content in my life I can't imagine exchanging the way I live for something or somewhere else.  This might sound too otherworldly of me, but most of my dreams have to do with what I'll see on the other side of eternity, not on this side.  I'm looking forward to giving up my body someday, to being clothed in the imperishable.

However, I do have a list--for whatever it's worth:
Touch an elephant's hide in Africa
Walk again the streets teeming with life in Delhi
Cry tears of joy at my children's weddings
Hold my own grandchild
Finish my book (this one's for those of you who are expecting me to say this!...and it might be true, but it also might be that if I really needed a bucket list, I would throw in the towel on this book, realizing it really doesn't matter!)
Stand on the steps where Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate
Meet our sponsored child, Pardon, in Zimbabwe
Walk in the sand of the gold coast of Australia
Relearn Hebrew
See an opera
Stay on a Greek Isle
Learn to quilt (Beve did buy me a new sewing machine, so maybe this should simply be a goal)

At the moment in the movie, Nickolson and Freeman are standing in front of the reflecting pools at the Taj Mahal.  We have a picture on our refrigerator of Beve and me standing in just that position, the day after Christmas in 1983.  We were newly committed, twitterpated with love, and the day was rose-colored (though that might have had something to do with the smog).  It was one of the first of the many great days of our life together, and I'd like to stand there again someday--Beve, gray and arthritic, me chubby and wrinkled, but his arm still around me, and our smiles still warm and true. 

I like the idea of a bucket list, certainly better than New Year's resolutions.  I really hate those.  Usually they're all negative--vows destined to fail.  But these dreams, these pipe dreams that won't change a fundamental thing about my life, they are only sweet.

Mostly what I want, of course, is to read the Word until it sticks to my arteries like plaque, to be so instinctive about prayer that His name is the first word on my lips every morning and the last thing in my brain at night.  I want to be saturated by the Holy Spirit, my life a fragrant aroma to His throne.  This is my ultimate bucket list, and if this is true, then, as Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be most well, and all shall be most well, and all manner of things shall be most well."

Monday, December 29, 2008

A web

We had brunch this morning with our family.  Well, not one of the other three families is related to us, but we are a connected web, the hub of which is our Chinese girl, LadyByrd, who calls the seven adults among us her parents.  LB was a student at the high school where Beve and one of each pair worked.  LB has come far distance in the last eight years since she was a scared little 14-year-old living alone in an apartment.  Her story is not mine to tell, and it's full of enough pain that I would be loathe to try, but what I'm thinking about today is what her presence in our lives has brought, the gift that she's been.  In a fundamental way, it is LadyByrd who made us a family, who drew these unrelated, dissimilar people together.  One of the families is Jewish by heritage.  They are older, and their children are older than ours, and they're on to grandparenting now, and loving every blessed minute of their adorable grandson.  The other couple, Christians like us, has a preschool-aged daughter, and a baby son, and they're just beginning the journey of parenting.  Then there's the Unitarian single older woman who met Ladybyrd at the nursing home where Ladybyrd worked.  Ladybyrd, when she's  home from college, splits her time between our residences, and we always share at least one meal around a family table, the vegetarians, the carnivors, the Chinese and the Americans all sitting together, finding common ground in the travel we've done together with LadyByrd, and now with each other. 

This morning, as we sat on a long low couch posed for a picture, I thought of how wonderful it is that we should share with people so different from ourselves.  For years, I think, Beve and I lived fairly homogenous lives, surrounded mostly by those who went to church, shared our views on life, God and everything else.  But it might also be true that when we only commune with those identical to us, our conversations are a little like preaching endlessly to the choir. We've come to appreciate the diversity of this 'family' forged in the trenches, so to speak, with whom we sometimes disagree.  And we've discovered that we are all very much the same under our distinct labels.  We worry about our children (including grandchildren), worry about LadyByrd.  We want the best for all of them--and for ourselves.  We don't necessarily want what makes our children merely happy, but what brings them wholeness and a passion for the world--and there's a difference! Lots of things can make a person happy, at least superficially, but not nearly as many can grow a person into maturity and wellness.

We've laughed with these people, and cried with them.  Beve's left a warm bed in the middle of the night to go help in a crisis, and he's driven long miles to show that he's in it with them, and with LadyByrd.  Sometimes LadyByrd doesn't get this.  Sometimes, as is the way of young people, especially those with such damaged pasts, she thinks she has no one.  But she's the richest of all people, she has a huge family who would go out of their way for her, and now out of their way for each other.  The web is strong and holding now, it covers much ground, chronologically and geographically.  And I'm grateful that I've been caught in it, grateful that my life has been as impacted by these people as we have impacted LadyByrd's.  There was a rich feast this morning, celebrating the rich feast that is our life together.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Who is my neighbor?

In the last several weeks, I've had conversations with fellow followers of Christ who are a little bemused/conflicted by the idea that I am a liberal democrat. For some, my stance on certain seminal issues is hard to reconcile for people who I know and respect, and though I believe there are many hidden liberals out there within the ranks of evangelicals (whom I definitely align myself with), I also think the world is more complicated than some within the faith might see it.  So I've been thinking hard about this, particularly about the central issue on which right-wing, evangelical conservatives focus.  I'm talking, of course, about abortion.  I also have a friend who, while respecting our new President-elect and even hoping for his victory in many ways, couldn't bring himself to vote for a man who believes the choice to have or not have a baby should be a private matter between a woman, a man and their clergy, rather than a decision to murder. And I totally get why he voted as he did, even though I didn't. 

And yes, I've wrestled long and hard with this life-and-death matter.  In the darkest hours of the night I wondered how I could really cast my own ballot for someone I disagreed with so ardently about the Right to Life.  But I also couldn't vote for the one with whom I agreed on this but disagreed in practically every other way. And, like a friend told me earlier this fall, to cast one's vote on one issue alone is a little myopic, given the state of the world.

What I've realized is that for many of us the labels liberal and conservative don't quite fit.  See, as I've often said (even here), I'm pro-life in every guise.  I fundamentally believe that life begins when God begins the process at conception and that it ends when He sovereignly ends it.  So I am pro-life but also anti-death penalty.  I am opposed to euthanasia and also anti-war. Honestly, I don't understand the idea that we fight to the save the babies merely to send them to die across in foxholes eighteen years later. I believe that though, as a friend told me, Jesus said there would always be wars and rumors of war, we should not allow that to be an excuse to wage one.  Though Jesus says, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," this is counter-balanced by His words, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives."  Ultimately, I don't quite understand how a disciple of Christ can easily participate in a war, particularly as part of the nation who has propagated that war.  It's one thing to defend one's home against aggression, quite the opposite to begin the conflict.

And I am anti-stem cell research with the conservatives and a  bonafide tree-hugger with the liberals.  I believe in the freedom granted to bear arms in the constitution but also long for stricter gun-control.  I would love to see prayer allowed in public schools, but understand and accept the constitutional separation between church and state.  I believe that marriage is a Sacrament given by God, intended to be between a man and a woman, but believe that as God loves us all equally, so we should love and extend legal rights to all people, regardless of sexual orientation.  I believe any (and every) kind of sex outside of marriage is sin, whether that means homosexual or heterosexual sex, but have also become convinced that the bent toward homosexuality is somehow written in the chromosomes, not simply a choice (I mean, seriously, why would a person would choose to live a life that has so much pain in it?). 

So what do all these divergent beliefs mean, in terms of the labels we give ourselves and others?  Though I consistently call myself a liberal, I think that I am actually other.  I am a citizen of heaven first, one who desires (but, of course, isn't always successful) to look at this world through the lens of the Kingdom.  It is not for me to follow a party-line just for the sake of it.  For those of us in Christ's body, it's imperative, I think, that we allow His ethics to form us.  The  platform of any political party must be scrutinized by His command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And who is our neighbor?  It's the one who carries guns in his pick-up, and the one who has had an abortion.  It's the Marine who fights across the world, and the homosexual who lives next door.  It's the guard on death row who will preside over an execution and the prisoner who has done the atrocity to put him in the hangman's noose.  It's the African American who will govern our country and the bigot dressed in a white hood, shouting slurs at people of color.  And who falls outside of the label 'your neighbor'? Name me one person on this earth who wasn't created in the Image of God, and that is the only one.

"...our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner--no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses."  CS Lewis, Weight of Glory

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Around the table

We spent some time this afternoon with some of our favorite people.  Their oldest daughter, who is married and living in Chicago (a couple blocks away from Time's person of the year), was with them.  As we chatted, the subject of 'sharing questions' arose.  With this family, and in our own extended families, we've always enjoyed the practice of answering sharing questions.  I know some people who really hate such things, though I can't quite understand the objection.  Do they not want to have real conversations? 

We've had some great tableside conversations with folks, because we've had such questions to focus on.  The one that always comes to mind, however, was with this family we saw this afternoon.  All our children were there, just a few years ago.  Their oldest daughter was already married, our youngest was in high school.  The question posed to us, by my thoughtful friend K, was to imagine where each of us would be five years hence.  It could have gone any way.  Kids could have answered with silly dreams, pipe dreams taller than sky scrapers.  Such questions prompt such answers, often.  But that night (it was our Christmas celebration with them!), it became a holy moment when our son was the first to answer. Living in his head as he does, being earnest as he is, he answered, "I hope I know who I am, what my purpose is, and that I'm living that purpose out."  There was a pause after he spoke, because in his words was the pain of his uncertainty, mixed with the pain of hope.  That answer led the rest of the table, especially the kids, to answer as authentically as J had.  There were grief-laden concerns about studies and finishing degrees, the hopes of marriage (but not too soon, and not if it meant being lost in that marriage) by the unmarried girls.  I spoke--haltingly, reluctantly--about my writing.

When we stood up from the table, we, who already knew each other well, had shared a hundred meals, we felt something new had passed, had moved us closer to being family than we already were.  Funny, I don't know when that meal happened, how many years ago it was.  But I do know that these kids, who were so honest with us, have moved toward those marrow-deep goals.  Four have graduated from college, the next is almost finished.  A marriage is on the near horizon for the one who was cautious about it at the dinner, but has found her soulmate in the years since.  Even the youngest is well on her way to knowing what God has for her--at least in the next season of her life.  And J?  I think he's edging toward knowing who he is.  Or maybe he's just more comfortable in not knowing all the answers as he journeys.

What we want--for them and for ourselves--is that the next few years brings us all closer to maturity in Christ.  It's a journey, isn't it?  No, not just a journey.  What we live, whether we know it or not, is a pilgrimage, a journey with a spiritual purpose.  And each of those 11 people around that dinner table, is walking at a different pace.  The question asked revealed that.  The life lived continues to reveal it.  But what we share--our hopes and dreams--help us to walk it together.

On Christmas Eve, we've begun the tradition of having communion in our quiet home, even if we've been to a communion service.  And we always take our spiritual temperature.  "What's happening with you and God?"  This year, the common theme was community, and its importance in our lives.  And today, I was reminded that the best communion we have is around a table, the table of authenticity, the table of communion. And I think God knew it would so.  He knew when He sat down at a table to commune with His friends, and He asked searing probing questions, spoke mysteriously of the future and His part in it!, encouraging them to continue the practice of sitting down together, eating together, and to 'do this in my Name.'

When we sit, when we eat, when we answer deeply and truly, we are back in the upper room, hosted by our God.  What could be better than that?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Snow, snow and more snow

It's snowing again, and we're a mixed bag of reactions around here.  J and SK are completely dismayed about it.  Last year, at college east of the mountains, SK lived in a snow-covered world for 4 months straight.  She missed the rain as only someone born and raised in it can.  So she looked forward to coming home this break to typical Bellingham weather.  Unfortunately, it hasn't stopped snowing since she drove across the state, and another day full of the white stuff coming down makes her crazy.  J, who has to drive to work everyday, and sometimes spends that work time pushing carts across a parking lot, is not only disappointed but downright angry at the inconvenience. E finds it inconvenient as well, especially because her light-weight Honda hybrid, which she loves most of the time, has trouble negotiating, particularly the very steep hill up to our house. But Beve and I, Palouse-ers down to our very souls, love the white stuff.  We can't get enough of it.  Plus, the Beve becomes something like--very like!--a 16-year-old boy when he's driving in it.  He just can't help speeding up just enough to make the car swerve but never quite lose total control.  There are only upsides to driving in the snow: the sheer joy of it, the greater degree of difficulty... and, of course, the semi-fear he produces in me (I just have to react, don't I?  I mean, isn't that half the fun?)! And the dogs love the snow as well.  Jackson, who has to be practically shoved through the dog-door when it rains, and then tiptoes through the soggy grass to take care of business in a rush and race back in, absolutely adores snow.  He could be out in it for hours, romping with his head down to collect it in his mouth.  Jamaica tries to keep up with him, bouncing through the drifts, pouncing on balls (which she loses with great regularity), and letting it completely cover the black of her fur.

However, despite my great delight in it, the trip I'd planned across the mountains to see my mom and sisters, has been canceled.  There's no way I want to replicate the excruciating trip of less than two weeks ago.  Both girls, who were going with me, were decidedly relieved as well.  And, ultimately, Mom won't know the difference. When my youngest sister, RE, who she always remembers, reminded her that three others of her children had spent a week with her, she crossed her arms, and said in a huff, "I don't know those people--I don't need to see them again."  I feel badly about this, not for myself, but for my sister who has the lion's share with Mom anyway, and is really the only person Mom wants.  What a great weight for RE, whom Mom loves but is always disappointed in because she (RE) doesn't sit by her bed every second of every day (oddly, my sister thinks she has her own life!). 

Anyway, I'll be curled up here watching the snow across the city (we are lucky enough to have a wonderful view of both town and the bay), stay inside and drink Chai (which Beve kindly brought me a few minutes ago).  I might learn to quilt on the new sewing machine Beve gave me yesterday, watch some DVDs on the flatscreen the kids and I shocked (!) Beve by giving him.  Yep, I think we're going to be okay here.

And I'll pray for my sister.  As always.  I'll be praying that the weight she bears is lightened a little by the presence of our middle sister, the Dump, and her sons.  I'll pray that there be moments of hilarity between them, even in that cold, impersonal nursing home room, the same nursing home I used to volunteer in when I was in middle school, with exactly the same linoleum on the floors,the same putrid smell, and the same people in the wide hallway (ok, maybe not, but one day when I walked in, there was this old lady with snow white hair trying to navigate her wheelchair and I could have sworn she'd been there the last time I was.  When my eyes focused a little better, I was surprised to see my very own mother was that ancient woman!).

And I'll be praying that this season ends soon.  This winter of my mother's life, I mean, not the snow out my window.  Perhaps it strikes some of you as terrible that I might pray such a thing, but I'm not ashamed of it.  There's too little of her left now, and the existence she has doesn't really seem like living.  Now I know that God, whose sovereignty I am usually reassured by, might have a purpose in her empty life that I cannot understand, but my prayer stands.  Come quickly, Lord. Take her home.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gift

Christmas traditions--most people grow up with them. For Beve, Christmas Eve meant ludefisk and leftsa, straight out of his mom's Norwegian heritage.  The first year I celebrated with Beve's family also marked the first and last time I ever tried ludefisk.  Once I discovered it actually means fish soaked and cooked in lye, I could hardly swallow one bite, though the giants I'd married into licked their chops at the first smell and could down an obscene quantity of the stuff.  Other than that, they always had a birthday cake for Jesus on Christmas Eve, and a yearly discussion about when to open gifts--Beve's mom grew up opening them on Christmas Eve, Beve's dad the next morning so at least one of their traditions was somewhat fluid.

On the other hand, there was nothing fluid about my family's traditions.  They were so set in stone that even now, when Mom can't remember our names, she can rattle off the steps of our Christmas Eve/Christmas morning rituals.  For example, we always had soup on Christmas Eve (also the birthday of my grandmother who lived with us), because Mom could make it ahead of time, since she had to cook a big dinner the next day.  After dinner, we gathered in the living room for the evening's festivities.  We all had to share a talent.  I remember playing my clarinet (probably very badly), and sometimes doing skits.  But once my older brother, the Dump and I got into high school, we always performed "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" complete with hand motions.  I could do it to this day!  After singing, we played "Santa Claus", one by one from youngest to oldest, while the family closed their eyes, we carried our gifts into the living room and, jingling bells, placed our presents under the tree. When the presents, usually a VERY impressive pile, were under the tree and spreading out across the living room, Dad hung our stockings on nails beneath the mantle.  Then Mom read "The Night Before Christmas," and Dad read the story in Luke.  Santa Claus and Jesus together, though I have to admit when I was a small child, they were equally fictional.

Now we weren't a family who believed in Santa Claus. I suppose the whole 'playing Santa'' thing gives that away, huh?  But the story of Jesus and His parents seemed as much a myth as good St Nick.  "Christmas isn't really about Santa but about "Away in a Manger and the Little Lord Jesus." Oh really?  It was a story that happened a long time ago, even before the 'olden days' when my parents were children (I really did think in those terms)  From my perspective anything that happened before I was born didn't actually count.

 No, what was most important about Christmas as I was growing up was presents, of course.  The more, the better.  We were true-blue Americans, after all.  My mom actually kept a list of what she'd bought, intentionally making sure she had an equal number for each person.  Cutting back on gift-buying for Mom meant she only bought us 12 presents each.  And there were more than a couple years when she'd send Dad down to Dissmore's IGA to find something on Christmas Eve because someone was short a gift.  And, if I remember correctly, it was about quantity rather than quality.  That's just the way she thought.  And she HATED returning things.  So if something didn't fit one of us, it'd just be passed to someone else.  I remember once that my 'big' gift was a new winter snow jacket.  But it was too big for me (a shockingly skinny little kid!) so my mother whipped it off me and told the Dump to try it on.  It fit my taller, larger younger sister perfectly, so I was 'given' her year-old winter coat, while she got my new one.  And I still remember it 40 years later.  A couple of years after that, I got another coat for Christmas, and that time, afraid it'd be taken away, I scrunched my shoulders and tried to look larger than I actually was.  The ploy worked, but that dang coat was so large I swam in it, and never really enjoyed having to wear it!

There's something about a gift that is given thoughtfully--as if the giver actually knew us inside out--that is incredibly touching.  A gift sometimes not even asked for, but so much desired, that when we open it, it brings tears to our eyes.  A handpicked, handmade, one-of-a-kind, just-for-us gift. I've received a few of these in my life.  My kids and Beve once bought me a day at a spa.  They knew my poor, aching body could do with some pampering.  It was luxurious, that day.  Another time, the Beve gave me a vacuum cleaner.  Now this might not seem like a very romantic gift, but I was soooo happy.  He'd heard me complain a time (or thousand) about the old canister that belched dust every time I used it.  In college, I received an electric typewriter, and that was wonderful, and certainly made me the envy of all my hall mates.  These days when we have more computers than people in this house, that typewriter would seem like an artifact from an ancient civilization, but that little Smith and Corona was cutting edge the year I got it.  I wrote all my college essays on onionskin paper.  Can you imagine that?

The best gift I ever bought was for my baby brother (though technically it was from my parents!)--an LA Rams football helmet.  My best buddy and I drove all over Spokane looking for one, (for some reason it was a very popular gift that year) the only thing baby brother really wanted that year.  I remember the hunt that day in Spokane, the extra effort it took to find this so longed for gift for a 4 year old little boy. And I remember D's desire also creating in him a fatalistic fear that he wouldn't receive what he most wanted. "I know I won't get it," he continually told us that holiday season, and my cruel, teasing parents played up his uncertainty.  When he opened it, I felt like crying, he was so thrilled, so surprised.

Isn't it like us, deep down?  Don't we often think that what we really, truly want most in life will somehow be withheld from us?  Aren't we always longing for the one thing that will make the difference?  But in truth, we were already given that One thing, that One gift.  Weren't we? The manger to the cross to the grave to the sky to our life--this is the arch of that most needed, most longed-for gift. And blessed are we, indeed, if we know it. This singular event so long before any of us breathed is the best gift the world has ever known.  Isn't it amazing to think it was all taking place in an obscure location in the outback of the known world?  God came down, and other than a few shepherds, those very wise travelers from the east, and a few farm animals, nobody even knew the gift that had been given to the world, the gift that would change your life, would satisfy all your longings, and would transform the world forever.

In the morning as you open your gifts, as you watch others open the one you picked out so carefully for them, take a deep breath of the sweet fragrance of praise and thank Him for the life He gave you in the beginning, and the gift of that long ago morning in Bethlehem.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Compelled

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are surrounded by people who look at belief as something we make up, a way to make life make sense, comfort in trials, a crutch. They look around this planet and somehow see it as a cosmic twist of fate. The range of diversity in the created world—from the snow-capped mountains of my region to the savannahs of Africa, the rolling hills of my hometown to the jungles of the Amazon to the wide oceans—all just happened. And the diversity in the living breathing population on the earth—mammals, reptiles, even insects—simply evolved without a higher power breathing life into them. And above all, with dominion over all, the creation of human beings with the ability to reason, communicate, be in relationships, love was only the result of that same cosmic bang that started the whole ball rolling, so to speak. The decision to believe is, after all, merely that—a personal choice and not a particularly smart one.

But I look around this world and see the fingerprints of God all over it. It’s too much, too big, too spectacular to be other than designed by Someone. Planned and ordered in such a way that we can inhabit it, breathe in it, subdue and, unfortunately, wreck havoc on it.

And I believe—I know—that there is more, much more to this life than I have even begun to apprehend. And that starts, abides, ends with the One who breathed life into this world, and me breathing my first breath. But beyond simply believing in some Higher Power with maybe an indifferent view of it all, once He set the globe to spinning on its axis, is the foundational understanding that He has a vested interest in us, an intimate interest, revealed fully in the man who walked the dusty roads of Galilee 2000 years ago.

Right in the center of the gospels—in Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9—is the profound moment when Jesus asks the disciples what others believe about Him, those outside the few who have seen and heard all that He’s done. These are not like those who I’ve just mentioned who, if they think anything at all, they think Jesus was a good man with even great teachings, but nothing more. No, these were religious people with some understanding of scripture. “John the Baptist,” the disciples tell Him, “Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” And there are religions in this world who still believe such things about Him—Islam, for one.

But then He asks exactly what ultimately must be asked of every human being, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, the impetuous, the one who tried walking on the sea, who was convinced (and mistaken) that he’d never forsake Jesus, says (just as Martha does, just as the enemy and his demons know), “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” One can hear the intake of the other disciples at these wondered at, but now spoken, words. And even hear the silence that is better than applause from Jesus, before He answers, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

Initiated by God was Peter’s great confession, the way faith always is. Those people who think we decide something ourselves? They’re wrong, dead wrong. It has always felt to me—and confirmed here—like my faith didn’t begin with me. It began with a whisper of my name, a drawing me to something—Someone—bigger and more true than myself. Sure, some people say no--we have that choice--but I couldn't. It was like He grabbed me around the heart, and I was compelled to follow.

At another point in the story, when many have turned back from following Jesus, He asks, “Will you also leave me?” And Peter answers, “Where would we go? You have the Words of eternal life.” Exactly! Where would I go? Who else has not only the Words, but Life itself to offer? And after Peter’s denial, after his reinstatement on the beach when Jesus calls him again to “follow me,” Peter is empowered by the Holy Spirit and tells a skeptical panel of ill-wishers, “We can’t help speaking of what we have seen or heard.” And this is how it feels to me. I was introduced to a Man who was God and I belong to Him. I can’t help speaking of Him, I can’t help loving Him. “The love of Christ compels me."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Head and heart

We're pretty well snowed in around here. Beve and I took the dogs for a drive--to mail a package, stop by REI, have a beverage at Starbucks, you know, only the essentials--and slid around the streets with the other hardiest of souls. The parking lots aren't even plowed, if you can believe it, and J told me earlier that our town actually sold most of its snowplows because we need them so seldom. Having grown up east of the mountains, in a place where winter means snow, Beve and I get a little cranky about all the western Washington wussies, who are afraid of a little white stuff.

But even for those of us who are used to this, even for those of us glad that we'll undoubtedly have a white Christmas this year, the snow (about 2 feet of it) causes delays. And we aren't a people who like delays. Sure, we can run late (trust me, living with the Beve, I continually have to learn this!), but if we're expecting someone, especially someone important, we're clock-watchers. When we finally see them driving up into our driveway, we're out the door to greet them, and sometimes (especially if it's a child we're waiting for) we even admonish them for being so late.

This is exactly the situation Martha and Mary find themselves in (well, without the snow, of course) when their beloved brother, Lazarus, falls ill. Already being in relationship with Jesus, having hosted Him just last week (maybe!), they send a message to Him, trusting that He'll come quickly, certainly in time to heal Lazarus as He had so many others. So imagine how they feel as the days pass, as Lazarus grows increasingly more ill and dies before Jesus arrives. My heart would be broken. Wouldn't yours? Meanwhile, when Jesus received the message about Lazarus, not only did He not drop everything and race off to save him, but He actually stayed where He was two extra days. He told those traveling with Him, "This sickness will not end in death but will result in God being glorified through it." The disciples, having seen Him in action before, thought they knew what that meant--another in a long line of healings by Jesus. So He has to clarify that this time it's different and that actually Lazarus is already dead.

Martha's ravaged with grief and a little angry (I think we can guess that Martha has something of a temper!) when she finally hears that Jesus and His disciples are almost there. She comes pounding down the hill to meet them, and I can picture her wanting to pound Him when she sees Him. Their encounter on the road is one of the most intimate and amazing encounters in all of the gospels. "Lord, if you'd only gotten here in time, my brother wouldn't have died." Yep, she's scolding Him a little. But even in her pique, she knows who Jesus is, what He can do, as she goes on to say, "But I know that even now (even though you delayed), God will give you whatever you ask." By this time, Lazarus has been in the grave for 4 stinkin' days. Can you imagine? Yet Martha has such faith in Jesus that she still thinks there's hope for her brother's life.
Jesus answers, "Your brother will rise again." And not surprisingly, Martha assumes Jesus is talking about the last day when the trumpet sounds, which is the most I'd be hoping for as well.

Then, as He often does, Jesus turns this idea on its head, by saying, "I am the resurrection and the Life." The resurrection of people is IN Jesus. What a powerful statement-- "Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, an whoever lives by believing in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" He asks Martha. And she doesn't hesitate. "Yes, Lord," she tells Him. This Martha, whom we often look down upon because she hasn't chosen what Mary had, this woman knew Jesus to her marrow. Her response to Him is one of the high points of the gospels--Martha absolutely knew who Jesus was--she knew that He was God. "I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." The confession every single person on earth must get to! It's so powerful that I get chills imagining the moment when I'll get to say it to His face!
We often look at Martha and put a whine in her voice, just as I did in telling this part of the story. We move on to Mary, who actually says the same thing to Jesus, "If you had been here, he wouldn't have died." And we think there's something different in her voice because when she says it, Jesus is moved by compassion. He cries with her. Don't you find phenomenal comfort in this moment. A moment when He's moved by Mary's pain? It's amazing to think that even as He knows what He's about to do, He stops to share Mary's grief. He didn't have to, of course. I mean, in a few more minutes, those tears of hers would be tears of joy. But she doesn't know that, and what she needs is the Lord who lives her reality with her. Isn't this the Lord we also need? The one who knows our whole story at once, but also stops in our chronology to cry with us, feel whatever it is we feel at any given moment.

But I think we need both sisters to get the complete picture. It's like we get head and heart together in this story. Jesus responds to Martha in a way that she can understand and relate to, rationally, by appealing to her understanding. With Mary, it's all feeling and emotion, how He responds. But the two together reveal the whole of this Incarnate God. Fully God--the Messiah, as Martha knows--and fully human--as Mary glimpses in His human tears.

And in the end, Martha's confession and Mary's tears walk with Jesus to the place He was always going, the place where His actions revealed both the Truth of who He was, and the compassion He felt. All at a closed up tomb, where He calls forth a man who had been dead. Not yelling, not cajoling, but calling Lazarus by name (which I think was a very good idea, otherwise who knows how many other folks would have been fleeing their tombs at His call!) And God was indeed glorified.

We need both sisters, as I said. As Romans tells us, we need to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised HIM from the dead...and then we will be saved. The two together. Head and Heart, like Martha and Mary.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Both/and

OK, so I'm a little fretful at the moment. I just wrote a blog, and as I was typing the last line, my computer froze and I had to reboot, losing the entire post.  Incredibly annoying.  Chances are I won't be able to recreate it. Sigh.  But here goes nothing.

My mother-in-law was the quintessential wife. I've always wished I had one of just like her! I'm not kidding.  She could set a beautiful table, cook a wonderful meal, and make every occasion a party.  She was a great seamstress, made spectacular stained glass windows and figurines, made metalworked lamps (yes, hoisting a welding torch and everything).  She knit amazing sweaters, the afghan I'm sitting under as I write, so complex I can't imagine reproducing it.  She kept in touch with myriad people, writing notes in her perfect penmanship (I have her old address book, and there are notations galore by each entry!).  She once had personal business cards created which read, "Coordinator of Domestic Affairs."  And she was.   She presided over her home with great calm and grace, and few things seemed to faze her. Needless to say, it was a little--or a lot!--intimidating.

See, I grew up with a mother who wasn't much of a housekeeper, and even the most ordinary meals were cause for a trip to the store, slamming of pots and a raised voice at her children.  "Whose turn is it to set the table?" or "Get in here and make the salad (a dreaded job!)". My parents didn't entertain much either, but when they did (usually relatives from out of town!), it really stressed out my mother.  And, though I grew up having to share in cooking activities (we had up to nine people at most meals), I never really liked it.  More often than not, I made myself absent (which may account for why mom had to yell!).

So when Beve announced to me on our honeymoon--sincerely believing he was doing something honorable--that the kitchen would be my domain, I didn't have the reaction I'm sure he expected.  Being a good little wife, however, I marched to the kitchen, my heart so heavy I tripped over it.  Fortunately for all of us, Beve actually loves cooking--shoot he's a much better baker than I could ever be--and I've bungled my way through domestic chores.  We get by, I should say.

The truth is, I'm not a Martha.  You know that expression?  It comes from the gospel encounter of Jesus with a family he was clearly very fond of.  This family--Martha (the home owner, it appears), Mary and their brother Lazarus--is featured three times (Luke 10, John 11, 12).  In Luke 10, Jesus has come to their home with his followers (probably more than just His 12 disciples) and is teaching while a meal is being prepared.  Martha--being 'A Martha'--is supervising the meal prep, and I don't mean she's slapping together some PB and J sandwiches!  It's serious work, cooking for the crowd in the living room, and not a little stressful.  She looks around the kitchen for the one person she expects to help shoulder the load--her sister!--but Mary's nowhere to be seen.  Brushing the sweat from her eyes, Martha glances through the door into the crowded living room, and there she sits, gazely intently up at Jesus from her place at His feet. A line waiting for the bathrooms, food to be carried to the table, and Mary sits there doing NOTHING??? Well, Martha goes from zero to sixty in about half a second and, hands on her hips, marches in and confronts Jesus.  Interestingly, she doesn't take Mary aside and ask for help, she doesn't speak to Mary at all.  She addresses her displeasure to Jesus.  This is very telling.  To speak as bluntly as Martha does to the Teacher--Incarnate God Himself--is pretty nervy, don't you think?  She must have already known Him VERY well.  And John 11 will tell us (I'll talk about that story tomorrow), that Jesus loved Martha greatly--and her sister and brother.  When she speaks to Him so roughly, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left all the work to me?  Tell her to help."  It's a little like the way my children used to complain about their tasks, pointing fingers at their siblings when they thought they were working harder than the others.

And maybe Martha was on the hillside when Jesus fed the 5000.  Maybe she's hoping Jesus will perform a miracle here as well.  So she goes straight to Him.  When the disciples did this--"Lord, these people are hungry, and we have no food!"--Jesus gives them a full meal deal, with leftovers to spare.  Martha might be imagining a feast whipped up and set on her table, so she can join Mary in the living room. 

But Jesus doesn't want to change Martha's circumstances.  He's never interested in miracles for their own sake--He doesn't have to prove anything.  Remember, He doesn't look at outward appearances, but at the heart.  And what He saw in Martha was fretfulness and worry.  It isn't the work that is the problem, as we sometimes think is the case.  It isn't that it's wrong to be the worker bee, it's that Martha's heart needed adjusting.  Mary is sitting at His feet, attending to what He's saying, paying close attention to Jesus, resolved to abide with Him, not just hearing a word or two.

Because here's the truth.  It's just as easy to be a Martha sitting in a church pew as it is cooking over a stove.  If we're making lists of what is wrong with the service, if we're harboring resentments and bitterness toward those around us (including our spouses), if we're so worried about what isn't being done by others compared to what we're doing, then we're in exactly Martha's position.  On the other hand, if we're doing our work--whether it's cleaning toilets or writing, baking cookies or teaching others--if we're doing it with worship inside, then we're Mary.  I think it's not either/or for most of us, but both/and.

See, I know I have much of Mary in me. At least in externals.  I'm a lot more apt to sit at His feet than to feed a crowd of people.  But I've much of Martha in me as well--I get stressed out by tasks, fretful and worried about so many things.  And I think this is part of the growing up in Christ that the Spirit has to do in me.  After all, I even got upset about a lost post!

"Martha is who we are, Mary is who we hope to become," Augustine said.

Friday, December 19, 2008

In need of healing

After the week in the Palouse, dealing with the most recent Mom-crisis--I've been plunged into a valley of pain. The problem is I tend to wear stress like a coat on my weak body.  Today, in something of a delayed reaction, I woke to the sense that I really shouldn't climb out of bed.  Unfortunately, I did--climb out of bed, that is--and discovered that my legs would rather not carry me, my neck can't rotate, and my very skin is painful to the touch. Yes, all in all, a banner day.

Lying in bed, though, I got to thinking about Jesus and healing.  It's one of the primary things He does in the gospels. You can barely get through a page (unless He's preaching) without running into someone Jesus has healed.  However, though we might like it so, there is no blueprint for the way Jesus touches people.  No 10-step program followed each time for a successful transaction of His power to the blind, sick and lame.  Here are a few of the healings I thought of:
Direct command--"Take up your mat and walk",
Direct rebuke--"Be gone, demons..."
Mud in the eyes
Two step restoration of sight--1."Men like trees walking around." 2. "Now I see clearly."
Forgiving sins first
Ten lepers healed, one who gives thanks stay healed
Without His knowledge--the touch of His robe
Taking a child by the hand
Delaying so that God would receive the glory, then calling a dead man forth
Laying on His hands--many times
Healing because of the faith of friends who cut through the roof
The faith of the humble centurion "Just say the word!"--not being physically present to heal
Moved by compassion for a mother (raising her dead son)
Out of a man and into some swine

Ok, so this probably isn't comprehensive.  The point is that the unifying ingredient in these miraculous healings is not a certain protocol, as doctors use, but a certain Person.  Jesus Himself is the common thread.  The how, the heart of the sick even, matter less than His presence in every situation.  And when He sent out His disciples on their first preaching journeys, He expected them to understand.  What healing takes is faith and His Name.  And those poor disciples weren't very successful at it.  Not at first, anyway.  But they became powerfully able to heal in Jesus' Name.  Once filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter and his cronies were able to do amazing things in His Name, from healing the blind, opening prison doors, and even condemning a couple of people to death. 

He had several purposes in His healings.  When He heard Lazarus was ill, for instance, He delayed His going to Bethany.  "This sickness will not end in death," He told His disciples.  No, it is for God's glory, so that God's Son may be glorified through it."  Healing as a picture of who He was, a sign of God's presence.  Jesus never lost sight of the chief purpose of His Incarnation--to reveal Himself as Messiah, to save us from sins.  Those sins forgiven were/are the most important element in healing, after all.  We can live with crippled bodies, but we'll be condemned with crippled souls.

And though I think He healed many more people than the gospels even record, I also think He probably didn't heal every single sick/lame person in the world during His ministry.  Of course He didn't.  Some continued to suffer, struggle in that suffering, pray for healing.  What He did do, for every single person in the world, is die for the forgiveness of their sins.  And that is a healing we couldn't live without.

So I sit here today, thinking of the healing He's brought me.  Time after time.  My body is weak, yes.  But you know, I don't mind that so much--at least not most of the time.  My sins are forgiven, and that's better by far than simply being healthy.  Sometimes I think that being healthy would be the worst possible thing that could happen to me spiritually.  See, I know I can't live my life by myself.  I can't even climb out of bed without His strength.  Mere health might make me believe I was in charge of my own life.  Thank God, I don't have that luxury.  Instead, like Paul, I have the gift of weakness, that His grace is sufficient for.  And I have the healing most necessary--my sins have been forgiven, I've been set free. Hallelujah!

PS.  I found out last night that the snowplow driver who pulled us and my brother-in-law's nephew from the ditch the other day was actually said brother-in-law's own cousin.  I'm telling you it's a miniscule world--only about 2 rather than 6 degrees of separation--I came from in the Palouse.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Storms

This is the second day in a row that snow has fallen all blasted day long.  When I returned from the Palouse our poor western Washington town was already covered with a couple of inches, but now we're really snowed under.  Yesterday, the school district where Beve works was one of only 5 districts in all of western Washington open, and in the middle of the day I even got a phone call saying school would let out early.  It turned out, however, that the automated phone call actually came from Anacortes, but I didn't realize this until after I'd called Beve, confused him (and his principal who joined him on speaker phone--which I loathe, though that's beside the point!), until it was determined I wasn't getting news ahead of the actual schools.  People tend to panic around here when it snows even the tiniest amount, so you can just imagine the flurry that happens when we actually have...flurries.  From where I sit, facing the large front window, it looks like a traditional Christmas card--show flocking the giant evergreens, fences, and roofs.  When it snows, I can really imagine life a hundred or more years ago, snuggling in next to fires, drinking hot chocolate and bundling under layers to sleep (This very well could be because we only heat our house with the fire, rarely with a furnace, so our bedrooms are mighty frigid by the time we go to bed).  But down our steep hill and onto the busy street where traffic piles up, it's distinctly this century, all kinds of 4-wheel drive vehicles making their way easily, cars with chained up tires, snapping against the snow, and the few intrepid souls who take their chances with their lightweight compacts, slip-sliding all over the place.  J, whose car is a Toyota Echo, shakes his head in bewilderment at such fools.  "My car only weighs about 20 pounds," he told me yesterday as we watched his Echo's twin skidding across I-5.  Needless to say, J's left his parked and snow-capped for the duration.

It's an interesting thing that such storms look beautiful when you can simply sit and watch them, but out in them--in white-out conditions on an interstate, for example--it can be pretty perilous.  Downright scary, especially when the wind whips the snow around, blows you with that snow right across the road.

Have you ever been out in a boat when a storm comes up?  I've traveled on flat-bottomed ferries when the waves were rocking and the boat tipping from side to side.  We staggered up and down the cabin, bumping into others.  But we've always laughed about it, knowing we were actually pretty safe.  And a couple summers ago, a few friends and I had a boat-top dinner in a small cove across the bay from here, and when we left the cove, the waves were breaking right and left, and the woman who owned and drove the boat was pretty white-lipped in fear to steer that large boat across those white caps and into the safety of its berth.  I couldn't imagine sleeping through that, even though, in the spectrum of storms, it wasn't that big.  It's just that I'm a novice when it comes to those things.

But the story in the gospels about a storm on the water was populated with several men who had made their living on the water.  They'd probably seen one or a hundred storms on the sea where they fished.  They'd probably had to navigate back to the docks with their strong arms bracing on the wheel, trying to keep the boat on its keel.  So a rising storm that scared these men must have been some kind of storm.  I don't think I want to imagine it, or imagine being in their place, thank you very much.  But there they were, rain drenching them, waves bursting over the bow, and them struggling to stand and keep the sails from ripping, and in the back corner, sleeping like a baby in a manger, not even aware of the danger, was the man who'd set them on this unlikely journey, this sea-change in their lives.  Sleeping?!! while they were perishing?  What the heck was wrong with Him, anyway?  Didn't He know what they were going through, didn't He care that they might be dying?

The answer, of course, is yes!  Yes, He cared about their living and dying.  Yes, He knew there was a storm battering them from every side.  And no, there was nothing wrong with Him...only with them.  The fact is, they were as safe as anyone could be.  Safer than I am, sitting in my cozy house.  Safer than if the day was clear and the water calm...if He wasn't also in the boat.  It isn't the circumstance that governs whether they (or I) am safe, but rather who is with them (and me) in the storm. They'd been walking with Him for a while now, one would hope that they understood even a little bit about the One who slept among them. I can picture Jesus being roused from his deep sleep (just think of it, the God-man sleeping!  I love these places where we glimpse the true human He was, with the same needs we have--to eat, to sleep, to be alone), rubbing His eyes and saying, "What's going on?" then feeling the wind blow and the boat rock, standing like a conductor in front of an orchestra, raising His hands and speaking firmly, "Alright, that's enough!" to the storm.  "Knock it off!"  And the wind cut off instantly, like the end of a symphony.  The boat slowed, the waves stilled into glass, and Jesus turned to the disciples and asked, "Where is your faith?"

It's a good question in the storms of life.  In the snowstorm of this winter, or any winter.  Where is your faith?  Is it in the circumstances, the flurries around you, the storm within?  Or is it in the One who sleeps on your boat?  Do the circumstances of your life overwhelm your faith, or does your faith overwhelm your circumstances? Do you believe that He loves as He said He does, that He is where He promises to be?  I believe this.  No matter what I feel, I say by faith that I am kept safe in Him who died and rose on my behalf.

I don't say this lightly, I don't pretend to know the storms you're living through.  I don't pretend that it doesn't sometimes feel like He's asleep in the corner instead of awake beside you, actively keeping you safe.  I don't pretend to know why He's silent sometimes, why it feels like His face is turned away.  But I do know this.  He says He will never leave or forsake you.  He promises that NOTHING can separate you from the Love of God in Christ Jesus. The end of Romans 8 where this promise is made has a pretty comprehensive list of what we might think separates us from that love.  If your circumstances aren't on that list, you're not reading it right, because the 'nothing' that can separate us from His love includes everything there is!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

At the margins

I don't know if you've ever noticed, but the gospels are populated with quite a large number of sinners.  There's the tax-collector, Levi, whom Jesus conscripted into his merry band of disciples, a tax collector being the unsavory ancestor of our IRS workers.  They were willing--ok, eager--to line their own pockets with a little extra cash they'd commanded from the rank and file of society. Levi, reborn and renamed as Matthew, walked away from the cash, followed Jesus and wound up finding Life in Christ and became a gospel-writer, read and remembered throughout history. The short, wealthy Zaccheus who had to climb a tree to get a look at Jesus over the crowds was also one of the abhorred tax-men.  The crowd was horrified and disgusted when Jesus invited himself to Zaccheus's house for dinner, but it changed Zaccheus on the spot, made him offer half his wealth to the poor before Jesus even stepped foot through his door. And Jesus, once in the house, says, "Today--this very moment--salvation has come to this house."  The very presence of Jesus brought salvation to Zaccheus.

Then there were the disenfranchised among women.  Actually, in that age, all women were disenfranchised, but these women were the worst of the worst.  There's the woman at the well, so often-married, she was ostracized by her people, and had to bring water up from the community well in the heat of the day when no one else was around--no one, that is, except the stranger from Galilee who told her every thing she'd ever done, and offered to give her the very water of life.  That conversation so changed this woman, rejected by her community, that she left her water jug, running off the tell her neighbors that she'd met the Messiah.  And unlikely instrument of salvation, nevertheless, the townsfolk came out to see the man she'd been talking about and ended up believing, not only because of her belief/her words, but because they heard Him themselves.

There's the woman found by the Jewish leaders in the very act of adultery, who was dragged, it implies, from the very bed of her lover, pushed down in the dust of a Galilean street before a man the pharisees were trying to trap.  I have to say, I've always found it interesting that the man this woman was involved with doesn't appear in the scene.  Was it fine and dandy for him to be engaged in a little hanky-panky (a sentiment perhaps of 'boys will be boys, after all...'), but not the woman? The religious leaders knew the law, though.  Only a betrothed or married woman--like Mary herself--could be stoned for adultery. And they wanted to test this itinerant preacher.  But the trap those men led this poor woman into backfired, when Jesus calmly knelt in the dust and began writing in it.  I've often wondered what He wrote, haven't you?  Some commentators think it was the 10 commandments, others think it was a record of those men's most private sins--which God, of course, knew.  Can you imagine if God wrote out your sins for the world to see?  If, as you were busy pointing a finger at someone, He revealed your real self, black and ugly?

Then He says, perhaps in exclamation point to what He'd written, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."  Suddenly they're speechless.  In some real way, they're face-planted in the dirt with the fallen woman, and have to scurry away to hide.  The crowd of accusors, ready with stones in their hands to kill her, having already judged her, actually save her.  They did the one thing that would keep her from dying: they've brought her to the One person who could free her. 

With all these people, in fact, a confrontation with Jesus ended in salvation.  Matthew, Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the one caught in adultery all met Jesus and were saved, literally and figuratively from a life of sin and death.  I think I've said this before, but we are all these people.  We are so small inside (even the legal giant, Beve!) that we must climb out of our lives to see the Savior.  We must lay down our money-grubbing ways, dump over the table of our selfishness and follow Him.  We are caught in thirst for happiness, and the hunt to find it myriad ways when only the Water of Life that He offers will satisfy.  We are in the dust, judged and condemned by each other and our own sin, and only He can lift us up and send us on our way, admonishing us to leave our lives of sin.  Without Him, one way or another, we are all on the margins of society, even though most of us fake it pretty well most of the time.  But He knows the truth, He offers the way into the center of LIFE, and gives us a new name--Christian, or Little Christ-- and it's this name in the book of Life.  Quite a trade-off, huh?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In a nutshell

In my life, I've gone to hundreds of churches.  I've worshipped everywhere from the very liberal Methodist church of my pre-Christian childhood to a charismatic 4-square church in college.  I've smelled incense spread at Eastern Orthodox churches, and sat through a service in a tiny Finnish church where I kept myself occupied in the balcony by counting the kerchiefs on the grey-haired older women sitting below me who made up most of the congregation, because the whole service was in Finnish and I couldn't understand a single word.  I've sat on mats in a house, missionary-led church in India, and in a large theater-sized church right here in town.  Some of these churches seemed as dead as the occupants of the graves beyond the stone walls, and some were so living and jubilant, I couldn't see the pastor for all the raised hands.  I've even had occasion, with my son's 'Comparative Religions' class to visit, like a tourist, a Muslim mosque, a Buddhist temple and most ridiculously of all, a Hari Krisna building where their 'gods' were dolls they daily dressed and fed.  I'm telling you, I had a such a hard time not laughing that my son practically had to kick me in the ribs in admonishment.

The point is, one way or another, people try to find meaning in their lives via a belief in something bigger than themselves. They find religion. And when God took on flesh, He plopped Himself down in the middle of a very religious people, the 'chosen' people who I sometimes think of as our cousins, if that makes sense. The most religious among those who came into contact with God, were as stiff-necked and full of self-importance as Isaiah described in warning centuries before.  Rules and regulations governed them and they made quite a living telling ordinary folks how to live. 

But one of them in 1st century Israel, wanted truth in his inmost being.  He'd heard of Jesus and something flickered in him.  Kind of a pre-lit Light, I think.  So this man, Nicodemus, came to Jesus under cloak of secrecy, knowing it was already dangerous for a man in his position--religious leader--to be seen with this rabble-rouser.  Nicodemus is full of questions that reveal his already hungry heart.  His first words are actually the genesis of faith. "No one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with Him."  Considering what the other pharisees and sadducees believed--that Jesus was a heretic and liar--these words are pretty surprising.

But what is even more surprising is that to Nicodemus, Jesus speaks the absolute heart of the gospel.  To this religious man, He speaks of what a person must do to be saved, and what God has done to bring that salvation about.  We must be born again, Jesus says.  We must not only live as people trying to be good, trying to discover religion, but we must actually be re-born, and live in a new way, through the Holy Spirit, which moves as a wind through the world, and through our lives to accomplish that new life in us, and to blow us where He wills so we can also be a part of the Kingdom coming.  This is a typically confusing word that Jesus speaks.  It's not surprising that, in the newness of it, Nicodemus doesn't quite understand.  But Jesus sees that the pharisee's question, "How can this be?" springs from an earnest heart, one that seeks this new birth.  He tells Nicodemus, "Everyone who believes will have eternal life."

There it is--the first time Jesus makes His purpose clear.  To the strangest of listeners--a religious man.  Religion, the practice of rules and rituals, will not save anyone.  It's not the outward form that does it, it's the Spirit causing a person to believe.  It's the Spirit that brings a person to eternal life.  The form doesn't matter, the heart does.  John clarifies Jesus' words with the most succinct and beautiful sentence in the Bible: "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."  This is it, folks.  God's love, Jesus given, our true belief, eternal life.  In a nutshell, the best news ever proclaimed. 

It doesn't matter what form our worship takes, as long as it begins and ends with this nutshell.  God is looking all the time at the heart, after all.  He knows whether we are merely practicing religion or whether we have been born of the Spirit and, with tears swimming in our eyes from the very joy of it, can say, "For God loved me so much He gave His Son for me, so that I won't die but will live with Him--to worship Him--forever."

Monday, December 15, 2008

A mother

It's probably not surprising that I'm thinking of mothers today.  After a week in which my main activity was thinking about, caring for, listening to my poor old demented mother, the relative peace and quiet of my own living room, next to a warm, burning fire, keeps falling away and I am back in a hospital or nursing home room, watching Mom pick at her blankets compulsively, with a confused expression on her face.

So it's a good day to think about moms, one in particular.  Several years ago, I went to see a counselor, for the first and only time in my life.  I was feeling very blocked in my writing, a little too exhausted, and thought it might help to talk to someone objective.  Within the first 20 minutes of that first visit, however, the counselor was asking me about my mother.  I suppose therapists and counselors often assume any problem starts there, which doesn't bode well for my children, though I've often told them, when I've refused to let them do something they wanted, that I'm simply giving them something to talk to a counselor about.  Anyway, through the therapy of that spring, I realized that I had an idea of the kind of mother I'd always wanted, and had both written her and become her.  But those two things hadn't actually taken away the sense that my mother wasn't the right one.  I don't say this with pride, you must understand, but actually feel badly that I never quite accepted that God knew what He was doing in giving me the mother I have.

So what would the ideal mother look like?  When I was thinking about this this morning, I realized that Mary comes pretty close.  It isn't that we have a full picture of her, just little antecdotes stuck into the creases of His life.  But I easily fill in the gaps.

These are the things I know about her:
She was favored above all women, though probably for reasons we can never fully understand.  She was an ordinary girl from an ordinary town, and the favor rested on her because of God's goodness and will, not her own.
She trusted her husband to care for her, even in the worst of nights, in a cave.  And she trusted that man when he carried her off to a foreign land.  She recognized that God spoke to Joseph as well as to her.
She actually listened to God however He spoke, to old prophets, to Joseph, to her cousin.  And she treasured what God had done and would do.
She worried about her son--from the beginning to the end of His life.
She knew what that Son was capable of.  Right on the cusp of Jesus' public ministry, Mary and Jesus (and maybe the rest of the family) were at a wedding, a louder and more celebratory wedding than had apparently been planned for.  The host ran out of wine, the staple drink of the day. Apparently this was a big deal because even a guest at the wedding--Mary--knew enough about it that she was concerned and wanted to help.  Her solution was to talk to her son about it.  "Do something," she told Jesus.  Now it's possible that she simply wanted her oldest son to run to the local Safeway and buy a few more cases of wine to help out.  Maybe it was the wedding of a cousin and Mary felt some responsibility for it. 
But from Jesus' reaction, I think Mary knew something different about her son--about His abilities, about His character,--I think she knew who He was, so she was not merely asking Him to produce more bottles of wine, but to intervene supernaturally.  It makes me think that though this is the first recorded miracle of Jesus, it wasn't the first time He'd done one. It makes me wonder how Mary might have seen His Father in Jesus as He grew to be a man.  Don't mothers often look for family resemblances in their children?  I sure do.  I can tell you exactly how my children remind me of the Beve--SK the same kind of morning person who loves relationships, J the one who has his father's eyes, his father's tender but just heart, E a steady, unruffled, broad handed do-er like the Beve.  So Mary, I think, saw all the ways Jesus resembled His Father. She saw enough to know that when a crisis arose, even a material one like running out of drink at a wedding, Jesus would be able to help.

Jesus, in this scene, reminds me a lot of my son.  When asked to take care of this problem, He first said, the tiniest bit exasperated, "Oh Mom, why did you come to me? It's not time for my ministry of signs and wonders yet."  But, a mother who knows her child, knows that behind the protests, He'll do what she asks.  So Mary heard his reluctance, but knew He'd take care of the matter, and told the servants, "Do whatever Jesus tells you."  So my son sometimes drags his feet when I ask him to do something, but (usually!) does what I ask eventually (though perhaps not as promptly as Jesus!  Big surprise!). 

Well, you know the result.  Jesus takes ordinary water and turns it into wine--the best wine at the wedding.  Maybe the best wine ever made.  It only took an instant, and there's no record that He even touched those barrels of water.  No, He simply said the word and it was accomplished.  "Pour out what's in the barrels and take it to the host."  By the time the banquet master tasted the water, it was wine.  That simple, that fast.  And all the guests were awed by the taste, which they didn't even know was the first of Jesus' miraculous signs. 

Jesus didn't do this thing in order to proclaim His divinity.  He didn't ask for publicity about it.  He was only doing what His mother had asked. Simply to please her.  He didn't always please her, you know.  Later when she and the other kids showed up where Jesus was preaching and wanted to speak to Him, he turned it into an opportunity to talk about the obedience of all people.  It wasn't that He didn't care about His earthly mother, but more that He was interested in all people.  We know He loved His mother by the way He made special mention of her from the cross.  In the last moments before His death, knowing the future (even the resurrected future) would leave her without Him, He asked John and Mary to become son and mother in His place.

She never stopped loving Him, even when He grew up and had other concerns,  had complete faith in Him, stood with Him in the darkest of hours, and didn't turn her eyes from the ghastly sight of her beloved child bleeding from His hands and feet, gulping for whatever breath He could get as He died a violent death.  This is the kind of mother I dream of, the kind of parent I wish to be.  Nothing He did, nothing He said, nothing He went through was enough for her to forsake Him.  She was the first person to have complete faith in Him, and the last person to leave Him.  I don't only want to be this kind of mother to my children, but have this exact love for Jesus Himself.  No matter how strange His requests, how confusing His words, I pray that I can be Mary, trusting and waiting for Him to work.  For Him to live, for Him to be who He is.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Adrift

I promise I'll get back to my Advent stories tomorrow, but tonight I'm too exhausted.  E, my sister the Dump and I left my youngest sister's house at 7am this morning, my brother-in-law driving ahead in the big ol' flatbed they call BW (or "Beats Walkin'") on the farm.  He was our escort because a swift wind had blown snow all over the place, including across the gravel road on which they live.  My little Matrix, with its all-wheel drive, had no problem navigating the steep, windy hill around the corner from their house, though every drift spewed snow into the windshield, blinding E, who was driving.  At the bottom of the hill, just yards from the paved county road, we slammed into a drift and stopped, my little car high-centered.  BR (my brother-in-law) backed BW up, hooked a chain to the front of the car and, slick as a whistle, pulled us out.  Honking and waving, we turned onto the paved road, certain we'd be 'home free' from there on.  We had to get across the state in time for the Dump to catch her flight from SeaTac to LA at 3:30 pm.  Surely we would make it in time, with only that short delay.
If only...!
About halfway to town, just up the hill from the road down to the Snake River, we rounded a corner past a pickup nose down in the drift-covered ditch and plowed into an even higher drift.  I got into the drivers seat, while E and the Dump pushed futilely from behind.  Then they dug out from in front of the wheels and we tried again.  About that time, E saw a snow plow down the hill, and went running toward it clad only in sweatshirt and jeans, though wearing cowboy boots, thankfully. Eventually, the Dump ran after her and I was left to guard the car.  While they were gone, a man stopped and I rolled down my window.  "Where you coming from?" he asked.  I told him who my sister and brother-in-law are, and he nodded, then asked, "Which Crain are you?"  I smiled, thinking of how I'd written a similar scene in my book--total strangers meeting and knowing each other by family connections, clear out in the country.  It turned out my mom was his 4th grade teacher.  We passed the time a little while he searched under the back of my car for a place to hook a tow rope.  "These new fangled cars are all plastic," he said, shaking his head.  Then he excused himself to drive his wife, her 150 cinnamon rolls and chicken gravy into town for their church potluck.

About twenty minutes later, three more vehicles had rolled up behind me--three oversized 4 wheel drive pick-ups, with wives keeping warm in the passenger seat, and three men, in white shirts and ties under well-worn Carthart coats, were standing around, kicking my tires, laying on their bellies to see what the problem was, and catching up with their neighbors.  I was wishing I had some hot cocoa to pass around.  By then, E had been gone a very long time, so the Dump (who'd returned frozen in her tennis shoes) ran back down the hill carrying E's coat, because it was after all, only about 7 degrees F, and E had been shivering for an hour.  A while later, up the hill came the biggest pickup of the morning, with E, the Dump and my brother-in-law's nephew, Doug.  I'm telling you, it's a VERY small world out there among the Palouse hills.  And most of the folks you meet look for the connections among them, but are glad to help even if they don't know you at all!  E told us that when she knocked on Doug's door, he recognized her and said, "Uh-oh!" Then threw on some overclothes while his wife tried to ply E with hot cocoa, thicker gloves, a hat and a coat. 

When he reached my car, Doug hooked his chain to our front bumper and began to pull (every single one of these men seem to drive around with thick pull-chains in their trucks, just in case!). And nothing happened.  He stepped a little harder on the gas, and still we simply sat there, while his rig was edging closer and closer to the ditch.  Finally, he decided to turn around and pull that way, but as he turned...the pickup slid into the ditch so deep, the back wheels of his rig came off the ground. 

There was a whole lot more standing around then, I can tell you.  Farmers take a long time looking at situations, retelling the story to each other as if they hadn't all just witnessed it together, it seemed from where I sat. By then, the Dump and I were trying to decide whether she'd ever get home today, whether we should go back to our sisters, and even why the heck we'd even come to this forsaken place...E, still shivering, stood out with the big boys, kicking tires and commiserating about the ice and ditch story!  Before the frozen farmers got to the 5th or 6th telling, fortunately, a GIANT Cat-snow plow came trudging up the hill, lights blinking, plow pushing snow out of the way like it was nothing.  A little negotiation took place at that point, the plow operator hesitant to help, because it is frowned upon by the County.  When I saw him, he looked like someone who'd want to stick to the rules even when folks really needed help.  We practically had to sign a waiver to get him to help, but finally a plan took shape, and Doug's pick-up (blocking our car) was hooked up to the plow.  And when that plow backed up, Doug's rig was pulled so hard and high, for a moment, only one wheel was actually on ground.  Talk about power!

Then my silly-looking little Matrix, surrounded by all these huge vehicles, was hooked up and pulled out of the drift.  Unfortunately, the plow started pulling before E even had the keys in the ignition, or the out of 'park.'  Kind of like a weight lifter lifting a tiny ballerina with a single finger! It was really something.  E leaned out the window and called 'thank-you' to the driver, but he didn't even glance in our direction, intent on his job, which he'd probably been at since the wee hours of the morning! 

By the time we got into town, it had been two hours since we'd left my sister's house, and the Dump had, for all intents and purposes, already missed her flight.  So we stopped to reconnoiter, drink some coffee, and change our wet and frozen socks (which the Dump left hanging on a chair by the fireplace in the coffee shop! If you see them, they're hers.).

Ok, so the Dump didn't miss her flight, though it cost her a whole lot of money, a detour in our trip, and a connecting flight from Spokane to Seattle.  Ten hours later, E and I were home, the worst of the storm in the first 12 miles of our trip.  And I'm pretty sure the Dump is happily back in the rain in So Cal.  Just think, she doesn't have to return to the snowy Palouse for nine whole days!

You might think I have a spiritual lesson from all of this.  But to tell you the truth, I'm just tired.  Grateful that God takes ordinary people, even reluctant ones, and uses them as His instruments.  All day long, in all kinds of life and death and simply living circumstances, there are simple folks around us doing His work.  Helping us out of drifts, helping us get unstuck in whatever way we need.  Tonight as I sink into the sheets in my own soft bed, I will be thinking of the ones I met today.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Comprehending the incomprehensible

It should be no surprise to my 'loyal' readers that I've spent the week with my mother and siblings.  We've all been going steady, to tell the truth.  And there have been some funny moments.  Most of them have to do with Mom and her incomprehensible sentences.  For a long time, she's had trouble pulling the word she needs from the lexicon in her brain.  In the beginning, she called such stalls "senior moments" but as those word hiccups became more prevalent, it was clear that language was the area of the brain most severely attacked by this dementing disease.  I've had messages on my answering machine in the spring that said, "I won't be home for Thanksgiving, so you have to pick me up at 10."  Listening to such messages, we've shaken our heads, uncertain what she might not be home for, and how she expected us to drive from our home, 7 hours away from her, to pick her up...for whatever it was she was thinking about.  More recently, trying to decipher what she meant when she began to speak of 'that' and 'this' was tricky.  I could just imagine her pointing to something in her apartment she was certain I could see.

But this week, it's become clear that the deterioration of her language has excelerated.  She can talk in long paragraphs complete with elaborate hand gestures (a favorite one is cupping her hands around an invisible circle, another slicing the air in elongated strokes), all of which is designed, in her brain to help us understand her words, and none of which actually accomplish that task.  She tried very hard the other day to tell a nurse about something very important as I sat in the corner, watching.  They were clearly stymied in their attempts to discover what she meant, assuming she was talking about something related to their work.  Finally, as she made a large swoosh in the air, I said, "Oh, you're talking about banana sandwiches."  Mom clapped her hands in glee. "Yes!" she said. The nurses who were trying to move her from bed to wheelchair looked at me in amazement.  "How did you get banana sandwich out of that?" one asked.  I shrugged...it was only because she'd told me the same story months ago when she could still talk.

Another time (and this may have been my favorite moment so far!), she asked, in perfect seriousness, "Where's the whore?"  A physical therapist answered without missing a beat, "I don't think we have any working here."  And that night, my sister and brother listened to her talk at length about 'the king and queen...no, that's not right.  Just the king."  She is perfectly content to ramble for long moments, even when we are conversing with others in the room, without missing a beat.  And she barely notices our sidebar conversations with each other, "She seems more lucid today," or "Do you understand what she means?"  This morning, after awakening with a headache, I felt more punchy than usual, and was having a hard time containing my giggles, especially when Mom began singing the Hallelujah Chorus with her hands held over her head clapping after every 'Hallelujah!'.  Then she told us something, and from the corner of my eye, I saw my siblings all nodding in unison, making appropriate assenting noises, though I know not one of us had a clue what we were agreeing with.  Finally, I burst out laughing, which made Mom look at me quizzically.  "I'm just so happy," I told her through my chuckles.  That released something in my siblings, and pretty soon we were all practically crying.  Then I grew sober thinking of how hard it is to be in relationship with her as her speech becomes more incomprehensible.

We take for granted the ability to communicate, and the ability to understand what is communicated to us.  If we speak a common language with someone, we assume we will follow what that person is telling us.  It is not often that we are as lost as we've felt with Mom these last few days.  But 2000+ years ago, when Jesus began His adult public ministry, the words that came out of His mouth were sometimes strange and mysterious.  The Sermon on the Mount is an example. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit..."  "Blessed are the meek..." "Blessed are the pure in heart..." Now there's not a single word in the Beatitudes that was actually new to those who sat in front of the young man from Nazareth.  But somehow, every sentence was something original, something unexpected, with a twist.  Calling people salt and light, encouraging them not to hide their light or let their salt lose its flavor.  What on earth could He be talking about?  I bet they wondered. 

I have always agreed with Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, that creation begins and ends with God, and what we do when we create is always beneath that.  Perhaps we rearrange words, give them a new order, but new concepts, new ideas?  These spring from God, and only God.  And in the Incarnation, in the Human flesh of Immanuel, something new--really truly new-- came out of His mouth.   Jesus spoke words, emphasized things that no naturalized citizen of this planet ever had.  I know that we, who have read the gospels, heard the stories, are used to such things, are familiar with such phrases as, "I Am the Light of the world," "I Am the Gate and the Shepherd."  "I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life."  And--think of this!--"I Am the Resurrection."  But to His first listeners, the personification of such abstract ideas, would have struck them hard.  First of all, He actually used the words that those around Him recognized as God's Name.  And this is a big deal.  "Tell them 'I Am' has sent you," God told Moses at the burning bush when Moses asked who was speaking, who was calling Moses to lead His people.  God's name is "I Am that I Am."  When Jesus says "I Am the bread of Life," He's invoking God's name as His own.  In all 7 "I Am's", it's like He's saying, "I--I Am--Am the True Vine."  This is absolutely startling and new.  Jesus knew who He was, and all the way through His ministry, gave clues for His listeners of both His identity and His purpose. 

Unfortunately, we're all a little hard of hearing and more than a little dim.  Like my siblings and I with Mom.  Like humans trying to understand the deep things of God. 

I'm grateful to live when I do, grateful to understand Jesus' words because I have centuries of saints to help me.  But sometimes I dream of those words when they were new, and original and barely understood, spoken in the human voice of our God.  So this day, this week, this Season, my goal is to hear those words with open ears, to listen for the newness of what He intends through them.  May we all comprehend a little more clearly the incomprehensible--that the Word became flesh.  That our God became a man.  That these words have something to new to say to us, if we can just open our ears and listen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best version

Sitting in the hospital next to my sleeping mother.  In sleep, her face draws back and tightens against her skull, her skin, usually flaccid and wrinkled, is smooth and shiny.  Her mouth hangs slightly open. As long as I can remember, Mom has snored.  Sometimes between them, she and Dad were like a point-counterpoint duet when they slept.  When they stayed at one of our early houses, the futon they shared was just across the wall from Beve's and my headboard. Their two-throated snores kept made me toss and turn all night.  But now, there is no sound coming from her, and the only movement is the slight rising and falling of her chest.  The last time I saw a person with such taut skin, sallow coloring and almost noiseless breathing was the last week of my mother-in-law's life.  I thought then that her face was unwrinkled because of her strong Norwegian skin, beautiful and smooth.  My mother's skin is usually flaccid and covered with harsh frown lines, and tiny pleats crisscross the whole of it.  And it strikes me that a prominent skeleton beneath the skin must be a prophet of winter.

Three of my siblings are sharing this arduous week with me.  The last time only this particular configuration of siblings was together without other members of our large family was the day our father died.  In our deeply shocked state, we drove around this town together in my sister's van, and could hardly speak.  The backbone of our lives had only been gone for a few hours, and we were barely able to walk.  Just as we veered left around a corner and came in sight of our large house up the hill, I said, "The word of the day is 'shit!'"  Now I'm not a swearer.  In fact, it's possible that was the first time I'd actually said that word outloud.  But that first orphaned afternoon, we threw open every window of van and screamed the word at the top of our lungs--"SHIT!" 

Last night, we sat in a bar (also something I never do) and I reminded them of that moment.  We laughed, but here we are again, dealing with a parental crisis.  There is no imminent death here, presumably...at least not today.  But the end of this life is in sight.  That much is clear.  Even now, the person sitting in that bed only resembles our mother in the superficial.  The other day, one of the nurses told me they didn't mind working with her, even though her 'conversation' is impossible to follow, her words ramblingly incoherent.  "She's so sweet," this young woman said.  I cocked my head like a puzzled dog, not quite understanding the sentence.  It was the first time in my life anyone has called my mother sweet, and it's the last characteristic I would imbue her with.  But when I thought about this woman, the one lying in the cranked up bed, really is a sweet old woman.  She wants to please, doesn't want to be a problem, and even her confusion is rather endearing.  Every time she goes to sleep, she wakes up disoriented, tries to remember where she is and why, thinks of her legs as separate from herself.  Every so often, she deep sighs, or twists her face into its frowning repose, and I recognize my real mother beneath the skin of this softer version.  In those moments, I instinctively cringe and turn away.  It was that mother I have struggled with all my life.  Sadly, that woman is the one who will return to me at the end of the day, that woman I will carry into my post-mom life. 

It's just the opposite of the way many people feel about loved-ones at the end of their lives.  They want to forget the querulous, petulant old person, and remember the dearly-loved sweet one.  I wonder what it would be like to feel this way about my mother. How it would feel to know the real self of this person is their best version.  But this will not be with my mom.  So I pray today that I can also hold these last images, these days when she is gentle, thankful, like a child. 

And as I pray for that, I pray that the best version of myself is one I'm growing into, not one that will only come when my head empties of itself. I pray that the further up and into the Kingdom I go, more of Jesus will be seen in this flesh than me.