Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Gratitude

This is something I shared at a women's brunch in our church a few days ago. The brunch was named "Gratitude 2" because it was the second year the women had focused on this important discipline at their annual gathering.

Although gratitude has been something I’ve thought about throughout my life, there was a more conscious shift in focus a few years ago. In the last year of my sister-in-law, Donna’s life, we had a long and memorable phone call. We talked about difficult things and encouraged each other. As a result of that call she loaned me a book, called “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp.

Ann’s writing style was difficult for me at first, but her message was important. A friend of hers had challenged her to make a list of 1000 things for which she was grateful during a time in her life when things were pretty hard. She kept notebooks and paper handy so that things could be written quickly at the moment they were noticed. The book is the story of what changed in her life as she worked her way up to 1000 gifts.

I no longer remember what her lists contained, but I was challenged to begin to see things in new ways. That was the beginning of a new adventure with gratitude for me.

Gratitude is a choice we make to notice.

It is both of those things together...a choice...to notice.

First of all, a choice.

On good days or in happy seasons, it doesn’t seem like a choice. This summer, with a garden full of flowers, and with the goodness of Tim and Michelle’s wedding, gratitude was like a wave I was riding. It surrounded me and was effortless. It had little to do with choosing and it was impossible not to notice.

But there are times when things are hard. Times when things are so hard that unless we make the choice for gratitude, it will not find us. Psalm 50:14 says “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,” and Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving as a sacrifice seems different than the wave of gratitude I ride in the really happy times of my life. The Philippians instructions about handling worry make it even more clear that gratitude is a choice that we make when worry is the more natural response.

When I am worried or under a lot of stress, every free moment is filled with the worry. If my mind is not actively engaged in what I’m doing, it is drawn back to the hard stuff. Arguments replay themselves in my head. Lists of my failures or my grievances play on autoplay. During those times, taking a walk is more stressful than staying at home and working, because even surrounded by nature, my mind can’t jump out of the rut of the hard things I’m trying to figure out.  

But gratitude is a choice. So some things have had to change.

One change involved memory work. I worked on it during my walks so that my thoughts would be forced away from hard things. I chose Psalm 103, which begins “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name, Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits---” I walked and spoke those words again and again, adding a line, and then another, until I could repeat nearly all of it to my 5th grade Sunday School class. Instead of reliving hard things I had little to no control over, memory work forced my mind to gratitude.

I want to be clear. This choice did not erase all the hard things or push me back onto the effortless wave of gratitude. Sometimes, especially on very hard days, the words did not resonate as much as I wanted them to. It was a choice more than it was a feeling, but it was also a true choice. My circumstances were still hard, but I had to recognize the truth that there was also goodness in my life.

I bought tiny composition books. They come in packages of three for 88 cents at Walmart. They fit in my purse or on my nightstand. I began to try to write down something every day, or three things a day, or more. One year my Lenten discipline was to write five things each day. I use the books on and off. I kind of forget about them sometimes, especially when I’m riding a wave of gratitude. But when the wave  runs its course and I’m not so naturally grateful anymore, eventually I remember that choosing to write things down helps me notice.

And that is the second part of gratitude. Notice.

Notice even in the midst of the mess.

Photography can maybe illustrate this better. Sharing photos online with friends is something I enjoy. I’ve used facebook in the past, and now recently my daughter-in-law, Andrea, introduced me to instagram. People often post pictures of good things in their lives, such as places they are visiting, or events, or people they love. It is often about gratitude. Right now there are a lot of sunrises, sunsets and autumn leaves showing up.

This year I’ve posted a lot of pictures of garden flowers. We filled our garden with flowers for Tim and Michelle’s wedding, so I’ve had fresh flower arrangements in the house all summer, and I may be able to get some more picked yet this afternoon. Sometimes when I take a picture of a vase of flowers, I think I’m getting a photo of flowers, because that is what I see. But the camera sees not only the flowers in a vase, but also the papers strewn on the table, the bits of leaves and stems left from making the arrangement, the crumbs from snack time, and maybe a dirty dish or two. Am I being too honest here? My point is this. Gratitude can come before the mess is gone. I can see what the camera cannot. I can ignore for a moment the mess that could obscure the flowers. And gratitude can sometimes be the beginning of the motivation to clear the mess.

Table mess is relatively simple to clear. Some messes are beyond my control. But I can choose to notice even the graces of my life that can’t posted on facebook or instagram.

What are the things I notice?
Small things, normal things often headline my list.
There are the sensory things. The taste of a fully ripe peach. Warm gentle breezes. The colors of a maple tree in October. Mockingbirds singing through the night in spring. The smell of freshly brewed coffee or bread in the oven.

There are people things. The way Sarah lights up when she sees us across the room, or the feel of her arms around my neck. How Aaron looks up out of the tops of his eyes instead of moving his whole face. The intense Luke-ness of Luke. Charlie’s giggle and his attention to detail.

There are things that happen. Hearing one person offer another grace. A smile from a friend. A conversation over coffee. An unexpected gift. A lunch at Dutch Kitchen with my mother.

There are memories. Memories of grace offered. Memories of loved ones. Memories of places. Memories of my Grandma’s rocking chair and her voice singing, “Gott ist die liebe.” For those of you that know that song, do you ever hear it without hearing it in your Grandmother’s voice?

Memories of past kindnesses. Because I’ve spent a lot of time with the children of my church, their kindness or wit or questions or wisdom have often been in my little books. But not just the children. I’ve seen so many others do or say things that brought me to gratitude. I’ve written some of those things down in little books or in my journal, but there are too many for the time I have here.

And there are insights or ideas. Seeing a Bible verse as though it is new again. Hearing something explained differently that finally makes sense. Understanding more fully the life of someone who has experiences very different from mine.

So, just for a moment, choose to notice.

In this moment, find gratitude.










Thursday, August 11, 2016

Thankful Moms

I was honored to be able to write a guest post for the Thankfulmoms blog. I found this blog through a friend who is also an adoptive mom, and as soon as I read the post she tagged, I subscribed. They write about their lives with conviction, and with hope and compassion. They are able to write vulnerable posts while being diligent to protect the dignity and confidentiality of their children. It is a good place to go, even if you have no connection to adoption or foster care. Try this link to get to my post, and explore while you are there, if you like.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Gone

It has  been five days. Still I am reviewing the story I've been told and trying to grasp a reality that isn't real, can't be real,  shouldn't be real. I read the emails of notification and the stories on the media again and again, not out of a morbid interest, but just to attempt to believe this truth. Maybe this time it will feel real.

The daughter of our friends died in an accident on Sunday. I still cannot say that she is dead. Only that she died, which is different. If she died, that is an event, and events end. If she died, well, that is something that happened that is awful.  I can't say she is dead because that is not an event. That is a state of being, and I can't wrap my mind around that. I can understand on some level that I won't see her again. I can't go farther to an idea that she no longer lives.

I feel stupid. I know the truth! Why can't I stop going over it and over it? I feel so angry that this has happened. I'm bitter that my friends have to go through this horror. My mind has no control over how quickly I grasp the reality.

The Psalm for this week in my devotional book includes these words:

Psalm 73: 21, 22
When my soul was embittered,
When I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast toward you.

This describes how I feel, except the "pricked in heart" is pretty weak. I don't mean this in an ashamed sense. This is how all of us feel in intense and sudden grief. Bitterness. Broken heart. Unable to think or reason  or understand. Like a brute beast acting from the animal parts of our brains. Because that is how we are made, to revert back to our instinctive selves when events or trauma takes away our ability to function.

But the Psalm goes on:

Nevertheless I am continually with you;
You hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor. (v 23-24)

I find this comforting somehow, that the Psalmist affirms that even when we cannot cope, when we are full of bitterness and pain, we are still with God and are received with honor. We may not feel the truth of this. We may experience pain so deep that even the sense of God's presence is beyond our ability to recognize. But it is there. We are received with honor. We are held in our grief with an acceptance of the reality that it is accompanied with bitterness and raw emotion and inability to comprehend or understand or accept.

It is only in the knowledge of this truth...that we are accepted, loved, and yes, honored, as we struggle with the truth of this loss and with all of the accompanying emotions...that I am able to also embrace the following verses:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
(v 25-26)

May God have mercy on us, and especially on the family of this young woman, as we move into our grieving.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Caught (Part 3) The Leap

We have an old falling down picnic table in the back yard that slopes from the ground to about four feet tall. All of the grandchildren have loved to run up and down that table. It is too rough to serve as a slipper slide, but it is great as a little hill in flat Kansas.

It is Sarah's turn to be two, and ready to explore that table. I'm cautious, being afraid she will try things too hard for herself. When Sarah grabbed my hand and commanded in her one-word method of communication, "Come!" I was glad to be nearby. Sarah did not want to walk up the ramp and then run back down. That was much too tame for this little sprite.
Holding tight to my fingers, Sarah walked with determination to the top of the ramp, several inches shy of the edge. Then she looked me in the eye, let go of my hand, and edged her feet forward. Looking at me out of the corner of her eye, she laughed. She indicated her desire that I stand in front of the drop, and when I complied, her face lit up. She put her arms out, stood up straight, and shivered with anticipation. She laughed again as she gathered up her nerve. And then she flung herself into my arms.

I swung her to the ground, laughing along with her. Then she grabbed my hand, commanded, "Come!"  and we headed back to the bottom of the ramp.

Maybe someone else taught her this. It wasn't me. I'm not so brave, at least about jumping off of ledges.

This thing Sarah is doing is so much more about the jump than it is about being caught. If she were a little bit bigger she would likely jump without asking for my help. It is about taking a risk, testing herself, enjoying doing something scary and still ending up ok.

There is joy in the leap, even as sometimes there is hardship.

When Jesus announced his ministry in Luke, he read from Isaiah that he had come to announce good news to the poor, and freedom for the oppressed, and sight for the blind.

And then he called his disciples, and they climbed up their picnic table and grabbed hands and looked at each other with anticipation and hope and confusion and all the many mixed emotions of trying something new and hard that you believe in with all your heart. They laughed and they shivered and they gathered up their nerve. And they jumped. Like Sarah.

We have been there too, sometimes in small ways and sometimes larger.

We did voluntary service when we were still in our twenties.

We were nearing our 7th wedding anniversary when we read an article in our denominational magazine, The Mennonite, written by Robert Hull on the old testament practice of Sabbath in a non-agrarian society. He suggested that every seventh year be a Sabbath year, even if we aren't in a position to leave our fields fallow. Some could offer a year of service. Some could live on a reduced budget while sending their excess funds to support others who are serving. We could be creative about finding our way to Sabbath year practice.

As we read his writing we had that exciting, frightened feeling of standing on the edge of something that could be life-changing. Because things aligned in unusual ways, Chuck's brother and his wife could take over our farm for a year.

We filled out applications, had interviews, and were accepted for a year of service in a community and with a church in Illinois.

It was a life changing year.

When it ended, I mourned. I'd felt more alive and more on the edge of something bigger than myself during that year. I wanted to be back near grandparents, but I did not want to go back to routine. What about our lives would be different when we moved back to the farm?

That question was a years long conversation between Chuck and myself that encompassed the birth of another child, the loss of a family friend, and my first depression. And then one date night as we walked the bike path in our nearby town, we talked about foster care. It was a way of serving that encompassed the skills and interests of both of us. Being on a farm could be a positive factor. Could we do this? What would it mean for us? for our children? Again, we were at the edge, shivering with fear and with excitement and with the possibility that God could be leading us in a new direction.

Now the kids are gone, but life has not ended. There are always new challenges.

It doesn't have to be a long term commitment. It can be offering a meal to someone, or inviting someone over. It can be starting a conversation with someone very different from yourself. Or dialing the phone to make that first phone call to offer empathy and a listening ear after a tragedy. It can be trying out a day or two volunteering in your community. It can be seeing a need and sensing an inner pull to see if your gifts meet that need in any way.

Throughout my adult life I've wondered about the way our church does Sunday School for those who are fresh out of high school. Because the adult classes are mostly based on age groups, those who have recently become adults have no class. Partly because of this, but also because they are scattering for school and jobs, and because they are testing out their own faiths against the world they are entering, attendance drops off significantly. When they come, there is not a place for them. One time this year when I was again trying to make sense of this, a couple of people suggested I get involved.

For me, this is a leap. I'm good with kids. But I have a deep sense of my own inadequacy with ages past middle school. I don't know how to lead young adults. If they don't attend, is that an indication of my giftedness or an indication of their other commitments and stages in life? Does it matter? Is it OK to do something new and out of my comfort zone and to fail? I decided it is. So even now, months into this, I'm still shivering and laughing and holding out my arms, hoping this works.

If it doesn’t, I’m sure there will be something else to try. In fact, I have a few ideas already.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Caught (Part 2)


Sometimes I’ve wanted God to catch me as quickly as Dad did when I was a child.  

It hasn’t always worked that way. 

Several weeks ago there was a shooting at a factory in the nearby town where I went to high school. The shooting happened just across the street from the middle school, but school was already out for the day. Four people were killed, including the shooter, and fourteen injured. Our community is beginning a long recovery.

On that day I heard and watched the news stories of people who believed themselves to be caught by the hands of God, just like my dad caught us as we flew off the top of the refrigerator. Even as the shots were being fired, phone calls for prayers were being made. As people fell, others came alongside them and offered prayer for them while assisting them to run for safety. Those people who survived have a strong sense of God reaching for them and catching them up.

And there are the other stories, of those who died...those who have a long road to recovery...those who have lost loved ones...children growing up without a parent.

Psalm 103 says that God redeems our life from the pit. In order for that to be true, we have to have actually landed in that pit. I’ve always preferred the rescue to happen before I reach the bottom of the pit, but that only happens some of the time. 

There are a lot of rescue verses in the Bible, and I loved all of them. I also misunderstood them, thinking that God would always rescue me before I was in trouble. Maybe I would see the danger coming, but there would be a gasp, a look of terror, and then relief and laughter, right? It took me a while to become reconciled to the truth that sometimes God picks me up after I’ve fallen hard instead of catching me before I hit the ground. 

And sometimes, God sits with me in the pit.

In Psalm 56, which was the Psalm for the week before Palm Sunday from my devotional book, are these words:

"Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me:
all day long foes oppress me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many fight against me."

and also these words...

"You have kept count of my tossing;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?"

There are some pits that are just part of life. Accidents. Illnesses. Deaths of loved ones. Natural disasters. They are things out of our control that shake our lives at their foundations.

There are pits we dig ourselves, sometimes willfully and sometimes in spite of ourselves.

There are pits made by others. Broken relationships. Crime. Abuse.

And there are pits that are part of following God. We follow a crucified Savior, after all. We follow a Savior who spent his last night before his death wide awake, sweating blood, and praying for another way to accomplish his mission besides the one that lay ahead of him. It is easy to forget that giving up your life is part of the deal. Sometimes we want to have only the picture of God catching us before we hit the ground, while ignoring the picture of God who left heaven to accompany us here, in our hard places.

But God IS here with us. Even our tossing and turning is recorded and our tears are collected.

The candles at the front of our sanctuary, lit in honor of those who died or were injured in the shooting. Photo by Joan Entz.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Caught (Part 1)

It was a General Electric refrigerator. Purchased before I was born, it kept its rightful spot in the kitchen of my parents until the day they moved away from their rural home about three years ago. It was gleaming white with chrome accents that at one time seemed very modern. The corners were rounded. It had a small freezer with its own door on top that needed regular defrosting. Underneath was a state of the art (for that era) refrigerator with shelves shaped in half circles that would turn so that items in the back could be found easily. It had crisper drawers and the door shut by itself.

From the time I was old enough to sit steadily, my dad had a game involving that refrigerator. He would perch me up on the top of it and then urge me to jump. His hands were out and his face was laughing. I don’t remember the first time I jumped, but I watched him play the same game with each successive sibling and then each of my children, and nieces and nephews, and finally my grandchildren.

The game would start gently with Dad’s hands outstretched, nearly touching the child who for the first time in their short life, sat higher than all the adults in the room. The baby’s eyes would be big and a little frightened as he or she weighed whether to slip off the edge of that precipice. Dad would put his hands closer if he needed to, in order to offer reassurance, sometimes even still holding on very loosely to the little one while encouraging her to make the choice to leap.  Sometimes it would begin with the child leaning just a little bit, and then a bit more. With a momentary gasp and look of terror, they would slip over the edge and cross that tiny drop between the top of the fridge and Dad’s hands. Instantly relief and laughter replaced the terror as Dad’s strong hands  caught them up and swung them back into the air. Then man and child would laugh together, good hard belly laughs. And before the laughter died away, already the baby would be lifting their arms and leaning toward the refrigerator for another go.

Of course, once confidence was in place, Dad would let the fall extend lower and lower, just barely snatching up the child before they reached the floor. The longer the drop, the louder the laughter. and then the pleas, “Again! Again!”

Dad would continue until his arms were tired, while the happy children still  begged for more. He played that game with us until we were too big to be lifted on the refrigerator. There were times at holidays when there would be a little line of small people waiting their turn to be lifted, eager to jump into the waiting arms of this man who loved them.

A year a half ago, I knew in my heart that Dad was dying, but I was not yet admitting it to my conscious thought. My journal has notes of my observations about my parents, of my concerns for Dad, especially. About a month before he was gone I wrote these words:

“I love that all the little ones got to leap off the top of that old refrigerator into his arms, because for me, that’s my picture of Dad---the safe place to leap toward, knowing I’ll be caught up with love and laughter.”

It's also a picture of God, waiting with arms outstretched, laughter in his eyes.

Deuteronomy 33:27 says “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting  arms.”

This is the actual refrigerator. Picture it with small kids on top.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More than a year since they're gone

It has been more than a year since our fathers died. The other day when I was in town I met a friend who said final goodbyes to both of her parents within a couple of weeks last year. This has been her first holiday season without them. Talking together in the back of the local store was healing for me, as much as it can be. I guess I don’t really know what healing is or what it should look like.


We talked about the things we tell ourselves and the things people tell us. Sentences that start out with “at least…” or “we can be glad…” are sentences we have heard, and sometimes used ourselves. They are expressions of trying to find blessing in our grief, and they are true. We did not want our parents to suffer longer. We did not wish for them to linger in a state of confusion or pain or disability that diminished their ability to enjoy their lives. Those things are true.

But those things are also beside the point.

We miss them.



We miss the conversations we wanted to have with them, and we wish for their companionship...not their confusion or their pain or their limitations from being older, but we wish for them at their best. We miss their essence, the goodness of their humor, the quiet sense of having parents who had been there for us and would still be there for us. We miss being children, in a sense.

I told my friend that even though it is true that I did not want for my dad to live longer with cancer and the other health issues that made life impossible, that does not change that I wish I still had a dad to talk to and joke with and hang out with. I wish I had my daddy back.


But the year has gone by and the sharpness of that longing has eased. It is confusing now, because there is a sense that I should hold on to it. Losing the pain also seems like a loss. I don’t really want to stop missing our dads. Crazy, isn’t it? Letting go of it somehow makes the reality of our dads' lives seem less. Is that possible? Now that I don’t cry often anymore, does that mean something?


I’m holding on to eternity, I think. I want the significance of our dad’s lives to last. I want the memory of them to last. But even I know that is impossible. Someday they, and I, will be part of that host of those who lived before. So many people.

Recently I enjoyed a concert of music written by J. Harold Moyer. He was the father of my sister-in-law, and was one of my profs at Bethel College. His name will be in hymnbooks for a very long time, but the singers won’t know his smile or quiet dry humor. It doesn’t matter. His contribution will stand, and so will the contributions of all who have gone before.

Wanting loved ones to be remembered is normal, a manifestation of wanting our own lives to have made a difference in the world somehow. But it is also impossible. Future generations must live their own lives, love the persons who fill them, make their own differences, rather than be encumbered with keeping alive the memories of all who have lived before them. Carrie Newcomer has a phrase in a song that I often ponder, “the curious promise of limited time”. Our time is limited. And that is good. It is also good that I don’t have to keep in my mind and heart every single person who has gone before me. And it is good that there are people I have loved who will always be in my heart and mind.

We carry our loved ones with us and they become part of who we are, and that is passed on to those who know us whether they have memories of those loved ones or not. Maybe Dad’s jokes will be retold by people who have no idea where they got them. Maybe Edwin's love for music will be passed on to people who have no idea who Edwin ever was. Maybe both of their values will be held by people who would never have had an opportunity to meet them. And maybe they got those jokes and that music and those values from the nameless people in their pasts as well.

I’m guessing that this is just another normal step along the way.