Just past midlife, exploring radical faith, trying to be as honest as I can about the things that matter. To me. Justice, good food, learning, mercy, biking, faith, hot soup and bread, integrity, watching people grow and change, knitting with natural fibers, sunflowers in September...
Chuck and I have been married nearly forty years. Our lives have never been dull. But excitement is not the only ingredient for a thriving relationship. Sometimes the excitement (or maybe the stress) would push the relationship into the background until suddenly it became obvious that the relationship was falling by the wayside while we attended to whatever was most demanding in our lives. Tyranny of the urgent was sometimes the best description.
So we learned by mistakes and by better choices that especially in the struggles, time for nurture of the relationship has to be carved out. And really, at least for us, when is it not intense struggling with one thing or another? Rarely is there a time without some kind of crisis. So we have chosen to find space for our relationship.
The crazy thing is, even the nurturing things can become routine and boring, no longer renewing to the relationship. And that is where we find ourselves right now. We love each other. We are in intense times, like always. And the ways we wind down and spend time together have become so routine that although they are comfortable, they are also a bit boring.
It can take a while to realize that the things that always worked are not working as well anymore. But that is normal. At any rate, there was a day when we seemed to both be recognizing at the same time that we’d slipped into a slump.
Because we’ve been married nearly forty years, we don’t take for granted that time will move endlessly forward for us. Life is now pretty obviously time sensitive. So we sat down and asked ourselves the question, what can we do now that will bring joy and new life to our relationship?
The first answer we came up with was the one we acted on last week.
At least once every three months we are going to go somewhere or do something new to both of us...create a completely new memory. We set a date and I offered to come up with the plan.
In the last year I’ve noticed my facebook friends posting pics of places they visited in Kansas. There were pictures of prairies, natural formations, interesting foods, musicians. One of those places was the Tallgrass Prairie Reserve.
Stone barn at the Tallgrass Prairie
I was looking for a place we could be outdoors, because Chuck loves being outdoors. I wanted a place we could bring the dog, because Fritz needs to get used to being calm in new environments. And I wanted a place close enough that we could get there, enjoy it, and get back home in one long afternoon. The Tallgrass Prairie fit all the requirements.
Prairie with visitor center
It was so lovely. Overcast skies allowed the temperature to stay comfortable for a long walk, and the lack of even a breeze made the songs of the meadowlarks unmistakeable around us. Fritz carried our water in his backpack as we ambled along trails that took us to places where the trail itself was the only visible sign of human presence.
We relaxed and talked about fun things and hard things. We pondered questions about faith, and about human nature, and about less weighty topics...such as whether we can judge how far 100 yards are so that we can be sure to stay at least 100 yards away from any buffalo. We pointed out the things we could see and hear, and made sure to notice. At one especially quiet moment we heard Prairie chicken hens calling and clucking. It was magical.
Today we are back to living in the midst of important things to think about and respond to, but with a better view from having taken a step away for ourselves yesterday.
On the first Sunday of Lent, the lectionary passages included the temptation Jesus faced after his baptism, as well as the Genesis story of the choice Adam and Eve made to eat from the forbidden tree. I did not know this as I walked Fritz that morning. Fritz needed to go out before I left for church. When I take him out, he is to walk with a loose lead to the area where he relieves himself, after which we go back to the house. During the two days leading up to that morning, he'd lunged toward some dried manure that fell from a tractor tire on the driveway. Sunday morning, as we walked down the driveway and back again I began talking to Fritz in an excited voice while we moved past the tempting smells. His ears perked up. His tail began to wag. He placed himself next to me and watched my face as we walked past that spot. He was so focused on me that he showed no recognition of the odor. When I began training Fritz, one statement I remember was that in order to keep your dog from chasing squirrels, you have to be more interesting than a squirrel. So I frequently took Fritz outside on lead, and while I did not have squirrels, I did have rabbits. I found I was definitely not more interesting than a rabbit. It didn't matter how exciting my voice was, how good the treats were, or how fast I could run in a game of chase, the rabbit was more fun than me. The training I have chosen to follow since then is one of playing games with him. We learn games that are fun for the dog and also help them rehearse and be rewarded for self control and engaged attention. Day after day we play together. Fritz loves the games. When we start a new one, he is highly motivated to try to understand what is required of him. His ears are up. His tail is wagging. His eyes are on me. In church as we read the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the garden, I was fresh from this experience with Fritz being able to focus his attention on me while walking past the smell of something he usually wants. Genesis 3:6 reads, "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate." Eve and Adam were aware of the fruit, always. They had been told about it ahead of time. But they had not been tested until this moment, and in this moment they were not strong enough. Something allowed them to forget the truth that all goodness comes from their creator. Their focus changed from the goodness of their creator to the desire for what they saw. In the temptation of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 4, there is a difference in focus. Jesus hears the words of the tempter, but he hears them through the lens of truth, of his goals, of his relationship with God. There is no record of his taking his attention away from God to the goodness of the temptation. Even though famished and exhausted, his eyes stay clear. His immediate response to each offer are words he knew from scripture. There isn't a sentence about him seeing the goodness of the bread, or wondering about whether the angels would save him, or being drawn to having the world at his command. I want that kind of clarity. I desire to know how to foster it in my relationship with God. Is there insight in the dog training? With Fritz, I'm still not more exciting than a rabbit, but in the videos posted by those farther into the training than I am, I can see that dogs can be called off running wildlife. Not only can they be called off, but they can even wheel around and run joyously back to their masters. Why? They have developed such a strong relationship with their person, that they know being with the person means only good things. They have practiced and been rewarded so many times that it is no longer a thought process, but an automatic response. If this person calls me, I'm going!!! In training Fritz there is a goal of rewarding increased focus in the presence of increased distraction. A rabbit is pretty high on the list of distractions. We start smaller. We play a game called, "It's your choice." I hold a good smelling treat in my closed hand. Fritz comes running and nudges my hand, licks my hand, lunges toward my hand, and my hand stays closed. If at any moment he backs away from my hand, it opens. But if he tries to get the treat, my hand closes again. He quickly learns that backing up is good. Soon he learns that sitting is even better because if he happens to sit down while he is waiting and looking at the treat, I will take the treat to his mouth and tell him to get it. Step by step we increase the difficulty of the challenge while also celebrating wildly the successes of self control, and Fritz begins to learn that the good things he wants will come to him through his relationship with me. Not only that, but it will be fun and joyful as well.
Fritz ignoring temptation
But the goal for me as his trainer also has to stay in focus. I'm not training him in order to have the heady experience of having a dog that does exactly what I tell him to do. The goal is to have a dog who is free...free to go anywhere with me off lead, because I know that the sound of his name being called will be enough to turn him around instantly from dashing in front of a car. As Jesus was free, free from needing the approval of anyone but the Father, free from distractions away from his goals, free to offer truth and love and a path to that same kind of freedom for each of us. Eve and Adam lost sight of the truth that the goodness of obedience far outranked the beauty of that fruit. We all do. But our story does not end there. Like Fritz, we aren't done learning yet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was raised well by parents who have become my friends as well as my heroes, with siblings I learn from and admire. I married young to a good man, had four children, fostered several more and adopted three of them. We homeschooled all of them at one point or another but currently they are all grown up and living on their own. We have farmed nearly all our married life and are exploring more humane and ecological methods of farming. I'm now very involved with our grandchildren, and training our goldendoodle.
Faith in God has been the constant through all of this. It informs and confounds and amazes me at every turn.