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. 






Friday, January 01, 2016

Chaff

Matthew 3:1-12 was one of the advent readings in the devotional book I'm using. This is the story of John the Baptist and his ministry before Jesus came to him for baptism. When I read it this year several things caught my attention.

John's main message was repentance in preparation for coming judgement.

Separating wheat from chaff is one of the ways John describes judgement.

John also uses the imagery of unquenchable fire.

The last two verses read like this:
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

On first reading, I saw the separating of wheat from chaff as analogous to separating good people from bad. I know that image is in other places in scripture, and it is even in the verses right before these ones I quoted. I fight with that image of some being good and others being bad, and with the idea that God is eager to throw the bad into an unquenchable fire. That sense of eagerness to get rid of bad people is abhorrent to me, perhaps because I've been forced to see my own failures. I don't want God to be eager to send me into that fire. 

As I pondered the wheat and chaff and the winnowing and the fire, I began to see this passage as one of mercy and hope more than a passage of condemnation.

I have a vase of cut wheat decorating my home. The wheat still looks the same as it did in the field. It is beautiful, but cannot be planted or used for food in its current form. It must be threshed, the chaff disposed of, and the wheat gathered.



Every kernel on every stalk is surrounded by chaff. The wheat is the essential wholesome part, the part that holds life and hope and promise. Only as the chaff falls away does the life and hope and promise find expression. 

Even though I collected this wheat years ago, none of the chaff has fallen off the wheat on its own. Without some process of separation, the wheat remains in the chaff.

Like the wheat, each of us is a creation of God with the potential for life and growth and nourishment. The wheat is our essence, our truest self, which is hidden by chaff. Like wheat, we must be freed from chaff in order to be gathered to be used for planting or for food. John says that the one who comes after him will gather his wheat into the barn, and the chaff he will burn.



I chose this single head of wheat to see what it would take to separate the chaff from the wheat. Rubbing it gently between my hands caused the head to release all of the chaff and grain. Most of the grain was now freed of chaff, and I pulled it away to one side. Then I sorted through the chaff, pressing each hull to see if it was empty. Some still held on to grain and I used more force, even prying some chaff off with my fingernails.  Now I had an empty stalk, a pile of loose chaff, and twenty-eight grains of wheat.



Chaff may symbolize many things. Chaff is whatever clings to us and keeps us from being life and hope and nourishment to the world. So many things can do that. 

Certainly our ability to be or do wrong is one of them.  Things as small as unwarranted harshness to things as great as racism all hinder the hope and promise of the grain. 

Then there are the hurts we carry. Some of us carry the pain and anxiety we live with as a result of traumas we've lived through. 

We may have addictions which have become more entrenched from being shrouded in shame. 

We have attitudes and biases we don't even recognize. 

All of this and more is the chaff, from which we desire release. None of us wants to continue to be bound by these things. We want to be free and whole.  John says the one who comes after him will release us from the chaff and gather us into the granary.

There is still more imagery that I wonder about.

When looking at the beauty of a ripe wheat field it is the chaff that draws my eyes. The vase of wheat is much more beautiful than a bowl full of grain. The chaff has a vital role in protecting the grain while it forms and matures. Is there any lesson here? Is there chaff in our lives that once served an essential purpose but now must be left behind?

Most of the chaff on my stalk of wheat fell away easily but some required firm pressure and persistent agitation to loosen it. So with my life some things seem relatively easy to change while others stubbornly cling.

The wheat does not choose the time of the threshing. 

Sometimes our threshing is hard. Maybe we are unaware of what needs to be released, or maybe we are too ashamed, or maybe unwilling. We can deny that we have chaff, pretend we have things together, fear letting people in to the truth that we do have messes in our lives. We can hide that truth even from ourselves.

It isn't coincidental that John preached repentance, or that the people who came to be baptized also offered confession. The more we hide our failures, the more powerful and devastating they become. Truth telling and turning away from our chaff toward God is essential in freeing the life and hope that God has placed within us.

The wheat is not threshed grain by grain, but together. The threshing stone rolls over all of it.  So often as one person is honest about the parts of their lives that feel most lonely or vulnerable, others hear themselves in the story. The wholeness can be found as we discover we are not alone. As we are released from our chaff, it also releases others from theirs. There is a relief in being understood, in knowing that others carry hurt too, that healing is found in working through it together. Maybe confession is less about shame and sin and more about truth telling and wholeness. Because it is the truth that sets us free, isn't it?

Won't it be grand to be released from those things, released as completely as the wheat is freed from chaff that has been burned in unquenchable fire!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

This morning,

This week is the anniversary of our last week with Dad. Today is the anniversary of the day Harvey ran out into the road and to his death. My mind is filled with images of Dad, both of the months and years before his death, and of that intense week of holding each other while we cared for him. And even though it seems silly and trivial in comparison and in impact, I also miss the way Harvey leaned his bulk against me every morning as he greeted me for the day.

Yesterday was the terrorist attacks in Paris. This last week had the protests at Missouri University. Every day contains news of death, of fleeing homelands, of human trafficking, of racism. There are so many people hurting in so many ways.  

Lighting my candle and repeating my prayers seems so small.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

My grandchildren were here yesterday. We went outside to play. The boys saw a rabbit run across the yard in front of the barn and went to investigate.

Chuck keeps the A-houses that need repairs in a row in front of the barn. For those of you unfamiliar with our farm, the A-houses are the right size for one sow and her litter. During the seasons when their litters are being born, the A-houses are arranged in yards surrounded by dirt and divided by hot wires. The sows are given straw for nesting and their babies are born and raised there until it is time for weaning...about 2 months.

Luke, the 7 year old, climbed up on top of the first A-house to try to see where the rabbit had gone. Aaron, who is tall for a 4 year old but not quite tall enough, tried and failed to climb up beside his brother. Luke called to Aaron and reached out his hands. Aaron reached up. Between the pulling from the older and the scrambling from the younger, Aaron easily made it up.

The search for the rabbit was soon abandoned, but that row of A-houses was now an obstacle course to be conquered. The boys would jump down from one. Luke would climb up the next one, stop and turn, and reach down his hands to his brother. Aaron would reach up and scramble, and then they would both be up on top just for a moment before repeating the process on the next one over.

I wish I had pictures of them grasping hands and pulling up.

Sometime during the second or third trip back and forth through the row, Aaron scrambled up by himself alongside Luke. He'd watched enough and figured out how to use speed and leverage, and done something he could not do before. His face at that moment showed a mix of surprise, joy, and pride in his accomplishment. The game changed at that moment to a game of equals rather than helping.

I wish I had a picture of him in that moment, hands outspread, joy and awe on his face.

I'm not sure what the lesson is in this but it helps me somehow on this day of horrible news events to keep those mental pictures in my mind. 

The hands grasping hands to help one another. 

The delight in becoming able to fend for oneself without help. 

The joy of playing hard as equals.