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


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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Living Life or Documenting It? Yes

One of my quirks is that I have a flat perception of time. I see things as they are now and forget that they were different before or may be different in the future. The season I'm in now will last forever. The age I am now is the age I've always been, and may or may not be my actual chronological age.

Of course that is a generalization. I know I wasn't always this age. I remember being a child, being single, having children in my house, all of those things. But all those times are still an integral part of me...I still am all those ages.

This is how it is, was, will be.

When I prepared to go to the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival a couple of weeks ago, I packed all the same rain ponchos that I have always packed and rarely needed. Rain was in the forecast.

On Friday at Stage 2, it began to rain. I had placed a rain poncho in my bag with Ben's name on it. Ben is 33. I got the poncho out of its bag and quickly realized that Ben owned this poncho when he was much much younger than 33. Maybe he owned it when he was eight. It was long enough that if I was sitting low to the ground on my Winfield chair I could just cover my knees with it. I could barely push my head through the neck opening. The tiny hood would definitely not fit. My straw hat took care of protecting my head.

How did I forget that an old rain poncho would likely have been purchased for a child?

For me the essence of Ben is the person I know now. He was always smart, thoughtful, funny, interested in details, a deep thinker. He still is. Size is peripheral in my perception of Ben. I can see it if I look for it, but I don't necessarily notice it. What I notice is that he is my son, that I enjoy him, that it would be fun to wear something he left behind. In some sense, when I am with Ben, I am with all the ages of Ben.

This evening I read a blog post from the On Being blog about capturing our lives in pictures for Facebook and Instagram. The writer talked about the value of having photographs of the memories. She wondered about the value of living out the experiences without withdrawing emotionally in order to snap and post pictures. What would happen if we chose to be completely present in the moment, and then let it pass without recording it?

It is a lot to think about.

If I want to remember what one of my children looked like at any given age, I have to remember a photograph that I have stored somewhere in a drawer or a hard drive. I don't need to see the photo. It is fixed in my memory. Laura at the age of six months is the sleepy baby just waking up with a smile, the warm yellow light from the morning sun on her face as she welcomed the day. Becca at one is reveling in a mud puddle as she escaped the grasp of my hand and quickly made for her favorite form of play that spring.  Ron at two is playing with a small red tractor on his high chair tray. James at five is wearing a new sweater and standing up straight in a Christmas program. Ben at four is holding a plastic snake and smiling a mischievous smile in a Colorado campground. Wes at two wears a navy shirt and smiles so hard it looks like it could hurt. Six or seven year old Tim flexes his biceps in front of my parents' house. Those are a few of the images.

I can't remember their faces without the photographs we took. I can remember words we spoke, feelings we experienced, the smell of my babies pressed up against my face, the feeling of small arms around my neck, the concern I felt when they were sick, the fear during emergency room visits, the wonder I experienced as I observed them develop skills and talents and interests.

That is true of Chuck as well. Sometimes I look at him and try to visualize what he looked like when we were dating. We have changed so much from 16 to 60. Except for the pictures we took, I would not be able to remember what he looked like when we were younger.

I can remember what my parents looked like even before I was born because of photographs. But my actual memories of them without photographs are primarily of conversations, emotions, events, locations. The faces are missing from the memories. What is most present to me is the essence of them, the reality of them, which comes from all of our relationship.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie, "Corina, Corina", about a father and a little girl coping with the death of their wife/mother. In the scene the little girl is frantic because she is losing the memory of what her mother looked like. Maybe that visual fades quickly for all of us, but we retain the essential memory of that person we love. In the movie, even at the end where they have moved beyond the depths of grief into joy again, they still retain the essence of the delight they had in their relationship with her.

So I wonder about this concern whether documenting our lives takes us too much out of the actual living of our lives.

Clearly the continuous documenting of our lives on facebook or instagram or twitter is a modern concept, but documenting our lives in other ways is not modern. There are prehistoric paintings in caves. As soon as there was written language, there were also historians. Before written language there were oral histories. It is human to document our lives, to believe in the significance of events, to hope to enjoy memories, and to strive to learn from mistakes.

Some people do most of their documenting through pictures. Scrapbooks also often add words and descriptions to fill out memories. I'm glad for the friends and relatives who do this. I'm so grateful for the photographs and memories.

Writing in my journals is probably my most common form of documenting life. If I open one from years ago, the intensity of the emotions of those days is instantly accessible. My writing is less a record of events and more an attempt to make sense of them. I don't know when it rained, or when we started harvest in any given year. I do know some of the things I pondered. My anger with God as well as my amazement at God are both well represented as I worked to understand God's workings in my life. Present also are more mundane and unworthy rants and drivel. My journals are proof of both my desire for God and my ability to fall so very short of who I wish to be.

Unfortunately, journals are much less shareable than photographs, because the content is so raw and personal. Ann Morrow Lindbergh chose to edit her journals and collections of correspondence so that they could be shared. I won't be doing that.

I think we are created with a need for our stories. We are created in the image of God, who also documented, or led people to document God's actions in the world, complete with stories and poetry and correspondence. Maybe documenting isn't stepping away from life as much as it is just another part of life.

The trick is to balance. We must live fully our parts of the story, and also document it in our own ways. There is no balance that is the same for everyone.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Rambling thoughts on time, loss, memory, and being present

Beginning in late spring, we fixed up our extra downstairs bedroom, repairing some water damage to the ceiling, adding a new ceiling fan, and changing the furniture to create a comfortable guest room. It is good to have a guest room on main floor for summer guests because we have only one air conditioning vent on our second floor. Upstairs guests are subject to the whims of summer weather.

Into that room went a rug purchased from my niece, a quilt bought several years ago from the MCC sale, and the bedroom furniture that was given to my Schmidt grandparents upon their wedding. The room could still use some wall decor, but I love its simplicity.

I also love remembering my grandparents every time I walk past the door of that room.

One morning about a month ago, I sat at the edge of that bed, freshly made with sheets smelling of summer sunshine. How can it be that my grandparents' bed has more permanence than my grandparents themselves? We talk so often about how we over value our possessions. People are so much more important than things, we affirm, and rightly so. But things outlast generations. If I care for those pieces of furniture well, my grandchildren could use them someday, although without any memories of the two people who used them first.

The words from Ash Wednesday seem appropriate. "From dust you came and to dust you shall return."

When we were on vacation I saw a book about how to behave when you are older than dirt. No one gets to be older than dirt. As much as I wish for another conversation or joke or song together with those whom I miss, what I have instead is their stuff, their photographs, their memories.

I got my hair cut short recently and one of the remarks I remember was that the haircut reminded that person of Cookie. And even though our lives have moved around and shifted since Cookie's death, wouldn't it be fun to have a walk with her again? Where do I find the wisdom that resided in her?

Our vacation was planned around a main event---a Colorado camp out with as many of Chuck's family as could attend at one of his father's favorite camp grounds.

Chalk Lake

Devotions together

On vacation, the sweetest part of each evening was the time when uncles and cousins brought out their guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles and basses. I hated the ten o'clock quiet rule because I could have listened all night. I wished for Chuck's dad to be there among us, leading in his favorites, showcasing the talents of the grandchildren, making sure each person had a time to shine. Of course those things still happened. The grandchildren were still showcased. Each person's individual solos and parts were celebrated and enjoyed. He taught us well.

Impromptu afternoon music (I didn't take any pics of the evening jam sessions)

We visited the Sand Dunes after the Regier family ended their campout.

It was a fun day of unexpected cool weather and hiking, As we came down from the dunes we passed a family that had a dog who looked like Harvey. I caught my breath.

The next morning, after an amazing breakfast with Tim and Michelle at Patio Pancakes, I had some time alone. I realized that woven throughout all these experiences is the reality that my Dad is also gone. It was quite a soggy morning.

At the end of that morning, when I was trying through my tears to tell Chuck my thoughts, he showed me a devotional that his mother had highlighted years ago from a book she often took along to Colorado for family trips. The devotional is too long to reprint here but I'll try to get the main points.

The writer was telling about a long float trip he had taken down a river with a guide and group. Each day they made progress down the river and then set up camp quickly, leaving time to explore the beauty, learn the history, find the treasures. There was never enough time. Each day some things were left unexplored, some history left untold, some beauty left unseen. Always there was a sense of loss as darkness ended the day's activities. Couldn't they stay just a little bit longer? Surely the time allotted was too brief.

And...always there was a sense of anticipation for what lay ahead. More river. More beauty. More history. More conversations. More experiences.

This year the shortness of time and the losses have taken a more prominent place. I'm at the evening part of the day where I wish I'd had a little more daylight to do more of what I loved. It is a discipline to continue to remind myself of the adventures ahead, the beauty yet to see, the stories I've not yet experienced. In some sense, I fight it.

I'm reading a book called "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle writes convincingly of how we circumvent our own well-being by insisting on spending most of our thought lives on the past or the future. We relive the past or fear the future instead of being fully present in the current moment. Of course, living in the present moment includes acknowledging the emotions that accompany loss. It also includes noticing the blessing of a quiet house, the cool smoothness of the wood floors under my feet, the beauty of a sleeping dog four feet away from me, the comforting regularity of my noisy wall clock marking the passing of each second, the tang and sweetness of yogurt mixed with sliced peaches for breakfast, the self care of freshly brewed coffee in my mug next to me. Being present in now also means letting the tears fall when they come, allowing the emotions to come and then fade without denying their reality or intensity, and without prolonging them beyond their natural beginnings and endings.

There are good things and hard things both to remember and to look forward to, and what I have is now. I have the goodness of now as it has been shaped by the past and as it shapes the future. I have my Grandma's bed to nap in with my grandchildren.