Category Archives: Struggle

Second Sunday in Advent

 

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Mary Did Know

Bible passages: Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:21-35

I ran across a Twitter fight last week. One side complained about the song, Mary Did You Know? The argument went something like, “Hello, have you ever read the book of Luke? Of course she knew!” The other side seemed to suggest lightening up a bit, and letting the song speak to the emotional side of Mary’s story. The whole thing took me back to Luke, wondering, “What did Mary know and when did she know it?”

Mary received information about Jesus from the angel Gabriel before she became pregnant. She also received information about Jesus from Simeon, a devout and elderly man who prophesied about Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised at 8 days old. So, when she received that information from the angel and from the old man, what was it? What did she know before and just after Jesus came? Let’s take a look.

Gabriel’s announcement (Lk. 1:26-38) Simeon’s prophecy (Lk. 2:21-35)
Mary had God’s favor. In Jesus, Simeon saw God’s salvation, promised to all people.
God was with Mary. Jesus was appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel.
Mary would have a son, though she was a virgin, and she was to name Him Jesus. Jesus would be opposed.
Jesus would be great. A sword would pierce Mary’s soul.
Jesus would be called Son of the Most High.
Jesus would have the throne of King David and reign over Israel.
Jesus’ kingdom would have no end.
Because of His miraculous conception, Jesus would be the Son of God.
Elizabeth was already pregnant.
Nothing would be impossible with God.

 

For the sake of our reflection today, what if we consider just the last thing on each list: Nothing would be impossible with God, and a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. Mary knew that she would be blessed among women, that she would be the mother of the Messiah, though she was a virgin, because nothing would impossible for God. She also knew that a sword was going to pierce her own soul, whatever that might have meant. Think about all the times those words might have echoed in her mind and heart, about how the liturgy of Mary’s life might have taken shape:

When she caught the eye rolls and pitying glances of her relatives and neighbors. “Right, she didn’t cheat on Joseph. That’s God’s boy.”

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When strangers from a foreign country showed up with gifts and worshiped her toddler son.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she had to leave her home in the middle of the night to escape violence.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she heard that, after she left, all her neighbors’ toddlers had been slaughtered.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she told her son to do something about the wedding party running out of wine.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she thought her son had lost his mind.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she saw the body she had once carried and sheltered stripped naked and brutally beaten, hanging on a cross, and she was powerless to stop it.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she first saw her son after His resurrection.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When years, and maybe decades, passed, and she was left here to live without this son, whom she loved.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

My guess is that sometimes she forgot both sentences in the everyday matters of life. Perhaps she was jolted with the memories whenever a new astounding thing happened, or when some new suffering came. She knew what was to come because of the announcement of Gabriel and the prophecy of Simeon. She could not possibly have known all the ways those things would play out, how she would be astounded by God’s goodness and power, or how she would suffer.

And that brings us to us. Though Mary was, of course, uniquely set apart in history, she was also a human woman, living after the corruption of the world and before the world is made right again. So then, we are like her. We live in the tension. We know, and we don’t know. We, too, can affirm that nothing is impossible with God. We, too, are bound to suffer. Are you aware of the tension?

I knew what I was getting into when I adopted a son from foster care. I also had no idea how that would play out, in joy or in desperate exhaustion.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

I held my friend’s hand and felt the final pulse in her wrist as she died. I knew what was coming. I could not possibly have known the pain of the grief that would come next.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

How would you write your liturgy of knowing and not knowing? When have you been astounded? When have you suffered? What would it mean to believe both sentences right now, today, on whichever side you find yourself? Will you take a few moments to fill in these blanks, as many times as you can?

I knew that                                                    .

I had no idea that                                                                                                                     .

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

As I look back over these words, I’m aware of more tension than peace. And yet, here we are in the second week of Advent, considering God’s peace in the midst of this often-dark world. Perhaps we can add some more words from Mary to our liturgies this week. Do you remember what she said to Gabriel?

I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true. (Luke 1:38, NLT)

It will take courage to add those words, but I believe we will find peace in the tension if we do. Let’s try. May God bless us as we do.

I knew that                                                    .

I had no idea that                                                                                                                     .

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.

Amen.

 

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Waiting in Advent

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Several years ago, I discovered I loved Advent. I was teaching a women’s Bible study in a church that doesn’t recognize Advent – just Christmas. Having grown up with an Advent wreath in church, and having observed Advent in my own spiritual life as an adult, it made sense to me to teach from that season in the weeks before Christmas. What I didn’t anticipate was how much it would resonate with the women in that class, and in my own heart.

Advent, as practiced by Christians through several centuries, looks little like it does in American culture today. The main focus of Advent, historically, is looking forward to the Advent of Jesus Christ that is still in the future. It is a time to recognize that this world is not as it should be, as well as the sure hope that someday it will be put right. It is to state the ache of living in bodies and families and countries that fall so far short of what we long for and need. It is to own up to the fact that, sometimes, as we feel those longings, God seems silent and far away. Finally, it is to surrender those longings in hope that someday we will see the face of Jesus, and all of those aches will be wiped away in an instant, for we will see God.

Advent is located before Christmas on the calendar because Christmas tells the story of Jesus’ first Advent, when He came as a baby after God’s people had heard nothing from Him for about 400 years. Generations of people had been born, lived, and died, without the promise of a Messiah being fulfilled, without any updates from God via prophets, with nothing but silence. Those 400 years of silent anticipation mirror our own gap and silence. Jesus said He would come back. That was over 2000 years ago. What the heck?

But you won’t find “What the heck,” or anything stronger than that, on so-called Advent calendars or Christmas cards in America in 2019. Advent calendars count down to presents, or maybe to family, both of which can be dicey, and neither of which have guarantees. Maybe, “what the heck?” would be more honest. It would be for me. As I’m writing this, my next-door neighbors are 3 days into life after the loss of their 28-year-old daughter. She had children who are 10, 8, and 6 years old. Her funeral is the day before Thanksgiving. What kind of Christmas are those children going to have this year? What kind of Advent calendar isn’t repulsive and insipid in the light of that kind of loss. What the heck?

Advent comes into that kind of sorrow and longing. Jesus comes into that kind of sorrow and longing. Just as His birth shattered the silence of God and ushered in hope the first time, His presence now, and His future coming, call us to drop our, “What the heck?” laments at His feet, to weep the tears we have locked away, and to stubbornly hope in the One who promises peace, joy, and love to people who desperately need Him.

When I taught that Bible study years ago, this tension of ache and hope brought tears and laughter to that little group of women. We found solace in the outward traditions of Advent – the wreaths, the Nativity scenes, the hymns. The tangible things helped us truly witness the joy of Christmas in our terribly imperfect world. I have seldom experienced the presence of Christ as I did in those weeks with those women.

This year, I have had a growing sense of longing to return to that joy and peace via writing about it. I’m setting about to write from the perspective of someone waiting through the ache to the hope. I don’t know which one will surface on any given day. What I know is that I want to live and write truly of both. I want to have a heart with room for joy, peace, and love this Christmas. I want to wait for Jesus to break the silence of my longing with Himself.

Would you like to join me?

I’ll be sending out something that I write, plus a suggested spiritual practice for that week, on each of the four Sundays of Advent: December 1, 8, 15, and 22, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In between those times, I’ll be posting occasional short pieces to this blog.

If you’d like to receive those emails, you can sign up here.

 

 

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Benediction

BCI sat in the drab airport, swiveling my head from side to side, checking my phone for texts every 30 seconds or so, trying to breathe deeply and relax. I wanted to see him first. We had had months apart, and then a 2-day visit that stirred all our grief. Then, two weeks of mostly silence as far as he knew; for me, two weeks of desperate advocating with those who, humanly speaking, held his future in their hands. Finally, there I sat, and then stood, and then sat again, looking for him.

I saw him a moment before he saw me, before his cousin pointed in my direction. Whatever happened in that moment is lost, because the next moment he saw me, and he ran to me. There was my boy. His backpack was bigger than he was, bouncing all over the place as he ran across that cold tile, past those lines of people coming and going, and wrapped his arms around me as I knelt to hold him tight. Have I ever been so certain or so scared as at that moment? Who was I, that a sad, scared boy would run to me for safety? What would it mean, to take my new son back home forever? What about the baggage that was bigger than he was? What about my own? I needed a benediction, an utterance, a blessing, something to help me get my bearings in this new life.

I needed the joy and ache of the last time Papa called me by my name. We were walking through his yard, talking about the weather, the lake, the plants, and those blasted tumors on his right arm about which “they” weren’t doing enough, he said. He was dying. We all knew it, and we had told him. He faced it bravely when he grasped it, and then the dementia took that knowledge away, a strange and twisted gift for his last days. All of that ached as I stepped ahead for a moment, looking down at the grass, for some odd reason noting the spongey feel of it under my foot. Papa wanted to tell me something, but my back was to him. Then he said it: “Leanne.” I wish I had a picture of my face at that moment. Papa had called me by my name. I think I must have been about 5 years old as I turned toward him. He hadn’t called me by my name in a long time. He knew who we all were that summer, but often fell into frustration referring to anyone who wasn’t present, sighing and saying, “Your mother…” and pausing for us to fill in the blank of that person’s name. But in that moment, he didn’t just know who I was. He knew my name, and he spoke in the voice I had heard since before I was born. In that moment he was the man who taught me how to fish, the one who really believed I could be an astronaut. He was the one who lent me money when it grieved me to ask, somehow in a way that reminded me who I was again – someone he believed in, someone he loved and protected, someone worth loving and protecting. There would come a time in the following months when I cried out to God, “I don’t know how to live in a world with no Papa in it!” But in this moment, a kind and strong man called my name with gentleness, and somehow that was enough. Even in the moment, my heart lifted up with joy and I thought, “Oh, a benediction!”

That uttering of my name held 40 years of loving and being loved. I didn’t expect it just then, but it washed over me and lifted me up when I was exhausted and spent – and it came from a dying man. It was like another time of grieving, 14 years earlier. Papa’s wife, my Nana, had died. Somehow God had put it in my heart to speak at her funeral. I spoke about her chicken soup, and other less pleasant remedies she used to take care of us. I spoke about how she knew us, each of us, in ways that were uncanny and sometimes annoying. I watched their faces as I spoke, and I knew that Someone much larger and more gracious than I was speaking. I saw the wonder, and felt it, as we laughed in the middle of our loss. And then it was time to sit down. I said, “Amen,” and walked down the steps to the front pew. I barely knew what had happened, and had just started to wonder at it, when my brother put his arm around me. “That was the best speech I ever heard in my life.” My brother said that. Did I know, until that moment, how much I wanted him to think well of me? Did I know, until that moment, how much he loved me? I don’t think I did. He spoke the benediction to my eulogy, though I was the only one who heard it.

I don’t know what benediction may or may not have been spoken in the dreary airport that day last October. I’m not sure if what I’m about to write actually happened, or if I whispered it in my head. Somehow, the girl Papa called, “Leanne,” the woman Travis held at Nana’s funeral, took the hand of a little boy in an airport, and said, “C’mon, let’s go home.” Amen.

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Disrupted

DisruptedThis morning, a cardinal caught my eye as I stood looking into my backyard.  I had been standing there, sort of numb, vaguely grateful for the sunshine and green of the yard, when the red flash focused my attention. As I watched the cardinal, I noticed a robin, a blue jay, a woodpecker, two squirrels, two more male cardinals, and, finally, a female cardinal — perhaps the reason the three males started fighting over the same 100 square feet of yard. My numb gratitude had been mixed with a much-less-than-grateful lament: “WHY can’t this dog just GO???” I would have missed a lot if my gaze hadn’t been disrupted.

I’ve been thinking about that word, “disrupted,” for a couple weeks now. Not long ago a friend described my decision to adopt BC as agreeing for my life to be disrupted. This is a friend who “gets it,” not one who tosses around platitudes, so I was bemused by her choice of words. I could almost feel my head jerk back from it; I’m pretty sure I shook my head, “no,” as I re-read it. This change to my life, this boy literally brought to my door, isn’t a disruption. He is a gift. It’s true, I sleep a lot less and I struggle a lot more. Most days I find it preposterous that anyone is given a child to raise. Still, my son is like the flash of red this morning. My heart and mind notice new things now. His life holds truth and beauty that I would hate to have missed. His battles, so often poorly chosen, expose my own sin and brokenness. The moments when he lets himself trust and relax show me more about God’s perfect and faithful love — into which we both can trust and relax — than I’ve ever seen. My son does not complete my life. That is a burden no child is meant to bear. He is a gift, a flash of red across what I thought I knew of God and life. I love him. Amen.

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Hope

cross1Today is Easter.  I’m celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, believing that it actually happened and that it changes everything.  I’m also aware that sometimes it feels more like that Saturday, when every human being thought Jesus was dead, and nothing seemed certain.  It’s a strange mix for this glorious day.

Last year, Easter was exuberant and joyful, loud even, as my family rejoiced that a baby we thought had been lost was very much alive.  This year, a child I love is facing loss he hasn’t even imagined yet, and I’m desperately hoping for years of resurrection for his heart and mind.  This morning, I took B.C., my foster son, to be with part of his biological family for Easter.  He’ll have a great time, and we’ll have a great time later at one of my family’s celebrations.  Then we’ll come home and probably deal with what seems like the confusing transition between families for him.  Tomorrow we’ll head back into our normal routine of school and work, bath time and reading stories, and every strategy known to boy for avoiding brushing one’s teeth.

Even as we do our normal daily things, slow movement is happening with B.C.’s “case.”  Given the system, it could all turn out very differently than it appears now, but at least for now it looks like B.C. will end up with a new home with loving, safe, fun, stable family members, several hundred miles from here.  I already love his family members — if we were neighbors, I think we’d be great friends.  And yet…there’s always this “and yet”…I know that for B.C. to grow to be a part of that family, he will have to endure the shock of knowing he’s not going back to his old home.  In addition to that, he won’t be staying in this home, where he has seemed to come to feel safe and secure.  There will have to be these losses.  Death — of what he knows and thinks and experiences every day — will precede resurrection.

The hopeful part of all of this is that I believe, that I know, that death always does precede resurrection.  To wish away the loss for B.C. would be to wish away the coming good of life with two loving parents, and siblings, and dogs, plus an ongoing connection with his extended family, and…maybe…someday…the opportunity for healing reconnection with his biological parents.  The anguished part recoils from seeing someone I love so much suffer so much.  I’ve only been a parent for 6 months tomorrow, but this week I’ve wondered, how did Mary stand there and watch her Son hang there and suffer and die?  How did God the Father watch His Son hang there and suffer and die?  There is a dread of the loss that’s coming that completely takes my breath away.  Most days it feels like Saturday more than Easter Sunday.

And yet…there’s a deeper “and  yet”…what Saturday felt like to Mary, and John, and Peter, and all the rest, what “Saturday” feels like to me and what it will feel like to B.C., perhaps what it feels like to you if this is a somber Easter — all of that is the middle of the story.  There are glimpses of a better end, of a glorious resurrection.  Jesus said He would rise on the third day.  Today, when I took B.C. to his family, one I’d never met hugged me, kissed my cheek, and said, “Thank you for taking care of my nephew.”  He’s the dad of the one who may be B.C.’s second father.  There is a sense of promise to the whole thing, and it takes my breath away just as much as the dread, if I pay attention to the reasons to hope.  I don’t always choose rightly, but today I choose the promise.  Amen.

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A Heart Cut in Two

Foil covered heartI’ve been away from here for a while, for many reasons, one of which is that I became a foster parent four months ago. B.C. (not his real initials) came to live here on October 1st last year. He was four then and he’s five now. There is much to write about those four months, and about every day of this strange journey of foster parenting. Tonight, though, I keep thinking about B.C.’s heart — his red-foil-covered chocolate Valentine heart.

Last week, B.C. received an early Valentine’s Day gift that was supposed to hold seven small Nestle Crunch hearts. Much to his delight, it held eight! He announced that I should have the eighth heart, and stuck to his guns even when I reminded him I have a “new food plan” that means I won’t eat that chocolate heart for three weeks. I figured his enthusiasm would fade as that heart sat on the counter for a few days.

Last night, B.C. suddenly asked, “Can I give that chocolate to my mom?”

“Sure you can,” I said.

“I want to unwrap it, cut the chocolate in half, and then put the wrapper back on so you can have half and my Mommy can have half.” After a short encouragement to go ahead and give his mom the chocolate, he said, “I want you to have half because you’re so nice to me,” with a little quiver in his voice.

I held B.C. close and told him what a sweet, sweet boy he is.  The whole exchange took only moments.  This morning, he gave in to his desire to eat that chocolate once he knew he could buy his mom another Valentine.  Still, I keep going back to those moments last night. Is there a better picture of what this little boy must endure all the time? His heart is cut in half, or more likely in all kinds of pieces, without any smooth edges. I love him; my family and friends love him. And yet, as helpful as we hope that love is, it also adds to B.C.’s confusion, ambivalence, pain, and struggle. He likes living here and he aches to go home. I don’t know what to do except to ache with him.

Father, You know this little boy’s heart — every hurting, wounded piece, every delighted, singing-for-joy piece. Have mercy. Please protect and hold close and heal. Thy will be done. Oh, God, have mercy!

If you are one who prays, please pray for B.C. today.

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The Air I Breathe, Part II

When I ended the first post about my scuba certification experience, I meant what I said about scuba being good therapy for control freaks.  The depth of my vain attempts to control things and people beyond me showed up in my response to the whole process, and in the anxiety stirred in my heart when those attempts failed.  This post, originally planned to follow that first one by just a few days, was to tell the rest of the scuba story and explore those issues of control and anxiety some more.  In the meantime, though, sorrow and grief invaded the life of a friend, and all words seemed petty and inadequate.  Control was shown, again, to be an illusion, indeed.

Since April, one friend’s cancer recurred and another’s brain tumor was diagnosed.  One friend lost her step-mother; another, her son.  A treasured friend moved across the country.  Another friend’s mother suffered a massive heart attack.  A client lost a spouse.  A former client died.  And, a baby I love seemed set to be born many weeks too soon.  What is there to do, and how is one to be, in the face of this broken world, with all its pain and loss?  Perhaps just breathe in, breathe out, and do the next thing, trusting the One who supplies the air and everything else the ones I love and I need.

The second try at the pool part of my scuba training went much better than the first.  Many people had empathized with my anxiety from the first try, and some who were already divers gave me very helpful suggestions for both getting to the bottom of the pool and passing the underwater, hold-your-breath swim test.  In the end, I passed and moved on to the open water dive section of certification.  Two things stick out from that second day in the pool.

The first occurred, oddly enough, in the shallow end, where I’d had no trouble before.  One of the skills we practiced as a group was taking off our buoyancy compensators (BC’s) and then putting them back on, while continuing to breathe through our regulators.  As soon as I took off my BC, I began to tip over, as though I was lying down on my side on the bottom of the pool.  With no conscious thought, I began to thrash around wildly, trying to keep upright and get back to putting on my BC.  When conscious thought did kick in, it was, “I bet I look like a dying roach from above!”  That was funny, but I was too scared to laugh in my regulator, so I just continued to flail around and struggle until I strapped the BC on and settled back down on my knees on the bottom of the poo.  As I watched the others practice the skill, I realized that the best  thing would have been to fall on over to my side, and then calmly push myself off the bottom and go about finishing the skill.  All that flailing was a waste of energy, and just got in the way of what I was there to do, besides making me look like I’d encountered a big can of Raid.

One thing I’d dreaded about the return to the pool was the underwater swim test.  We had to swim 50 feet underwater without coming up for air.  I’d failed the last time, too spent from all the panic and struggle, and out of shape into the bargain.   This time I had two plans.  I had realized that part of the lesson of the failure was in being reminded of my dependence on God for everything.  So, I planned to sing these lyrics in my head as I swam:

This is the air I breathe.
This is the air I breathe.
Your Holy Presence,
Living in me.     (from Breathe, by Marie Barnett)

My second strategy was to think of Travis and Jessica, my brother and sister-in-law, who were my chief scuba encouragers and the ones so excited for me to dive with whale sharks when I visited them.  So, with each stroke toward 50 feet, I could think each of their names and distract myself from my lack of oxygen.

As it turned out, I sang the song in my head and pushed off into the 50 feet, only to find myself floating to the surface less than halfway through.  I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” dove back down, and kicked hard to the wall — all strategies out the window.  That’s probably where most of my strategies belong.

I felt exhilarated and relieved to have passed the pool section.  Thinking back on that day, I continue to see that I often struggle against the wrong things, and that all my planning and strategizing is most often beside the point.  Learning to relax, trust the One is is in control, and just do the next thing doesn’t come any more naturally to me than breathing underwater.  Jesus calls me to those things, though, in calling me to Himself.  He really is the air I breathe.  Amen.

To be continued…

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