Thursday, April 24, 2008
My husband put himself through college with an athletic scholarship as an offensive lineman for the SMU Mustangs ever so many years ago. He often uses football analogies to describe life and growth and the human condition and our relationship with God.
One of his favorite phrases is this one, “You are only as good as your last play.” By which he means, of course, that one can have played a powerful game two or three weeks before, or even earlier in the game, but the only thing on the minds of the fans is how good was he on the last play. Past glory really means very little compared to the present need to win the game going on.
How true: it is not particularly helpful to “rest on our laurels,” to use a very old-fashioned phrase. So what if five or ten or fifteen years ago, such and such was accomplished or some award received? What are you doing now? Such an understanding helps to keep us in the present, working on keeping skills sharp, and integrity intact.
However, in case you hadn't noticed, there is also a downside to this. It means a lot of pressure to perform, and perform NOW. And everyone has an off day, or off week, or off month, or off season, or even an off year. Does that mean such people should be written off? What if God doesn't jump to our insistence on immediate response? Do we write God off?
Since my husband and I are both clergy, we find this is true in church life. Many people come to God and demand, “What have you done for me TODAY?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that yesterday there was unusual blessing and the day before I became especially aware of the glory of the Presence of God, and last year I began to really understand the gift of reconciliation but . . . what have you done TODAY?”
When this happens, demandingness replaces gratefulness. Demandingness is that part of us that says, “I want what I want and I want it now and I don't care if you are inconvenienced or have to compromise yourself or leave someone else behind, get it NOW.”
Oh, this one hurts. I wonder how many times I've prayed to God and implored, “C'mon God—I need this NOW. Don't make me wait.” How many times have I pushed someone to get what I want on my time frame, no matter what the cost to them. But in waiting, much of our character gets formed. In waiting, I learn real patience—the openhanded stance that no longer insists on my own way but watches grace move in. In waiting, I learn not to take vengeance on others because I stop long enough to see how destructive this is to my soul. In waiting, I give others a chance to grow, to learn new skills, to bloom at their own pace. In waiting, I see how lovely it is to think of others as more important than myself. In waiting, I sit still long enough to see the power of the moment. In waiting, I have time to remember past blessings and prepare myself for the future ones. So God, what have you done for me NOW? You've taught me to wait.
Now, that's worth waiting for!
Who among us has never done something that is regretted later? Who has never said an unkind word about someone or to someone? Who has never gossiped or spread untrue rumors? Who has never deliberately inflicted hurt or pain on another in a moment of high emotion? Who has not made some life choices that turned out in retrospect to be destructive to one person or another? Who has not violated written or unwritten moral codes at one point?
Would that all could live without some sorrow over the past. Is it possible to do that?
Yes and no. It is possible if the sorrow leads to greater illumination about ourselves. It is not possible if the sorrow only leads to blaming others for those choices made.
It's the human tendency to want to blame others. No one has to teach a child this—they seem to figure it out all on their own. “But Mom, he/she started it!” That's the universal mantra of young children. It's someone else's fault. They started it—so that relieves me of any responsibility to stop it or return good for evil. They started it, so I get to continue it. They started it and I continue it and the cycle just keeps going on and on and on. Blaming never, ever leads to self-illumination. That is one fact of life we can all hang our hats on. It just perpetuates the problem.
But what happens when we make the hard effort to stop the blaming and seek to shed some light on ourselves instead? This doesn't mean going into some “woe is me” pity party. It does mean recognizing that all of us make mistakes, some major with perhaps worldwide repercussions, some minor that may only affect a small circle. But we all make them. All of us. No one gets excluded from this one.
In that recognition, and in the time taken to look carefully at ourselves, we are invited to a place of real liberation. Blaming others leaves us helpless, for all circumstances are the fault of others and we can't do anything about it. But a careful look at our own mistakes gives us the chance to learn and gain strength and confidence for the future.
It's not easy to do this. It is often painful to say, “Wow, I really blew that one. I can't believe I did that, or acted like that or said that.” Sometimes the pain seems too much to bear, and we want to retreat to blaming others to take the pressure off. But if we go there, and if we go there knowing that God both forgives and redeems—God lets it go and changes it to something far better—then we come out with renewed hope.
I say it often that one of my favorite verses in the Bible is from the very, very sad book of Lamentations where the prophet, after agonizing over all the bad things happening ends up saying, “God's mercies are new every morning.” I love that phrase, “new every morning.” It gives me hope. It reminds me that in the eyes of God, it all gets wiped clean. When I can learn about myself from that “wiped clean” experience, I can then turn around and offer to others the option of also being “wiped clean.”
As my congregation often hears from me, the “grand do-over” is always an option for us Christians. And in the “do-over,” that sorrow and regret over past mistakes turns to future hope and thanksgiving. This is the only way I know to live without sorrow over the past: face it, learn from it, stop blaming others, and receive the “do-over” grace that God keeps offering.
Thank you, Jesus.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Supermarkets are truly amazing places to shop. There is almost nothing of daily need that can’t be found there and occasionally, one can even find food.
On a recent, fact-finding shopping trip, I netted some of the following items:
· Fresh Fruit: blackberries, strawberries, oranges, and lemons.
· Fresh Bread: a whole grain, heavy and rich loaf.
· Fresh Cheese: a wedge of flavorful Jarlsberg.
· Fresh Vegetables: several ears of corn, still in the husk, a potato, some fresh basil
I also picked up:
· A can of potato chips, made from reconstituted potato flakes and fake cheese flavoring.
· A container of “breakfast orange drink” and “lemonade drink mix.”
· A box of corn flakes, made from cooked, mashed, extruded corn and preservatives.
· A package of strawberry sponge cakes, with no strawberries actually listed in the ingredients.
· An aerosol can of spray on cheese food.
Quite a bit of difference between these two lists, isn’t there? One provides freshness, richness of flavor and the reality that in a few days, if this food is not all consumed, it will all go bad. Mold will grow, bread will get stale, other signs of aging will occur. Either eat it fresh or toss it. It’s only good immediately. Frequent grocery shopping is necessary to feast on such things.
The items in the other list would probably still be consumable even after a nuclear blast. Full of preservatives, very little actual real food in there, they could provide calories in an emergency. But these things are far, far removed from the power and freshness of the things in the first list.
Our spiritual lives aren’t a whole lot different from these two shopping lists. We can have a vital, immediate relationship with God that must be renewed frequently with times of worship, learning, helping others with sacrificial service and seeing the mundane things of our lives turned into acts of holiness. Or, we can have a second-hand experience, with the real encounter with a living and often terrifying God replaced by the occasional thought about God, maybe even wandering into a church once in a while, but not much else. The rest of life is totally separate from any possibility of transformation into hope and holiness.
In both cases, we will still live. We can work, play, rest, and do necessary chores. But those who are vitally engaged with God will be able to do these things with the same burst of flavor that comes from eating an ear of corn picked moment before cooking. Those who go for the second hand experience can still get nutrients from a box of mashed, cooked, extruded, boxed and preserved corn flakes—but the deep joy and transformative nature has been lost.
Just something to think about—on your next trip to the grocery store and the next opportunity to truly encounter the living, loving and powerful God of the universe.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
“Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.” This is the phrase I memorized: “I am sorry. I do not speak French.”
I said this many times on my recent trip to France. For the most part, my apology did not bring about a sympathetic response. French people expect people to speak French. Period. And while many do speak English, there was an expectation that I would have also sought to learn their language.
I did give myself a quick crash course before I went, but it was not enough to even carry on a basic conversation. I could read some of it, and occasionally understand a bit, but that was about it.
We are fortunate, of course, that English is the international language of commerce, so that makes it easier to get by without the bother of learning the words of another. But I also became even more fully aware that our language insularity does not speak particularly well of us as a nation.
Two weeks ago, I was celebrating my oldest son’s birthday with a group of international friends he has made at the school he is attending near Paris. Gathered in one room were an Australian (married to a Dutchman who couldn’t come), two Spaniards, one German, one Colombian, two Americans, and three from France. We conversed in English since that was the one common language.
There were also seven children under the age of 2 ½ there, and I asked each parent what languages they were teaching their children. The Spaniards speak primary to their sons in Catalan, a Romance language with some French characteristics and one of the official languages of Spain, and also expect them to speak Spanish. They do not speak English to them. The French couple speak only in French to their children. They would like for him to learn English someday, but do not wish to be the ones who teach it to them. The Australian-Dutch couple speak primarily in English to their daughter, with some Dutch thrown in, but do not expect her to be fluent in Dutch. The American-Colombian couple speak primarily in Spanish to their children (my grandchildren), and expect that to be the first language, but with considerable facility in English.
All this leads me to thinking about the whole issue of words and communication and languages and misunderstandings. I know that even if we speak the same language, we may not understand each other at all. As one who has spent possibly way too many years in school, studying theology and things of God, it is easy for me to throw around words like, “sanctification, ecclesiology, redemption, proclamation, hamartology, and supralapsarianism” and not realize these words are rarely, if ever, used in everyday conversation. Every person with specialized work also develops a specialized vocabulary which may also sound incomprehensible to those on the outside.
Then I look to the words of Jesus and find that he spoke in the common language and used the words that everyone knew to help them bridge the gap between their lives and the joy of intimate connection with God. Living and working in a farming and ranching world, he reminded them that he’s a good shepherd, and his sheep respond to his loving voice. As did farmers, Jesus willingly scattered the seed of the kingdom of God everywhere—knowing, just as those who work the ground for a living know, that not every place would be immediately receptive and that some seed would fed the birds rather than growing into new plants that would feed the people. But that didn’t stop him from spreading it out everywhere. He reminded people that the things we experience daily can serve as doorways to the heavenly places, should we chose to hear the invitation to enter in.
Yet as I write this, I also know that as we enter into deeper intimacy with God that we must also learn to see and speak differently. We must learn to find the holy and sacred in the common things. We must learn the language of prayer, of worship, of radical generosity and service, and these words and concepts do not come easily to most of us.
With all this, I believe there is a call on all of us to expand our vocabularies and our language abilities. We need to learn the languages of others, and the language of God. By so doing, we open ourselves to far deeper experiences and find ourselves amazingly enriched. It’s worth the effort.
Monday, April 07, 2008
This will be the last post for this trip. Tomorrow is my last day here, and I will be doing "kid duty" again as Adriana needs to go back to Paris to finish getting her travel visa. Then it is time to pack. We will leave very early Wednesday morning so I can catch my plane.
For the first time today, I cared for Joshua without his parents present. After the first few bad moments were over, we settled in for a lovely day. A friend of Adriana's, Jackie, and her six month old daughter, came to help so we'd have two pairs of hands for three children, especially with the situation with the steep stairs.
Joshua decided to crown himself with a halo, and was loving, fun, personable and full of hugs for his granny. What a relief! We had all been concerned because he had not wanted to stay with me before, but we probably should have just pushed the issue last week. But he made up for it today and gave me a full week of hugs in this sweet day. Samuel, on the other hand, this placid, easy baby, showed his other colors. Very charming, of course, but determined to have the time in Granny's arms that I think he now sees as his right. Adriana will now get the challenge of "unspoiling" him after I leave.
I really don't know how Adriana does it. Even with two of us, we were pretty busy, and didn't try to do anything else except a couple of loads of laundry. Just focused on the children. Adriana, on the other hand, would have done all that, and fixed a three course meal for lunch in the middle of it. Without an extra pair of hands.
She did enjoy her day away, however, and I'm glad she got it. One last gift to her.
And speaking of one last gift: I arose very early this morning because I wanted to make that one final trek into the village for the fresh crossaints--speaking of being spoiled. After dressing, I got ready to go outside and saw that everything was covered with about two inches of snow. What beauty. The gorgeous red tulips that grace the entry to the farmhouse, and which bloomed just for Jonathan on his birthday, were each wore a head dress of white lace. As I walked toward town, with the sky slowly lightening, a few flakes drifted gently down. The beautiful green spaces received their covering of lace as gracefully as though they were brides waiting for their grooms.
I got to the village before the bakery opened, so just walked around a bit in the deep silence. No one really moving yet. I was the first one at the bakery, and had watched the bread I bought be removed from the oven just a few minutes before. Oh my--Jackie and I made a simple lunch of one of the baguettes and some good cheese and we both reveled in the rich flavor and chewy texture of such a gift.
One funny note from the morning. As you may have guessed as you read these posts, I made keeping up with the laundry here and dealing with the persistent flooding from the machine my mission. Just that alone can be a constant job. Anyway, at one point this morning, I was upstairs with Samuel and Joshua was down with Jackie. He stared to get a little uncomfortable and said, "Granny?" So Jackie told him I was here but with Samuel and that she'd take him to find me. Well, he made a beeline for the laundry room and opened the door looking for me--he knows exactly where Granny hangs out here!
Well, it's time to sign off now. Thanks for taking this trip to France with me. I've been blessed beyond words. Plus the laundry got done for this one day.
Sunday, April 06, 2008
Parts of the service were printed in English and German, but it wasn't all that easy to follow even so. During the reading of the Gospel, when the congregants were standing, three younger people in front of us abruptly sat down, began consulting their tour map of Paris, starting whispering to each other and then walked out.
Friday, April 04, 2008
There is much more real food in French grocery stores than American ones. Far less space devoted to "pretend food"--highly processed items and dog and cat food--and far more devoted to real, fresh, nutrient laden food. So much healthier for all.
The cottage has three levels. On the first level is the kitchen, dining and a step down living area, along with a tiny toilet room and tiny laundry room. The living area looks over a small patio which itself looks over a rapidly flowing river, the River Loing. On the other side of the river is a lovely green area, home to a number of horses. A very, very steep flight of stairs leads to the upstairs hall. An immediate left at the top of the stairs leads to one bedroom which has a shower room off it. From that room, another very scary set of steps (wide open to below--all the way to the ground floor) winds to a loft where Jonathan's study is--and where I'm writing this note. Going down the hallway, there is a toilet room on the right followed by the only closet in the house. On the left is the amazingly spacious bathroom, and then there is the other bedroom, which the children and I share.
It's such joy to be here, and much hard work. I estimate I climbed those treacherous stairs here at least 50 times yesterday. With everything so small and somewhat inconvenient (to these spoiled eyes of the pampered citizen of the US), everything takes longer. This morning, all three of us, Jonathan, Adriana and I, were in the tiny kitchen getting breakfast ready and cleaning up--that in a floor space 2 1/2 feet wide by five feet long. Joshua was sitting in the hallway just outside it playing with a piece of kitchen equipment. Samuel back down for his morning nap by then. Later today, Jonathan plans to take Joshua for a bike ride and I will go for a long walk in one of the many walking trails in the forest around here. Am looking forward to it. If Adriana feels like it, we'll put Samuel in the stroller and take him too. Initial roads into the forest are paved, and we can stay on them and give him a good outing. I enjoy being around Jonathan and Adriana. In the midst of child chaos, they keep their affection for one another and support one another with necessary disciplinary issues, pretty frequent in Joshua who is testing every single boundary. Many "sits" a day in the time out chair for him, but they are consistent and it is paying off.
He is still having trouble adjusting to me. Although he likes to play with me, he has a memory that my presence means his parents are going to disappear for a while, and he is not happy about that. Probably the only time I'll have them alone is a couple of days before I leave as Jonathan and Adriana need to go to Paris to deal with immigration issues. A never ending battle for them.
As I may have written earlier, Jonathan studies little but stays at the top of his class. This is like a vacation to him, and when he runs short of funds, he picks up some consulting work to bring in some income. They live fully, yet frugally where possessions are concerned. They indulge in the healthiest and freshest of food, and Jonathan has become quite an accomplished cook. Anyway, that is the news from France this Sunday morning. I am finishing this note with Samuel now in my lap. He woke early and I am insisting that Adriana resume her nap while I care for him. He's the sweetest baby--truly Jonathan almost reincarnated. Rarely cries, full of huge smiles when he sees anyone, loves to be held and cuddled.