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Archive for November, 2008

Not to beat a dead horse, but it has happened again.  Thanksgiving thieves have struck. 

Only, this time it wasn’t us.  A young couple, son and daughter-in-law of friends at church, came home yesterday from work to find their place had been robbed and many things taken.  The young wife is seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child.

They will recover, they will get past this, they will have a new baby in a couple of months, and life will move on. 

But, now, this robbery becomes part of their story.  For them, what will be the title of this chapter?

I can’t say what design this dark thread will weave in this pair’s life.  But it has made me ponder our own Thanksgiving thieves–again–and try–again–to sort out the depth that dark thread lends to our life picture. 

It is ironic that the major thefts of our family’s possessions both occurred at Thanksgiving time.  It was almost as if we were being challenged:  “Are you REALLY thankful?  How thankful ARE you?  Can you be thankful when all is not roses and sunshine?”  I can’t honestly say the first words out of my lips in either case were “Thank you, Lord!”  But, with the perspective of time (not necessarily weeks or months–thankfully, only hours), there is the ability to be “thankful in spite of.” 

However, there is still the temptation for that gratitude to be relative in nature.  Thieves only took “stuff”, not personal items.  But what if they’d stolen that one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry that had belonged to my mother-in-law?  Or what if they had ransacked and destroyed photo albums or broken my “honeymoon lamp”?  What if, for some reason, insurance had not covered our losses and we had had to replace everything out of our own pockets?  What if, to cover up their tracks, they had set our house on fire and every shred of our external lives had been reduced to ashes?  What if the “in spite of”, the “..but…” from which we can derive a degree of comfort just wasn’t big enough to do the job this time?

If we stop at the “…but…”, we are still not in all that great a place when loss strikes.  We must go on to one better:  “…but God…” During this Thanksgiving week, we are standing by in prayer while a work colleague and his dear family tenderly care for a mother who is, with every breath, closer to losing her earthly battle with cancer.  It seems that every Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday for the past several years has found us making at least one funeral home visit.  Tragedies don’t check the calendar before striking.  So, in the midst of celebrations and rejoicings at holidays, we are struck with the cold, hard realities of the thefts of love and life.  They would be unbearable except for that:  “…but God…”

We are weak, but He is strong.  We lose stuff, but He is enough.  Loved ones leave us, but He has promised never to leave us or forsake us.  The “thieves” can never take enough away from us to diminish God or His goodness in our lives.  Indeed, it is so often at that very space where we have lost most largely that God comes with an even larger measure of His unbounded love and compassion and provision for our every need.

If we could turn back the clocks and be the deciders of what happens to us, would we program in the robberies and the losses?  Not likely, given our human tendency for pain avoidance.  But, if these must come, we are abundantly blessed to know we are not alone and our aid in those moments is from the Hands of one who experienced total loss that we might know total gain.

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Thankful for Thieves

Thanksgiving season thieves gave us major holiday gifts on two different years of our lives.

The first time it happened was Thanksgiving 1992.  I was 7 months pregnant for Zach.  Gabe was 8 1/2 and Ellen was 7 years old.  We were planning to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with Michael’s folks in Michigan.  Then, on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, Michael was a little late getting home from his evening of work at the Taylor U. library.  Finally, just about the time I was beginning to worry, he called to say he’d gone out to get in the car to come home and had found no car.  Police figured that our 1986 Monte Carlo had been broken into and had been taken as part of local gang activity.  The vehicle was later recovered–abandoned, partially stripped of some valuable parts, and smashed up a bit.  Lacking our own wheels, we didn’t go to Michigan for Thanksgiving after all.  We were graciously loaned a vehicle by one of Michael’s co-workers and her husband, and we spent the last half of Thanksgiving break car shopping.  We ended up buying one the best vehicles we ever owned–a rose-colored (beige?) Dodge Aries.  An economy car for a family of soon-to-be-five was quite a stretch but it served us well for a number of years with very few problems; it was a blessing in disguise that the Monte Carlo was stolen, for we had been making nearly monthly–and expensive–trips to the shop with that one.

What we did do that year was be thankful–together, and in peace and quiet.  We were thankful that it was just a car that was stolen.  We were grateful for our generous friends who loaned us their van and for the ease with which we found a replacement vehicle to purchase (and that at the hands of a very nice, non-hard-sell car salesman).  We enjoyed the relaxing holiday without the hectic stress of travel.  Even though we missed being with family on the family day of all days of the year and though we didn’t have a traditional Thanksgiving meal (I had cooked turkey the Sunday before, but we were planning on Thanksgiving dinner in MI, so I hadn’t prepared for all the traditional foods), we decided we liked the low-key celebration before what so often becomes a busy December.  I still remember the fun of an after-dinner walk in the fallen leaves at Foster Park.  We liked that celebration so well, in fact, that we have spent most of our Thanksgivings since that time at home.  At this point, Zach is a bit on the disappointed side if our Thanksgiving plans take us away from home and from the opportunity to simply relax and be family with no other expectations or demands.

Our second Thanksgiving “gift” came more recently:  If you’ve read here for long, you may recall that post-Thanksgiving thieves broke into our house and cleaned out our electronics holdings last year.  Michael, Zach, and I had gone out to a movie and dinner on the Saturday after Thanksgiving; Gabe was at work.  We arrived home from one of the most pleasant evenings out we’d had in a long time to find that all of our computer and AV items were totally gone–cords and all.  My new digital camera was taken as was a stagecoach bank full of coins that was in Gabe’s room.  But, after the first few minutes of intial shock and awe passed, we were swept over by a powerful sense of peace and thanksgiving.  So much could have been worse:  The only damage to our house was a small door window pane broken to gain access.  All of Zach’s movie projects–irreplaceable–could have been taken, but they were backed up on an external hard drive which was left behind.  Zach’s early Christmas present of a new digital camera was sitting in plain sight on the piano, but was for some unexplainable reason left behind.  Right next to the TV corner from which everything–TV, DVD player, VCR–was taken stood our just-decorated Christmas tree filled with ornaments of great sentimental value.  Not a needle or decoration was out of place.  No ransacking had happened.  No one was home at the time of the break-in, and the thieves had left by the time we arrived, so no ugly confrontations happened.  And what was taken–just stuff.  Nothing of personal value was touched.  The longer we thought about it, the funnier it got.  Other than my nearly new camera, everything that was taken was essentially on its last legs; our thieves definitely got the short end of the stick, as our insurance company came through very well for us in the aftermath of the robbery. 

The gift these thieves left behind was a non-electronic Christmas season.  There was a little bit of inconvenience from time to time due to the lack of a computer.  And we missed–a little bit–our weekend movie nights during the holidays.  But, it was very freeing not to be faced with the lure/burden of email or Facebook or TV time during the month of December.  Something was added to our holidays, rather than taken away.  As with most losses, an opportunity to refocus on what matters presented itself, and the result was a huge thankfulness for the constant care of a good God and for the gift of one another.

Do I wish for a stolen car or a post-Thanksgiving break-in this year?  Not really.  But, as I look at our family tapestry, these several dark threads that I will always associate with the Thanksgiving season add a depth and richness to the picture that would not otherwise be there.

And, I am thankful.

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It was Thanksgiving 1996.  Things were the same but not the same.  Michael’s family had spent many Thanksgivings together in the years since I came into the mix by marriage in 1982.  But, the siblings had always before gathered at the folks’.  This time, one of Michael’s sisters was the hostess.  We were festive together…but not quite.  You see, Tony was dying.

My brother-in-law (husband of Michael’s other sister) had been diagonosed earlier that fall with a malignant brain tumor.  Surgery and treatment had slowed things down a bit, but they had left Tony changed in many ways and had left the entire family with a verdict that ended with a death sentence.  As it was, Tony had highs and lows over the first half of the next year and he died late that summer.

I have two memories of the Thanksgiving I’m recalling: One is that before and during dinner, we were trying very hard to be normal–but things weren’t normal, so it was awkward.  The other is that things totally changed after dinner.  As we began to share around the table, words and emotions and sentiments tumbled out that should have been a regular, steady trickle of love and affection over many years before.  But, it was a case of better late than never in some respects, and I believe some new good things in the family began that day that have been sustaining in times since then.  The culminating expression of that table time was some singing together.  I’m not sure what else we sang, but I do remember this one:

God will make a way, when there seems to be no way.
He works in ways we cannot see; He will make a way for me.
He will be my guide, hold me closely to His side.
With love and strength for each new day–He will make a way…
He will make a way.

And He did. 

Fast forward to the winter after Tony died.  Michael was starting a second masters degree.  He thought he was done with his schooling when he got his library degree in the late 70’s.  But the tenure process at his job demanded another degree and, in the library world, unless you want to teach librarians, a second masters degree is more practical than a doctorate.  So, not knowing entirely how it would be paid for or how the course work would be juggled with the daily on-the-job and with parenting three young children, we began the journey.  Our theme song for the trip was, “God will make a way, when there seems to be no way…”

And He did.

Now it is 2008.  We know that a year from now, Michael will not be working at the same job he has currently (his is likely ending in May, 2009).  What we don’t know is what he will be doing.  That means we also don’t know if we will be living where we live now and have for the past 18 years, or whether we will be somewhere else.  In fact, there is a great deal we don’t know about life on the road ahead (always true for all of us, but moreso in the face of the current uncertainties.)  But there is one thing we do know:  “God will make a way when there seems to be no way…”

He did–and He will.

   

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Saturday I was grandmothering at a Bible quiz meet.  I helped one-year-old-learning-to-say-lots-of-words Melanie eat her hot dog lunch while her “Mama” and “Dada” were busy coaching quizzers.

“Do you want a bite of banana?”

“‘Nana” says Melanie.

“Do you want a bite of hot dog?”

“Woof!” says Melanie.

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Wired for Life

“It’s like sitting by a dying person in the hospital, knowing you can’t do anything about it.”  This was the evaluation offered a couple of days ago in one of the starker moments of facing the reality that the university where my husband is a faculty member will close at the end of the school year. 

I’ve been keeping my finger on the pulse of status reports on Facebook from members of the campus community.  There is still a fierce reliance on God being expressed, but a sighing sorrow at the loss also beats steadily.  To be honest, people are grieving.  Some are grieving more than others–one faculty wife had just returned from burying her mother in a distant state when the news of the campus closing hit.  Another staff member is watching two beloveds die–his life work and his earthly lifegiver…his mom.  Heavy loads.

As I drove home from the morning school and work run for my guys, I observed true November all around me.  For the past twenty-four hours we’ve had the gray, rainy conditions that scream “November! Take that–and that!” and which, in a mocking voice, proclaim the end of the seasons of growth and the bounty of harvest.   The leaves are pretty much off the trees, lying sodden where they fluttered and scuttered before the weightiness of the precipitation rendered them motionless.  The mellowness of last week’s Indian summer has been struck a death blow. 

Life in this November could bring one to a screeching halt of emotions and thinking about the future.  It would not be that hard to stop dreaming, stop pursuing, stop seeking beauty, and just stay stuck in gray.  Except…

What is it that propels us beyond?  What keeps us from just curling up in a corner somewhere, yielding without struggle to a void that sucks us in?  That may be a little dramatic, but the realist in me says it wouldn’t be that hard, but for this one thing:  We are wired for life, not death. 

From the beginning it has been so.  Before the first duo of the world chose their own way over God’s Eden, Plan A was for their eternal life.  It was only because they chose to give in to the lesser, the place that was not bathed in full light, that they fell from the original delightful intention for their lives. 

Why else do we do everything in our power to save a life?  Why else would we humans, against all odds, take risks for the sake of “new and improved” in all areas of life?  Why are we always reaching for the thing that makes us feel good, that puts us in the sunshine place?  We tend in the direction of depravity in these pursuits when left to our own devices–precisely because we are fallen people in a fallen world.  But the thing that we often overlook is, until we have succumbed to darkness and death, we are driven to grasp light and life, even if only by our fingernails.

It just struck me this morning why loss, sorrow, even “rainy days and Mondays” get us down, strike such blows at our minds and emotions.  It is because we were made to live.

The choice, then,  speaking bottom line, isn’t really about the next job or even about how we will do loss when that loved one is gently removed from our physical presence, though, yes, we must deal with those.  It is about how we will embrace life, that for which we were made.  There is only that one Way to embrace true Life.  In His light we see light, and the losses, small or weighty, which bring us sorrow and death, are transformed.  They are no less painful–Is there a scale for measuring the pain of the thorn-torn flesh or the sting of salty tears on the fresh heart wound?–but they are borne in tandem.  The Lifegiver comes alongside and lifts our heads.  In His light, we see light.  He says, “Come, and I will give you rest.”  It’s all about life.

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Someone Else’s Shoes

It was an Easter Sunday morning.  What worshiper doesn’t want to be in a service of glorious celebration on that bright day?

Instead, I found myself in the church nursery.  With one little toddler named Nathan.  Couldn’t his parents have taken him to worship with them?  After all, he was their responsibility.  And I didn’t even have any kids.  Yet I was the one missing the service. 

This was the (very selfish, unservantlike) attitude with which I had wrestled all the week prior to that Sunday and, finally, duty and responsibility had won out.  It was my turn to serve and serve I would.  (“Serve” is probably a misnomer in this case, given my attitude.)  Of course, the morning turned out just fine–little kids like Nathan, who had the most versatile and interesting repertoire of facial expressions that I have ever seen in a child, can’t help but lighten one’s heart and anchor one to the reality of the beauty of life–what more fitting expression of the hopeful message of Easter?

In the middle of the week following that Easter Sunday morning, I received a note in the mail from Nathan’s mom, Nancy,  a young mother in our church.  Her words cut me to the heart and made me weep.  She was thanking me for serving in the nursery on, of all days, Easter Sunday morning.  She expressed gratitude from a deep well of young-mother exhaustion.  She, for the space of those few sentences, stood in my shoes which hadn’t wanted to walk into that nursery, and thanked me for what looked to her like sacrifice.  (Can you call it sacrifice if it is given with grudging?  I don’t think so.)

That note, sent my way nearly thirty years ago, set me on a new mission.  I began to notice that every day there are people around me doing, and often doing well, tasks that go unnoticed and unacknowledged.  For somebody to take time to say “thanks” or to underline efficient service or the extra mile adds value and significance to their actions.  People’s lives can be set on a different course by words that give them a new lens through which to view what they do.  In some cases, encouraging words may be just enough to let a despairing soul take that one more step that will bring them near enough to see a Saviour and Rescuer from life’s pit.

If you read here regularly, you know my family’s life is on a course for potentially major change when Michael’s university job ends at the close of this school year.  We have been on the receiving end of many encouraging words in the past month since that announcement.  It struck me this morning as I read yet another note that those expressions all have one thing in common: The giver of the encouragement, if for no longer than a fleeting moment, had stepped into our shoes.  Those encouragers have in that flash–or maybe in the reality of their own life experiences-felt what we are feeling and have offered words to soothe the pinch and the pressure of the place that now doesn’t fit quite right.  Those encouraging words are like the adjusting orthotic or the cushioning inner sole that makes successive steps easier to take.  Sometimes the boost is given through the simple words “I’m praying for you.”  When given at the prompting of the Spirit, those small words are huge and hit the bullseye of need every time.

So a question of the day for myself:  Whose shoes will I pay attention to in this day?

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Prayer Helping

“I have been prayer helping a friend through a family crisis.”

Those words were part of an email I received yesterday from an “older woman” in my life who has been a friend and mentor over many years.  That phrase “prayer helping” grabbed my attention and satisfied my fancy for words.  I’ve been rolling it around in my brain a bit this morning. 

What does prayer helping look like? 

  • The most obvious way of prayer helping is praying with and for another.  There have been times in my life where my upsets and problems and tears and emotions were so weighty and close to the surface that my own prayers would have been nothing but groans before the Almighty (thankfully, He has promised that the Holy Spirit steps in at such times and goes before a Heavenly Father giving words where we have none).  In those moments, I have been blessed to have a husband who held my hand and prayed, or, just a couple of Sundays ago, a group of friends in a Sunday school class who reached out their hands of blessing and encouragment to literally gather round me in prayer.
  • There’s the traditional prayer chain, where people call through an organized list to mobilize an outpouring of prayer when a need arises.  With the instant aspect of electronic media, the idea of a “prayer chain” has taken on new forms.  I have been blessed by a group of friends who have been a faithful email prayer team for my ministry as a weekday religious education teacher over the past four years and are now shifting their prayer focus to a new ministry in a Good News Club (children’s Bible club) in my neighborhood.  Just yesterday, I opened up my Facebook page to see a status report from a young mom I know, saying her little daughter was in much pain, they were taking her to the hospital, and please pray.  Many, I’m sure, did.  (The problem was solved and the little gal was back to her happy self by the time of last night’s status report.)  In seconds, friends on opposite sides of the world can band together for one who is in need–I’ve seen this happen and have heard the after reports of how God has stepped in mightily to intervene.  A little boy who should be dead, indeed was considered basically dead after being submerged under water for many minutes beyond what a person can be and still be expected to survive, today suffers no apparent brain damage from the the trauma, a result we can only imagine is the case because of the prayer help enlisted from connections around the world via the internet.
  • Prayer helping may be short-term and intense; it may be long-term, regular and steady, as a firm and persistent knocking at heaven’s gates for my friend with needs and burdens that don’t go away.  When I was little girl, our church was the first pastorate for a young minister and his wife.  Many years later, when that lady visited our church as a former pastor’s wife, she related her gratitude for the way God had used our church family to shape her and launch her into her role as a pastor’s wife.  She also mentioned one faithful saint from our church who had been her prayer partner over many years, even after this pastoral couple had left our church for another ministry.  She said, “I could tell you to the day when Florence (the prayer partner) died, for something in my life changed.  The power of her faithful prayers went missing.”

There is a song that a friend, who is a faithful prayer helper herself, sang in our church several years ago that planted a permanent picture of prayer helping in my brain.  The lyrics visualize an encouraging friend  “carrying you on my knees to Jesus” in prayer.  I need that kind of prayer helper in my life; I want to be one  for those God plants in my circle. 

What are your experiences in the “prayer helper” realm?

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