Baffled

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Art by David Hoffrichter Illustrations

At times, I am baffled by retirement and aging. It’s one of those “wonder-what-to-do-with-myself” times that is a part of life. Like so many people, I allowed my work to define me. On the other side of a life of ministry, there is a great deal of grief and loss, and mostly bewilderment. I constantly ask myself the question I should have answered decades ago: “Who am I?”

It is definitely true of me that I no longer know what to do. Oh, I keep myself busy enough with trivial pursuits. I cook. I write. I paint. I garden. I do crafty things. But none of those pursuits are engaging enough to help me redefine myself as a person who has passed her years of full time work and ministry.

Certainly, many people say that once you are a minister you never lose your ordination, your gifts, your calling and your mission. But I wonder what that really means. There is no preaching or worship planning going on in my world these days, no hospital ministry, no funerals and no weddings to officiate. If my mission and calling is for life, what does that mean in terms of day to day living?

I have to admit that, though I am busy doing “stuff,” I no longer know what to do with myself. Fortunately, I recently found a smidgen of comfort in these words written by Wendell Berry.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— ‘The Real Work’ by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987.

So when all is said and done, perhaps it’s okay to be baffled. Maybe I can become that “impeded stream” and make a bit of music, filling these baffling days with singing. Just maybe, the writer of Ephesians had some very good advice for a person in my state of baffle-ment.

. . . be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

— Ephesians 5:18-20 New International Version (NIV)

Mercies and Blessings

IMG_6014Like many of you, I have experienced dark nights of the soul. I have faced illness, betrayal, disillusionment and loss. I have faced the dark side of life more than a few times. In the midst of those times, I found the courage of faith, the gift of hope, and the promise of Scripture.

If you have known me through the years, you may know that one of the New Testament passages that gives me strength is in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians. The following words are part of that chapter.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

– 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18 18 (KJV, NIV)

The passage speaks of “wasting away.” When I was so ill for all of 2014, I can honestly say that I believed I was wasting away. It was a frightening emotion, one that I would rather not hold in my memories. But my memories of that time also include mercies and blessings, blessings of gradual healing, blessings of compassionate and competent health care, blessings of being surrounded by a loving faith community, blessings of my husband’s devoted care, blessings of hope and faith in a God whose mercies covered me in so many ways. Clearly, my blessings came through adversity.

Today while listening to Pandora, I heard a song that touched me with its faith-filled lyrics.

. . . What if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if the trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
What if trials of this life — the rain, the storms, the hardest nights — are Your mercies in disguise?

– Written by Liz Story • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group

I learned that through serious illness, the fear was greatest at night. The nights were the hardest. But I also learned that what I had read so many times was true — God’s mercies are new every morning.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

 

Life’s Narrow and Wide Gates

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Life is full of narrow and wide gates, beckoning us to choose which gate to enter. On one hand, the idea of gates — narrow ones and wide ones — is a Biblical idea describing the kind of life a Christian person might choose. On the other hand, narrow and wide gates are simply a part of our life pilgrimage.

The Scripture reference is found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

– Matthew 7:13-14 New International Version (NIV)

The pilgrimage that we call life is, most certainly, a series of challenges we must face. How common it is for us to complain when the gate before us is narrow and the road ahead is rocky. Why do I struggle financially? Why must I endure failing health? Why am I in the middle of a failing relationship? Why did I lose someone I love so deeply?

Didn’t I choose the narrow gate, God? Did I not commit my life to the way that leads to life? Then why? Why the suffering?

God seldom answers us when we ask these questions. We listen constantly for God’s voice and a satisfactory explanation of life’s suffering.

We hear nothing.

Just relentless, ominous silence. It can try one’s faith.

Gratefully, I came across an encouraging quote. Before collapsing on my life’s dusty road, I found a place to lean in the words of Brother Luke Ditewig. Here’s what he said:

After making much fuss about our great accomplishment at having found a narrow and obscure gate and walked through, we’re often surprised at the ordinary challenges of life that follow, again and again. I’m embarrassed by how much I say: “Wow, this road is hard!” or “Why are we still in the wilderness?” But if you look around right now, you’ll notice divine love in the ordinary stuff of life.

– Brother Luke Ditewig
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

So let us persist, moving forward with even a tiny fistful of faith. And may we look around on the way, passing through the gates we encounter and always noticing the divine love that is ever present in the “ordinary stuff of life.”

Cleansing Rain

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“The cleansing rains let parched men and women flower toward the sun.”

When the spirit is dry, cleansing rains refresh us. It’s a wonderful thought for those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or spiritual dryness. It happens to all of us, no matter how strong our faith.

i am struggling with a parched time of life right now. I’m clinging to my faith, to the loved ones who have my back, and to the promise of cleansing, refreshing soul-healing rains. And I am strengthened by this prayer.

A prayer by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg
We pray that we might know before whom we stand: The Power whose gift is life, who quickens those who have forgotten how to live.

We pray for winds to disperse the choking air of sadness, for cleansing rains to make parched hopes flower, and to give all of us the strength to rise up towards the sun.

We pray for love to encompass us for no other reason save that we are human—that we may all blossom into persons who have gained power over our lives.

We pray to stand upright, we fallen; to be healed, we sufferers; we pray to break the bonds that keep us from the world of beauty; we pray for opened eyes, we who are blind to our authentic selves.

We pray that we may walk in the garden of a purposeful life, our own powers in touch with the power of the world.

Praise to the G_d whose gift is life, whose cleansing rains let parched men and women flower toward the sun.

Amen.

Change and Growth

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The Chinese Tallow tree in my yard constantly changes. I have been documenting its changes for over a year, and I am amazed when it tassels and then becomes heavy with green berries. By fall those berries will have changed color from green to black and finally to white. The lifespan of Chinese tallow stems seems to be less than 100 years, although roots may live longer. Other experts report that Chinese tallow is short-lived, surviving 40 to 50 years.

The tree experiences many changes during its lifetime, much like we humans do. In that way, the tree reminds me that our lives cycle and change too, from season to season, as the years go by. We have to be comfortable with change and growth, standing firm, just as the Tallow tree does. We stand against scorching sun and rainstorms. We weather strong winds and enjoy light breezes. And all the time, we’re growing and changing.

God gives us the strength to stand tall in sunshine and shadow, through strong winds, gentle breezes, bitter cold and oppressive summer heat. It’s the way of nature, and God is faithful through it all, walking beside us as we change and grow.

Rivers of Living Water

Fast Flowing River, Australia

Flowing river above Upper National Falls, Royal National Park, Australia.

My smallest petunia got parched by the hot sun yesterday. Apparently the soil became dried by the wind and the plant needed more water. Today was a hot day at my house. I actually became overheated while out in my garden. Though I was worried about my flowers being parched by the sun, I didn’t count on getting parched myself. A glass of water eased my thirst.

The soul can also become parched,and that thirst is much harder to quench. There are times in life when dry seasons come, times when the spirit thirsts for living water. I have experienced many dry seasons throughout my life. I have longed for a closeness to God that seemed out of reach for me. Those dry times were very disconcerting. And sometimes a remedy seemed impossible.

During those times, I relied on promises from the Scripture to comfort me. I hope these passages will also bring you comfort if you’re in the midst of a dry season.

Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)

The LORD will always lead you, satisfy you in a parched land, and strengthen you. You will be like a watered garden and like a spring whose waters never run dry.  (Isaiah 58:11)