Choosing life again and again

It’s been three days and at night I can still hear, “Move your arms like Henry….” and “Dorothy, Dorothy…..would you like to dance with me.” And that’s okay because at 13 she still loves the Wiggles. I love that they are not afraid to include “Away in a Manger” and call it Christmas. She has a mad crush on Murray Wiggle who she says is her boyfriend. He might be a Grandpa by now in real life and no longer on the show, but she doesn’t know and I would never tell her. I want to cry when I hear the songs because I miss her.

We got to celebrate my Mom’s 87th Birthday wearing clown noses during the Birthday song and lit a cake made from scratch by a dear friend who whispered “Do you think she would mind the Dinosaurs on it?” I said no, she’d love it. She did.

We also got to attend church, Mom and Dad and my brother and I on Palm Sunday, something we hadn’t done together in a long while. That was a blessing.

As with every family visit, there are people left out and things that go awry. Some things don’t go as planned. Mom’s heartbeat was erratic and she was not feeling well some of the time. Dad’s knee was flaring up and I went with him to the Doctor to get a shot and it was better by the end of the week.

There was talk of a “last trip” here or there. They talked too much like the best of their life is over and at 86 and 87 I guess that’s normal but I’m not ready to lose them. There was a moment when my Dad and I walked into Barnes and Noble together where it felt like old times and I wanted to sit there in that moment for a while.

Earlier today in the laundry room, I folded the gloves I took to the snow. I remembered her laughter as she threw snowballs at me and at her Dad. And I remembered my Dad and I, wedged in the backseat started laughing at my seatbelt that was stuck. That was like old times too. We always got in trouble in church for laughing. It strikes me that laughter is one of the things that has kept us all from losing our sanity over deaths and goodbyes and sickness and aging and everything in between. Laughter is one of the things in this life that will follow us to the next, thankfully.

As I write this, I hear it come down just now. The thing I was praying for this morning when I saw the cloudy skies. Just a little sprinkle, I said. Just a little pitter-patter on the roof. And now I have it. Healing for me, rain is. It says that God is still in control, He still cares enough to water the earth and so I have renewed assurance He still cares for us all.

Each day gives us a choice. At every turn in this life there are moments that breathe life and moments that have the foul smell of death. They reside side by side like the wheat and the tares. Each day there are moments bursting with life and moments that threaten to choke it right out of us.

The Bible says, “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” I want to continue to choose life.

I also want to choose love. “Help me Lord to try to see beyond what’s on the surface. Help me to see people how You see them so I can love them better.”

People (and life) will try to steal our joy, but the joy God gives us is eternal and comes from somewhere deeper and older than we know or understand. It was there before all things were set in the act of creation. That joy is real and it’s our gift at redemption. He gives us back what was always meant for us in the first place.

Thank you God for the brief time at the beach. When I am there somehow I get the assurance that things will be okay. They really will.

 

 

We are all One in Christ Jesus

Love one another

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:26-29

I remember when the Berlin wall came down. It was a historical moment. Here is a little snippet of Reagan’s infamous “tear down that wall” speech:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

I understand the fear of war and the pain of division that afflict this continent– and I pledge to you my country’s efforts to help overcome these burdens. To be sure, we in the West must resist Soviet expansion. So we must maintain defenses of unassailable strength. Yet we seek peace; so we must strive to reduce arms on both sides.

Jesus was the original “wall leveler.” He smashed walls right and left, and it got Him into a lot of trouble. He addressed women, as equals, he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. He mingled with the rich and poor and he approached lepers and the outcasts of society. He never refused anyone who came to Him.

It’s been said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross and I believe that. There are no levels in Christianity, you either are or you aren’t. We are all clinging to the cross each and every day if we are to be honest with ourselves. I don’t know why, but we tend to grade each other and ourselves, but Jesus never does. God really doesn’t care how many times a week we go to church. He cares about the motives of our hearts. This needs to be said.

Paul spoke about walls and divisions when people in the church were starting to break themselves up in different “camps.” And we tend to do the same thing with our Pastors and each other. It’s just human nature I guess.

But this is the truth…….we are all in just as much of a dire and desperate need of Jesus as when we first believed. If we think differently, then we are deceiving ourselves. Most of the time, we fall somewhere between Billy Graham and Mother Theresa and the prodigal son and Peter when he hacked off the Roman’s ear. They were all in different places in their journey throughout their lives and so are we.

Christianity is simply this, that each day we come anew to the cross. Each day we celebrate a new Resurrection from death to life. Each day we try our best and admit our utter failure in ourselves and our utter belief in Jesus.

Jesus is praying for unity. He is praying that we love, and forgive. We are all on a journey to meet Jesus face to face someday. This means you, if you have ever said yes to Him. Look around, there are no “Super-Christians” here. Just people who have humbled themselves and responded to the Invitation.

In the quiet of night when only God saw.

In the middle of a church service.

With your arms around a fellow believer.

Even after you said you never would.

You get up, and you go. Against the odds, with all eyes upon you.

This means you, if you’ve ever felt the lump in your throat and tears spill over at Amazing Grace, or How Great Thou Art.

If you’ve ever known the unmistakable tug of the Spirit in the middle of the day.

This means you, even if you haven’t darkened the door of a church in a while. He knows you’re His and there is nothing you can do to change that.

You, who no longer have to be judge jury executioner of your own life, that’s so exhausting isn’t it?

I love how the Message puts Romans 3:21-24:

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

I like to think of it like this. When you are out on a hike, there is a kind of rule. It’s unspoken but it’s there. I like to call it the grace of the trail. We are all on different levels, but we respect each other just for being out there under God’s blue sky. We give each other grace, we step aside so the faster ones can pass. Always, we try to greet each other with a smile of encouragement.

This is what we need to do as for each other as believers.

So grab a walking stick and come along with me. Extending a hand of Grace is a lot easier at the foot of the cross, the trail-head always starts there.

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The Greatest Generation

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I wrote this after a phone call from my Dad. He had just visited his old football buddy (he and his friend are the last remaining alive on their team). His friend and wife are now in separate elder care facilities and not long ago he visited them in their home……

A phone call from my Dad last night gave me pause to consider what will happen when the last of what they called “The Greatest Generation” takes its final leave of this place we call home. I wonder at the changing face and shape of a town, a smallish town like Lodi. What does the gradual taking leave of an entire generation look like? I am afraid that unless we keep their stories alive, they will slip away graciously the way they lived, with seemingly little impact.

Can a town remember? A town whose streets hold the footprints and buildings that years of blood, sweat and tears have produced? I believe it can, for the conversations that took place in grocery stores and downtown corners, over meals and glasses of wine will still be here in the words and voices of those of us who’ve come after. But only if we don’t forget. For the best way to show our gratitude is by keeping those memories alive. It’s the least we can do for them.

For these were a people who stepped up for the nation and the world at a great time of need with little thought of what it might cost them personally. Young men climbed into rickety planes were given no guarantee they would even make it across the ocean. Young women stepped into roles and jobs they had never had before and proved themselves beyond capable. My own Mom had shoes thrown at her as a teen when the shoe store she worked at ran out of shoes by the end of the day.

What will it be like to look around someday and hear only echoes of these voices without their graceful presence? These are the questions I ask myself. And I’ve asked myself something else too. Could I live as selflessly as this courageous generation has done? Could I make the necessary sacrifices they did by going without for years, so that I could have more? What lessons might I have learned if I had saved more and spent less?

Things are changing, that’s for sure. The service station my Dad frequented for years recently stopped accepting his checks for gas. He went elsewhere. Trust and integrity are precious commodities. Back in their day, a word was as good as a contract, and a handshake was enough to seal a deal.

There is something unique about this particular generation in that they not only make me want to do better, they make me want to be better. A better customer, a better neighbor. I think of my folks who at one time knew just about every business owner downtown. This past year they had their 63rd Class Reunion. Turnout was incredible, though no one is quite as mobile as they were in years past, quite an impressive number turned out. That says a lot.

It tells me the best way I can honor them is by letting their values and their legacy live on in me. To keep on trusting even as the world seems to turn more jaded and cynical. To know the name of my neighbor and wave, even if they don’t wave back. To never give up on humanity and believe that there are still many good people out there. Because there are.

Today, if you are blessed enough to know or love someone who was alive back then, call them up and ask them to tell you a story of what it was like in those days. Make the time…….You are not too busy, I promise.

And most of all, think of each day as a gift from God. None of us has any guarantees of how much time we have left, but waking up with gratitude is the only way to start.

Peace……

The Power of Memory

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Prayer for today: Oh Lord, help. I have no idea how this year is going to go, but thank you in advance for blazing a trail before us…….You have never let us down yet. Amen

This morning in prayer it struck me that one of the best gifts we can hand down to our children and others in our lives is to provide them with good memories. Kids will forget the gifts they unwrapped in a few days time, but they will never forget the times you spent together whether good or bad.

This weekend, I had an occasion to relive some old memories and add some new ones to the collection. My cousin and her husband came for a visit, and so did Elaine’s nephew. We had a great time reliving all those old times, in fact they surrounded us as our companions as a backdrop as we laughed and talked and filled each other in on the past few years.

I guess maybe you don’t think too much about memory until you care for someone who has had theirs stolen like Joyce had. What would it be like to lose those memories that make up a life? Wouldn’t it be like losing your life? Memories make up so much of who we are. Memory is the sum of what makes us individuals in many ways. You and I might hear the same song and that same song conjures up altogether different images in our minds.

While you might think of a pleasant time growing up in a little Spanish village, maybe images of little old men and women opening their shops, sweeping in the warmth of the sun. I might borrow a memory from my Mom in the 1940’s when she told me about going out to meet the trains and wave to the soldiers as went off to war. And what a powerful thing, when we share those memories, they mingle together like a little bit of magic and yours become a little of mine and vice versa.

If you share a life with someone then you share a wealth of memories and moments where you might look at each other at the exact same time and say, “Do you remember that time?” Those same memories that can bring such sharp grief after they’re gone, can turn soft and healing with time and provide great comfort.

Memories have tremendous power to grip us for good or ill. Sometimes holding us hostage for years. Sometimes sending us to rehab or the psychiatrists couch. Sometimes they’re the only thing that keeps us from losing our grip.

A further thought is that worry is like a perverted form of memory because worry conjures up things that haven’t even happened yet. It’s borrowing negative from a future that may or may not even come to reality. It is tiresome and burdensome and renders you useless to the present and unable to be fully there for those around you.

It’s why Jesus cautions us so often about worry. He knows how destructive it is. It never leads to peace. He beckons us to turn and look back down the road He’s already led us, so our minds can settle again. He has promised everything we need for today, He only asks us to keep walking in His direction.

I am thanking Joyce today for the gratitude I have for my memories. Elaine has her remains now. It’s a very odd thing to see them on her shelf, someone I knew so well even though I know she isn’t there. I also know that someday I will come to the same state, unless Jesus comes back before that happens. And I hope that I will still be teaching someone something, like Joyce continues to teach me.

We are all in this together, thank God.

Advent: Looking toward the Light

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“The Lord is my Shepherd [to feed, to guide and to shield me],
I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1 AMP 

In the deep dark of morning I was reflecting on the events of the past week trying to fall back asleep when I realized my usual method was failing me. I couldn’t get past the first line of the 23rd Psalm. I think that was exactly what God intended.

Sometimes He doesn’t mean for us to jump ahead when He knows that all we need is right there in the first line……”With God, I have all I need.” Stop. Done. Nothing more to say.

It’s been a season of highs and lows this Advent. How do you keep looking towards the Light when circumstances threaten to snuff out the “Merry and Bright” aspects of the season we celebrate? This has been our challenge this year. On the upside, I got to help put on a wonderful party for my niece, it was her 13th, a big one. Everything and everyone worked, even the Christmas lights, both front and back.

Everyone had a great time, adults and kids alike and the highlight of the night was when one of the floats from the Christmas parade pulled up out front complete with music, animation and hundreds of tiny lights. It was arranged through my brother’s friend and it was wonderful to see everyone coming out of their houses to enjoy it.

The downside was that Elaine’s Mom took a turn for the worse before I left and passed away the week I was away. You can never prepare for that. Death might be swallowed up in victory in Christ, but when it comes to call, we are reminded all over again how wrong it is, how unnatural. How it was never meant to be. My heart hurt for her from miles away and I could do nothing but pray.

Then, as we were all recovering from the Birthday party, my Mom fell outside of CVS Pharmacy. I wasn’t with her but thankfully a friend happened to be there, that part I know was Divine intervention. He drove her home. The following days before I left I was able to go with her to the Doctor for wound care.

And the question we ask over and over again in times like this is, what does His coming mean to us in the here and now moments of life?

The answer still lays in the Manger, and in the fields where the Shepherds were watching their flocks, it thunders from the brilliant sky which was suddenly and miraculously lit up by myriads of Angels.

Over and over again, this is the message we live out:

Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men, with whom He is pleased.” 

We hold on to the One who will never disappoint even when everyone else may, even those we love most. In any and every circumstance this life throws at us, we can have hope in the One who will never disappoint.

That is what we cling to this season and every day. By faith we hold up our heads and continue to put one foot in front of the other. It’s why every morning and every evening I flip the switch that lights up the tree and I plug in every strand of garland that hangs.

Those lights represent a hope, or rather a Who, that can never be extinguished.

Because He came and lives today, we can too.

Advent: Peace in the Chaos

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Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:30,31

December 1st is here and it arrived with everyone breathless and scurrying. This morning my heater gave out in the shop so my prayer time was shortened. I know it shouldn’t have been but I am a fair-weather pray-er and it was 50 degrees out there. My blood is thin, accustomed as it is to the sun and warmer temps. So the tree was in the living room all decked out in lights but no ornaments. Elaine has been frantically going from work to the Carehome since her Mom fell and broke her hip. There was simply no time. So this morning I drug all the boxes in and set to work. I had a deadline to meet since her brother was coming and I wanted to be available if I was needed.

At around the 4th time going through both the Easter and Christmas portions of Handel’s Messiah, it was finished, bedecked in all it’s glory. I had fun doing it. I felt pretty good considering I slept fitfully as usual and awoke at my usual time of 2:00 am. When I saw Elaine briefly later at noon she said, “Why didn’t you come in my room, we could have had coffee and talked.” Seems we were both awake at the same time.

Sometimes, Advent comes whether we are ready or not. But ready or not, it’s always a blessing.

And this road we’ve been on has been so long. Ever since her Mom has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s to now, it’s been about 10 years. I think of everything that has happened since and it’s staggering that Elaine’s been able to do it all and work too.

It’s late and I really need to go to bed. My brain feels like scrambled eggs. And my dear niece is turning 13 tomorrow and soon I will see her.

And it’s life and death and the cycle of it all……And He is here and if not for Him in the midst of everything, where in the world would any of us be?

The Thankful In-Betweens

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“I call out to the Lord and He answers from His Holy mountain. I lay down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me.”  Psalm 3:4,5

Sometimes God gives you a little reset button. This morning I had one of those tossing and turning times. For two hours I worried about every possible thing for about 30 years down the road. That always helps so much doesn’t it. Worrying? It’s a useless action. It saps you of strength and leaves you drained. But this morning after I tossed and turned, God whispered a little thought through my cat. No God does not speak through my cat, I am not that crazy, although sometimes I do think they understand what I say.

Here’s the thought that God brought to me as I gazed at Sydney whose face was inches away from mine, (we were fighting over the pillow, you see). As I was worrying my way through the future, God said…..(through the cat) “Look at how safe you’ve kept me all these years. Fourteen of them to be exact. You have taken me to the vet when I have been sick, and you kept me safe through the last move. You made sure I didn’t get out when the movers were coming and going. You stuffed me in that box when I didn’t want to go in, and I fought you all the way because I was scared and didn’t realize you were doing it to keep me safe. But here I am, all these years later, still happy and healthy. I have soft things to sleep on and I have never had to sleep out in the cold like some of my counterparts.

“When I used to go out, you kept me safe too from those neighbor cat bullies. And I never have to worry about where my next meal is coming from because there is always food in the dish. I can relax and sleep because I have total trust in you. I never have to worry about anyone or anything hurting me because you and I have built up that trust. Day in and day out for 14 years you have watched over me, and loved me. Even now, here I am purring with contentment as you stroke my fur.”

And then God whispered, “Yeah, kind of like how I have taken care of you now for what……all these 56 years.”

And you know what happened after I had those thoughts? I fell back asleep in the deepest sleep, and I awoke refreshed. God gave me a reset button.

But here’s another reset button you can use for your fretful mind.  It’s the best antidote I have found to put worry in its place and you can use it throughout the whole day. It’s prayer and gratitude.  1 Thessalonians 5:16 says:

 “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

There will always be another reason to worry, but there will also be more reasons not to, when you think of how faithful God has been over the years. Start counting thanks and see what happens. Thankfulness is real and it’s tangible, because God has really been there, every single time.

Yesterday was a tough day for Elaine. Her Mom hasn’t been doing well for a few days. Yet, in the midst of all the hard questions, the wondering just how much longer she will have to live in this state she never wanted to be in, there were a few times we had to laugh despite the disparity of the situation. Through this whole Alzheimer’s nightmare, we have managed to keep our sense of humor, at least a shred of it, against all odds. And that is a kind of miracle.

After Joyce had all she wanted of the Chinese food Elaine brought, two other ladies circled the wagons and came in to see what it was. One bellied up to the bar and pulled the takeout container over. Elaine fished around for a fork in the kitchen and gave her one. Instead of the fork, she dug in with her fingers. Elaine tried to get her to smile but she wasn’t having any of it. Her Mom sat there looking part disgusted and part, “get me out of here.” We took her back to her room. More happened after that, but that part is better left unsaid. It’s why we had to go to Wal-Mart, which is another bit of crazy on a Sunday.

Ever feel like you are in a little band of crazy and you want to leave the band but you can’t?

We found new flip-flops for 98 cents and took them back over to the Carehome. (The others were no longer fit to wear.) These are the only shoes she seems to keep on now. I was thankful I could go with her to do that, I am always thankful to do it because I know she does many of these things alone when I am at work.

Despite all this, we sat outside the other night after Elaine cooked a meal worthy of a five-star resort and ate. And just as I was about to say the prayer we looked up and saw after effects of the rocket that was launched in Southern California. That was cool. It’s a mixed bag this life, full of equal parts pain and beauty, until we reach the shores of Heaven that is.

And today, now that the weather is blessedly cool, that is always something to be very thankful for here in the desert.

He remembered us in our low estate:

His love endures forever.

and freed us from our enemies:

His love endures forever.

He gives food to every creature:

His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of Heaven:

His love endures forever.

Psalm 136: 23-26