Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Psalmists' Prayers and Disciples' Confessions

My morning all its honesty and messiness.
January 18, 2017 (Confession of St. Peter)

From Psalm 38:

3 There is no health in my flesh,
because of your indignation; *
there is no soundness in my body, because of my sin.

It’s hard to read Psalm 38 when you’re really sick. I read this Psalm and others like it a lot differently than I used to, because I now relate to phrases like “there is no health in my flesh.” I know that sometimes someone can be sick because of their sin (I am thinking here of behavior that someone might participate in that can lead directly to sickness, or over a long period of time, or something someone does that leads them into a dangerous situation in which they are injured or left vulnerable to sickness) but I also sometimes wonder if the psalmist is making an incorrect assumption here that sin is the reason behind why he is ill. 

I say that, not to tiptoe gingerly around the Scriptures, but for a couple of reasons. One is that we have other Scriptures in the New Testament that would seem to indicate that Jesus himself did not believe that sin leads to sickness was the only conclusion we should jump to. Remember the disciples asking him “who sinned, this man or his parents?” when they were confronted with the blind man? And Jesus told them that that was simply not the reason the man was born blind (I realize that’s a birth defect and not an “illness” per se, but I think the theological reasoning holds). The man was born blind in order that his healing could bring God glory. 

So I find myself wondering if the psalmist is not jumping to a bumbling, false-guilt sort of assumption, the way the disciples were prone to do. One reason I love God’s word so much is that there are parts in it that I think are there, not just to show us Jesus, but to give us a peek into how we goof it up sometimes. There are other moments in the Psalms, for instance, when the one praying is talking about wreaking vengeance (which we know belongs only to God) and wanting to bash people’s heads in and banish the name of his enemy off the face of the planet, etc., which we know are not Godly choices. But I think the Lord lets them stand in the prayer book contained within his word because they are authentic, human feelings and emotions that need to be prayed through sometimes and placed at his feet. And the Psalms give us that model. Not everything in the Psalms, that is, is necessarily God’s perspective on a situation. They are honest cries that come from the lips of those who suffer or who are angry. Those praying the words can’t always see the forest for the trees. They feel trapped and caught and frustrated. They bring all this to God and he transforms it…something, by the way, that we see even here in Psalm 38, when the Psalmist is so sure that he is sick by reason of his own foolishness and sin…

4 For my iniquities overwhelm me; *
like a heavy burden they are too much for me to bear.

5 My wounds stink and fester *
by reason of my foolishness.
14 I have become like one who does not hear *
and from whose mouth comes no defense.

15 For in you, O Lord, have I fixed my hope; *
you will answer me, O Lord my God.
17 Truly, I am on the verge of falling, *
and my pain is always with me.

18 I will confess my iniquity *
and be sorry for my sin.

I love the way this Psalm turns because we see that even in the midst of his guilt – and perhaps, as I said, he is praying honestly, and somehow does know that his pain is directly connected to his iniquity – the psalmist turns to God. He fixes his hope in God. He trusts him. He tells him exactly how he is feeling and what he is worried about. And he confesses his sin, trusting in the Lord’s forgiveness.

I confess I do struggle sometimes, even knowing that my doctors have told me that there is no evidence that anything I did brought on this cancer (I never smoked, for instance) – that it is, in fact, a rare and strange series of mutations – I still struggle. I think that perhaps it was stuff I ate over a long period of time, or not taking my health seriously enough or exercising the way I should. But most of the time, I find myself more in the place of the blind man I talked about above. I wonder if God did not allow this sickness to happen (I do not believe he purposefully gave it to me, but I do sense he allowed it) in order to bring him glory. In order to do something in my life that otherwise he couldn’t have done, to bring me into deeper intimacy with him, and to let me walk the road of suffering in ways that help others and bring them into deeper intimacy with Jesus too.
Lots of wrestling here, with just a few verses this morning, but there is a lot going on in my heart and mind. 

And I do feel grateful for the honest prayers of the Psalmist and the bumbling, stumbling, sometimes rather dense disciples and their place in God’s story, which helps me to find mine.

And speaking of stumbling disciples…how I love that today we celebrate Peter’s confession! It is a wonderful confession from a man who dearly loved Jesus and who was prone to blurt out the first thing that came into his heart and mind. Sometimes that means he really goofed it up. But sometimes…oh sometimes! He just hit it out of the park. I have a feeling Peter made Jesus smile (and occasionally inwardly groan as well as outwardly rebuke!) and this must have been one of those joy filled moments for our Lord, when he saw that Peter truly GOT IT. Peter understood, deep down, who Jesus was. Which means he was on the path to true life and peace, rooted in reality and ready to become a vessel for Jesus’ love to pour into and spill out over the world. What a wonderful place to be and stand. This reminds me too of Martha’s confession, another wonderful one we hear in the gospels. Neither Peter nor Martha got everything right, as the stories about them show us. But when it came down to the most important thing, they certainly did. They looked into Jesus’ eyes and they saw their Lord, their Savior, the Son of God, the resurrection and the life, the perfect imprint of the Father. Oh Lord, give us eyes like their eyes, I pray. Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Priortizing Writing Projects for the New Year

As the new year has gotten underway, I've been struggling a lot with fatigue again, due to the new chemo trial I'm on. It's been hard to feel this way as it's reminiscent (though thankfully not nearly as severe) as the last time I went through chemo. I am thankful that this time it's not medicine by infusion, but oral medication, but I am still feeling frustrated with the amount of sleep I need, the various aches and pains including some connected to my worsening neuropathy, the struggles I have to sleep well at night, and the many appointments I'm having to do at the cancer center. At the same time, I'm finding plenty to be grateful for including the fact that the fatigue is still nowhere near the worst I've felt, the hope that this trial drug will work to bring about more needed healing, my excellent doctors, and the love and prayers of family and friends.

Turning into the new year felt very different for me this year. I've now gone through an entire calendar year without my dear mother. I'm approaching the one year mark since my diagnosis. I face a year filled with much to think about and do (including continued schooling of our sweet girl) but with no work deadlines. I officially went on disability in December. We also finally finished our move into our new rental home in December, which means lots of boxes to unpack and things to organize when I am not feeling well. And yes, feeling homesick.

Faced with limited energy and time, I find myself trying to prioritize my writing goals. It's been harder than expected because it turns out that I have done a lot more writing in the past twenty years than I realized. It's all been in cracks and crevices, but it's yielded a lot of creativity -- it's just that none of it is done. I have so many interrupted and unfinished projects! With some I have gotten a pretty far distance in, while others are barely out of idea stage. Some have yielded mostly outlines while others have yielded pages and pages of work. In addition to those twenty years, our move meant I was digging through boxes and files I had completely forgotten about, and those included work that goes back more like twenty-five and thirty years. A whole younger writer-me peeked out of those pages, but some of them were better than I recalled once I remembered they existed!

So what to do with all of this? I'm still not sure. I have ten to twelve projects I could be working on in turn, but I have a feeling the best use of my limited resources would be to choose one or two and work as steadily on them as I can. Doing anything steadily is difficult right now, but I am feeling sure I need to be writing as much as possible.

At the moment, one project seems to have chosen me. It's my most recent one: an attempt at a memoir that focuses on my healing journey and my experiences with cancer, all written through the lens of reflections on hair. Yes, hair. It sounds strange, I know, but it's coming along well. I started it last year and got through a prologue and a long first chapter. I also had jotted ideas for several more chapters. This week I suddenly got the yen to go back to it, and I'm now well into the next chapter, which is moving in some unexpected directions that have me excited. I just wish I was feeling better.

So we'll see where all of these go this year. I will keep moving forward and hope that I can get at least one project, if not more than one, completed. And oh yes, organize these writing files so they make some sort of sense. Prayers appreciated!

Saturday, January 07, 2017

John Chapter 2: "Do Whatever He Tells You"

I've been doing a different kind of devotional practice since Christmas. Since I have more time in the mornings than I used to -- in fact, I need to ease very gently into each day now, since night-times are extra hard on my body -- I am spending longer in the Word. And it is very good.

I am basically practicing lectio divina more than I used to. One of the things I'm allowing myself to do is to spend time with daily passages of Scripture, sometimes by reading them more than once, or by reading them in different translations or in translation/paraphrase tandem. And then I am writing up my initial thoughts and responses to the passages in a document I am simply calling "ribbons" (to reflect the idea of ribbons I can carry with me during the rest of the day). Praying and meditating through the Scriptures is a good thing, and I feel I am doing it more deeply and purposefully now.

Sometimes the thoughts I have are long or even convoluted (I am trying my best to take my hard feelings and big questions to Jesus directly, laying them at his feet...and these days, I have so many difficult feelings and questions when I read the Scriptures, many of them borne of my illness) but sometimes what grabs me is just one phrase, one line or word, and the reflection is a simple one.

Such is the reflection I had today when reading the beginning of John chapter 2, Jesus's first miracle at the wedding in Cana where he turned water into wine. What grabbed me here was Mary's response when he told her "it's not yet my time." She simply turns to the servants and says "Do whatever he tells you." Bless her.

Now some verses you read in the Scriptures can be translated with slightly different nuances, depending upon the translation, which is one reason why it can be great to read more than one. Especially Scriptures like the Psalms, which are filled with images. But really, what can you do with Mary's simple words, her calm and loving imperative declaration to the servants who have run out of wine? Not much. Thus you get these "different" translations:

"Do whatever he tells you." (ESV)
"Do whatever he tells you." (GNT)
"Do whatever he tells you." (HCSB)
"Do whatever he tells you to do." (ICB)
"Mind you do whatever he tells you." (Phillips)
"Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." (KJV)
"Whatever he tells you, do it." (MSG)
"Do whatever he tells you to." (TLB)
"Do whatever he tells you." (NIV)
"Do whatever he tells you." (RSV) 
"Haced todo lo que os dijere." (Jubilee, Spanish)

No translator or even someone moving into the more flexible realm of paraphrase wants to meddle with this one. (J.B. Phillips stretches a little by giving Mary more of a "motherly" tone with the verb "mind" but I honestly think that works fine.) None of the easier to read translations, including the International Children's Bible (ICB) feels they have to simplify this word. Mary has already done this for us. "Do whatever he tells you." There could be no clearer word than that. She wants the servants to obey Jesus. 

And wonderfully, they do. There's a good chance none of them has a real clue who Jesus is (he's not taken his ministry public yet) beyond the possibility that they know him as a neighbor or friend of the wedding family. But they do exactly what Mary tells them to do. Which is to do what JESUS tells them to do.We don't get many words from Mary, but you sense these are important ones.

And what he tells them to do might not have made immediate sense -- fill these twenty-thirty empty stone wine jars with *water.* "What? But Jesus, we're not out of water, and even if we were, no one at the wedding wants to drink it! We need wine!" Wouldn't it have made sense for at least one of them to (forgive the pun) whine that kind of question? But if they do, we don't hear it. John simply tells us that they do what they're told. They fill the vats with water, and then they draw the water out and take it to the master of the feast who discovers that he's drinking the best wine yet.

Of course, wine looks very different from water, so the servants must have known as soon as they got to their second obedient action -- drawing the water out from storage and pouring it into a pitcher they could carry to the master of the feast -- that something incredible was going on here. The water they had put in had been transformed into something completely different, something worthy of the wedding celebration. And so are we. We are transformed when we obey whatever Jesus tells us to do. When we obey, we are transformed more into the likeness of the true Master of the Feast, Jesus himself. 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

An Unexpected Love Note

Sometimes God sends love notes in sweet and unexpected ways. Here's how I got one this afternoon. Hang on for the ride...I'm going to be really honest about what a difficult time I was having.

So I was feeling physically and emotionally exhausted (it's been a hard few weeks of cancer treatment) and also sad and alone, and I decided to go into my tiny new study which is still piled high with boxes of books and files from the move. The study hasn't been a priority because kitchen, bathrooms, and other mutual living spaces have felt a lot more important to organize first. 

Tired as I was, I decided to give myself fifteen minutes to do some unpacking, but got caught up in the piles. I found myself smiling over some old books and papers because they represent so many things I have spent years loving and doing: writing, teaching, missions, ministry, homeschooling, theology, church history, poetry, fiction. At the same time, some of the piles made me sad...projects long finished, or projects never finished, all accompanied by a deep melancholy wondering over whether or not I have spent my time wisely and whether I will ever have enough energy or time again to devote to any of these things the way I would like to.
An hour or more into what should have been fifteen minutes, I found myself wanting a piece of chocolate (time to ward off dementors!) but tried not to give in because a) I'd already had a tiny one earlier, b) chocolate has phosphorous, and I am supposed to be keeping my phosphorous as low as possible right now, and c) I've lost my sense of taste almost completely again, so I knew that it wouldn't really taste like chocolate, except in my imagination. 

The only break I took came in the middle when my fourteen year old came in, feeling super stressed over an algebra lesson and a lack of time management, and instead of gently helping her in a peaceful way, I let her stress trigger mine that was already bubbling toward the surface, and I lost my patience. I had told her not to do a second lesson, but she hadn't listened. And she was doing a second lesson to avoid something else she needed to do. All of which made sense, except....losing my patience with her simply made me lose it more with myself, and I felt terrible inside over the fact that I was letting cancer and discomfort and stress take over instead of keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus.

I had been piling one set of files onto a rather precarious perch, and in my stress, I didn't realize how high the pile had gotten, and the whole mountain of stuff went crashing to the floor. My daughter, back on the other side of her door, called out, "Mom, are you okay?" and I called back an automatic "yes," and then just stood there for a minute. For some reason, it felt like the last straw. I looked down at that mess of papers, some of them worth keeping, some of them not, and I didn't think I could find the energy to pick them up, much less sort through them. Tears threatened, and my hands hovered near my face as I tried to calm my breathing.  I told myself they were just papers, most of them destined for recycling, and all I needed to do for now was find the energy to bend over on my achey legs and pick them all up. 
So I calmed down and bent over and started shuffling them together, and then I saw that a little square piece of paper had disengaged from the rest and fluttered off. I picked it up and saw that it was written in my husband's hand-writing. I recognized it right away because in the first years of our marriage, he would write or draw me a small-sized note like this every single work day and tuck it inside my lunch bag. This was during our first five married years, before we moved here to go to seminary.
I have no idea precisely when he wrote this particular one or why he chose the words when he chose them over twenty years ago, but they found me again today, floating down from the piles of files inside an old box.
And this is what they said:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters 
I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not
overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not 
consume you...
because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you.
~Isaiah 43 
I felt a little bit like the woman in the Disney short film "Paperman" when the paper airplane with the kiss on it finds her on the street and leads her on a merry, wind-swept chase to the one who sent it in the first place. I looked at that love-note, and then I took it into the bedroom and tucked it into the corner of my dresser mirror. I love my husband, and I love the Lord who gave him the life-giving words I needed then and needed even more now.
What are the chances that this is the note that would float free today and find its way to me? These things happen in God's beautiful way, in his kingdom-kindness.  

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Mary And Eve/Mary and Elizabeth (A Pair of Poems)

Happy New Year!

As we start 2017, I thought I would post a couple more poems that I wrote during Advent this year. This is a pair of poems meant to be read together. Mary, mother of Jesus, is the person the poems hold in common. In the first poem, she is with Eve, the first woman God created and the "mother of all living." And in the second, she is with Elizabeth, her cousin and the mother of John the Baptist.


Mary and Eve

Two women meet in a transfigured land,
Both mothers, one ancient and one young.
One kneels and weeps while one shines and stands,
Both sing the gospel song which must be sung.

Mary is a graceful, budding tree
Who hears the Word and lifts her arms in praise.
Her fervent yes will one day be the key
To God’s descent, his broken ones to raise.

Eve is broken, tired, bent and sad,
An unrooted willow who craves to know
How God will come to reverse the bad,
And o’er the shadowed world let true light flow.

Two women meet: one cries for what’s undone,
The other points to Him through whom the world will be re-won.

EMP, Advent 2016

 Mary and Elizabeth

Two women meet in an ordinary town.
Both expectant, one middle-aged and one a girl.
They embrace with work worn hands, in homespun gowns,
Each one a jewel, bright sapphire and pearl.

Elizabeth’s face shines with radiant light
For when they touch, her baby jumps for joy.
Filled with prophetic energy and might,
She honors her cousin and her cousin’s unborn boy.

Mary is amazed to once more hear and feel
That the One she carries is indeed called Lord.
She sings how he has come to rule and heal,
To love the poor and save the broken world.

Two women: both filled with God’s own might,
Their hug a loving step in His banishment of night.

EMP, Advent 2016