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One More Time

Child sexual abuse is a silent and insidious cancer that eats away at the lives of its victims. It is conducted in silence and perpetuated in silence. Victims are often admonished never to speak about what is happening to them, and these warnings are often accompanied by threats of violence against the victim, their families, or their pets if they ever dare to tell someone about the abuse. Unfortunately, this silence comes at a cost. It is said that what is unspoken becomes unspeakable. In other words, the enormity of what a victim has suffered and the impact of the abuse on their lives grows and thrives in silence and secrecy. When abuse is not spoken about, healing is not possible.

A pastor acquaintance of mine recently told me a touching story of healing that speaks to this issue of silence. Years ago, Claire[1] was conducting a movie theology group in her congregation. During one gathering, a film that portrayed an abusive marital relationship was being viewed by the group. Gradually, Claire began to notice that the behavior of one of the young woman in attendance was becoming more and more agitated. Her discomfort was evident. During a break, the pastor drew the young woman, Debra, aside and asked her if she was okay. After much hesitation, Debra finally shared that she had been raped by her grandfather when she was a young girl. Claire listened and validated her discomfort with the movie, then invited her to come by the church office the next day to talk more about this traumatic event.

Debra did come to Claire’s office as she had been asked and told her story for the first of many times. She shared with Claire that she was the first person to hear her narrative of abuse. Debra had kept this secret for many years until the impact of a movie’s portrayal of abuse unleashed her own painful story. This began a ritual that went on for several years. Debra would stop by Claire’s office and ask her if she had time to hear the story again. Claire would always respond with, “One more time.” Ultimately, it took forty times before Debra had purged herself of the cancer of abuse and received the gift of listening that led to healing. She eventually got married and had children and was able to live a normal and happy life.

Unfortunately, there are many, many stories about child sexual abuse that do not have happy endings. Statistics report that somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual abuse as children. Sixty percent of men and women in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities likewise report episodes of childhood sexual abuse. This is corroborated by the seventy to eighty percent of adult survivors who acknowledge excessive use of drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with the aftermath of their abuse. In addition, a full seventy-five percent of prostitutes were victims of child sexual abuse. I have to wonder what would have been different for these hundreds of thousands of survivors had they had someone like Claire to tell their story to, someone who would listen without judgment and be a compassionate and loving presence in their lives.

The fact that it took Debra forty times of breaking the silence before she was done strikes me as a vital part of her healing. The number forty figures prominently in biblical narratives. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, and Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry. Certainly, the wilderness experience is an apt metaphor for the bleak and barren aftedesertrmath of child sexual abuse. It takes a lot of wandering to find your way after the trauma of abuse. It takes time. The experience may feel like fasting, where there is no sustenance or nourishment for body or soul. And the desert is a lonely place, often with no signposts to tell you where you are or where you’re headed. You can take a lot of wrong turns in the wilderness. And often, something that looks like it might be an oasis turns out to be a mirage. This makes it hard for survivors to trust anything that looks like hope. They might turn away from people who offer help, fearing that it will just be more of the same disappointment or abandonment they’ve suffered in the past. But Debra’s experience with Claire offers hope for something new, something that opens the floodgates of suppressed emotions that hold one back from healing and restoration. And in the sharing of the story, the breaking of the silence, healing can happen.

So, if you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, find someone to tell your story to. Tell it again and again, until you don’t need to tell it any more. Let their caring and nurturing spirit help you heal. And if you are someone whose vocation leads you to walk with those who have painful stories to tell, listen! Listen with compassion. Hold their story gently, offering no advice or platitudes, only your deep sorrow over their suffering and the assurance that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Be patient, for it might indeed take forty times. And remember that sometimes, when you think you can’t listen any more, you’ll find, with the help of God, that you can do it one more time.

[1] Names changed.

Everything Happens for a Reason?

I got your attention, didn’t I? There are few statements that stir up as many emotions as, “everything happens for a reason.” In fact, there are few statements more designed to make the recipient of such “sage” advice want to smack the speaker in the head! And yet, it is so prevalent. It’s everywhere (especially on Facebook)! And it is the cause of so much anger and hurt in those of you who have been through the worst that life can dish out and whose distress is compounded by thoughtless others whose idea of comfort is to offer these condescending words. Why are people so enamored of using this platitude, and why do the recipients get so upset by it? I think the answer to the second question is that the underlying message seems to be, “I can’t handle your feelings.” It is a highly invalidating statement. Despite the fact that whatever you are going through is extremely painful and worthy of copious tears, blazing anger, screaming, moaning and otherwise being a huge emotional mess, this other person doesn’t want to hear it. It’s too uncomfortable or overwhelming for them to deal with. They want to say something, placating though it may be, that allows them to walk away from the emotional cesspool and tell themselves that they tried to help you but you just weren’t listening. They want you to stop suffering so they don’t have to look at it, acknowledge it, or harbor the thought, even for a moment, that this same thing that happened to you, could happen to them! They cannot entertain that possibility, lest it open up such a deep chasm of fear that they would be swallowed up by it.

Another underlying message in this statement is that the “reason” is about God. (I think they’re wrong, which I will address in the next paragraph.) Unfortunately, one of the harmful effects of this mindset is that, if God is in control of everything, even our suffering, then why bother trying to change anything for the better? It gives people permission to be utterly passive in the face of injustice and evil. It allows them to be indifferent to unfair practices and antiquated laws that allow people to be victimized and ignored. Not only do the words allow the speaker to walk away from the person who is hurting, it prevents them from considering the broader context and the conditions that exist that may have contributed to the situation at hand. And even when the situation is completely random and unconnected to any social ills, there are still things that could be done to ease the suffering of those who are impacted by it. As people of faith, we are called to be forerunners of the kingdom of God, working to minister to a broken world and right the wrongs that we see around us. When our philosophy is “Everything happens for a reason,” it seems to excuse us from responding to John Lewis’s call to arms: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?”012

But let’s get back to the main issue. Does everything happen for a reason? The answer to that question is yes, but they’re not good reasons, and I don’t think God has anything to do with it! The implication with the “everything happens for a reason” gambit is that God caused this to happen for God’s own mysterious purposes, and you had better just be grateful, because something good is going to come out of it, if you wait long enough and quit your whining in the meantime! That’s just bad theology. God does not cause our suffering. God does not willfully put us in harm’s way or devise situations that will cause us unimaginable pain for the benefit of the “greater good.” I just don’t believe that’s how God works. But while I don’t believe God is involved in the “before” of an event, I absolutely believe God is present in the “after”— comforting, strengthening, and surrounding you with people who can understand and accompany you on your difficult journey. And certainly, God is involved in your healing and in the transformation that can sometimes happen in the aftermath of tragedy.

So what are the reasons for suffering? Here are just a few:

…because someone decided to get hopped up on drugs or alcohol and drive into a crowd of people on a sidewalk.

…because a sick and twisted individual decided to act out their sickness by violating an innocent child.

…because a virus ran rampant through a community that had no access to clean water or quality health care.

…because a mutation in one of your genes caused you to be infertile or to bear a child with severe abnormalities and disabilities.

…because a train operator fell asleep at the wheel or a religious fanatic high-jacked a plane or a troubled kid took his father’s gun to school.

The list goes on and on. Everything does happen for a reason, and sometimes the only reason we can come up with is that we live in a random universe where s— happens. But the reason is not God. God is not the cause of tragedy; God is the agent of healing from tragedy.

Homecoming

My dad died two years ago, but last week I got to bring him home—not due to a miraculous resurrection but by taking his ashes to the place of my childhood. When I was a mere infant, my parents bought a lake resort, previously owned by my mother’s Aunt Etta, on a beautiful lake in northeastern Washington. The resort, which still bears our family name, was the perfect place for my dad, a rugged outdoorsman and gregarious host. There was nothing he didn’t love about this place, but after eleven hard seasons, my mother had had enough of the life—the isolation, the long days, the unending work, and the inability to ever take a vacation in the summer—so they sold the resort and moved on.

This wasn’t my first trip back, but my return was different this time. Part of the difference was the fact that my father had died in the interim, making each vista filled with bittersweet memories, and on this trip, my husband and I had brought along our nine-year-old grandson. I was intensely aware of the passage of time as I took in my surroundings on the day of our arrival. Much had changed, but it was still the old familiar stomping grounds—the same black walnut tree which my siblings and I had climbed a thousand times was still a massive and sturdy presence in the yard of our former home; the little store still held shelves of food, Band-aids, fishing lures, and candy. I remembered the anticipation with which we would greet the weekly candy delivery when we would be allowed to enter the truck and choose a sweet treat from the vast array displayed on its shelves. Necco Wafers or Sugar Babies? A Black Cow or Pixie Sticks? The walls of the office and store were still papered with photos of fisher-folk and their big catch or hunters posed with their kill. Back in a corner hung a framed photo of my family standing on the front porch when I was only four or five.

Tiffany's Resort 2015 (56)That first evening, I wandered down to the swimming hole and sat at the end of the dock, dangling my feet in the cool waters of the lake. The water and surrounding hills formed a cradle, and the skies overhead a starry dome. I felt held in this sacred sphere, not separate from creation, but a part of it. The sense of recognition was overwhelming, and tears came easily. Simply, I felt at home. I think we all have a sense of place, an attachment to somewhere we feel at home, where our spirit wants to linger. There are places that have worked themselves into the fiber of our being, that are so embedded in who we are that we can barely define ourselves without them. These places aren’t necessarily where we were born or grew up, but they are always places that speak to something deep inside us, that fulfill some spiritual longing that we may not even be aware of. For my husband, it was his grandparents’ ranch where he spent his summers; for my mom, it was an ocean beach—any ocean beach; and for my dad, it was this place that offered him a fullness of life that no other place before or since had.

As I sat on the dock that night, I understood many things for the first time. I understood why he loved the resort so much and why he was so bitter toward my mother for making him give it up. I understood the loss of the place and the pride of ownership that would ultimately never be replaced by any of his future endeavors. But I had come to bring him home, to mingle his ashes with the earth and the waters, to make him one with the lake and the land that he loved. Over the next few days, I would be swirling his remains in deep green waters and scattering them on sandy beaches and under soaring pine trees. As the water and trees had been a part of his marrow, now his marrow would become a part of theirs and of the God who created them all. This thought gave me a sense of completeness, and I pondered the day when my time on earth would be done, when I would find my way home to the Ground of Being and my eternal resting place. At that moment, I will truly be complete. Until then, I am satisfied to sit and swirl my feet in the waters that birthed me.

Saying Yes

I am beginning to emerge from a cave of my own making after many months of the isolation that comes from being too busy, taking on too much, and imagining that my calendar could hold up under the burdens I have forced it to carry. In fact, in the past two months, my calendar had collapsed completely, and I am just now moving aside the pieces of it in order to see the light of day. It feels so good to look around and see what I have been Iron Goat Trail (12)missing while I reaped the consequences of overwork and an impossible vortex of colliding events in my personal life.

It’s not that I haven’t known this was coming. I did. I knew fairly shortly after one crucial decision, one casual and unconsidered commitment that proved to be one “yes” too far in my already overburdened life. The old saying, “Sin in haste, repent at leisure,” has been running around in my head for almost a year now. And I have repented. Daily. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I got myself into and how exactly it happened. And I actually think I’ve figured it out.

I know that I am not alone in my difficulty with saying no. There are a lot of people who suffer from the same ailment. I know this because so many of the books in the self-help aisle are about saying no, setting healthy boundaries, better self-care, and so on. But I don’t think that it’s as simple as just saying no. I think we (me included) need to spend a lot more time thinking about what it is that we’re too often saying yes to!

Case in point, when I said yes to this particular commitment, I realize now that I was saying yes to a paycheck, yes to recognition, yes to being needed, and mostly, yes to ego. I completely failed to check in with God before I made this decision. I did check in with my husband, and since he kind of likes it when I bring home a paycheck on occasion, he jumped on board without too much persuasion. But I didn’t check in with God, and I certainly didn’t check in with myself. If I had, I would have noticed that I wasn’t particularly excited or intrigued by this “opportunity.” It wasn’t something I had a passion for, and it wasn’t a role that was connected with what I see as my true vocation. So I said yes for all the wrong reasons.

I wonder if most of us do this from time to time or even frequently. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that there are a lot of reasons for saying yes that have nothing to do with God. My list is long, and I bet my readers can come up with a similar list fairly quickly. We say yes to money, acceptance, indispensability, recognition, acclaim, being needed, being in control, and having someone be indebted to us. I could go on. The reasons are myriad and vary with the individual. I know the ones that are most tempting to me, and I now realize that I have to stay vigilant if I don’t want a repeat of this pattern in my life. I know that I have to do something differently if I want my life to BE different! I know that I actually have to take the time to discern whether a particular request or opportunity is something that God is calling me to. That means finding a way to get some space between the invitation and my answer.

For me, I have discovered that an automatic yes is out of the question. I always need to tell the other person that I will have to think and pray about it first. Pray first. That has become my new mantra. And I think it will be one that sticks with me for a long, long time. And what will I pray? I can think of a lot of things—like is this where God is leading, is this something I’m passionate about, is this congruent with what I see as my calling, how will this affect me, my family, and my spiritual life—but they all really boil down to one thing that is at the heart of the matter.  If I say yes, will I be saying yes to self or yes to God? I pray that this simple formula might serve as a guideline for you as well. And if we are able to say yes to God, let it be a resounding YES!

Look Up!

I recently spent three days on a getaway with soul friends near Bend, Oregon. The weather there was a pleasant change from what is shaping up to be a dreary winter in North Central Washington. One morning, desperately in need of some fresh air, I decided to take a walk outdoors during our designated Sunriversilent time. I strolled along a path that meandered along several small ponds, breathing deeply the smell of earth and evergreens. Partially frozen, the ponds shimmered in shades of silver and white. Cracks webbed through the ice like arteries, speaking of life even in the midst of winter’s grip. Grasses and cattails lined the edges, brown and brittle, but lovely still.

The quietude of the landscape was occasionally broken by the cries of geese flying overhead or gathering in distant fields. Small birds twittered in nearby trees, and I came upon a bench where I could sit and observe my feathered friends as they flitted from branch to branch. An avid birder, I was enthralled to see mountain chickadees, pine siskins and even a nuthatch or two that have been absent from my own bird feeder for months.

I spent several minutes in delight over their antics before lifting my head toward the top of the tree. To my surprise, there perched a large red-tailed hawk at the apex of the fir. It must have been there all along, for surely I would have heard the beating of its large wings had it landed while I was sitting there in silence. The bird was regal in its bearing, self-contained in its stillness, beautiful in its majesty. I nearly held my breath, not wanting to startle it.

Red-tailed hawk Reveling in this loveliness, two words dropped into my mind, “Look up!” This was not an instruction, since I had already done so, but a lesson, something I needed to remember from this encounter. It occurred to me that I often have tunnel vision or a singleness of focus that is too intent on that which is right in front of me, and this prevents me from gaining the benefit of another point of view, a broader perspective or new insights. Sometimes I just need to look up, or down, or even sideways to claim the gifts of other vistas. As if to prove the point, I gazed off into the distance and became aware of the looming presence of Mount Bachelor. But this is a lesson that is even more true of life than landscapes.

When we get stuck in a particular situation, looking at it from the other side may help break something loose. When tunnel vision causes us to see only ourselves and our immediate concerns, widening our gaze may help us see the people who are walking alongside to help us through or to see beyond our own problems to the deeper issues that plague our communities and our world. Looking up allows us to see the way that God sees and be grateful for the gift of life and a knowledge of God’s presence with us through all that we face.

I’m at a certain age where I actually need tri-focals, lenses that are divided for distance vision, middle distances and close-up work. Maybe tri-focals can serve as a metaphor for life as well. All of these lenses are important for helping us navigate the journey ahead. We need multiple lenses in order to accurately perceive ourselves and others, the events of our lives and the practice of our faith. So when you discover a need for new perspectives, look up!

Living the Dream

I have been conspicuously absent from the blogosphere for over three months now, and there’s a good reason for that. The reason is that God (in the shape of a good friend) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. My friend, Juli, who is a district superintendent in charge of some 40 clergy and congregations in central Washington, asked me to serve as interim pastor for a local church whose pastor had just gone on disability leave. Never mind that I wasn’t ordained clergy, she wanted me there because the congregation needed a healing presence, and the fact that she wouldn’t have to pay another pastor to relocate for three months didn’t hurt either! Call me crazy, but it didn’t take me long to say “Yes!”

Why would this be an offer I couldn’t refuse, you might ask. Well, if I’m remembering right, the first time I flirted with the idea of going into ministry was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was 16. It was at that point just a passing fancy, not serious enough to truly endanger my fully entrenched plan to become an English teacher and write the Great American Novel in my free time. Over the years, through routine jobs, stay-at-home mothering, a graduate degree and a 14 year career in mental health, thoughts of ordained ministry would enter my mind from time to time, quickly followed by the realization that it just wasn’t possible. My husband’s high-powered career wouldn’t allow for the itinerancy that is required of clergy in the United Methodist Church. Nonetheless, these occasional tugs on my soul continued to occur. Most of the time I tried to persuade myself that I would probably hate being a pastor, because I hate committee meetings so much!

Such was the state of affairs when I had the opportunity to attend my friend Juli’s ordination service a few years ago. I was excited and happy for her. I was enjoying the liturgy, the solemn vows, the laying on of hands as I watched the other candidates receive their stoles. And then it was Juli’s turn. I started to cry, and then I felt like this deep well of grief just opened up and swallowed me. In a huge crowd of people gathered for this holy (and happy) occasion, I was trying to hold back uncontrollable sobs. The service continued while I struggled to pull myself together. Then, during communion, the bishop invited anyone who felt a call to ministry to come forward and talk with one of the pastors who were strategically placed around the room. Just as I was wondering if I would suddenly find myself propelled forward, I heard God’s voice, clear as day, saying, “This is not for you.” That is when I understood how much I had really wanted to enter the ministry. Over time, I was able to process these feelings with friends, with my spiritual director and with God. I came to understand my own calling more fully and let go of that longing, but every once in a while, I would still feel that little tug, that nagging “What if…?” Ordination-service-at-Shankill-2011

Fast forward to April of this year and my sudden (though temporary) immersion in ministry. You may be wondering if it was wise to give someone with my history the keys to the kingdom. I mean, it had the potential to completely turn my life upside down, didn’t it? And here’s what I learned. It was fun. I enjoyed every minute of it, even the committee meetings. I was good at it. And I had absolutely no desire to keep doing it once my three months was up!

What a gift! A chance to temporarily do the thing I had always wanted to do and then to discover that it’s not what I wanted after all. Instead, it clarified for me that I am exactly where I need to be, doing the things that God wants me to do, in the places God has sent me from Day One. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us. We spend a lot of time yearning for something else. Chasing the Dream. And when we don’t achieve it, we waste a lot of time bemoaning the loss of that dream. We never consider the fact that we might not have really liked the dream all that much once we got there! Or discovered that even if we enjoyed it, it wasn’t a very good fit for our temperament or our skill set. For years, my husband has bemoaned the fact that his grandfather died while he (my husband) was too young to take over the family ranch. And just last weekend, as we were visiting the wheat country and talking about farm life, he said, “I couldn’t have been a farmer. The worry about weather and crops would have driven me crazy.”

So how do we get from Point A to Point B, from the longing to the acceptance, without a whole lot of anguish and regret in between? I think it’s about being continually in a deep process of discernment, listening to God’s guidance as you move through life, and living the life you have with prayerful intentionality and a sense of the sacredness of all human endeavor. It’s about living more in the present than in the past or future, spending more time embracing what God has given you to do right now and less time pondering what might have been. Not everyone gets to sail around the world or write the Great American Novel or become a professional athlete. You might never get your 15 minutes of fame, but you have the chance every single day to make a difference to someone that God puts in your path. The question is, can you be awake enough to notice and to view that person and that path as holy ground? My prayer is that you do.

Miracles Do Happen

Last week a miracle happened. The darkness that had held my family in its grip for almost five months was Moon risedispelled by a sudden, dazzling burst of light. Of all the outcomes we had imagined, hoped for or feared, this was the least likely of them all. And it felt like resurrection, a gloriously unexpected divine intervention, an outpouring of abundant grace. It seems so apropos that it happened during this season of Lent, as we ponder the events of another darkness, a time when the promises of Jesus regarding the Kingdom of Heaven seemed lost, when his death on the cross seemed like the end of a peoples’ hopes and dreams. It is a time when we are reminded of the earth-shattering events of Easter Sunday that turned upside down all pre-conceived notions about life and death, light and darkness.

I think the story of Easter is the story of us all. We have all entered times of great darkness, experienced a death of one sort or another. A former pastor of mine once said, “We all experience little deaths every day.” We know the truth of that, don’t we? The loss of dreams, the loss of little bits or big chunks of self, the loss of relationships, health, or vocation are all deaths of one kind or another. And we make the mistake of believing that death has the final word. We keep putting periods at the end of these sentences, thinking life as we know it is over. But just as seeds are still lying dormant under the snow, waiting for the perfect conditions to emerge, so God lies waiting in our darkness, waiting to surprise us with life and light.

Our God is a God of surprise. I must confess, though, that I’m a lot fonder of surprises at Christmas, when I’m relatively sure that what is held inside a beautifully wrapped package is something I will enjoy. But when a problem package is randomly drop-kicked into my life wrapped in dirty brown paper and emitting a foul odor, I’m not so willing to open it up. We are pretty picky about what we are willing to receive from life. Jesus attracted a lot of people when he fed and healed them, but there weren’t too many followers still lingering at the foot of the cross that held his battered and bloody body. Nonetheless, Jesus rose from the dead, burst from the tomb and changed the world. And even with that evidence of God’s power to overcome all odds and even death, we still doubt.

I doubt. I doubted God’s ability to transform the situation in which my family found itself. I feared the worst. Oh sure, I prayed a lot, and I tried to trust, and I wrote a blog about not being afraid. My problem was that I was thinking too small. I was putting limits on what was possible. My hopes were human-sized, not God-sized. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” God admonishes in Isaiah 55. How is it that I keep forgetting that? Thankfully, God keeps reminding me. God doesn’t let my humanness stop God from continuing to bless me with astonishing miracles. God doesn’t answer prayer because I am worthy. God answers prayer because God is good. And so I give thanks for God’s abundant grace, for the divine love that keeps loving, no matter what, for the Light that keeps overcoming the darkness, for the spring that always replaces winter, every time. I pray that, like the dawn that burst forth in my life last week, God may bring light into your darkness. May this time of Lent and Easter also be a time of little deaths being conquered by Life through the abundance of a surprising and gracious God.

 

 

Fear Not

“Do not, fear, 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.” Isaiah 43:1b-2

 I’ve been thinking about fear a lot lately. The life circumstance that has brought this about doesn’t need to be shared in order for most of my readers to relate. I don’t know very many people who don’t experience fear, sometimes mild, sometimes paralyzing, sometimes for their own safety, but I think more often for the safety and well-being of loved ones. I am much less likely to be tied in knots by my own problems than I am by the difficulties in the lives of my spouse, children, grandson, friends and extended family. The dilemma lies in the scriptural admonition to “Fear not!” As believers, our faith is supposed to cast out fear. According to an internet source, there are 116 verses in the Bible that tell us not to be afraid. But if you count passages that don’t use the words “fear” or “afraid” while conveying the same basic message, the number rises to 365, one reference for every day of the year. And apparently, we need it!

 When we are afraid, our brains seem to go into overdrive, running through all the possible outcomes of the fearful situation, processing the “what-ifs” until we are about to go mad! And every imagined scenario cranks up our anxiety and fear a little more and a little more, eventually turning our bodies into a quivering mass of tight muscles, tension headaches and upset stomachs. The Bible promises a peace that passes all understanding, but we don’t know how to get there. How do we claim the promises of the Bible like the one above when we know that we live in a world where bad things DO happen to good people?Golden eagle

 In a recent conversation with my spiritual director, she told me that I needed to radically trust God, letting go and giving the situation to God multiple times a day if that’s what it took. So I tried that, and it worked to a certain extent. The problem was, every time I let it go, I took it right back a few minutes later. At least I was getting practice! Another thing that helped was remembering all the times when fearful situations in my life were transformed by a surprising outcome, something unpredictable and completely of God.

 Then, during my devotional time one morning, out of the blue I got the urge to lie on the floor in a yoga position that opens the chest and heart. As I breathed into this position, the idea came to compose a breath prayer. What immediately entered my mind was “God of light and peace, be by our side.” And so I prayed, over and over, letting my body open up to the presence of God and God’s promise. Gradually, peace washed over me and replaced the racing thoughts in my head with a quiet confidence that God would indeed be with our family and that all would be well. Not that it wouldn’t be a rough road, for the Isaiah passage doesn’t promise that, but, as Paul writes, “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28, NRSV)

 Later that day, I saw a golden eagle fly down and alight in the field behind our house. In over three years living in this valley, this was only the second golden eagle I had seen. As I watched, it took off again, its beautiful golden brown wings and unmistakable silhouette captivating to see. It flew to a nearby tree where it stayed for nearly half an hour. As time went on, I began to believe this was a divine visitor. Remembering a friend who is interested in Native American power animals, I decided to look up the eagle’s meaning on the internet. My feeling was confirmed by what I read there: the eagle signifies divine presence and connection to the Creator.

 What I learned from this experience may be helpful to others who find themselves consumed by fear. First, pray. Not the kind of prayer that is full of words and pleas for God to make the bad things go away, but a prayer of opening, offering oneself up to God and quieting the mind so that God has room to speak. And then wait. Wait for the promise that God will be faithful to give, a promise of presence and peace. God’s message to you won’t necessarily come in the form of an eagle, but it will come if you are patient and paying attention. May God’s grace and abundant love be evident in your lives today and every day.  Fear not.

 

Underneath it All

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the annual Christmas ad campaigns have begun in earnest. My husband and I record a lot of our shows so that we can fast forward past all the commercials, but football games are the exception to the rule. On Sundays, I am forced to watch the glut of ads that are bloating the airways with their claims of “New! More! Bigger! Better! Faster!” These ads are bright and sparkly invitations into a fantasy world where finding a luxury car with a huge bow on top parked in your driveway on Christmas morning is not only possible but deserved. Ad-makers promise a Wonderland of all the things they believe will make our holidays merry and bright, while actually emptying them of any deeper meaning. In fact, that’s the one thing these ads don’t promise—“deeper.”

The season of Advent is approaching and along with it the challenge for people of faith to find a depth of meaning while still tending to all of the tasks that sustain our Christmas traditions and bring joy to our families—shopping, baking, sending greetings to loved ones far and wide, participating in holiday festivities, the works. But just like shallow advertising, these activities can also drain our holidays of meaning if we let them.CIMG0034

I’m reminded of an experience I had years ago that might speak to this issue. My husband and I were in Tucson visiting our son at the University of Arizona and decided to go on an outing to Kartchner Caverns. The trip took us through the dry and barren hills of the Sonoran Desert, miles and miles of not much to look at other than tumbleweeds and cactus. As we approached the visitor center, it was more of the same. I was having a hard time imagining that anything beautiful could exist underneath this arid landscape. Then our tour guide led us toward a large metal doorway set into the base of a hill. This doorway opened into a tunnel that vacuumed the particles from our clothing and protected the cave’s temperature. At the far end of the tunnel was another air-locked door, which, when opened, was a lot like falling down the rabbit hole. We had entered into a wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites, glowing formations that resembled waterfalls, thrones, wavy bacon growing from the ceilings and even the Madonna. It was truly magical and awe-inspiring. I found myself entering into an attitude of prayer without forming an intention to do so. I was surrounded by Mystery. This was confirmed when the guide, a retired science teacher, pointed out some small formations that looked like coral growing outward from the cavern walls. “Most cave formations are caused by the dripping of water from the limestone ceilings. In other words, the main force working to create them is gravity. Yet these particular formations have tentacles that grow outward and upward. Scientists have no idea how this happens.” Mystery. Something that the most brilliant scientific minds could not explain.  It gave me goose bumps.

 

So what does this story have to do with Advent? Perhaps it is this. Beneath the barren surface of our society’s focus on a Christmas that is all about materialism and devoid of any deeper meaning, there is a door. Compared to the surrounding landscape, it’s not a very big door, and you really have to look for it. But when you enter it, you find what lies underneath it all, a chamber of mystery and wonder, the story of the Christ child, sent to bring light to darkness and love to all humankind. And once you’ve found it, there are portals everywhere, even in department stores and on busy city streets. You just have to go deeper. You can see beauty and mystery in the kindness of strangers, bell ringers on cold street corners, the shining faces around your holiday table, the hug of a child, the music on the wind singing comfort and joy. Every Christmas chore is transformed into a sacred task, the practice of sharing the light and love with everyone you meet. No longer does Christmas have to be about more, bigger and better, just about deeper. Find the door to the Mystery and enter in.

 

Grace in the Ashes

There is nothing quite like the sight of a helicopter parked in your back yard to catch your attention! Well, OK, it was in my neighbor’s field, but literally only a stone’s throw from our back fence. And smoke—that grabs your attention too! That was almost a month ago, on August 19th, when a forest fire sparked to life about a mile or so away from our house. Initially, this felt like it would just be an exciting break in my day and was not immediately alarming. I mean, the helicopter was really cool! It wasn’t until my Chicken Little husband came home and started throwing stuff into boxes that I realized this was going to have a direct impact on my life. And on our daughter’s wedding that was scheduled to take place in our back yard in less than two weeks!

Fire (7) resized

Later that afternoon, a sheriff sauntered to our door with our Level 1 Evacuation Advisory that says, basically, “Hey, just letting you know there’s a fire in the area.” As if we hadn’t already figured that out by the helicopters and smoke jumpers we could see out our window. It wasn’t until the next afternoon that we got the Level 2 Evacuation Advisory, which is just a tad more urgent. It says, “HEY! There’s a fire in your area, and you need to pack your s*** and load your cars NOW in case you need to leave at a moment’s notice.” That’s when the adrenaline really kicked in! Adrenalin is a wonderful thing that allows people to accomplish an amazing amount of really hard work in a short period of time. The problem is that adrenalin wanes once the work is over and the waiting begins, leaving one exhausted and increasingly irritable. And stressed. That was one thing I learned from this ordeal, but fortunately, it’s not all I learned, nor was it even remotely the most important. So here are some of the other lessons I learned from the Eagle Fire of 2013.

We can never be grateful enough for the firefighters who put their lives on the line for us every time there is the tiniest spark or flame that puts people and their property in danger. Watching two hot shot crews use our neighbor’s field for a rallying point two days into the fire just made me feel so safe and warm and fuzzy. They are amazing people, and I want to hug them all.

I’m not as attached to my stuff as I thought I was. When you have to pack and load your vehicles with the things you hold nearest and dearest, you really learn what’s important and what’s not. So in went the pictures and computers and some treasured belongings of my deceased parents, but none of my books. We packed important papers, but I really didn’t care about the silver and china and jewelry. They all got put in the truck anyway, because we ended up with too much time to think about it, but I could have done without them. Nonetheless, our initial instincts were telling. We want to save our memories more than we want to save our stuff.

At times like these, you learn who your neighbors are. People came out of the woodwork to help us out. The phone rang off the hook with offers of a place to stay should we have to evacuate, storage space for vehicles or boxes, suggestions for alternate wedding sites if necessary. Many of these were from people in our church—wonderful, good-hearted and genuine people to whom I am extremely grateful. Other calls came from our actual neighbors wanting to come help us hose down the house and yard. Even friends from 4 hours away wondered if we needed a place to stay. All told, we could have stayed in at least 10 different homes from Leavenworth to Wenatchee to Spokane.

It turned out that we never did have to evacuate, but a friend up the road did, so we took her in along with her four-year-old son, Mychal, and two dogs to add to our own menagerie. Having Mychal around was a lot like mainlining caffeine, but he’s so smart and adorable, it was hard to be annoyed when he pushed the buttons on the phone for the umpteenth time. His mom also happens to be my hair stylist, so my pre-wedding hair color actually took place in my kitchen. This allowed me to stay relatively on-track with the wedding timeline while I tried to keep my distraught daughter calm during frequent phone calls.

Megan's wedding (135)

 So here’s the happy ending: the fire was declared 100% contained with four days to go before the wedding; the winds continued to favor us by blowing any remaining smoke in the opposite direction; and the big day dawned bright and clear. Friends pitched in big time to make it an event that we will cherish forever. The wedding was the fulfillment of a long story that includes hurt and loss, healing, patience, prayer, unexpected plot twists, love, transformation and finally joy. And it all comes down to this: no matter what life brings you, God’s grace is there, pressed down and overflowing more abundantly than we could ever imagine, a gift in the midst of every trial by fire, if only we pay attention. And are grateful. May God’s grace be present in your life this day and every day.