When I grow up, I want to be like Ray

But God’s discipline is good for us

Hebrews 12:10-11, 14-15 For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. … Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life … Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God.

While Dave and I were on vacation, we visited a man we respect and admire deeply, who mentored us before we left for Brazil in 1990 and once visited us in São Paulo. During a time of deep discouragement when Karis was a baby and the church Dave pastored seemed to be falling apart, Ray helped pick us up, dust us off, and set us back on the road toward ministry. I still remember what he said when I told him I was so hurt I didn’t ever want to hear the word “ministry” again: “You don’t have a choice, Debbie. God has called you to this. You’ll be back.”

At 85, Ray drove three hours each way on the same day through blizzard conditions to attend Karis’s memorial service. He referenced several things about that service during his time with us. Though he needs aids to keep his balance now while standing or walking—and therefore had to give up chopping wood for his stove—he can still drive, and does so regularly, to meet people for a meal, to make a hospital visit, to participate actively in his church.

Sadly, it didn’t occur to me to take a picture with Ray while we were with him, but a quick internet search gave me this. And this about his wife Eunice, whose photos are everywhere in Ray’s living room. Ray has continued her tradition of amazing hospitality.

On the way to visit him, Dave and I laughed over some of the things Ray said over the years. Like “the grace of ice cream.” And his comment when we proudly showed him our newborn baby, “Now that’s a baby!” (He confessed all newborn babies look alike to him.) And when asked once in my hearing about women wearing makeup, he said, “If the barn door needs painting, paint it!” And “Now I can be a better Christian,” after we fed him when he was hungry.

Here’s a favorite Ray story. When their girls were small, he and his wife Eunice took their five daughters camping. On one occasion, their tent site was next to a group of young people who partied loudly far into the night, despite Ray’s request that they tone it down so his family could sleep. So, the next morning bright and early, Ray walked around their tent banging a pot with a metal spoon, yelling “Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” Within a short time, the partyers were gone.

Ray is now 92, still sharp and incisive, asking questions that reflect his long history and deep knowledge of us, but with a new gentleness. Before we arrived at his home, Dave and I thought he might be up for a two-hour visit. Four hours later, he was still going strong. We were the ones who called it, not him. What a precious, holy, encouraging time. A gift. A privilege.

Ray gave us a vision and model of holy living in retirement. He didn’t set out to do so; it just happened as he shared his life with us. His prayer every morning is, “Lord, how can I serve your people today?” And at night he asks, “So, Lord, how did I do? Did I communicate your grace to the people you sent me today? Did I listen well? Did I submit to you? Was your Spirit free to flow through me?” His own prayer of examen.

During the quiet times when Ray is not actively engaged with people, he spends most of his time praying for them. And reading. We were impressed with how up to date he was on current events, and how penetratingly he commented on issues of concern to America and the world. On Thursdays he cooks dinner for his three daughters and an “adopted” daughter who live close enough to come. He says their conversation is wide-ranging and always teaches him things he needs to learn. Thinking of him planning and cooking his love-feast for tonight makes me smile with gratitude to have experienced the overflow of Ray’s generosity in our own lives.

Ray shared many stories with us of what God taught him through his faults and failures over his many years. He told us his whole life now can be summed up in these simple words: “I bow to you, Lord of the universe, Lord of my life.”

When I grow up, I want to be like Ray.

Whiter than Snow

But God purifies

Psalm 51:1-7, 17 Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. … But you desire honesty from the heart, teaching me wisdom even there. Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Dave and I drove into Pittsburgh from a lovely two-week vacation just as snow began to fall. We scrambled to unload the car, then Dave checked the plastic on all the windows while I ran to the library with an overdue book and stopped at Aldi for essential groceries. The lines were long with others doing the same thing. We were happy then to hunker down and watch the snow fall. And start catching up after two weeks neglecting various aspects of life in Pittsburgh.

This morning the world seemed hushed, muted by the pristine layers of winter loveliness. As Dave and I shoveled our walks and driveway, I welcomed the stillness as an invitation to be quiet before the Lord. Psalm 51 came to my mind. For several months my spirit has been broken as I became aware I deeply hurt someone I deeply love. Saturday I was broken again as I realized I hurt my friend once more, by responding too quickly, by not listening carefully before I spoke.

Our back yard

Honestly, Lord, I prayed as I shoveled, I feel despair at my sin. I know I can’t fix myself. Only you can cleanse and change me. I don’t know how to walk forward. I don’t know how to mend or how to heal my heart or my friend’s. One more time I offer my brokenness to you and ask for your help. Thank you for assuring me in Psalm 51 you will not reject my broken heart. Because of you unfailing love and great compassion, have mercy on me. Have mercy on us.

Psalm 51 ends on a note of hope, the hope of singing joyfully of God’s forgiveness. I look forward to the restoration GOD can accomplish–even though I can’t.

Look with favor on us and help us. Rebuild our walls. Psalm 51:18

Written 170 years ago … still relevant today

In Memoriam is a collection of 131 poems written by Alfred Lord Tennyson over 17 years of grieving the early death of his best friend. This one is number 106. It contains many of my wishes for 2022.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow;

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Happy New Year!

Shutterstock: Media Whalestock

Hope for 2022

But God’s hope can anchor us

Hebrews 6:18-7:2, 26-28 It is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. … Jesus has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. … The name Melchizedek means “king of justice” and king of Salem means “king of peace.” … He is the kind of priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin … the perfect High Priest forever.

We’ve had surprisingly mild weather for Pittsburgh in December. A couple of weeks ago, my 22-month-old granddaughter Talita climbed a playground ladder I didn’t know she was yet capable of, turned, and threw herself into my arms. A sobering moment! I could so easily NOT have been attentive enough to catch her.

Yesterday, the same child, on a simple walk through our neighborhood, as I watched her brother brandish a long stick (“I’m a fierce dinosaur”), pulled her hand from mine and ran into the street. So easily, a driver could have turned the corner and not seen her. Caleb was as upset as I was. “NO, Talita! You can only walk in the street holding Grammy’s hand!!”

Talita, anxious for action, resists restraint (at the beach in Brazil in November)

The question came to my mind, “Am I safe walking into 2022? Whose hand am I holding? Am I pushing beyond my own experience and wisdom?”

All of us have reasons to feel insecure about what may happen in the new year. Though we may already be concerned about “what’s next” regarding the pandemic, global warming, politics, economics, etc., we’re as unaware as toddlers of what we don’t yet know or understand. In many ways, despite our best efforts, we feel vulnerable and out of control, especially if we’ve suffered significant losses in 2021.

How can we, then, enter 2022 with hope, expectancy, confidence, optimism, faith, trust?

I spent some time this morning soaking in this passage in Hebrews 6 and 7, asking the Lord to anchor hope deep in my soul—hope rooted in his sovereignty, his power and love, his plan for redemption of our broken world, broken relationships, broken trust.

The refrain of a song we’ve been singing in church through Advent rings in my mind at odd moments: “Prepare him room, prepare him room, let the King of Glory enter in” (Sovereign Grace Music). It’s become my chief ambition for 2022, to stay firmly connected to my Caregiver. Like Talita, my safety, my hope, depends on trusting his wisdom and direction. And I have the advantage of one who is absolutely trustworthy.

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,

Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger …

Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have

A better lodging than a rack* or a grave.      George Herbert, “Christmas I”

*Historically, a rack was an instrument of torture.

On this third day of Christmas, we remember …

But God became a refugee

Matthew 2:13-15 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death.

Hebrews 11:13-16 All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. … They were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

The UNHCR estimates the number of people forcibly displaced as 84 million, with 48 million internally displaced and over 26.6 million refugees. At least six million of those are Venezuelan, making Colombia the second-largest receiver of refugees (Turkey is first). Those numbers don’t fit in my head. A current Venezuelan refugee article describes some of the hardships.

But God is at work, even in the terrible conditions playing out around the world. Over the last months since the forced exodus of so many from Afghanistan, our friends Ted and Claudia Limpic have been telling us one amazing story, not of exploitation but of extraordinary care.

Brazilian missionaries Samuel and Julia (not their real names) lived in Afghanistan for ten years, learning the language and loving the people. When many of their Afghan friends were able to flee to a nearby country at the end of August, Samuel and Julia joined them, and helped in every way they could. They had positive conversations with people at the Brazilian embassy there about granting humanitarian visas to the refugees. The process included translating for two family interviews per day (nine per week) and arranging travel to Brazil—amid opposition from the local authorities in their departure town.

Samuel and Julia (left) with Afghan refugees in their transition country

Meanwhile, an organization in Brazil worked hard to prepare a place for a growing number of Afghan refugees, building chalets for them. On Thanksgiving Day, the first group arrived in Brazil, and by Christmas Eve the remaining refugees of a total group of seventy arrived to start their new lives. Samuel and Julia are now getting a well-deserved rest in their hometown in Brazil. As Ted said, “Only God’s strong hand could have opened so many closed doors!”

On this third day of Christmas, when we remember and grieve the Holy Innocents, the children who died as Herod sought to eliminate the baby whom he viewed as a threat to his throne, I take comfort from Jesus himself becoming a refugee. Though he was a baby, his Father experienced through him the displacement, the grief, the many, many challenges.

Since the Son himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. … So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 2:18, 4:16).

And as we receive mercy and grace, God can show us how to pass it on—perhaps even to refugees, as did Samuel and Julia.

Anticipation

But the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings

Malachi 4:1-2 The day of judgment is coming … But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.

Luke 1:53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

I couldn’t write yesterday. I felt empty, and at the same time, stuffed way too full. This morning when I woke up, I asked the Lord what to share out of that empty fulness. So here we go.

At our house, the Christmas stockings are small. I didn’t grow up with the tradition of Christmas stockings. Having them at all began when our dear friend Jane Keep knitted small stockings with the names of the five of us for Rachel’s first Christmas, Dave-Debbie-Danny-Karis-Rachel. Several years later, she added Valerie, not quite in the same style as the original five. Since then, God has doubled the number of our Christmas family. Though there are now fourteen stockings, we’ll host twelve around the table on Christmas Day: Karis, though we all feel her presence, does not take up space at the table, nor does our granddog, June.

The stockings hang empty now, awaiting the creativity of family members coming up with tiny treasures and candies to tuck into them. Empty, yet replete with anticipation.

Over the last few weeks, several events I anticipated with one idea in mind, proved to be quite different from what I expected. In each case the production was spectacular, but not what I had imagined. The first was the movie The Most Reluctant Convert, the Untold Story of C. S. Lewis. Then an Andrea Bocelli concert (thank you, Val and Cesar!), followed by our church’s delightful St. Nicholas Market, Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers. I won’t take space to explain why, in each case, the real thing was different from my expectation.

This last weekend (well, Friday through yesterday) held a half dozen unanticipated outcomes, maybe more depending how I count them. Can you imagine Bach’s Toccata and Fugue played on an accordion?! Or the richness of the Lessons and Carols service Sunday? Or the Heinz Concert Hall filled with worship as Byron Stripling and Vanessa Campagna’s voices soared with What Child Is This, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Go Tell It on the Mountain, We Three Kings, Silent Night, O Holy Night and Joy to the World at the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Holiday Pops” concert? Or the comfort of my daughters’ arms around me through Jim’s funeral? Or—

No, I’ll stop. Too many words, too much music and beauty to absorb. And concurrently the realization, this Advent, that as I imagine Jesus’ first coming, and try to imagine his second, I have only the shadow of an idea what to expect. The reality will be so much more than I can possibly anticipate.

But it will include, as seems a perfect description for Jim right now, healing. Freedom. Leaping for joy.


 

A special gift

But God turns mourning into dancing

Psalm 30:11-12 You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

I wrote what I wanted to share with you today a couple days early because I wanted to find out from James whether he would be OK with me posting it. I didn’t know our beloved friend Jim Franzen would die last night, the third in a row from our church. Another dear one is in the ICU on a respirator. Carol, Bill, and now Jim. How we’ll miss his kind heart, his wit, his patient, sweet spirit.

So, I am mourning today. Not dancing, as I was when I wrote what follows. But the two are intertwined, aren’t they. Sometimes one takes prominence, sometimes the other. Both will be part of our reality until finally, God wipes away all our tears. Meanwhile, Lord, please enlarge my soul. It feels too small to embrace all the grief. And all the joy.

Here then is what I wrote before Jim died, about another beloved James:

God gave me an amazing gift last Sunday, one I’ve been, like Mary, “pondering in my heart.” It seemed too precious to share. But I think, somehow, it’s meant for you, too.

A young man in our church, James, is autistic. Karis and I met him as a very bright but nonverbal preschooler in 2004. In the last year, God has given James the ability to communicate with words, through a spelling board. For eighteen years his parents have not known what their son was thinking and feeling, his aspirations and joys and sorrows. Imagine then, suddenly having his inner world opened up to them. It’s so huge it feels indescribable.

Sunday after church I went to our church’s columbarium to touch Karis’s name on her niche, to tell her how much I miss her in this Advent and Christmas season. And to ask God for some small sign that he “saw” me, that he understood how much the grief of losing her still touches me even though it’s been almost eight years since she died.

The image went through my mind of my granddaughter Talita who last Tuesday fell while running through her house and hit her hands and knees quite hard. I watched her struggle not to cry, and then she held out her little hands one at a time and raised her knees to be kissed. A brief snuggle, and she was ready to play again. That’s what I need, Lord. Just a little bit of comfort from you.

Talita last summer

James and his mother were sitting near the columbarium. I sat down with them to catch up a bit, since with Covid and grandchildren I haven’t seen them much in the last couple of years and I’ve missed them. Neither Anna nor I mentioned Karis. Anna asked James whether he wanted to say anything to me. He nodded yes and she pulled his spelling board from her purse.

James rapidly spelled for me: I miss you, Debbie. And I miss Karis. I see her in my dreams. She is dancing and joyful. She is happy, so you can be happy too, Debbie.

I’m writing this with tears. I was stunned. This was the first time I personally experienced James’s ability to communicate, though Anna had shared with me before by email. I had no idea before he could speak in this way that James remembered Karis (much less how to spell her name) or that he connected me with her. It’s been almost eight years since she died. I’m not aware that other young people in our church think about Karis. It’s precious to me that James does.

But of course, the impact of his message to me was greater because of my prayer, asking God for a sign that he saw me, that he understood my need for what my sister Shari would call a “God kiss” on this “owie” in my heart.

Thank you, Lord. Thank you, James and Anna, for this precious, unexpected gift.

This week my sister-in-law Elaine sent me a link to an article by author Tish Harrison Warren (Liturgy of the Ordinary; Prayer in the Night) which exactly fits the theme of joy and pain mixed together. Tish was part of our church for several years, so I often read what she writes, but I had missed this one. I know it will bless you.

And I wish for you a God kiss, wherever you are hurting.

Bittersweet Christmas

But God heard my cry for mercy

Psalm 31:5, 21-22 I entrust my spirit into your hand. Rescue me, Lord, for you are a faithful God. … I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness. … In panic I cried out, “I am cut off from the Lord!” But you heard my cry for mercy and answered my call for help.

“It’s the hap-happiest time of the year …”

Well, no. Not for everyone.

The first Christmas after Karis died, I thought I would drown in grief. She loved Christmas so. I couldn’t bring myself to do the fun Christmas-y things: the tree, the decorating, the baking, the gifts. I wanted somehow to leap over not only Christmas but January, when Karis was hospitalized with a line infection and, unknown to us, H1N1, and February, with her death and memorial service and indescribable pain. I wanted to skip winter altogether. I wanted spring, with its hope of new life, with reassurance there was still reason to live.

Rachel and Valerie came to my rescue, though they were grieving too. They managed Christmas for our family that year. I didn’t realize how hard this was for them until Rachel mentioned it a couple of weeks ago as we discussed plans for this year.

Yesterday’s poem in Guite’s Waiting on the Word, number 28 of 131 poems published in 1850 as In Memoriam, is framed around the sound of Christmas bells. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote these poems across seventeen years, tracing his grief over the sudden death of his best friend. His pain is still raw, yet the last stanza carries a note of hope:

                             This year I slept and woke with pain,

                                           I almost wish’d no more to wake,

                                           And that my hold on life would break

                             Before I heard those bells again.

                             But they my troubled spirit rule,

                                           For they controll’d me when a boy;

                                           They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy,

                             The merry, merry bells of Yule.

“Sorrow touch’d with joy.” It’s an apt description of my first few Christmases after Karis’s death. Grieving is not speedy. If we try to skip over the pain, it won’t heal. The only way out is through.

This year, I find I can invert Tennyson’s phrase. “Joy touch’d with sorrow”—yes. That works. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for hearing my cry for mercy.

The joy candle, third Sunday of Advent Shutterstock: Roza Sharipova

The crack is how the light gets in

But God loved the world 

John 3:16-17 For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son … God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

Romans 8:1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

James 1:16 Every good and perfect gift comes down to us from God our Father.

When I was in high school and in awe (I still am) of my later to become sister-in-law Elaine, we had a (for me) eye-opening discussion of John 3:16-21. I was steeped in judgment—my parents judged me, my school judged me, I judged myself—always as inadequate and unworthy of love. I naturally believed God viewed me the same way. I had no concept of him as a loving Father.

Elaine showed me in these verses and John 5:24 that people’s natural state was judgment, but God had done everything necessary to change that. All we had to do to pass from death to life (John 5:24) was to accept God’s love through Jesus’ life and sacrifice in our place.

Sometimes I forget and continue to judge and condemn myself. This Advent, I’m asking God to take me to a new level of understanding of his love for me as my Father NOT based on my performance. I’m trying to listen more to his words of love and less to my own inner critic.

What about you? What do you long for from your Father in this season of gift-giving?

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in        Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Shutterstock: makasana photo