Friday, February 1, 2019

When Reading Became Wrong (for me)

 The written word has been my friend, a comfort and solace, a refuge, my education. This is true for anyone who has ever read a book. Everything we read becomes a part of the fiber of our being for better or for worse. We are changed by what we read, at least incrementally, sometimes profoundly. Words are amazing in their power. Simple lines formed into letters become words, which become sentences, then paragraphs, and ideas. These we accept or reject, but in small and large ways they become a part of who we are, and can determine who we become. Words, whether written or spoken, have a long half life in us.

Over the past few years I have joined three book clubs, and recently decided to bow out of all of them. Book clubs exist to discuss books. The members recommend books to the group, they are read, and then talked about at the group meetings. Most of the books being recommended in the clubs were not books I would ordinarily have read. This is part of the draw of a book club. It can be broadening. For me it became a problem. It became a lowering of standards that I wasn’t absolutely aware that I had established for myself.

 Nearly every recommended book had some sex or references to sex, not as an inference to being a beautiful part of a committed relationship, but as a hook. It was used to manipulate the reader using those urges common to all. Nearly every recommended book also contained coarse language or just plain filthy language, which seems to go hand in hand with bad writing. Over and over again I found myself thirty or forty pages into a new book disappointed or disgusted. I would plow onward for the sake of “having read the book,” or for the sake of “broadening myself.” But I found that most of the books were not broadening me, they were diminishing me. They were not affecting me in ways that were essentially good, and that I realized was, for me, the bottom line.

There was a lot at work here. There was my need to want to be thought of as a good member of the group, to be accepted and well thought of, and to be seen as open-minded. There was the desire, at times, to be reading for the sake of something to do. Not reading for the sake of learning or getting lost in an excellent story, but reading because I was bored. In this I became willing to pick up and read books that I would not ordinarily have read. There was a lowering of standards, a slow slide downward leading I know not where.

What stopped the skid was the changing of the seasons. Spring and summer were turning to fall, and I picked up the study guide I would be using to lead a Bible study throughout the fall and winter. I began to read the book of Genesis.

 In some way that we can’t begin to comprehend God spoke the world into being. He said it was so, and it was so. Anything He did not speak into being, does not exist. Reading Genesis, the power of words was brought home to me anew. The slow slide into diminishing standards and thinking had to stop. The lower things were becoming normalized in my mind. The higher things, the best things, the things of God and His great love for us expressed by His words, made the lower words I had been reading seem even more tawdry and wrong.

I wanted and needed some help and direction in choosing future books to read, and came across a book by Sarah Clarkson entitled, “Book Girl.” As a guide to choosing books, she suggests the reader ask herself, “What is it I hope to become?” I think we all hope to become better than we perceive ourselves to be at any given moment, but hoping is not enough. For my part, I needed to make some deliberate changes in my reading materials. Sarah’s book is a book of reading lists consisting of books that are life-giving rather than life-diminishing. I have found it to be so helpful, and can highly recommend it.

My next guidelines came out of scripture. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, instructs them to think on “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy.” What we read forms and conforms our minds to certain ways of thinking. My thinking was being tainted and changed by words and ideas that were untrue, dishonorable, impure, unjust, unlovely, questionable, far from excellent, and unworthy. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells the reader to “not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of the mind in order to know what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, perfect.” I am interested in having a transformed mind that can know the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. I am interested in knowing what is good, and doing what is good. My reading materials had become compromising to the integrity of my mind and faith. Poor reading choices were, for me, bringing what is good into question. 

We all need a “true north” in our lives, something we can look to for absolute direction.
When I am wandering, the compass needle always points me back to God’s word.
It resonates in me in ways that are true and good. It has never shown or done me anything but good. This has proven true again in this present season of re-evaluation.

The only conclusion I have for this essay is that, at present, I have no conclusion.
Time will tell. Being human, I expect I will be inconsistent in this from time to time. But I have taken some time to acknowledge what is good and right to do in this regard, and that is a  good and right start.























Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Surprise

I have not written for over a year. I did not know that my final blog post of 2017, which was a personal reflection in a difficult season, would bring me accusations and chastisement. I was surprised to learn that anyone could feel threatened by anything I wrote. But to quote Rachel Lynde, a neighbor to Anne of Green Gables, “We’re never finished being surprised ‘til we’re dead.”

My heart was so sore and tired out by all that had happened right then that I didn’t go back to the blog or to writing for an entire year.

But life happens, and in the midst of it hearts feel better, so tonight I re-read that essay, twice, and was surprised all over again. It was a sweet piece. In it I expressed a longing for rest in a season of confusion and unrest. I had been given to think that I had written something “possibly damaging,”
as though I was being subversive. Oh to be capable of that degree of subtlety and depth.

As this new year begins I hope to write again. One of my favorite writers has faced a few years in a row of heartbreaks and heartaches, and has continued to write honestly and eloquently through those times, and about those times. Writing consistently and well takes grit.

I don’t make new year’s resolutions, I pray instead. Resolutions involve too much will that I don’t possess. Prayer, on the other hand, involves the will of God. I know that He has given me a desire to write, so this year I am praying that He will re-ignite in me the writer’s spark that I used to have, and give me the grit to write well in and through anything that comes my way. And I will not be surprised when my prayer is answered beyond what I hope.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Home



The word “home” has been on my mind for the past many weeks. I have found myself longing, aching for the homes of my past. Those familiar places where one always knew what to expect. Even if it wasn’t all good, there was love there and it was all familiar and predictable. It was home.

This fall in the middle of an 8-week Bible Study series, I found myself at the center of a doctrinal difference between the study’s author and our church’s understanding of particular Biblical themes. Our church leadership felt strongly enough about it that modifications were made to the study. As the point person for the Women’s Bible Study and the one responsible for having chosen the study, I finished out the series under clouds of exhaustion, sorrow, and longing.
Exhaustion because of the extra care I felt was now required to dot every doctrinal “i” and cross every doctrinal “t”. 
Sorrow for the extra work I felt had now been inflicted on the other discussion group leaders, for the way I felt the author’s well researched views had been dismissed, and for having to understand personally for the first time in 37 years as a Christian how opinions on doctrine can cause a kerfuffle. 
And longing, for home. 

All longings for home are a longing for our eternal home with the One who loved us first and best and eternally. I know this. But He gives us tastes of Heaven here on Earth through the love of others, and the places they live and breathe and have their being.

My longings have taken me back in my mind and heart to places many and varied.
 The Wisconsin farm home of my childhood where all was not well, but where there was a mother who loved well in the midst of chaos. She was a safe place and we can all hope to leave that same legacy.

The Rotzenberg’s home across the road where I spent countless hours playing, and probably being an annoyance because there were already ten children there for the parents to cope with. But I was welcomed, and later in life when those parents visited my husband and I twice in  homes far away I was so honored.
Great Aunt Rose’s home down that same road where there was always a cookie jar full of ginger cookies, and she could be found any day of the week at her ironing board watching her “stories” on afternoon television. 
My grandparents’ and aunt’s and uncle’s homes where there was always a welcome and a cookie or a piece of homemade bread with butter, or a glass of Kool-aid, and more cousins to play with than was reasonable, 65 altogether. 
The beautiful, country church where I first learned reverence for God.
The rhythm of my childhood was a movement to and through these familiar, predictable places, all homes to me in all the ways that matter. Places of welcome, acceptance, nourishment, growth, happiness.

When I met my husband new places became cherished homes to me. His parent’s home in the Denver suburbs where our children were first welcomed as grandchildren and spent numberless hours playing and exploring, and receiving the love only grandparents can give.
My husband’s grandmother’s homes in Loveland, Colorado. First one on Cimmaron St., then later the townhome across the street from the sculpture park in that small town. Her’s were particularly beautiful homes, and she welcomed us into them often and with great 
pleasure. They were discreetly filled with treasures she had gathered over many years of life and travel. Those objects gave me a unique sense of being at home and comfortable with carefully collected beauty, and the realization that all true beauty is a reflection of the beauty of God’s creation, which is a reflection of the beauty of God Himself.

My neighbor’s homes in the Denver suburb where we raised our boys. I experienced the love of God in those homes. Jane and Bev were peculiarly kind to me as a new neighbor and overwhelmed young mother of three. Kindness was like breathing to them and I was fascinated by this. I had not known women like this before. Eventually I came to learn the source of their kind and giving spirits to be the Spirit of God in them. Through them I began to know the beauty, kindness, and wisdom of God and it was during these years I came to understand that all longing is a longing to find our home in Him.
The Carey’s and the Gordon’s homes where birthdays were celebrated, movies and football games watched, and meals shared regularly and generously. Where there was much laughter and many memories made for our children and theirs.

This list of homes must include our church home in Sugar Land where we spent twenty years learning and experiencing more of the height and depth and width and length of the love of God. Kathy’s home where I met with three other women every Thursday for nearly two decades to pray and study. Sheila and Ann’s homes where countless brides-to-be and mother’s-to-be were prayed over, blessed, honored, and showered with gifts of joy as they prepared to enter the new and holy roles of wife and mother. 

These are the homes of my longing as I have had to travel the uncomfortable road of doctrinal dissection this fall. A road that, at its end, may yet lead me home but right now has me bumping around in unfamiliar terrain. It has been like a destination I never really wanted to visit but find myself there because of the desires of others, and now that I have spent some time there I realize my feelings about it haven’t changed. It will never be home. It will never be a place I wish to re-visit.


  


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hello




It has been nearly a year since brother Tim's death and writing about anything in the aftermath of so great a loss to our family seemed an impertinence and distasteful. There were no words fine enough to write about him and no other subject seemed noteworthy enough or even very interesting. My mind went blank as sorrow drained me of energy and words. It has been a given rest, a sabbath, a sabbatical I guess you could say. It has been a grace, and I allowed it rather than trying to fight it with energy and determination I did not possess. Rest is hard for humans. We fight the clock and the calendar of our natural needs and rhythms at every turn, to our detriment.

Twenty years ago I was shipped back from Egypt in the company of an entertaining Irish nurse because I was too ill with amoebic dysentery to make the trip alone. I had been ill for three months in Egypt and continued to be ill for an additional year and a half. I had no choice but to rest for much of that time. My starved body and mind could do little else. There were days that I could not hold up my head. I could not read or write because when the body starves, the mind suffers also. It managed to keep firing well enough to keep me alive but much beyond that was not possible for the first couple of months. I rested because it was all I could do as my body re-learned to accept and digest food thereby eventually healing itself. At first I could do nothing for myself, nothing. I could not even worry that I was doing nothing. I did not worry, but I became fearful of the strangeness of the experience. My body was not behaving. It had turned on me and it seemed not to be turning back to the fully functional body I had taken for granted for forty years. The lessons of that time of forced rest changed my perceptions of God's very personal love and my understanding of His gift of rest.

I first wondered why God had abandon me to the misery I was experiencing. He promises to never leave us or forsake us and yet this time felt very much like a time of abandonment. There were dark days as my body and mind struggled to heal and function properly. One day in about the third month of recovery, as I lay on the sofa, now back home in Houston with Rick and the boys after two months of being cared for by my long suffering sister, a verse of Scripture broke through the cloudy thinking that had become my new normal. "Perfect love casts out fear." Five words. My mind's first confused response was that I would never be able to love perfectly so I would always live in the fear that had gripped me as part of the illness. My body had become tight with fear as I had been trying and failing to do more than I could sensibly do. I feared I would never be able to love my family and others in the ways I previously had. I felt that I had to prove that I could. But no, that still small voice assured me that He was perfect love, that He would cast fear away from me as I trusted Him. I had gotten just enough strength back to pretend that I could manage life again. But trying to manage in such a terrible physical state had resulted in fear as I realized I could still do very little. I was causing my own setbacks and each setback made me more fearful that I would become permanently useless, an appendage rather than a person. Is anything more fearful to a human being than the idea of not being useful, to seem to have no purpose?  Sometimes our purpose is to get out of the way and allow God's glorious, perfect love to be seen in our weakness. For that year, that was my purpose. I learned more about God's  intimately personal, perfect love during that year of illness than I had in my previous dozen "productive" years as a Christian.

I relented that day. I laid my weary head back down and decided to trust God. As I did so I began to see Him not as the One who had abandoned me in my misery but as the One who desired to love me in it and in spite of it and because of it because that is, He is, perfect love. I began to do only one task per day. One load of laundry or one short trip to the grocery store for one bag of food or a trip to the cleaners. I sensed God's nearness and paid attention to what my body was telling me. The important things got done. God's provision for each day was enough, it was everything, it was just right, it was perfect. It was perfect love.

I began this essay today deep in thought about friends who are fighting against times of rest I see so clearly they have been led into by God. They are experiencing the guilt that comes from comparing their level of activity with other's. Yet, after some questioning, I hear nothing additional that God is asking from them right now. God's word ordains rest as a gift from our creator who knows our needs better than we do. Our minds, bodies and spirit are renewed,  refreshed and readied in times of rest. God goes a step further in Scripture and commands us to rest as a sign that we trust Him for all provision as we rest in Him.

Psalm 46 speaks of many frightening tragedies that can befall us and after describing several terrifying scenarios God speaks these words,
 "Be still and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!"

One version of the Bible translates the first two words of the verse as "Cease striving!"
"Be still" is more poetic, but "cease striving" stops my striving self in my tracks.
To do more than God asks of me is to be in the way of His glory. I was right all those years ago in acknowledging that I could never love perfectly. The striving had to stop. The comparing of my old abilities with my present state had to stop. Hear these words of Jesus, our gentle Savior.

"Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls."
Matthew 11:28-30

I have rested in that promise in the distant past and for this past year. All the important things got done. All the important things got written, not by me. In the end we are each only as important in our spheres as God says we are. Which is to say, very important to Him, our Perfect Lover.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Good Grief



Our family entered a time of grief on April 16th when our brother, Tim O'Connor, died after an emergency surgery that was an attempt to save his life. Tim was the best of us. The very best.
Grief at his loss came hard and strong and bitterly. The minute after I heard the news I felt a shard of cold, hard steel begin to work its way into my heart. It was opening a way for anger to enter and settle in. I recognized the sensation because I had experienced it before. It felt familiar and comfortable and good and right because I was damn mad.
Nearly 45 years ago my mother died unexpectedly as the result of an aneurysm. I was seventeen years old and three days graduated from high school. Mom, too,was the very best of us. Her life was difficult but she was not. Much like Tim who battled for life through two transplant surgeries and recoveries, she battled for life in a difficult marriage with six children to care for. Their battles were different but the way they faced down hardships was heroic...with humility and common sense and humor. They were very alike. Both deaths seemed untimely and senseless. Death often seems so. Death often is so.
After a day of shock and growing anger I knew that I could not go down the road I had traveled 45 years ago. I knew that it would lead to despair and resentment again just as it had then.
I determined to allow sympathy and comfort to come in and to trust God's word that says, "We do not grieve as those who have no hope." I journaled these words, "I am not comforted but I must be willing to be comforted. This time I must not be all elbows and then all hidden away. This time I will face the sympathy and the love...let them wash over me and do their healing work."
Forty five years ago I did not know God. I knew about Him from a childhood spent attending church and catechism and what I knew left me unimpressed, especially after my mother's death. On the day I was told that she would not recover I stood outside the hospital, shook my fist at the sky and told whoever was up there (if there was anyone up there) what I though of them and what they were allowing to happen. I became bitter and resentful. How could a good God allow the goodness of our mother to be taken from us? She was all that was good in our lives. A jagged hardness entered my heart and I made it feel at home there for more than a decade.  Anger became my default response to loss of any kind. If there was a God and He had allowed this terrible thing then He must be a terrible God and I didn't want anything to do with Him.

There is a scene from the Anne of Green Gables stories that comes to mind. The inimitable and dramatic Anne is asking  Marilla if she has never despaired. In response Marilla turns to Anne and says, "To despair is to turn your back on God." And so it is. God has so much more for us than to fall into despair. After knowing God for 34 years I knew this to be true because I had experienced His goodness but my response to the loss of Tim was the same as the response I had 45 years ago to that first and greatest loss. Then I had no context for so great a loss and no one to take my grief to. Now I had both yet the response was the same. Old, deeply ingrained habits die slow and hard. The experiences and voices of our formative years are always waiting in the wings to grow us or destroy us. They destroy us if they have been destructive and we never compare them to Truth. They grow us when we allow Truth to reveal what is true or false in them.

I determined to let God into this grief and then waited. I did not have to wait very long.
My cousin, Julie, was visiting from Wisconsin when we learned of Tim's death. She had known Tim her entire life just as I had. Her grief was immediate. She sat with me on our front porch for two days as we alternately told Tim stories and were quiet. Her family is facing some hard things right now so we grieved in tandem. Her presence during those first days was a gift of God. Julie organized our grief, so to speak. She suggested we gather our children and grandchildren for a meal in order to grieve together. This never crossed my mind. Because in my youth I had grieved alone I thought that was what people did. Our children showed up without hesitation and we were able to recount Uncle Timmy stories as well as talk to our grandchildren about Uncle Tim's death. When your little grand daughter says honestly and simply, as only a child can, "I'm sorry he died", the cleansing, healing tears come hard and strong.
Julie also suggested we spend our first day back in Wisconsin together with my extended family rather than apart from one another. By the time we arrived things had fallen into place to allow that to happen. Julie proved to be a minister of healing for us. A good and perfect gift.

In my first great grief I assumed people's politeness but doubted their sincerity. I was certain no one really understood what I was experiencing...that no one else had ever experienced such a loss. I was both arrogant and ignorant. Tim's memorial service, rather than being a dirge of canned expressions of sympathy, was a time of story telling and reminiscences. People who come to express sympathy to a grieving family are also grieving. They have lost a friend or a relative or an acquaintance whom they cared enough about to face the family with expressions of sorrow. This is a sacrifice. It hard to face other people's grief but over 200 people stood in a long line to express their sorrow over Tim's death. Another good gift...a courageous gift.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that it is important to grieve with your heart wide open.
Open to God Who knows and understands your pain of loss..open to whoever comes your way with expressions of sympathy...open to helping others through their grief. Death and loss are parts of our living that we cannot outrun or outsmart. I've done grief badly and have determined to do it well this time. I feel confident that God will make it so...He already is.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."
2Corinthians 1:3-4



Friday, April 17, 2015

Timothy James Patrick O'Connor

I would like to have known that it was time to say goodbye. To have had one more conversation and heard his wry humor one more time...that humor that reminded us that life's events should not be taken too seriously but that life itself is precious. Those things were present in Tim's words always.
Now that voice is silent and the wide smile that often accompanied the words will not grace this earth again.
Tim fought so hard to live and gave so much back out of that battled-for life.
He was the best of us.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Body Count



One
Two
Three
Nearly four
now
We
bury them in a neat row
On a beautiful hillside
Where so much has been laid to rest
And so much has not.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Prayer




Darting, floundering
In unfamiliar waters
Seeking home
Or a hidden place among the grasses
Resting there, waiting
For the certain thing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

No Time Like the Present


I just finished reading a blog post from a young friend who is doing a Lenten Series on naming and facing the sins in her life.  She decided she wanted to give up sin for Lent...yes, the most obvious answer to what we should all deprive ourselves of during Lent and ever after.  Sin, the thing that separates us from God and wreaks havoc in our lives.  Yet in the past I have given up media or reading anything that was fiction or other lesser deprivations and felt noble...good grief.  You can find her series at www.faiththrustuggles.com .  Please go there.  Her honest words speak to our human condition and God's grace with familiarity and authority.  She has been there.

As I read her latest entry this morning I began to fantasize a little bit about what her life of writing this series must be like.  She drops her two young children off at school in the mornings then goes home to write.  Yes, preposterous.  She has all the labors and responsibilities and constant interruptions that come to all of our lives and yet she is steadily writing her way through the Lenten season with earnest discipline, and though we are only in the first week of Lent I know she will not stop.  She will finish this assignment she has set for herself I suspect for two reasons; she has felt a call to honest confession and submitted to it and she is weary of her sin.

 I am easily distracted from my sin.  I re-name it.  I am not submitted to the cleansing love of God in the way Abby, my young friend, is.  But her words are helping.  She is writing her story with brutal honesty and as she does so she is telling the glorious story of God's redemptive love.  She is allowing Him to do her re-write and it has been wonderful to read and behold the results.  She writes honest words about our humanness that bring great hope because Jesus entered into our humanness bringing the embracing warmth of forgiveness, worth, hope and purpose.

If you are weary please make this Lenten journey to the cross with Abby.  There is no time like the grace of this present season to deprive ourselves of those things that burden us.  There is no time like the present to stop trying so hard.

"Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
The words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.  Chapter 11 verses 28-30.