When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down.
The four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, asking his older sisters what it meant while he slurped cereal from a bowl. Their mother was in the barn, so it was up to my mother and her older sister to get the kids out of the house and then run a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.
The fire department came, but the house was a total loss.
Their neighbors followed the fire truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.
Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.
After all, she’d seen her mother sigh in relief as she removed her barn boots and slid her feet into those slippers. She’d noticed how her mother would have a cup of coffee and sit for a moment after putting them on. They were important. But important enough to be celebrated for surviving the fire? Did they reach that kind of heirloom status?
What counts as an heirloom?
None of what I consider heirlooms from that side of the family came from the pre-1947 house. They’re from the barn or the shop where Grandpa fixed electronics: crocks and tins and horseshoes used for utterly mundane purposes.
The generation that originally owned the stuff is not always a good judge of what subsequent generations will consider precious. When I was in my 20s, I admired my grandma’s red glass vase collection and she handed one to me. She loved that vase and I love it, too; it’s the perfect vessel for a stem of bleeding hearts in the spring. But I also treasure something my grandpa thought of as garbage: two rusty horseshoes from the pre-tractor days. When I asked whether I could take them, he laughed the same “you’re crazy” laugh he gave when I told him how much bags of purslane (a weed that plagued his fields) were selling for in New York City.
I’m a big city girl, but I love my rural roots. The horseshoes, the red vase, my great-grandmother’s crock, and a blue and white egg-collecting tin remind me that, only one generation before me, my mother worked the fields with her 11 siblings and used a two-holer outhouse (with Sears catalogue for wiping) for the first seven years of her life.
They remind me of summer afternoons spent with my grandma and my aunts in the farm kitchen, pitting sour cherries with bobby pins, of tipping squeaky piles of snow peas, of my gentle grandma and her squinty-eyed smile, of my mischievous grandpa and his giant ears and hands.
Who are heirlooms for?
Will my children find those same items as rich? Will they find them as beautiful as I do? If so, I’ll do what my grandparents did, and dole them out while I’m still alive. If not, I’ll be dead when they decide what to keep, and past caring. If my kids decide to pitch the horseshoes when I’m gone, that’s fine.
They don’t need to keep anything for my sake: heirlooms are for the living.
This came home to me at my Oma’s funeral. I wore her 1954 coming-to-Canada suit jacket. When she was alive, she would have loved that I wore it, but as I stood over her body and touched her hand, about to tell her, I stopped. She looked so at peace, beyond the cares of this world, even the pleasant ones. It turns out that I didn’t wear the suit for her; I wore it for me. I loved it.
This can set the living free from the burden of the previous generations’ stuff. You don’t keep the stuff for them, you keep what you keep for yourself, because you find it meaningful or beautiful or useful.
Even with that awareness, I keep thinking about those slippers. My grandma was embarrassed because everyone saw her beat-up house shoes, but maybe she was also secretly glad for their familiar feel when they had to live for a year in the workshop.
In this case, the heirloom isn’t the item: it’s the story.
For Lent this year I’m doing a new thing: the devotional, Vincent Van Gogh and the Beauty of Lent. I feel so worn down by the state of the world, by constant flux and big changes at my church, by my car being in the shop for over a month after a small fender-bender, that I couldn’t bear to give anything up for Lent. Instead, I’m adding a practice that involves looking at light and color and the gorgeous art of Van Gogh.
One of the most intriguing questions so far is:
If you were to depict the idea that the Holy Spirit moves through both Scripture and the arts, how would you compose the picture? To what page would the Bible be opened? And what work of art would you place beside it?
The Van Gogh painting that week was Still Life with Bible (above). The Van Gogh family Bible is open to Isaiah 53, which talks about salvation coming through a suffering servant. The book near the Bible (Vincent’s own copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de Vivre) is about a woman who was orphaned and undergoes adversity and harm–a modern-day suffering servant. While some see this painting as Van Gogh contrasting the heavy religion of his father with his own faith. Others (including the devotional writers) as Van Gogh pointing out two strains of the same idea: the raising up of a suffering servant.
This activity captured my imagination. Here are a couple of pairings of artwork and the Bible passage I’ve thought of (note, these will not be beautiful, and probably not even visually interesting, I am a word person, not a visual artist).
I’d pair Colossians 2:6 with Fire Keeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley. The main character, Daunis, is the most striking fictional practitioner of the spiritual discipline of gratitude I’ve ever read. She has a Native American father and a white mother, and while she grapples with her sense of belonging in both communities, she embraces and lives out the Anishinaabe spirituality she has learned. She is grounded by her practices and she overflows with gratitude, even while facing traumatic events.
Colossians 2:7 NLT
Let your roots grow down into [Christ Jesus, your Lord], and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.
In February, my father turned 80. After his cancer diagnosis last year, right as they were moving and downsizing from their house of 20 years, and the subsequent removal of his bladder, we would’ve done anything he wanted for his birthday — including watching a 2-hour-38 minute-long serious movie. So he finally got us to watch the 2012 film of Les Miserables. As the last gorgeous strains of the music played, he said, “That film sums up my theology.” In the line: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes. It is beautiful theology. And the songs are still running through my head, over two weeks later.
I’ve paired it here with 1 John 4:12, 16-17:
No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us…. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect.
I’m thinking about this pairing, but I don’t have anything solid yet.
Last month, I asked God to strengthen my hope muscle. It had gone flabby due to disuse. He’s done it by throwing article after article, meme after meme, poem after poem, photo after photo at me, all about hope. It’s starting to work.
Your turn. Are there any Bible verses and art expressions you’d pair as expressing the same spirit? Do you have something to share that could strengthen my hope muscle?
I went for a walk today in the Calvin Nature Preserve and noticed this trio of mushrooms all snuggled up with each other. It made me think of one my favorite moments of this past weekend, when I sat on the same couch between my two adult children, watching the Euro soccer finals. We live in the same house, but we aren’t together for that long too often these days. It was delightful.
And then I saw this trio.
After that, I really wanted to find a third instance, just so I could call this post a trio of mushroom trios.
Now is a great time to walk in the woods in Michigan if you love mushrooms. I don’t know what any of them are called, but I love to spot them–the bright ones, spotted ones, cupped ones, ruffled ones, tall skinny fairy umbrellas, tiny ones, meaty ones.
There are lots of solo mushrooms, lots of duos, lots of clumps of singles, but very few trios. This quest messed with my stated reason for going on this walk: so I could reset my neck after staring down at a computer all morning. But I couldn’t help myself.
At last, success!
Not quite as snuggly as the other two, but I’m counting it.
It was quiet and dim in the woods on this cloudy day. I got to commune with a little green snake, a beaver, and a young deer. (We will not mention the 1,000,000 bugs and the fact that I forgot bug spray even though I thought I’d learned that lesson just two days earlier.) I am grateful for the gift of the woods, for the lack of other walkers because the animals weren’t hiding themselves as they often do, for the beauty and fruitfulness of this world. Its literal fruitfulness, thanks to this first handful of blackberries.
What simple pleasures have you enjoyed lately? What is delighting you?
In this COVID-year I’ve had paid work that took advantage of my mixture of skills–writing, social media, newsletters, administration, organization. The week after my church started doing online services, I started sending out weekly emails newsletters (and print versions by mail for those members who don’t do email) that contained news about the church and about each other, and a meditation by the pastor. I gleaned the news from anywhere I could find it: Facebook, Instagram, emails. My new best friend was command-shift-4, so I could take screen shots and, ahem, borrow photos from those platforms.
To this I added a weekly email for parents/grandparents-who-bring-their-grandkids-to-church with children’s bulletins, notes of encouragement, information about kids and coping and parents and coping with COVID, flyers for writing Pandemic Prayers, faith formation activities. Four times in the last year, I printed out faith formation activities for the children of the church, added snacks and fun craft supplies, and driven the packets out to each house and apartment. I hosted Backyard Bible Clubs in my backyard when the weather was good. The videos I made at first weren’t as successful among the kids (our parents didn’t want all their kids’ time spent online), but I can now shoot a video, edit it, and upload it no problem.
A month into the pandemic the leadership of our food pantry left, and I was the one to pick it up–to make sure that we had enough volunteers, to change how we gave out the food so the volunteers and the community would be safe, to order the food and decide what we were packing each week, to report to FeedingAmerica. This was good work and I felt connected to my Dutch ancestors who helped their family and neighbors get through the Hunger Winter, that last year of WWII.
While the church building has been fallow I’ve been doing a deep re-organizing of the children’s materials, the storage rooms, and the church filing system. Organizing is one of my favorite things to do, and the resulting ease of use of each space is a satisfying reward.
This work of keeping the congregation connected and encouraged, and keeping our community fed, has been a privilege. Having paid work that is so meaningful has kept me going, for sure.
But it’s also, if I’m honest, sometimes a heavy emotional burden.
I am grateful for the active and energetic deacons we selected this fall; they’ve taken over leadership of the food pantry and I just get to do the fun part, taking the names and information of those who come for food and handing them their bursting bags. I know them all by name, and I love seeing our regulars every Tuesday morning; I worry if we haven’t seen them in a couple of weeks and can get teary when a missing regular comes back.
My church is full of encouraging people, so I get thanked for this work all the time.
But still, after a year of this, I’m bone-tired.
Kids are mostly good
My adult children are home with me. It’s been good to have them home because I both love and like them, but this has been a frustrating time for them. Neither was in school or felt solid about a direction for school, and work has been hard to find. They’d prefer to be on their own, but that just isn’t possible now. They did enjoy the fire pit I put in the back, gathering with their friends for late-night fires, and I loved hearing the sound of raucous laughter again. We’ve always been the hang-out house, and I miss the kids’ friends.
But it’s been hard to know how to parent adult children in this time. What is the right balance of encouragement, empathy, and incitement to action when so many things feel impossible? They’ve had forward motion in important areas, so they’re feeling less stuck, but it’s been tough. There was so little of a difference I could make in their realities.
My romantic relationship is good.
My boyfriend and I have been pushing back the furniture and dancing in the dining room instead of at Billy’s. We’ve made an event of cooking together on Friday nights and watched a lot of good TV and movies. We are good for each other and I’ve been so grateful for him.
But oh the sameness of everything. The unrelenting sameness.
My house is good.
In September I took my only week of vacation during 2020. Didn’t go anywhere, but dedicated that week and the following few months to doing ALL the nagging jobs in my house.
Redid the basement: removed carpet, painted floor and walls, reorganized storage room (the mouse infestation clarified what to get rid of), made an exercise space.
Redid garden in front and back yards.
Added fire pit and chairs.
Repainted kitchen floor and exterior kitchen cabinets.
Repainted all trim.
Repaired many things myself and hired out what I couldn’t do.
Organized all closets.
Added a bar in the kitchen and learned how to make mixed drinks.
Finally learned how to keep a clean house, not just a neat house.
Framed and hung ALL the art I’d been collecting from friends for many, many years. This is the thing that makes me happiest when I walk around my house. The cover photo is the grouping from my stairwell. The one below is from my dining room.
I did all that so I’d have my mind free to get back to my own writing. The idea was that with nothing hanging over my head (except this COVID) I’d be out of excuses not to write.
And I haven’t written.
Food is good.
Like so many others, I explored in the kitchen. I made my own granola for the first time. There’s almost always cabbage in my fridge now because I discovered how easy it is to make great coleslaw with mayo doctored with Asian and Mexican sauces. And I love coleslaw. My Community Supported Agriculture share brought in tons of veggies that I used in all kinds of things I’d never made before–Asian-flavored Swiss chard; the Spanish sauce Romesco (with red peppers and almonds); the Middle Eastern dish of eggs cooked in tomato and pepper sauce, Shakshuka. It was a really tasty food year.
But I keep burning myself.
I have 9 scars on my right hand from the last 6 months. They will be a lasting reminder that this has been a hard year, that even when things were generally OK, they were also generally hard. I’ve never burned myself on the racks in my oven this often. And that doesn’t include all the times I’ve picked up a hot handle with my bare hand.
To me, this is a physical sign of how not-OK I am. I’m scatterbrained, when I’ve always been focused. I am not careful with myself, not paying attention.
My other relationships are not good.
This inability to focus on anything but what is right in front of me (and sometimes not even that) has meant that my friendships and family relationships have suffered. In the summer it was OK because we could see each other outside. But now that it’s winter, I’m over Zoom (and so are they) and I forget to call during hours when people are awake, and I feel guilty for neglecting my parents. I vow to do better, and then I get distracted.
My devotional life has suffered. I’ve spent so much time and energy making sure the children and families of the congregation have faith formation things to do that I’ve neglected my own spiritual practices unless my church has a Zoom group. We’re reading Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery now and it is excellent–each devotion includes a slave’s story. But I’m so tired of my own excuses for neglecting time with God.
It is so disturbing to me how a solid one quarter to one third of the country is under the glamour of a huckster and fully invested in a complete delusion–that Tr*** is even remotely competent, that he has been treated worse than any other president in history, that the election in November was not safe and fair and valid. Even more disturbing is how many Christians have been taken in–and that they use their faith to justify it.
Admittedly, my general stress level is reduced since I no longer have to hear the previous president’s voice all the time, or read what craziness he’s up to every day. But the people he emboldened are still here, and the Republican party is, for the most part, still in his thrall.
I now that chances are better if we love people out of a delusion, but how on earth do we do it?
Right now is good.
I’ve been lucky to not lose anyone I know to the disease, although I know lots of people who have, lots who’ve gotten it, including one friend who’s a long-hauler. Things are looking up for my kids. The vaccine rollout is happening.
I’m on my first real vacation in years–not visiting anyone, just relaxing. Doing yoga, going for walks, napping, taking saunas, reading, and trying to jumpstart my spiritual practices and my writing. Aggressively taking it easy to correct the burn-out I was so close to.
How about you?
How was your COVID-year? What was your combo of “I am OK | I am not OK”?
I’ve read and taught the story of Jesus’ birth SO many times, but noticed something new this week. I noticed what Mary did after the angel Gabriel called her favored, told her the Lord was with her, and dropped the big news about Jesus:
A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.
She hurried. To the one person who would know how she felt.
Think about Mary. She was between 13 and 16 and a shining light-being had just told her that not only was the Holy Spirit going to get her pregnant, but also that the resulting child would be holy, be called the Son of God, and would reign over Israel forever in an unending kingdom. Some of the words used for her reaction are:
One of the kids in my Zoom Sunday school this week used the phrase freaked out. I like that because news can be good and still freak you out. Although she wound up telling the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true,” I’d guess that those feelings remained. But Gabriel also told her that her relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant despite decades of being unable to conceive, “for nothing is impossible with God.”
So Mary does what teenage girls have always done: she ran to someone who knew how she felt. Did Mary even tell her mother about this astonishing news? Could she bring herself to say the words out loud to a sister? It’s an enormous thing that will be happening to her, and siblings are not always known for being agreeable when one of their number is suddenly elevated. But Elizabeth’s pregnancy was miraculous, too, so Mary hurried to her.
What a normal reaction from this girl. And so wise. She’s about to go through some serious changes, physical and spiritual, and Elizabeth can help her. When we’re facing change, isn’t that what we often do, too? Seek out someone who’s been there before, someone who can give us the benefit of their experience, or can at least tell us we’re not nuts for feeling the way we do.
When my marriage exploded I sought out other divorced women and was grateful when people who’d had a family member arrested for a sex crime reached out to me. I needed to see that it was possible to get through what my kids and I were going through. And I needed to talk openly about what I was thinking and feeling without trying to protect anyone–people who’d gone through something similar were the only ones I could do that with. So I appreciate Mary’s instinct in hurrying to the hill country of Judea.
Immediately, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and encourages Mary:
Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed.Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
It’s after this that we get Mary’s great song of praise, her Magnificat, where she praises God for what he’s done not only for her, but also for the hungry and the humble, and for keeping his promises. I think that’s significant. Mary needed that encouragement from Elizabeth, that confirmation of the angel’s words, and she needed the presence of the Holy Spirit to tip the scales to the “Wow” side of her reaction to the angel’s news. I’d never noticed before that the visit to Elizabeth came so quickly and comes before the Magnificat.
God knows we need friends. We need people we can reach out to when we’re going through something big. We need those holy encouragers. I love that God had the angel tell Mary about Elizabeth. He didn’t leave her alone with this giant news; he pointed her to a friend. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.
I wonder about that time. Did Elizabeth tell Mary what it was like being an object of extra attention during an unusual pregnancy? Because you know people are not always kind about their comments. Did they pray for their children and for the job the Lord had in store for each of them? Did they pray for each other, that they’d have the strength to raise these sons with important futures? Did they go long days not talking about it, relaxed because there were no secrets between them? Did they joke about it?
We are all going through something big right now. The pandemic has changed how we work, how we learn, who we can see, whether we can gather, how we go about in the world. Maintaining physical distancing has meant we are more isolated at a time when we need each other more than ever. And in cold climates, winter means outdoor gatherings are becoming rarer.
So what is your version of running to the hill country of Judea? Zoom calls? Texts? Private Facebook groups? Facetime? Among Us? Walks? Driving to a parking lot and sitting in side-by-side running cars with the windows open so you can talk? Whatever it is, don’t neglect it. And don’t stop looking for new ways to be there for each other. Reach out to people you can be your full self with. It might tip the scales away from full freak-out, and maybe even all the way to hope.
“Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns. O people … surrender your pride and power.”
Jeremiah 4:2-3 NLT
This has been my prayer for many years. It’s a tough one because it leads to discomfort. It means that I’ll eventually have to admit that I’m wrong, that I do not always choose to do or say the right thing, that I need to forgive people who have wronged me, that I do not know everything, that I am not the center of the world. I will have to change. And I’m sad a lot because the state of the world affects me. And it’s a tough one because the world seems to reward people who’ve let their hearts grow hard against anyone unlike them.
We live in an age of trolls–people who attack those they disagree with in horribly personal ways, threatening them with violence or telling them they deserve violence. Friends have shared a little bit of the trolling they’ve received and it’s upsetting and scary. We are governed by a Troll in Chief who relishes name calling and threats of violence–and millions of people cheer him on, including people who profess the same faith I do. Whole TV channels are devoted to people yelling at each other from their own little boxes, reiterating the same self-satisfied points, the same outrage over things nobody should be outraged about.
And these days a hardened heart feels so dangerous. Is so dangerous. Racism comes from a heart hardened against people with a different skin color and has been codified into a system that is bound and determined to keep its power and is threatened by truth and facts.
However, because of coronavirus, we are all feeling more vulnerable. Most of us are taking everyday actions designed to keep others safe–masks keep people safer from those with asymptomatic COVID-19, we’ve been staying home and not seeing our friends and loved ones, especially if they have any kind of health condition. People all over the world do a 7:00pm noisy cheer for their medical teams. Show many of us a story about exhausted medical workers or anyone who does anything remotely kind for someone else and we get a little teary. Or a lot teary.
And then three unarmed African Americans were killed (Ahmaud Aubery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd) in short order, and two of those killings were filmed, and two were by police, and it scraped against our already-vulnerable hearts and became unbearable–unbearable for those who experience racism, unbearable for those who understand how deep the tentacles of systemic racism reach, and even unbearable for people with a vested interest in the myth that they are not racist but how dare black people make uppity demands for freedom from danger in their own country. Nobody can turn away from what is happening; we can disagree about what they see, but we can’t turn away.
Which makes this a unique opportunity.
Our hearts feel thoroughly plowed up. Even for those who would deny it, their actions reveal how raw they are feeling.
The more we pay attention to the peaceful protesters, to those who have long been working towards a society with real justice for all, and to those who bring the energy and passion of youth to that work, and ignore the siren call of being more outraged by violence to buildings than we are by violence to persons, the better the chance that we’ll take advantage of those plowed-up hearts and really listen, and really talk about the deeper issues of systemic racism.
The more white Christians pay attention to biblical calls to live with truth, mercy, justice, and take care of the orphans, widows, and strangers within our gates, and the more we remember that it is the most basic action of Christian faith to admit that we are wrong and to ask forgiveness, the better the chance that we’ll really listen and really talk.
Frederick Douglass said,
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground…. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle.”
Our cultural ground and our hearts are all plowed up. But that’s only step one in producing good fruit. There’s a lot more work to be done.
Oh I hope and I pray that we take advantage of it. I hope and I pray that white America really listens and gives up its pride and power and that there’s real change. I don’t know that I’m exactly hopeful, but I’ve seen more white people talking about systemic racism in ways they haven’t before. Maybe this time it will make a difference.
In church the grownups have been hearing messages about praying the Psalms, because the people who wrote them talk about all the feelings we can feel–happiness, anger, sadness, frustration, relief, confusion. But how we can pray the Psalms?
When I pray the Psalms, I like to choose short parts that are just 1-3 verses long, so that’s what we’re going to do here. You can choose to do all the ways I talk about in your head, but if you want to follow along, you should gather these things:
three pieces of paper
something to write/draw with (can do one color or many colors)
cup of water
Also, you should sit in a place that can get wet–and be sure to keep your computer/tablet/phone in a place that can’t get wet.
Okay, let’s get praying.
Ways to pray any Psalm
The Lord is my shepherd, and I am his little lamb.
Psalm 23:1, Jesus Storybook Bible
There are five ways we can pray any Psalm. While we go through them with the beginning of Psalm 23, draw or write on the first page. I drew a shepherd, a lamb, blah.
Repeat the verses at least 4 times. Slowly. And just enjoy them in God’s presence.
Ask God to show you something about the passage. How are you my shepherd? How am I like a little lamb? Show me. Help me understand.
Thank God for what the verses talk about. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for knowing me and what I need.
Ask God to do more or give more of what the verses talk about for yourself. God, I’m feeling sad. Please carry me on your shoulders like I’m a little lamb and help me feel better.
Ask God to do more or give more of what the verses talk about for others. God, please take care of [my friend/loved one]. Let her know how much you love her. I hope he feels how much you love him.
Praying a sad Psalm
The verse we used was a very sweet one. Is it different to pray verses about sadness?
Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck. Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can’t find a foothold. I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me. I am exhausted from crying for help.
Psalm 6:1-3, NLT
You can still use any of the 5 ways, but it can be harder when the Psalm talks about big emotions that we may or may not be feeling at the time. Take your second piece of paper and write or draw things that the verses make you think of, or draw or write about the people you’re praying about.
6. When you feel this way: God, I feel this way. I am feeling like things are really, really, really hard right now. I’m having a hard time dealing with it. This is what’s going on: ______________________________. Help me.
7. When you do not feel this way: God, please be with people who feel this way, with people who are very sad or very frustrated. This is what’s going on with my loved one: _______________________________. Help them.
Praying a violent Psalm
Some Psalms can feel awkward when we go to pray them.
Break off their fangs, O God! Smash the jaws of these lions, O Lord! May they disappear like water into thirsty ground. Make their weapons useless in their hands / when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. May they be like snails that dissolve into slime.
Psalm 58:6-8, NLT & NIV
The Psalmist asks God to do this to their enemies, to evil people. Draw or write on your third piece of paper while we learn how to pray these kinds of Psalms.
I have to admit that I used to have a hard time reading these kinds of verses, and praying them felt wrong because I try to avoid saying or thinking mean things. It’s also true that my life is not in physical danger–no armies are coming after me, I don’t have people plotting against me. So these Psalms feel weird.
But there are kids who live in places where their government is a danger to them, where groups of criminals are dangerous to them. Some kids even have families that hurt them. That helps us know how to pray these kinds of verses. Learn about kids who are, right now, in danger; have your grownup help you so you can pray more specifically.
6. When you feel this way: God, I am feeling scared and angry. Protect me from these people who are trying to hurt me. I need you.
7. When you do not feel this way: God, please be with the kids and grownups who are in danger. It is hard to know that kids like me are in danger. Please keep them safe.
8. In your imagination, swap the idea of enemies-as-people for enemies-as-diseases. God, cancer and COVID-19 [or whatever disease a loved one might be suffering from] is like enemies in their body. Break off the fangs of their disease. May the virus in their body disappear like water soaking into the ground. Make it useless in their body. Heal them.
Wreck This Journal
Now that we’ve created these three pages, we’re going to be inspired by the book, Wreck This Journal, and deal with these pages in ways that remind us of spiritual ideas.
Bring the Light
Jesus is called the Light of the World in the Bible. Take the violent Psalm page and bring some light to it by poking it full of holes with your writing instrument.
The Lord’s Supper
We eat bread and drink juice to remind us that Jesus loved us enough to die for us. Treat the sad Psalm page like bread and eat it. Okay, just chew on it and spit it out.
The Bible talks about Jesus giving us living water that satisfies more than our physical thirst. Take the little lamb page, make it into a cup, pour some water in it, and try to drink out of it. Don’t spill on your electronics!
Tomorrow is Good Shepherd Sunday, which got me thinking about the 23rd Psalm. There’s nothing particularly holy about the job of shepherding–it’s just that a gifted poet had been a shepherd and so could write about the ways the job reminded them of the Lord. And all the original listeners were also familiar with the job of shepherd, so they would have understood everything David was trying to say without a lot of explanation.
On the other hand, most of us these days don’t know a lot about shepherding. We need to learn about what the job entailed in order to understand all that David is saying.
For example, “your rod and your staff / they comfort me,” never made any sense to me (what’s comforting about a big stick?) until I read Nogah Hareuveni’s Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (1984), and Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage (1991). Shepherds in Israel would make a rod out of an olive tree spur that still had a knot of trunk at one end. When they were walking in the middle of the flock (they lead the flock from the middle more often than they lead from the front) they’d toss the rod in front of the flock so the sheep in front would know which way to go, and that heavy knot would help the rod carry far. So the rod, as the symbol of the shepherd, tells the anxious sheep at the front which way to go. I can see how that could be a comfort to the sheep: “I can’t see our shepherd, but he is still leading and guiding me. Phew.”
But I had to learn that. It didn’t come as part of my cultural knowledge.
One of my favorite things to do with children is rewrite Psalms so they directly reflect the things that are happening in their lives, so the metaphors and analogies are drawn from their experiences.
So why not do that for Psalm 23? Below are two attempts to do just that.
The Lord is my COVID-19 nurse;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in my hospital bed;
he leads me through my breathing exercises.
He renews my strength.
She guides me as my oxygen levels change,
bringing honor to her name.
Even when I have to be intubated
And my organs begin to fail,
I will not be afraid,
For you are close beside me.
Your PPE and your kind, tired eyes
protect and comfort me.
You prepare all my medications for me
in the presence of the virus.
You honor me by flipping me onto my stomach.
My canela overflows with oxygen.
Surely your goodness and competence will sustain me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
The Lord is my preschool teacher;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest on my sleep mat;
he leads me out to the playground.
He renews my curiosity.
She guides me to make good choices,
bringing honor to her name.
Even when I walk
through the 5th graders hallway,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your staff pass and Time Timer
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a snack for me
in the presence of the mean kids.
You honor me by putting my drawing up on the wall.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing patience will teach me
all the days of my life,
and I will make good choices and share
Now it’s your turn. What’s a job where you see God at work? Where you can see characteristics of God in what a person in that job does?Write your own Psalm 23 in the comments 🙂
It has been an odd week. Well, every week is odd these days, as we’re doing things and changing our lives in ways we probably hadn’t imagined. But I distinctly remember thinking on Tuesday morning,
This is starting to feel routine. The things that were an ordeal, a big deal a couple of weeks ago now feel ordinary.
That felt good. It felt sustainable.
A few weeks before that, I’d had a rough emotional week as I realized that I’d been operating in what I called sprint-energy, and that I’d have to transition to marathon-energy in order to not exhaust myself into illness (whether mental or physical). I did that, and then, for a moment, it felt like it bore fruit in life feeling routine.
But as the week went on I noticed that I was sleeping horribly, waking up 2 – 4 times a night. I hadn’t gone for a walk or chosen to exercise at home in days. There was a book I was looking forward to reading, but I’d glance at it and then go back to watching endless British shows or cooking competitions on YouTube. All of these are signs I know well; they say that depression is creeping back in.
It was as if a new normal was developing, but I was rebelling against that new normal at the same time. As if everything inside me was saying,
No. I don’t like this. I refuse to let it feel normal, to let you feel normal.
I described myself on Facebook as feeling like my emotional soup was murky and fully of mushy pasta. If you’ve ever left pasta in soup to be heated up the next day, you’ll know how unpleasant this is. The soup started out good and delicious, but the pasta soaked up too much liquid and somehow stole a bunch of the flavor until it’s a bland, pulpy mess.
So I made a full-court press and in the last two days did almost every single thing that I know is good for me to do when I’m feeling that old depression trying to sneak back in (note that I already take medication for this, so I kept on keeping on with that).
Talk about it with others. As I mentioned, I posted about this feeling on Facebook and 28 of my far-flung friends and family responded to encourage me and to talk about how they were feeling. I also talked with my kids about how they were feeling. I didn’t feel alone, and it was good to know we’re all struggling to manage the emotional side-effects of what is happening these days.
Talk with God. Not just in my head, but I filled out a resource I sent around to my congregation in the weekly email on Thursday, and I wrote a Pandemic Psalm. It takes you through the steps of most psalms of lament: telling God what’s happening, how you feel about it, what you want God’s help with, and then reminding yourself what you know about God and God’s character, and declaring what you will do. I took myself through an “and yet” move, and reminded myself that there are things I can do.
Notice beauty around me. The weather in Michigan the last two weeks has been lousy, chilly and rainy/snowy. I am not here for it. But it did contribute to how long my forsythia has been in full bloom.
Take care of the home. My mother gave me great advice: when you’re feeling poor, clean your house and make a pot of soup, that way your environment isn’t dragging you down further and you’ve got sustenance. I’m not feeling particularly poor, but it’s good advice for when you’re feeling down, too. So I put away the laundry, cleaned the dishes,
cut flowers to distribute throughout the house (see photo at the top), and made granola (because I already bake bread, making granola is my new coronavirus cooking adventure).
Help other people. Doing things for others can knock us out of the ever-tightening spiral thinking that comes with depression. So I brought a load of new-to-them kid books to a family in my church (if your kids are older and you have lots of books, lending them out to families who can’t go to the library is a great thing to do in this season),
gave a tub of margarine to another man in the church who said he couldn’t find any, ordered take-out from a local restaurant to keep supporting restaurant workers,
and made a video to remind myself, and others, that Jesus can be found in the gaps, that Jesus is with us in the low times (below the list).
Go for a walk. Anywhere is good, but I love to walk amongst the trees. I can feel my shoulders unclench and lower a good inch after walking in nature. So I headed to the Calvin Nature Preserve, hoping for wildflowers. There was only one Trout Lily bloom that was almost open.
But more exciting than that: for the first time in the 30 years I’ve been walking there, I saw a pileated woodpecker! Those are the Woody Woodpecker-type birds, and they are huge. (It’s in the middle of the photo below, look for a reddish blur.) I was thrilled.
I didn’t read, but I think I’ll be able to get to that book this weekend. It feels like my full-court press has done its job. The reality of my life hasn’t changed, and I’m still sad about the things I miss, but I’m not mired in murky emotional soup anymore.
What do you do to knock yourself out of a downward spiral?
Have you ever had to do something that was hard, that you’d rather not do, but you do it because it’s part of a bigger plan for the good of all people?
You, know, like now?
We’re staying home, away from our friends and loved ones, avoiding human contact. Every aspect of our lives has changed: school, work, religious practice, shopping, eating, entertainment, how we express love and care. It’s really hard. But we’re doing it–partly out of fear of getting COVID-19 ourselves, and partly out of the desire to protect the more vulnerable in our community.
As Dr. TaLawnda Bragg said in a Zoom call I was part of:
COVID is something new. We have no defense to it. Despite what you hear, there is no cure, no vaccine. All we can do is supportive care (help you breathe) until your body figures out how to fight it. Our only response is to limit the spread.
So we change our lives. It’s hard, and it’s sad, and we grieve the things we miss. But it’s our only choice, so we do it for our own good and the good of our community.
There is a person in the Bible who knows exactly how we feel.
Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he died, saying,
“My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” … He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by.“Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Mark 14: 34-36
He prayed that three times. Dying and suffering for us was not something Jesus did lightly or easily. It crushed him with grief. Even after he’d stopped asking that he not have to go through with it, Luke describes him this way:
Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.
Grieving. In agony of spirit. Suffering and dying was going to be hard and sad. But Jesus did it anyway because he loved you and me and all the people and his death was the plan to bring us right with God again.
Jesus knows how we’re feeling now. He’s been there, too.
And he shows us how to deal with it:
talk to God,
ask your friends for support (not that the disciples were much good to him–they kept falling asleep),
tell God how you’re feeling,
ask God for what you want,
have an “and yet” orientation and be prepared to follow God’s way even when it isn’t the most comfortable.
We can do that now.
Lord God, I am sad that I can’t hug my friends, that my kids can’t hang out with their friends in person, that I can’t visit my parents, that my mother’s aunt died without anyone able to visit her for the last few weeks of her life. I cried this morning when I watched my pastor lead communion by himself as we recorded our worship service for tomorrow. I miss my church family, the children most of all. I am frightened for the poor and vulnerable in my community, for those who’ve lost work, for those who live in homes that are not safe places. Oh God I want to leave the house without worrying about what I touch and when I washed my hands and whether I’m going to be able to find toilet paper when I need it. I want this to be over. And yet, I want to keep people safe, and I want to do what I can to help. I want to love people with a love like yours. So I will stay home as much as I can, and I will greet people with jazz hands, and I will explore every other way I can to keep up my connections, and I will do my part to share physical and digital resources. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
When your soul feels crushed to the point of death because of everything sad that’s happening now and the hard things that are being asked of us, let it be your Garden of Gethsemane moment. Jesus had to do something that was going to be very difficult and painful and made him very sad, but he talked to God about it, and then he did what he had to do for the good of all people. Let’s be like Jesus. Our version, in Spring 2020: stay home, stay safe.