This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach.It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, NLT)
Sometimes those of us who want to encourage people towards a deep, vibrant faith complicate matters. Pray all the time! (OK, that one’s on Paul.) Pray this way! Pray the Psalms! Pray this other way! Read your Bible every day! Using bullet journaling! Here’s a great devotional! You have to go through this devotional! Do this spiritual practice! And this one! And this other one! Read this book! This book will change your life! Join a small group! And another one! Talk to people about your faith! Listen to people about their faith! Be quiet with God! Be loud for God! Be a leader at home! At school! At work! At church! Tell everyone you know about Jesus! Tithe to your church! Give to this good cause! And this one! And this one! Work for justice in this area! And this one! And this other one! These Christians are in trouble! And these! Help the poor! And the downtrodden! Don’t even think bad thoughts! No swearing! Be generous! Be grateful all the time!
And that’s without the cultural pressures your brand of Christianity puts on you to look, talk, act, and be a certain way.
Complicated. Exhausting. Confusing.
Which is why I always appreciate it when the Bible itself strips all that away. What God wants
isn’t too hard for you.
is close at hand.
is on your lips already.
is in your heart already.
This makes me smile a little, because God recognizes that what God asks of us will be hard at times — but not so hard that we can’t do it.
Imagine a parent with an almost-toddler who is learning to walk: the parent’s wide-open encouraging smile, the “you can do it”s; the child’s drive to learn this new thing, to get to the enticing object, drawn towards those open arms (ready to catch them if they fall). That’s what I see here. God is smiling at us saying, “You can do it. It’s hard, but not too hard. It’s even something you already want to do. I will help you.”
What is the it? The command?
Oh nothing but “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him” (Deut. 30:20).
I see the middle flowing out of the other two–loving and being committed to the Lord makes us want to obey him, puts the desire to obey him on our lips and in our hearts. Don’t forget: God’s grace covers all our failures of obedience. Many heroes of the faith committed 10 Commandment-level failures to obey, but their commitment to the Lord was firm, their love of the Lord sustained them. And God stayed in relationship (in covenant) with them.
This passage doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit, but it’s also the Spirit’s job to tell us about the love of God, to put the desire to obey God on our lips and in our hearts. So we have an additional helper.
You have what you need to follow God.
So when you feel the complicating pressure of all those voices that tell you what you should do and how you should be, take a breath and remember:
It’s no secret that I love books and reading, but this post isn’t about objects with pages. It’s about reading what Barbara Brown Taylor calls, “God’s first book, the book of creation.”
I’ve long referred to creation as God’s original cathedral, as in, “Let’s skip church and worship in the original cathedral today,” when I take a walk instead of attending a service. But I like this First Book language, too.
In a talk I attended in 2020, Brown Taylor reminded us of Job 12:7-10,
“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you. Let the fish in the sea speak to you…. For the life of every living thing is in his hand, and the breath of every human being.”
“For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, we can clearly see his invisible qualities.”
So we can learn about God from what God has made. She quoted Meister Eckhart, “Every creature is of God and full of God.” There are several benefits to connecting to God through what God has made. Brown Taylor called it, “re-enchanting the world for your children”:
It can enhance reverence for God.
It can help children not fear the world beyond their screens, possibly even not fear the dark as much.
It can help them develop love for all God’s creatures.
It can show them the unity of creation because so many natural systems are connected and support each other in so many ways.
We don’t need to engage in any formal study or even go outside to do this, although it’s certainly great to do so. Here are some activities:
1. Keep something growing indoors, and pay attention to what’s happening with it: blooming, growing, dying back. What can it teach us about thriving and resting and over- and under-feeding?
2. Notice the animals around you. Count whiskers or spots on a pet. Turn out the lights and use a flashlight to find your pet. Look out a window and consider the birds. Put up a bird feeder, squirrel feeder, bat house, and see what comes. What kind of insects make their way into your home? What do you read there?
3. Read a poem to a tree. The poem can be written by the children, or chosen by them. This one seems silly, but people can be surprisingly moved by it.
4. Tape a moon calendar to the fridge or bulletin board and make sure you notice what phase the moon is in. Make a practice of noticing the moon; praise the child who’s the first one to see the moon every time you go outside.
5. Sit in front of a fire together. She said, “fire is a great fascinator.” Candleflame can also work.
6. Turn over big stones and investigate what is revealed. Bring a plastic bag or a shoe box on walks or to the backyard so kids can gather things that interest them.
7. Teach children to recognize the call of one wild bird, and try to learn it in the wild, as opposed to on an app. Brown Taylor said, “Every bird has its own voice, just like we do.”
8. Keep a Nature Bin to store the treasures you find in creation. My nature bin has items I’ve kept since college, some my parents had collected when they were younger, as well as things my children and I have gathered over the last 20+ years. You don’t even need a bin! Friends of mine pile their collection on their porch steps, where it becomes a great conversation starter.
You don’t even have to make the spiritual connection for children. Brown Taylor says: “Trust the Spirit to speak. I trust the Spirit that erected the world to continue to create the world.”
I love that curiosity about the world can lead us to God. Shared curiosity can lead us closer to each other, too. My children are in their 20s, but they still bring me feathers they find in the wild because they know how much I love them. Re-enchant the world with each other while you read God’s first book!
What have you read in God’s first book?
How have you read it together with children?
This summer I went camping in the The Thumb of Michigan, and yes, I did hold up my hand and point to the spot on my own thumb when telling people about it.
The Thumb was beautiful and, unlike at west-side campgrounds, we could get a great spot only a month before we wanted to head out. I think we’re going to make it an annual thing.
But it also meant that we were only 30 minutes away from a place I’d wanted to visit since I learned about it in 2019: Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. This park is dedicated to educating visitors about and maintaining the stone carvings that were made by Native American people there between 1,500 and 300 years ago. The carvings are called Ezhibiigaadek Asin, “written on stone,” in the Anishinaabemowin language.So much history is told from such a small location. From how the petroglyphs were discovered: two fires devastated The Thumb in 1871 and 1881 and cleared the brush so people could see this rock again (the 1881 fire burned so hot and moved so fast that the technology didn’t exist that would allow people to outrun it so whole families jumped in their well to try to save themselves). To how Native American tribes used that land both to sustain their lives and to commemorate and pass along their history and worldview.
The Anishinaabe (original people) used this Marshall sandstone outcropping by the Cass River as an important gathering place, a place to talk about who they were, where they came from, where they were going, and what their values were. An elder would gather the people, take a stick in hand, and deliver a teaching while tracing the figure being spoken of in the sacred rock. With each repetition, the figure was carved deeper into the sandstone.
The above figure is the archer, who shoots knowledge into the future for coming generations. The items around it are offerings of tobacco, copper, and feathers that contemporary Native American people have given in gratitude for these gifts their ancestors made for them.
If I remember correctly, this is the thunderbird with wings outstretched, creating thunder with each flap.
This figure has been subject to more erosion than others, so it’s no longer as clear. At the bottom right corner of this photo you see a round hole in the rock–vandalism. At some point, someone dug a figure out of the sandstone and removed it. Which is why there’s now a high locked fence surrounding the site.
There were stories the interpreter couldn’t tell us because we were a group of men and women, and some teachings were only for men and others only for women.
This line of circular indents was a mystery until someone used a compass and realized it was a perfect north-south line.
I felt so connected to those long-ago storytellers. For hundreds of Sunday mornings, I have knelt or sat in front of a group of children and talked about how God loves us with a never-ending, always-and-forever love; that God always wants to hear from us; that God is involved with our lives in mundane and amazing ways; that the life of faith is one of both comfort and challenge.
While I tell the stories, I move my hands over sand, manipulating wood and clay and felt figures as I tell a rotating group of 80ish stories. Over and over and over for the last 24 years. Carving them deeper into my own heart and life, while hoping to plant seeds in the children’s hearts and lives.
I can say the beginnings of many stories from memory:
The desert is a strange and wild place. During the day, it is burning hot. But at night it is freezing cold. The wind comes, and as it blows, it shapes and molds. The desert is never the same. So many important things happened in the desert that we have to have a small piece of it in our room.
Once there was a man who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things, that people began to follow him.
This is the season of Advent, the time we are all on the way to Bethlehem. But who will show us the way?
Words, images, repetition.
These have been the way people have done faith formation forever. This trip was a beautiful reminder of that.
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!