Thursday, August 31, 2006

yellow and white letter day

For the past three letter days in a row, I have been able to read not only a letter from my son, but also another prisoner with whom I now keep in touch. I thought it coincidental the first time, another one the second time both letters came on the same day, and yesterday, the third time two letters were in our box on the same day. I feel as though I have two sons. I was thinking about each of them and wondering when the next batch of mail would come. It was my younger daughter's birthday and always when family celebrations happen my son is right there with us on my mind. So, I will let him share, and then my other "son". Here are excerpts from both letters:

Today is one of those rare days for an inmate in my position. My cellie has been moved and I have precious hours by myself to enjoy the silence. It's heavenly to say the least. I don't even feel like listening to my radio...I got your letters and latest money order. It's like a little Christmas every time I get one....speaking of Christmas, this guy Peterson I know whipping up cell-made (instead of homemade) cashew clusters gave me a kookie idea. I figured for holidays I'm going to make (maybe even sell) prison buckeyes (a special candy his aunt makes only at Christmas). Our sink spigot gets so hot you can use the sink as a double boiler to melt Hershey Bars. I call it "correctional confections" :-)

He ends the letter with this: My clothing exchange went well. Actually it was a boot exchange, but I took my Ken Doll shirts in anyway. I got bitched out at first, then she asked me size. I said they were x-large. "What?" she says. "Is that some kinda joke?" So I let her have a look at the tags. Then she grumbled something about "What were they thinking?" and that she wasn't letting me go back to the block with button down spandex. Now I have new boots and shirts. That is my small way of getting over on the D.O.C. (Department of Corrections).

Here are some bits from the other letter, as we have discussed the nuts and bolts of incarceration (this man is in his thirties): One prisoner's enlightenment may come quickly, another's may take years, and the majority of prisoners may never get enlightened at all. They seems stuck in a self-destructive spiral of violence, drug us, racism and mayhem. I think family has alot to do with it, in which case your son has a distinct advantage over his state-raised neighbors. You must bear in mind that the person he is now is not the person he will be when he gets out. The things he may say now, may make zero sense to him over the years as he matures. I wouldn't pay too much attention to the kicking & screaming childish side of him because in all likelihood it's about to be crushed out of his psyche. Mine has, to the point where I look at letters of things I wrote during my lst two years and I'm shocked because I don't recognize myself in those words. I entered a fast-track maturity after remaining a mental adolescent until my arrest.

I'm grateful that my son is still himself, seeing humor in prison life and trying hard to make the best of it. I look forward to the process that was described in the other letter happening to him, as though I'm able to see "now and then" in one fell swoop. I'm so grateful for another man's honesty that has helped me to have hope. God knows what we all need, and I trust Him to deal in everyone's life as He must. That process never ceases to amaze me when I pray and ask.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

a tale of two cats

I love tuxedo cats, but it is coincidental that we have two of them. One cat, a male named CJ (Cowbert Jr.) was a Christmas gift from my daughter to me three years ago. Cowbert is so name because he has markings like a Jersey heifer, with a beautiful black Batman mask and a black nose. Our little fat female, Rei, is a college orphan. Once again our older daughter gave her to us because she could not keep her pet in a dorm apartment. Rei was the runt of a litter, and she is jet black with really short legs, a short tail that is always snaking a greeting to us and little white gloves on her paws, a white chin and throat, and a fluffy white bikini bottom. Her stomach swings back and forth and practically drags the ground when she runs because she is so short and fat. They are quite the pair.

Cowbert is a girly man cat. He is really easily startled, and his favorite prey is houseflies. He sits by our back window and looks out on the yard at the birds landing on our pool cover to get a drink, meowing in this hilarious tremolo that sounds so utterly pitiful. But he's afraid to go outside, so I'm sure it's all an act. The birds look good, but he would never have it in him to catch one. I don't know. He's been known to jump vertically at least a foot if we drop a dish or laugh too loud.

Our baby cat tends to harbor delusions of grandeur. The birds don't really capture her attention. What does is an adult rabbit that loves my backyard plants. She spied this rabbit, probably twice her size, creeping around the back, and pressed her ears to the window, stiff as a board. She watched until the bunny was out of sight through our fence, no doubt dreaming of rabbit stew like Elmer Fudd. And something tells me if we let her outside, she'd make the attempt. She has no problem perching herself on top of the litter box cover and boxing CJ's ears when he comes out after using it, as if to punish him for using "the ladies' room"! When Rei is tired and wants her favorite chair, if someone is in it, she'll circle the chair and sometimes bat the offender's head from the top cushion if the chair is not vacated when she's ready for her nap.

I love our cats and while they are so funny to observe I have to admit, I do the same things. Either I chase houseflies or I think I want a rabbit, when a bird is the perfect thing. It's easy to get content doing only what a body must do, or imagining something impossible, ignoring the present day opportunities. Sometimes the impossible is right, if you are willing to work for it, but to let it be a distraction with no hope of any attainment wastes all the gifts of today. Fear and overconfidence are two sides of the same coin.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

making memories part 2

Well, I got to the mural job around 7:00 am through the lovely late summer PA fog up a mountain. This lead foot never slows down, so I was passing off trucks on a winding road straight up, filled with anticipation and a trunkful of paint cans, brushes, stuff-everything I could possibly have needed to do the job and alot more. Everything was sliding back and forth as I hurried on my way. I had time to wait until my contact came and opening the house. The rain was falling on the leaves of trees that totally surrounded the home. It reminded me of what the candy house in Hansel and Gretel might have looked like, a pale yellow with white timber trim and lots of windows. The woman and came let me in, and I sort of threw all my supplies into the garage and ran up into the room. She finally left me alone to get to it.

I have to admit, a freshly painted, totally empty room is rather intimidating. It's basically a multidimensional canvas. I started off with just ideas in my head and from a baby's quilt. I began to mix colors and sketch on the first wall, and then decided this was really too slow and dipped into some suede brown for the tree. The trunk leaned to the right, then to the left, then slowly began to straighten out. It seemed like what should have been really, really simple for an old pro such as myself began to get really complicated. I swear the wall was eating my paint. So I thought I really needed to get bolder, and was doing windmill strokes with the green foliage. I tried putting in accents, and they kept disappearing. Pretty soon I was working back and forth on the whole wall, throwing painted clouds on, going back to the tree, then to the clouds, up and down this little step ladder. Things began to take shape after around three hours, lots of spilled paint, spots on the brand-new cream carpet, newspaper sticking to my shoes and constant mixing and fixing.

Fast forward to hour 5. I'm sitting there, sweat running down my back, wondering why in the world I told the woman I'd be done in a day. My shoulders ached, my back ached, I was so hot...and then I chanced to look out the huge picture window. A doe crept carefully over the lawn and began to nibbled grass. She kept looking around, and moved forward until two spotted fawn followed, eating grass and tree leaves. The picture of it was so stunning. Somehow the idea of a whole next wall wasn't too bad. And I did do it. But by the end of the day every trip to the bathroom to rinse my brushes made my brain scream in protest. Finally I painted the last animal. I was sitting in a corner surrounded by paint cans, dreading to reach for one a foot away. I sort of leaned into it and flopped the brush over the can. Discouraging words were being heard from the range when my patterning began to drip. I wanted to cry...shoot, I wanted to drive home right then, but I fixed the drips, cleaned the room and drove slowly home.

I don't know what the baby will think about striped cows and plaid cats, but somehow I felt a deep sense of accomplishment finishing the job. It was a stretch and I usually don't accept mural jobs. But this one I felt very led to accept, and I think it may be something that I'll do in the future, possibly even a business. But for now, it was one of those days that I felt I had done exactly what I was called to do, and that was more than satisfying. I have my own memories of the day to take me forward into whatever the future holds and God allows.

Monday, August 28, 2006

making memories

I'm up before the dawn's cracking today, 4:00 am. I have an unusual art job to do, and I wanted to get to the site early. A young woman called me two days ago to ask if I might know someone who would do a nursery mural. That isn't unusual, but the thing was-I have the space of one week, starting today. People that know how I work know this is not a problem. I have planned to do it in one day. But the reason I have only a week is because the mother-to-be is out of town with her husband, and he wanted to surprise his wife. I still do not remember the connection between the woman who called me and this couple, but she did tell me these folks were approaching middle age (late thirties) and this was their first child. She also told me the pregnancy had been very difficult up to this point, and the child may not live, or may be handicapped. The more she shared on the phone and on our ride to the house, the more convinced I became that I should take the job. We pulled up to this brand new, huge, beautiful home and my contact fumbled with keys and a timed alarm system. I sort of felt out of my league until I walked in, and the sense of "someone" and warmth filled the home, even though the owners were not there. I looked at the nursery and decided I wanted to be a part of this house.

My daughter rented a movie, "Everything is Illuminated" and I watched the whole film and a part of it three times. Elijah Wood gets top billing as Jonathan Foer, but the actor who gave the film it's life and heart was Eugene Hutz. He portrayed a young Ukrainian man, Alex, enthralled with all things American, though his command of English was rather unusual. He becomes Jonathan's translator (of course, no one questions why Elijah Wood's American character doesn't speak Russian) when this man travels to the Ukraine in search of his grandfather's home town. The story has an incredible ending, and a very delicate balance of comedy, whimsy and deeply poignant moments. The journey's end was totally unexpected. Jonathan is a collector of family memorabilia, and a photograph of his grandfather, Safran, and an unidentified woman move him to make this search. The title comes from a statemant that Alex makes, that everything is illuminated in the light of the past.

This was on my mind as I decided to take the mural job. As an artist, somehow it is so important for me to be a part of people's memories, to leave behind a trail that someone may follow as life changes. Alex asked Jonathan why he collects, and he said, "Because I'm afraid I'll forget things". If this child lives, one of the first memories he will form is of his surroundings in the nursery. And I hope that he will remember the painted cows, chickens, kitty cats, dogs, trees, farmyard and grass surrounding the crib. I pray they will help him to be happy and contented, and one day when he's in college or grown, remember the house he grew up in. Maybe he will marry and have a child, and want to give his child things he once had. The preciousness of memory is all we have when time and things in our lives pass by. I want to create all the memories I can for someone to collect and pass on to future generations. We need to live our present lives illuminated by the past.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

finding beauty

I think of how amazing it is to be able to type a name into a computer and come up with results instantly if they are to be found. I got a call from my worried friend from the previous blog, needing help. She is elderly, has a lovely collection of art, and was concerned about one piece in particular. It is a print on cloth of an intricate line drawing, a portrait of an African bride in an elaborate headdress. My friend, who remains the most free spirit and young old person I know, carefully and meticulously added beadwork fringe to the headdress. Her hands are so crippled with arthritis I cannot imagine how she accomplished this, but the beads are stunning and add the perfect touch to this piece of art. Her concern was that this work be passed on to the right individuals who would take care of it and value it long after she is gone. During our conversation the phone suddenly got silent while she wept at the thought of parting it. She implored me to help her think of who or where her beloved bride should go. I am by no means on the inside track of the art upper crust, but I have more knowledge than the average Joe about art, so I tried to think of places where it might be displayed permanently and enjoyed.

Now back to finding people on the web. One thought I had was to contact the artist. The print was dated "1988" and the name of the artist was on it, so I thought it should be an easy matter to find her. What if she was still living and might want to see the piece, or even have it back? It came from Africa. Perhaps, on the other hand, I would find that it is one of thousands printed out and of no value to a collector or an institution that might conceivably purchase the piece. Sometimes part of the value of a thing is how hard we search to know the truth about it. I agreed to do this, and will after I am done typing this blog. I wanted to heighten the suspense a bit, and perhaps I'll add the closing chapter tomorrow.

I do wish sometimes that knowing someone and understanding their heart was as easy as typing in a name. Relationships are a treasure, one of a kind works of art that take a lifetime to complete. Some are left unfinished, and some don't come out as we might hope. Others take long hours of labor to achieve even the smallest areas of expertise. Care is required in maintaining them. And then in some friendships we are only allowed to "keep" them for a short time, and be a helper and a guide to finding the right setting for their lives. As much could be said about children. I want to be the kind of involved and caring person that is called upon by God to guard His precious treasures on the earth. I want to embellish their lives with beauty that complements their worth. Well, then, I think I have a name to look up!

Friday, August 25, 2006

out of darkness

I'm a working artist, primarily gifted in portraiture. I love the human face and form, and to me it is the best vehicle of expressing the things I want to in my work. I have come to understand that no commission or original work is "just a job". Most people expect, and rightly so, when ordering work done, that the portrait looks like the individual they are paying to have represented. Likeness is primary. But, within the parameters of likeness comes a wide range of nuance of expression. The type of lines or strokes used change this. The color of the paper, bright, dark, neutral, all affects the outcome and mood of a piece. I remember seeing various portraits of George Washington in an art instruction book, and while the features of all were familiar, the projected inner person varied so widely by how those features were presented.

The main issue here in how a likeness is achieved is usually not only the personality of the individual, but the personality of the artist as well. I am having a show in a few weeks, and I sent out flyers as invitations. A very dear friend of mine, my biggest fan probably, called me and asked what in the world was wrong with me. She received the flyer, which was a black and white copy of a piece I had done, and asked me if I was turning to the dark side. (Those were not her exact words, but what she said was on the face so comical I don't want to embarrass her by repeating it). I laughed into the phone and assured her I'm absolutely fine. I had no idea my work had projected such a mood, and others that had received these flyers simply told me they were excited to come and see the show.

But what my friend said stayed with me because I trust her judgment-she sees below the surface of things. So I started another piece of work, a figure, something I wanted to do just for myself. The drawing is almost done, and it's very striking, very well done-clearly a representation of my style, but there was something else about it. The whole body, the lines, the face, the complete picture, was a picture of total disillusion. I drew all day yesterday, and then carried the picture downstairs and put it in the kitchen under the brightest lights in our house, and saw it. The figure was sinking back into the paper as though falling backward. I don't plan perspective-I use my eye because I trust in my own judgment more at this place in my experience as an artist. I don't understand the mystery of the craft, where my very heart pours itself onto the paper no matter what I'm drawing or painting. But my figure is telling me something, like a mirror reflecting my soul. I need to let some light in.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

morning glories

I am no gardener, but I like things that grow, especially climbing vines and flowers. I particularly like morning glories. When I was a child, I had a friend who lived in a yellow brick house (I must have believed she was from the land of Oz), and on the side of the house grew these spectacular, sky blue on the sunniest day, huge, full-skirted morning glories. They lived up to their name. The contrast of that profusion of brilliant cerulean against the ochre brick stays in my mind. So I became determined to grow some of my own against our ugly, utilitarian chain link fence in the back yard. At first I just wanted something to cover it, so I threw a hardy variety into the ground, not really caring what came up. And I got some small but pretty blooms the first year. The following year I wanted the big bells, so I got some premium seed and planted away. No luck. My downtown girls came up with a vengeance and choked out the new seed. I tried the next year. Once again, nothing, though I diligently searched every day for a spot of that unmistakeable blue among the purples and whites.

So this year I cleared a brand new spot along the fence, got top grade soil, dug a trench and soaked my seedlings in warm water before planting. I made sure any danger of frost was past, and carefully spaced the cracked seedlings in the soil. Once again, I waited. And waited. And waited. The other flowers came up, and then I noticed a vine with distinctly shaped leaves unlike the others. Once again, I waited. The vine was naked for a long time. One morning I was playing with our cats by a backdoor window, and I could see it, screaming blue from clear across the backyard-one single, enormous, lovely bloom, like Cinderella entering the ballroom swathed in this unmistakeable color. I think I yelled and ran outside. Everyday I came outside in the morning to just look at this blossom, and then I noticed there was another one. And in a few days, another one. Then along with the deep blue blooms came these delicate light blue bells with dark blue streaks. I don't remember those being on the neighbor's vine. Now there is this floating cloud of flowers on the top of the fence dotted with dark blue. It is extraordinary.

I've been thinking lately of how deeply childhood memories stay with us and shape our future. Somehow those blooms along the fence provide a visual, present and tangible link to the past for me, as though it exists in the here and now. Sometimes seeds of hope stay buried for a long time. I think of how the scriptures say we were "pre-ordained" for good works, and the treasure of our lives hidden until it is ready to be uncovered, and our lives live on in the future, like the seeds that suddenly burst into unexpected glory-in our own lifetime, and for generations to come. We are not forgotten.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

heart change

In every type of situation requiring change of action, for that change to be permanent, a person has to change from within. Lasting change requires more than changing the outward, although sometimes this does work in reverse, if circumstances are thrust onto a person that are less than desirable or require a change in attitude to be palatable. The end result needs to be the same. I keep reading a similar thing, that it is not the eradication of affections that creates the climate for change, but the redirection. This requires an understanding of what is truly important. For change to happen in the first place, there must be an understanding that it is necessary, and that understanding comes from knowledge of the true condition of a person. If all this seems like semantic juggling, consider someone who obviously does wrong things, and calls them good, doesn't care, or has no problem with their own conscience. The general population usually has a law thrust upon them to deal with such things, but we all know if someone does not want to change, they will risk everything to continue in spite of the apparent greater good. At this moment I'm trying to understand what is necessary to help my son have such a change. He has no problem with a philosphy of life that does not value life (apparently). Most folks take this for granted, but if even a basic tenet of existence is thrown out, how do you help a person see what is true?

First of all, I realize that for myself, I need to see the truth. The truth that I embrace is God's truth as written in the scriptures. I believe it by faith, see it working experientially and intellectually realize it's great benefit to people. Nothing else makes sense to me. I, therefore, need to apply my own beliefs firstly to myself. I continue to read in James, and have seen that my affections often are far from what they need to be, and my focus is so often away from what is truly important. I need to put myself through the process of heart change before I can even begin to have the wisdom to help my son. James talks about desiring wrong things, and that that does proceed from within. You can't do right if you don't desire right first of all. He says the end result of this is strife and jealousy. All begins with belief and motivation. If you believe yourself to be more important than anyone or anything else, desire has no anchor. It is moved at the whim of a person's own fallible and selfish inner workings.

I wondered to myself, how can a person who wants to change but struggles to release wrong inner desires find help? One answer that James recommended surprised me. I've read the book many times but never realized how much importance is placed on this one thing, and that is the prayer of other people. James' prescription for change is confession to and prayer by other people who are seeing right and believing right. He says the prayer of righteous people is extremely powerful to bring about change, but I always associated that change with the outward, not the inward. Going to other people requires a strong desire to change and great humility. Pride and an overblown sense of self-importance are the roots of so much human evil. True heart change comes when we are ready to expose what is inside and subject it to truth.

Monday, August 21, 2006

the amusement park

This is a continuation of my previous blog, being that it is the next day and a Sunday. Saturday was a struggle, and Sunday revealed what my struggle was truly about thanks to our pastor being gone, the book of James and a an annual trip to a local amusement park. Our pastor and his family took a much-needed vacation to Ocean City, NJ, so that left our worship team needing a leader and someone to fill the pulpit. I'm next in line to lead when that happens, and my husband volunteered to take the pulpit. We're a very small church, so this is not unusual. But I woke up feeling less than adequate and enthused about the whole thing. I resented having to continually "be there" for a group so small it seemed hardly worth it. As I got into my morning I also realized that the day was shaping up to be an absolutely perfect one weather-wise for a trip to Knoebel's Grove, another thing that I was less than enthused about. I do not like to ride things that zoom you multiple stories in the air and drop you multiple stories down equally fast...or crowds, or noise, or walking for hours waiting for other people to be flung into the air and dropped as often as they can. Sigh. I asked my younger daughter if I'd be missed, and realized that was a stupid question even though she's too kind to tell me outright I'm a selfish ass.

So I put on my skirt and lipstick, made sure I was fortified with two cups of coffee, loaded my daughter into the car and off we went. My husband was already at the church, opening the doors, putting on the air conditioning and making sure all was ready for the morning. I got into the music still sort of gritting my teeth-someone borrowed the general song folder and didn't return it, which I knew about because she called me-so copies had to be made with 5 minutes to spare before the service. Irritation stalked me and panic threatened to take away any scrap of calm I had. Well, half-way through the list I sensed the gracious presence of the Holy Spirit pouring over the music. My irritations were washed away. I sort of half-dreaded my husband's sermon, which I secretly felt I could do better, and was really surprised at how well he put it together, shared from the heart, grabbed his audience's attention and had them laughing and listening. I was, too.

Soon it was time to go to the park, but before that happened a friend was walking by the house, someone who had commissioned me to do a great deal of artwork. She came in and oohh'd and ahh'd at the work on the walls and asked me to do yet another piece, someone close to the family who had passed away young. Her presence lifted me and began to sweeten the day. We went to the park and it was actually fun. My husband and I eschewed the anything gravity-defying and played mini-golf, although the two boys behind us seemed to have golf balls that defied it! They were so funny to watch. We played skeeball and pinball, road the mini-train, thought about life on the Merry Mixer and realized in two years we'll be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary. The trip home was beautiful and I wasn't feeling the usual relief that it was finally over. We listened to the kids in the back-my two daughters, a girlfriend and a boyfriend, came along, and I thought about how very fortunate I am.

So now the book of James, and what the struggle was about on Saturday-James let me know in no uncertain terms that I am full of pride. Pride in the sour, impossible-to-please guest in the feast of life. Listen to what James says about it, "What leads to strife and they not arise from your sensual desires that are ever warring in your bodily members? You are jealous and burn with envy and anger and are not able to obtain the gratification, the contentment and the happiness you are like unfaithful wives breaking your marriage vows to God...God sets Himself against the proud but give grace to the lowly who are humble-minded enough to receive it...come close to God and He will come close to you..." My problem is and has always been, I feel too good for the life God has chosen to bless me with. If I do not accept this life with gratitude and see how blessed I am, I will never find any good in it. In truth, this life is too good for the likes of me. It was like being in that amusement park, with something that everyone might enjoy, only if you want to, go there and buy the tickets, and use them and enjoy the ride. I also realized the focus of my decision was wholly about me in the beginning. I recall in the sermon my husband saying, that is our biggest problem. Our focus is on the wrong person. When I was able to thank God for the day, want to be with my family, want to enjoy the day, I did.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

the eternal flame

I recently read a story within a story out of my favorite literary journal, Image. The writers are so rich in their creative insights that reading anything out of this journal is like being engrossed in a fascinating conversation with a best friend. But the story goes, an old hermit suffered from forgetfulness. He went to his Abba to seek a word of wisdom on how to deal with his problem, but by the time he made it back to his cell he had forgotten the word. And so this went on many times. Eventually the old man apologized for taking up so much of the Abba's time, but the holy man replied with a question: Does a lamp suffer diminution when other lamps are lit from it? The holy man told the old hermit that if the entire population of the area came to him constantly it would not diminish the flame that originates with Christ.

I believe the greatest difficulties I have in life are due to forgetfulness. Spiritual amnesia creeps into my life and becomes a hope-killer. I forget what I've done in the past and why, I forget what other people have done for me and why, God included, I forget my true purpose in life and measure myself against other people much more accomplished, busy, productive-I forget the divine flame inside, and depression steals over me like a damp and cold morning. I'm still reading James, and there is a series of verses that say you have not because you ask not, or you ask for the wrong reasons to spend what you get on your own lusts-don't you know friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I forget the path, that it is my own, and that it will always be my own, no matter how overgrown it may be or how small a footpath in a dense wood of so much "elseness" that seems so much more real and important.

Yesterday was one of those days, in a series of days, leading up to this one period of rage, lonliness, unfocused confusion, deep sadness-I tried so hard to make something of it, but like an aborted painting, it refused to come together into anything meaningful in my eyes. I bounced around the house like a ping-pong ball, room to room, straightening pillows, doing two dishes and then sitting down to sigh. And then all again, upstairs to lift my pencil for 5 minutes, pick up a book, put down a book, come downstairs, sigh and eat candy. All day long this went on and the feelings inside continued spun around and mutated into different forms all of the the same substance like a lava lamp. I went to bed with not much resolved except the grateful feeling of the day ending finally.

This morning I had to return to the Abbot in prayer and be reminded of things I know a million times over. I'm human and desire is the driving force of my life. The flame weakens and becomes misdirected by the winds of circumstance and inner strife, but it will always be there. The mission of life is not to kill desire, to never feel, but to protect and direct the passions we have, and realize, they are good, as God pronounced human beings very good, and continually dip our life's wick into the Holy Spirit's divine flame inside. Timothy was urged to fan the flame of his spiritual calling. Our calling is first and foremost the passion for God Himself. And sometimes life is simply slipping our hand in His during periods of intense grief and apparently pointless inactivity or activity. I have to remind myself to "therefore stand, having done all I can to stand". I want to move, to run, to assist and wave that flame around, but so often I must just put it on a stand to light the small room in which I find myself enclosed, and remember that other people are looking to that light no matter how small and insignificant it is. The divine flame is never diminished, especially in the dark.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


I have been privileged in my lifetime to have known many extraordinarily gifted people, in the secular world and in the spiritual. Many have remained examples for me, and the memory of their service, their excellence in some particular field or their character has driven me to excel in my own areas of service and gifting. I have remained friends with a few for many years, long enough to watch how the difficulties of life can wound and discourage even the most stalwart souls. One of the hardest things for me to do in life is maintain my own confidence and encourage those who seem so much more rich in the things of life and God. I think to myself, "What do I have to even offer these people?" I continue to read the book of James, and in it are some answers to my questions.

First of all, do not estimate and treat people on the basis of outward appearance, no matter how strong they appear, or how weak. Have faith that if I am in a situation with a person who needs help, God will give the wisdom and answer my prayers. It seems at least in the spiritual realm (and in the physical) folks get so caught up in what they think they need to do, they forget who they are. Our permanent identity is as God's children. I have three children. Each are broadly and wildly different in their tastes, their preferences, their ways of showing love and their weaknesses. My eldest daughter is like carnival, all noise and color, a crazy swirl of activity and fun that leaves us all exhausted and breathless after a visit. My youngest girl is a smart and merry counselor, surprising anyone she meets with her wit and wisdom. My son is deep water-the surface almost never tells what is beneath. The point is, they are all first and foremost, my children. I glory in their individual traits and I long for them all to use their uniqueness in the world serve and to succeed. But whatever they do, they are my children. I laugh with their joys, cry with their sorrows, and bear all that they are because I bore them.

If I could communicate anything to people I love and admire in my life, it is that very thing. God is first of all your father. Good fathers do not maintain unrealistic expectations of their children. They are tenderhearted toward them, longing to do all that is necessary to help them be what they were born to be. Truly loving parents do not love to merely achieve results in their children. They love period. Sometimes our strengths become terrible weaknesses if we begin to trust more in what we do than who we are and think that God somehow will beat out of us what He expects. He gives to us in joy that we may be joyful with Him. That is what I wish to share with my children-their joy in anything we as parents may have given them, which is love and out of that love. It would kill me to think my children believed my love was conditional. Our birthright is in relationship, and God is the supreme parent.

Friday, August 18, 2006


I watched a movie version of Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" last night. The last version I remember starred Richard Chamberlain, who was so very perfect transformed into a count. This movie starred Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrayed Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. I love the story and I felt the need for something to speak to my soul about the unfairness of life and how we meet it. Of course it is the ultimate prison movie-a young man in the prime of his life with everything to look forward to buried in an island gulag due to the jealousy of a "friend" and to protect the reputation of the man who sent him there in a post-Napoleanic France. In order to pull off the tension in the story, the most important element in my mind is how well Edmond's utter and total despair and complete hopelessness is portrayed while he is in prison. Any movie scenes I view of a prison scenario these days simply nauseate me. But unless those feelings are so compelling the viewer sinks into oblivion with the prisoner, the rest of the story will be banal and unmoving.

For this character it is a crisis of faith. He goes into prison believing God is everywhere and comes out bent on revenge. Yet the means of his freedom and the fuel for his plotting is an old soldier and priest whose character is so free of any malice he still is grateful to God and is able to live some sort of life with dignity in the prison. He thanks his jailers for the evening slop every day. The man's no fool, though-he's digging a tunnel to get out, and digs in the wrong direction, thereby finding Dantes. The priest helps him to find a new life, teaching him to read and write, giving him hope as they work together to escape. The one line that put so much into perspective for me was when Edmond calculates the rate of their digging and the result will be years to the outside wall and he all but wants to quit, the priest asks him, "You have something better to do?" The other great line was when Edmond tells the priest he's counted the stones in his cell hundreds of times, the man replies, "Ah, but have you named them yet?" And this all against the backdrop of scenes where Edmond sees a bird flutter between the window bars of his cell, and the longing in his face tells his story. The first thing the priest wants when he enters his friend's cell is to be lifted up to the window to see the sky.

I find myself these days with much time to think. I'm all about the to-do list and crossing things off one by one with glee, as though the lines somehow makes my existence purposeful. There is nothing wrong with a list, but as I ponder the movie and wonder, what if I had absolutely nothing to do but be alone with myself and my thoughts, and for me that would be hell on earth...what would I do? I thought about this yesterday and wondered if anyone ever finds it useful to think solely on God for an extended period of time? Is that a good use of time? I know the questions sound ridiculous, but doesn't it often come down to, "You have something better to do?" I am learning to see solitary moments as precious treasure rather than immediately grabbing the want ads or thinking what great volunteer efforts I could become involved with if I have extended extra time. I also thought, and the thoughts are becoming more and more compelling, that prayer is the only means to draw closer to the Lord and help the people I love. "Doing" becomes instant gratification if things are done only to relieve a sense of discomfort inside. I love to give gifts, to give money, to plan things...I love all of that, but in the story, obviously, Edmond's wealth did nothing to help his heart. There are so many needs out there that aren't going to end in a day, and perhaps the reason I find myself "in solitary" is to name those stones one by one every day. The story ends with Edmond being redeemed as the Count, but I pray I can emulate the priest who died in prison with no freedom, and all freedom.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

finding joy

I am reading the book of James today. A casual reading of the first chapter of the book might cause the reader to believe he is masochistic. The letter is address to the Christian believers who were scattered far from their homes due to persecution for their faith. After his greeting, the first verse says this, "Consider it wholly joyful, my brethren, whenever you are enveloped in or encounter trials of any sort, or fall into various temptations." A few words that caught my immediate attention were "wholly joyful", "whenever", "trials of any sort", "various temptations". If I take the proper English meaning of this remarkably harsh statement, James is saying something like every single time your life becomes really hard and painful things happen, decide to rejoice? Wow. The next thing that comes to mind is, how and why? No one living and sane wants painful things in their lives, let alone welcoming such things to happen.

Ok, ok, I need to be fair to poor Jim. Let's move on to verse three, "Be assured and understand that the trial and proving of your faith bring out endurance and steadfastness and patience". Well, I guess that makes me feel a little better. James says to "be assured and understand". There is a reason for all of this, because going back to verse 2, there is no "if". It says "whenever". But understanding is far from being wholly joyful. In my mind joy looks forward to something, and understanding merely accepts what is with some reasoned intelligence. There must be more to this.

So then verse four, "But let endurance and steadfastness and patience have full play and do a thorough work, so that you may be (people) perfectly and fully developed (with no defects), lacking in nothing". Hmm, there are those three words once again, endurance, steadfastness, patience. Those also have the ring of something to be suffered through, not embraced.

Looking at it through the microscope of intellect, just trying to analyze the statements, it seems clear first of all the our faith is of paramount importance, because that is the object of trials and temptations. Our faith is proved by these things. Why does our faith need to be proved? To create the three words, endurance, steadfastness, patience. These three things are outward, visible signs of an inner belief system that is so contrary to the human nature it seems impossible. The natural response is to avoid any pain or discomfort at all, and if it comes, get rid of it as quickly as impossible, as though it were an intruder and totally foreign to our existence.

An analogy that may cause this to make more sense is simply-think of yourself as a painting in progress. You were created for a purpose and through the mind and hand of an artist who is not seen. You are the visible manifestation of the artist. Viewers come to look at you on display whenever they may, and what is on the canvas is presented to the viewer as a representation of the artist, and as a work in and of itself. The artist alone chooses colors, strokes, designs and what he deems important. It is the mind of the artist that communicates to the viewer through the painting. I've been to many an art museum, and how often I watch the faces of people transfixed by the works they view. Some stand there for long moments without a word. The works are objects of wonderment, joy, fascination, conviction-so many things. But a compelling work does not fail to leave the viewer unmoved. There are works that take generations to be appreciated. But true value and quality cannot be hidden.

So many times our family has been asked by people how we endure the trial we have gone through with our son. From a natural perspective, it seems denial to say there is any good in this. So taking a real, live situation and applying James 1, I would respond that we have received, in the end, letting endurance, patience and steadfastness have their way, the joy of knowing God is with us in a way He could never have been otherwise. And we understand Him in ways that only trial and suffering can reveal. We have the joy of showing other people He is with us, and that their prayers and love have helped us so much. This trial has revealed the bounty of love we have through friends, church family, and many people who don't even know us that well. And a much greater joy is seeing God work in our son's life. He was living in a way that was not good, and was clearly rescued. Trials and temptations create the means by which God's hand is shown visibly on the earth if we "consider it all joy". The worst condition to be in in the world is living a life completely untouched by sadness, need, want-in other words, to be completely self-sufficient. And it seems in this day and age, that is all we strive for. There is no joy in such a life. One verse that never leaves me is this, "For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross". He must have been the most joyful person that ever lived.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

the nature of evil

As ridiculous as it sounds, dealing with someone in prison, who would not be there had they not done something against the law, it is very hard to assign evil actions or intent to a person you love, a child in particular. Motherly instincts and reactions are so strong, and the first impulse is to defend your offspring. You search for reasons why that in your own mind make sense, no matter how convoluted your reasoning becomes, because the alternative is just too painful to contemplate. And for the first year (at least in our case), the emphasis is on survival, for everyone concerned. I could not accept that the punishment at some points fit the crime, because I really had not come to grips with the crime itself and what led up to it.

But now that my son is settled in his "home" for the next few years, and seems mentally sane, safe, well and healthy as he can possibly be in prison, certain thoughts and reactions are beginning to assert themselves on both sides. While he was in the county lock-up and our visits were short, it was difficult to talk about "the incident". In fact our first visit to the state prison included finally asking specifically what did happen. In my mind I was satisfied that what we were told was the truth. But that did not change things. Decisions, a lifestyle, a way of living and thinking, made the act possible, accidental, stupid or not. And I see my son once again interested in the lifestyle and things that he was prior to his arrest. The point of prison and the best good it can produce is reformation of the inmate, but that is certainly not a guarantee, the same as merely taking a wrecked car to a body shop makes the car new. The possibility of repair is all that the garage can afford. Change takes place from without and within, and the worst result of a prison can be that it becomes a new safe house rather than a place of transformation.

I have begun to realize my part in this process, and it starts with realizing my son is a sinful human being. Humans do not have the capacity to automatically do what is right. Before all this happened, it was all too easy to assume because he grew up in a Christian home that that thought process and lifestyle was at the core of his being. That is a dangerous assumption. It is for any parent regarding their children, no matter how obedient that child is. Appearances are deceiving. It says in the book of Proverbs that the wicked cannot understand justice. Only those who actively seek God understand it. I have to prefer the truth of scripture over my own motherly love and desire to see the best in my son. It isn't love to ignore what is right in front of our faces. It is to gently, and sometimes not so gently, confront what we know to be wrong. There has to be a plumbline. I love to read the stories of Jesus and how he confronted sinful people. He was always compassionate, truthful, loving and He cut to the chase. I need to pattern my own reactions to people the same way, even my children. Especially my children.

Monday, August 14, 2006

the heart of worship

I'm reading an interesting book by John Piper called "Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist". Christian hedonist? I honestly didn't notice that part of the title when I first picked it up, or I might not have. I was raised by Catholic, liberal parents with a firm sense of loyalty and duty to God and family at all costs. I am grateful for my upbringing-I always knew I was well loved and cared for. Yet, I grew up believing that self-interest was practically, if not actually, sinful. Somehow in the garden of my heart two disparate vines took root and grew, each apparently longing to cannibalize the other-one emotional, creative, untamed, and one highly analytical, skeptical and planned, as though a jungle and a suburban lawn were coexisting inside. The struggle was ceaseless, and moments of contented cohabitation rare.

Likewise, the church seemed to encourage believers to be vampires. The more drained of any life that would burst out in unseemly ways you were, the better. We rose from our coffins to say our prescribed words and went back in after it was all over. In my mind this seemed to so contrast with the church building itself, which was full of brilliant stained glass, art all over the walls, the heady smell of incense, the rich vestments the priests wore, lit candles, the fantastic goblets and decorations around the altar-I couldn't help sneaking peeks when we were supposed to be kneeling with eyes closed, and I prayed all the apocryphal stories were true about statues coming to life (how cool was that?)

A moment in time changed everything for me when I realized I could not reach God no matter how hungry fasting made me, how tired my eyes felt and I still managed to keep them open in church, how sincere I tried to force myself to be, and there were times I actually felt it, how authentic my confessions all changed because He came to me in power and I saw myself for the first time. The awfulness of my sin in comparison to a completely holy God, and the wonder of my life in comparison to His love for me. I so clearly remember going back to church after this happened, and it was as though I had never been in the place before. I couldn't wait to hear the priest talk about the scriptures. The building was still beautiful, but the words were like the most thirst-quenching drink I could imagine on a blistering July day. The hymns became my life story, like hearing my mom or dad tell for the millionth time something silly I did as a baby. Joy exploded into every dry area of my life and the blood flowed between my head and heart finally.

Getting back to the Christian hedonist-our faith is not spiritual turpentine, washing out all life and color from the masterpiece of our existence. It is the varnish that makes the colors come to life, glowing and real. I believe I would agree that the mark of a true worshipper is someone who meets God with both planned purpose and true, spontaneous emotion. Both take desire and discipline. The one who studies for hours, pouring over the scriptures, longing to learn more just to know God more and the one who fills the sanctuary with joyful singing and tears are brother and sister. It was like going to visit my son. It took patience to make the four hour journey, but for the anticipation of seeing his surprised face, the journey was a necessary part and joyful because it was all for love. With God and us it should be all for love, too. The heart of worship is that self-interest becomes God interest.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

nuclear reactions

I admit that I have been on both the giving and receiving end of misunderstandings. While I'm not a volatile person, I can be very emotional about certain things and too quick to react. I'm learning what it is to be a person who judges rightly when problems come up, because I tend to put the "fix-it" hat on before I know all the facts and say, do or write things I later regret. That hat is off to leaders I know and have known in the spiritual and secular world who must deal with such situations day in and day out. My apologies to you when I have caused you such aggravation. But the only way to learn how to have wisdom is to be put into those situations which require it.

I recently wrote a letter to a person I know to be very emotional and quick-tempered. A person who felt they were wronged by this individual called me and asked for my advice and help. (Note to self-another really bad place to be is in the middle of a dispute). At any rate, there was a good reason I was called, and in this instance it was my responsibility to intervene. I felt my only recourse was to write, because in the past talking to this person could produce some unwanted results, e.i., being screamed at, insulted, misconstrued...and I did receive an extremely angry letter in return. It was a flame-thrower that would have certainly disintegrated me on the spot. I had to admit, however, I did not get all the facts in the beginning. I therefore felt the only right thing to do was to write an apology where apology was needed even though the caller's concern was valid.

In the end I realized that every individual will view me through their own lense of truth. I will do the same to them. Wisdom is in finding those nuggets which are actual truth and dealing with them, not the things that perhaps should been left unsaid and were the residue of anger and hurt. I'm so very grateful to people who give me much room and grace to be right, and to be wrong, and still love me anyway. For the ones that can't or won't, I can only try to do what is right, and sometimes that leaves a body at the bottom of a barbeque pit. Sigh...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

you can't always get what you want

Well, it's another yellow letter day, and this one had me laughing until the tears were rolling, so I'm going to let my son relate his commisary blues! Here's Brandon:

"I've been having some crappy luck w/ store bought clothes as of late. I bought a 2x shirt that shrunk down to a medium in the wash. To fix that I bought a 4x. That came back from the larundry covered in brown spots. What the hell?! I have another, we'll see what happens there. The Camp Hill 2x boxers fit great, so I buy a pair here. They fit deceptively well until you realize they no give when you try to move around in them. I ripped a pair damn near in half by jumping into a pair of pants a little too fast. Next store, I buy a 3x. I pull them out of the wrap right in front of the register and unfold them. They're huge. Man! There's Ken doll 2x and circus tent 3x, pick one. I can't win! Just today I tried to score a pair of gym shorts for yard. My "hobby jeans" are too restrictive for hacking. No dice. They were out. I bought a browns laundry bag for nothing! You need that for personal browns/sweats. I've got a week to try again.

Instead of food I bought protein shakes a.k.a "meal replacements". That's a confusing commisary listing. Meal replacement? Someone told me the trick to making grits and oatmeal taste good-it's a 3rd of a shake packet mixed in. It's strawberry flavored, it can't hurt. I decided to try one as a drink. Now, this is a 72 gram packet, pretty big, and the whole thing is one serving. It says "add 12-14 oz. of water..." Simple, right? I open 'er up and dump it in a 14 oz. cup-THUMP-fills the whole cup. Where's the water going to go? I'm trying, struggling rather, to mix a drink and making yogurt. It went down just as easy. No, it didn't taste bad. It just refused to come out of the cup! It reminded me of Power Bars. Those are so hard to chew you have to eat an energy bar first for the physical endurance to finish a Power Bar. It's some kind of gimmick! After all of that I read in the directions "for best results use blender". Well, I've got a plastic spoon and tap water. I'll see your blender and smoothie mix. Blah! What should I do, hook the spoon to my tape player and hit fast foward? Oops, it's stuck! Rewind!"

Since that was a very hard act to follow, I'll just say "hope you got a chuckle from that funny slice of prison life". Seems like a oxymoron, but one thing about my son-he can make a comedy routine out of anything. I'm glad. It'll be good to see him this weekend.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

two sides of love

Christianity is a belief system filled with apparent contradictions, ironies and contrasts. In order to have life, you must lose it. In order to be free (from sin), you need to be a slave (of righteousness). God is love defined, but His nature consists of perfect judgement and unbounded mercy together. When most people think of love, they think of something that is totally non-judgmental, completely accepting and easiest on the object of their affection. The scripture says, the person that God loves, He chastises. It also says the Son (Jesus Christ) learned obedience in what He suffered. To our "live and let live", "do your own thing", "Whatevvverrrr..." society, this is just politically incorrect and harsh.

But I think it is really very necessary to look at love from the standpoint of what it hopes to accomplish. From God's perspective, love brings a human 'round to the place of being righteous, and therefore, happy. It secures an individual in the process, but does what is necessary to save. It seems like humans have it backwards-they start with a finished product. We tend to love things that seem worthy of our good opinion. God loves because it is His nature, regardless of the nature of the beloved. This seems so impossible to me, and yet, He loved our son enough to let him be found out in his struggles. I don't think I could have done what it took, even knowing how much it might cost in the end for the bad.

Many people fear the idea that God is sovereign. That also seems repugnant to us arrogant humans who think we control the world in our own self-importance. The longer I live, the more I trust in the mercy and severity of God to rule His world, and this life, in which I ought to be His slave, but have been adopted as His own daughter. What unfathomable love is God!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

one size fits all?

Sometimes life tends to feel like it's closing in on a body. I'm a dental technician by trade, and one piece of equipment in the lab that is used frequently is a vacuum adapter. I'm sure if Ronco could have come up with this for home use, you'd see it on infomercials. It is a machine that has a heating element which softens a square of plastic, and a base with holes for the vacuum that pulls the plastic over a stone model of a patient's gums. The model is completely and tightly encased in plastic if the procedure is done correctly. I was feeling like that model yesterday. Life's challenges were pulling themselves in on me to the point I could not breath. Or sometimes you feel like Play Dough, and life is the plastic extruder. I used to love to put that stuff through a garlic press or a cake decorating tube, too, which didn't make my mom too happy. That made the coolest hair, like Raggedy Ann. It's not fun if you are the dough, however.

Life is what it is, and has it's challenges. Those challenges are particularly hard to bear, I feel, when it seems like you've done "everything right". I could take being hit for stupid choices and decisions. At least there is some solace that a concrete reason is behind it. When there seems to be no reason, or it seems what you reap is not at all in proportion to what you sow, then things become painful. Why is the mailbox full of unexpected overdrafts, missed payments, things you didn't even know you owed, when you've joyfully given out of your own need to help others? Why does the career and business you've poured your life into never quite take off, when you've done your best to serve your clients and the public? Why is the child you so lovingly tended to as a baby and had such high hopes for now a stranger? How do you see the truth and not become bitter-what lense do you view these things through that seem so painfully unfair?

One clue came to me this morning as I took my daily walk and a garbage truck passed by. In August, in the heat and humidity, you cannot miss a garbage truck. The aroma reminded me how transient and perishable the world is, and everything in it. I was reminded that for all human children, life presents the one opportunity we have to be tried. Think of it. If you were never born, you'd never have a life to experience. When you die, every opportunity, every challenge, everything that can show up your inner "stuff" is gone. If through all the weirdness, gladness, sadness, questioning, the unexpected, the terrible, the wonderful-if through all of that we can walk through it with a smile, with hope, determined to know what God has and all that life holds without quitting, we've been successful and learned the lesson of being alive in the first place. Don't give up. A new day always brings the promise of a new life, and at the end of it all,
life eternal.

Monday, August 07, 2006

caller ID

I still have a hard time getting used to seeing identification numbers flash on the phone. In a way I'd rather not know who is calling, but I guess it's good to see numbers that are obviously telemarketers. In the old days you had to pick up to know who was calling, and if it was a friend or family member the moment you heard the "hello". The only caller ID then was voice identification. My sisters and I had fun with this particularly when we were teenagers. There were five of us and it was difficult to tell who was who, especially the older three. We played tricks on girlfriends and boyfriends alike. Even my parents usually had to go down the list of our names before someone identified themselves. My daughters and I have the same "problem". Sometimes it takes hearing a certain inflection in a word or expression before I can tell my girls apart over the phone! But I can tell.

I was thinking about the scripture where Jesus said His sheep would know His voice. Sometimes I know I need to hear some things over and over. It isn't that the voice is unfamiliar, and yet I question all too often, particularly with things that are hard to hear. The Lord is creative in the way He speaks, but unmistakeable through His Word, the things we know to be within His character, which is perfect, and loving, if at times severe. Words and communication heard with the understanding that they are given in love changes the whole meaning of a message. It has taken me a long, long time to trust that all things in my life, where I've really tried to hear the Shepherd, are answered in love. But when I exercise my faith to believe it, I can receive so much more easily and obey. I don't hesitate to "pick up".

I know, too, the times I've refused a conversation or hidden from God or people I know, I usually regret it. Or sometimes communication gets garbled, and it takes time to work out what was meant or intended. I try to follow the same rule always-to receive the best I can when I do anwer, and have confidence in the familiar voices that say "hello".

Saturday, August 05, 2006

stress fractures

For the past few weeks now I've been watching a spot on our yellow bedroom wall blister, bulge, break open and develop a pattern of cracks that seem to spread out in every direction like a sunburst. If this could have been put into fast motion I suppose it would look something like a wall crack flower opening up. I resent the encroaching spot because it means I'll have to take a putty knife to the petals, breaking them all off to get to the underlying plaster, which will most probably create a massive wound on the wall and a subsequent uneven, lumpy scar of a repair patch. Then the fresh paint over the scab will cover but will not hide this spot, because the original paint is years old and has an age patina that is impossible to blend over. Every time I walk into the bedroom this developing irritation and reminder that I have something to fix is the thing my eyes immediately gravitate to and it makes me mad. I did nothing to cause this and I can do nothing to stop it. All I can do is repair the damage.

Of course, in order for the fractured area of the wall to appear, something underlying the surface had to create stress. Inordinant pressure, a shift in the foundation, something at this particular moment and time affected that one particular spot on the wall and the internal change caused an outward effect. This spot in the wall was not meant to bear the uneven load that began to be forced onto it. The only result could be breakage under too much weight and pressure. The plaster on the walls is not resilient enough to stretch and adapt.

I was reminded this past year in my own life that it takes time for stress fractures to appear and warn that the internal weight I was bearing was too heavy to endure alone. Cracks began to appear in my emotional surface and I ignored them. As ridiculous as it sounds, when the catastrophic load of my son's imprisonment was placed on our family, I began to accept it as normal and therefore did not actively seek out support structures for this area of my life. That's how I wound up on our living room couch one day unable to focus any thoughts and weeping uncontrollably. We humans are not meant to be pressed under the weight of life's struggles without others coming along under the load to help us bear it. God designed the human family to be the resilience we need to manage stress without cracking up. Most folks are reluctant to bother other people with their problems, as though they caused situations beyond their control. They work to patch over the gashes in their lives that others usually see only too clearly. God's hands on the earth are human. The basis for groups like Celebrate Recovery, AA, Prison Fellowship, the church, is just that. As the old commercial used to say, "Reach out and touch someone today". Chances are good they need it desperately and so do you.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

here I am to worship

Seems to me like our Lord is in the business of making silk purses out of sow's ears continually. I tell him this is a useless and sadistic occupation, but He does not listen to me, thankfully. I love music, but I could not truthfully class myself "a musician". My poor mother also tried to tempt me with piano lessons and a french horn. I usually wet the bed the night before the dreaded recitals and continued this torture simply to get to the ice cream shop and sugared orange wedges we celebrated my fame with afterward. It worked for awhile. I also attempted school plays and programs. This, too, was such a battle of nerves it seemed I was not destined for the stage and everyone forced to sit in the audience knew this long before I did.

After the birth of baby number three, it was decided my oldest daughter would take piano lessons. She seemed to pick it up quickly but the interest lagged. Mine, however, was piqued, so thus began (again) my "career" relearning the piano, sitting with 10 year olds during nursing home performances and gaining a new love for music and performance. I trembled and shook, squeaked through church worship practices, knew I was the caboose on the train, but persevered. Somehow God kept whispering, "keep trying". Our family began attending a church that had a worship band. I was invited to be a part because of my piano skills....and because there was no one else in the church who could play. Well, it was an endorsement of sorts as they did not have to ask at all. I went from needing written music to chords and improvisation, to (wonder of wonders) playing AND singing, to finally having to take lead vocal duties. But this isn't about me.

So this morning I went to the church to practice. One of my most favorite contemporary worship songs is Tim Hughes' "Here I Am to Worship". I locked myself in the church at 6 in the morning. I screamed and screeched until the sweat was running down my face. Then I started this song, and like the opening of a movie in a dark theater the first line projected itself in my head, "Light of the World, You stepped down into darkness..." It seemed like the whole sanctuary became enveloped in silence and my voice and keyboard filled the room. Streams of light played over the tops of the chairs as the morning sun shone through the glass front door. I was overcome. It sounds so trite, but this is the reason I sing. What a worthy Lord we have, and it seemed in that moment somehow those words blessed and sanctified my less than noteworthy musicianship. It was like I could see Him stepping down from brilliant light into a dark, dark cloud without hesitation. He willingly took our prison sentence upon Himself. We deserve death, and to save us He took a trip to a living hell. The end of the song says, "You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me", and I'm so glad I have the skills to tell Him in music.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Human beings are relational creatures. We were created to be. Love is essential for our survival. I'm sure we all have heard about the developmental differences between babies who are cuddled and those who are not. Scriptures say if we have all wisdom, knowledge, giftings, self-sacrificing behaviors and don't have love, we're nothing. That's a very strong statement, and I take it to mean the ability to give and receive love properly. I would also venture to say most criminal behavior has a relationship component. The drive to belong to someone and be accepted is so powerful, it can have the most positive effects in the world and the most negative.

My son became entangled in a friendship that morphed into something so unhealthy that at first glance it is very hard to understand exactly how this happened. Two young men with like personalities, lots in common, much to share and an apparent "brotherly love" for each other wound up in the woods one night with one dead and one suicidal. Police and reporters alike seemed to want to blame someone or something, come up with deviant or Satanic behavior as the cause, or some weird death pact. In fact even we as parents and family wondered what the truth was. My belief is this-anything that takes the place of God in our lives and becomes a god to us will, in the end, be our end. The best and most apparently perfect relationship, job, talent, situation, life, whatever, will be the rope that hangs us if that is all we live for. There was no reason for two potentially wasted lives here except that human beings cannot take the place of God for each other.

Most people don't come to this end, but even living marginally or for the wrong reasons is a living death. God alone loves us for the true people we are, and God alone has the key to purpose in our lives. He is our life-line. Human life-lines can become spider webs all too easily. The thing about being entangled is, the more you struggle, the tighter the ropes become. The key to escape is surrender. Either that or death.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Maggots are the one life form this peace-loving person despises. They are a personal affront to my sensibilities and cleanliness, an insult to my eyes, repulsive, unfit to exist, irritating, annoying, irredeemable. Once in a garbage can they can only be drowned by the hose and removed until not a trace exists. The problem with this is that maggots are an effect, not a cause. Every little swiggly, squirmy piece of crawling snot can be rinsed away, but they will reappear in force in a very short time if the source which generates them is not also dealt with. I hate them with a passion but they exist for a reason and do have a function. Suffice it to say I just came in from rinsing, yet AGAIN, our infested garbage can and bags.

This turned out to be an object lesson for me, which made me angrier about the whole thing, yet forcefully presented a truth and a process in my own life. Oftentimes we tend to hang on to things in our lives way past their expiration date. We hold onto pet areas of service, relationships that are unhealthy, ways of living that used to be acceptable but are no more. Most people do not like to face death, and the idea of decay is positively brutal to our mortal minds. Just watch an episode of CSI. That brings mortality way too close to reality for me. The ugly results of decay tend to show up in life when we don't listen to the voice of the Spirit telling us "you're done here", or "change". I know I kick, I scream, I make shrines out of things until the maggots begin to show up, and the whole world can see how repulsive my selfish and inappropriate behaviors really are, dressed up in good things, like a corpse in her Sunday best.
I can only imagine how God must feel about my deadness.

I pray today that I can do more than be disgusted by those little critters which are evidence of serious decay in my life. I will allow myself to be cleaned out and sprayed until the source is gone.