Since Charleston

It’s been a week and a half since the tragedy in Charleston. I couldn’t write anything before this because my words would have come from surface reactions to evil—bitterness, anger over things like guns and flags; oh, so many questions: why? why now? why ever? Have we learned nothing? Have our souls not been ripped open because of our blindness? How is it possible that we still look first at skin color? Why do we—why do I—want only to sit, worship, live with or near our own families, with those most like us?

But when I saw this picture, I felt an almost imperceptible whisper of hope. If we can take the small steps in our own lives with the small people surrounding us, change can happen. But what are those steps? In a recent conversation with a woman I deeply respect, we discussed how we must intentionally let people around us know that we disapprove of their shadowed racial remarks. We must understand how the little, frequently offhand comments about people of another race or ethnicity, the misguided attempts at humor in that same vein plant seeds that have generational effect. Children hear racism and prejudice even without words.Charleston Open Door

May I share two examples? The positive example first. I grew up in rural Michigan in a white working class family. My school was white. My church was white. My neighbors were white. My dad, however, worked in a Detroit factory at what might be termed a less-than-white-collar but more-than-blue-collar job. His co-workers were hardworking white men and women seeking to better their lives through honest labor. Because I’m an only child, I was “in on” adult conversations, especially hearing my dad talk after supper about his work day. I distinctly remember him saying, “when the sweeper and I were eating lunch today…” The sweeper?? When I questioned the meaning of “sweeper” (thinking brooms!), my dad explained that sweepers were janitors. And I knew that all janitors were black. I wasn’t told that I should have lunch with black people. I didn’t hear that black people are as good as (or better than!) white people. Racial equality simply slipped into my consciousness.

Now for the negative. Most of my uncles also worked in the greater Detroit area and they, along with my aunts and cousins, were frequent visitors to our home in the country. To this day I recall their derogatory terms (not to be repeated here) describing black people. Even the color of cars my uncles laughingly said were preferred by black people sticks in my mind to the extent that yet today when I see cars of that color, I recall my uncles’ words and smirking faces. Your jokes, your smirks, your words have generational effect.

The woman with whom I was speaking said we all have tendencies toward racial presuppositions. She—who lives, works and worships with people of diversity and is one of the most unprejudiced people I know—said that occasionally when she sees a person she might fear, one who looks “different,” one she might have a racist reaction to, she recognizes that reaction for what it is, and immediately checks (or reins in) that reaction.

I go back to my why questions. Have we, especially we Christians, slipped into sloppy living, thinking that things really are getting better, that we have already “solved the race question” so let’s get on with more spiritual issues?

Have we taken the Bible’s message and turned it into “mere” theology instead of applying it to our human relationships? Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father. (Eph. 2:16-17 The Message—emphasis my own.)

One word in those verses haunts me: embrace. An embracing relationship can’t be legislated. Parades, demonstrations, seminars, books can’t give it birth. Embracing means giving up my rights for you. It’s weeping for and with you. It’s working alongside you, having lunch with you. It’s opening not only the church door but the doors to our homes and hearts.

A Tuned Heart

Tuned HeartAs soon as the musical introduction began in yesterday’s church service, the old familiar words began rattling around in my brain: “Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy praise.” Tune my heart?? That seems to imply that in order to praise God best for his never ceasing “streams of mercy,” this heart which the author later describes as “prone to wander” needs some tuning, some re-orientation, some renovation or overhaul.

You’ve heard what some call the “splendid cacophony” or “organized chaos” as orchestra members, seated with their instruments which will soon delight the audience with stunning, thrilling music, prepare for the concert. As one instrument—usually the oboe—plays the note “A,” each other instrument “finds” it in order to tune to the same note. Adjustments are made as strings are tightened, reeds carefully placed, music stands moved ever so slightly so the pages can be seen.

So why does my heart need tuning? How is my heart tuned? It doesn’t take long for me to answer that first question. Jeremiah writes, The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick, but even without those words, upon close examination I know that my heart—the core of my being—is bent on self orientation. I resist submission. I’m tempted to want more. I question God’s plan. I need tuning.

How is my heart tuned? Another wise man put it this way: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. A cleansed heart, a heart without any discord, a tuned heart. The “A” to which I must be aligned, tuned, is the Only Righteous One, my Savior. I don’t measure myself by any human instrument, no matter how beautifully made or how marred by use. Just the Savior.

What would happen if, before every church service of praise and worship, the pastor would pronounce, “In these first five minutes, tune your heart to sing God’s praise.” Might these words from Psalm 19 be each person’s honest prayer?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock
and my Redeemer.

Perhaps a bit of splendid cacophony would break out as sins against one’s neighbor are confessed. A man might wander over to a person with whom gossip had been shared and now seek forgiveness. A woman might walk to the front of the room to kneel in public confession.

Cacophony and chaos finished, the music can begin.

(You’ve perhaps noticed that this My Monday Moments page has a different look. While it’s still “under construction,” I’m trying to make it easy to read, less “feminine,” easier for browsers to find. Stay tuned (apropos for today’s subject!) to see what happens next.)

©Marilyn J. Ehle
June 22, 2015

Dribbles and Baths

Dripping ShowerRecently I heard about a young mom, keenly wanting to grow in her Christian faith, who said, “I wish I could just swim in scripture!” Then I heard about other young women, perhaps just as eager to grow, who say, “How in the world can I have a ‘quiet time’? There are no quiet times in my life!”

Those two comments reminded me of an experience I had not too many years ago. It had been an exhausting, exuberant two weeks serving alongside our brothers and sisters in an East African country. The van we rode to the countryside was mechanically up to the required task but once we turned off pavement onto dirt roads, we discovered that we should have tucked face masks into our luggage; clouds of red dust blew up through holes in the floor! We walked along dusty, rocky paths to, from and within villages where the residents loved to hear stories of Jesus and could hardly believe that we had blankets, shoes, school supplies—and lots of hugs—for them.

Returning to our rooms after these bustling, people-filled days, we anticipated cleaning up before an evening meal, rinsing the days’ reddish dust from hair and clothing. Privileged to have running water, I turned the tap expectantly. Ah-h-h, here it comes. Definitely not the gush that comes from our pipes back in the United States, but a much appreciated dribble of cool, clean water. And yes, you can wash dirty feet and grimy hair in just that much water.

At the end of that project with heart and mind full of God’s love and people’s needs, I arrived home after midnight following a nearly 40-hour take-off-to-landing plane journey, desperately wanting a bath. First I stood under the hot shower to remove the top layer, then settled into a bubble-filled tub where I almost fell asleep in that warm and wet cloud.

I thought of all this the other day as I wondered how to encourage those young, busy moms to make time—time they don’t have!—for God in the midst of dust, diapers and dishes, packed-to-the-brim days and sleepless nights. Faithful to their calling, they play with little ones, rock babies, plan menus and cook whatever can be accomplished in thirty minutes or less, shop for necessities and try to keep at least one uncluttered path through the living room.

Women who work outside the home have similar challenges. Nine-to-five—or more likely, seven-to-seven—work days where they race to meet deadlines, interact wisely with both leaders and peers, fulfill required responsibilities that often seem senseless. All this leaving them so exhausted that falling into a stupor becomes a luxury.

Telling the Martha/Mary story—with emphasis on Mary’s sitting-at-Jesus’-feet experience—would not be a welcome lesson! When there simply isn’t time for the long, hot, bubbly bath of spiritual refreshment in Jesus’ presence, i.e., extended time contemplating His love, reading the Bible, quiet prayer, how do we grow into mature, Christ-like women?

I believe it’s then that we take full advantage of what I call the dribble moments. Set the timer so that once each hour we simply look up into Jesus’ face and say, “I’m here and you’re here and thank you for loving me.” Or maybe it’s glancing at that Bible verse written on a card during the last sermon and placed next to the toaster or on a corner of the desk. “Ah-h-h yes, I remember now: the pastor said you loved and searched for that smallest lost lamb. I’m feeling lost right now; thanks for looking for me, watching over me.”

But we must also take time—maybe during children’s naps or when friend or husband or mother watch the children or during a lunch hour walk—to “bathe” in the love of Jesus, read and meditate on a psalm or gospel story, attentively listen to and contemplate the words of a praise song that isn’t simply background music.

Whether in dribbles or baths, God is lovingly ready and willing to cleanse, satisfy, refresh. Don’t deny him the pleasure.

Left Brain Right Brain

BrainMuch of my work time is spent in “left brain” activity: study for teaching or writing, logical, analytical, objective thought processes. I love to ferret out the meaning behind words, trace an author’s conclusions, discover gems hidden in Bible verses or books in general.

But recently I became aware of how starved has been my “right brain.” (A person who is “right-brained” is said to be more intuitive, creative, thoughtful, subjective.) In a drawer under piles of paper, I found some scraps of writing from many years ago, writing that was far more imaginative, more descriptive than much of what I scribble now. I was not only aware of beauty around me, but I described it in such a way that dusty pink and gold sunsets along the Rhine could be envisioned by the reader, that a little girl’s blue dress with yellow daisies could be duplicated in someone else’s imagination. (See? There’s that ferreting, discovery process at work!)

Then I read portions of Psalm 36:

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
your justice like the great deep..

My first reading—even my second and third—was bent toward intellectual understanding, the facts of God’s faithfulness, righteousness, justice, love, protection and overflowing pleasure. The list was long and gratifying. But all left brain! I came to a sudden stop: my right brain—and my heart—needed to be engaged.

Soon I began to soar as I meditated on God’s love as expansive as Colorado’s blue skies. A vastness that cannot be measured, a color that can’t be duplicated by simple Crayola or Renoir’s genius. Then I imagined the words God’s righteousness splayed over Pikes Peak so airline passengers stare in amazement and we earthbound citizens shout in wonder. And justice? No longer just the strident cries of Jeremiah and Isaiah, nor a word emblazoned on our pleas for the poor, downtrodden, trafficked. Now I saw the purple-blue of ocean depths rolling onward in spite of human evil; it cannot be stopped, its depth cannot be plumbed.

Allowing my right brain the freedom to do what it does best loosened praise for this God that could not be gleaned by letters of the alphabet, words strung together in phrases and sentences. It’s time to make sure I’m using all the brain God gave me!

Hanging Harps

Willow TreeThey were beaten down, hopes extinguished, dreams as illusive as the wispy clouds overhead. This was not the life they planned. This is not the promise they believed. They had carried their harps—symbols of expressed joy—with them into this foreign place, but they had no heart for music. Mocking bystanders demanded melodies of these beaten people but bitterness froze their fingers and hearts.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

Our captors asked us for songs:

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?*

 While some of us have experienced at least a twinge of this kind of heartache, most of us haven’t literally been captured by an enemy, dragged into a foreign land, lost all that provided stability and identity. Some who fear looking deep within themselves or refuse to take that journey may blithely say, “Oh, life has always been good. I’ve been lucky. I wouldn’t change a thing.” But in those quiet moments when only God and our hearts are listening, many of us pause occasionally to reflect on “what might have been.”

But there is profound danger if we remain more than a moment with those harps-hanging thoughts. We can’t deny them, but neither can we ignore them. Careful remembering can lead us into gratitude that by those “rivers of Babylon,” God did not forsake us. Maybe we can’t quite yet pick up the harp to make beautiful music, but we can allow remembered melodies to whisper their message into the depths of our beings. And those whisperings produce hope that some day, some way, with some one, we can sing again.

Yes, I know that the Apostle Paul declared, “Forgetting what is behind,” but as I look carefully at his life, I see evidence of his own harp-hanging: longing for the companionship of Mark, the face-to-face joy he once experienced with his Philippian friends, renewed fellowship with Timothy—“I have no one like him.” Paul’s harp was temporarily hanging on the willow branches. But it was time to live in the present and anticipate the future. And so go we.

*Psalm 137, New Revised Standard Version