What’s Next?

In my pre-shower, pre-coffee, befuddled morning state, I press the power button on the small radio, pre-tuned to my favorite station. As a long-time listener, I recognize the voices broadcasting news from world, country, state and community. Lately the information hasn’t been particularly uplifting, but at least this station offers little editorializing so—while I don’t hear butterflies-and-rainbows commentary or its gloom and doom opposite—at least it’s usually factual. I want to be well informed, and the commentaries—especially weather reports for Colorado’s storm-prone summer afternoons—often influence my daily activities and my mental meanderings during those activities.

Recently when shower and coffee had completed their morning rejuvenation purpose, I opened my Bible to the eighth chapter of Romans. (If you’re not familiar with the Bible, that’s the sixth book of the New Testament.) In these paragraphs, the Apostle Paul described for the Christians of Rome what I call a freely-walking-with-Christ-life. No longer weighed down by penalty of the Law (which no one could keep anyhow), Paul says that “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”

Sidebar: Romans 8:1 became, and continues to be, a personal lifegiving whisper of long sought freedom. But more about that some other time.

As Paul is wont to do, he goes on at some length😏 to lay a superb theological foundation for all that Christ did on the cross to purchase our freedom. Many translations render Paul’s sound message with  introductory words and phrases (all important of course) that I could wade through more easily if I’d pay closer attention to sentence parsing during my grade school days at Patchin School in Michigan. But instead of simply skipping over the magnificent truth of Romans eight until I had time for deeper study, I opened Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message.

Many of us are familiar with the usually translated words, by him (the Holy Spirit) we cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (Romans 8: 15) and even stand in awe at the implied intimacy with God since “Abba” was the Aramaic equivalent of “Daddy” as a familiar form of address. “Abba, Father.” A profound phrase that leaves my spirit quiet, humble, grateful.

But with his skill as a scholar and preacher, Peterson “lays it out” in language too clear to misunderstand or ignore. Here’s what he writes: God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go! This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

“WHAT’S NEXT, PAPA??!” How do you read those words? What’s your tone of voice? What emotions surface as you say them aloud? How can we read them in the midst of pandemic, rioting, global uncertainty? As the morning news influences my day, how might “What’s next, Papa?” impact my day?

And that’s where I leave you for now! If you care to respond, send me a note at mj.ehle@comcast.net, or just let the question simmer with you for a few days. I’ll be back…

 

 

 

 

 

My Broken Heart

When was the last time your heart broke? That time when “broken heart” became more than teenaged disappointment. Was it when you saw planes racing into the World Trade Center? When you watched people hurtling down to certain death from that burning building? Or did your heart break over a more personal matter? When the words “terminal cancer” altered your existence? Or when you stood beside the bed of your dying child?

I still remember the physical force of my breaking heart. It happened when the doctor said our teenaged son’s cancer was possibly beyond treatment. I remember signing authorization for hospitalization and surgery with my mouth dry, my arms and legs weakening. I later read Psalm 22 with new understanding:

…my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax. My mouth is dried like a shard of broken pottery… my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth…

 I remember another broken heart experience. When the optometrist on our mission trip said the curly haired redhead who bounced with enthusiasm would soon lose the sight of her remaining eye, cancer quickly spreading to her brain. That same week tears fell from my breaking heart when I saw a wraith-like girl nearly faint in the hot afternoon sun because she’d eaten only a small bread roll with her early morning weak tea.  I began to understood why Bob Pierce prayed: “God, break my heart with what breaks yours.”

But during recent days my heart has broken yet again. I’ve wept over the senseless murder of George Floyd, a man I never knew. I’ve imagined his mother’s heart breaking repeatedly as she learned of her son’s horrific last moments. I’ve felt anger churning over thoughtless words of both those in power and those who seek power. I’m tired of people—especially my white Christian brothers and sisters—saying things like, “Yes, it was wrong BUT…” THERE IS NO ‘BUT’ WHEN WE WHO HAVE PRIVILEGE AND POWER REFUSE TO TAKE SERIOUSLY THE ABSENCE OF JUSTICE FOR ALL.

Those who turn legitimate protest into terrorist war are wrong and swift retribution is necessary.   Recently, however, I heard someone say that protesters should not have been “out” in front of the small Washington, DC church when riot police with tear gas cleared the path for President Trump. I began to wonder about the history of protest. Books overflow with stories of brave people who gave their lives to promote justice. Our own Christian heritage is rife with historic accounts of women and men burned at the stake or tossed to lions for the sake of truth. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for “protesting.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed and assassinated.  Suffragette Lucy Burns was arrested for picketing the White House, then imprisoned at a notorious workhouse, beaten, hands chained to the cell bars above her head, left in that position for the night, then force fed when her fellow protesters went on a hunger strike. This so I and my sisters could vote. Protests have been and can be—perhaps must be?—instruments for change when all other efforts prove futile.

Yes, my heart is breaking. Again. And this time I’m not praying for the ache to go away. I’m asking God to reveal with strong conviction any hidden racist tendencies of my heart and mind. What stories have I heard and believed (perhaps from childhood) that deny the worth of every human, that deny that every person is made in the image of God? What tendencies toward power do I possess? Flannery O’Connor wrote: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” With a contrite heart, I’m lamenting and I’m asking God what I can do. I’m listening for his voice. I’m determined to keep listening. God, help me obey what I hear.

Remembering

Memorial Day 2020. It’s unlikely we will ever forget this day as an unseen enemy ravages nearly 100,000 families in the United States and over five million worldwide. Or will we remember? Do we remember how Memorial Day was observed in 1941 when emotions were raw and anger raged only five months after over two thousand lives were lost at Pearl Harbor? Or in 1968 when troops sloshed through the swamps of Viet Nam? Only those personally touched by those events can recall them in detail.

We are people with short memories and, according to experts, that’s not a totally bad thing. Ryan Fan writes, To survive, we must be able to compartmentalize, put us into the moment, and have selective short memories. That isn’t to say that we actually forget major life events… We will all have those life experiences and moments that are so emotionally salient and visceral that they stick with us… But even the worst things don’t stay with us when the time comes to focus, when we have a deadline coming up, or just navigating a lot of tasks that accompany daily life.

Although I didn’t have family members die or be physically wounded in war—but  emotional injuries scarred several—I put out the small American flag this weekend. I spent some time remembering tall Uncle “Slim” standing ramrod straight in his sharply creased uniform. Uncle Walt in his official Navy photograph with his impish grin caught even in that supposedly serious pose. Cousins Leonard crossing the Rhine and Earl on a ship.

But it was another remembering that caught me by surprise when I opened a “spy” novel the other day. The author sets his tale in the Middle East and before chapter one opens, I see a pen-and-ink drawn map of the area. Countries and cities now unfortunately known because of battles and refugee camps, death counts and parades of weary families hauling bundled possessions.

But then I recall another view of this area, one preceding the modern Middle East by centuries, one described by the author of Genesis. This very area now dripping with tears was once a garden watered by four rivers. Bomb burned trees today tilt precariously where lush branches once provided food. Shattered buildings where God provided shelter. Eden long forgotten.

We rightly weep over the sacrifices made by brave women and men in defense of their country. But today I also weep over senseless sin that burns souls like those blackened trees. Needless hunger when we have resources to feed all. Refugee camps when we have the means to free wandering people. And—most important—lost and weeping souls when we have the message of life.

It’s time to remember.

 

Questions

Recently my husband phoned to make an appointment with his doctor. But first, the pleasant voice queried: Have you been exposed to Covid 19? Have you traveled outside the U.S? Do you have a fever? Do you have any pain? What are your symptoms?

That conversation made me think of questions we might ask ourselves as this virus continues to work its seemingly endless evil intrusion into our lives. I offer them only because I’ve tried to honestly answer them myself while practicing truly living when all around seems to be dying, or at least wilting.

My mouth proclaims: We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose and Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword (or Covid)? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, or any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us form the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:28, 35-39). (Paul’s long sentence really needs an exclamation point at the end!) But can I really believe that this world in which I currently live has not been forsaken by God? Is it possible that he intends spiritual growth during these days?

Read through the questions quickly, then return to each one. Give yourself time and space to ponder. Maybe record your answers in a journal. (Or if that sounds like too much work, find a scrap of paper!) These questions aren’t designed to condemn, but the answers may reveal just how much God is working in you, how close he’s been as most others are forced to be distant.  Above all, be ruthlessly honest. If you care to share your discoveries with me, write me at mj.ehle@comcast.net.

What are your primary thoughts during these days?

What has been your emotional temperature?

What causes that temperature to uncontrollably rise or fall (i.e., what is making you angry, what brings joy, what have you been weeping about)?

What are you reading and/or posting on Facebook? How do your posts (or posts of others) affect you?

What are you learning about yourself while forced to live alone or only with immediate family?

Have you discovered anything about who or what you’ve depended on in the past? And why that dependence?

How has this time of enforced isolation affected how you talk with God? Any shouting or whining lately??

What has He been saying to you?

Is there a Bible verse you wish you didn’t know?😏 Why?

Who has been an encouragement? How? Who has discouraged you? How?

After all this, settle with a cup of coffee (or beverage of your choice!), and soak in these words from Philippians 4:8 (The Message): …you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. 

What’s the Name of Your Squirrel?

Take a good look at that cute squirrel. Yesterday while enjoying quiet moments, I glanced over to my neighbor’s just budding tree which stands next to her second-floor patio. In plain sight sat that “cute” squirrel (or a close relative) perched on a branch. A birdfeeder sits at the edge of the patio and during these early days of spring, birds are plentiful. We love watching the chickadees and finches darting to our own feeder just off our dining room window.

But yesterday there was all out war in the neighborhood. Birds swooped toward the feeder and, as quick as lightning, Enemy Squirrel would leap from his perch toward them. He knew no fear, jumping to and from branches that seemed too fragile to bear his weight. This went on for over fifteen minutes as my temper rose at the antics—no, that’s too mild a term—at the battle plan of the squirrel.

But, you may ask, was the squirrel merely defending his own source of food and his action thereby a natural example of survival of the fittest? Your attitude could be admired if our neighbor had not positioned the feeder in such a way to prevent such intrusion. There was no possible way for Mr. Squirrel—I’ve temporarily awarded him grace by upgrading him from Enemy Squirrel—to reach the birdseed. He was merely enacting his predatory instincts. With seeming glee.

You might think that current stay-at-home, be-masked-and-gloved orders have affected my mind to a dangerous degree (and perhaps they have!), but as the squirrel vs. bird scenario played out, I thought of another set of circumstances. I am one of the birds and the squirrel is Enemy Covid-19. (Or the “other” enemy? That one called the “prince of the power of the air”?) I dart each morning to the feeder of God’s Word. I quiet my spirit in prayer. I talk with my Good Shepherd about sheep both near and far, the ones I love and the nameless ones who enter my mind and heart. I entrust them into his care.

Within moments of being in that safe and quiet place, I sense the relentless attack of my own squirrel. Mine is variously named fear, worry, discouragement, impatience, depression.  Food and drink from the Spirit seem to have been snatched away. Anger edges in where peace lived just moments before.

As the day wore on, I occasionally glanced toward that tree. I’m not sure where the squirrel went, but the birds had peacefully resumed darting consistently toward the feeder. They know their survival depends on a steady diet. Enemies abound but built into birds’ tiny bodies is this enemy-evading instinct to feed and thrive.

What’s the name of your squirrel? When I put a name to the squirrel, even the one on the nearby tree, his power seems diminished as I compare him to the only One who offers spiritual, life giving food. The squirrel is just a squirrel.

The Father’s feeder is full: I am the bread of life…feed on me…dwell in me…think on these things…peace I leave you, my peace I give to you…no one can snatch you out of my hand…don’t let your heart be troubled…love one another… By feeding I not only exist to live another day. Like the birds, I live to freely fly and sing to others of the Father’s love and care.

Don’t let a squirrel steal your peace.

Silent Wednesday

Have you walked with Jesus this week? What paths have you taken? What signposts have you seen along the way? Have they directed you toward or away from Jesus?

As CNN, HUFFPOST, FOX, MSNBC, NPR (take your pick—and note they’re all in capitals) bombard us with Covid-19 statistics, opinions, news, and graphic pictures, it’s easy to slip on the gravel called fear and lose our footing. Or even choose the wide path offered by the pundits—some wise, others not so—instead of the narrow one carved out by Jesus.

Here it is the middle of Passion Week. Easter Monday and the celebration parade is over, palm branches have wilted and cloaks still smell of dust. Jesus dons the robe of an Old Testament prophet while ejecting Temple money changers. Fig trees and teaching highlight Tuesday. And now it’s Wednesday.

Most scholars believe that on this day Jesus rested. Simply rested. Away from the clamor of gathering festival crowds and plotting enemies. It’s also likely that on this day Jesus, dining in the Bethany home of one called Simon the Leper, accepts the sacrificial adoration of a woman who—according to Jesus’ own words—would be “remembered throughout the world wherever the gospel is preached.”

A woman. A woman who audaciously, counterculturally interrupts the appropriate, the conventional. Who was she? Why her action? Some texts indicate she was a “sinful” woman while others clearly state it was Mary of Bethany. Nard in an alabaster bottle? Perfume worth a year’s wages? Where did she get it? Was its intended use an investment for her future?

What strikes me is not only Jesus’ gracious acceptance of her adoration but how he transforms it into an act of extraordinary understanding of Jesus as king, priest, and savior. Women traditionally did not have such spiritual understanding but this woman crashes into the culture to anoint the one she loved, the one—she somehow comprehended—would soon die.

And to make the day complete: the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Walk today on this path with Jesus. For quiet moments, turn off, tune out blaring media. Rest with him as you imagine him resting with his friends. Inhale the fragrance of the perfume. Tomorrow you will hear him offer to wash your feet. You will grieve over Judas’ betrayal. You may misunderstand like Peter or nestle close like John. But today, just rest. Know the nearness of his presence. Hear that he loves you. Inhale adoration’s aroma.

Just rest.

 

 

Picture: Extravagant Love by providencefineart.com

Random Lenten/Corona Thoughts

“If I only had time, I’d write more.”
“Without distractions, I’d get more done.”
“If only my children didn’t have so many activities, we’d be a closer family.”
“If only my wife/husband were home to help with the children…”

Are you finding, as I am, how weak are most of the excuses we tell ourselves? In addition to this observation, what else are you learning about yourself during these days of enforced isolation? What suspicions about your heart—things that busyness and crowds and schedules masked—are rising to the surface? The Hebrew cry to God is one that we (I) too often overlook or ignore. The words have a poetic, musical tone that can easily divert our attention from its hard message:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.*

 Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase packs an unexpected punch:

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.

Can Corona Isolation—along with Lenten quiet—lead to deeper understanding, repentance, new life?

Another thought:

I have a friend who, when she recommends a book, I take special notice. When she casually mentioned her chosen Lenten devotional, I had no idea it would become my mainstay during these Corona/Lenten days. See if these words from Walter Brueggemann’s A Way Other Than Our Own resonate with you. (Incidentally, this book was published in 2017 and probably written a year earlier. Truth knows no time restraint.)

(On Isaiah 54:7-9) Ours is a time like the flood, like the exile, when the certitudes abandon us, the old reliabilities have become unsure, and “things fall apart.” …We grow more strident, more fearful, more anxious, more greedy for our own way, more despairing, and, consequently, more brutal… From out of the chaos, however, emerges this other voice rooted in memory…shaping our future not in hostility but in compassion, not in abandonment but in solidarity, not in isolation but in covenant, not in estrangement but in well being.

The Easter claim is not simply about resuscitation but about a new reality in the world that is unrestrained by the force of fear, or violence or privilege.

 There is a way into the future in your life, because God is at work doing strange, wondrous things for you and in spite of you, and your job is to get your mind off your ways of need and control, to give your life to God’s large hidden way in your life.

 And finally, this prayer:

We are constricted by stories of scarcity. Break through these false tales with the surprising truth of abundance. May we bask in your shalom and then perform your story of generosity over and over again.      Amen


*Psalm 139:23-24

Corona Virus and the Christian

The words barrel into us with a paralyzing thud: corona virus, national emergency, airports, schools, churches closed, store shelves empty, hospital beds at a premium. How does a follower of Jesus live well in the midst of the crisis? We have memorized and quoted scripture’s “fear nots,” but in the dark hours of the night or when mesmerized by media, we realized that the words have not walked the journey from head to heart.

We in the Western world are now living the reality that our brothers and sisters around the globe face daily: distress, deprivation, denial. We, like they, are called to live sacrificially so others can heal, prosper, and find peace with God.

Walter Brueggemann* writes about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus: Jesus says to him: “You’ve got to start over! …You’ve got to become as vulnerable and innocent and dependent as a little child. You’ve got to forego your social position, your achievements, your wealth, your reputation. You’ve got to let go of all the things that make you self-sufficient and that alienate you from the wonder of the gift of God. Start over in vulnerability, in innocence, and in dependence…

During these days when panic threatens, Brueggemann’s words take on special meaning. Perhaps every time we wash our hands—as prescribed!—we acknowledge that before God we are vulnerable and dependent. Truly, our help comes from the Lord and, in that truth, we dwell in peace and reach out to our fearful neighbors.

Eusebius, a bishop and historian of the early church wrote about Christians during the deadly plague: All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.  Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.

May it be true of us.

*A Way Other Than Our Own

Ash Wednesday and Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday and when I come home from church this evening, I’ll have an ashy cross on my forehead.

This morning I sat in a favorite café pondering “Why Ash Wednesday? Why Lent?” I certainly didn’t grow up with Lenten observances. In fact, I suspect that church leadership probably frowned upon such observances as getting a little too chummy with “popish practices.” Proof? My mother (definitely not a leader; definitely influenced by leaders) wouldn’t even buy Christmas cards that pictured Mary and Baby Jesus.

I sort of slid into Advent and Lent. All those Lutherans in Minnesota. Heretical authors like Madeleine L’Engle, John Stott, Fleming Rutledge, Dallas Willard. Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian pastors in Bonn. And—oh yes—the prophets and poets Joel and David.

Had I investigated these observances early on, I could probably have found justification for Advent: an effective custom to dilute pre-Christmas greed. But Lent? Haven’t we been freed from such legalism as fasting? Doesn’t amazing grace pour over us like an all-enveloping white robe? Fish on Lenten Fridays? What about Peter’s sheet-from-heaven vision?

Back to this morning’s café experience. Hard to concentrate with music pouring out of the loudspeaker. Clatter from the kitchen. Conversations at neighboring booths. (Why can’t people remember that we use inside voices in public space?) All this “noise” is merely a picture of the world’s less definable—but often more heart splintering—noise that constantly fights to distract me from the God of my heart, from the “think on these things” of Philippians, the “pay the most careful attention” and “keep your eyes fixed” of Hebrews.

Let’s face it, I need prompts to keep my focus and Ash Wednesday and the Lenten weeks accomplish just that. When tonight’s smudgy ashes begin to fade, I’ll remember them and think more seriously about responding quickly to the Holy Spirit’s convicting nudges. I’ll ponder the meaning and results of repentance. I’ll meditate on the days Jesus and his friends were traveling to Jerusalem, “interrupted” by people like little children, blind beggars, and a little man in a tree so the interruptions in my life pale in comparison.

Tonight the ashes will remind me that no good thing dwells in me, but because Christ faced the fires of the cross, was figuratively turned into ash, and then raised into fulness of life, I too have been made whole.

Easter is coming. But not yet.

Christmas Isn’t Over!

Just because the tree is recycled (or packed away), candles, ribbons and trinkets tucked into an overflowing closet, crèches boxed up, carols replaced by praise songs—Christmas isn’t over. In many faith traditions, most of these accoutrements of the holy season remain in place until Candlemas, February 2nd, the celebration of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple.

Maybe you’re like Ginny who wrote this letter to God: Dear God—Please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.* No matter your personal Christmas End date, however, Christmas is cause for remembrance and even celebration throughout the year.

If you’re like me, after all the Christmas packing up, almost every year I find one decoration that was overlooked, although this year that number increased to three! Instead of groaning at the thought of opening a box to tuck them away for eleven months, what if I leave at least one out in full view as a reminder of the miraculous, unbelievable, unexplainable incarnation? God so intent on reestablishing the intended love relationship between him and his obstinate, self-centered, sinful daughters and sons that he suffered the indignity of birth in Bethlehem, the loneliness of life rife with misunderstanding and rejection, and death as a proclaimed criminal.

While we Westerners pride ourselves on rational thought, I fear we’ve neglected the potential of imagination—the importance of pictures and symbols to remind and arouse us for what I call heart thinking. (Others more skilled define it as meditation or contemplation.) Just as pictures in albums (or on our phones!) of children or special pets elicit warm memories and gratitude for their presence in our lives, so that forgotten Christmas angel, bell or candle can be a reminder of God’s goodness. All year.

* Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall,  Children’s Letters to God, Workman Publishing, 1991