This is My Story

Girls on the Beach
At the church I grew up in, Lakeview Wesleyan Church, we had Sunday evening services, and sometimes, those services would simply consist of hymn sings. The music minister would take requests from the congregation of what songs they would like to sing. I have a very vivid memory of the minister (I can’t remember his name) sitting in the front when a little boy went over to him to whisper a request. This little boy had been sitting next to me because I used to help in Children’s Church and he liked me, and I liked him. Anyway, he told the minister he wanted to sing “This is My Story.”

We all laughed a bit, knowing immediately that he wanted to sing Blessed Assurance, and realizing that to him, the most interesting line was “this is my story, this is my song,” from the refrain. That’s because children love stories. And, most of us love them too I would suspect. Most of us have a story as well.

When I was going through Army journalism training, I remember one of the instructors telling us that the most popular part of a newspaper were stories about people. Studies had been done and it was discovered that people are drawn to stories and pictures of other people. We long to connect with each other. One of my favorite things about Olympic coverage are the biographical features done about the various athletes. I love to hear their stories. I suppose that is what made journalism so interesting to me.

My own story begins in an Army hospital at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. That’s where I was born. I was the first born child of John and Dorotha Mack. My dad, John, was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, having been drafted for a two-year stint with the Army. We lived in a little house across the street from Leavenworth Prison. I remember seeing one of my mom’s photo albums that had a picture of me in a playpen. She had captioned the picture of my chubby self behind the bars of that playpen, “Leavenworth, Prison.” Later, when I was 11, my family (that had added two little sisters) traveled back to Leavenworth as part of a long, driving West-heading vacation. We went to see the hospital where I was born, but that building no longer stood where it had. It had been torn down to expand the prison. So, I like to tell people I was born in prison.

In spite of the many hardships I’ve endured over the years (life is never smooth sailing for anyone, I wager), it’s been a pretty good life overall. If one were to look at the stories of pain, loss, fear and brokenness, one might think it’s been a sad life. But, I have lived my story, and I know that there is nothing in my story that God hasn’t used to teach me. I’m not saying he caused the heartache, but I do believe he has transformed it so that I am still willing to tell my story and do it with a joyful heart.

Every Christmas, my family gets together at mom’s house, and we gather around the Christmas tree for a gift exchange. Before we begin to open gifts, we read the story of Christ’s birth, and we pray. My mother can never get through the prayer without crying, not because she’s sad, but because she is so thankful for what God has done in each of our lives. She always feels somewhat embarrassed about it, but I don’t think she should be. She should be thankful. I know I am. She sees our family as a miracle. And, I do too. What humbles her is knowing that all of her girls, their husbands, and their children all still follow Jesus, and love him. That is something that is important to her, and it is to me. We have young people who are following in the faith with compassion, joy, humility and faithfulness. We all feel that this is an immense blessing, considering some of the hardships we have been through. There has arisen no spirit of bitterness with us, no fighting between us, no lack of respect for one another.

We are thankful because we know the stories of so many families who are torn apart by animosity and bitterness and we have no idea why we have been spared such pain. My own mother experienced tremendous rifts in her own family between herself and her sisters. Her family came through great trauma with battle wounds that did not heal properly. While our family, though also suffering great trauma, managed to somehow not only be healed, but rise above the past and stay connected by great love. That is a miracle.

I think that knowing the stories of other people is necessary for the healing of our world. It is very hard to hate someone after you have heard their stories and realize that they are just like you in many ways. But, we have to be willing to listen with open hearts.

I have been (and I’m sure I’m not alone) so disturbed and heartbroken by the violence that seems to be constantly overtaking our world. I have been just as heartbroken over the divisions in our society as people draw hard lines in the sand and seem to be uninterested in hearing anyone’s stories unless those tales bolster their own ideas. To me, that is so sad. Do we want to know, for instance, that among the Palestinians dying in Gaza, there are many Christians? Do we want to know that the majority of Christians in Israel are Palestinian? Do we want to know that both sides have people who are good, kind and loving? Do we want to know the stories of people we have labeled enemies? I pray that we do. There is too much hatred today, too many people dying and too few people who seem to care to seek peace. I pray we can put down our weapons, our hatred, our anger and fear toward the “other” and remember the stories of Jesus.

He taught in stories, in parables, so that must tell you how important stories are to him. Do any of you remember the story of the Good Neighbor? Who is our neighbor? Could it be a Samaritan who has mercy on you when you’ve been assaulted and left for dead? Could it be a South American child who prays to Jesus that he will be safe someday, and hears Jesus say “suffer the little children to come unto me?” Could it be the Palestinian who reads his Bible as his father has before him, and his father before him, who can trace his heritage of faith all the way back to Jesus’ time, and who hunkers in rubble waiting for another bomb to fall? Could he be your neighbor? Shouldn’t he be?

So what will our stories turn out to be? Will they be tales of unity, peace-making, humble lives? Or will they be stories of bitterness, defeat, fear and the rejection of others who have different stories than ours? I pray that we can be united in our love of story, to the point that we see there are no “others” — only neighbors.

Contemplating Peace

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This morning as I was trying to prepare my mind and spirit for another day, I listened to a sermon podcast that I’d been wanting to hear called Contemplation and the Way of Peace by Brian Zahnd, of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of the book A Farewell to Mars, which you may remember, I have become so fond of.

He talks about two conversions written about in Acts — the conversion of Paul and the conversion of Peter. Of course, that last one threw me for a loop because I had always thought of it as the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to Christianity. However, Mr. Zahnd (I have yet to hear him call himself Pastor, though I’m sure that is what he is), says that it is Peter that is the one converted from a way of prejudice, to the point of refusing to even eat with a Gentile or going to their houses, to offering Cornelius baptism and the right hand of fellowship. He says most of us experience many conversions over our lives if we are growing, and that rang true for me. What Luke writes about in Acts, however, is a description of how Peter was converted. He was praying, and then went into a trance and had a vision.

Zahnd talks about how Peter was praying, as the Jews were accustomed to, in ritualized, formalized prayer meant to help the righteous move from false self interest into a oneness with God, where the self is yielded to God. He talks about the Lord’s Prayer, and common prayer as a good way to do this – to make this a habit. Then, Peter goes into a trance, or ecstasy as it is in Greek, where his self is lost and open to the Holy Spirit, that gives him a vision of love, that showed him what God wanted him to do. In fact, the Spirit guides him to Cornelius and he realizes that life is not about us vs. them, but it is about brotherhood (and sisterhood too).

He talks about how Jesus boiled the law into one sentence – do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you, instead of the worldly way of doing unto your neighbor what has been done to you.

He talks about the way of peace, and that Christians need to be contemplative rather than reactive. It is the only way to truly come to a vision of love for enemies because without taking this path, it is impossible to love people who have truly hurt us, let alone those who we brand as enemies. We cannot do it by our own willpower, he says. We have to take the way of peace, and that involves contemplation. He says that unless our Church in the U.S. is led by contemplative leaders, it will die, even if it has the numbers. He says it will become irrelevant, and just like the world around it. People who are outside of the church are already insightful enough to see that the church is becoming such in this nation, and that the only difference is what they do on Sunday.

God has been graciously leading me to pursue this path, the one Jesus came to lead us down. Jesus called following the Golden Rule the narrow way, because it goes against our nature. We naturally react to people we don’t agree with, or to our neighbors, with anger and that does not lead to peace. That way is the broad way. The narrow way is to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and act in the best interest of those people.

I so often fail to follow this way, and become reactive. Just yesterday, I became a crusader for justice as I saw it, and was very reactive to people who disagreed. For that, I am sorry. Our cause can be just, but if we don’t pursue the way of peace, it is just another viewpoint that we will fight over.

He talked about how the people of the 60s, whose parents had been part of the WWII generation, reacted by desiring peace and rejecting the atom bomb and global war. They were right about such things being wrong, and when Vietnam rolled around, they were adamant that they did not want to be involved in someone else’s civil war. But, their anger did not make for a way of peace. They demanded peace using violent means often times. Then, as they aged, they burned out.

We can only make change if we follow the path of contemplation toward true peace. That, Zahnd says, may take many years of work to see, but we can plant the seeds now and do our part. I have a deep desire to follow this way. This world is in desperate need for it, I feel. I only hope I can be a force for peace and not react with anger or hatred any longer.

The Clarity of Pain

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I would never wish on anyone the pain of losing a child. For those of you who have experienced it, you know that there is nothing as earth-shattering or heart-breaking as having your baby taken from your arms. But, I will say this. The pain of searing loss has a unique way of bringing clarity about what is important in life. I’ve come to the desperate, raggedy edge of the abyss, looked into it and seen that only truth can sustain a person who has had the love of her life taken from her.

I have heard that this same sort of clarity comes to people who have almost died, or who have had near-death experiences. It changes a person like nothing else. Suddenly, nothing false, petty or shallow will satisfy. Even moreso, negativity. These things not only fail to satisfy, they become repugnant. It’s as if your entire spirit is screaming out, “No more! No more!”

It set me on a quest that I am still embarked on, to find a reality I can live with, because let me tell you, it has been a struggle at times to even want to keep living without the sunshine of my life. So, in order to keep alive, I’ve had to get very real with God. I’ve had to be honest and say that while I believe in him, I am no longer content with the religion of the past. That stagnant sureness that I once had, the one that thought I knew all the answers, was blown away as my daughter’s ashes flowed away in the creek where she used to swim. I want God, but I want the real one, not the one I thought I knew. I want the real Jesus, the one who came here and lived life, who saw pain and oppression and sin and knew that sacrificial love was the answer. He is a person I can follow, and he means all the world to me now, more than ever.

But, I do become protective of his image in the world now. It breaks my heart to see how blindly his words and his example have been tossed aside in favor of a political Christianity, a confrontational religion, a sure belligerance that “Christians” know all of the answers and have the right to bully their way into peoples’ lives. That is not Christ’s way. Christ did not come into the world with a machine gun, or holy hand grenade, to blow away the Romans who occupied Israel. He didn’t come to perpetuate the violence that all men seem to cherish. He came to show us a new way. Are we so blind that we are missing it?

I realize that I am nobody special. Perhaps I have no right to write these things, but they are what is weighing on my heart. They are what wake me up and drive me to my prayer mat, face down on the floor with broken heart, pleading for the Church to wake up and see more clearly what others who are not Christians see — that too often followers of Christ are not light, too often they are blind to their own sin while loudly pointing out the sins of others.

The Jesus I remember said that even if you call someone a fool, you are guilty of sin, if you hate or even are angry with a brother, you are guilty of murder. How then can we continue to openly sin by calling those in political opposition to our ideas fools and worse? How can we keep on acting as if we are so very righteous, while all the time walking in self-righteous self-interest instead of sacrificial love? We want to legislate morality, but only the kind that tells people what they can’t and shouldn’t do. Don’t have an abortion. Don’t be gay. Don’t call Christmas a holiday. But, we become irate if the government wants to legislate the kind of morality that cares for the poor, the immigrant, the outcast? How is that moral? And, since when did Jesus ever say we were to set up morality in government? I thought we were supposed to make disciples by offering them the love of Christ. I thought we were supposed to be caring for Jesus as we care for the least of these, not waging holy wars to enforce our ideas of what godliness is.

My world no longer has room for deception or delusion. I am desperate to see love in action. I want so badly to see the Church humble itself in front of its God and repent and seek his face. I want us to stop being secure that we know all answers and be open to the leading of God’s Spirit that shows us new things, and old things that we have forgotten. I want us to be able to look into the face of Jesus without shame. I want people to see the face of Christ in people who call themselves by his name. I want truth. I want compassion. I want kindness and gentleness. I want us to wash each other’s feet, to love one another and to lay down our hate and bitterness. I want us to let go of things that don’t matter and remember that we are the kingdom. Jesus said only those who obey him truly love him. Read the Sermon on the Mount, read the two commandments he gave us – to love God and our neighbor, and obey those. Overcome evil with good, not violence. If you feel persecuted, don’t lash out, pray for those who you feel are persecuting you. A lot of people love Jesus, and are open to his love and truth, but are opposed to Christians because we don’t reflect Jesus. Sinners were drawn to Jesus. Jesus loved them. The longest conversation he had recorded in the Bible was with the Samaritan woman who was living with a man and who had had five husbands before. He didn’t rail at her about her sin. He invited her to drink the living water. She ran and told everyone she knew and he stayed there, where he was wanted, while failing to do many miracles in his hometown, where he was dismissed as being too familiar.

Let’s be like Jesus. Let’s stop thinking we’re too good to rub elbows with sinners. We’re sinners too. Remember to remove the log from your eye before you try to pick out the speck of sin in the eyes of others.

I truly pray you don’t have to suffer tremendous loss in your life in order to see what is important in life. As for me, I will continue to cling to my true savior wherever he leads me and have my hope that in the end, all will be made right. Until the day when he rules with true justice, I will refuse to hate. I will be loving. I will follow the gentle path seeking to be like him. I have so far to go, I know. I have not been made perfect by my pain, but it has given me a clarity that blows away the chaff in my life. In Christ’s boundless love, I humbly offer these words and hope that everyone who reads them knows they have been written in the honest belief that they are helpful and true. I leave it to you all to judge whether they resonate with you or not. Whatever the case, know that you are loved and you have a place in the heart of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Happy

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I really love that song by Pharrell Williams. I never tire of it. It is uplifting, light, jazzy and inspires happiness in me.

That said, I struggle with being happy quite a bit, especially since my daughter died. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, whether it’s something fun, or something hard or tedious. Sadness always looms over my shoulder to whap me when I least expect it.

This past week I spent on a lovely lake in a quaint town in Michigan with family. Every year my sister Sherri organizes a week’s lake vacation for her entire family, both her side and her husband’s side. Seventeen people showed up this year, seven from my brother-in-law Loran’s side, and 10 from my side, though my mother was only there a few days.

It was so much fun, with swims and boat rides in the lake, an annual Euchre tournament, and some games of volleyball among the activities. We also took part in Colon, Michigan’s annual Ring of Fire and Fourth of July celebrations. On July 3rd, at 10 pm, when the sun has finally gone down on one of our long summer days, everyone staying on the lake buys flares from the Lions’ Club, sticks them in the ground around the lake, and lights them. It was very cool to see. Then on Independence Day, we walked downtown, past the Amish buggies, to take our place along the parade route in front of the ice cream store and the magic shop. Yes, the town has a magic shop. It is known as Magic City because of it has a magic item manufacturer in town. How cool is that?

We watched as military veterans rode down the street in the back of trucks, fire engines rode past with their sirens and lights going, kids dressed up like flip flops to advertise Sandals resorts, and churches advertised their Vacation Bible School themes for the summer. Much candy was thrown from the various entries in the parade, as little children gleefully gathered it and put it in plastic bags, or into their mouths.

Even in this idyllic situation, however, I found moments where I struggled with sadness. As I watched my sisters and their children enjoy each others’ company, I could not help but feel the twinge of missing my own child. If she were here, I wouldn’t have been able to attend the vacation, since there are stairs to get into the houses. Once, she was able to go, when she was smaller, and she had a fun time. But, now, I go without her, and wish that somehow, she were with me.

Now that I’m back home with my husband, who couldn’t come due to work, I am happy to be here. And, yet, I still struggle from time to time. It’s only natural, so I don’t let it get to me. I realize that such heartache is the price a person pays for loving someone a great deal. It is worth the pain to have had her in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I just have to keep taking one step in front of the other and finding as much joy as I can. There is still plenty of richness to life, as last weekend showed me. My nieces and nephews are fantastic people, each one unique, but beautiful in his or her own way. I feel blessed to know them. I loved playing Frisbee with Jay and hearing him play his guitar and sing. I love his smile and sense of humor, and also his kindness. I love hearing Audrey play her ukulele and sing. I love her laughter and thoughtfulness. I love Abby’s quiet grace, to see her bravely, and joyfully hanging on to an inflated tube dragged through the wake of a racing speed boat, and to have a quiet conversation with her about the upcoming beginning of her college career. I love my nephew Joe’s gentleness, and his love of sports. I loved playing Koosh ball tennis with him, even though I am pretty bad at it. I love watching him make Nutella and peanut butter wraps, and seeing how tall he’s grown.

So, each time I struggle, I talk to God and have him remind me of the goodness that is still around me. I receive grace to rise up again, and encouragement to really live life unafraid.

Yes, I suppose I really am Happy. Just don’t watch me dance. Amber could tell you it is not a pretty sight.