The Song of Zechariah

 

As we’re in the Advent season, I knew the story of Zechariah’s muteness would be part of the liturgy at some point.  The story is told in Luke 1, and Zechariah’s silence held special significance for me this year, because I, too, lost my voice.  After getting a respiratory infection, I could feel my throat beginning to close up. A few days later, my voice was entirely gone. I could not even whisper. For three days, I could not utter a sound. This made not only my professional life a tad difficult (I am a voice teacher), but basically EVERYTHING difficult. While my family thoroughly enjoyed teasing me for not being able to nag them, I was despondent.  (Those of you who know me personally know that I am a bit of a talker.  Okay, I talk a lot.)

As my silence persisted, I began to notice things—things I’m sure Zechariah noticed, too.  Here’s what I learned.

1) When you can’t talk, for some unknown reason, people whisper to you. Because you can barely speak, they answer you quietly, and speak slowly to you.  They pat your arm, and make tsk, tsk sounds. This is simultaneously annoying and endearing.

2) When you can’t talk, you hear more, because you don’t have a choice. I realized I was unable to jump in and give an opinion or throw in a sarcastic retort in conversations. Instead, I listened to what those around me were saying—really listened, without preparing what my next witty comment might be…because I couldn’t comment anyway.  It was actually very freeing, as I didn’t feel I had to entertain everyone around me.  (This desire to entertain is self-induced.)

3) When you can’t talk, you hear more, because you are listening more. No, hearing and listening are not the same thing. Hearing involves your ears, but listening involves your heart and mind.  I especially was aware of this during Thanksgiving.  While I had my voice somewhat back by then, it still wasn’t strong and I couldn’t talk without coughing.  I knew I needed to remain quiet and to not engage with everyone as I usually do. It was very enjoyable to sit in a room full of chattering people and to simply listen to them and laugh with them. I realized I miss a lot of this by trying to contribute—or even monopolize—the conversation.

4) When you can’t talk, you hear God more. I often pray out loud, as I find my mind wanders when I pray silently. I have animated conversations with God, which probably can sound a bit disturbing to other normal people who don’t know who I’m talking to. I often forget, however, that conversations are about communication, which is a two-way endeavor. Every day, I pray that God will open my ears, open my heart, and close my mouth. Getting laryngitis is a great way of closing my mouth, as the choice is no longer mine.  I can then allow God to get a word in edge-wise.

It is 4) above that I think created the story of Zechariah.  Some might view his story as yet another “God smiting a poor unsuspecting person.” After all, who wouldn’t pause and ask the angel Gabriel, “My wife is having a baby? We’re going to be parents?  Do you know how old we are?”  Yet, retribution for questioning God is not entirely the crux of this story. I do not believe God was taking away Zechariah’s speech; I think God was giving Zechariah the gift of listening.

Because he couldn’t speak, Zechariah had nine months to receive well-meaning advice on child-rearing from his family, friends, and neighbors. He had nine months to listen to his wife’s complaints about her swollen feet and aching back, and to then massage those tender areas of her body.  He had nine months to ponder what this special baby, to be named John, would truly mean in this world.  He had nine months to foster a hope that the Messiah just might be coming in the near future.

Perhaps some would be angry and bitter after being struck dumb for nine months. Not Zechariah–for when his voice was finally freed, all of his pent up emotions were finally released into a powerful narrative ballad.  This ballad, often referred to as a “song,” concludes with these beautiful phrases:

Luke 1: NRSV
78 
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Advent is here, B-Flat Christian.  Listen, truly listen, to all those who surround you, and cultivate your own seed of hope…maybe even burst forth in a song of joy.  Use your words to lift up, to soothe, to strengthen those around you. Believe that hope is coming.

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Hats

Reading Time: 2 minutes

 So, just when you get a really good pity party started for yourself, isn’t it amazing how God smacks you right upside your hard head? (Hey, I can’t help it, I’m from the south, and that’s what we would say.) Often, He adds a little “Snap out of it, you idgit!” (Yet another southern endearment.)

I got one of those a couple of days ago. Work was exhausting; my students were whiney; I was pulled apart at the edges with no hope of covering all the empty spots I needed to cover; and to top it all off, I could feel my throat starting to get sore. Great. Just great. My family had already had a monolithic cold, and I was the only one who had yet to succumb. Succumbing was on the horizon.

I pulled up to our house, shuffled slowly to the door, and took the mail out of the box. In it was a cardboard mailing envelope addressed to me. The return address was from the state of AK. “Huh, maybe our friends from Arkansas sent me something.” I sauntered in the house and decided to open it up. Inside the envelope was a pretty wool hat, seemingly made from the color palette of a fall day. Blues, purples, teals, earth-tones—it was clear that someone had made it lovingly by hand. There was a short note enclosed inside:

I’m so sorry I didn’t get this sent sooner. I did finish it a couple of weeks ago but then life happened and things get crazy as I’m sure you know! I can imagine the stress from health issues and the unknown and I only have MS. Hope this little present fits and offers some warmth and comfort with my prayer along with it. <3 Kelli K.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “I have no idea who this is! Could it be from a former student who has a different married name now?” Even more baffling was the fact that I realized AK is actually the abbreviation for ALASKA, not Arkansas (duh). I could not think of a single person I knew in Alaska who would send me such a beautiful hand-made gift, and who sounded as if they knew me well.

I decided the answer could be found on Facebook, the Wonder of Our Existence (or the Bane, depending on the day. That day, it was the Wonder.) I found Kelli and sent her a message, apologizing for not knowing who she was, but thanking her for the gift. She responded, saying that she is part of crochet group on Facebook that makes hats for family and friends of people who have cancer. Somehow, I ended up on that list, so Kelli made a hat for me. For me. For someone across the country in an utterly different time zone.

I was stunned. I had my breast cancer lumpectomy last May, radiation all summer, and had been feeling like life was getting back to normal. My cancer was “over,” in the past. This hat reminded me that my experience will never be in the past, and the things I learned about myself will remain branded on my soul forever. I do not want to forget that time in my life, even the really painful moments.

Getting this hat also reminded me of why I am a Christian. You see, when you become a Christian, you become part of a network, or a hive, if you will. That network is connected on city, state, national, and even international levels. Christians all over the world pray for each other, simply because it’s what they do. They pray because they are told to pray in the Bible, but that’s not the only reason they do it: they pray because it feels good to focus on the needs of others instead of themselves for a change. Prayer is more about awareness, compassion, and hope for the well-being of those who need it; it is both an outward action and an inward action.

We Christians pray for friends and family who need help, and then we pray for people we don’t know—like the people in Puerto Rico, or the people suffering from the recent mass shootings in Texas or California. What is so amazing is the realization that people are praying for me all the time—people I don’t even know, who have never even met me. When I am eating breakfast, someone is praying for me. When I’m folding clothes, someone is praying for me. When I’m at the grocery store in the frozen foods, someone is praying for me. And you know what? I can feel those prayers. How humbling is THAT? How comforting it is to feel held in someone’s heart. I am embarrassed to continue fussing about things in my life that don’t really matter. Also, I have come to the realization that, as cliché as it sounds, it’s the small things we can do for others that can be the most meaningful.

B-Flat Christian, try to find one of those small things today that you can do for someone else that just might brighten someone’s day—or even change someone’s life. Whether it is praying for someone, writing them a card, calling them on the phone, or crocheting a hat, do it.

P.S. Kelli, I’m praying for continued strength and courage for you as you deal with M.S. Thank you for being so kind and thoughtful to someone you don’t even know.

I Thessalonians 5:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

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Awe

Reading time: 2 minutes

 

Psalm 90  [NIV]

A prayer of Moses the man of God.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

This verse was part of the Bible readings today in church and immediately called to mind my day yesterday.  Because it was the first weekend in November, I longed to see some of the fall foliage at its peak before it began to fade. This was the last Saturday I would have free for a while, now that the holiday whirlwind has already begun.  My family and I decided to go to Hawk Mountain for the day to celebrate the final days of fall by hiking the rocky trails and possibly glimpsing some raptors soaring in the mountain air.

Hawk Mountain is an amazing place to visit. It is one of the major migration routes for raptors travelling between North America and South America.  On clear days during migration season, you can see falcons, hawks, vultures, and even bald eagles while sitting at one of its many scenic overlooks.  It is one of my favorite places, as it makes me pine a bit for my beloved Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

It was a glorious, sunny day, and the leaves were as beautiful as I had hoped. Unfortunately, nearly all people in the northeast had the same idea as my family, so it was very crowded up on the mountain. It took about twenty minutes to find a parking place, but we finally created one on the side of the twisting mountain road.  Walking slowly up the road, we were amazed to see license plates not just from Pennsylvania, but from New York, New Jersey, and other states. We walked to the visitors’ center and could barely get in due to the crush of people there.  It was amazing to think that all of these people, from babies to folks walking with canes, were there to experience the wonder of the outdoors.

My husband and kids had gone ahead of me to climb the more challenging trails, and I decided to rest at one of the overlooks.  I nestled myself between some rocks and marveled at the sight spread out in front of me.  Bright reds and golds mixed with burnished copper, the valley floor resembling a furry quilt resting upon its bed of mountains.  As I sat quietly, others came to my spot at the overlook. I quickly found myself growing irritated as my peaceful atmosphere was interrupted over and over again by noisy onlookers.  Two couples stood beside me for at least twenty minutes with their binoculars, discussing not the birds they were seeing, but the unusual names their daughter-in-law was considering for their grandchildren and how unhappy their nephew was in his job.  Another young family made it up to the overlook point and immediately opened up snacks and began feasting on Fruit Roll-Ups and nuts.  A group of teenagers came and inevitably began taking selfies, laughing at each other and making faces.  One even called someone on his phone, saying, “Yeah, we’re up here at the overlook at Hawk Mountain.  It’s really cool…”

I realize everyone comes to places of nature for different reasons, but I always wonder why people seem to be afraid of silence, afraid of being awed.  I use the word awe not in the way we have come to know it in its overused form today—“awesome”—but in its definition as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder” (according to my google search).  It is the feeling of witnessing a place or event that looms, huge and  consequential, and finding oneself small and insignificant in its shadow.  As humans, we tend to be uncomfortable in such situations, so what do we do? We act to assure ourselves that we matter, that we aren’t a speck standing on the side of a mountain. We talk. We eat. We laugh loudly. We take pictures of ourselves in front of the majesty as a way of mastering it by capturing it on the tiny screen of our cell-phones.  That way, we can make ourselves look bigger in front of it somehow.  “See? All of that is in the background, but I’m in front of it!”

Eventually, I decided being angry was pointless.  These people were there to absorb the beauty of the day just like I was, and instead of celebrating it quietly, they were choosing to do so in a different way.  I pulled up my hood, both because it was getting chilly, and because it allowed me to feel more isolated from the voices around me.  I settled in my chair hewn from the rocks, breathed deeply, and smiled out over the majesty before me. I found it comforting (and, yes, awesome) to think that all of these wondrous things are not held or controlled by me; they have been here for millennia, and they will still remain for millennia, “from everlasting, to everlasting.”

What places or situations inspire awe in you, B-Flat Christian? What makes you “live in awe”?  Share your thoughts in the comments on this page.

 

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Lucky Leaf

Reading time: two minutes

 

Several years ago, I remember being out on a walk with my daughter.  She was still small, and her little legs were a blur as she tried to keep up with my longer legs.  We clasped hands, swinging them forward and backward in time with our steps.  It was a splendid day—a “Blue Skies” fall day, the sun’s warmth still bright, with a slight tinge of chill to come in the air.  The wind blew the leaves all around us and swirled them around our feet in tiny tornadoes.  We felt them falling on our heads and shoulders and crackling in our hair.

“Look, Mom!  Watch me!  Grab a Lucky Leaf!”  She dropped my hand and stretched her arms toward the sky at a leaf that was riding the wind.  Just as she almost caught it, it shifted suddenly to the right out of her grasp.  “Missed it!” she cried.  She tried again, but the same thing happened—the leaf she reached for dodged her hand.

“What are you doing, honey?” I asked her curiously.

“It’s good luck to catch a leaf when it falls in the air!” she answered, jumping for another one.  “You try to get one!”

So, I saw a possible target and reached for it.  It, too, danced just out of my reach.  I tried again and again.

“Got one!” crowed my daughter.

“Hey, good job!” I said, laughing.  “Boy, that’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

“That’s why it’s a Lucky Leaf.  You have to catch it before it can get away.”  She put the leaf in her pocket, and we continued out walk.  We shuffled through several leaf piles, kicking them gently aside.

I recalled the “Lucky Leaf” game today while I was out walking my dog.  Once again, it was a gorgeous fall day and leaves were falling gently on the ground.  I looked up just in time to see a leaf flying straight toward me.  I reached out and grabbed it, and instinctively, I said “Yes!”  I was so pleased to have caught it, and with little or no effort on my part.  I put it in my pocket, my mind suddenly thoughtful.

How often do we walk through our lives jumping, reaching, striving for the “leaves” we think we want?  That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  Go after the things we want, putting our whole selves into it?  Demanding the blessings we think we deserve, without seeing the ones that might be flying right at our faces?  Kicking the blessings that litter the ground around us out of the way scornfully, because they weren’t the ones we wanted?

I always go back to the story of Jacob grasping the angel in hand-to-hand combat, begging to blessed, fighting for God’s favor (Genesis 32:22-32).  Perhaps we should stop our mad jumping after the “leaves of blessings,” and end our pointless battles to impress God and make Him listen to us.  Instead, let us simply pause and watch for the Lucky Leaves that are there just waiting to be plucked out of the air…Lucky Leaves like:

  • Enjoying a beautiful fall afternoon with a child

  • Sipping a really, really good cup of coffee

  • Feeling the steady breath of the dog lying on your feet, or the cat warming your lap

  • That hug that you needed from the friend who knew you needed it

Feel free to add your Lucky Leaves to the “pile” by commenting below, B-Flat Christian. Go to the top of the page and click on “No Comments,” then add your comment in the box provided below the post.

 

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Morning Glory

 

 

This past summer, my dear friend Lynn gave me a morning glory flower to brighten my spirits.  I was beginning my cancer journey, and I was admittedly scared out of my wits.  “Here,” she said.  “Take this—morning glories helped me heal after I lost my husband.  I hope it will bring you joy.”  Thankful for her kindness, I dutifully planted it.  I knew morning glories are climbers, so I put it right up against our backyard fence.  I decided to name it “Ed” in honor of Lynn’s husband.

For a few weeks, Ed stretched his tendrils up and around the fence happily.  Eventually, he reached the top of the fence.  As he gained confidence, he explored more of the fence.  One day, I noticed some of Ed’s leaves were curled and brown.  Several days of extremely hot weather had perhaps taken their toll; I promptly grabbed my watering can and gave Ed a drink. “Come on, buddy,” I whispered.

Ed continued to sag wanly on the fence.  I watered him again, hoping it would revive him.  I watered him a few days later, noting that some of the leaves remained fresh and green, while others continued to shrink and turn brown.  I took one of the brown vines in my fingers and carefully followed it all the way back to the ground where it was supposed to be rooted. I noticed with horror that it wasn’t in the ground—it was hanging limply just above it.  More than likely, the lawnmower had accidentally severed it when I mowed the lawn the previous week.  I had killed Ed, or at least, part of him.  I tried to pull off some of the dead vines and leaves, but they were so intertwined with the ones still growing that I decided to leave it alone and hope for the best.  “Come on, Lord,” I muttered.

Recently, I have had conversations with several friends facing grim life struggles; subsequently, the not-so-articulate, tad-bit grumpy prayer “Come on, Lord,” has passed through my lips more than I would like to admit. These friends are good people facing tectonic shifts in their lives and could use a dash of hope—but nothing happens. God is being annoyingly circumspect in His response to all of our prayers. I read a prayer that encapsulates my own thoughts in Ann Lamott’s brilliant Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (NewYork: Riverhead Books, 2012).

 Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet, I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon—say, two-ish? Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen.  (p. 34)

Praying such a brutally honest prayer is so freeing because it sets all artifice and superficiality aside. It is admitting that we think we know what’s best for us, but have to trust that He’s got it all covered, as agonizing as that can be. This is what faith is about. Faith is making assumptions that are true because of past occurrences.  For example, we know the sun will more than likely rise tomorrow morning.  Our world will continue to spin in its galaxy, probably. Winter is on its way, though whether it’s next week or next February is anybody’s guess.  We don’t know, but the chance is high that hope is on its way because we have seen it blossom in our lives before.

Even plants that were partially run over by lawnmowers can suddenly blossom. One morning, I looked out the back door and saw a bright blue bloom. “Ed! Look at you!” I cheered. When I rushed out to investigate, I realized he had several blossoms. Today, he is covered with them, and every morning, they gladden my heart. Pray those grumpy prayers, B-Flat Christian. You need them, perhaps even more than God needs them.

God, help me….Plumb

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wRpTySE_8A

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Smile

Reading Time: 2 minutes

On Facebook the other day, a friend described how she said “Good morning” to a passing couple while out on a walk, and the couple looked past her and did not answer.  She was hurt, and rightly so; it hurts to be ignored or snubbed.  Some of the comments to her post said things like, “Don’t judge—you never know the battles others are going through,” and “maybe the couple had just experienced some horrible trauma and just couldn’t respond” etc.—all valid comments.  Nevertheless, I still feel strongly that, when spoken to, it is only polite to smile, to give a nod, or to say, “Hello” in return.  It takes little to no effort, but it goes a long way toward civility. It is an acknowledgment of “You exist, I exist, fine.”

I told my friend that I, too, have experienced this phenomenon in our town numerous times. For example, I have been walking on the Quittie Park trail, literally three feet from a young man heading towards me; our eyes met, I said, “Hello.” He stared straight ahead and kept right on walking. Perhaps he was deaf; perhaps he didn’t speak English; perhaps any number of things. Even in the grocery store, I speak to people as I pass if our eyes meet, saying “Good morning,” or a similar greeting, and I have had people stare at me as if I were a Yeti.

I grew up in the Virginia, and in the south, if someone greets you, you greet them back, no matter what type of day you’re having. Experiencing the belligerent stares of others has taken some getting used to.

Three years ago, my family and I drove down to vacation at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. We wound our way down I95 South, stopping at numerous restaurants, rest areas, and gas stations. Everywhere we went, people smiled and started conversations with us about nearly anything. At one point, my son leaned over to me, and said quietly, “Mom, why are all these people talking to us?” I smiled and said, “Because they’re being friendly.” He raised his eyebrows, “Oh. OK.”

A few days later, while we were out on a walk, a car drove by us and the driver waved. My son watched the car drive by and said, “Do you know them?”

I said, “Nope.”

He looked confused. “Then why did they wave?”

I put my arm around him. “Because they’re being friendly. They saw us, we saw them, and they waved, so we waved back. It’s just being polite.”

While this was strange to them at first, my kids eventually began to really like it. It is one of the things I miss the most about living in the south. I’m not saying there aren’t rude people in the south, but on the whole, it has not been my experience.

So, what’s a B-Flat Christian to do? Should I get angry and force people to interact with me? Should I not speak to anyone else, assuming they won’t talk to me, either? Ah, but that would be the easy way out.  That way, I’m not hurt because I haven’t let myself be vulnerable.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I try not to let it bother me anymore. Yet, I refuse to give up, either. If I lock eyes with someone, I still say, “Hello,” or at least, nod my head. If they are having a terrible day, at least they’ve had one person smile and speak a kind word to them.

By the way, look out. I WILL smile at you. I WILL speak to you.  And if I know you, I am very, very likely to hug you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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Uprise

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This past weekend, my teenaged daughter and I attended the Uprise Festival in Shippensburg, PA.  Uprise is a gathering of some of today’s leading contemporary Christian bands.  Friday and Saturday featured concerts by some of our favorite artists—Hawk Nelson, Blanca, Skillet, For King and Country, the Newsboys, and the pièce de resistance, Toby Mac.  We set up our chairs and umbrellas on the side of a hill overlooking the huge mainstage and spent both days jamming, scarfing down food of questionable nutritional value, and shopping in the merchandise area.

When gushing about the weekend to a student of mine, she looked at me quizzically.  “What?” I asked.

“I guess I’m just surprised you’d go to a concert like that, and even enjoy it,” she said, shrugging.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because…because you’re a musician,” she answered.

The thing is, a few years ago, she would’ve probably been correct.  As an operatically-trained singer and lover of classical music, I will openly own it:  I used to be a music snob. That snobbery had gradually worked its way into my thoughts about music’s place in worship, and I had always been convinced that “Lift High the Cross” and Bach, were the way to go to “Sing to the LORD a new song ” [ Psalm 96:1 ]   (or should I say, “Sing the BEST, HIGHEST QUALITY song to the Lord”).  Luckily, God can take our most deep-seated convictions and turn them upside down.

A few years ago, my kids’ youth group went to take part in a youth night at our local Christian radio station.  Since I knew they would be on-air, I listened to what they were doing.  I made a jaw-dropping discovery that night—I loved it.  I heard my first Toby Mac song that night, and immediately became obsessed with contemporary Christian music.  It was no longer “cheesy” sounding to me, lacking in form, melodic interest, or textual depth.  Instead, the words were saying exactly what I needed and wanted to hear, and there was a groove.  Something had breathed in my ear and my heart and sparked alive something in me that I never knew existed.  I began to listen to contemporary Christian music every day, whether in the car or on my iPod.

What I appreciate about contemporary Christian music is that the songs have meaning and a message, unlike much of mainstream pop music of today. I realize that a few artists have been socially or religiously awakened by the 2016 election, which is hopeful to see; I have yet to really hear this in the majority of our current Billboard Charts artists, however.  With the myriad of subjects available—climate change, racial inequality, poverty, healthcare issues, the plight of common folks in the “Rust Belt”—why are the main themes of songs on the Top-10 radio about partying or hooking up in a club? This is why I find some hope in contemporary Christian music.  I finally hear songs that I can dance to while hearing lyrics that deal with optimism for the future, staying faithful, owning your flaws, and seeking truth.

I also enjoyed hearing different band members discuss some of the recent struggles they have encountered and how their music helps them deal with and process the negative influences in their own lives.  Sometimes, I almost felt as if I were in church hearing a sermon.  The most memorable of these moments happened during the Newsboys concert.  Lead singer, Michael Tait, was chatting with the crowd between songs and made an astute observation.  He said, “It seems some Christians nowadays are very busy hating the sins of others.”  The simple truth of this statement is what makes it so elegant; grace usually is. It has the ring of something Jesus would have said to his disciples, or perhaps even to the Pharisees.  As Jesus said, it sure is hard pointing at the splinter in your friend’s eye when that two-by-four in your own eye keeps swiping everyone around you.  We must stop fixating on sins and trying to set them up in some form of a tiered system, especially if that tiered system benefits us above others.

Seeing the healing and uniting power of music is an amazing thing. Looking around the crowd, I saw so many different faces and skin colors—some folks with ear gauges, some with tattoos, some wearing revealing clothing, some wearing conservative clothing.  Just people, who for a moment, forgot how they shouldn’t get along with one another, but who were able to unite their voices together in the Newsboys’ anthem “God is not dead, He’s surely alive, He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion…”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_OTz-lpDjw

 

 

 

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Insomnia

 

Reading time: 3 minutes

 

I was suddenly roused from sleep by the sound of my dog shaking himself noisily.  He finished this spastic dance with a loud, staccato sneeze.  I turned over and fluffed my pillow.  I moved to my left side, my stomach, my back. I was hot, then just as suddenly, cold.  I was awake, and was not going back to sleep any time soon.

Returning to teaching after my sabbatical and post-radiation has been as I thought it would be—challenging. The insanity of accomplishing my day presses on my chest like the elephant in the COPD commercial for Spiriva.  My mind teems with a seemingly impossible to complete to-do list. I lie awake, fretting, How am I going to make it through the day tomorrow (or should I say, TODAY)?  I’m going to be so busy.  I need all the energy I can get. I’m going to be exhausted. I’ve battled with insomnia for several years now.  It doesn’t happen to me frequently, but when it occurs, it can be extremely annoying. I decided to get up, as I usually do, and read to reset my sleep routine and calm my racing mind.

I settled into a chair, snuggled up in a blanket, and began reading.  I have been reading the Old Testament, revisiting all the classic narratives of the establishment of God’s relationship with humans.  It’s all there—infidelity, murder, war, plagues, rape, incest…as well as hope, love, faithfulness, peace, passion, freedom.  As I began reading 1 Samuel, I realized I was being reintroduced to a fellow insomniac: Samuel. Of course, it wasn’t poor Samuel’s mind that was keeping him awake, but the voice of God.

The story is in 1 Samuel chapter three.  As a baby, Samuel’s mother promised him to the Lord, and has begun his apprenticeship in the temple to the priest there, Eli.  Samuel and Eli have gotten comfortable and are nodding to sleep, kept company by the dimly glowing lamp of God.  As his eyes are closing, however, Samuel hears a voice sharply call his name.  Instantly, Samuel wakes and rushes to find Eli, asking what Eli wants of him.  Eli, grumpy at being awakened after just going to sleep, tells Samuel to go back to bed.  The same thing happens two more times before Eli realizes what is happening. When Samuel comes to him for the third time, Eli gives Samuel instructions:

1 Samuel 3

 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

 Samuel does exactly as Eli orders, using Eli’s exact words.  It is with this statement that Samuel begins a dialogue with God that lasts his entire life. The life of a prophet is a dicey one, as a prophet’s job as a mouthpiece of the Lord is often to proclaim uncomfortable news.  This happens to Samuel right away when he realizes it’s going to be his unpleasant job to explain the Lord’s displeasure with Eli and his family… not the most comfortable position to be in for Samuel, as The New Prophet On the Block.

After re-reading Samuel’s story, I am trying to view my insomnia through a different lens now. When I am awakened, I pause, and I try not to be immediately annoyed. I give myself a chance to fall back to sleep, but if I don’t, I get up, find a comfortable chair, wrap up in a blanket, and wait.  I hear the gentle tick tick of the clock on the wall and listen to the creaking of our house as it settles.  I breathe quietly, slowly, rhythmically. I whisper Samuel’s (actually Eli’s) words exactly: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I haven’t gotten a direct response yet, but I have spent much more quality time with God in the dark hours of the night. My guess is, He’s appreciated it more since I’m too tired to bug Him about everything else I’ve been casting at His feet (not that I don’t do that as well, too).

Then, I read a bit and return to bed. Usually, I go right to sleep. Such a precious commodity, sleep. I hope I get some tonight.

 

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Eclipse

 

Reading time: 2 minutes

Yesterday was the first Monday where I have not gotten up to make my 8:30am radiation appointment.  I could sleep in.  I could eat breakfast when I wanted to.  I could sip my coffee to my heart’s content.  I was free to enjoy the morning as I saw fit, until I had to take my son to an appointment.

So why did I feel a twinge of sadness? Why would I miss beginning every day with getting zapped by radiation? I didn’t, really.  What I missed was something deeper.  I missed the intensity of emotion that pervaded my days this summer.  There was a relentless focus on something beyond my control, something outside of my understanding, something that utterly absorbed my attention.  Something like a solar eclipse.

For weeks leading up to yesterday, August 21, 2017, the buzz about the total solar eclipse has been all over social media, TV news, the radio, newspapers…everywhere.  People have been madly trying to find protective eye glasses approved by NASA and to find a place to gather that will afford an unimpeded view.  We have prayed harder for clear skies more than we have in years.  There is an intensity and purpose to our plans.  We are excited, because we know what is going to happen, but it is something we have never experienced.  Because we don’t know what to expect, there is a tinge of fear, too.

It was indeed as amazing as we imagined. We saw our fellow eclipse watchers with their dorky glasses on (and hoped we looked cooler than they did).  We saw the curve of the moon as it progressed slowly across the sun, like the thickening silhouette of a scimitar’s blade. We felt the supernatural stillness in the air and the eerie cast to the afternoon light. Now, it is the day after.  The eclipse has passed, and like the day after Christmas, so has our excitement.

My personal “eclipse” is mostly over now as well. There was definitely stillness and darkness, but there was anticipation and intensity as well during this process.  All of my focus was on lying on that radiation table, arms splayed above my head, waiting patiently for the radiology nurses to say “Hold your breath…OK, you can breathe!”

Now, it is definitely time to stop holding my breath.  It is also time to not allow myself to return to my “normal routine,” to “business as usual.”  This experience has shown me I am made of stronger stuff than I thought–God continues to remind me of that.  “The God of Brilliant Lights” is truly shining down on us.  That means you, B-Flat Christian.

 

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NEW

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Revelations [NIV]

21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”

This passage from Revelations is what began my blog-writing process.  Like the apostle John, I was witnessing something new in my life—a “New Jerusalem,” if you will, that required my attention, my contemplation, and finally, my acknowledgment.  Scholars have argued over the true meaning of the rhapsodic imagery described in Revelations.  Most agree that the New Jerusalem is an idea, and it is this: it is a dwelling place for the Lord that is no longer constricted by bricks or mortar, by tent-poles or canvas.  The New Jerusalem is a holy temple that dwells with and within people.  Within us. We are all to become new little churches, or as C.S. Lewis puts it, “to become a little Christ” (from Mere Christianity). When the New Jerusalem comes within you, the old way of doing things dies to make room for what is new. The New Jerusalem needs “heart real estate” to thrive, of course.
We all know that “new” can be exciting, but “new” can also be daunting.  “New” always serves as a marker between beginnings and endings, and is, thus, a source of discomfort, too.  At this moment in my life, I am watching several close friends and family members jostle up against “new” in ways that are amazing and terrifying.  I am watching my sister, Terry, take a leap and move from her long-time home in Knoxville, TN to begin a “new” life in Virginia, for example. I am watching my father-in-law, Buddy, mourn the loss of his wife, begin the process of selling his home, and decide what the rest of his own “new” life will look like. And, I am watching myself begin a “new” school year, bidding an agonizing farewell to what have been the most painful and joyful months of my life.
While pondering the “new,” one can feel paralyzed, yet it is crucial to look for the hope that is concealed within it.  In flowery and poetic language, the passage from Revelations above describes how The New Jerusalem is prepared lovingly and appears dressed in her finest wedding gown, glowing with anticipation.  God invites her to come forward—this is a planned wedding, after all, and all present will drink from a fountain gushing not with chocolate or champagne, but with the living water to which Jesus alludes in John 4:10. It is the water of self-discovery, of blessings known and unknown, of grace heartily undeserved.
Join me as we sit by this fountain, raise a glass to your New Jerusalem, and take a sip.  Cheers.

 

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