Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Don't Bury the Alleluia

Of all the things I can give up during the Lenten season, it won’t be singing.
Even though there may be some grateful individuals in my family (you know who you are), I refuse to “bury the alleluia”.
This tradition of burying the alleluia dates back to the Middle Ages in Babylon. It’s a kind of verbal fast, a practice of intentionally omitting “alleluia” from the liturgy.
The idea is, when the alleluia is removed for a season, it rings even more jubilant at the Resurrection of Jesus. All that holding back during Lent will just burst the banks – an anthem of released rejoicing on Easter morning.
Liturgy or not; custom be scuttled! I will let my alleluia ring out. All through Lent, and afterward, and forevermore.
Seriously. I think it will ring all the sweeter on Easter Sunday, for not having squelched it at all.
The alleluia is my shelter in the storm.
It is my exclamation point in a world of question marks.
It is my red umbrella in the gloom.
The alleluia is my cure for curmudgeonly lapses; my go-to response for difficult people, pet throw-up and silent mailboxes.
It’s the alleluia that falls out of my mouth when God flings another magnificent sunrise into the sky.
The praise comes naturally every time I hear the sound of my children’s voices.
It echoes in my heart as a cry of breathless joy when I hear church bells, or Beethoven, or John Denver.
“Alleluia” cannot be buried because it buries all despair in four resounding syllables.
The Psalmist, David, knew it all along. So did Handel, when he composed the Messiah. As do the birds, who fill the not-yet-Spring trees with exaltation.
So does anybody who climbs out of the combat zone into the sunlight, blinking dazedly into the surprise of a healing or a reconciliation or a second chance.
Don’t withhold the hosanna!
Don’t lay off the litany!
Don’t shush the shout!
Don’t quench the canticle!
Don’t dis the descant!
Please, don’t bury the alleluia.
Give up something else for Lent, if you so choose, but not the very thing that keeps you upright and breathing. Keep the alleluia and belt it out as often as possible; it will bolster you up and jolt the passers by.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Construction Sites and Prayer Gardens

Billy Graham passed away today, February 21, 2018. We’ve lost a national treasure, and he has left an indentation on our culture as deeply carved and distinctive as the faces on Mt. Rushmore. It really didn’t matter what faith background you held; this beloved man simply brought the gospel, unadorned, to the masses. He did not worry about seekers, yuppies or progressives, but he did focus on the lost.
And he told us how to be found, loved and eternally secure. He did this, many times through an interpreter and he delivered his simple message all over the globe during a generous lifespan of 99 years. He was the friend to politicians, royals and everyman. He filled stadiums and lit up televisions, yet remained humble.

While sharing the sadness of Dr. Graham’s passing with a friend, I related a wonderful story about the woman who reached heaven before him: Ruth Bell Graham.
On a visit several years ago to see the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, I discovered an inviting walkway leading to a tranquil, woodsy Prayer Garden. I quickly realized it is also the burial site of Ruth Graham. On her tombstone it says, “End of Construction - Thank You for Your Patience”.
It struck me as funny and deep, all at once. I needed to know the story behind the epitaph. A volunteer explained the Graham family was on a road trip, back when the children were young. Ruth noticed a construction site along the highway.  She was completely drawn in by a large sign announcing in big bold letters, END OF CONSTRUCTION - THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE.
Ruth turned to Billy, who was at the wheel, and told him she wanted this exact phrase to be on her tombstone. She explained she was a work in progress, and her death would render her complete; finished; the person Christ had designed her to be. Furthermore, a lot of people had to be patient during her journey to completion.
Billy, not knowing she would cross into glory before him, remembered her request. He had that pithy, humorous and deeply profound phrase etched onto her stone.
Nestled among native flowers and situated in a peaceful spot, Mrs. Graham’s parting statement is a beautiful echo of laughter. I was glad to hear the story.
All these years later, I’m comforted to remember it, and to think of Dr. Billy Graham entering heaven with his own hard hat and a tool belt laden with funny stories to share with Ruth.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Crosswords and Life Clues

Sometime back, my mother nudged me into crossword puzzles. I’ve never looked back.
Being a self-proclaimed word nerd, I revel in word clues, feeling a smidge of smug satisfaction when all the spaces are filled in.
There is some buzz on the medical front that doing crosswords staves off the onset of Alzheimer’s. Other experts are saying the activity of putting pen to paper engages the human brain in ways our handheld devices cannot.
Still others say it’s a great and entertaining way to improve your vocabulary.
Here’s why I love puzzling with words: the clues are mini commentaries on life.
I was working a puzzle the other day. In the “Across” column, the hint was, “protects the petals”. The 5-letter answer was just beyond my reach, but in short order I had the first letter, “T”. After a bit of maneuvering in the “Down” category, I had my answer. Thorn.
Thorn protects the petals, as in the petals of a delicate, fragile rose.
That pithy little phrase, “protects the petals”, became a metaphor in my heart’s memory. My late husband, Roger, was a tall guy with a hearty laugh and a fierce love for his family. In some ways, he was gruff and prickly – like a thorn. After you got to know his personality, you realized it was his outward protective way of sizing up each new situation, ensuring everything was okay.
Just like a thorn discourages a would-be picker from grabbing the rose, so a giant of a man in his Sheriff’s blues, shields the vulnerable; the defenseless; the unguarded ones.
And, just as a bramble keeps intruders at bay, so Roger shielded “his girls” (our daughters and myself) from anything untoward.
The one thing he could not protect us from was his own untimely death, 10 years ago.
In the space of one devastating moment, we three girls were knocked sideways into a jarring reality. We became vulnerable to unwise counsel, harsh comments, impossible decisions and predatory people. Our shield, our buffer, our go-to-guy, was gone.
Worst of all, we developed barbs against one another in order to protect our own shattered hearts.
Thorns. Protecting the most precious flowers, people, and dreams.
All this clarity came marching into my awareness, just because of a crossword clue. Who knew?
All word nerds know, intuitively, that words are a map. They are clues. They are pieced together like one messy, random puzzle. Ultimately, the words make sense. This is magic.
One puzzle offered a clue. That clue triggered a memory. That memory throbbed warm and alive in my heart.
I will always remember him in new ways.

Plus, now I have a new appreciation for the solemn trustworthiness of thorns.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Christmas is a collision of images, thoughts and emotions. When these word pictures bump into each other, they form a kaleidoscope of the holidays. It's as though we're looking through a colorful lens at patterns and prisms that dazzle the eye and stir up memories. Each element is keenly felt, yet the combination is a heady mixture of joy and pain, fulfillment and need. Please indulge me as I try to capture sound, color and light in a Christmas collage.

Christmas is the cry of a baby, changing the world forever. It's the kiss of peppermint, the comfort of hot cocoa, a moveable feast.

Christmas is the peal of a bell, a tangle of lights, a shiver of hope, a right jolly old elf. 

It's an awkward hello and a tearful goodbye. It's an empty chair, an aching heart.

Christmas is a velvet dress, a sticky giggle, a weary soldier, a solitary meal.

It's a whisper of snow, a hint of pine, a toothless grin, a festive package.

It's a hope deferred, a fragile truce. It's a living crèche, a dying wish, a watchful prayer.

Christmas is a drink from the cup of Forgiveness -- even when the dregs are bitter.

It's the bray of a donkey, the blending of carolers, a crackling fire. And, steady in the East, one bright star presides over all our distress and delight.

Christmas is, forevermore, Emmanuel, God with us.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Crossing the Jordan

Let's face it. 
At "my age", myself and my peers are looking more toward the journey ahead. We are spending less time looking back over our shoulders and all that has brought us to this season of life.
Oh, there will always be fits of nostalgia, bursts of wistfulness. For the most part, though, it seems we are asking questions like Where am I heading? How are the kids doing? How are my friendships; are they current?
And we think about our legacy -- our non-monetary inheritance we will leave to our children and our grandchildren.
Have we taught them to love the things of eternity?
Have we lived out our faith in such a way that they, too, are storing up treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not corrupt?
Also these days we're doing away with mirrors; I am, anyways. Oh, they're handy for brushing hair and applying makeup and making sure there's no residual guacamole in between the teeth...but for our reflection -- to really see who we are -- we need to look into the faces of our peers. In the wrinkles, the laugh lines, the battle scars, the deep and knowing eyes, we see ourselves too. We see our own reflection.
We get this glimpse, this insight, this Aha! moment. And we get to really see how we're doing. 
What you may sometimes forget is, while you are looking to your friend for affirmation, she is looking into your eyes and quietly thanking God that you show up in the middle of her mess. You show up when she is hurting. 
She sees in you her biggest cheerleader. You may not realize this, but you are helping her navigate the crooked scary places in her own jagged journey. Yes, you. You come to the middle of where she is; the middle of her mess -- and you see her and know her pain because maybe you've experienced something like it. Maybe you've endured the pain and crossed safely to the other side.
In some seasons, it might be her turn to see you. And what she might see, reflected in your eyes, is your heart -- your heavy heart, heavy like a stone. A heart burdened with worry over a rebellious child. Or sad with regret over an argument, an unkind word, a rift in a relationship. She senses you are aching for things to just be okay again. Her gaze looks past the surface cheer and sees your bitter, closed heart, scabbed over with unforgiveness.
Unforgiveness gathers momentum, and becomes swift and deliberate, like a raging river. So there's this amazing story in the Bible. It's the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. In there, you'll read about the entire nation of Israel crossing this river in one day's time. They crossed while the river was at flood stage! What happened was a miracle: the priests were instructed to carry the ark of the testimony into the river. As soon as their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, while the water flowing the other way was completely cut off. Can you even imagine?
The thing about your heart is, God can restore it. He can do anything. Even bring a salve to your scabbed over hurts, gently unfold your fistfuls of fury.
He can run interference -- send in your testimony, carried by your friends, who hold your story and at the powerful hand of God, see you safely to the other side. You will look back and see that you have crossed the Jordan. And that's no small thing.

"Lord, help me to stand in the hurtful places next to my dear friend. Help me to gently lead her to the river's edge and together we'll dip our reluctant toes into our own raging waters of anger and resentment. May we find ourselves standing in the middle on dry ground. 
And may she stand on her regrets and use them as launching pads to better days  ahead.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reclaiming the Territory

"If you know what you want, then you're one step closer to it. If you take a step in that direction then you're actually making it happen. Think small when it comes to steps and big when it comes to dreams.”
(From Begin with Yes by Paul Boynton)

Who knew? I always thought you had to accomplish a goal or hold up a diploma or show your credentials or beam at the camera, trophy in hand – in order to realize a dream.
But the writer suggests you are already swinging something into momentum if you take a step in that direction. That's pretty cool.
So here's a shout-out to all of us who feel stymied by inertia. To the one who is in between jobs, staring at another email that says, “We'll keep you in mind.”
For the one with big ideas and empty pockets, edging ever closer to the safety of a “real job” with a steady-income-minus-the-dreams.
To the shadow-dweller who has something to say to the world, but hangs back, silenced into obscurity by the prettier, the brighter, the smarter ones.
For the one still figuring things out, feeling confused by the critics; just wanting a mentor to come for the journey.
To the person leaving a cluttered desk at the office, returning to a chaotic household, wondering when life shifts into neutral.
For the unrestored, the broken. The one ready to forgive, but nobody's beating a path toward the reconciliation.
To the one like you, like me – holding that piece of chalk and staring at a blackboard of symbols and numbers which absolutely do not add up.
These are the gloomy in-between places, the gaps that yawn, the caverns that loom black and bottomless. These are the intervals of the-not-yets, the waiting, the places where the only answer is an echo of silence.
But maybe, just maybe, we're stepping in a direction that holds the answers.

The other night, I sat for an hour in total silence. It turned out to be a blessing, a benediction on what had been a noisy day. All that day, I had pursued an answer to a life problem. I had pushed words into the air with my prayers and pleadings. Unsatisfied, I had turned up the car radio and thrummed out the questions in my head with a drowning out melody and back beat. When that didn't work, I gave way to anger and listened to the darker voices of doubt and fear. They only led to confusion and more questions.
Drained and at wit's end, I drove to a favorite spot for viewing the sunset. In golden, utter silence, almost without breathing, I witnessed the hand of God putting the world to bed. A green and gently sloping landscape was bathed in reds, oranges, purples and pinks. An American Flag unfurled audaciously in a crisp breeze. Trees-not-yet-green looked hushed and majestic.
The world stopped, and I bore witness to it.
God placed His signature across the horizon as the sun gathered in the rosy light and penciled it neatly across the tops of hills. Hills in silhouette. Orange orb dipping behind, silent and profound.
Blessed, blessed benediction.
I drove home.
The Great Silence had tapped me on the shoulder, inviting me to be okay with no-noise. Exhausted now, I rested in its presence, reveled in it.
Later, the questions would come again, niggling me with their persistence. But my new ally, Silence, pushed a hush against the noise, and I slept all through the night.
Silence – and I – reclaiming lost territory. Taking back the unknowns and learning to live with them. Learning to live inside the intervals, the in-betweens, the not-yet-but-maybe-soons, of life.
Allow Silence to join you in the journey, and take an hour some evening to witness the unfolding of a glorious, golden sunset.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Unfaithful Vigil

We say we'll keep watch, but we fall asleep.
This week as I pause in the holy hush of Jesus' willing death on the cross, I need to look and see and understand my vigil falls desperately short.
Consider these passages from Mark, Chapter 14:

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.
Eugene Peterson, in The Message, paraphrases it this way: “He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony.”
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here, and keep watch.”
Jesus then moved away from the three and began to pray. When he returned and found them sleeping, he said, “Simon, are you asleep? Couldn't you stay awake for even an hour?”
(Selections from Mark 14)

Twice again, Jesus went away to pray. And twice again, he returned to find his friends asleep. He had asked them to keep a vigil with him, and they had failed at even this simple assignment.
I remember being absolutely stunned when I first encountered this passage in the story of Jesus' crucifixion. It was shocking to think his best friends would ditch on him like that. Self-righteously, I indulged in the idea that I'd never do that; I'd never fall asleep during the holiest of vigils, the night before my Savior's death!
But as I journey and grow wiser in my faith, I understand his followers, The Twelve. I get it. Because, how many times have I failed my Lord? Too many to count. And how many times have I listened to a sermon and decided it was for someone else, but not for me? Too many times, way too many times. How often has He asked me to keep watch? Warned me to be alert to the enemy of my soul? Gently chastened me when I wound another?
Asked me to stay awake in the garden?
A simple request. A profound honor. A no-brainer. Just. Stay. Awake. But I don't; we don't, not always and not at the most critical moments.
So I suggest we cut the disciples some slack this Holy Week and think about what they didn't have.
Those guys did not have the New Testament Pocket Guide with Study Notes at the bottom of each page. You laugh! But it's true. Yes, they had the Lord, in the flesh, the Great I Am in their midst. Jesus taught and blessed and performed miracles and washed their feet and served The Last Supper. They had front row seats to all of it.
But the Gospel, the Good News, was still unfolding. The story of the perfect lamb, as prophesied in the Ancient Teachings, was about to come true. They were a part of the story, but they didn't have the entire picture, like we modern-day Believers do.
Jesus, at the end of their time together in the Upper Room, explained what would happen in the hours ahead. He tried to warn them, to tell them a time was coming when he would be destroyed and they would disperse in fear and confusion like sheep without a shepherd.
He even knew the ways in which they'd fail!
Jesus told the men a Comforter would come; the Holy Spirit.
But think about it. Those guys couldn't look it up by Chapter and Verse, and then cross-compare it with other translations.
It was a final meal with feet-washing, followed by a profoundly vulnerable time of Jesus putting them into the care of God as a benediction. Combine this intimate time of sharing with fear and political unrest and angry mobs and betrayal just hours away.
They had face-to-face access to The Savior but they didn't fully grasp His words. They were ordinary humans with flaws and doubts and God chose them to be part of the Plan of Redemption.
They only knew He had called the Passover Meal His own body and blood – broken and spilled for them. How strange that must have been, and really kind of scary. And confusing.
Let's float them a little grace this Holy Week approaching Good Friday. In the doing, we might also be able to receive grace for our own inadequacies.
As Anne Lamott so transparently puts it, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
And so, rather than being disappointed about the garden napping, I see the disciples with a stirring of recognition.
Jesus saw Peter, James and John at their worst – and He loved them anyway. However often they failed Him, He would never fail them.
And when I am unfaithful to watch and stay awake, He still loves me enough to die for me.
Make of me a faithful vigil in the heart of darkness, I want to be a sentinel through all the dark hours. When the deep darkness falls, let me be your star. Name me One Who Watches Through the Night. Reveal to me the holiness of lingering with mystery. Employ me in the holy art of waiting. O teach me to live with a vigilant heart.

>Litany of the Hours