Love Like That

“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders.  When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’  In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:4-7)

Our new neighbor spent the better part of six hours today trying to coax her new rescued puppy back into her house after the puppy snuck out…twice.

Mary and I spent awhile this evening trying to help corral the puppy, who had been a rescue from an abusive situation about two weeks ago and was in no mood to trust anyone, never getting within 20 feet of us. We tried leaving out treats, and sitting calmly, and so on, but the dog wasn’t having anything to do with us. (We’re told that the puppy isn’t fond of men, so I felt doubly helpless.)

Her new owner, though, was marvelous at trying to build trust. She scampered around her yard like an eight-year-old, trying to get the puppy to play with her. She lay down for a good half hour in the dew of the evening on her front lawn, trying to get the puppy to come close enough. She got some steak and offered the puppy bits of it to try to draw her near, with only partial success.

It occurs to me that her love is part of what Jesus taught about in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Just as Jesus does, she patiently was calling to the puppy, trying to be open and warm and receptive, not angry, not yelling at the dog. She showed what grace is about: the neverending call to come home, to turn back. And through it all, the rebellious puppy was mistrusting of that grace, skeptical that it could really be safe, and absolutely determined to do whatever it wanted to do.

In the same way, we’re rebellious puppies who refuse to believe it could possibly be any better with Jesus than on our own. We’re all cavorting, running free, oblivious to the fact that it’s getting dark and there are foxes in the woods nearby who would love to have a go at us in the night. And we disdain the steak that’s offered in favor of staying (spiritually) hungry, if it means accepting anything that comes with it.

The good news is, there are no strings attached, no hidden agendas. God’s grace and love are freely given, just as our neighbor’s love was freely given, and despite our (or the puppy’s) obstinacy about taking the offer. It’s a valuable reminder that grace shows up in random moments in our days, and that we’re called to love like that: to offer grace to everyone we see, loving the rebellious puppy in each of us, and patiently extending grace until she comes home.

PS: Eventually the neighbor went inside and left the front door propped open. And after another half hour, something got the better of the puppy (curiosity? hunger? desire for warmth?) and she wandered back inside. And there was great rejoicing.

Love Letters

OK, right up front I have to confess to being a bit of a pack rat. This is important to the story because part of what I’ve been doing, while a furloughed Government employee this week, has been cleaning out my basement from decades of accumulated junk. I’m also going through the boxes of mementos, trying to simplify those; for instance, my parents had saved a box of my elementary school work. I don’t think my kids or grandkids are going to find my fifth grade spelling test to be as fascinating.

I came across one set of boxes, though, that contained about ten shoeboxes, each crammed with all the letters from various friends I’d received and then saved from the early 1980s through today. (Although the number of letters saved dropped off d-r-a-m-a-t-i-c-a-l-l-y in the mid-1990s, about the time email came along. Go figure.) I had completely forgotten that I had saved them all!

I went through the boxes of letters, and decided to have almost all of them shredded. I pulled out the stack of love letters that Mary had sent me when we were still dating and just becoming affianced; those I’m definitely saving. But all the rest: they’re going. Ones from my mom and dad, included. And in so doing, I get to say goodbye to a lot of other love letters and ghosts in my past.

Laura, the first real romance I had (if you can count 8th grade as romance, but hey, we exchanged letters about another 7 years). Then Cynthia. Heidi. Dawn. And Julie, my first true long-term relationship. All were some stage of relationship I had, each in some way preparing me to be who I am.

I will confess to a quick peek through some of them before I tossed them in the shred box. They speak of life in a simpler time, when letters were the only way to share (because long distance phone calls were SO EXPENSIVE) and when all of us were young, oh so young, with raw emotions and little experience in dealing with them. The awkwardness, the daring, the vulnerability–the whole range of emotions.

To be honest, it’s with mixed emotions I let these letters go. Of course, I’m not in love with these women anymore, and I certainly don’t need to have these around. I mean, looking at the letters today was the first time in decades that I’d seen them. Some of these young women were more into me than I was into them. Others, I know I hurt when we broke up. All of them, I would apologize to for any hurt I would have caused. All of them, I truly wish well, and hope they’re doing well. One, I know, is a thriving wife and mother. Others, I’m not so sure. But I’m not about to go find out. And yet, they’re just letters, just relics of a time gone by that will never come again, will never amount to anything.

In exorcising those ghosts of my past, it also occurs to me that they each pointed to what I have today. My wife is the total package, if you will, of all I had pieces of over my life. Laura’s smile and (frankly) sauciness is Mary’s. Cynthia’s sense of humor and small-town genuineness is Mary’s. Dawn’s faith is Mary’s. Heidi’s vulnerability is Mary’s. And Julie’s warmth and dedication is Mary’s.

I remember aching for one of my early romances at the time, and wondering if she were the one God had in mind for me. Little did I know he would have many others in store for me, before unveiling the grand prize, the one who brought everything together for me, the one without whom I couldn’t imagine the last nearly 29 years. And as I prepare to put my trust in him one more time, for one more big step, it seems right to let go of all the past, all that’s extraneous, all that isn’t what I have now and need to have in the future.

God bless you all. Forgive me my shortcomings, and allow some fond thought instead. I truly wish you every blessing. And now I’m off with Mary to our next adventure.

Merry Christmas, 2018

This Christmas was different, of course. The head of the dining room table was empty this year, with Mom passing in October. And the call to Vermont was missing a voice, with Mary’s dad passing in June. I made it through the day pretty well, but for hearing that silly “Christmas Shoes” song, and immediately thinking of Mom.  And yeah, crying.

And yet, there was brightness to the day. We were allowed to sleep in until well past nine; in fact, I was the first up, to start the coffee cake. Sarah was in much better spirits this year than in some past years, which gave me joy to see her happy and engaged. (Are the teen years ending?!?) We exchanged gifts and some very creative ones came out (I have a dozen new pairs of silly socks to wear to work, for example), and of all it, only two duplicates that we have to take care of.

In so many ways, this was a better Christmas than I expected, or have any right to deserve. I know so many others didn’t have a fire in the fireplace, or a turkey dinner, or the luxury of dozing by the first after the second. And as the years go by, the pile of presents gets a little smaller, and that’s okay: I don’t have anything to prove by great hordes of presents. In fact, quite the opposite: it truly isn’t the getting. The day is about much more.

The day is about love. The day is about the most tremendous love, far beyond anything we can imagine, breaking in and disrupting our lives. It’s about all the contradictions inherent in the fact of the Author of the Universe coming to us as a tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent baby in an insignificant backwater town two millennia ago. It’s not about the loss of our parents, it’s about love–the love they had for us, surely, but all the more, the love that wraps them now, the same love that pulls me in and won’t let go. It’s a much, much fuller Christmas than ever before. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas!

Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

“Waiting For Life”–THE BOOK!

So, it seems I’ve written a book!

Yep! This week I’m thrilled to announce the publication of “Waiting For Life,” a book for the developing Christian who’s trying to push past the basics and learn more about the fundamentals of Christianity and how life in Christ works…even dealing with the setbacks. It’s the result of about four years worth of work, pulling together some of my old sermons, blog posts, and other writing into a set of short chapters that tackle topics the emerging Christian might find helpful. Things like:

  • What’s this “grace” business about?
  • What does faith really look like?
  • Is there really a devil?
  • How can I possibly forgive someone who did something so wrong to me?
  • Is it OK to doubt?

When I was an emerging Christian myself, I didn’t have a guide to help me along the path. I had to learn a lot myself, until I came across some sages–real giants in Christ–who were huge helps in my journey. I wrote “Waiting For Life” so that nobody else has to find their own way along the path–it’s the “trail guide” for the Christian who wants to push deeper into the faith and learn what Christmas is really all about.

If you’ve enjoyed tagging along on the journey with me in this blog so far, you might like to dive deeper yourself. Pick up a copy, leave a comment, let me know what you think! And God bless you in your exploring!

Love is Patient and Kind

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)

Happy Valentines’ Day!

Before leaving the office, I texted my bride and my daughter to see if I could treat my two valentines to takeout dinner tonight. I received word that S. wanted Panera, and Mary wanted Indian from the place we like in Kingstowne. So I dutifully navigated to Kingstowne to pick up the Indian–man, the traffic was atrocious! It was as if everyone else in Northern Virginia, for some reason, wanted to go out for dinner tonight. Imagine that!

So it took f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get there, and of course the restaurant was mobbed–I couldn’t even get in the front door for a minute. Scooped up the takeout, headed back to the car, and started off for Panera. Now, 99.9% of the time we go to the one in West Springfield, so I drove there, enduring every red light known to man, with our dinner cooling in the back.

Only to find…huh. There’s no order here for us. On texting to find out what was up, only then did I learn…she’d put in the order for the Panera in Kingstowne. Yep, the one about 50 feet away from the Indian place. The one I never think about because we almost never ever go there.

So, backtrack another 15 minutes, park, await food, drive again… It’s late, I’m getting thirsty and hungry, I’m tired after a long day, and I have to backtrack and drive all over because she didn’t tell me which Panera to go to?!?!? Like I’m supposed to read her mind?!?!?

Or…

I can feel Jesus shushing me. This isn’t about you and your inconveniences, you dope. This is about an evening sharing love. And yes, even though everything good gets opposed, the love of your marriage is worth far more than the inconvenience of driving an extra half hour. In these moments of frustration or annoyance, we have a choice: we can react, or we can choose to respond in love.

The Indian was a bit cool by the time we got to it, but it still tasted good. And being able to spend a positive, loving evening together, instead of getting angry or blameful, is worth far more than the ability to be “right,” or to put on an injured face. Because love is patient and kind, and refuses to keep score. And that’s more important in the end.

“Can You Really Be Christian and Support This Regime?”

“Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

You might not have noticed it, but the recent change in Administration in the United States has occasioned a little bit of comment on social media. I know, shocking, right?

Recently, a non-Christian friend of mine posted this question on social media. He quoted Leviticus 19:33-34 and asked (in part), “Christian friends – what do you think about this? Can you really be Christian and support this regime?” I was struck by the genuineness of his question. He genuinely seemed to be coming from a place of trying to understand Scripture and what Jesus would have taught, instead of merely trying to make a political point. In hopes of meeting him at his place of honest searching, I tried to respond: what would be a Christian response to that? Here’s a slightly expanded version of what I told him.

I start from a place of affirming that Christ came to call humanity back to a full relationship with God, and that through grace and his death on the cross, the path back to God is open again for you, me, and anyone else to choose it.

Nowhere in what I just said–indeed nowhere in the Gospels–do we see Christ coming for the Republican party, or for anything having to do with temporal political power. In fact, he taught in Mark 12:13-17 that we’re to render appropriately to the powers that be, but that’s not the same thing as his core message of repentance and the kingdom of God–not at all. And so I as a Christian should obey the laws of my country, but my focus needs to be on God. I do that in part by seeing the essential humanity in everyone, the trace of “let us therefore make humanity in our image,” that started so long ago.

Changing my focus to God means seeing, honoring, respecting all of humanity, without regard to immigration status. But it’s essential to remember that at its heart, Christianity isn’t a call into politics, in either direction. Instead it’s a call back into holiness, back into one-ness with God the Father, who created all that we are. Part of what confused the Hebrew people of the time of Jesus was that they were expecting a political messiah, one who would demolish the Roman state and institute a new world order in political terms. Jesus came to open the door to a new world, but it wasn’t the one we were expecting: it wasn’t a political door, but a spiritual one. There’s a distinction that needs to be made between the two.

And so, Christ came for everyone. He came for me, he came for you, and he came for the immigrant, with or without papers. He came because we are of absolutely incalculable worth to the Father, and that same God who bemoans our human weaknesses still loves us enough to send his son to die for us. That’s the Christian message, of hope and love for all humanity. That’s what Christ still speaks into the current morass: not preferring one party over another, but honoring the institutions that exist while working to save lives, one at a time, for the Kingdom.

Visiting College Boy

This past weekend we had our first chance to go and visit College Boy, seven weeks into his freshman year. It was so good to see him–he slept in a little Saturday morning, but still was sitting on the steps by the parking lot waiting for us when we pulled up. Lots of hugs, and in many ways it was like we hadn’t been gone.

And yet it was different. He’s maturing in his own way: he took himself out to buy new running shoes, instead of coming to us asking for us to buy them for him. He’s also learned already, as he told his sister, that “In high school, they just expect you to know stuff. In college, they expect you to put it together.” If he’s figured out that secret already, and can apply it, then he’s in good shape for the next three years.

Lots of time together throughout the day: in his dorm room, then to lunch at a place he’d always wanted to try but was too far to walk, and then to Wal-Mart to load up. Evening spent with him and his roommate, enjoying the free bowling, billiards, and ping-pong at the student center.

In the late afternoon, as the ladies relaxed, he and I sat for awhile as he showed me You Tube videos he’d found funny. In that hour, as we shared Internet laughs, it was like he’d never left and was still coming to me to show me something funny he’d found online. I savored that connection once more.

And yet it was different. Around 9:30, he announced that he was tired and ready to turn in. When we asked if we should come back in the morning for brunch, or just go home without seeing him, he said, “You can just go home.” Our brief time was over, and, like a dream, didn’t get to last to the morning.

We have these little tastes of love, these little moments of joy, and the disappointment we feel when they pass remind us that this isn’t where our souls are meant to be. One day, our joy will be complete. Until then, we have the imperfect–the quick visit, the touches of grace–that can only hint at the spectacular wonder we’ll savor when we’re all together with Christ forever.