Resting in the Everlasting Arms

 Everlasting Arms

Deuteronomy 32:27: Our eternal refuge with Our Creator eternal, and God’s almighty arms underneath are everlasting.

I am almost three weeks into my radiation treatments for prostate cancer (my prognosis is positive and the treatments are quick and painless, and I am thankful that so far I have had no adverse effects), and share a ride with a woman whom I’ll call Sharon from our church. It’s nice to have company on the 32-mile round trip drive, and I’ve gotten to know Sharon better over the past couple of weeks.

The past couple of weeks, Sharon has shared a number of stories from her past with me. She grew up in Derry, a small town in New Hampshire and went to the local high school, where Robert Frost taught for a while. (She told me she did not have him as a teacher.) The population was so small that one school bus covered the entire attendance area. And I thought I had a long bus ride in high school! Sharon went on to say that buses were only for students through grade eight. After that, they were on their own. Her father went to work at 6:30 AM and dropped her at a traffic circle about a half mile from school. The janitor lived at the school so he had the building open and stoves going when she arrived. I imagine it was a glimpse of Paradise to come in to a warm building from the New Hampshire winter.

Sharon’s older brother was born in 1930. While he was still an infant, his mother stood holding him in their living room while an electrical storm raged about them. Lightning struck the house, traveled into the room and hit the baby, not harming the mother at all. Of course the infant suffered neurological damage and had seizures and other medical problems the rest of his short life. He passed away at age seven when Marge was four, and she spoke with great tenderness of taking care of this unfortunate child.

I had never heard of a babe in arms being struck by lightning, much less while being held in loving arms. It seems to me a parallel to how God treats each of us as God’s eternal children. We are babes in this world, and as the storms of life rage about us, sometimes we are struck by any number of destructive forces. But no matter how we are harmed or the extent of our injuries and diseases, the arms that hold us are everlasting. Let us praise God for God’s goodness, care, compassion and eternal vigilance over us, who are to the Creator as babies to their mothers.

 

 

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A Valediction

Lovers Parting

Bye, bye, Love!

(Note: I wrote this post as a devotional for the Sanctuary Choir at Manassas Baptist Church. The choir doesn’t rehearse or sing in services during the month of July.)

1 Thessalonians 4:13: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

I don’t know if you have run across the word “valediction” lately. It’s not used a lot: in fact, I can think of only one occasion in John Donne’s famous poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” If you haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it means, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It doesn’t come up in casual conversation a lot. And while I have a general idea of its meaning, I had to look up a precise definition. Basically, it consists of words of farewell, but here’s the complete definition:

A valediction (derived  from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell”) or complimentary close in American English as an expression used to say farewell, especially a word or phrase used to end a letter or message, or the act of saying parting words whether brief or extensive.

Alternatively, valediction can refer to the final prayers and remarks at the graveside before burial given by the presiding priest, after the Mass and the rite of Final Commendation, during a Roman Catholic Funeral Service.

John Donne’s poem is on the “extensive” side. I won’t read it in the interests of time, but I’ve made copies for you to have if you’d like. It’s a so-called “metaphysical” poem, and one of the characteristics of this poetry is that it is very dense. It would take us half and hour to go over it. In my graduate seminar in seventeenth century poetry, we spent three hours talking about the poem and its meaning. But then, graduate students in English are different from you and me. Well, maybe I have a lot in common with them since I was one once. But I haven’t forgotten what I learned about the poem, largely because I inflicted it on thousands of seniors in my English class. Most of them are none the worse for the experience.

Anyhow, briefly, Donne wrote them poem when he was about to undertake a trip to France and would be separated from his wife Anne for several months. In the poem, he reminds her that they are not only one physically as husband and wife, but also spiritually. In a famous metaphor, he compares this spiritual connection to gold, which is almost infinitely malleable, meaning it can be beaten to the thickness of an atom. Now, that’s thin! So, when they are apart, their souls not only are not separated, they cannot be parted. Hence, the title: he is telling his wife in a poem of parting that she should not mourn because of this spiritual reality.

And so it is with us. We endure all kinds of separations all our lives: separations of distance, of time, of diseases such as Alzheimers which affect memory and recognition, and we are called on not only by John Donne, but also be Paul in his passage about the importance of hope and faith at the death of a loved one. It’s a short step to extend that idea to any kind of separation.

And so, as we take a break from choir during the month of July, we needn’t be sad or depressed. We will miss each other, but we know we will see each other again, in this life or the next. When we sing the old hymn, ”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” we are reminded that

When we asunder part

It gives us inward pain.

But we shall still be joined in heart

And seek to meet again.

 

It’s interesting that the version sung in England includes the line When for a while we part, while a more modern revision of the verse changes the line to When we are called to part. You can put me down for “asunder,” please. We don’t hear it much any more, but it’s a word I like.

English clergyman John Fawcett who wrote this hymn in 1740 was clearly echoing Donne’s poem composed in 1611 or 1612. He would have been familiar with it as an educated person.

And so, I wish you a safe and refreshing July, ever mindful that God holds all of us, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we are never separated from each other as well.

 

Poem: Ladies of the Church

I posted my piece on the ladies of the church last week, and my friend and former colleague Mary McElveen and also former Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, put this on her blog.

She wrote, I wrote [this] for a friend who was asked to say a few words about a lady at the church who died of cancer. Gloria was one of those indefatigable volunteers, and probably has heaven organized and running like a top.

Thank you for letting me post your poem, Mary. Every church has its church ladies.
They are legion,
the church ladies:
the hands that smooth the tablecloths, brew the coffee,
bake the cookies, make the sandwiches,
arrange the flowers.

They think of everything,
then do it.
They are the voices on the phone
the fingers on the keyboard,
the gentle nudge
reminding, recruiting,
reorganizing and regrouping—
doing the things no one has time for,
for the people no one has time for… and for us all.

They are all things good:
secretary and sorceress,
chauffeur and counselor,
teacher and student,
greeter and galley slave…

And I can’t help thinking that if Jesus is among us,
He is cleverly disguised
as a church lady.

Are You Afraid to Die?

Girl and Man Walking
 
Today’s post is courtesy of Connie Moser, local writer and community activist. I think you’ll find her story touching and inspiring.  Thank you, Connie, for allowing me to post your writing.

Are You Afraid to Die?

I must have asked that question 20 times while walking with my Grandpa. We often “Went for a Walk”. When he asked me if I wanted to go for a Walk, I thought in capital letters, like it was the title of a book. My Grandpa was one of the smartest people I knew. He wasn’t “book smart.” I don’t think he even finished high school because he was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army during World War I. I think he may have lied about his age because he fought in that war, was shot and captured and spent time in a prison camp before returning to Jeffersonville, Indiana.

He had several shrapnel and bullet wounds and the scars in his shoulder and leg were rough and the edges were jagged, as you can imagine from surgery in a prison camp. He didn’t talk about that much, although I peppered him with questions, especially after we would watch a war movie on television. He always just told me, “When it’s time for you to go, you’ll be ready.”

On our walks, we often traveled through the cemetery because Grandpa knew lots of people there. Some of the stones were beautiful, especially in the Catholic section. I never had the creepy feeling that kids often experience. I didn’t shriek or “e-w-w-w” if I accidentally stepped on a grave. I think my Grandpa made me understand there was nothing there beneath my feet. Just a box in the ground and the person whose bones were still there no longer existed.

Catholic school had Mass every morning, and of course I went on Sundays, too. The sisters and priests painted a different picture, filling my imagination with people in heaven, seated near Jesus, dressed in white robes, looking healthy and happy. I had a pretty hard time understanding how they could look like that in heaven if their bones were still here on earth. Still, the clergy didn’t scare me about dying, either. I thought it may be pretty cool to live in the clouds, with or without a harp.

In all the intervening years I’ve never become afraid of dying. I am afraid of pain or a long suffering illness. My biggest fear about dying is not actually dying, it’s about living my last days dependent on others. So many things about the end of life are not about dying, but actually are about living poorly.

A friend of mine, Kathie Conn has begun a movement here in Prince William County that has already achieved popularity elsewhere. It’s called a Death Café, and if that sounds morbid to you, I assure you it is not. It is simply an opportunity to talk about death in a way that won’t freak you out or make you say, “e-w-w-w-w”!

A Child Shall Lead Them

Image

Isaiah 11:6: And a little child shall lead them.

I met a mother yesterday who told me heartbreaking story of her daughter’s illness, painful decline and death at age 10 from bone cancer. She told the tale and recounted its effects on herself, her younger daughter and her husband and their lives with honesty and courage.

Alyssa died on New Year’s Eve of 2012, and her mother Lynn and sister Lexie have told her story on the CaringBridge website. Here is a link to her page (you might have to sign up for an account, but it’s well worth doing so): http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/alyssadivers

God bless them all.

A City upon a Hill

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I suppose everyone at this point within listening or viewing distance of mass media has heard about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin fourteen months ago. So much has been written about this case and this trial. I find it difficult to add much to the conversation, except to note that it has been marked by polarization and widely differing opinions and interpretations. Again. We seem to go through this sort of thing every so often, and this makes me sad.

So, what to write? First, I think it notable that most people (myself included) gain their information and draw their conclusions based on mass media, which invariably has some sort of bias. Some outlets claim no bias, but in this world, that’s not possible. I used to tell my students that the important thing was not finding an unbiased source, but being aware of the bias and adjusting one’s conclusions accordingly.

So, we are left with the questions: was George Zimmerman a wannabe cop, an overzealous Neighbor Watch member, a stubborn, irrational young man who lost it on a child? Our younger daughter went to school with him and his brother Robert (she knew Robert better than George), and said they were nice guys from a solid, religious family. Was he a conscientious citizen trying to keep his neighborhood safe who was threatened by a menacing young fellow up to no good? What happened to George, and why?

And, was Trayvon Martin a gangsta thug in a hoodie up to no good? Or was he a child innocently walking home, in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. We will never know the truth of what happened that night. George Zimmerman knows, but he is unlikely to tell all he knows. And Trayvon Martin cannot speak from beyond the grave. More’s the pity.

It seems to me that both young men in this case are victims. Trayvon is more obviously a victim of violence and misplaced anger, but they both are in another sense. Mass media has a tremendous impact on how we see ourselves, and it looks as if both young men bought into some media stereotypes and roles for their age and gender. Perhaps Trayvon was acting like the kids depicted on television, in movies and in video games and music: bad dudes who prize violence and breaking the law. Maybe George had seen one too many Chuck Norris program and saw himself as a citizen upholding the law when the authorities wouldn’t. These are only my theories: the reality is one young man is dead and another’s life has been irreparably chhnged for the worst. And I do mean “worst.” Our daughter days the whole ZImmerman family has received death threats and are afraid to return to their homes.

So, what are we to do?

I think we need to be aware of the influence on mass media on our lives. We need to teach our children how to think critically about what they are exposed to, to make good decisions, and to reject those who counsel paths that lead to destruction. We need to treat each other with respect and love, regardless of our perceived differences. It is possible to have a just and righteous society: it takes a lot of work, and we’re obviously not there yet.

The Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony spoke of establishing “a City upon a hill” in the New World, one in which people would live in harmony and peace, with “liberty and justice for all.” In the nearly 400 years since that colony was established, we have made progress toward that ideal. The case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin shows that we still have a way to go. May we continue together on that journey.