Ash Wednesday Phone Calls

Two years ago, early in the morning of Ash Wednesday, my sister called to tell me that my brother had passed away.

“Stewart had a heart attack,” she said, and, in the microsecond pause that occurs between words, a thousand possibilities raced through my mind. He was in the hospital. Or, it was minor but he’ll be fine. Maybe this will be the wake-up call that he needs to exercise more and eat healthier. A thousand possibilities.

Except the one she said.

The Columbarium where my brother and my mother are laid to rest.

The Columbarium where my brother’s ashes are laid to rest.

“And he died.”

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

It was a somber beginning to a heavy season.

Today, I’m expecting a phone call.

The news it will bring is neutral, neither bad nor good, just a time. What time is Bud’s surgery tomorrow. He is having a larger excision of his melanoma site and a sentinel node biopsy.

From that phone call, we can figure out what time we need to leave to get to the hospital.  What time we can anticipate getting home. What time should my praying friends be praying. What time.

Then, we have to wait for another call, one that will come in two weeks with the pathology report.

Has the disease spread? Was it in the lymphatics? The answers to those questions will set our course.

Even though I expect good reports, beginning Lent this way is a reminder of our mortality — of my husband’s mortality, of my own mortality.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

And so, today, ministers around the world will smear ashen crosses on congregants’ foreheads, whispering the words, “Remember, mortal, that from the dust you were made, and to the dust you will return.”

My own ashen cross will not be a smear. It will come as a phone call.

 

when the straight line breaks

It’s only when the straight line breaks and heals a little crooked that you ever see the grace…

Andrew Peterson, “We Will Survive” on The Burning Edge of Dawn

My father’s middle and ring finger on his right hand are slightly bent. The last part of those fingers, the distal phalanges, can’t fully straighten.

As a little girl, I used to be fascinated by his crooked fingers.

You can't really tell, but the fingers are crooked...

You can’t really tell, but the fingers are crooked…

“How did that happen?” I would ask, and he would tell me again how he hurt them playing softball and that they never healed properly.

PICT0224

My dad at work

Yet they never stopped him from doing the things he loved. He not only golfed, played catch with his sons, coached Little League, did renovations on the home, put in fences, gardened, and raised chickens, but he was a fine and respected physician.

His hands cared for people. A lot of people.

Those crooked fingers never slowed him down.

If anything, perhaps they gave him even more compassion for people with hurting hands.

~~~~~

I have been slogging through my hardest memorization yet — Isaiah 57. If I hadn’t decided to just go chapter by chapter from Isaiah 51 to 61, I probably would have just skipped this chapter. First read-through — heck, the first month of trying to memorize it — I couldn’t wrap my mind around much of anything in it. Not so that it sunk in, anyway.

But here I am, after a good three months of wrestling, something is finally starting to congeal.

In my own words  — Isaiah 57:1-18

The milquetoast man lives a good life.
He never offends anyone
or makes big mistakes.
He goes to church every Sunday
and works his job the rest of the week.
He does exactly what is asked of him at work
at church
at home
And never raises hackles
or questions
or controversy.
When he’s gone
he is forgotten.
He who made no waves while he was alive
Makes nary a ripple at his death.

And then there’s you —
Born a mess —
Raised in sin —
You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?
The way you mock and ridicule
You have no self-control
You worship faceless gods
Bringing your offerings and pouring them out —
Like I would honor such things —

Even more,
You have flaunted your sin
You put it out where everyone can see it
You have walked right past me to get there
And made promises
And not kept promises
And looked where you should never have looked

Then, you put on another face for the world —
Being good
Doing good
Having success

You found strength to keep going
But it wasn’t in Me

Who were you afraid of?
Why didn’t you listen to me?

I see your good deeds.
But they won’t help you.
Neither will the gods you’ve been worshipping.

I want someone who takes refuge in me
Who is contrite
Who is lowly

But here’s the thing about me
that may be harder to understand than anything else —
I have seen your ways and they’ve made me angry
BUT I STILL LOVE YOU

Yes, I still love you.

I’ll heal you.

I’ll give you peace.

That righteous guy who never gave me any problem?
He’ll know my peace
And so will you

“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
(Luke 7:47)

*****

Struggling to write these days, so I tried the Daily Prompt: This is Your Song

Finishing the Hard Set

IMG_5889“Coach Zaengle, please!” My swimmer begged, “I’m so tired!”

“Just one more 100,” I told her. “You can do it.”

“Can’t I do breaststroke? Can’t I just do a 50?” she pleaded.

Her cheeks were deep pink, a sign of real exertion. I knew it was a hard set for my group, too, but they were at the very last 100. I wanted her — I wanted all of them — to finish.

“100 freestyle,” I told her. “Go.”

She ducked her head down into the water and left the wall. Halfway down the pool, I watched her throw in a breaststroke pull and kick. Breaststroke was her resting stroke and she was so tired, but she finished that last 100 and I was proud of her.

“When you push yourself beyond what you think you can do,” I told her, “that’s when you really get faster.”

That work, though — that making the heart pump harder, even when it’s already pumping hard — none of us really like it in the moment. We like the easy. It’s human nature.

How often am I like my swimmer? Begging God. Pleading with God.

This is too hard. I can’t do it.

Especially these days.

This morning I read in Luke 7 where Jesus told the story of two debtors, one who owed a small amount and the other who owed ten times as much.  Both debts were cancelled by the moneylender.

“Which of the two will love him more?” Jesus asked the Pharisee.

“The one for whom he cancelled the larger debt,” the Pharisee replied.

Which one will have the greater faith?

The one who endured more difficulties. The one who struggled. The one who fought the fight and fell on the battlefield, only to be lifted by the lifter of her head.

Instead of begging for a different set, I should be thankful. God is training me.

Another 100.

And another 100.

And another 100.

Oh, what a hard coach He is!

Oh, how good.

 

Mystery

A mystery arrived in the mail last week.

I confess that I impulse-buy books way too often. Bubble mailers with reading materials inside are a regular part of our mail deliveries.

But this —IMG_8256

this didn’t look familiar at all. The name — “She Reads Truth” — never heard of it. The hymn CD had some familiar artists — Ellie Holcomb and Sandra McCracken — and five great hymns, but, nope, did not remember ordering it.

Over the weekend I kept picking it up and leafing through, hoping something would spark a memory. Did someone mention this to me? How can I find out who sent it?

The devotional looks fantastic. Recipes, poems, scriptures, blank pages for response, watercolors splashed across some of the pages, open spaces beckoning on others.

Someone knew me well enough to send it to me. This sort of thing is right up my alley.

But who?

‘fess up, please, so we can do this together.

Or, order one ( at shereadstruth.com) because it really looks lovely.

And let me know.

So we can compare notes.

Or doodles.

Or songs.

Ash Wednesday is February 10. You’ve got time.

 

Joy and the Unseen World

Black Mirror by Joe Guy

Bud’s uncle, a visual artist, once tried to explain to me his art which was done by applying multiple layers of graphite to paper.  We were sitting at a picnic table by the lake, the sun trickling through the trees making its own picture on the pressure-treated lumber as he described the process of rubbing the graphite into paper.

I can better remember the sounds of the water lapping on the shore than his actual words, but they had something to do with Eastern Mysticism and an unseen world and beauty somehow hidden in the layers of graphite.

Since then I’ve tried to cultivate an awareness of the unseen world.

It’s part of the Nicene Creed, after all.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, andof all things visible and invisible.

Sometimes I think I can feel it brush against me.

Sometimes I think I catch it out of the corner of my eye.

The other morning I was sure I saw something in the kitchen.

It was 5 AM so no one else was awake in the house. I thought it was the cat; then I remembered that the cat wasn’t there. A cold chill ran up my arms and I prayed this wasn’t a portent or an omen.

But I settled in with my day, making my coffee, reading my Bible, studying, praying.

Within a few hours, though, something happened that ticked me off.

Ticked. Me. Off.

A seemingly small event upset the whole equilibrium of my day and I was angry.

Grumbling.

Grousing.

Complaining to anyone who would listen.

Mad.

For the bulk of my day, there seemed to be nothing I could do to elevate myself from this awful state.

Being angry is exhausting. By the end of the day, I was wiped out.

I lay in bed and looked at the ceiling.

Lord, I whispered, this is supposed to my year for joy. I’m already not doing so well with it.

Almost immediately, a scene from a few days ago came to mind. I had run into the grandmother of one of my swimmers in a stairwell. I told her how much I loved coaching her grandson, a nine-year-old named Fallon.

“Can I tell you one little story about him?” she asked. “We always bring Fallon to church with us, you know, and one Sunday when he was five years old, Pastor Bill called the kids forward for the children’s sermon. Pastor asked, ‘Does anyone know the difference between happiness and joy?’ Fallon’s little hand shot up, and Pastor Bill called on him. ‘Happiness is a feeling, like sadness,’ Fallon said. ‘The things that happen to us during the day affect our feelings. But joy is bigger than that. We can feel sad and still have joy. Joy is so big that it can’t be affected by stuff that happens.'”

I looked at her, wondering if I should tell her that joy is my theme this year.

“He was five years old,” she said again.

“He’s a really special kid,” I told her.

As I lay in bed that night, thinking about joy, and thinking about the unseen world bumping up against me and pushing me around, I remembered Fallon’s insight.

Joy is also part of the unseen world.

But joy is bigger and stronger than my fears and my anger.

It’s a fruit of the Spirit.

Count it all joy.

Thank you, Lord, for Fallon, and for my family, and for stories told in the stairwell. Amen.

2015 Christmas Letter (the spiritual version)

Dear Friends and Family,

John Donne, in his 1626 Christmas Day sermon, said, “His (Jesus) birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas-day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.” Christ poured Himself out for us, leaving heaven, and accepting a “fulness of emptiness,” another John Donne term.

The story arc of Jesus isn’t simply Christmas to Easter. It’s not really an arc at all, but a line that continues infinitely in both directions. The story of Jesus begins before time and never ends.

His earthly sojourn was one continual act. Not a series of stories, but one story. A story of love.

Each of us also has a story, insignificant by comparison, finite and small, that is one continual act, one continual story.

This became evident to me when I was reading through old Christmas letters written by my mother.

Christmas 1972

Christmas early ’70s

In 1971 my mother said — “Sally, 7th grade, has horses, chickens, cats, and a German Shepherd puppy to keep her out of mischief…” I guess I needed to be kept out of mischief. Surrounding me with animals which required care and attention seemed to work pretty well.

In 1979 — “Sally is taking a leave of absence from college and is working as a nursing assistant at the Meadows and as a lifeguard at the gym.” In other words, Sally struggled to focus at Syracuse University and failed a couple of classes. Maybe if she works again at something where she is required to take care of someone else, she’ll come around. 

As I reflected on it, I realized that over and over again, God called me to caregiving. Not just in the ’70s, but in the ’80s, ’90s, and the new millennium with the birth of each of my children. Every time I felt the longing for a career, another child would come. Then my mother, in her dementia, needed care. And now my father, in his grief, also needs someone.

My rebel heart keeps wanting to run away.

But God reminds me again and again —

I am the lost sheep that He left 99 others to find.

I am the little girl who constantly needed to be redirected.

God gently pushes and pulls me back to caregiving.

This is my story. One story. Of wandering and longing, and being called back to a purpose.

And that has been a great gift this Christmas time — to understand it so I can better embrace it.

As 2016 knocks on the door, won’t you consider what your story arc is? What has God called you to be?

Lean in. Embrace it.

Maybe you’re too young to see, but pay attention to the recurring themes in your life.

It’s all one grand story.

As we tell and retell the Christmas story, remember that it’s only a piece of a larger story, an even better story.

Merry Christmas.

Love,

Sally

Zaengles, Pollocks, and Uricks at Sam & Donna's wedding

Zaengles, Pollocks, and Uricks at Sam & Donna’s wedding

Unexpected Mercies

The house felt cold when we walked in.

I can’t even remember what night it was. Friday? Was it the Friday after my mother died?

I hadn’t been home in I don’t know how long. Two weeks? Three? One?

Time stood still. Or it had flowed past like a river at flood stage. I couldn’t tell you that either.

But the house was definitely cold.

Upstate New York, you know. Near winter. Frugal husband. Since I wasn’t home, he barely turned the heat on.

My kitchen door

My kitchen door

We came in the side door, the one that leads directly to the kitchen, the door with the windows that face the sunrise.

The girls fussed over the dog. Bud carried stuff into the coat room. But I just stood there, trying to remember this place. This was my home, but suddenly it all felt unfamiliar.

Yet familiar.

The cluttered table.

The minimal counter space.

The cold.

A mountain of mail had fallen over, an avalanche of Direct TV advertisements and credit card offers. I started picking through the pile, finding the mail that really mattered, when a small cream-colored envelope slipped out from under some of the non-essentials.

It was handwritten in beautiful script that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t recognize the return address either.

Come to think of it — it must have been just a day or two after my mother’s death, because I remember wondering that anyone could possibly have sent a condolence card so quickly.

I turned it over and over in my hands, admiring the way she wrote a cursive capital “Z” and the way her “L” gracefully curved under the rest of the word “locust” – my street name.

My mother had beautiful cursive handwriting, too. Her “E”s were most elegant.

“What’s that?” Bud asked, coming back in the room.

“I don’t know,” I replied honestly.

My hands were trembling as I slid my finger under the deckle edge of the envelope flap. They were downright shaking as I pulled the little card out.

It said simply, “Blessings in the midst of it all.” No signature.SCN_0009

A folded paper fell onto the table. Trembling hands struggled to unfold it. My eyes could barely focus to read it.

“Dear Sally,” the typewritten letter began. “With apologies for intruding at a time that I understand is awfully full with family responsibilities and is not easy for you, I’m writing to tell you that I’m praying for you…”

I went back and read that line over and over and over. Someone I didn’t know was praying for me.

I glanced up at the date on the letter — October 22. It was written before my mother had even gone into the hospital.

The rest of the words jumbled around on the page. She had known Stewart. She had been reading my blog. She was praying for my family. She signed it, but I didn’t recognize the name.

It wasn’t until I read and reread it in the following days that I began to understand. God had known what I would need long before I needed it.

On that cold night, in my cold kitchen, though, I was suddenly warmed.

He had strangers praying for me.