Thursday, December 10, 2015

Prayer Beads for the Forgetful and the Distracted

Rosaries always fascinated me because they were forbidden in the religious tradition I grew up in. They were one of those Catholic trappings, like incense and processing with a cross that smelt of idolatry, like one might just rely too much on them to get you on the good side of God when we knew only Jesus could do that. Of course, anything outlawed becomes what you want. So in high school, when I stayed with my best friend who was a devout Catholic and who slept with her Rosary, which entangled us during the night, I secretly fingered her beads and wondered about prayer. Did God hear us if we used a prop?

I don’t know much about the history of the Rosary, but I know that traditionally it included praying The Lord’s Prayer and saying The Apostle’s Creed which are pretty universally believed among Christians. I could see it being a cross-cultural help to many. Like, what if you didn’t know how to read? If you loved God, you would be happy for something that framed and directed your prayers to him.

Whether it’s my age or the pace of modern life, I don’t know, but the least thing can distract me from prayer. An Asian beetle crawling on the ceiling. My grocery list. The tag on the back of my shirt, and somehow I’ve leapt across three continents and an ocean to a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea. When a friend gave me a set of Anglican prayer beads, I was interested. First, their beauty pleased me – he made them out of jade and onyx. Second, their smoothness is calming, holding something physical in my hand helps keep me from wandering off to who-knows-where?

So the other day a friend contacted me. She had purchased several sets of prayer beads as Christmas gifts and wondered how I used them. She wrote, “I would love to include your suggestions for use. The ancient prayers that came with them just didn’t seem right for these particular friends.”  Somewhere in my murky past I had written about them, but I couldn’t find it, so, oh well, I started over and came up with this which I thought I’d share. You know. Just in case you are the friend who gets a set.  

Prayer Beads for the forgetful and the distracted.

There are four sections of seven beads each separated by a larger bead.

The larger beads, I use to frame my prayers. Beginning with the cross and moving around the circle, for me, the cross is, of course, obvious – we send all our troubles to the cross. We begin with the cross and end with it. (How appropriate!) The larger beads represent some aspect of Trinity – for example the desire of the Holy Spirit to comfort us. Or the Father to protect us. The Savior to rescue us. Sometimes I might have read a section of the Bible or a daily reading of some kind that reminds me of some characteristic of God and I use that large bead to thank Him and to ask for some of that holiness to be seen in me.

The first section of seven represents the world – what’s out there – outside my personal world and family. Crisis, tragedies in other countries, friends who may need prayer for something specific. I recognize my finiteness in trying to remember EVERYthing,  so this at least helps me to be focused outward and whoever or whatever comes to mind gets assigned a bead even if temporary.

The second section represents my primary family members. Some of them get their own bead!

The third section is me. All seven beads.  I always have a lot to pray about regarding myself. My work, my calling, my attitude, my body, etc etc. But the other sections help me not to be COMPLETELY self-focused.

The fourth section is Thanksgiving.  Each bead represents something I am thankful for.  I think of Phil. 4: 6-7   “Do not be anxious for anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This is all purely my own invention. Nothing particularly sacred about it.
Hope this helps as you come to God with all your baggage and mess knowing he will receive a humble heart.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

How the Holidays limited my chance of getting more presents than my brothers and sisters

More, more, more

At certain times of the year women are more fertile, more likely to get pregnant than at other times of the year. I don’t have scientific evidence, but if you take a little toll of women you know who’ve had several children – the more the better – you’ll likely come up with a cluster of kids who showed up during the same season of the year. I know. I know. But check it out. You might be surprised.

Take my mother, for instance. She had twelve pregnancies. Six of them miscarried. But of the six of us who made it three are in December and one was late October. That’s four out of six. That meant that December, with its major holiday, was a difficult month especially during our birth years, because our mom was too busy lactating or laboring to pay us much mind. You know how those last weeks are with contractions in the middle of the night as you lie staring at the ceiling, wasting precious hours of sleep as you watch the clock and wonder if you can make it until morning. If Mom wasn’t pregnant, then she was busy scratching at the budget and wondering how badly we December babies would feel if our birthday presents were rolled into Christmas. Sure, we were poor, but as the oldest I considered myself more entitled than two of my younger brothers, who shared my month, and Randy who was a little more distant coming at the end of October. Dallas was on the 3rd of December so he had the best chance of getting a gift. Mine was smack in the middle, so it could easily go either way depending on the price of the pulp Dad hauled out of the woods and loaded onto a flat car in town. But poor Rex was born on December 26th in the middle of the night, missing Christmas Day by only a couple hours. Poor baby. He wouldn’t have a rat’s chance in hell of getting a party. Ever. He was never convinced that it was an honor to almost share his birthday with the baby Jesus. And let’s be honest, we all, especially me, wanted the presents as much, maybe more than I wanted to be Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Christmas Pageant.

The year he was born I was seven years old and it felt as good as if I’d won a trip to Disneyland because on Christmas night I got to stay with my mom who was waiting for a baby, we were told, at my Grandpa and Grandma Frolander’s in town. We lived thirty-six miles from the hospital and it was too far and too risky to remain on the farm when you didn’t know how fast a baby could come or if a blizzard might put you in the ditch when it was 30 below. Helping a mare drop a foal or pulling a calf out of a cow with ropes was one thing, but getting that intimate with the birth of your child was bloody alarming. Dad could not imagine being that present at the birth of his children. Plus, on a cold night with the wind howling up your backside, how were you supposed to bend to your wife’s need along a country road only to have the baby die of exposure? Some things only required half a brain to figure out.

On Christmas morning Dad, Randy, Jan and I arrived in Warroad excited to see Mom who’d been away for years. We opened presents and then we feasted on Grandma’s Christmas trimmings. We scraped our desert plates clean and ate one chocolate-covered cherry each. Not long after, Dad had to leave as the cold afternoon turned fast toward night. Cows had to be milked twice a day. Jan was crying and Randy’s big eyes spilled tears as Mom helped Dad wrap them for the drive home. Someone had decided I could stay and I didn’t know what to make of such good luck.

That night Mom and I snuggled down into the same bed with quilts piled high. She had been gone for two weeks and every day my stomach had filled with dread that she might never come back, but here she was all warm and sleepy. My mother.

I was wakened by a lamp shining in my eyes. Urgent whispers caused me sit up. Towels were lying on the on the floor soaking up something that had been spilled. There was a stack of clean sheets on the chair. My grandmother was wrapping Mom in her bathrobe and coat. Grandpa appeared, put his arm around her and led her down the stairs. Where are they going, I asked. It was alarming, her leaving in the middle of the night. My grandmother shushed me and moved me aside where I shivered as she pulled sheets from the bed. What happened I asked? How did the bed get wet? “We’ll be done in a minute,” she said, “then you can hop back in bed.” But where is mom going? My voice was swelling and my stomach lurched. “She went to the hospital to get a new baby,” Grandma told me brightly. In the middle of the night? “Don’t worry. She’ll be back soon.” She kissed me, switched out the light and I heard her footsteps fade down the stairs.

Poor Rex. He still doesn’t get much out of his birthday. Maybe this year I will remember to send a card.

Monday, November 23, 2015

I am a person, not an animal

“I am now confident and strong. I know I am a person, not an animal. My wound, my deep wound, is also my strength, because it makes me help others … those who bear scars must help the wounded.”

Would you guess this is a quote from an Iraqi woman, a rape victim, a former prostitute who has spent the past nine years rescuing women trapped in the horror of sexual violence that exists in Baghdad? I wouldn’t have. 

I left out part of the quote from an article that appeared in The New Yorker, October 5, 2015 “Out of Sight” by Rania Abouzeid, the part where she says, “Sometimes I don’t think it can be stopped.” When she sees victims, “I feel like my insides are ripped open. I am hurt witnessing this” (During the interview she was called to the scene where a woman had been dragged from her home and shot in the street because she worked in a brothel.)  
Illustration by Aude Van Ryn

And yet, in the face of what seems completely hopeless she continues her work because “my wound, my deep wound, is also my strength, because it makes me help others.”

We’ve lately heard and read much about women who are beaten, starved, murdered, forced into slavery, marriage, or who are sold to brothels or must choose prostitution and its terrifying risks in a Muslim culture just to support their children..

I can’t imagine. And can only pray and pray for them and the world – that God would soon come to them with all the power and might he holds against evil – and his great and mysterious ability to be both just and merciful at the same time. Unlike myself who would like to simply kill where I saw fit and be done with it.

I can’t imagine being Layla whose suffering has become her motivation, even her conduit for helping others. She’s not the pitiful, self-focused loser I might become. No.

I can’t imagine. And yet I can. In my small way. I am drawn to this woman and her wise words because somehow she speaks across oceans of divide to touch our own lives. To whatever degree we bear wounds, if we can remember who we are – humans bearing God’s image, persons, not animals, that in Christ we can be strong and confident –  “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him.” (II Pet. 1:3) This will enable us to live lives that are meaningful.

So here’s the thing: If what I do, however small and seemingly insignificant to others springs out of my own suffering (again, even if comparatively small to Layla’s) isn’t that the gift or at least part of the gift I am to give to others? “Those who bear scars must help the wounded.” We all bear scars. So, if I walk out of this office and plan our Thanksgiving meal with love and thought for this small group of people who will gather with us, including our granddaughter who has her own past wounds from holidays gone awry, won’t that be doing what I can to lift a corner of darkness here, where I live?

Layla is my hero. I pray God will guard her steps and protect her heart and all the women she rescues.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Where the wild ducks are

  Whether we look far away or close at hand – from France to the people of our hearts, we long for peace. We long for hope.

For a few days of solitude, I’ve come away to a quiet place. Perhaps I will find headspace to write again.

I’ve watched the wild ducks gather at the bottom of the lawn. In a puddle spread before the shore a family of mallards nibble and nibble on something under the water. Roots? Chickweed? They ruffle their tails and preen their breasts, comfortably relaxing into the soggy grass as if into a hot spa. A female scolds a male and he sprints from her clacking beak. After the ducks depart a pair of crows splash into the puddle and then sip their bathwater. A black squirrel runs up and down the oak with mouthfuls of leaves. I see she is building a winter nest as she shapes them into a ragged clump. There is healing in these observations. I waken to more than despair and “forethought of grief.” I do. I am almost happy.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. – Wendell Berry

Mallard Family eating in the rain.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What matters in the end

I watched Gran Torino again the other day.  For two reasons. One was to see if there was a scene I could rip for a lecture I’m giving on the way hospitality can bridge cultural differences. The other was to observe the changes in the main character, Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, – to watch him finally in the end choose to give away his prize possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino to a Hmong boy and to give his life in revenge for crimes against an innocent family he had grown to love.

Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino 
This story is complex enough to make you laugh, appall you and wrench your heart all at the same time. But that’s how life always is. Complex.

That’s how Ed Hague's living and dying has been to me. Complex. He made me laugh all the time.  He  could be appallingly irreverent, piercingly honest, and then point you to Christ in the most unexpected ways. I loved him as one of my best friends.

The last time I talked to him was about ten days before he died. Our coming to his funeral was on his mind. How would we pay for it, he wanted to know. Since we live in Minnesota and he is, I mean was, in Tallahassee, he was trying to figure out a way to alleviate some of our expense. I told him we did not care one whit about that so he could stop obsessing about it. We would come out of love and respect for his family and nothing else mattered. It was typical of him to care about all sorts of matters big and small, personal and public.

I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawandi. Aunt Ruth died last month. Ed passed away two weeks ago. Denis’ parents are in their 90s and living precariously on their own day after day, refusing any kind of help or care. The list could go on. I know some of you have friends or family members who are facing either age-related issues or terminal illness. So both the movie and this book felt timely.

Gawandi writes about some of the studies and their findings on what fulfills and grows people even as their life narrows.

 If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we are old [or terminally ill]? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time. Cartenson (a Stanford psychologist) was attracted to a different explanation. What if the change in needs and desires has nothing to do with age per se? Suppose it merely has to do with perspective – your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is…

I think that in that last three years of Ed’s life following his diagnosis of Stage IV prostate cancer, he grew more than ever before in his understanding of what it means to have this one life to live. 

Ed housebreaking our internet
 He eventually had to let things go that he had been very good at like untangling computer problems, trimming large trees, running his business. He shifted more toward enjoying ordinary pleasures – his wife Betsy could speak more specifically to this. Ice cream. Sitting on the porch. Walking to the mailbox. But in particular, his relationships in pursuit of love and healing became the most important to him to the very end.

So, I think he would agree with Cartenson, that the deeper changes he experienced had to do with facing his finiteness, yes, but he would add an element that was a complete game-changer for him: he was overcome by love. He learned how to receive love in a way he never had before –  the love of his wife and family, the love of friends, the love of all the medical people who cared for him, but most especially God’s love for him. As he wrote in his obituary (I mean, WHO writes their own obituary?):

 "Here’s the most important thing to know about Ed, though. God loved him and made sure that Ed knew it. Hiding from love all of his life, after his cancer diagnosis, God turned the love firehoses on him."

And then Ed turned it back on us.

He loved us in life and mentored us in death. That sounds so cheesy I almost have to delete the sentence except that it's true. And honestly? He could be a beast sometimes. Like when, oh, never mind.        

He faced the breakdown of his body with courage and humor. I would like to learn this love well before I die. I would like to stand in the way of that firehose and get drowned by love. Yes.  And we do have this ....

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)