The doe, low, on her side in the straw. Her whole body given over to breathing. Breathing. Breathing. To stretching, bleeding. To waves of pain, while the sparrow finds scattered grain to bring her young. Her head bows, like Mary, as the breath of God quakes her womb.
The way of pain is how we're born. All of us. Like the young doe, like Eve, like Mary, like Jesus, wave after wave, we pant and quake a prayer, "Be it to me as you say, Lord."
Death lurks and lingers, breathing threats like an evil emperor, ready to steal God's breath right of the newborn's chest. But, alas a midwife sits, even the unseen angels, attending, to usher life past death even past a stony grave.
The doe's sweet calls assure the helpless victor she bore. She baths him with kisses and a song to stand and walk. She bleeds and stands weak, emboldened to feed her young. Christ stood up and surely Eve and all of heaven's angels stood to their feet at Mary's Magnificat, her sweet Magnificat song.
I went for a walk yesterday and paid attention to the birds. The fairy-like flutter and zoom of six hummingbirds captivated me. I noticed the stately and intimidating silhouette of a Red-tailed hawk perched atop a dead Cottonwood tree. I realized innumerable Grackles and doves populate the gray sky, fences, wire lines and tree branches. And I saw a mockingbird sitting alone on the tip of an enormous Organ Pipe Cactus.
Because I set this week apart as a sort of sabbath, taking the entire week off work to intentionally rest my soul in God, I took a nap and awoke refreshed. I walked outside and felt the sun warm my skin in the chilled air. I watched a silky, black male Grackle sing in response to the song of another bird on a tree down the way. I sat outside with my goats for a while and noticed our rooster showing our young hens the nesting boxes, as though to say, “This is where you lay your eggs.”
Monday night in my church community group we talked about Ephesians 1 and how so many of us feel the verbiage of “spiritual blessings in heavenly places” is unattainable, ethereal, churchy. We confessed our lack of thankfulness and awareness that leads to wonder. We ascend with our minds to the truth of Jesus being a blessing beyond our imaginations, like trying to capture a cup of water by standing under the Niagara Falls. But though we have a decreased capacity, we long to experience the reality of this truth in the here and now.
Today after my walk the thought occurred to me, maybe those spiritual blessings in heavenly places aren’t so unreachable. Maybe we’re surrounded by them.
Jesus said God showers his goodness on the just and the unjust.
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have?– Matthew 5:44-46 CSB
As I think about my insatiable appetite for faithfulness; my desire to live and love faithfully, I wonder if one of the spiritual blessings in heavenly places is noticing what the Psalmist calls, “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.Psalm 27:13 CSB
The goodness of the birds, in all their variety, color, shape and song. The goodness of the warm sun, and cool rain. The goodness of hens laying eggs and afternoon naps. The goodness of breath. All of these and more have become like white noise to us. We don’t notice. But they are tangible spiritual blessings of God’s goodness and faithful love.
Every morning when the sun bursts into the night with gold, red and purple light, God shines his faithfulness on everything and everyone he has made, whether we respond to his love or not.
God is extravagant in his love for us, always giving us good. The spiritual blessing of his goodness and faithful love is in the heavenly places, yes. But if we’ll notice, it’s also singing in the trees and in everything he’s made.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and great in faithful love. The Lord is good to everyone; his compassion rests on all he has made. All you have made will thank you, Lord; the faithful will bless you. -Psalm 145:8-10
Since it’s a new year I thought I would do a sort of a re-introduction to this blog and the why behind it.
A central theme written over my life and tied to everything I write is faithfulness.
About 14 years ago I started blogging. Almost everything I write, whether on my blog, in a poem or essay is born out of nearly 30 years of marriage and 20 years of raising sons. And in those relationships especially, the pursuit of faithfulness and faithful love reigns.
I’m on a quest in life, in my marriage, my parenting, my writing, my work to see the faithfulness of God and learn to live faithfully as well. A persistent question never leaves me, “If I’m really a Christian, if Christ is really risen, if he really dwells in me, then can I learn to love like Jesus?”
Learning to love is tied closely to what it means to be faithful as a Christian. Throughout scripture, God describes his faithfulness in terms of faithful love. A simple search of the phrase, “faithful love,” in the Blue Letter Bible shows how often God is described by his faithfulness and faithful love. Jesus said loving God and neighbor are the greatest of God’s commands and the evergreen tree from which all his law and prophets hang like pine cones.
So what is faithful love? What does God’s faithfulness look like? And What does it mean for me to cultivate faithfulness? It would require much more than a short blog post to answer those questions. Exploring the answers to these questions is what I aim to do on this blog. It’s what I aim to do with my life.
As a point of reference, I looked up the words cultivate and faithfulness in the Webster’s dictionary the other day.
Cultivate means to prepare, to loosen or break up soil; to foster the growth of; to improve by labor; to further or encourage.
Faithfulness is being steadfast in affection, allegiance, firm in adherence to promises or observance of duty; given with strong assurance, true to the facts, to a standard, to an original.
But it’s the message of Psalm 37 that has illuminated my desire to practice faithfulness and faithful love more than any modern definition.
Trust in the Lord and do good; Live in the land and cultivate faithfulness. –Psalm 37:3 NASB
In Psalm 37, David explores the tension and feelings of anger and discouragement sure to rise up while living with people who don’t seek to love God and others. And what is the solution David lands on for how God’s people are to live in such stressful circumstances? Trust God. Do good. And cultivate faithfulness.
And this is God’s instruction to me.
In this marriage, God has not called me to save my marriage, prevent a divorce at all costs, make my husband happy, or employ any formula to get the kind of marriage I want. In my parenting, God has not called me to save my children, prevent them from wandering away from the faith, keep them happy, or make them the people I want them to be. He has called me to trust him and do good. To live in this Arizona suburb with this man, these sons, these neighbors, this church, this government, this job, etc., and prepare the soil of my life to grow the fruit of the Spirit. And to do so steadfastly.
This means not only am I to live out what Eugene Peterson called a long obedience in the same direction, but because of my prone-to-wander state, I must determine to live out a long repentance in the same direction.
God has planted his faithfulness in my life. He has given me the seed of his word. He’s called me to spend my life letting him teach me, and help me, to love him and my neighbors, right here under this roof, and down the street.
I do not claim to have the answers. I have in the past, and probably will still foolishly stumble into blogging, writing and speaking as though I do. If I have any answer it’s a mysterious and real relationship with the Jesus of the Bible. So, as Mary Oliver said in her poem Mysteries, Yes:
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.
I pray this blog would be a place where I can say, “Look” and we can laugh together in astonishment and worship in response to God’s faithful love and the miracle of his work to produce this love in us.
With the Lord’s help I plan to spend my days growing in the faithful love of God; turning the fallow ground of my life, and learning to produce faithful love the way I was created to. Will you join me?
I heard the rumble and shout of a train hastening down the tracks alongside US 60 on my way to work this morning. The train announcing he’s coming through. Make way. Watch out. He’s not stopping.
2022 has been a train barreling down the tracks for me. My baby boys have become men and the empty nest has moved into my world, full steam ahead, whether I’m ready or not.
I told God the other day, “I wasn’t prepared for this! I didn’t pray about this! I don’t know what to do with this!”
Life is passing me by, horns honking, like traffic, while I sit at the light that turned green awhile back.
The good news is, I’m paying attention. God’s got my ears tuned like an owl to the sonar pulse answering his, “Whoo, whoo.” And he’s got my tears- a window display of colored glass bottles full of salty prayers.
The train of time chugs away, and I keep praying, waiting, watching, listening.
As I sit here on Christmas Eve, trying to carve out space to meditate on the Incarnation, a candle lit on my little desk, my husband is running a power saw on the roof cutting off the excess wood he used to finish our back patio. And I can’t help but think about the parallels in my life with the dynamic between Joseph and Mary.
Mary held within her, literally, the promise of God. And Joseph struggled to believe it. It took the revelation of an angel for him to believe. And I wonder if, as the years passed and Jesus grew, Joseph didn’t start to doubt the promise. Or at least lose the wonder of it amidst the everyday life of raising a child and trying to provide for the needs of his family.
While he worked with wood he lived with scandal, and he saw no great transformation in Israel or even in his and Mary’s own lives. There was no arrival at Shalom once Jesus was born. Surely Mary and Joseph still struggled with the pain that comes with learning to love someone. Mary must have had days of fatigue and longing Joseph failed to fulfill. Joseph must have had days of irritation and frustration with the struggle to provide for his stigmatized family. They probably got on each others nerves and Jesus still needed to be fed and changed and held.
These are all speculations of course. But Joseph and Mary were not super human. They were broken humans, just like my husband and me. Joseph blends into the background in the story of the incarnation. A man who struggled with unbelief, but was willing to accept and care for the woman and child who would bring to his daily life the reminder of what the angel told him, “…he will save his people from their sins.”
The story of Mary and Joseph feels familiar. I too am a woman with the promise of God in me. Christ is in me. And my soul sings with Mary, “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” The Holy Spirit is also filling me with new life that I cannot account for through human means. My husband has struggled to accept this in our 30 years together. Yet God has turned his heart time and time again towards caring for his family.
My second son was born eighteen years ago, two days after Christmas. Being pregnant at Christmas is another reason Joseph and Mary’s story resonates with me. The gift of a child. The gift of a man, who though he doesn’t understand, cares and provides and tries to make room for the scandal and accept it.
The fulfillment of the promise of the Child who will save his people from their sins plays out in my everyday life. And in a lifetime of treasuring promises in my heart, building a home, and most days, seeing nothing revolutionary. This is the Christmas story that lights the candle in my darkened soul. This is the mystery and the hope that carries me. Day after day.
Christ is born. Joy to the world. And to the world-weary men and women.
So often I catch myself mulling over concerns; wallowing in them like a pig in the mud, rolling over and over the worries I have for my loved ones.
I catch myself and come to my senses like the Prodigal Son and turn my face towards Home.
I remember the King who poured his life out and did not see the fruit of his labors pre-resurrection.
He had to be the loser first.
Yes, we must keep praying!
We must, I must, keep looking to Jesus with this plank in my eye, letting him teach me to remove it and love.
And then I have to get out there and die.
I have to lose.
I have to plant myself, and truth and grace, in the lives of those God has put around me.
Cause I’m the farmer. I’m not the King.
And soon, and very soon, we are going to see the King!
And all will be well.
I picked a dandelion puff yesterday. The weed symbolizes randomness or meaninglessness or whatever… something fluffy. Not certain. Not solid. Not weighty.
Today a hospice chaplain held my dying mother in law’s hand and spoke dandelion puffs over her. It was supposed to be beautiful but in reality it was sad and angering.
Here my mother-in-law lay, orange with bilirubin rising in her bloodstream from the cancer that has invaded her liver, half awake, half confused, in pain, loosing control her body and her will to keep her eyes open, and the hope she’s offered is flying away into the wind like a dandelion- unaware, unfeeling, unreal.
The last full paragraph of conversation I had with my Mom Dougal was a couple days ago when she shared that she wasn’t afraid of dying. She knows Jesus will welcome her. But she is worried for her loved ones who are still hoping in dandelion puffs.
As I was taking that walk yesterday, holding that dandelion, watching it fall apart with just the wind from my heavy sigh, I took note of towering Douglas Fir trees, lacey ferns, jewelry-like fungus or growths of some kind on the dead tree trunks, wild berries, and purple wildflowers. All of these, even the dandelion have a body. They’re tangible. Real. Something I can see, touch, hear and smell.
Death is real. I can see it yellowing a mother’s eyes. I can touch where it’s broken through the paper thin skin stretched over the tail bone. I can hear it in the gurgling cough. I can smell it in the loss of bowel and bladder control.
Talking about death as though its the wind carrying you away, light and airy and free like a dandelion might be an attempt to make us feel better. But to the Christian laying in that bed right now, dying of cancer, there’s no need for “feel better” thoughts. The solid rock truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is the place we rest our weary heads.
The Christian’s hope isn’t in flowery thoughts that make us feel better. We believe things that make us sad, angry and often lonely. And we lament. We believe death is a thief. And hell is a horrible place of separation from every good gift of God and God himself, who is good.
We also believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We know our Redeemer lives and, as Job said, we will see him with our eyes! So when we come to die, as Fernando Ortega wrote, give us Jesus.
Death is horrible. I hate it. But Jesus is wonderful. And he swallowed death and sent it to hell. And one day us ragged receivers of his amazing kindness and love will see him face to face.
“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”
John 11:25 CSB
My mom tells great stories. She always has.
On a recent visit I asked her to retell the versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk and the Three Little Pigs she told us as kids. She said she couldn’t because, just like her biscuit or buttermilk pancake recipes, she never wrote them down.
My mom redeemed every childhood story she told. To the best of my recollection my mom redeemed Goldilocks and the Three Bears by turning the three bears into a hospitable foster home for Goldilocks. A safe haven where she could rest, eat and relax, even laugh, while the bears worked to help her find her way home.
Jack and the beanstalk, is a little fuzzy for me. But I think she told it something along the lines of, Jack’s mom was broke and sent him off to sell their beloved cow Betsy in exchange for money to buy food. But Jack was a dreamer and when told about the magic beans he could exchange Betsy for, that would surely lead to a magical bean stalk that grew to heaven, where Jack could get the golden egg laid by that great goose in the sky, he couldn’t resist. That golden egg would guarantee Jack and his mom would be fed and well cared for. All I remember after that is that Jack’s mom was mad that he got duped, so he threw the beans out the window, fell asleep crying and woke up to an enormous beanstalk that ascended as far as the eye could see into heaven. Jack climbed the stalk, in a half dreaming state, and when he arrived at the top, he went looking for the golden egg. He found the egg and instead of stealing it, he told the goose his plight and the goose gladly gave him the egg. When the giant discovered Jack with the egg and began chasing him Jack scrambled down the stalk and I honestly don’t remember what my mom did with the story after that. But I bet she made Jack convert the giant to kindness and they became friends who frequently visited each other and shared the wealth the had with all their neighbors.
She did the same redemptive retelling of the Three Little Pigs. By the end of the tale, the wolf repented of his sins, entered a work program with the pigs and built new homes for everyone.
My mom doesn’t like stories with sad endings. I guess no one does. I recently heard a podcast with Karen Swallow Prior, Jane and Jesus, where the guest was a female scholar of Jewish and Yiddish literature. In the interview she talked about how in Jewish literature, there are no happy endings. Sometimes there are no endings at all…. The story just drops. No resolution. No resolve. No Messiah. No redeemer. No happily ever after. No heaven.
I’ve thought a lot about what that lady said. The idea that there’s someone who will redeem all the bad things and make them come untrue seems too good to be true. A tale that is meant for fairyland, not earth. Not 2022. Not all our wars and murders and lies and greed and abuse and neglect and genocide and hatred and fear. Maybe we think there is no happy ending, no rescuer to make things good and right because we think this is the ending.
To some, my mom’s version of childhood stories seem insulting to real life. Turning all the bad moves these classic characters made into graduates from etiquette school feels unreal…because it is. It isn’t the way of any life, not even animal or plant life.
So should we all be fatalists and stop looking to redeem stories or write stories with characters who do what’s good and right? No, I don’t want to live or write or read like that. But stories with bad endings, unresolved endings that don’t redeem the evil or suffering or pain of the story, also tell a part of the great true story we all draw our stories from.
Listening to The Habit podcast recently, the guest talked about how all the stories we write are ultimately drawn from creation. We don’t make up new stories. We just draw themes and truths from the Great Story that God wrote. Redemption, rescue, repentance, doing good works, learning to love, all spring from God’s story, and feed the river that flows to the oceans full of all our stories.
My mom has long hoped in her Redeemer. She has suffered the pain and evil that make one wonder if anything or anyone can make things right. I love the way she edited the childhood stories she told me to include truth from God’s deep well of redemption. It’s one of the things I love most about my mom. She believes in happily ever after.
This morning I stood in my kitchen trying to force myself to think on what it means that Christ is risen when I’m angry with my son. I stood there waiting for the french press coffee to sit a minute before stirring, thinking, “Christ has risen. It’s Easter, Sheila. That’s what your entire faith rests on. You say it changes everything. So why is it that all you can think about right now is how mad you are at your son for not doing what he said he would do?”
Finally I opened my mouth and asked God the questions brewing in my head. “What does it mean that Christ has risen, right now, to me, in this moment, Lord? What changes?”
I need to know my faith has feet.
I don’t get miraculous answers from God when I ask. I get what most get I suspect. Silence. I went on with my morning.
I left for church talking to God about my struggle with my son and my long born desire to be a Jesus-worshipping family.
I got to church and greeted kids eager to hunt for candy-filled eggs, and then sat with those kids as we talked through the story of Christ’s death and resurrection using the symbols in the Resurrection Egg set.
We used our bodies, making sad faces when Jesus’ friends were sad that Jesus died. We made the motion of the sunrise with our arms and popped our eyes wide, mouths open, when the women found Jesus’ tomb empty. We fell to the floor (in the dramatic ways 5 year olds do) when Mary encountered the angel. And we ran in place with excitement when Jesus revealed himself alive to Mary and sent her to tell the guys he was alive.
I stood and sang and released my arms to fly high declaring to my soul and any powers listening, “Praise the Father. Praise the Son. Praise the Spirit three in one!” Because no matter how I feel, no matter what I am currently struggling with, the God who has laid down his life for me in Jesus and promised me undying life in his rising, is worthy of my praise.
As I held the torn bread and deep red juice in my hands, I heard the Spirit answer my prayer from the kitchen. “His rising means you can reconcile with your son.
“leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”Matthew 5:24 CSB
Right there I put down the remembrance of Christ’s body and blood and picked up my phone to text my son an apology and a request to talk face to face. And right there I knew what Christ’s resurrection meant for me in my anger.
“Jesus answered, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. “I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful.”John 14:23, 25-27 CSB
Christ has risen and I can’t explain it, but I love him! And that means he and the Father can be at home in me (mind blown) and the Holy Spirit will teach me Jesus’ way ways. And that means when I’m angry, tired, sad, overwhelmed…lost, I can call on him and he’ll lead me.
I need the Church to remember.
I think I inherited my mom’s tendency toward rearranging things.
Growing up, I’d come home from school to a practically new house every week as my mom, inspired by something she found at a garage sale, would rearrange and redecorate the living room with what she had.
Today I gave my blog a new look and new name: Cultivating Faithfulness- a planted life | learning to love. The title sums up the theme of notes I’ve been writing down for months.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this book that wants me to write it over the past year or so. My phone and bullet journal are full of thoughts scribbled down.
A couple weeks ago I started editing old poems, writing new ones and compiling them into a book. I pray it will give hope to someone who loves someone they long to say, “Come magnify the Lord with me,” to, and not hear, “No thanks,” in response from.
Today I began working on a monthly newsletter that should go out this month. Hopefully by Easter. I want a place to curate poems, quotes, songs, stories, scripture, photos, resources and thoughts that help the Christian be inspired, encouraged and thoughtful in cultivating a life of faithfulness wherever they are.
Trust in the Lord and do what is good; dwell in the land and live securely.”Psalm 37:3 CSB