Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Jesus

All things are shadows | From an Old Soul

July 21, Diary of an Old Soul

All things are shadows of the shining true:
Sun, sea, and air—close, potent, hurtless fire—
Flowers from their mother’s prison—dove, and dew—
Every thing holds a slender guiding clue
Back to the mighty oneness: hearts of faith
Know thee than light, than heat, endlessly nigher,
Our life’s life, carpenter of Nazareth.

George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
Augsburg Fortress Press 1994

* * *

This sonnet makes my heart sing.
As wonderful as nature is,
with its “slender guiding clues,”
One rises above all others.
More than a shadow of shining truth,
The heart of every flower or drop of dew,
holding all things together,
Life of my life: “carpenter of Nazareth.”

I can’t help asking why? Why this man Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth, who lived for so few years on this earth? Why this man on his way to death from the beginning? Not known for being beautiful or easy to follow. Why this carpenter of Nazareth?

I’m not given to rational answers or apologetic reasoning. Yet without this carpenter of Nazareth in my life, I would have no life.

Without him I would see shadows,
but not the “shining true” within the shadows.
I would miss the “slender guiding clues” that point beyond.
Beyond the sun, sea and air;
beyond the flowers, doves and dew
to One who is closer and dearer than light and heat,
breath of my breath—“carpenter of Nazareth.”

A carpenter, vulnerable as am I. Not visibly glorious like a sunset, or majestic like galaxies spread over the universe. Vulnerable. Like a newborn infant, a flower or dove. Vulnerable like a frightened child, a painfully self-conscious teenager, a clueless young adult or new parent, a jaded war-weary adult, or an aging senior citizen.

Vulnerable to what? Being mocked, loved, rejected, abandoned, hated, ignored, disbelieved, understood, misunderstood, sick, hungry, thirsty, weary, sad, forsaken, fed up, angry, passionate, stalked, watched, betrayed, arrested without cause, convicted in a mock trial, beaten, paraded as a criminal, strung up to die.

He wasn’t a power-monger; he lived a human life and dealt with his human situation as one of us. A carpenter of Nazareth doing his best to remain faithful to God who gave him life and a seemingly impossible mission.

He showed us what to do and what not to do, how to be and how not to be. He showed us the way home and the way to die, and offered to walk with us.

I know him because he first knows me. His life tells me so.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 November 2015

feet shuffle | Story #1

St. John's Abbey Church Interior

feet shuffle
down multiple aisles
approach the altar
sacraments of life
and death remembered

 the sound of shoes
resonates against concrete
moves us to receive
hope for life and death
a crumb and a drop
spiritual food for body and soul

It’s 1980-something. Read the rest of this entry »

In a Writing Funk

I’ve been in a writing funk this afternoon. The kind that catches me off guard, unprepared.

I spent the morning doing much-needed grocery shopping. I went early because snow was coming. Now it’s here, along with snow plows and salt trucks. I’m back in my warm house, dry, comfortable and clueless about what to write and about this funk I’m in. Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Mom, It’s Christmas!

Conservatory at Longwood Gardens, Christmas 2005

Conservatory at Longwood Gardens, Christmas 2005

 

Conservatory at Longwood Gardens, Christmas 2005

Conservatory at Longwood Gardens, Christmas 2005

I’ve been listening to Christmas music and thinking about you these days.  Remembering what it was like to sing together as a family during the Christmas season, with you at the piano leading us.  We stood behind you, looking over your shoulder or singing from memory Read the rest of this entry »

Something about Mary

The Anunciation, by Fra Angelico

~~~The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. Cortona altarpiece, c. 1433

Advent. Time to consider our bodies. The text for today’s meditation puts it in our faces. You can find the entire story here.

…The angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary;
 you have found favor with God.
 You will conceive and give birth to a son,
and you are to call him Jesus.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered,
“May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Then the angel left her.
 (Luke 2:30, 31 and 38, NIV)

Part I
Mid-1980s. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The choir is singing special Christmas music. Mother is in the choir, standing at the end of the front row, singing her heart out. I’m in my 40s; Mother is in her early 60s.

Embarrassment, shame and anger flood over me. It’s not the music. It’s the way Mother looks. Even the most coordinated colors wouldn’t have added much color to her face, especially next to the well made-up women of the choir. Mother wears little or no makeup.

She sings her heart out, proud to be in the choir and to have her oldest daughter back for the holidays. I can hardly bear to look at her face. It carries, as does the rest of her body, signs of being a polio survivor. I desperately wish Mother’s body were different, like the ‘normal’ women of the choir.

Mother carried grief, pain and scars in her body. My hypercritical eyes couldn’t see this. Nor could my heart understand that beneath my discomfort with her body lay even deeper discomfort with my body.

Female bodies weren’t celebrated in my family. My body was shamed, ridiculed, punished, controlled, feared, dismissed, hidden and denied.

My father, an ordained minister, knew how to affirm and celebrate Jesus in the flesh. He didn’t, however, know how to affirm that we, his daughters, came in the flesh, or that our embodiment as women was worth celebrating. Female bodies were a problem. A disquieting reality to be minimized, or better yet, hidden beneath layers of modestly simple styles and colors.

When it came to daughters, the family honor was at stake. No woman raised in this house was going to become pregnant out-of-wedlock. Only Mary could have gotten away with that one.

Part II
Mary was different. God did it; she was appropriately submissive. The angel Gabriel’s announcement made it OK. It was part of God’s mysterious plan. God would never have chosen Mary if she hadn’t been a really good girl—way high above the rest of us daughters of Eve. Besides, didn’t you notice that this happened without anything sexual between her and Joseph? Case closed.

Or is it? Perhaps more than other seasons, Advent and Christmas beg us to pay attention to bodies. After all, this is about the incarnation—God taking the supreme risk of sending his only begotten Son, Jesus, to live as a fully human being in a fully human body.

The incarnation is also about Mary’s body, including her unplanned pregnancy and real, live labor in childbirth, and breasts filled with mother’s milk.

And, yes, it’s about Jesus’ body—that infant who did all the things babies do: sleep, cry, eat, belch, spit up, deposit a mess in swaddling clothes, drool, wave arms and feet aimlessly, coo, grimace, fart, speak gobbledygook, and charm everyone.

Perhaps to soften the messiness of Mary’s body and pregnancy, some classical European paintings have almost obliterated her body. They haven’t done very well by Gabriel either, who may have looked like an ordinary human being.

We see Gabriel standing in front of Mary, swathed in flowing gowns and robes, wings coming out of his back.  Sometimes he has long curly hair and a halo; often he holds a symbol in his hand—a palm frond, a scepter, an orb.

And we see Mary. She’s also in long flowing garments, with beautiful skin, gorgeous hair and yes, the halo. Frequently she’s reading or holding scripture—even when she’s standing in the doorway to greet Gabriel. Sometimes her hands are delicately crossed over her breasts, face submissively turned down just a bit.

The paintings are beautiful—packed with churchly, cultural and political symbols. There’s much to see and appreciate as art.

Part III
But do we recognize the real woman Mary in all this? More important, does any of this help us recognize what’s going on here in Luke’s account?

Yes, there’s a big announcement to Mary. But even before this, Mary found favor with God! What does this mean? And what does it have to do with Mary’s everyday life?

First, I don’t think it’s about Mary’s womb. God isn’t shopping for a vacant womb capable of incubating a fetus. Maybe that sounds blunt and disrespectful.

But for some, then and now, women’s bodies are valuable as baby-making machines. Consider her now pregnant relative Elizabeth, supposedly out of favor with God for most of her life because she couldn’t bear children.

I also don’t think God rewards Mary for being a good girl and staying out of trouble. God’s favor for Mary seems to come out of the blue. We don’t know the kind of girl-child Mary was. But we can assume she was a woman as we are. She didn’t descend from heaven as a perfect female; she was born to human parents into a fallen world.

Mary is a Jewish woman in a concrete body, living a human life. Not a life without sin and regrets, joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, disappointment and grief.

Part IV
So what’s happening here? This is about Mary’s character. She’s young, yet she has learned what God wants from her. It’s precisely what God always wants. We use many words to point to it.  Here are two of them.

The first is obedience. A good and true word for what God wants from us. Often we confuse it with keeping rules. If we say ‘obedience from the heart’ we’re closer to what God wants. But even that doesn’t always work; life is about more than rules.

It’s about faith-filled improvisation, playing by ear. Every day we wake up to circumstances we didn’t expect or foresee. The circumstances of our lives. Not necessarily due to our good or foolish decisions (though we make those, too). In these situations, God offers us opportunities. How will we respond?

The second word we use is surrender. God wants surrender. Not perfection, promises or good intentions. Just surrender—a wonderfully relaxed way of being! The kind that follows God’s lead and is willing to make mistakes.

This isn’t about being doormats. It’s about being faithfully proactive, accepting instead of fighting the sometimes heart-stopping circumstances of our lives. God doesn’t force Mary’s hand or ours. God just keeps inviting us to surrender faithfully to circumstances, whether we like them or not. Are we willing to risk this kind of surrender? Play it by ear?

God doesn’t look for perfection.
God looks for us within our messy everyday lives.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 November 2014, updated 3 December 2015
Written in December 2009 for the women of Narberth Presbyterian Church, Narberth, PA
Image from totus2us.com

Herr K, Jesus, Diane and Us | Part 2 of 2

⇒ See Part 1 of this sermon: Herr K and Jesus.

Diane
It’s 2002.  I’ve been going to Houston 4 times a year for more than six years to visit one of my three sisters.  Diane has been learning to live with ALS.  It has relentlessly stolen her ability to move, swallow, speak and breathe on her own.

Since 1999 Diane has lived without any of these abilities, with the exception of making small facial movements.  They’re her communication lifeline to the world.

For the first time in my visits, Diane can’t use electronic means of communication.  Everything has to be spelled out—letter by letter, using a numbering system linked to letters of the alphabet.

Diane is looking for learners.  She needs family members and friends willing to take upon themselves a yoke of learning.

Diane winks her left eye twice, signaling her desire to say something to me.  Each row of letters begins with a vowel.  I start down the vowels.  But there’s a catch.  I can’t just say A, E, I, O, U.  Instead, I have to use numbers as a code—1 for A, 2 for E , 3 for I, 4 for O, 5 for U, 6 for numbers.  1…2…3…4…   Diane raises her left eyebrow ever so slightly to let me know I’m in the vicinity of the right letter.

I shift gears and start going down the O road of the alphabet:  O… P… Q… R…  Diane raises her left eyebrow ever so slightly.  The first letter of the first word is R!  I can’t go too fast, or she won’t have time to make her eyebrow go up.  We return to the beginning and start on the second letter.  Eventually, when all goes well, either I intuit the word correctly, or she signals the end of the word by staring straight ahead.

Sometimes I get lost.  I forget that 3 stands for I, not E!  I forget where we were in the communication.  Sometimes Diane starts over with different words, because I’m not getting her verbal shorthand.

Sometimes my wonderful intuition becomes my worst enemy.  I think I know what Diane is trying to say.  I’m willing to start over and be corrected, but my expectations are still in my mind, wreaking havoc with my ability to get on track with Diane.  My anxiety level escalates.  So does hers.  It becomes more and more difficult to concentrate.

Suddenly, in the middle of one of these frustrating encounters, I get it!  I understand Jesus’ yoke of learning.  I never understood how it could be easy or light.  But now I get it!

If Diane and I are going to get anywhere together, I will have to come to Diane as a learner, not as the teacher.  It looks like this:

  • deciding to take Diane’s yoke of learning on me (She’s the teacher; I am not.)
  • starting over from the very beginning
  • laying aside every intuition or expectation about what she wants to say or ask me to do, where we’re headed, and how long it will take
  • following her lead and her pace
  • living with my dismay about this situation (I can’t heal her.)
  • following Diane on her journey with ALS

If I can’t learn from Diane in this way, I’ll never come to rest in what she wants to communicate to me.  And the burden and loneliness will be heavier than either of us can possibly bear.

You and Me
Three teachers, each looking for learners:  Herr K, Jesus Christ, Diane.  Looking for learners willing to die; willing to ask for help; willing to make mistakes and pick themselves up; willing to identify with those who are sometimes forsaken.

Time is running out.

About 20 years ago Diane, wife of Clay and mother of three children, graduated from seminary.   Within a few years she was called to be Minister of Christian Education, and then Minister of Administration and Christian Education at a large church in Texas.  Bright, articulate, gifted and called.  In her late 30s.

Only seven years later, in 1996, she resigned her position so she could learn to live and die.  Diane was a lifelong learner.  Her life ended this past February, 10 years after she was diagnosed with ALS.

How much time do I think God has given me?  In truth, I have only this present moment.  Sometimes I behave as though my days were numberless.  I’m still young.  What’s the rush?

Jesus is looking for learners.  People willing to learn how to live and how to die daily.  People like you and me, ready to take his yoke of learning upon us so we can find rest for our souls, our bodies, our minds, our emotions.

I’d like to close with a short reading that encourages me to persevere.  Especially when I feel lost and alone, disoriented, off-balance and dismayed.

Oswald Chambers is commenting on Mark 10:32, “… those who followed were afraid.”  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem—where he knows he will die.  Alone.

At the beginning we were sure we knew all about Jesus Christ, it was a delight to sell all and to fling ourselves out in a hardihood of love; but now we are not quite so sure.  Jesus is on in front and He looks strange:  ‘Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished.’

There is an aspect of Jesus that chills the heart of a disciple to the core and makes the whole spiritual life gasp for breath.  This strange Being with His face ‘set…like a flint’ and His striding determination, strikes terror into me.  He is no longer Counselor and Comrade, He is taken up with a point of view I know nothing about, and I am amazed at Him.  At first I was confident that I understood him, but now I am not so sure.  I begin to realize there is a distance between Jesus Christ and me; I can no longer be familiar with Him.  He is ahead of me and He never turns round; I have no idea where He is going, and the goal has become strangely far off.

Jesus had to fathom every sin and every sorrow [human beings] could experience, and that is what makes Him seem strange.  When we see him in this aspect we do not know Him, we do not recognize one feature of His life, and we do not know how to begin to follow Him.  He is on in front, a Leader Who is very strange, and we have no comradeship with Him.

The discipline of dismay is essential in the life of discipleship.  The danger is to get back to a little fire of our own and kindle enthusiasm at it….  When the darkness of dismay comes, endure until it is over, because out of it will come that following of Jesus which is an unspeakable joy.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, March 15 – The Discipline of Dismay.

May God grant us courage for the hard work of learning to live, and the harder work of learning to die.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 October 2014

Herr K, Jesus, Diane and Us | Part 1 of 2

In 2006, several months after Diane died of ALS, I preached this sermon at a banquet for graduating seminarians in West Virginia.  I can’t get it out of my mind.  I think it wants to offer me something.

Looking for Learners

Come to me,
all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light.

The Gospel of Matthew 11: 28-30 (NRSV)

Herr K
It’s 1977, the first day of school.  German language school.  In Germany.

I don’t know a word of German.  I’m sitting with 29 other adult students behind tables arranged in a U-shape.  We have textbooks and notebooks ready.  Some are joking around in their native languages.  I don’t hear a word of English.  Even if I did, I really don’t feel like joking around.  We’re about to meet our German language teacher for the first time ever.

The door opens and a man strides in–tall, baggy brown suit, bow tie, blank face.  He picks up a piece of chalk and spells out  H e r r  K – – – – – – – – –  on the chalkboard.  He faces us, points to the chalkboard, then points back to himself.  He pauses.  Then he repeats these actions without saying a word.  Finally he stands quietly at the front of the room, gazing at us intently.

The room is deathly silent.

Without warning Herr K smiles!  He motions with his hands.  [points to himself; makes a hand motion away from his mouth; points to the class; tugs a bit on his right ear; then makes another hand motion away from his mouth.]

Not a word falls from his lips.  He repeats himself–just in case we didn’t understand. Still not a word.

Suddenly he leaps into action–striding back outside the door, closing it with a flourish.  Now he’s in the hall, and we’re in the classroom.

With another flourish he opens the door and strides back into the room, all smiles this time.  “Guten Morgen,” he says confidently.  He pauses.

No one knows what to do.  The smile vanishes.  He motions with his hands once more. [same as above]  He turns and strides back outside the door.  Closes it.  Opens it.  Strides back into the room all smiles again.  “Guten Morgen,” he says confidently.

Somehow someone finally gets it and squawks back – “Guten Morgen.”  He replies abruptly, “Ja!  Ja!  Und Nein!!!”

We dare not laugh.  It isn’t funny.  It’s terrifying.  By the end of the day we’ve been baptized into the drill.  The daily drill we’ll fear and hate for the duration of the course.

Herr K goes around the room, one by one, standing directly in front of each of us, drilling us publicly until he’s satisfied we have every inflection, every intonation and every word just right.  “Guten Morgen, Herr K!”  He spares no one.  He has nothing but contempt for students who show up unprepared, who don’t sit up straight at the table, or whose faces give off the tiniest flicker of disdain for him or for his sometimes brutal tactics.

Herr K doesn’t waste time with folks who don’t want to learn German.  He’s looking for learners.

Herr K taught me to think, speak and dream in outstanding German.  In the process, I learned far more than German.  I learned to die – to my pride and to my desire to get things right the first time, all by myself.

Bringing German to life in me meant dying.  Daily and publicly.   I didn’t like this man.  Yet he knew exactly what he was doing, and what it would take for us to ‘get it’ so well that we could pass as German citizens.

Jesus
It’s the first day of school–well, maybe not the very first day, but the first day of a new semester.  Jesus is on a teaching mission.  He’s looking for learners, not just good students.  Good students are a dime a dozen.  He’s looking for learners.  Folks who will come to him, who will accept his yoke–a yoke of learning.

Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden….

It sounds so comforting.  An invitation from Jesus meek and mild, gentle and lowly in heart.  It tugs at our hearts because we’re all so weary, so burdened, so heavy-laden.  The words warm our hearts:

learn from me;
you’ll find rest here–soul rest;
my yoke is easy;
my burden is light.

You’d think such an invitation from such a popular and powerful teacher would have folks flocking to his side–making their way to the mourner’s bench, streaming down the stadium steps and into the football field, crying out

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us! 
We’re so weary. 
We’ve waited so long for someone just like you–
someone who understands our pain, our longing for something different–
someone who understands how distressed and hopeless we feel most of the time. 
Overworked.  Overtaxed.  Beaten down. 
Disrespected.  Violated.

Yes, Jesus!  We need a teacher just like you!
Yes! We accept your gracious invitation!
Yes! Just as I am, I come, I come.

You’d think folks who’ve waited so long for just this moment would flock to Jesus.  I’m reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s wonderful description of The Great Invitation.  Jesus, arms open, cries out to the throngs, “Come unto me!”  Against all expectations, most of the crowd turn their faces, running as fast as they can to get away from the sound of The Great Invitation that offers so much to so many.

Why?  Why do they run?  Why do they turn away?

Kierkegaard directs our attention to the Inviter—We look.  We see the problem immediately:

He had no form or majesty that
we should look at him, 

 nothing in his appearance that
we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.   
there is no beauty that we should desire him.  

Isaiah 53: 2b-3 (NRSV)

Now look at the students in his class—

Not the wise and intelligent—they’ve all run away or turned away.  But look!  There at his feet are his students:

women, men, young people and children
afflicted with diseases and misshapen bodies locked in deep pain,
outcasts struggling with demons, epilepsy, paralysis and skin diseases,
a woman about to be stoned,
a centurion in distress about his servant’s paralysis,
Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever,
fearful disciples caught in a sudden storm,
despised tax collectors, sinners of all kinds and sizes,
a dead girl, a hemorrhaging woman, a blind man,
a thief on a cross

Jesus is looking for learners.  Do you recognize yourself?

* * * * *

To be continued….

© 2006 by Elouise Renich Fraser, revised 24 Oct 2014

God’s Beloved Daughter-Child | Part 2 of 4

As a child, my survival theology was short and to the point:  (1) God would NEVER beat me like this, and (2) Jesus loves me no matter what, and wants to spend time with me.

My two small truths traveled well. Read the rest of this entry »

God’s Beloved Daughter-Child | Part 1 of 4

It’s the 1990s.  I’m teaching a seminar on spirituality.  At the beginning of the class I hand out to each participant, including me, a blank piece of paper and crayons.  The assignment is simple:  draw and color your childhood image of God.  You have 5 minutes.

I drew and still have my image: Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: