Notre Dame de Paris and Legacies at Easter

Notre Dame de Paris and  Legacies at Easter

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

On Monday, April 15, when the very first sparks caught deep in the forest of Notre Dame Cathedral’s 800-year old oak beams, my husband and I were singing the closing hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” at the funeral of a beloved man. His name was Jim, and he was the father of one of our dearest friends.

The church was packed, full of people whose lives had been touched by this husband of 51 years, father of 4, grandfather of 11, friend to hundreds, and volunteer whose time and contributions touched the lives of thousands through a long list of organizations within his community.

During the homily, the priest told a story about visiting the grave of Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the first person entombed within it. Wren’s gravestone reads, in Latin: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”

Wren’s monument was the entire building. Spectacular, of course, but buildings do fall down.

Jim’s legacy is one of love and connection. It is a baton that has been passed on – and will be – for generations to come.

I was so grateful for the priest’s reminder as I drove home, thinking about people I love – people very close to me – who are currently suffering. Some have been fighting health battles for months with no end in sight. Others are dealing with very emotional issues – facing new realities, changed expectations, and daunting unknowns.

Like a devastating fire, suffering leaves marks on us and changes the way we move forward in our lives.

The temptation is to believe that a happy ending requires that we – like Notre Dame – be restored to some version of a former glory.

We think that with enough rest, medicine, good food, positive words, and advice from experts and well-meaning friends we can shore up our mental and physical strength and proceed as if nothing ever happened.

But what if we’re not supposed to? What if suffering – in all its forms – has a larger purpose?

What if it is supposed to change us forever?

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction….” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Our suffering is allowed so that we might be brought closer to God’s face and then, in turn, use our experience to boost others on their journeys.

We are to pass the baton of Love.

So Jim’s life becomes a message of hope to us, just as Jesus’s resurrection – which we celebrate this weekend on Easter – is the tangible sign that with God, even death is not an end but an entryway.

Perhaps the Cathedral of Notre Dame will be rebuilt, but it can never be the same. The story must go on and be fashioned anew.

On Monday, we sat with our grieving friends and remembered that Jim was a man who gave generously of himself. He was beloved, because humans are attracted to the image of God reflected in a kind person.

Easter is coming. Suffering will end.

May Love be our guide to build legacies that last.

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?
Witness by Ariel Burger and Night, by Burger’s teacher, Professor Elie Wiesel.

Are you an activist? Is activism something you do – or observe?

Last night I finished Night by Elie Wiesel. It’s a short book I meant to read for years, and I put it off out of selfish knowledge that its contents would rattle me. And they did, because every word is true. I felt physically ill. I don’t remember the last time I read something this painful, powerful, important, or necessary.

In the very unlikely case you’ve never heard of it – Night is a harrowing first-person account of survival in the Nazi death camps. Taken – along with his family and the entire Jewish community of Sighet, Transylvania – to Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel recounts with lucidity, humility, and eloquence the unforgettable anguish of passing through hell and leaving behind every person he had ever loved. Deeply observant, this Jewish teenager faced a prolonged dark night of the soul unimaginable to most. I defy anyone with a heart to read this book and remain unmoved.

You will read Night and feel bereft. But there is a mighty epilogue. Elie Wiesel was much more than a survivor. Before his passing in 2016, he wrote 40 books (both fiction and nonfiction), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and most notably, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. He taught Humanities at Boston University for nearly 40 years.

In conjunction with Night, I recently devoured a sort-of primer on moral education – Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, who was a student of and later an assistant to, Elie Wiesel in Boston. It’s the next best thing to being in Professor Wiesel’s classes, pondering eternally significant questions such as, “How can we make the world a more compassionate place?”

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post – the steps we take after we are consumed with sadness and fury over the injustices in the world.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Professor Wiesel said he had faith. “Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” (emphasis mine)

To sit on our hands and do nothing when we are outraged is to fuel evil’s fire.

We may feel powerless, but we are not.

“Walt, a retired academic dean who [had] attended Wiesel’s classes for over a decade, [said], ‘My problem is, I do something small, write a check or something, and I feel better. I don’t want to feel better; I want to hold on to the outrage so I can do more. How do I do that?’

[Wiesel replied,] ‘The question is, how real are other people to you? Do you feel their suffering?…We can feel overwhelmed….And you can remain asleep to others’ pain. We need to find a balance between sleep and paralysis. Start with one person. A person is not an abstraction – we must be against abstraction. Six million pairs of shoes taken from children in the camps are a statistic; one is a tragedy.

But don’t just write a check; help them somehow with your own effort, your own energy. Buy them food and bring it to them. Help them find shelter. Speak to them, take the time to really speak and listen. Who will listen to them? We must be the ones who do. This means that your feelings of anxiety or calm, your presence or lack thereof for another person, your smile at a fellow human being or your turning away, your feeling overwhelmed and how you manage that – all of these little, internal things contribute somehow to the destiny of the world.’” (Witness, p. 176)

We cannot live lives of vicarious righteousness. We must step out and take action wherever we see a need. Big steps. Small steps. Forward steps.

So I ask you, and I ask myself, “How I am doing this new year, living an activist’s life? Am I obeying the daily, divine call to love?”

Am I feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Giving shelter? Speaking up – loudly – for the defenseless and oppressed?

Am I listening without judgment to the person who suffers from addiction? Am I offering compassion to the one who is sick, the one whose marriage is failing, the one whose child is estranged, and the one who has lost his job? Do I give rapt attention to the one who talks aimlessly because she’s been lonely for ages?

Who will welcome these battered hearts, if not me?

Am I asking God for help in discerning my next steps, and am I willing to accept that I am part of a greater whole, and that because God so loved the entire world, I must as well?

Or am I avoiding pain, because getting involved might cost me something?

These are questions for the would-be activist. Questions for you and me.

“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them,” wrote Elie Wiesel.

So – how are we doing?

Are We Eating Enough Humble Pie?

Are We Eating Enough Humble Pie?

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

Humble pie. An old-fashioned phrase. Makes me think of a picnic in springtime, a checkerboard tablecloth, and someone joyriding through a forest in a horse-drawn wagon. That person thinks he’s king of the world. He’s showing off but all-too-soon he hits a rock, is catapulted from his dinky wooden seat, and with arms and legs flailing catches air and unceremoniously lands in a huge puddle. Mud covers him from head to toe.

Don’t ask me where I got this visual. I have no idea. But when people say, “He’s too big for his britches,” something along these lines comes to mind.

What is humility, exactly?

In modern parlance, we’ve wrongly accepted it as having low self-esteem. It’s not that.

Merriam-Webster’s defines it as the quality or state of not being proud or haughty. To be humble is also to rank low in a hierarchy or scale. To be unpretentious.

Note that these definitions do not indicate intrinsic value. You can be a cog in the wheel of a large organization, but if doing your job enables others to get theirs done too, you’re not exactly worthless, are you?

My grandfather used to say he was a “peanut” when he described his career as an engineer at Boeing in Seattle, WA. A former WWII pilot and instructor, he was extremely bright and capable, and held a variety of positions which relocated his family a handful of times over the years. But no matter how much I admired his work, his perspective was different. He’d grown up in the Great Depression, and lived apart from his mom for seven years on a small farm outside of Vancouver, WA with his father and sister, while his mother provided income as washer woman in Seattle. She sent money down to her family every time she got a paycheck. He never forgot arriving at that farm house for the very first time and realizing that the only running water came through a rough, open pipe over the kitchen sink, fed by a trickling local stream. Though the amenities did improve, prolonged family separation – not by choice but by necessity – and hard times, left marks. He never took blessings for granted. Instead, he took the opportunities he was given and used them to serve others. He always gave others credit and downplayed his own contributions. He was holding all things in proper perspective, the way a truly humble person navigates life.

So it made sense to me, sitting at his memorial service, that here was a man who had spent his life making kind overtures. Yes, he helped feed and clothe the homeless through his church, and volunteered countless hours to manage the books for community groups. But another thing he did really struck me.

In his later years, he joined a yacht club and rose ‘through the chairs’ to become Commodore. At the end of the monthly members’ meeting, he had a personal tradition of “Naming the House.” Starting on one side of the room and making his way around, he would say the name of every person present, and if there was enough time, also the name of his/her spouse and their boat. At any meeting, there might be as many as 200 people present.

This is notable for a few reasons:

First, what a memory! Keeping his mind sharp was always important to him, but he must have spent days studying the roster. It shows a level of dedication to his organization that I believe most leaders don’t have.

Second, he was looking at each person as he said their name and relayed information pertinent to that person’s life. How often do we tell others that they are seen? That we know them? That we care who they are?

And finally, he was not doing this to show off or to elevate himself above his fellow members. He did it because he fully understood that once his term was up, he would reassume his place in the crew. Despite the fancy uniform and podium he was speaking from – he was – essentially – just like them, and he valued each of them for who they were individually. His heart was in serving them. He knew that each person was important – a valued member – and he wanted them to know that he would never forget a single one.  

This how God sees us.

He looks upon us with tremendous love – boundless affection – and says, “I know you. Every part of you. And in my leadership, I will never forget you.”

To show us that he understands, He sent us Himself in Jesus. Fully man, and fully divine, a person who was similarly tested in all ways, but remained without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) God “gets” us.

True humility on our part is recognizing our rightful place in the world, which is neither less than nor greater than any other human being, but bowing only toward the One Who is.

How does this thought strike you? Is it strange? Foreign? Liberating?

Our intrinsic value is not defined by our position. It is not related to our income, connections, careers, or even our bad habits.

We were created in love by the One Who cradles us in the palm of His hand and calls us Beloved. This is where we find our true worth. 

This kind of humble pie is Truth. And it’s deliciously filling.

Holy Moments – Day 9 – Seamus

Here’s one of our beloved dogs, Seamus. We think he’s adorable, in that funny-cute kind of way – with his brindled head and paws, black back, white starred chest, and graying muzzle. If we scanned his genes to determine breed type, we’d probably find every kind of dog registered with the AKC. Truly – he’s one of a kind. A “mix-up,” as our 5-year old son calls him.
Seamus
And here’s a video of his signature move – the hoot. He’s calling us to let him in from the back porch.
He will keep this up for as long as it takes. I repeat: AS LONG AS IT TAKES – until we open the door for him. His persistence can be annoying. But I admire it.
And when he comes in, his tail is wagging as if no time has elapsed at all. He’s grateful to be reunited with us, back from his romp around the back yard, returned to his safe and loving home.
We got Seamus from a rescue group who had saved him from a shelter in South Carolina where he’d been brought in – a stray guy, just skin and bones, but with a big, big heart. On that day three years ago when he crawled into my lap at his foster parents’ house, I knew without a doubt his ‘forever’ home was going to be with me.
But learning to accept our place as ‘home’ took time. On his first walk with me, his tail slumped between his legs and his head sunk down. In the house, he sat in corners for the first couple days, and he was frightened by the stairs. When our Beagle Luna arrived a week later (we planned for them to be playmates), he allowed her to be the alpha, and didn’t really challenge her authority, even though she was younger, for almost a year. And when my husband approached Seamus’s food bowl while he was eating, Seamus would back away sheepishly. He ran from loud noises. We wondered if he’d been abused, if someone had yelled a lot, or just neglected him.
Nevertheless, he wanted to be with us. And the more we loved him, the more love he returned to us.
At one point, my relationship with God was similar to the one Seamus had with us. I couldn’t sit through any church service without crying. The emotions I felt inside would just bubble up and spill out in quiet tears, and my stomach would turn in knots. I was timid, fearful, and unsure whether I could truly trust Him. In a sense, I had been a stray. I’d traveled a few roads and didn’t feel at home anywhere.
But the Lord’s love is relentless and tender. Fiercely compassionate and constant. Patient and true. A gentle hand that promised to cradle me forever when I was finally ready to fully relax into the safe home of Him.

Chicken Salad

I was making chicken salad for school lunches at 10:15 p.m. when Grandpa called to tell me something that, as he told it, struck both of us as funny. These days, his voice often chokes with emotion as he speaks to people he loves, and I cherish this. As a result, our conversations have a depth that goes far, far beyond the words spoken.

Ever since I was two, I’ve always lived at least three time zones away from him, but time and distance don’t stop love. His unconditional concern and care has been a steadfast light shining from afar. He’s a pillar of strength, solidity, and resilience in a family that has spread out through geography, marriage, and experience. And in that way, he bears likeness to another Father who is always present.

I can look back now and see that all the twists and turns of my life, some of them known to my family, some of them just aches within my soul, have been overseen by the guiding and ever-loving presence of God. He has been right there alongside me, however far the distance between us might have seemed.

I heard this song today and it prompted me to write. There must be some connection.

Use What You Have

For many months, my oldest has been trekking off to Taekwondo in pants that are about 3 inches too short. They look very silly, but he didn’t need a new pair. This pair fits him well around the waist. But yours truly hemmed them up last year, and then my son grew. A bunch. As kids are wont to do. And I’ve been busy. As moms are prone to be.

Anyway, the thick of summer is finally here and I’m tackling miscellaneous projects, so I broke out the seam ripper and have been undoing two levels of hems in these pants. My gosh I was thorough. Did I really need to use the smallest stitches on the sewing machine for these hems? Ripping them out is taking forever!! Lesson learned.

image

Nevertheless, I find a strange satisfaction in doing little bits of handiwork like this – picking up a piece of clothing that could be tossed aside or given away out of frustration and giving it a second life. I’m so grateful my mom taught me to use iron-on patches to reinforce the knees of jeans that are wearing thin, and how to fix a snagged sweater with a crochet hook. In learning little tricks like these, I also grew to understand that the usefulness of things can be extended, and that value is to be determined by what something means to us, not by what it means to others.

So, weird as this may seem, whenever I settle into the couch and start ripping out hems or mending holes, I feel rich. I’m not rich, mind you, but recognizing that I have what I need within the walls of my home makes my heart swell, and I remember again that my life is overflowing with blessings.

One day a few years back, I almost fell over in surprised joy at this feeling of abundance. I had been telling friends that I thought my husband and I needed a bookshelf. We just had so, so, so many books and no place to put them. We were busy with two kids at the time, and our basement was a wreck, with toys, extra furniture, and boxes of books shoved every which way and all over the place. No organization whatsoever. I couldn’t stand it, but of course, no one but us was going to fix it. No fairy godmother was showing up with a magic wand to whip everything into order.

My complaints had reached a climax and I was climbing over the stuff in our basement’s back room, where a door leads to a storage area. In a rant about buying more containers to clean up and compartmentalize the mess, I wasn’t thinking about what might be in that storage room.

Right behind that white door was a basic 6-foot bookcase my father-in-law built 40 years ago. It was exactly what we needed. It was right in our house all along. And I had completely forgotten about it.

So how often do I forget about what I actually have? Every day. It’s so easy to look around at what others have and think they have it better than me. Better hair. Cuter clothes. A prettier house. More worldly success. Some vague happiness that is greater than mine – as if that can be measured. As if what they are showing on the outside is in any way a true reflection of what’s really happening on the inside.

This is exactly what the evil one would like for me to think about, right? And these malicious whispers in my head that would divert me from the Life that Jesus came to bring to me are lies. Lies. Jesus tells us the devil “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

So do I have what I need to fight these thoughts? If I have access to a Bible and a mind to pray, I do. But I’ve found that no matter how wonderful it feels to fill up on God’s Word, be it on Sunday at church, or during Bible study with my friends, I cannot walk through this life and expect the satisfaction of those times to last. Daily immersion is required. I cannot run on fumes.

And why is that? Because God is alive! And I have a relationship with Him. Every time I seek Him out the experience is new. He opens the doors to show me what I have forgotten or neglected to see – in myself, in the world, in all dimensions of my life. He plants His Word in my heart. The more I read it and pray on it, the more I recall it when I become challenged. Baffling situations are less intimidating, for I am confident the Lord is with me. I know the feeling of His presence.

Sitting with Him, studying what I have right here with Him, blesses me beyond words. And that’s why I come back, to use what I already have, and to more deeply appreciate the lasting, eternal value of His endless love. All glory is His forever.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

–  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Day 30 – Baby Love

On my husband’s side of the family, we had a new reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving – our newborn niece – who was exactly 7 weeks old on the holiday itself.  She is a beautiful and tiny little cherub, with long fingers and long legs. It was fun to speculate about what she might do with her life, and to study her face, trying to discern whom she most closely resembles.

The immediate family ate dinner together, and my husband’s large extended family joined us for dessert.  Many had not seen the new princess before.  Something happens to a person when they “meet” a newborn, especially one in their family, for the first time.  Their face noticeably softens, tension drains from their shoulders.  They stop moving and often fall silent for several seconds. Scientists say women’s pupils dilate when they look at a baby’s face.

I think staring into the eyes of a newborn we are meeting for the first time is awe-inspiring on a deeply subconscious level.  Newborns are people in their purest possible state.  And it just might be the closest we can come to seeing the face of God.

I looked around the room at all of those people and for a few minutes saw babies everywhere. We all were, of course, just like my niece. And someone took care of us, however well or imperfectly. The people who brought us up did their best to love us, and they were babies once too, loved by imperfect people.

Some of us are blessed to be parents to babies now growing.  I am humbled every day by the realization that I make tons of mistakes, and that while I start out with the best of intentions, and I love my kids so much it hurts sometimes, there is One far greater who loves them infinitely more than me, and He proved it by dying for me on a cross. He alone, of all babies who grew up throughout time, did not have the stuff inside that makes me do things that leave me knowing I’m guilty, or ashamed. Thank goodness for Him, because He forgives me for messing up, and can show me how to try again, and how to love myself and my babies better the next time.

And there’s another thing I’ve learned from Him, but also from watching parents here whose babies have gone to heaven heartbreakingly young.  And that is, that a living parent NEVER stops loving their baby.  In fact, love never ends.  I am so thankful for the assurance I have in knowing that. Because I too am a baby.  And my Father is the Living God.

“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
as long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.”

― Robert Munsch, Love You Forever

 

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My daughter (9) holds my niece’s hand.                                     She was 7 weeks old on Thanksgiving day.