Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Answering the Call Part 3

It's taken me over a month to finally write this post. That's not entirely true. I wrote this post months ago as it was happening, it's taken me months to share it.

I'm a long way from that day in 1986. I'm also a long distance from the place I grew up and as far as the East is to the West from the beliefs of my Childhood. The God I surrendered to in my teenaged years became in my mind a god sitting on his throne waiting to condemn me for all my mistakes. I became afraid of Him. I could hide in Jesus, so I did. I related to Jesus and called him friend, but he was separate and distinct from God. I needed him to be in order to hold on to any faith at all.
The Middle part of my story spans decades. It started even before Part 1 and it continues. The Middle part of my story is ignoring God. And not ignoring God. Some days are better than others. Some days are easier than others.
I’m there again, I’m in a different pew, in a different part of the country, some 25 years later, but I hear the calling again. There is no ambiguity in His request. I’m being called to once again “Come, Follow Me.”. And yet I sit. I sit in this pew as the other women are leaving filing out one by one after their own silent meditation, after they have brought their burdens to the cross I continue to sit……
The Women and I are on a Walk to Emmaus. I’ve come to the end of a long exhausting day. It began quite unexpectedly.....
I stood there waiting to be called. The Elizabeth table had been called and filled. Then the Martha table was also called and filled. And I stand there, “Hmmmmm God, whatcha doin here?” I think. “My name is Martha Elisabeth. You do remember that, right? Okay so you’re sticking with the Ruth theme, alright.” But then the Ruth table is called and filled and there I stand.
“Mary or Esther? Really? I’m reduced to Mary or Esther?” My name is finally called, I’m at the Mary table. Mary, perhaps my least favorite woman mentioned in the Bible. I sit there all day thinking, I don’t feel like a Mary.
When I got back to my room that night I pulled out my Bible and read my Mary bible stories. All the Marys. And for the ones mentioned in the New testament, there’s a common thread. The common thread weaving them altogether is that they all submitted to God’s will. They all gave to God what was God’s – Themselves. They all said to God, “Not my will but thine.”
Ouch. Really God? You’re going to go there, just right off the bat, huh? Now? And that began the active conflict. Me and my will on one side, God and His on the other.
But that moment, and for the next 18 hours I was in active combat. I don’t lay down my will easily. I will do what I want to do damn the consequences. I began fighting with God in every thought, deed and action actively passively and constantly for the next 18 hours I refused God. I had every excuse in the book. Every thing you can think of I thought of. And I told God again and again, “Nope not me, pick someone else.”
But I’d already been fighting God for the past 18 months I had been passively fighting God’s will for my life. I wasn’t actively confronting Him, I just was telling Him, I can’t hear you right now, I’m too busy. I’ve got kids that need to go to their activities, I’ve got a husband who really can’t deal with this right now, I’ve got responsibilities and expectations that I must fulfill. I couldn’t even say the question he was asking out loud.
God was calling, had been calling and would keep calling me to ministry. Full on Ordained Ministry. And I was scared lifeless. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid I was too old. I was afraid I was too broken. I was afraid I was too wrong. But God kept calling me and I steadfastly refused. And now I sat at the table of Mary and God was asking for my own submission. Could I?
…. I continued to sit there in that pew and I was transported back to my childhood. The whole weekend had transported me to another place in time. 
One of my first encounters on my Walk was the room I was assigned. Before even entering the room, I noticed the woman in the room next to mine had my maiden name that gave me pause. But when I went in my room, I saw it. The lampshade I had on my lamp when I was a little girl. Who but God could do this?
That’s the moment I knew God wanted me there. I needed to have my Walk. I needed a new encounter with God. God was calling me to the faith I had as a child. But he wasn’t calling me backward he was calling me forward.
But still I sat. I had the sweaty palms and freezing hands. My heart was racing, I’m shivering again, I know it’s time. This time however it’s a walk to the back I need to make. A walk to speak with the Spiritual Advisers. Not a walk to the front, but before I can make that walk I have to surrender. I have to submit my will again. I have to give up everything again. So I’m playing “Let’s make a deal” again. But again God doesn’t want deals He wants me. All of me. He wants my heart, my soul and my mind. So I start to throw out my excuses. I’m not minister material. Surely he was aiming for the pious lady on either side of me and hit me by mistake. I’m no pastor. I use four letter words. Regularly. In front of my children. I mean really who’s going to look to me for guidance? Come on God, Pastors don’t say those words.
I’ve got my best friend’s words bouncing around in my head “You’ll love Seminary” and “God doesn’t care what you’re undergrad is in, just finish it already.” (My best friend IS a Pastor she might know a thing or two about these things) Meanwhile, I’m thinking “Brian is going to kill me.” And I’m working through the conversation in my head.
Him: “So let me get this straight, you left a six-figure salary job. And now you’re telling me you want to be a Pastor? Are you trying to kill me? You want to spend 80K to never make that again? Really, no, Elisabeth, seriously?” (He only calls me Elisabeth at certain times -- this conversation would definitely be one of those times)
And all of that is bouncing around in my head and I’m continuing to throw out excuses. “But God, I can’t sing. Pastors have to be able to sing. Oh and God, I can’t move my family. They love their home. And we need to be where Brian can get to work easily. I can’t just uproot us.” And for now that’s enough.
I continue to sit there. I continue to think about getting up and walking to the back and talking to one of the Pastors in the back many of whom have children and are Moms. I can hear Jesus calling me again. I stand up, and my heart is in my throat and my knees are wobbly and I look back but I just can’t. I walk out of the chapel. I pause on the stairs up to my room and I can still hear Jesus calling and I think I could still go back in and speak to one of them. But I know once I say it out loud, there’s no going back. Once I say it, once I talk to someone about it, I’m committed.
And I’m back in my room and I’m ignoring God just like when I was a child.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Answering the Call Part 2

This is definitely The middle of my story I originally wrote this in December, 2011. To read the beginning, go to Answering The Call Part 1 But this is a part of the weekend that changed my life. This weekend began the struggle for my will. God was asking me for submission and I was refusing. Some of you have read this one before. But Part 3 is proving more difficult to write than I originally believed. 

On a recent Saturday I discovered, our washing machine was broken. In a household with six people, this is the equivalent of DEFCON 4.

With a load of my daughter's clothes in it this upped the ante to DEFCON 3.

Editorial Side Note:Anal retentive doesn't even come close to describing how I feel about my daughter's clothing. I don't think OCD does it justice either. Let's just say anyone who knows me absolutely knows how I feel about my daughters clothing. I wash her things on cold, everything gets a Shout Color catcher, every stain is treated using a multistage process, although she is one of 6 people who reside in our home her clothes are washed alone, nothing else is allowed in the load. My teenaged boys do most of the family's laundry, but they do not usually touchhers. I do the laundry for the Princess. I spend many hours washing and hanging her clothes, as they do not enter the dryer either, at least not while wet. After they are fully dry I place them in the dryer to fluff and soften them. And anyone who has received either through purchase or gift the hand me downs of the princess knows how these clothes have been babied. In many cases they still look brand new, partly because she has so many she rarely wears something more than 3 times.

So I had to take her soaking wet clothes to the Laundromat and rewash them because the teen responsible for laundry had left them for three days in a broken washer. We have now reached DEFCON 1, nuclear war is imminent.

Before Saturday I'd rather have had root canals than ever go to the Laundromat. But Saturday was the most humbling, frustrating, rewarding, beautiful trip ever. Even getting TO the Laundromat with all my supplies and the 5 rolls of quarters we expected it would take to wash and dry the family's laundry was an epic adventure. But after buying new detergent, stain fighters, fabric softener, and dryer sheets, at the A&P because I left mine at home. And after dropping off the dry cleaning so I would not miss them and be naked later in the week. And stopping at the bank to get the quarters, I finally arrived at the Laundromat.

Then I had to drag --because carrying was not an option-- a basket of dripping wet clothes that weighed probably 85 pounds into the laundromat. This Rubbermaid storage bin that passes for a laundry basket in our home, was about three quarters full of materials including ruffles, taffeta, silk, and corduroy in a rainbow of the little girl colors, pink, white, red, navy, brown and purple. My cross to bear was a bin of dripping wet Gymboree soup. It was a heavy cross, a cross I eagerly fashioned, I purchased every stitch in that bin. I had created the clothes monster that loves every piece of clothing in that bin and I had created an environment in my own home where everyone was afraid to touch her clothing. I thought for sure I was going to die dragging that bin. But I did not, some where I found the strength to haul this unbearable load into a building that can only be described as ewwwww yucky. The floors were dirty, some of the machines were held together with duct tape, the tiles were chipped and broken, and the walls had a film on them that was reminiscent of a New Jersey diner in the 80's. In short no thinking person would assume anything would come to this place to achieve a state of cleanliness. But I was committed at this point, the next nearest Laundromat was half an hour away and I was short on time. So I loaded my dripping wet laundry into the first row of washers, they looked reasonably young, so there was that. They were stainless steel contraptions with chrome and gleaming glass fronts. They looked out of place in this otherwise sad dank dark little room.

Additional Editor’s Note:I'll admit I'm not the most observant of people. My husband calls me (and a couple of my children who are most like me) oblivious. It fits. When I assume something, I rarely verify. If I've always done something one way I assume I'll always do it that way. I'm very much a creature of habit. This causes me to literally trip and fall over things with embarrassing frequency.

All my laundry was loaded in the machines; I had treated my stains, poured in my detergent and added my fabric softener. Break out the quarters, I’m on a roll. Wait a minute, there's a card slot where the quarter slot should be. Huh?Then the realization dawned upon me slowly like the sun sinking in the sky over the ocean late on a summer evening. The machines don't take quarters. Then I finally read the sign, a white sign with green lettering that was the size of a football field hanging on the wall. Please buy a card the washers and dryers no longer operate on quarters. Huh? When did that happen and why didn’t I get the memo? So I trek to the back of the store still holding my 5 rolls of quarters thinking, “oh God how long will it take to put $50 of Quarters into a slot to buy a card?” I arrive at the back of store stand there looking at the card dispensing machine and see no slot for quarters I go out to my car to get my wallet to use my Visa check card, only the make the long embarrassing trek back to the back of the store and wait, there's no Visa swipey thing either. (Yes, the word oblivious DOES indeed fit me, sometimes.)

You have to have cash. So I trek over to the nearest bank, take out another $60 from the ATM, 3 $20 bills. And I trek back to what I’m now calling in my mind the hell hole. Third time's a charm, right? All the way down that shameful path to the card dispensing machine at the back of the store. Press the button to buy a card, machine says, enter a $10 bill. Huh? Look Up and there on the second football field size sign it says, machine takes fives, tens and twenties but the card must be purchased with a $10 bill. I admit I'm beyond mad by now. So I walked in with $50 in quarters to do my laundry and my money was completely useless. I had cards in my wallet out the wazoo, thousands of dollars literally at my disposal not to mention $50 in quarters and my money was useless there.

I began pleading for a good Samaritan to help me. I have now officially blown 35 minutes on this adventure and I'm playing beat the clock. "Does anyone have 2 tens for a twenty?" I call out. A God send of a woman comes out of the blur of nameless faceless people who are occupying this hovel with me. “Here,” she says, “I bet we do.” She then turns to her children and asks them to locate the money. Finally I have the required cash in hand. I go through the steps on the machine and get my card. I decided to load the card up to the max, I figured I'd pass it on to IHN (Interfaith Hospitality Network) when I was done using it.

It was like finding the arc of the covenant, angels literally sang as I walked from the card machine back up to my waiting washers. So I proceeded to do my laundry. The lady with two tens and I struck up a conversation about iPads and how horrible this Laundromat is. As she's standing there with her daughter in their matching sweaters from Hanna Andersson I feel comfortable talking to her. She's like me. She looks like me, she dresses like me, she has a broken washer like me and four kids like me. She tells me not to waste my money in the dryers, the doors fly open mid cycle and the clothes tumble out onto the aforementioned dirty floor. Her nine year old daughter was completely grossed out by the thought of her clothes touching this floor and was adamantly insisting she wouldn’t wear them. So we talked about the Laundromat and what we were supposed to do with these cards when were done. I said I was giving mine to IHN. She loved that idea. And also suggested she was going to write a letter to the newspaper about the condition of the Laundromat. I thought that was a good idea. We were perfectly happy to help the people caught in this place, it made us feel good so long as everyone knew we didn't belong here.

Shortly after that she left and I finished my wash. Because of time and her advice I chose to bring it home to dry. Now I had $20 left on this stupid card that cost me three dollars to buy in the first place.
I put my clothes in the car and came back in to return the wheelie cart when I saw her. She was an older woman, looked to be in her sixties. Life had really beaten her up, if you know what I mean. The worry lines were carved so deeply in her face I wondered if she had ever once in her life laughed. I don't know what brought her there, how she got to her age and looked like she was just waiting to die. Her hair was mostly gray and she just looked like she could barely muster enough energy to take the next step, let alone lug laundry back into her car. I never did see her car; maybe she wasn't even lucky enough to have one. She sat in the chair by the window on those hard plastic chairs where four or five are attached to a steel beam. It’s the type of chair that you would think of when you picture an emergency room or waiting area of a police station. Places I got the feeling she'd frequented sometime in her life. I had seen her with a man about her age earlier when she was putting her wash in the machines. He was wearing a Sweatshirt with the Ronald McDonald House Logo on it.

Unlike some of the others who were regulars she didn't have a book or crosswords or even a cell phone to keep her busy, I didn't see anything in her hands except one of those ridiculous $3 cards. She sat there alone, staring at the floor. I returned the cart to the corner, walking in front of her, careful not to disturb her, and she didn't move, didn't even look up. As I crossed back in front of her I looked down and without a moment's hesitation I knew what I was supposed to do with that card. I paused and leaned in to her, I said "Do you come here often?" Immediately I felt like the stupidest person in the world. It was the most inane thing anyone has ever said to someone. This was a Laundromat not a singles bar and I was a woman giving away $23 not some cheesy guy at last call. But she looked up with sadness so deep in her eyes it was now an air of resigned acceptance. Whatever hand life had dealt her she was going to play it out.

She quietly responded, "Yes." with a look of confusion on her face. I replied, "Here please take my card, I won't need it again and it's got about $20 on it. Please enjoy." Again I'm feeling stupid, who enjoys doing laundry? She says "thank you" even more quietly than she said "yes" and I handed it to her and walked out of the Laundromat. She didn't show big gratitude, but I didn't need that. It felt good. I imagined that no matter how much she did or did not need that $20 in laundry money, she definitely needed it more than me.

I got out to the parking lot in my car and started to back out of the space. I looked up and she was trying to come out of the door of the laundromat. She stopped, we made eye contact and she mouthed the unmistakable words, "Thank you and Merry Christmas." I waved and smiled and continued on my day with a smile literally in my heart.

Editor's note: As I read this some 18 months after writing it, I've often thought about the lady from the laundromat. I wonder how she is and where she is. I wonder if she is happy and I hope for her it was just a bad month. But I mostly wish I had taken some time that day to get to know her, to understand her true needs and see if I could help. I've been back to the laundromat a few times but I've never seen her again. I am happy to report that I no longer baby my daughter's clothes. At least not with the obsessive nature I used to.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Answering the Call Part 1

Note: This is the first in a series.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, with a family that had been Southern Baptist for generations. My grandmother used to say, “You are Southern Baptist born, Southern Baptist bred and when you die you’ll be Southern Baptist Dead.” Yes, this was serious stuff. One did not just change their religion in our family.
So for the first 20-some odd years of my life, with very few exceptions, I attended a Southern Baptist Church. Since I grew up in the Bible Belt, they were plentiful. At the end of the Service we had the altar call. This was the time set aside in the service for a song of Invitation like “Softly and Tenderly” where you could come up to the front and pray with the Preacher or some delegate and say the sinner’s prayer and get saved and then make plans for Baptism. While the song is playing, the Preacher continues at the front to urge you to invite Jesus into your heart and come up and make a public profession of faith. This was so scary to me. But he’s repeating “Come, leave your burdens at the cross.” “Jesus is calling you today, will you answer the call?”
I remember being a teenager and standing there in the pew singing, my heart in my throat. My palms are sweaty but my hands are freezing cold. He’s calling (Jesus , not the Preacher) “Come, Come Lisa and Follow Me.” And I stood there frozen in Time. It’s just me, Jesus and the Preacher.  And I would say to myself, “Am I going up there this week?” The walk to the front looks like the longest walk of all. And I stood there half singing this song I knew by heart and I’m wondering “is this the week I go down front?” And I’m standing there bargaining with God – because that’s what we do. “If I do this, then you’ll do that – Right God?” But God doesn’t want deals. He wants faith and trust. No bargains. 
And I come back to the service and the last verse is playing and I’m standing there.  And my knees start wobbling and my hands are shaking and I’m thinking this is it, this is the week I’m going to take the Longest walk down to the front and say yes to God. And just as I almost get the courage to step out into the aisle to answer Jesus calling softly and tenderly, and surrender my life and my will to Him. I realize the last verse is playing I do the math in my head, calculating how long the process takes and I know if I go down this week I’ll cause service to run long and then the Methodists across town will get out before the Baptists and then there will be a line at the restaurant and the whole church will be angry with me having to wait for lunch. And so I decide, not today. Not this week. Maybe next time.
When the next week comes I go through the same thing all over again to “Just As I am” this time. I get the sweaty palms, heart palpitations, freezing hands. Same thoughts, same bargaining, same everything. Right down to not making the walk. And again and again. But one Sunday, the right Sunday, the one Sunday God knew I was going to walk down, that Sunday I do it. This time I walk to the front and surrender my life to God. And the feeling of surrender is like no other. My heart is soaring with the Angels. I’m on top of the world. And the view is beautiful.  I am a new creation and like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis I am ready to flutter from flower to flower spreading the nectar of the Good News to help the flowers grow. And I can feel God there with me all the time and I’m not alone anymore.
Ah the beauty of young love. There’s nothing like it. And then I return to the world and it begins to wane. My attention goes to other things. And I relegate God to church. And I backslide and slip and the next thing I know I feel much more like a sinner than a saved one and I don’t feel God with me anymore and I don’t make time for my first love and I forget the feeling. And I tell God no time and again.
I did it all. Walked the walk to the front, Publicly professed my very private faith. Came up from the water. And then slowly slinked away from God. His light was harsh and it showed me my imperfections, highlighted them, even. And I was sure I wasn’t worthy of his love. And I had made a terrible mistake.
And then I sinned, and sinned and sinned again. I was told I was a horrible person by people who knew me and people who didn’t know me and I began to believe them. I began to really believe God could not, would not ever love me.
And then I went on about life and I could talk a really good talk about God and the Bible and I could slay people in their sin and tell them all the things they were doing wrong. And I spoke from my own guilt and shame, which was separating me from God.
But even in those dark decades, I still had moments where I would do what God asked. And I would feel electric and so alive. I would be on top of the world again. And then the guilt and shame would set in again and I’d go back into hiding.
And then I heard the still small voice. He was calling to me again. He was calling me to let go of the guilt and shame. He was calling me to trust in him. He was calling me to live in his love and his joy. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t find my way out. There was too much. Too many things I had done. I was useless. I was broken.
Then he sent me one of his Angels in the form of a Pastor. She was the most beautiful example of Jesus I had ever seen. I could literally see Jesus in her eyes. And I trusted her.  And I shared my deep, dark secrets with her. And I cried. And she cried.  And God was there. And he told me I was forgiven, He told me I was loved, He told me he had been there with me the whole time, and He loved me still.
And then He told me something I wasn’t ready to believe and so I ran again. I didn’t run far, and I didn’t hide well and even though I was telling Him “No.” firmly and forcefully he continued to love me.  He continued to guide me and protect me. And even though I couldn't even say it outloud, I knew one day I'd say "Yes" to God again.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Broken Stones

Often in my garden I find myself surprised by discoveries. Whether I’ve discovered tiny little seedlings breaking through the soil where I planted seeds, fruit underneath a flower I smelled the day before or a new way to look at God, I’m always in awe. This weekend I was finishing construction and filling of my new raised beds and I decided to move the stepping-stones the kids had made my husband many years ago and put them inside the garden.  They’ve moved more than most stones do. They spent a few years on the front porch, then finally made it to the back yard and for the last year or so they were the path leading up to the greenhouse entrance.

Our Children grew up and the stones got damaged. The one made by Boo was the shape of a butterfly and a piece broke off the bottom of the wing. The square one made by Blonde boy somehow ended up in 5 pieces.  And despite digging all around the path leading to my greenhouse, I was not able to find the 5th piece. The round one made by the Princess has a few stones missing. As I placed them in the ground over the weekend I realized they were a symbol of the relationship the children had with their father at this moment in time.

The blonde boy is seventeen and searching for his wings to fly away. At this time his relationship with his father is contentious, but still visible. There are cracks and fissures and even a large chunk is missing but it’s still there. The stone is still a stone.  The love is still there even if it’s hard to see even hard to look at some times. You see in our home, I am respected above all. My husband, like his father before him, taught our children that I am the mother, I love them more than they can ever know and they will always respect me for that. So the anger and angst of growing up especially from the boys has always been aimed at their father. I’m the Mother who is never blamed for punishment.

Boo made the Butterfly, it has the bottom part of the wing broken off. There’s been some bumps and bruises along the way, but Boo is just now reaching the stage where he will begin to pull away from us. He will be twelve next month. He’s been a pretty good child –not perfect by any stretch of the definition--  but good.  And he is entering the teen years, and beginning to assert his independence and identify more with the blonde boy.  (The blonde boys teenage years have been very challenging!) Which also makes him a lot like his father. Who also liked to push the boundaries as a teenager and young adult.

The Princess made a circle. She was not quite two when we did this, so mostly I made a circle. Her stone is missing a few stones here and there but for the most part it’s still in one piece. And you can see the “I Love Daddy” pretty clearly in the middle. She is only eight years old. She still believes her Daddy is the greatest man in the world. (I think he is too, but that’s another post) She still says she’s going to college online so she never has to leave our house. (Oh yeah she’s gonna break his heart one day.)

But beyond the symbolism that is their relationship with their father, I also saw an over arching symbolism in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. When we are young Christians we believe our God is the most amazing being ever. He will help us overcome anything and standing on His shoulders we are undefeatable! We are victorious. We are perfect new creations.

Then as time goes by, we pray and don’t get our prayers answered the way we want them to be. We begin to doubt our God. We think maybe He isn’t really all he’s cracked up to be, and this being a Christian thing is pretty hard. Making good choices, trying to be like Jesus, it isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a tough road to hoe to be in the world but not of it.

Then a little later on we’ve really fallen. We are so broken we can’t even find all the pieces to our stones anymore. That higher rock that we thought would protect us and provide shelter has become anchor tying us down with responsibility and guilt. To be the hands and feet. To see a need --so many needs in this world we can’t fix can be overwhelming and can make us all just want to hide out in our churches with our broken hearts and missing pieces. But we don’t speak of those broken hearts and missing pieces. People might think we aren’t faithful if we aren’t blessed.

But sometimes God lets us break, so He can put us back together and if we do have missing pieces then they were not supposed to be part of us to begin with. They were extra pieces --baggage if you will-- that we gathered on our own along the way and God needs us to put that down. And God really needs us all to put down the glue and paint we use to cover our broken hearts and the paper mache we have fashioned to cover our missing pieces. God needs us to expose our broken hearts and missing pieces because that’s the only way to help our church and our world. 

When Jesus walked among us He didn't tell his disciples they must be perfect, he did not go into the synagogues & temples and pick the most religious, the most righteous. And most of the really good stories from the Bible involve really shady characters and really bad choices. No God doesn't call saints to lead He calls sinners to become Leaders and then he equips those willing to follow.

If you are too busy playing perfect, who’s going to share their imperfections with you? and even if someone is brave enough to share their vulnerabilities, how can you hear them through your mask?