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Job and God and Me

Watercolor by Tammy Groves Thornton

Watercolor by Tammy Groves Thornton

We all have challenges in life. That’s the nature of the journey. How will we answer?

Job arose, tore his clothes, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshiped. He said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.” In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God. [Job 1:20-22, CEB]

We’re in over our heads. With each growth spurt, another adversity. Strength is earned. Patience is earned. Perseverance is earned. And woven through them all is the seeming paradox of surrender, trust, and abandon of control.

Our pastor challenged us at the beginning of the year to choose a single word around which to focus our time and energies. I took this intention to heart and chose the word Simplicity. But in order to kindle a simpler life, I must examine the roots that produced the other lifestyle–the chaos and the busyness, the stress and over-commitments. A lot comes from the accumulation of stuff. Now, in the face of losing a loved one, the stuff no longer holds much power or significance. There’s a wind blowing through me and I’m letting go.

Widow

winter treeI thought I could write today. I thought I would title this post, the Widow’s Lament, but really, to what end? I am forging on, for good or ill, the way I usually do, with busyness and tasks. In this way, I can push back the other, that unnameable thing some call grief, but the word barely scratches at the guts of the experience.

Williams Carlos Williams wrote a beautiful poem entitled the Widow’s Lament, but it also carries the hope of renewal within it, set in the spring. For me, it is still winter, cold short days and bitter wind and frozen tears falling white.

I sought out scripture about widows, and we, like orphans, defined by our aloneness, are cast upon the body for care and love. I am grateful for it, I can say that plainly for my capable self is perilously close to shattering her illusion. Keep busy. What is worse? To collapse under the weight of it all and cast one’s being into the flurry of well-intentioned voices and pursuits or brave it well by appearance and lose support? Where is the middle ground? I am not a blubbering mess, not really, but I am also not a tower of strength. Stay close, my people, the way is long.

True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us. [James 1:27, CEB]

I found these words, I dedicate them to my children, that they might know something of the truth (written by Lauren Bacall, at the death of her beloved husband, Humphrey Bogart):

A new beginning for me, the making of a life without Bogie . . . And from the time of his death–and more and more–his teachings have permeated by being. With each passing year I find myself repeating more and more often to my three children and to many of my friends his words of wisdom . . . how two become one and is that one way people live on after death? . . . So imagine my shock when I realized, at the tender age of sixty-five, that with all the above, the final truth is this: I live alone. I need a reason for all that I do, not just fill my days but to unleash my energy, to make me feel warm, that I matter, to satisfy my emotions. When I travel, which is often, who do I buy things for? My children. to whom do I send postcards? My children. Who do I call? My children. they are my connection. My connection with yesterday, today and tomorrow.

And so I imagine it will be (and is) with me: my children and my God and the people who love and need to be loved.

Broken

brokenWe have all seen broken things: dishes, computers, lamps, toys, and even limbs. But the broken heart is a trickier observation. I thought I knew about this kind of brokenness. After all, my past is littered with old boyfriends and missed opportunities and disappointments. I thought I knew.

But no. Now I walk within a crushing brokenness that has no comparison to anything I have experienced before. The outer ranges of who I am continue, that daily self still rises and makes breakfast, still feeds the dogs and picks up the mail: she is still functioning. Apparently I look fine; after all, I have been complimented on my strength and poise. The irony of observed strength compared to the life beneath is not lost on me.

Here’s what I know so far: I am not broken in a way that super glue or duct tape can repair. That woman self, the  one before losing Mike, cannot be reconstructed into herself again. Instead, the inner shards must morph into a different construct. Grief of this kind adds colors and shapes that were unknown before. This is change of a monumental variety, yet hidden behind the cloak of function.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
    and saves those who are crushed in spirit. [Psalm 34:18, NIV]

And for this reason, it is really a God kind of time for it is only Spirit that can reshape from the inside out.

I wrote the obituary for Mike, it’s below. I thank you all for the prayers of family, friends and neighbors. I am in awe of the touch of love through eyes and arms and words through people, whether they were close to me (or Mike) or not, every touch matters. I see that now in a way I never saw it before.

Right now, I know this one thing. Mike was a healthy man with no history of heart disease. His death was both out of his control and mine. And for this reason, I understand, Mike’s passing is part of the journey set before me and my young adult kids;  we must all walk this road in faith and trust. We cannot know what lies ahead, but I rest in my God as best I can although this night of sorrow is long. I am so grateful for the presence of the Holy Spirit from whom I draw my hope.

The Obituary

Mike headshotMichael Leigh Brown died Saturday, Dec 13, 2014 of a massive heart attack at home; he was 64. Mike was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest son of Vernon Stockton Brown and Lina Snead Brown (both deceased). He attended the University of Georgia, served in the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground, worked at Georgia Public Television, and in 1982 married his beloved wife, Irmgarde Berzins Brown. In 1987, he moved to Havre de Grace, Maryland and began his 27-year career at Aberdeen Proving Ground as a television director and videographer. In 1997, he and his wife adopted two children, Arturs “Kip” Brown and Vernon Sergei Brown from Riga, Latvia at ages four and five; seven years later, they adopted Liliana Victoria Brown from St. Petersburg, Russia at fifteen. In addition to his creative work for the government, Mike donated his time and talents to both Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air and more recently, Restore Church in Havre de Grace. Mike participated in several para-church organizations: Kairos Prison Ministry, Walk to Emmaus, and Cursillo. Mike volunteered at two orphanages in Africa: Children of Zion Village in Katima, Namibia, and Village of Hope, Zambia. He and his wife were leading a team to Africa in the fall of 2015. Mike was a man of faith who walked out his beliefs by working for the good of his community, both near and far.

Mike used his video skills to create personal projects (see his YouTube channel, vydeoynkhorne), record family and life events, as well as church activities. Mike was a history buff, a Robert E. Lee re-enactor, a regular blood donor to the Red Cross, an avid reader, a conspiracy theorist, an investigator into the cryptic, and a champion for ambidexterity and healthy living.

Mike is survived by his wife, three children, and brother, Vernon Stockton Brown, Jr. and several cousins, nieces, and nephews.

Visitation with the family will be Thursday, December 18th, 2 – 4 pm followed by a Memorial Service at 6:30 pm at St. Patrick’s Fellowship Hall at 650 Pennington Avenue, Havre de Grace, MD. There will be no viewing as Mike requested his body be donated to science. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to the benevolence fund of Restore Church, Havre de Grace [https://restorechurch.cloverdonations.com/give-online/] or one of the orphanages he supported.

Lamp of the Word

Photo by Steve Fraser

Photo by Steve Fraser

Throughout history, the Word has had the power to “light the way:” scripture, inspired by God in both the Old Testament and the New. Words handed down to us through story, heroes and villains, miracles and inheritance. The Word, then, a written and verbal account of the presence of God among humankind, given to enlighten our own actions and choices, to give examples and a path toward righteousness; a template for living and a warning in the face of evil. We acknowledge: Your word [God] is a lamp before my feet and a light for my journey. I have sworn, and I fully mean it: I will keep your righteous rules. [Psalm 119:105, CEB]

God gives and we must respond, or at the very least, I am compelled to answer. This psalm, the longest single chapter in the Bible, whose author is officially unknown but most assume that either David, Ezra, or Daniel wrote it. The overall message? The Word of God is all-sufficient.

Can I swear to that and mean  it? Can I keep the laws of God? Not all, for sure; and maybe not even the ten. But if I could just fasten my heart on to the two most compelling “Words” from God, two key laws, two commandments that hold within them, the entire Law of God:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  [Matthew 22:37-39]

These two would light my journey indeed, each and every day, if I allowed them to do so, if I surrendered to their Truth and embraced them wholeheartedly, they would shine the brightest.

But I cannot. I don’t. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man [woman] of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips . . . ” [Isaiah 6:5a, NIV]

And for this reason, I cry out to my Jesus, that One who always knew and knows that I cannot follow that path on my own, no matter how much I want to do so today, tomorrow I will go astray. This I know, this I have seen in myself. Only One can cover me, can make the path wide enough for my weaving heart. Oh Jesu, my Savior, the propitiation for my weak resolve.

Facing My Fear

fear not

Photo by Tom Ryaboi

According to the verse counters, there are more than 500 verses in scripture that address the matter of fear. Some of them say, “be not afraid,” some say, “fear not,” and others compare the power of fear against the power of God (no contest). And yet, we continue to fear.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
    of whom shall I be afraid? [Psalm 27:1, NIV]

Fear can be defined as an emotion induced by the perception of threat to oneself. As a result, we have responses such as flight or fight. If the threat is completely out of our control, fear may be partnered with anxiety, and then our set of responses is diminished because anxiety often causes a shut-down or meltdown (note, anxiety can exist without fear but the combination is lethal).

Life prepares us for fear . . . or not. So much depends on our experiences. If we have successfully navigated a difficult situation or person at one time, the next occurrence will be less fear producing (but of course, the converse is also true). If we are thrown into circumstances for the first time, despite their newness, there is usually something we have done before that will drive our response (even if it’s the last time we tackled a new environment, activity or person). In other words, how we respond can become habitual.

The question then is critical: If God is God and I believe God is “for me” and not against me, why do I continue to fear?

Because I continue to leave God out of the equation.

It’s time to build a new set of responses, consciously, if necessary. Like breaking any habit, it will take some time and some practice, but it’s time to really stand in the promise of Presence.

Altar of God

altarWhat is God’s altar today? Is it merely in a church, festooned in appropriate colors for the season of the year, adorned with extras like flowers and candles? What if there is no altar in the church; where then? Rarely do we find the traditional church table in contemporary churches. If anything, it’s the drum set that holds center stage, or perhaps the podium where God’s messenger/priest/pastor/hip guy in a Hawaiian shirt or Toms shoes speaks.

Let me come to God’s altar—let me come to God, my joy, my delight—then I will give you thanks with the lyre, God, my God!  [Psalm 43:4, CEB]

Back in the day of King David when this Psalm (song) was written, there were several altars in the Temple, one holier than the next, until the most sacred altar of all was reached, the one in the “Holy of Holies,” but it was totally inaccessible to the common person, and was only visited on high holy days by a single priest. Is this altar of God we should be imagining?

And by the by, when was the last time you heard a lyre? Here’s a lovely example of a re-created lyre of that time period:

It’s assumed that many of the psalms were songs accompanied by the lyre and that King David, as a young man was quite proficient at playing one. It has a very gentle and soothing sound, but not perhaps, what we might imagine as we stand before this “altar of God.”

Perhaps the real issue is not where or what the altar is or how we come or what instrument we’re playing; instead, perhaps it’s intent. If God is present at the altar, like a meeting place, a touch point, so that each and every time, we came to such an altar, we would meet God, wouldn’t we want to go there often? How much do you want to experience God, to give thanks, to admire and express wonder, to receive love and grace and acceptance.

Oh, God, let me come.

No, God does not need to give permission to attend to this altar. I must simply will it; desire it. Or are my days too full? Even this one. For my morning was whisked away from me and it is already past Vespers as they say, evening for sure. I did not attend the altar.

Are you still unsure where this altar lies? It is within, inside the silence, inside the joy, inside the ever-playing music of God.

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