Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Blanket of Stars

(A loving tribute to Elsie Mae from her 
granddaughter Bethany)

No warning came to ease my pain,
Not enough time to understand,
Things will never be the same.
The night and day.
They have been so cruel.

A blanket of stars covered and took her away.
And morning light robbed me of her soul.
They took a piece of me.
And left me wounded and unwhole.

The wind could be kinder.
If it would only impart a gentle reminder.
If only I could hear her voice,
Echo so softly in the wind.
My pain ever slightly to rescind.

Autumn brings its colored leaves.
Falling down to earth,
Back to dust the very earth grieves.
Earth grieves death,
Colorful, orange and gold,
Deaths brutal sting.

In spring comes lifes new breath.
The colors, pieces of her life.
They fill me.
Human, imperfect, failing.
I am broken I see.
I wonder if Earth cries out...
In pain would I hear its shout?

Earth will not hold her.
To the heavens she traveled.
A journey up as human life unraveled.
Unfolded and cofounded,
I am left wounded and dumb.
Pained, angered, and sometimes numb.
Yet I am but ash what do I know?

Earth has been cruel.
Heavens please be kind.
Wrap her in your heavenly arms.
Seduce her and love her with heavenly charms.
Love her as I do, tell her my heart.
So she will know I love her,
For this time that we are apart.

Reunited again..
With my grandmother.
With beautiful,
Oh someday...
Elsie Mae.

Patchwork Intimacy

When I was a college student, I worked at the Center for Research in Social Behavior on the University of Missouri campus. I needed a work-study job. They needed someone to do some clerical work. I would work with a social gerontologist. I was planning to go to grad school in sociology. I was interested in gerontology. This was perfect.

I applied. They accepted me. I loved it. They were some of the first people who took me seriously and thought I had potential. I was single welfare mother with three small children trying to “make something” of myself. Single mothers were more of a rarity then. Most people saw me as “low-life.”

The doctoral student working for the social gerontologist was my “boss.” She had an apartment somewhere but usually slept on the floor in her office in the old Tudor-style building on Stewart Road. She had a hot plate surrounded by cans of beans and spaghetti-o's and lots of peanut butter. I often wondered if she really did have an apartment.

She was working on some research on the concept of patchwork intimacy. I believe she later published her work as I have seen it cited – Kieffer 1977. The concept was, as I recall, that people use various sources to make up their intimate needs. This pattern resembled a patchwork quilt. I doubt I have given her ideas adequate explanation.

I’ve written about the kindness of new and old friends on social media sites. I’ve marveled at the comfort you can receive through emails from distant friends. Many of my emotional needs are met through an intricate and complex pattern of patchwork intimacy.

My mother died yesterday. She died on our 32nd wedding anniversary. If you read this blog, you know grandchildren surrounded her. These grandchildren are my children. Those that could, gave me some comfort on the loss of my mother. I needed more. I needed support from my spiritual family, the variety of friends and relatives that make up my patchwork. The love from these people is not complicated by history.

As it came near the time, she seemed to hold on for something. A very sweet nurse shared this concern. I went into her room the night before she died and lied to her. My mother used to say with the sternest of face, “all liars will have their place in the lake of fire!” I lied to her the night before she died.

For their own reasons, my two brothers chose to not be part of this experience that I was experiencing with our mother. I sensed she was waiting for them. I don’t know if she were. I only know what I sensed. Lying, I told her that we were all there. I named my brothers. I said:

We are here with you, all three of us. It is okay for you to go. We love you.

As I left, I whispered a prayer in her ear. Once again I lied telling her that we were all with her. She used to say she hated liars. I wonder if she knew that I had lied how she would feel.

For reasons of their own, my brothers will not come to bury my mother. However, this patchwork of intimates will be with me. I know they will pray. Old friends who can, will come and express their love. A man who was once a little boy serving as a ring-bearer when I was the child-bride of my first husband, will officiate at her funeral.  We have no pastor in Columbia, so he will serve as part of this intricate and beautiful patchwork.

Two of our daughters are traveling through a blizzard, across the country, with three small children to honor their grandmother. Another son will leave tomorrow with his sons, again traveling across the country in the snow, to do the same.  Every one of my eight children will be there, as will all of my grandchildren. My oldest granddaughter will leave basic training to be with us. I am so proud of my family. They are the most important part of my life.

I have more family though. It is funny how time has not erased these bonds of family, bonds I thought had been severed by time and distance.  My mother married after my father died. She and I were forever joined to the Martin family. They, some of their children and grandchildren will travel various distances to join with my husband and children to lay my mother to her eternal rest.  They will help me make arrangements. We will have table fellowship provided by them. We will pray together.  Their family and mine will be joined once again at a funeral home.

The last time we were all together was when we buried their father.  They truly are my sisters and brother. Yesterday I felt I had no family left. My mother was gone. My brothers abandoned me. Thanks to the Martin’s, I feel like an orphan who has been taken in and given family. I am so grateful.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Morning Has Broken

How wonderful it is when a new day breaks. When I first moved to Tennessee in the cool of the new day I would marvel at the sunrises. I had never lived on a farm and to see the sun come up over the river left me spellbound.

This morning there is no river or farm, only a suburban raised ranch on a large lot. I have this habit that annoys my husband. I like to open windows. I prefer open windows to air conditioning. Even on a cold morning in Tennessee like today, I fling open the only window I can open, the bathroom window. It looks out over part of our driveway. Just beyond the driveway is a wooded area.

Yesterday as we returned to our home, there was a beautiful male cardinal in the yard. His red was different that the cartoonish red you sometimes see. This red had a tinge of blue in it. He was magnificent.

A good story would be to tell you that my mother loved cardinals. That in seeing this bird it was a reminder that she was watching me. The thought of your mother watching you isn’t always comforting but this time it might have been. My mother never has mentioned liking cardinals. Yet I took some delight in seeing this glorious creation.

I have never noticed cardinals in our yard before. Today when I flung open the window, I saw a female cardinal. She might be the mate of the one I saw yesterday.

I think what I am sensing is that life goes on. We all know that, we all say that at times like this. But it does. There is profoundness in that truth. It is true there will always be seed time and harvest. As we learned from Simba, there is a circle of life. It keeps going and revolving. It isn’t just a random revolution of life. It is a life designed by a loving Creator.

Part of this revolution is death. I read literature over the last few days from hospice. They talked about a transition from this life. Death is part of life I heard several times. Yet it is more. As a believer I know that it isn’t only a transition. A loving heavenly Father, the creator of all living things knows, sees, understands, and takes us into His eternal home and care.

I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know if angels come. I don’t know if a loved one comes to greet us first. I don’t know when my mother saw Jesus. I don’t know when she saw my father. I don’t even know for sure that she has done any of these things. I don’t know if she’ll be in the ground in sleep awaiting the resurrection.

But I do know, she is being cared for by my heavenly Father. I know that the Creator never abandons His creation. I know that God saw that cardinal and sent him to me to remind me that life is full of beauty. 

Today the sun came up and reminded me of His faithfulness.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Stepping Stone

When I graduated from sixth grade in Brooklyn NY I had an autograph book. Once upon a time those things were very popular. It was sort of a bit like signing a yearbook although we had that too. I remember it was white. I asked my mother and father to write on the first pages.

Three years later when I graduated from Pershing Junior High School in Brooklyn, I had an official PJHS autograph book. It was blue and gold, had the school emblem on the front and closed with a zipper. I asked my mother and father to write on the first pages again.

I think my dad wrote first. He wrote:
Only one life will soon be past

Only what’s done for Christ will last

My mother wrote:
Isn't it strange that princes and kings, 
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings, 
And common people like you and me 
Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mass, 
A book of rules; 

And each must make-Ere life is flown- 
A stumbling block Or a steppingstone.

I have always been a bit of a traditionalist so after seeing what they wrote in the sixth grade, I asked them to write the same in the ninth grade book. They did.

Today my mother went home to be with the Lord. I am thinking about both my parents. My father has been gone for almost 39 years. I still miss him very much. Now my mother has joined him.

Like all human beings they were flawed. I am flawed as well. What I do really has no merit other than what I do in the name of the Lord and in His service. I can do nothing in myself. I can’t even get through today in myself; truly only what is done for Christ will last.

The poem of my mother’s I will have shared at her funeral. I don’t know if my children have heard it. My parents were flawed human beings. I am also flawed. We all are. But we have an opportunity to do something for eternity.

My children see my mother as a saint. By the time they knew her, many of her flaws and struggles had softened with time. We actually knew two different people. I am thankful I got to see her truly become that stepping stone for my children. I am so thankful I gave that opportunity to both her and my children. She is now a bridge that I hope and pray they will cross over so that they may be joined with her at the end of their journey around the throne of God. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Peculiar People

So many thoughts whirl around in my head. I think it is because I don’t have anyone to talk to right now. My husband says we are like the Democrats and Republicans. In their case, they both have the good of the country at heart, but they see things very, very differently. In our case, we are all thinking about my mother and yet our thoughts couldn't be more different.

In my romanticized view of how family should be, I see us clinging to each other as we allow our loved one to go to the one she loves the most, her Lord. Rather, some cling to a life that is nearly over. Their desperations want some heroic measure to snatch her from the jaws of death. If it were possible, I would too.

I, as the lone member of my political party, silently pray for Jesus to hasten to come to her aid and snatch her to her eternal home. I dare not utter my feelings because I feel outnumbered. The practicality of my personality is viewed as cold and indifferent. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is my passion to see my mother's wishes fulfilled and for her to be at peace that drives these prayers for her deliverance from this life. So I sit in silence. 

Still faint, the death rattle started yesterday. I remember in some literature class in school hearing some poetic account of this sound. I think even if you don’t know it is called the death rattle, you know it is the sound of the end.  The angels of hospice have come to attend to our needs.  For me, it was the affirmation that I am doing the best for my mother. The ready prayer of the hospice nurse helped. It was so good to hold hands with someone and pray.

As I sang the hymns of our faith, I realized that we Christians truly are a peculiar people (2 Peter 2:9).  I sang many slower hymns, especially the ones about heaven. However, I began to think of some of the more Pentecostal hymns. I realized we sing many fast, hand-clapping, happy songs about death. The tune and the expressions of worship mask the truth of the message.

This blog is called the Sounds of Hope. Yesterday, for me, the sounds of hope included happy songs about dying. As a believer, I know where my hope lies. It lies in the hope of the resurrection. It lies in the truth of the scripture that says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. As a believer that is what we want, to see our Savior and Lord. Those moments of glory we experience on earth are nothing compared to the glory that awaits us. We long for it.

Yesterday, in the midst of the sadness, the deep sadness I feel knowing that my mother will never make her quirky sounds or sit peacefully in her chair with her 75 year old Bible in her lap, I also found hope in the rattle. I knew that meant she was closer to going home.  As I sang Just a Little While to Stay Here, it was not for some far off time, it was for now. Truly soon her labors would be over.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Teacher You Dread

Death is a great teacher. I am sure there is someone quotable who said this. Certainly, they said it more eloquently than I. Death becomes like a magnifying glass. In its presence, as it begins to invade not only the body of the one on their final journey, but those who attend to them, relationships are examined under its lens.

My mother is on her final journey. Death has come to claim her. She is breathing heavier but still aided by oxygen. Loving grandchildren crowd around her. Occasionally one breaks down in tears. They are tears of sadness about their loss.

The one she shamelessly professed to favor refuses to leave her side.  She loving swabs her mouth with water. She refused to go last night for fear no one would swab her mouth. While she does not practice the faith taught to her by her mother or grandmother, she bought a Bible for her grandmother to keep at the Nursing Home. She even reads the difficult language of King James.

There is tension in the room as nurses come to attend the dying. The tension continues. Breathing is difficult; we wait for the next breath. We are learning patience.

There is tension among the family. Even in our silent vigil, the tension of family relationships is there. One is afraid to say what they want for fear of the anger of someone else. Issues of childhood creep into a room of adults waiting for death.  Death is examining our hearts. All of us are wanting. A thread easily severed holds some relationships; others can never be severed.

My relationship with the dying is no less complicated. My heart is being examined under the harsh magnification of death. I am the child she never really wanted to have. A truth that haunts me. It is truth but it is not the whole truth. As a mother, I know that even with the most inopportune pregnancy, when that baby comes into your arms all questions can be wiped away in a second.  

Our relationship could be difficult. The examination of death comes in close. It seems all the tears of the past have healed.  Perhaps that is part of what the scripture means when it says God will wipe away every tear.  

Death is teaching me that dying is a gift. It gives those we love the opportunity to let go of this life. We have the opportunity to say good bye. If we have faith, we can help them make this last journey. Yesterday I sang to my mother. I sang of heaven.  I think she is already seeing glimpses of Jesus. Her face tells me she is thinking of home. She is anxious to see Jesus, my dad and all those who went before.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


As I wait…wait…waiting is hard. I’ve waited for many thing in my life. I don’t like to wait. I’ve written before about waiting on another blog I author, you can read it here. Like the ordinary day I long to return, today is not ordinary waiting.

In pastoral care class, we learned that there are two Christian views of death.  God rarely gives us one option. I sometimes wish God would be more absolute. It seems the saying that God puts comas rather than periods is true.

One view of death is that it is the enemy that must be conquered. As we approach Easter, we will sing Up from the grave He arose with a might triumph o’er His foes. Our songs of triumph will echo Christ’s triumph over the death and grave.

Healing, whether medical or spiritual, wants to prolong life and conquer death. From the search for the Fountain of Youth to late night TV infomercials we cling to life. From the latest advances in science to the latest book on how to receive healing, we challenge death.

Death is also part of God’s grace. Life is hard. Life is long. Life is tiring. One grows weary. For the saint of God, the ultimate expression of God’s grace is for Him to say, Enter into My Rest. God welcomes us into the place He has prepared for us.  

This latter view of death is much less celebrated. It seems we prefer to cling to this life. We cling to what we know. We selfishly want to cling to those who are tired and weary.

Today I am waiting for death to come. I do not know when it will come. I do not know how it will come. We all watched my mother’s breaths closely yesterday.  At times, we silently held our breath. Then a slight move of her chest would tell us, she’s still here.

Then suddenly, she awakes. She looks around at us. Without her glasses, I wonder what she sees. We are murky sad faces as she focuses to check who is here and who is not. She smiles when I mention her childhood friend Marguerite.  I don’t know if anyone still calls her that but us. She goes by Marge to everyone else. Marguerite's evangelistic efforts persisted until her friend, my mother, accepted Jesus as her Savior at 13 during an early Pentecostal revival.

I told her that her oldest grandson was turning 50. She raised her eyebrows a bit as if surprised. Little signs of recognition and understanding seem to raise the hopes of those gathered in the room. I watch and wait. I read scripture to her out of a King James Bible. My words tripped over the language now foreign to me but soothing to her.

I do not know about the others in the room as we wait. I feel alone in my waiting. My view of death is that it is a grace that God gives the weary. Others in the room want to conquer it. They want someone in a white coat to come and do something. Set up an IV, give her a shot, take some blood, poke, prod and test until magic is performed and she conquers death.

None of us can conquer death. Only in the resurrection will we see the final victory over death. As I wait for God’s grace to be complete in my mother’s body, I hear my mother’s oft repeated phrase:
I don’t know why I am still here, I just want to go home to be with Jesus. 
For 78 years, she has walked with Her Savior and Lord. She wants to see Him face to face.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I'll Be Praying For You

I’ll be praying for you Pastor. Simple words. I am sure many pastors hear those words from their parishioners. I have no parishioners right now. Even when I was a pastor, I rarely was called Pastor. 
Somehow, I was always just Joyce. That’s okay, because I’ve never been much for titles. I am just Joyce.

Where did these words come from today? They came on Facebook. They came from a person I do not know, have never met and know nothing about. I have many friends of Facebook. I have 500 of them now.

Some are friends in the truest sense. I know them. They know me. We’ve had a relationship in real time and space. My dear friend and sista Barbara is a friend there. I have friends who met me in various stages of youth. Some continue to be close. Some I seemed to have picked up right where we left off 40 years ago. Other are nodding acquaintances from the past.

Some are family. I have a niece that I never knew at all when she was growing up. It’s like that with my family. I guess we all care about each other on some level, but we hardly know each other. This niece is a strong woman who I have come to admire. Occasionally she will email or comment. She calls me Aunt Joyce. I like that. I like that because it acknowledges me as her family.  I don’t really know her. I was never there for her birthday parties or graduations while she was growing. I think I would have liked to have been there when she was growing up. I lived too far away in both distance and emotion. Now I get to peek in her life and get to know her by reading her blogs, or those occasional comments on Facebook. I don’t know her brothers at all.

I have some friends who are Norwegian relatives that I never knew existed. They live in Norway. I knew I had relatives in Norway. I suspect some of them didn’t know they had relatives in the US.  Recently someone from my grandfather’s side of the family, the Swedish side, has appeared in my virtual world. I long to go to Norway. I want to meet them in person. I am very much a family person.

Then there are these other friends on Facebook. They are a variety of people who I’ve never met. Some of them when I see their names I wonder, why am I friends with this person? Sometimes I think I should just go through the list and de-friend some of them. Not because they have done something wrong or I don’t like them. I just don’t know them.

In this group are assortments of people who have some connection to me. They know someone I know and Facebook suggested them. Then there are people from various church associations. 

In the last 24 hours,  my Facebook virtual world has given me much comfort. Immediately people I know as well as people I do not know have offered me prayers and support.  Some of them even know my mother or my family. It helps.

I’ll be praying for you Pastor. Simple words. I looked for the name of the person offering prayer and comfort. I looked at the name. Who is he? I didn’t recognize the name. I didn’t even know the person was a friend. Then I vaguely remembered he was someone who got the suggestion that I might know him and asked to friend me. He is a fellow minister of the gospel who lives across the ocean.

The virtual world may be artificial at times. What is not artificial is the body of Christ. The body of Christ, the church, transcends time, space, and culture. These simple words, I’ll be praying for you Pastor ministered to me this morning.

Romans 12:4-6a (The Message) In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we're talking about is Christ's body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn't amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be

Friday, February 19, 2010


I wrote about ordinary days before but today I am appreciating them again. I think we should never take an ordinary day for granted. Yesterday was not an ordinary day. I knew it wouldn't be an ordinary day. What I didn't know was that the day would end with one of those phone calls that breaks into your life and changes everything.

Two years ago we had one of those phone calls. It was our anniversary. We were in Florida celebrating at the beach. A call came from South Dakota with a job offer. That phone call broke into the celebration of the day causing joy for my husband and dread for me.

I hate those type of phone calls.  It is like a sharp discordant sound in the midst of a flowing melody. They break into your life with such violent force. They turn everything in your life upside down. All of a sudden, you have new decisions to make.

I had an interview for a doctoral program yesterday. That is not ordinary. I had to get dressed up and make sure my make-up was perfect. That is not ordinary. I had to appear before people who would judge me. That is not ordinary. I had to make a trip to the airport to pick up my husband. That is not ordinary. Nothing was ordinary about yesterday. Nevertheless I knew these things would happen. The discord was predicable. I could anticipate it and prepare.

The phone call came. It broke in as I was preparing to go the airport. It was a call concerning my elderly mother. My mother took a sharp, unexpected turn for the worse. I was told that family should gather at the nursing home.

I went to the airport. Two children and two grandchildren went to the nursing home. I remember several years ago a similar phone call concerning my mother. She had passed out in the bathroom while I was at church. As I rushed home, the ambulance passed me on the way taking her to the ER. I remember thinking, I'm not ready for this. I'm not ready for her to go.

I am still not ready for her to go. Is anyone ever ready for someone to go? I thought about the ashes. I thought about the reminder of our mortality.

My mother is holding her own. When I saw her, her eyes fixed on my face. When I leaned over to kiss her, her mouth curled in an attempt to complete the kiss. I leaned over to her ear and told her I loved her.

Whispering in her ear I uttered a simple prayer. I didn't ask for healing. My mother desires nothing more than to go home to be with her Savior. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to surround her and give her comfort. Saying Amen I looked at her face. She looked deep in my eyes. I think she knew. I think she knew that God was with her. I think she knew that her family loved her.

Dust we are and to dust we will return - how fresh that was in my mind as I left to let her sleep. None of us know when our ordinary and predictable lives will be interrupted and we will return to dust. All we can know is peace and comfort when we make that journey from this life to the arms of our Savior.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Am Dust

From ashes you came, to ashes you will return. What a sober statement. Usually you hear this phrase at a graveside. Even there it is not comforting. Facing death you do not find comfort in being reminded that you too would turn to ashes.

I went on a quest after I wrote this blog yesterday. I felt an urging to find a place to have the imposition of ashes. There are so many paradoxes to my personality. I can appear very confident. I am not. To go to a strange church, especially on this holy day, is not easy for me.

At the camp pool, we learned about the buddy system, it works well to conquer fears. I thought if I had a “buddy”, or knew at least one person at the church, it would be easier. Most of the churches that I knew or am known at here in Nashville do not observe Ash Wednesday.

I considered Trevecca Community Church since I have a good friend that told me they were observing. While I suppose one should be thinking about sacrifice for Ash Wednesday, I didn’t want to drive through downtown Nashville to get to the campus.

When I went out I scanned all the reader boards to see who was doing ashes and when. St. Ann’s the Catholic Church had three options. I had missed the morning and noon one. The evening one was early. A Methodist church also was early. The Methodist church a mile from my house didn’t post their hours. I called. No answer. I would see my neighbors and the pastor is a friend. I was still uncertain.

My daughter Bethany knew of my desire. It sparked the desire in her as well. At 5 pm, I still was undecided. The urging did not leave. Bethany, on her way to school passed yet another Methodist church. Their reader board said “Ash Wednesday Service 7:00 p.m.” She wanted to go. We decided to meet at the church at 6:45 p.m.

Bethany and Maria were waiting for me when I pulled behind them. This was an inner-city church with no parking lot. A police car pulled behind me, then another behind it. Two officers in uniform got out and I was gripped with fear.  What did I do? I knew I didn’t run a light. I knew I had used my turn signal. I was going too slowly to have been speeding. We followed the officers inside the church.

The church was old and traditional. A huge pipe organ graced the front of the church. Maria thought we were in a castle. The officers went elsewhere for a community meeting. The Pastor came and greeted us. He told Bethany there was a nursery. Maria left to find new friends and toys.

I wondered where the people who went with the cars outside were. Were we the only worshippers? Were they all there for the community meeting? They were having table fellowship with a meal of BBQ ribs (no fish?), Cole Slaw and rice. Latinos, African Americans and middle age white folk enjoyed a meal together. Many Latino children roamed around from table to table talking to the guests.

An announcement was made in both English and Spanish concerning the community meeting and the worship service.  Slowly those there for worship found their way to the sanctuary. Music was rough although the pianist was excellent. By the third verse of I Surrender All we were all on the same verse. I made harmony with the African American woman in front of me and we sounded good. I think some of the Latinos were singing the song in Spanish as Spanish hymnals and translation through headphones were provided.

It was a quite traditional service. The Pastor exhorted us to remember who we are and whose we are. He asked us to remember the ashes throughout Lent and even on Easter Sunday when we were dressed up in our best.

As we came to the altar for the imposition of ashes, a heavy presence of God settled on the place. I realized you are always at home with the people of God.  About 30 of us, most Latino knelt to be reminded that dust we are and to dust we will return. All of us were equal. All of us were dust. All of us were there to repent and participate in this ancient ritual of penance.

The children came in from the other room. They also knelt and received the imposition of ashes. I pray those children will be well catechized to understand the beauty of this ritual. I pray that all of them will grow to love Jesus. I honor their parents who bring them to the house of God. I wonder about their family stories. Many may be poor for it is that type of neighborhood. Some spoke no English. Some may have been illegal. None of that matters as we acknowledged our fragile humanity by receiving ashes.

There was an odd heaviness in the presence of God. It was a good heaviness, a sobering heaviness. I am human. I am dust. Resurrection is coming.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I've Been Awakened

I guess everyone knows that I come from a Pentecostal background. While the church I grew up in was a rather staid version of Pentecost, nevertheless we were free from ritual and the trappings of formalities. We were not like those Catholics or even Lutherans. We were free.

Over the last few years, I have developed an appreciation for all those things that I was told were wrong when I was a child. No, I’m not talking about how I can go to the movies or play cards. One of the biggest disappointments in my early life was my parent’s decision to not allow me to see Sleeping Beauty.

I was eight years old when Disney released Sleeping Beauty. I had never been to the movies since in the views of my parents this was a worldly (sinful) activity. My best friend Barbara was going. I can remember lying in bed hearing my parents discuss the invitation I had from Barbara’s Aunt Eleanor to go with them to see the movie. The decision for the sake of my soul was that I couldn’t go.

I was so disappointed. This also presented a social problem for me. Everyone else had seen it. Every one of my friends at school talked about it. It was a big deal in Brooklyn that year. I had the coloring book for Sleeping Beauty. I thought that might help me navigate these endless conversations about the movie.

The coloring book turned out to be a bad idea. I was coloring one day with some friends, I was coloring the fairies. Girls will make anything a social activity. Remember those three plump fairies? I colored them the wrong color. Everyone laughed at me. I was exposed as the only girl in at PS 94 who wasn’t allowed to see Sleeping Beauty.

I remember having anguish in my soul at times because I would play cards in the basement with another friend. Every time I went to Nancy’s house, her father had his TV tray in front of him playing a game of Solitaire. We would go to the basement with another deck of “demon cards” and play such things as Go Fish, War and occasionally the most worldly of all, GIN. That game even sounded worldly to me.

To make matters worse, I remember being asked if I were playing cards with Nancy. I lied to my mother and said no, I wasn’t. I was a good Christian girl and wouldn’t do such things. At night, I was sure Jesus was going to come and I’d be left behind. Terrible burdens for an 8 year old.

To some extent, these stories are laughable. Just like the stories of not being allowed to do folk dancing in PE class. Or finally getting a blessing from my father to go to the movies. Somehow, movies and cards were both sanctified by the time I was thirteen.

Today I am thinking of something else that was spurned when I was a child. Today is the first day of Lent. As a child I was both glad I didn’t have to have dirt on my forehead, and jealous. It seemed to me at times like this must be like the “mark of the beast” that terrified me. In my child’s mind, having been told that these liturgical Christians were not really believers like we were – after all, they drank and smoked and went to movies and dances – not to mention card playing and Bingo. Now they were marked with this dirt on their forehead.

Some of my teachers, actually most of them, also had ashes. They seemed like nice people even though they wore lipstick and makeup. Nevertheless, there were those ashes.

I’ve gone through lots of changes. I now understand that many of these rituals of my brothers and sisters in Christ have deep and wondrous meanings. Several years ago, I too was marked for the first time with these ashes.

I was going to a very small Nazarene church for a short period. I didn’t know that Nazarene’s did such a thing. That Wednesday night on Ash Wednesday we went through a time of repentance and then we received Ashes. I learned that these ashes were made from palm branches left over from last year’s Palm Sunday. Wow! What symbolism.

I went home that night sinning. I wasn’t sinning because I received the ashes. It was because I was proud of my ashes. As soon as I got home, I lifted my bangs and showed my husband. I said LOOK! I have ashes.

I don’t think that was the proper attitude. However, I was just glad to understand this ritual of the Church and participate in it.

Today I am wishing I could receive ashes. Today I actually wish I were in South Dakota because the Seminary is participating in Ash Wednesday. I now understand the power of ritual. Maybe it is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. I was sleeping and didn't understand. Now I have been awakened to a new way of understand.

I supposed I should prayerfully consider what I should fast for Lent? 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hold On

In a comment on another blog that I participate in, Kingdom Bloggers, someone wrote that I had a rich Christian heritage. I suppose part of that heritage is my knowledge of hymns or perhaps more correctly gospel songs.

I love hymns. I don’t necessarily want to go to a church that has a steady diet of hymns. I rather like all the new stuff.  I understand why the hymns are taking a backseat. Yet it seems I return to the hymns often.

I’ll think of a random hymn and won’t be able to get it out of head. I’ll find it on YouTube or elsewhere on the internet. Sometimes I’ll play it over and over and over again. I fear this means I am old.

I guess it is a bit of nostalgia.  I also think it is that the hymns and gospel songs have a lot of theology in them. Today, unexpectedly, what is probably now an obscure gospel song came to mind.

Hold the Fort for I am Coming
It dates to just after the Civil War. It’s inspiration came from that war. I found an interesting history of the song; you can see it here. Evidently, the song has been used for a variety of purposes. I found this more comprehensive history of the song here.

Since I am guess you have never heard it, here are the words:

Ho, my comrades! see the signal waving in the sky!

Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,” Jesus signals still;

Wave the answer back to Heaven, “By Thy grace we will.”

See the mighty host advancing, Satan leading on;

Mighty ones around us falling, courage almost gone!

See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!

In our Leader’s Name we triumph over ev’ry foe.

Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;

Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer!


There are no videos of this song on YouTube but you can hear a midi-version of it here.

As I was driving to the store, here comes this song in my head. I started singing it. I couldn’t get it out of my head.  

When I was a child and this song would be sung, the congregation would get their handkerchiefs out.  Almost everyone carried them back then. When you got to the part where you were waving the answer back to heaven, you’d wave your handkerchief. If you didn’t have one, you’d raise your hand. Sometimes when we’d declare that by His grace we will, both hands would be raised. You have to understand this was a lot of action for a bunch of Norwegians.

There are so many times I feel so besieged. I get so weary of the battle of life. Nevertheless, by God’s grace I am still standing. I wave my answer back to heaven in the form of a prayer – only by Your grace God.

This song was not just inspired by the Civil War. It’s true inspiration comes from words in red in the Scriptures.  It comes from that book at the end of the canon. It comes from Revelation 2:25 where the spirit says to the church in Thyatira:
Just hold on to what you have until I come
 Holding on, sometimes that is all you can do. Another song floats in my head as I write this, a hymn that seems to answer our answer and cry for grace:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rukhsanah's Little Sister

In the midst of sharing about Rukhsanah Israel, I didn’t share that another granddaughter had a birthday. Actually two of my granddaughters had birthdays within the last week. I wrote some about my granddaughter Iliana yesterday on Storehouses of Snow. I talked to her last night. Long distance grand-parenting is not that fulfilling.

The other granddaughter who had a birthday is really on my heart and mind today. We had a little family party for her the end of last month while we were in Tennessee. Hands-on face to face, even though limited, is so much nicer than long distance.

Officially, Maria Guadalupe Aren Duran, turned three on February 3rd.  I call her Maria, others in the family call her Lupe. She is named for her paternal grandmother. She is beautiful, smart and delightful. If she meets you once, she will talk about you for months. She will probably never forget you.

Maria is Rukhsanah’s sister.  She will never replace her sister. No one or nothing ever will. Her presence in the family has brought much joy. She helps to heal some of the pain. On long dreary days in South Dakota my days is brightened by hearing her voice on the phone.

Hi Nana
I love you Nana
Come see me Nana

This is followed by long stories of what she has been doing, seeing and questions about Grandpa or one of her Aunts.  Best are her tight hugs and kisses when I see her.

On her third birthday, she went to the doctor. Maria has a liver disease. Maria has Hepatitis C. Maria spent her birthday being poked, prodded and stuck.

Vials of blood were drawn to check her viral load levels.  I am sure she cried a lot. When I next see her, she’ll tell me all about it with the greatest of detail.

The news was not good. She is now old enough for treatment. Something we have known and dreaded for a while. Yet, we have hoped and prayed. Many have prayed. Many are still praying.

Her viral load was high. She has been sick the last two days. Suspected is her high viral load. No one knows for sure but we know she has been very sick.

So little and so sick – a combination that breaks ones heart. She’ll be having a liver biopsy soon. So today I am thinking about another granddaughter. One so full of life and promise who needs your prayers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One Hundred and Fourteen Days (Part VIII)

An Ending and A Beginning

I am coming to the end of the reflections of the life and death of Rukhsanah Israel. I am sure I have much more to share. However, I think this reflection is ending. I have never written about her. I have talked about her many times, most of the time in snippets. 

I am told that when I do talk about this and many other painful things in my life that I speak of them as if I am telling a story of someone I hardly know. They tell me that I am missing the emotion of the story. It isn’t that I don’t feel it, it is that I just am so good at compartmentalizing things. And of course, I am Norwegian and we are known for this.

Today is the anniversary of the funeral. Funerals are supposed to bring closure. I am not sure that we had closure or that we ever will. However, while funerals are a looking back, they are also a looking forward.

My church home was a wonderful place. We were small and like family. Barely two years before these same people had banded together to marry Bethany and her husband. Before that, they had showered her with baby presents. Before that, they prayed for her through her very difficult teen years. They rejoiced with me and cried with me many a time. They also loved and prayed.

I heard from one of the Deacons that the Pastor was having a difficult time with the funeral – his own emotions were difficult. I know the whole church was grieving as we were. We were so close.

I wish I had the program from the funeral. I went to the Christian Bookstore to buy a bulletin cover. I found one for dedication with a baby that quoted from I Samuel 1:27-28

For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.
They do not make bulletin covers for baby funerals.

She was dressed in a Winnie the Pooh outfit. So small that even the child’s white coffin seemed large. The older children were returned to us just minutes before the funeral. We were all there, natural family, church family, some friends. I walked up to the coffin and thought should I still pray for her resurrection? I didn’t.

When we started I sang a special song, Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us. Original poems written by Bethany and Rukhsanah were read by Sofia and Rukhsanah. Rukhsanah nearly collapsed as she returned to her seat. I remember Bethany's poem kept repeating Sanah Pana, her name of endearment. I managed to keep it together the whole time. I have this persona of strength. 

I don’t recall the hymn my daughter had chosen. I think it is “It is Well with My Soul.” What I do remember though is that we sang this chorus at the request of my daughter -

Bethany had learned that song from Psalty when she was a child. Now what was planted was coming back to give us all strength. 

We committed her to the ground in the bitter cold. We went back to the church and fellowshipped. While we had no closure, there is always healing around the table of fellowship with your family, natural and spiritual. For the first time, during that fellowship, I saw a glimpse of my daughter emerge. To this day, I love seeing Bethany smile. That day, to see the beginning of a smile, was enough. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

One Hundred and Fourteen Days (Part VII)

Birth and Death Collide

It’s always odd how normal life creeps in during a crisis. On this day, thirteen years ago, as we huddled together as a family, we celebrated a birthday. Normally birthdays are happy times. The birthday boy was my oldest son. I hadn’t been with him on his birthday for many years. He had come for the funeral though, not for his birthday.

I had a teacher in college who said to me once, it seems to be your family’s tradition to marry young and have children young. I don’t think we planned it that way, but it seems to be somewhat true. Here I am now a great grandmother because of a sixteen-year-old father.

I was seventeen when I became a mother on this day forty-one years ago.  (Okay, I know you are doing the math and while I hate to admit my age, I am 58. Anyone who wants to email me and tell me how shocked you are would make me very happy J.)

Nathan was born at 5:30 p.m. on February 9, 1969. I was seven months pregnant. The day before, my mother took me to the hospital because I was having some problems. My husband at the time was working out in the country and they had no phone.

I was young. I was poor. I was considered low-class. I was a welfare case. I was treated as such. They had a medical student examine me. She said, “you’re fine.” As I was getting dressed, two staff physicians walked. Of course, they scolded me for getting dressed. I started to weep.

They examined me. They sent me for x-rays. There were no ultrasounds. There was only an x-ray. There were no soothing kind words. There was only a look of disgust for being pregnant too young.

The resentful judgmental medical student went with me to x-ray. I was in pain laying on the gurney. I was scared. I was alone.

The x-ray showed that I would be having a breech birth; Nathan’s foot was already lodged in the birth canal.  I was admitted to the labor room. Now for those of you who are young, once upon a time you went to a hospital room that was called a labor room. Later, when you were about to deliver you were transferred to the delivery room. The delivery room was essential a surgical suite. Absent were the nice beds that dropped down for delivery. There was no comforting music. You had no visitors. You simply lay in a bed alone.

I was in the labor room but not in labor. I was:
                            would my child be born alive
                                     if my husband would ever come
                                             if it would be painful

Seventeen and about to give birth attended by people who viewed you as trash.

My mother made phone calls that created a buzz of comments such as: I knew she must have been pregnant when she got married. I always knew the girl was trash. I knew what they were saying and thinking.

Finally, my husband appeared and we walked down the hall peeking a look at the x-ray of our yet to be born child.  I thought maybe this was punishment for sins that people thought I committed. I wondered if one could be punished for what people thought you did. I wondered if I was just trash.  I was only seventeen.

The next morning brought an active labor.  Many a doctor has since told me they cannot understand why I didn’t have a Cesarean birth. Instead, alone in the delivery room, attended by two doctors with fifteen residents observing my “unusual” birth, Nathan came into the world feet first. It took hours for them to repair all the tearing that result from his birth.

I couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t touch him. I barely saw him as they whisked him off to the ICU.

As I looked at him through several layers of glass, I saw he had no fingernails or toenails. He had no eyelashes or brows. He had a tube down his throat for nourishment, as he did not know how to suck yet.  It was a month before I held him and even then, the nurses found ways to scorn and deride me.

Memories of birth and realities of death collided on that day thirteen years ago. We celebrated Nathan while our hearts were breaking for Rukhsanah. It would be a long time before we could truly celebrate anything but for that moment, it was important that we have a cake and sing Happy Birthday to my first-born.

Monday, February 8, 2010

One Hundred and Fourteen Days (Part VI-ASK)

I heard a sermon one time by a man named Booze, an odd name for a preacher. He wasn’t very skilled, educated or articulate. I heard him in a storefront church in the tiny town of Auxvasse Missouri. The church had become a hotbed of Charismatic activity in the mid-70’s. Why I remember him and his sermon I don’t know?

He preached about a pendulum. He said that the pendulum of Christian expression swings. He cautioned that while we were experiencing renewal and freedom, we would eventually return to a more subdued expression of our faith. He didn’t want us to lose our zeal.

I was young. I thought I would never lose my zeal. He was wise. Zeal eventually is tempered by the realities of life. At times, I long for the days of zealous enthusiasm and exuberant expressions of faith. I have been tempered by the harshness and tragedy that life brings all of us.

To leave this part of the story out would make the story incomplete. I find myself concerned to tell it. I have never been concerned before. Perhaps because I often tell it in the context of a sermon; at a time when my faith is high and my emotions stirred. Today I am more subdued. My pendulum seems stuck. Nevertheless, I have to tell it.

In my silent times during those days following her death I often would cry alone. I would stop and scream the whys. My daughter seemed to have focus in her life. She and her young family were doing well. She was teaching Sunday School, had a meaningful job. If you knew her story, you’d understand how thankful I was for this period of stability.

As I sat on the edge of the bed one night, not praying, I voiced my questions to God. He showed me something. My mind went back to the group that had gathered to pray before Rukhsanah’s body was taken from her mother’s arms for the last time. I knew these people well. They were my closest family, my pastor, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I looked at their faces. I knew their theology. I knew that on that ordinary day before she died if you had asked them if they believed that God not only healed but could raise the dead, they would all say yes.

I believe in healing. I have always believed in healing. As a very small child, too young to remember, I went with my parents to an Oral Roberts meeting in Brooklyn NY. We watched him on television.  We sang The Great Physician hymn at church. We had a bottle of oil on the pulpit. I have been healed.

Our healing theology is balanced with an appreciation for medical science.  We never considered that we shouldn’t go to the doctor. We believed God healed anyway it came. When I had Rheumatic Fever as a child, my mother knelt for hours by my bed praying for my healing, praying for the pain to stop. She also called the doctor who actually came to the house and treated me in my bed. Later, I went to the hospital.

But being raised from the dead? That is another story all together. If asked, most Pentecostals and Charismatics would loudly say Amen, Praise God of course He can raise the dead! He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Glory Hallelujah! Then they would tell you a story they heard one time about someone in Asia or Africa who was raised from the dead. They wouldn’t know if the story was true or correct but they knew by faith it happened.

The group gathered in the room that day was pretty much the same. They would have said: yes, bless God He not only heals but also can raise the dead. When faced with death, it becomes a different story. The answer seems to be different. The answer was to lovingly commit Rukhsanah into the hands of the Lord.

Perhaps we were all too numb. Perhaps we were afraid of ridicule. Perhaps we were afraid that if God didn’t answer our prayer we might be viewed as crazy or by the religious, that we didn’t have enough faith.

As I sat there, looking at the faces of the people in that room God spoke to me. He said: You didn’t ask. That was followed by a mild loving rebuke. He said: Don’t ever not ask me again. 

I don’t know what God would have done if we had asked. I feel no guilt because we didn’t ask. However, I have always asked for healing since then. I’ve been in places where there is heartfelt pray for help, for guidance, for the doctor’s hand, etc. When that happens, I asked, do you mind if I pray? When I do, I pray that God would heal. How He heals, when He heals, I don’t know. I only know I have to ask.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

One Hundred and Fourteen Days (Part V-Interlude)

Like the day in 1997, I am in the interlude today. Interludes are difficult places. We waited for the body of Rukhsanah to be released from the autopsy. We waited to plan the funeral. We waited for the return of  Alysabeth and Jesse.

It was so hard to focus on the present when the past and the future demanded so much. That is the way it is with interludes. They are times when you can let go of the past and the future is screaming for attention. And yet you can’t go forward, and you can’t go back. You can’t undo what has happened nor can you step into the future. It can be a paralyzing place.

We took our son to the hospital in this interlude. Immediately they put us in isolation. He needed our attention. His need was serious. I don’t think I was fully there in that room with him. As I think of it now, I think how scared he must have been to be put in isolation. We were with him as everyone else who came in the room was masked and covered up. They feared meningitis.

I was probably the only one in the room who understood the seriousness of that word, meningitis. Nevertheless, with our hearts and minds on the death of Rukhsanah, our minds raced and swirled with what if’s, I silently screamed to God ENOUGH?  Like all interludes, on the outside, we were quiet and withdrawn into our own selves.

After the blood was drawn and some tests completed, the doctor came in unmasked. I knew that was a good sign. However, they offered no answers. They sent us home in the same condition as we came; no answers, no medicine, no plan, no diagnosis…nothing. Interludes are like that, you never know what is next.

There were phone calls to make and to answer. People calling offering their condolences and asking questions. Food arrangements, flight arrangements for the son who lived in Missouri, so many details that must be arranged with a numbed heart and mind.

It was my job to conduct the orchestra of individuals in our life as well as the details. When you conduct, you forget that there are individuals behind each instrument. Individuals experiencing their own pain and grief. 

Daughters old enough to understand and yet, how do you understand the death of an infant, their niece. Daughters too young to understand but yet caught up in the whirlwind of pain. A son, sick, in pain, terrified and often alone as his needs were shelved for the demands of the moment. Two older sons who looked and clutched their own children; trying to imagine the pain of losing one.  And the daughter with the deepest loss, arms aching for her children.

Each of us contributing to the interlude, clinging to each other and yet alone in our individual grief, pain and questioning. 

There were three days of interlude; waiting and planning, questioning and crying. Numb people mechanically focusing on the things that had to be done. And me, the conductor, the numbest of all, trying to cope, trying to be strong while my heart was silently screaming.

The thing about an interlude is that you know there will be another movement to the piece. You know this isn't the end. Something else will happen. You don't know if it will be loud or soft, discordant or harmonic. You only know that something follows.

You can only hope. You can only cling to the hope that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13) There is a resurrection not just when we are resurrected in the last day but in the resurrection of life after death. There is a next movement after the interlude as sure as the daylight comes at dawn.