"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

16 March 2017

Retirement

 I recall a number of years ago when a sweet 18-year-old wrote a paper explaining how saving for retirement, even thinking about retirement, is sin.  We must use all our resources for the gospel and never consider stopping work before we die.  Anything we save for the future is utterly selfish and taking away from God’s kingdom, and laziness could be the only possible reason a Christian would want to retire from full-time employment.

I was, by that time, beginning to feel some of the chronic pain and exhaustion that has increased over the years, and I found her reasoning to be, shall we say, youthful, as well as non-biblical.  I’ve heard iterations of it since, some just as extreme, and mostly from folk who are either young or have physical constitutions stronger than some of the rest of us.  And I call foul.

Of course, part of the problem is the cultural vision of retirement displayed all around us:  make lots of money so you can fulfill all your hedonistic dreams for as many years as possible, without responsibility to anyone but yourself or anything but your desire for ease and pleasure.  However, retirement need not mean this, not at all.  In fact, this vision of retirement is the one that leads to discontent, boredom, restlessness, and even, for many, early death.

In fact, retirement can simply mean the ability to serve God and others in different ways – and perhaps in better health because it is easier to pace yourself, to rest sufficiently, to say no when necessary.  The problem with modern retirement is not the saving of resources or the withdrawing from full-time paid work: it is a lack of purpose beyond ourselves for the time it gives us.

We are, certainly, to give generously to God’s work from what we earn.  We are also to save for the future so as not to be a burden on others unnecessarily.  How each of us balances this tension must be left between us and God, not mandated at some special rate.  I may give now and find that others cannot give later because they must meet the needs I failed to prepare for; I may save now and find myself tempted to waste my overabundant resources later.  Because there is no formula here, we must learn to walk in the Spirit and cultivate our desire to serve God with our resources, listening to His voice day by day. 

We have a responsibility to provide for family; in a one-income family, if the working spouse dies, it is no bad thing if the other is not thrown into penury.  And for those of us with children, it is a delight to be able to assist them now and know that if there are resources left after our deaths, these can benefit those we love, to help them be more secure and able to serve more freely.  Parents are supposed to do this when they can.

To work until one dies is simply not possible for many.  The physical realities of aging can make it imperative to slow down and do less.  If I am not capable of doing my job well, it is not loving service to cling to it; love recognizes it’s time for someone else to do it better.  And no one can depend on dying in the middle of a workday; many people decline in physical and/or mental health to the point where work is impossible and being cared for is imperative.

But slowing down before that point is not by definition stopping one’s service to God.  There is always service to be done, and ways to use the wisdom we have – we hope – accumulated over the years, even if it is “only” to be an Anna praying faithfully in the temple.  She, after all, was rewarded to see the Messiah enter the world and to have her praise and prophecy recorded for all time. 

Some may retire with strength and be able to do much active service in the church, the community, the mission field.  Some may retire with lesser strength and find a place in quieter and more isolated service – writing, mentoring an individual or two, being involved in the lives of extended family.  Again, kinds of service cannot be mandated, nor can they be measured and compared.  The invalid who prays faithfully may be doing more for the kingdom of God than the elderly Martha who insists on heading every activity in the church. 

What, anyway, are we called to do?  Love God and our neighbor.  In every act we take, every thought we think, every word we speak or write, we are to love God and our neighbor.  This call never varies and never ends, to the moment of our death.  My career is not my life; it is only one small part of my life, however much time it may take of my day.  I am teacher, yes, but I am also wife and mother and grandmother, daughter and sister, friend, neighbor, citizen of a community, a state, a country – and above all and permeating all, a believer in the Christ, in whose service all these things are to be lived. 

Am I excusing myself here for the decision we have made that I will retire after one more year of teaching?  I don’t believe so.  It has become clear in many ways that I cannot continue full-time work much longer and do it well.  I am grateful for the way in which God has allowed me to do what was required – to be the necessary sole financial support for my family – by being immersed in teaching the literature and the writing skills that I so love.  And now it is time to withdraw from that work and move toward other works of service.  I don’t know yet what that may look like – writing some of the pieces that have burdened me for years, I hope; serving the home school community in some way, perhaps; more energy to give to family, surely; who knows what may come my way?  


But I know I desire one thing above all else, however imperfectly I live it, and that is to serve Him and honor Him to the day of my death, as I have been privileged to see my parents and others before me do.  I will appreciate the prayers of my friends as we begin thinking through all the implications of this decision over the next year, and most of all that we will be good listeners to His Spirit, letting His voice guide us in it all.

04 February 2017

Gratefulness

My wonderful mother lived at the Veranda (assisted living home) in Dayton after she moved to TN last year. (It's part of the Life Care facility north of town.) From the day she moved in we never had a doubt that it was a wonderful place for her. I can honestly say that we have had no significant complaint at any time, only praise.

The facility itself is beautiful, and is extremely well kept up. It's refreshing and calming just walking into it. I saw a number of the rooms, and the residents have furnished and decorated them with pride; it was so much fun to visit them to see and hear about a bit of their lives.

The nurses and aides and all the rest of the staff -- from receptionists to housekeepers -- didn't just do their jobs with excellence, they did them with love. My mother made friends with the other residents, certainly, but the staff became her friends too. They love the residents like family, making time for conversation and encouraging them every day. Every time I arrived to visit, before I could get to Mother's room I was met with stories of something she had said or done that had made others laugh or encouraged them, and when I got to her room, it was to hear stories of how they had made her laugh and encouraged her.

When Mother returned to the Veranda after a short hospitalization for her fall, the staff greeted her like a family member who'd been gone for months. Each one made her way to her room as soon as possible to let her know she was *home*. They told me they had hoped and prayed she would be able to spend her last days under their care because they had come to love her so much. I am convinced that hearing their familiar, loving voices made those days much more bearable -- not to mention the constant prayer with which they bathed her.

And they give that same love to the families of the residents; I am known by sight and name to many whose names even now I am unsure of, staff members I've only seen a few times. Their loving concern has been for me in these days as well as for Mother, and I have benefited so much from them. As I sat with her, they brought me meals, ice water, anything they could think of; they never left the room after caring for her without asking if they could do anything for me as well. They gave me hugs; they prayed for and with me. They cried with me when she was gone.

If you or someone you love has to have assisted living care someday, pray that you find a place with half the love and expertise of the Veranda and you will be in good hands.

10 December 2016

All Flame


Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."

Sayings of the Desert Fathers



08 October 2016

Worm Theology

Worms normally come to my attention in one of two ways – I’m teaching Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to my students, or it’s raining. The literal worm evoked in Blake’s poem is likely to appear first to be one of those tiny green caterpillar-like creatures (actually the larva of the sawfly) which eats into the heart of a rose and destroys it; then, when the worm is said to “fly through the night,” it’s likely to evoke the image of a dragon. These creatures leave only ruin in their path, and they work in the poem metaphorically to lead us to see the destruction caused by the “dark secret love” that is lust. I have no sympathy for such worms, literal or figurative.

Earthworms, on the other hand, stay underground eating dirt, decently out of sight and mind, until it rains, when they appear in multitudes on the sidewalks. I hate walking to class in the rain because of these pale grayish snaky little creatures; invariably there are so many I can’t avoid the disgusting squish of several beneath my shoes before reaching my destination. And when the sun returns, the shriveled corpses of those who waited too long to return home continue to unpleasantly litter the walk until the groundskeepers’ leaf blowers scatter them into the grass. Living or dead, they seem of no particular value, worthy only of being crushed beneath our shoes as we go about our important business.

It’s earthworms, in fact, that give us the phrase "worm theology," the image suggesting that we human beings, too, are just wretched worthless worms in the dirt, deserving nothing more than to be ground under God’s foot. I have always rejected this conception of human worth. We are indeed desperately fallen, but we were created by God Himself – whose creation was, by His own affirmation, "very good" – and are redeemed by the sacrifice of His Son: and that means we were and are not wretched worms (even if we foolishly choose to live in the dirt sometimes). We were originally destined for glory and eternal life with God, and we may still receive that destiny in Christ, who loves us even in our fallenness and delights in us when we become His brothers. As C. S. Lewis puts it, we would tremble before the least and worst human being if we truly understood that each of us is an immortal soul.

Lately, however, I've been doing some thinking about worms. I remember the topsoil my daddy used to sift through, knowing by its dark, rich texture where he would find earthworms to bait his hook to catch trout for our table, where they had done their job well so that our garden would grow a rich harvest. And now, after a bit of research, I’ve decided that worm theology is not just unfair to man, it's unfair to worms. In fact, earthworms are greatly slandered if we think of them as wretched, useless creatures deserving of no regard. Rather, they are a lovely example of true servanthood.


The earthworm, a simple, blind, not especially appealing creature, lives underground and is seldom seen (and greatly abused by bird and man when he is). He goes quietly, and mostly unremarked, about his job of improving our lives by aerating our soil so it will allow the roots of plants to grow deep and strong and more readily receive the nourishing rain. He eats dirt and organic matter, both dead and living, increasing the earth’s fertility by mixing these elements and thereby enriching the soil with his waste and, ultimately, with his very body. He may not look like much, his work may seem mundane and even disgusting, but our lives would be far different and more difficult without him.

He is indeed a picture of serving at its best: fulfilling one's purpose, whatever God has made it to be, without complaint, without show, without striving after prestige or reward; giving one's life solely for the benefit of others. Of course, the worm does this without thinking about it, without agonizing over the temptation of sin and trying to rationalize his duty away. He simply does what he was created to do; he “selves himself,” lives the inscape poured into him by the Creator.

“Worm theology,” as it’s usually intended, indeed fails to capture man’s dignity as a creature made in God’s image; but real worm theology shows us the excellent way: to live out that image in daily, unassuming service that glorifies God without regard to self.

03 July 2016

Lest You Sorrow as Others Who Have No Hope

I Thess. 4:  But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

A friend died tonight.  I hadn't seen her in years, true, and we'd only connected a little on Facebook in the past couple of years.  But she was a friend.  We were in the same church many years ago when I was a young married with a couple of little ones and when she met and married a wonderful young man.  She was diagnosed at that time with MS, and the years have been tough for them.  But they had a family and they had plenty of love and laughter, and they had joy, much joy -- so appropriate because her name is Joy.  She had been in a home recently because it had become too physically difficult for Scott to fully care for her, and in the hospital, and I'm not close enough now that I knew any of the details of these times.

But there was that time we knew each other, and that one conversation I've always remembered.  Not the substance, but the knowing that here could be a heart sister, a kindred spirit.  And so although I've not been part of her life for most of it, I still think of her as a friend, a special friend, in fact, and I am intensely grateful that I knew her even for a while, and that I knew always that her joy was infecting the world with His love every day, and that she was being loved by a faithful man and a deeply caring family.  


I ache for them tonight; their loss is great.  I pray for comfort in their sorrow, for sweet memories to lace the grief of loss.  But I rejoice for Joy, who is whole and well and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord she loved and served.  And I rejoice that Scott and those who have loved her will see her again -- and that even I will see her again and with all eternity to fulfill the promise of that conversation nearly 40 years ago.  


Love and prayers to you, Judy, and Scott, and all Joy's family and friends.  


03 December 2015

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Saturday.  Sunday.  Monday.  Tuesday.  Rain, rain, rain, rain.  Day and night.  Light rain, heavy rain, misting rain, dripping rain.  Rain.  

Rain is necessary for growth, yes.  But so is sun.  So weary of the rain.  Thanksgiving, but willed against the wet grey of the world.

Wednesday dawned.  Or at least one had to assume it dawned.  Still grey, dreary.  But -- hope: no actual rain.  A slightly lighter tint to the clouds.  A chill wind and the ground still sopping.

Finally, sunlight competing with the rain clouds, visible at last behind them, and spirits lifting a bit.  Maybe it wouldn't really rain forever.

Wednesday night, midnight.  Almost in bed, but seeing light through the curtain.  Pulling it back and there she was -- Phoebe lighting up the cloudless sky and bringing the landscape to life.  Reflected light promising the sunlight to come.

Thanksgiving from the heart instead of the will.

And finally Thursday waking to a clear sky, a visible sunrise, the clarity of hope made real.

24 November 2015

More Gems of Joy

Yesterday, driving home from work as my Thanksgiving break began, I came up to the long curve on the old ferry road and there she was, Phoebe hanging in the afternoon blue sky, nearly full, so lovely I almost drove into the ditch drinking it in.  She's been missing lately, my muse, and I've been feeling it.  Grey skies and more grey skies, and even looking for the beauty in cloud formations and acknowledging the need for bountiful rain had pretty much worn thin.  We've all been longing for sun, and at last Apollos shone out and skies cleared and there Phoebe was, too, celebrating with us.  And just now, alerted by my husband, I opened the garage door and there she was again, very close to the full now, in the darkness of the star-kissed night, a glowing crystal to lift the heart and soul.  Thank you, Lord, for gems of joy and days of rest.

Followers