“Similarly, the spirit also helps us out in our weakness. For example, we don’t know beans about praying, but the Spirit himself speaks up for our unexpressed concerns. And he who x-rays our hearts understands the Spirit’s approach, since the Spirit represents Christians before God.” Romans 8:26-27 The Cotton Patch Version
Clarence Jordan (translator of The Cotton Patch Version) is right. I don't know beans about praying. Prayer absolutely blows my mind: God, the creator of the universe, wants to be in communication with me? I really can't grasp that.
But I pray anyway. I pray to music. I pray Scripture. And I pray for loved ones. I pray for Barbara and her two boys—their husband and father died suddenly this past January. A friend who has pitiful insurance and horrific health problems. Cathy whose younger brother died way too young leaving a wife and children. Teachers whose salaries have been cut or who have lost their jobs—particularly those among them who are single parents. A loved one in a new job. My nephew-in-love who goes off to college next year and his dad who has Parkinson’s disease. Niece Rachel who is about to start her senior year. My mother-in-law with MD. And then there’s this: my friend Kim who beat breast cancer last year just before her son, now 11, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer—the same Kim who has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. This week, her son, who was just denied access because of his age to clinical trials that might save his life, will be going to NIH in Maryland to explore further treatment options with his dad (Kim’s husband) while Kim faces her own cancer surgery back in Oklahoma.
Yeah, I gotta tell ya. I don't know beans about praying.
But thanks be to God, knowing is not necessary. Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV) says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (emphasis mine)
And when I read that I sigh: a sigh of relief. I sigh because suddenly I remember, I’m not alone. I sigh, I breathe, remembering that Barbara is not alone, and Cathy isn't and neither is my nephew.The Spirit is sighing with me, magnifying those sighs, translating them into words that I can't seem to find, building them into bridges from the hearts of the hurting to the very heart of God. I sigh knowing my Rachel has a bridge and my mother-in-law can cross it too cause this bridge is seriously wheelchair accessible. And I sigh so deep within my spirit, beyond the flood of tears that chokes my heart for a little boy who just wants to play baseball with his brothers and for his mother who wants to watch him. I sigh with relief because as I do, I find that the Spirit is already there. The bridge is already built. The words don’t have to be found. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes” for me.
Even though I don’t know beans about praying.
15 May 2009 Here’s a conversation Margaret and I had on the way home from school one day last week. I thought you might enjoy eavesdropping. (I’ve changed names and identifying details of all other kids mentioned—well, except for Charlie who is indeed a kid in his own mind . . . and I suppose in ours too. . . .)
“Hey, Mommy! Hey, Charlie! Come sit with me, buddy. That’s a good boy.” Margaret buckled up as our beagle stepped into her lap.
“Hey Margaret, how was your day at school?”
Margaret shook her head. “Not so good: there was a tornado warning.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.”
“It was awful because I needed to go to the restroom, but we had to sit in the hall with our heads down and we were in the downstairs hall with the kindergartners and first and second graders and it was really crowded and hot and boring.”
“You had to go to the restroom?”
“Yeah but at first I didn’t have to go that bad so I told Mrs. Seals I could wait but then after like 20 minutes or something I told her that I really did have to go and so I went but it was so embarrassing because there were girls sitting in the bathroom—because see the hall was so crowded that some girls had to sit in there the whole time—and so all those girls knew I was going to the bathroom. . .”
“I bet that was embarrassing.”
“Yeah, it sure was. Oh, but Mommy, some kids were really scared about the tornado and some were even crying. I’m talking about kids who don’t ever cry, they were crying. Like Natalie she never cries but she started crying because she has family in Black Mountain and somebody said the tornado was headed out to Black Mountain, you know, and so she started crying and Brandon he started crying—you know Brandon he is that big tough boy—and he never cries, you know, he never cries, ever, and he cried, because he was worried about his grandparents, because they don’t watch TV or listen to the radio, so he was scared they would be caught in the tornado because they hadn’t heard about it, and how would they hear about it if they didn’t listen to the news, you know? and then of course Taylor cried because her family lives in a mobile home and, I don’t know if you knew this Mommy, but—did you know this?—it is really, really, super dangerous to be in a mobile home when there is a tornado, and her whole house could have just blown away, so of course she was crying—I mean, who could blame her?”
“Yeah that was really scary for her. A lot of kids were crying . . .”
“Were you scared?"
“Not at all? Come on.”
“Well, I was a little worried about Charlie.” Hearing his name, Charlie turned to face her, expectant. “Yeah, I was worried about my little buddy,” Margaret told him, scratching his ears as he leaned into her.
“Yeah, Charlie pretty much freaked out,” I told her, “You know how he gets in a storm.”
“Was he shaking?” She asked, knowing. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close.
I chuckled. “More like quaking.”
“Poor Charlie,” Margaret said shaking her head, “I knew it; I just knew it.”
“So that was all you were worried about, really?”
“Yep,” she said, repositioning Charlie so his white-tipped tail could swing free.
“Good for you, Margaret. I’m glad you were not fearful.”
“Well,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and stroking her beagle’s back, “I figured if there was anything to be worried about, Daddy would take care of it.”
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Matthew 5:26-27
Originally posted on April 2, 2009
On April 6, 2008, Paxten Andrew Mitchell slipped from his parents embrace into the gates of heaven. This time last year, no one was talking about Paxten getting well. He was home, with his family, with hospice. I miss him.
When Paxten was still well enough to be in the hospital, I visited him about once a week. I’d come bringing fresh Playdoh® or new dinosaur stickers. (I still catch myself looking for stickers or checking for a bargain on Playdoh® before I realize my reason for buying those things is no more.) Paxten and I would stick the stickers all over ourselves and anything else we could find; we’d sculpt new creatures with the Playdoh®. Actually I would sculpt, or Amy would, as Paxten directed our efforts. We made funny faces. We wrestled—careful not to disconnect IV cords as we played. And we laughed. We laughed a lot, Paxten & I. Eventually though, I’d have to go home to my children, often leaving Amy by herself with her boy.
In the hospital bed (it seemed huge when Paxten was in it alone), Amy slept with her boy curled into her. No doubt she did all night what she did all day—checked his temperature with her mommy hands and diagnostic kisses, glanced up at the monitors to see if everything was normal (that is, as normal as it ever got for Paxten), and readjusted his tubing so he was not lying on it. . . When Paxten stirred during those long nights, I bet he had the same conversation with his mother that he had several times every hour during the day.
“I Wub You.”
“I love you too, Paxten.”
March 31, 2009
Today I led the call to worship for our chapel service at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. As I prayed this week about what I would say, I kept coming back to the wonder that Almighty God calls out to me. In response, I am to come out of myself, away from my busyness, and into God's rest. I'm ashamed I don't always answer that call. Yet amazingly, God still calls.
A Call to Worship
Now is the time.
Answer the call to worship.
You who are broken, burdened, bereaved.
Come out of frenzied chaos and
Into sacred peace.
Come out of the mundane and
Into the magnificent.
Come out of the pressure of the daily and
Into the presence of the divine.
Come because you are called.
Called to worship.
Only one child got it right.
Oh, all the children knew their parts; the creation play in this morning’s worship service was lovely. The flowers, colorful and bright, stood tall, blooming and blushing. The birds flapped otheir wings. The fish swooshed, the mice crawled, the frogs hopped. The apple tree, its branches menacing, taunted. The young man who played Adam delivered his lines masterfully, having us laughing at all the right times. Eve entered the garden, singing with a voice that sounded as if it had indeed been created by God for this moment in time.
But only one child—only one—captured the wonder.
Our church has been celebrating creation for the last few weeks—art, the written word, music, drama. During this time, sermons, anthems, and special events have focused on the beauty of creation, more specifically on the wonder of the Creator. The point, it seems, has been to bring our minds, our hearts, to a state of amazement. We’ve had the work of a local artist hanging in our atrium: wall sized paintings depicting the explosive dynamics of creation. We’ve had dancers—yes dancers in our Baptist sanctuary—offering their gifts in worship. We even had kites one Sunday (they called them liturgical kites to make them sound more churchy but they were kites all the same). Our orchestras played, our handbells rang, our authors read from their books. It’s been a time to delight. It’s been a time of awe.
And this morning, Cameron Brown, full of wonder, delighted in the awe of it all.
Of course, Cameron is exceptional, gifted really and it is not fair to compare others to him. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite that usually happens: he’s often compared to others in a most unfair way. (Some people are such slow learners.)
When Cameron came down the aisle this morning wearing a bright red shirt, carrying a gigantic rose-red flower, his eyes sparkled. When his little brother came down, dressed like a mouse, Cameron giggled a little, watching his favorite person mount the stairs then crouch like a critter. He looked around at all his friends standing there with him, his smile growing, his eyes dancing. When the audience laughed, Cameron laughed too. When Eve sang, Cameron watched her every move. And when it was over, all too soon, Cameron stayed in place. He looked around that great big sanctuary, appearing every bit the picture of pure, innocent wonder. The director came to him, he took her hand, and flashed her his full-face grin. And as they slowly made their way back down the aisle, Cameron continued looking over his shoulder. It was as if he didn’t want it to be over, not yet. It was too wonderful, too delightful.
Anyone could tell by the look on his face: Cameron got it. And once again I thought, I want to be more like Cameron. I want to see the world like he does. I want to see God like he does.
“One quick question,” I said to my pastor. He was heading back to his lunch table with a full cup of coffee; I’d finished my lunch and wanted a word with him before I had to leave.
“Oh hi, Aileen,” he said, more gracious than most would have been, having been caught between coffee and dessert. “What’s up?”
“A lot. For one thing I just lied to my pastor." I realized in that moment what he no doubt already had guessed. “My question is neither quick nor singular.” Guy Sayles smiled, relaxed and unhurried. I forged ahead.
“My friend’s son—he’s 10—has inoperable brain cancer. He got bad news yesterday, really bad news. His mother and I were talking last night, and she asked me some tough questions. I’m only in the second semester of seminary here. I have no idea what to say.”
"I’m not sure theological degrees give you the words to say under those circumstances," Guy said, speaking the frustrating truth of pastoral care.
“My friend's question was this: ‘If God is omnipotent as we believe God is, then why hasn't my son been healed?’ Good question right? So, ya know, why?”
Setting his coffee on the counter, Guy shook his head. “Well the first thing I would ask myself is, 'Is this really an appropriate time for a theological discussion?' It probably isn't. If not, I would say, ‘I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I love you.’”
I found this to be brilliant instruction. How many times do we spout off theological treatises when it just isn't the time? The person really needs to hear, “What you are going through is awful and I’m sorry that you are going through it because you matter to me.” And we start quoting scripture, telling them about God’s will or the nature of creation. Sometimes, we need to say less in order to say more.
Guy continued. “If it is a good time for a theological discussion, then I might say, ‘Well, God doesn't always get God's way.’”
He must have noticed my hesitation because he elaborated. “When people disagree with me on this, I ask them, ‘Does God always get God's way with you?’ Of course not. If it is true with one person, it must be true with others. And if God doesn't always get God's way with people, then God doesn’t always get God's way in the world. After all, if God did, then why would Jesus have commanded us to pray for God’s will to be done? It would just be done whether we prayed or not.” (Intriguing, huh?)
“But,” Guy said, “If God is omnipotent, and we are Christians, then we believe
Christianity is confusingly full of contradictions. The equations just aren't as simple as we would like them to be.”
I knew he was right. But what could I tell my friend that could comfort her, if only momentarily?
“There is one simple formula, though,” Guy went on. “God loves us. God just loves us. God always, completely, beyond-our-imagination loves us.”
“So, when our hearts are breaking. . .”
Zach, the Palestinian who guided our tour of Israel, knew a little something about aging gracefully. A grandfather who had been considering retirement for months, Zach was hard at work, leading our group of 34 American tourists through his homeland. He walked all over Masada and Qumran in 100° heat. He hiked through Megiddo and strode up and down the ancient streets of Old Jerusalem. All the while, Zach shared his knowledge with us: telling the history of the area, quoting scripture chapter and verse, and recalling vignettes particular to the sites we visited. As far as I know, he never once sat to rest; he walked every step I did.
A month after my trip, my family and my sister’s headed to North Myrtle Beach, my parents’ hometown, for our annual vacation. My brother, Hal, and his family were already there. A few weeks earlier, they had moved back to the area and purchased a home right down the road from our parents.
Unfortunately, things were not going well. Because of a series of complications and botched repair jobs, Hal was still not in his new house. For six weeks, his family of five had been living with our parents while my brother became increasingly frustrated with the work crews he’d hired to make his home safe for his family. As we sat around Mother’s dinner table one night talking over my brother’s predicament, the doorbell rang.
“It’s Mr. Rothman,” Mother announced. “Come in Dick; have some supper.”
Mr. Rothman has been a family friend for 25 years (he watched my brother grow up). He passed retirement age at least 15 years ago. Since that time, he has nursed his beloved wife through Alzheimer’s, becoming her daily visitor when he made the gut-wrenching decision to place her in a nursing home. In addition to spending hours with his wife (who long ago had stopped recognizing him), he visited the other residents of the home. Mr. Rothman brought sunshine to the lonely, even when he was heartbroken with loneliness himself. More than ten years after she became ill, Mr. Rothman’s wife drew her last earthly breath, while her devoted husband looked on, weeping.
Also during the last 15 years, Dick Rothman has been running his own business. An electrician and an expert in air conditioning repair, Mr. Rothman has plenty of opportunities to stay busy. So by 9:00 every morning, Dick Rothman is out making his rounds, visiting customers who’ve relied on him for years.
“Hey, Hal,” Mr. Rothman began that night, “I’ve been thinking about that job you’ve got going on over there at your house.“ He had been over helping my brother with odd jobs while a larger company had replaced all of the duct work in the house and then worked to get the air conditioning running again. The company, though it had come highly recommended, seemed to be botching the job.
“Here’s what they’ve done,“ Mr. Rothman said, taking a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and drawing on a table napkin. Hal nodded in agreement. “And here’s what they should have done.“ He drew a different diagram.
“Uggh!” my brother groaned, “I knew it! I knew they were not doing it right.” Dejected, Hal slumped as he propped his elbows on the table and covered his forehead with his hands.
And then Mr. Rothman laughed aloud. “Oh now, Hal,” he said, “I didn’t come tell you this to get you worried. Let’s worry about it tomorrow if they don’t fix it.” He folded his hands in his lap, smiled and shook his head, seeming to recall some distant memory. “’Wait to worry.’ I’ve got that written all through my Bible. ‘Wait to Worry.’ I have to remind myself of that. But the thing is, we’ve got plenty of time to worry.” He patted my brother affectionately. “Let’s worry later.”
Hal knowing Mr. Rothman was right, laughed with his friend--a friend more than four decades older than he, a friend who had reached out to him and pulled him out of his despair.
“The olive tree never dies,“ Zach said. No matter what it has been through, no matter how old it gets, the olive tree keeps bearing fruit. Just like Zach. Just like Dick Rothman.*
On November 6, 2014, Dick Rothman celebrated his 90th birthday. Two days later, he passed from this world into the arms of his Savior, Jesus. Hal's air conditioning still works just fine.
Soon I will be leaving Jerusalem and heading into Jordan to begin the journey back to my own promised land--Asheville, North Carolina. We leave the hotel before 7:30 in the morning and it is after midnight. (My mind seems to be unwilling to slow down for rest. . . )
Our guide and our lead professor told us that today's first two sites were not biblical sites per se but rather historical sites. But me, I'm a fool for a set of ruins so I couldn't wait to get to first Masada and then to Qumran. The plan was to leave Qumran after lunch and head to the Dead Sea for a swim before going to the Garden Tomb for our final worship experience in Jerusalem. It was an amazing day.
Masada, positioned off the coast of the Dead Sea, stands out from the rocky desert mountain landscape as fortresses are prone to do. The ruins there amazed me--towers, aqueducts, baths, a sauna, even an early version of a post office. Unbelievable. I got great pictures there.
Do you know where Qumran is? Well, it's right down the road from Masada, but that's not the important thing about this little mountain range of caves. I'll get to that in a minute. First, let me ask you this. Have you heard of Ein Gedi? What about En Gedi? (Same place.) En Gedi is a desert Oasis and we went through it today between Masada and Qumran. I don't have the scriptures handy, but you may remember the story of David pursuing Saul into a cave at En Gedi? Saul had gone in there to. . . well. . .you know. . .and then he fell asleep (note to self, never fall asleep on the toilet). David finds him there, decides not to kill him but just cuts a swatch of fabric from his robe (maybe to have himself a king's robe made?) much to the protests of his soldiers. En Gedi. That's the place. We went through it today and it is so plush and green in the middle of this rocky, sandy, ruddy desert. Beautiful.
Okay, so Qumran. Did you go over to Wikipedia and look it up? Well that was silly because I was getting ready to tell you. Qumran is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Remember I told you that Qumran is down the street from Masada and that Masada is off the cost of the Dead Sea? Thus the name. Dead Sea Scrolls. And I was there. Right there. Blessed Assurance.
Next we went to the Dead Sea itself where we floated and played in the water. We covered ourselves in the mud--supposedly it's good for the skin. Very refreshing.
We ended our day back here in Jerusalem at the Garden Tomb. As with much that happens here in the Holy Land, these sites are often disputed. Some believe absolutely that this site is the site where Jesus was laid. Our guide and our professor don't really think it is possible. Instead they challenged us to see it as the type of tomb were Jesus could have been laid. This was most instructive and helpful.
The Garden is lovely. The landscape includes ancient artifacts, blooming flowers and trees while small chapels hide here and there all around the garden. The Garden guide, an older man from the UK with a thick British accent, said before we went to our appointed chapel, "I don't know what you believe about this place being the place where Jesus was taken to be buried and I don't care. Because we who are Christians do not serve a dead God, we serve a living God. Our faith is not about where Jesus was laid when he died; It is about where he lives now that he is resurrected."
Our communion service will hold a private, special place in my memory forever. It was so sacred, so precious. And such a perfect ending. . . no beginning. . .to our Jerusalem story.
On my way back to God's Country,
Well I've come out of Egypt and am in Jericho now. It seems Egyptian computers don't speak Aileen. I could not access my website the whole time I was there. Oh well, I'm in Jericho for a moment or so and thought I'd sent a quick update.
We arrived in Cairo safe, sound and sleepy. We spent three nights there and two full days exploring Cairo and Memphis. The great pyramids of Egypt are something to see, but the venders who lurk there are something to avoid. The Egyptian museum offered lots of treasures, including the artifacts from King Tuts tomb. Here's something I learned: King Tut was so young and such a minor king that his treasures were really pocket change compared to what a great and older king would have had. Amazing. I actually saw the coffin mask--the coffin mask that is in all the text books. Hard to believe I was standing there looking at it.
Yesterday we visited a carpet factory where they make Egyptian rugs. They were so beautiful, so artistic. Children go to school at this factory to learn to make the rugs so that they can graduate with a skill. I took video there so you could see how fast their fingers move. You wouldn't be able to imagine it if I tried to tell you.
We also went to a papyrus institute. Paper was invented by Egyptians; did you know that? Indeed the word paper comes from Papyrus. The art there was captivating.
Today we spent travelling. Tonight we sleep and get up tomorrow to tour Jericho. As we travelled from Egypt to Jericho, I thought about the children of Israel. It is such a barren wasteland and I can't imagine what those people must have been experiencing. Egypt, even then, would have been so bustling and alive. The desert--the wilderness--so void, so dead. How bewildered they must have been once the running game stopped and they looked around to see where they'd landed. It is no wonder it took them 40 years to get their bearings straight.
As we were coming through the desert, at first we hit miles and miles of emptiness. Next, we approached mountains--and they looked nothing like the Blue Ridge. These mountains are jagged, red earth, with no place to even grab a foot hold, much less for a plant to take root. It must have been so scary for the Israelites. It's a wonder they didn't turn back. They must have been walking towards a promise. . .
Walking with the Children of Israel,