Praying in Crazy Times

April 8th, 2020

During this pandemic, I’ve heard people say they don’t even know how to pray.

I’m thinking about the Psalms lately as I think about praying. I do believe there are many ways to pray — but some of those ways are to pray like the psalmists.

I’ve been looking at laments lately. An interesting thing about laments is that in the Psalms, they generally spend a lot more time telling God what the problem is than they do telling him what they want him to do about it. It’s almost like praying is more for our benefit than it is for God’s.

Over the years, I’ve often been told to pray specific prayers, because then you can see when God has answered. I’ve been told to name it and claim it.

And yes, we’re supposed to lay our requests before God with thanksgiving. There’s nothing wrong with telling him what we want to happen. He’s said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

But what is the difference between asking God and telling him what to do?

Take a look at the Psalms. They pour out their hearts to God about the big mess they’re in, and then they ask God to act. They ask God for help. They aren’t usually terribly specific about what form the help needs to take. In fact, it seems like they actually trust God to figure out what should be done.

I think about when my husband left me. For years, I prayed that God would bring him back. It took a long time before I realized that I wasn’t trusting God. I was telling him what I thought needed to happen.

God did answer my prayers for help. He granted me protection and security, a new job, a new home, and a church family that cared about me. He took my relationship with himself to a whole new level.

In fact, he graciously granted me an abundance of blessings I’d never thought to ask for.

There was a key moment for me when I realized that “standing for my marriage” wasn’t actually trusting God. Could I trust God to help me and bless me when I was not deciding what the outcome had to be?

Take a look at some Psalms. You can almost page through and take your pick, but I’ll point out a couple where it’s really striking.

Look at Psalm 44. The psalmist goes on for 22 verses about how bad things have gotten. Then they end with these four verses:

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.

Another good example is Psalm 10. This one is a more complete lament, and it’s got the “Words of Assurance” section after the “Petition.” In fact, out of 18 verses, there is only one where he asks God to do anything, and that verse is short and sweet:

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.

So this is an idea for praying during this pandemic. I’m not saying this is the only way to pray. But as an exercise, try pouring out to God all your worries and all the ways things are not going well.

And then ask him:

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.

It doesn’t hurt, after that, to continue with the form of the lament. Remind yourself that you really do believe that God can handle this. Make some promises about how you’re going to celebrate when God brings you through!

But I for sure don’t know what God should do about this global pandemic. I’m glad that I do trust that he knows, and that he will have mercy.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief.
You consider it to take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.

Walk with us, Lord.

A Psalm from the Scatterbrained

April 1st, 2020

I’m feeling scatterbrained this week. I’m trying to focus and failing. Tonight I was trying to get to working on my Psalms book again and just going nowhere.

That’s when I thought: I want more example Psalms. To show that you can use these forms to pray and it really helps, because they direct your thoughts. Why not write a Psalm Prayer about it?

I’ve done Laments. But tonight I tried a Penitential Psalm. Because I’m pretty sure it’s my own fault I’m getting worried and distracted. I’m not trusting God; I’m trying to figure things out myself.

A Penitential Psalm has pretty much the same form as a Lament, but you ask God for mercy in the address to God and the complaint part talks about how bad things have gotten because of what you’ve done, so it’s also confession. (See Psalms 6, 38, and 51.)

Let me review the parts:
1) Address to God
2) Complaint
3) Confession of Trust
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

Okay, I tried not to edit too much and just pray it through, so this doesn’t pretend to be polished. But here goes:

A Psalm from the Scatterbrained

Father, have mercy on me,
according to your unfailing love.
Look on my situation and have compassion;
see my failings and grant me grace.

We’re in a pandemic,
and the world has turned upside-down.
I don’t know what’s normal,
and I don’t know how to plan.
My thoughts are bouncing around my brain
like ping-pong balls.
I’m having trouble focusing,
distracted by each new announcement or speculation.

My work serving the public has come to a halt.
Helping people in person spreads germs.
So now we look for ways to help
while keeping everyone at a distance.
I write reviews;
I read those journals that were stacking up.
Will I learn about customer service
while staying away from customers?

What’s the problem? As an introvert,
being at home should give me focus.
But instead, I’m scatterbrained.

I want to know what to expect,
how to plan,
what date to schedule the make-up programs
and when the books are due.

It’s out of my hands.
It’s out of my hands.
Wash those hands free of germs
and free of holding the world.

Lord, is this what it takes
to show me my plans are butterflies?
Does it take a pandemic
for me to realize I’m not in control?

You do see the future.
You do watch over your children.
If you see a sparrow fall,
then you know today’s death count.
And you are there.
And you gently bear each soul to heaven.

You’ve told us that riches are fleeting.
You’ve told us our life is a breath.
Does it take a pandemic
to make us understand?

Lord, walk with your children.
Forgive us when we run ahead.
Hold our hands through the dark fearful chasm
and carry us safely out of the fire.

Lord, do not forsake us!
Show yourself by our sides.
Come quickly to help us
and grant us peace and strength.

We don’t know how this pandemic will end.
We don’t know what our lives will look like next season.
But we know you will be with us
and show us new joys on the other side.

The day will come
when we again shake hands with new friends
and throw our arms around old friends.

The time will come
when we again meet as a choir
to join our voices in praises to God,
and lift our voices together to our Mighty Fortress.

Do Try This At Home!

March 24th, 2020

I got some wonderful responses to yesterday’s Lament for Covid-19. People said it touched them.

But that wasn’t what I was going for. What I wanted was for people to say: I can do that!

I want to motivate people to try this way of praying themselves. I think I’m going to have to post a much shorter example.

But before I do, I want to point out something that blessed me in writing yesterday’s lament. I already knew that what I love about the form of the lament is that Thanksgiving is built in. It automatically includes what Christians are taught in Philippians 4:6-7 – to present your requests before God with thanksgiving.

But I wasn’t prepared for how powerfully the “Vow to Praise” would hit me. You make promises of what you’re going to do when God comes through and answers your prayer. I started imagining all the people I’m going to hug when this Covid-19 crisis is over… and that was more powerful to me than anything else I thought about.

Okay, now let me write a short lament. Here again are the parts:

1) Address to God
2) Complaint
3) Confession of Trust
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

I’m also going to use parallelism, like the Psalms do – which just means saying the same thing in a different way on the next line.

A Shorter Lament for the Sick

Hear my voice, Lord,
I’m calling because you’re the only one who can help.

Thousands are sick across our country,
suffering, alone, scared.
Our hospitals are filling,
and their workers are risking their lives.
Others at home are wondering
at what point do they need to get help?

We trust you, Lord.
We know you see each one of us.
You are with us
and we are never alone.
You are the Great Physician,
and you have the power to heal.
You give wisdom to the healers
and comfort to the sick.

Lord, have mercy.
Grant your help and healing.
Give wisdom to everyone seeking a cure,
stamina to everyone helping the sick,
comfort to everyone ravaged by illness,
and protection to everyone still healthy.

We will get through this.
As a community,
as a country,
and all humanity together.
We will once again create vaccines and treatments.
We will conquer this illness
long before it conquers us.
And that is because of the
wisdom and grace you have granted
to humankind.

Lord, when the church meets again,
we’re going to do lots of touching.
We’ll share communion
and envelop each other in hugs.

When the library reopens,
we’re going to sing “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”
and touch our eyes and ears and mouth and nose
with great excitement.
And then again, faster!

Okay, your turn! Do you have something that needs prayer? Try a Lament. God can take your complaints, and it will do your heart good to plan how you’re going to celebrate when He answers.

A Lament for Covid-19

March 23rd, 2020

I’ve been thinking for a long time about praying like the Psalmists, using the forms of Hebrew poetry to pray.

The Lament is the most common form in the Psalms, and it’s a wonderful form because you fully complain, but the form brings you back around to remembering that God’s going to take care of this. You even plan how you will rejoice when you get through it. So — I’m going to do a practice Lament about the coronavirus.

This isn’t polished, it’s not pretty. But I want it to be something anyone can do.

I wrote this with two things in mind: I tried to use parallelism, repeating myself. And I tried to use the form of a Lament:

1) Address to God
2) Complaint
3) Confession of Trust
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

So that’s enough. I’ll offer below my lament I wrote for this time.

This is my offering — but I offer it in hopes that you’ll see that you don’t have to be good at this to do it! I hope that you’ll try writing your own Lament and voice your complaint — but remind yourself that you really do believe that God will pull you through.

A Lament for Covid-19

Lord, are you there?
Have you seen the world going crazy?

Your people are falling ill,
young and old are suffering.
This virus is spreading the globe,
people in every country are affected.

We’re afraid to touch each other.
We’ve banned hugs and handshakes.
We stay at home and keep our distance.
Even people I pass on the outdoor path draw back.

Businesses are closing;
hairdressers are afraid.
Librarians are too scared to touch books,
and restaurants have become take-out only.

The economy is crashing.
Friends are getting laid off.
Small businesses are failing,
and classes are switching to online learning.

The scariest part is exponential growth.
Our country went from hundreds
to thousands of cases
in less than a week.

Can our hospitals tend
those who need it?
Will we run out of facemasks?
Will we have enough ventilators?

Lord, the future is unknown
and everything we thought was normal has changed.

I do trust you, Lord.
You’ve seen the world through every disaster.
This seems so big,
but you are always bigger.

Can you save mankind from the consequences of our mistakes?
You can.
Will you have mercy on us?
You will.

You see the individual.
You notice when a sparrow falls.
You see the hourly worker laid off,
And you have compassion for the owner who lost their business.

I wish you were not quite so good
at redeeming bad things,
for then you wouldn’t
let bad things happen.

As it is, we ask for redemption.
We ask for bursts of goodness and grace.
We ask for ingenuity for doctors and scientists,
finding treatment, finding cures,
developing an effective vaccine.

We ask for compassion
in the hearts of caregivers,
that those suffering may know
their pain is seen.

We ask for protection
for those serving on the frontlines,
that the virus will not enter their bodies,
that they will not succumb,
that they will fight on.

We ask for creativity
in the hearts and minds of artists,
that they will lift us above these times,
draw us out from fear.

We ask for community
even as we distance ourselves.
We ask for creative ways
to reach out and tell people we care.

We ask that we will never forget
how richly blessed we are
to have each other,
and what an amazing gift
is the presence of another human being.

Lord, have mercy on this world You’ve created!
Look with compassion on our suffering!
Give humanity the wisdom and resilience
To stop this virus and cut short the harm.

Lord, you’ve said when we walk through the fire,
you will be with us.
We will not be burned,
the flames will not set us ablaze.

When we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
You are with us.
You comfort us
with your rod and your staff, the signs of your presence.

We don’t know what’s coming,
but you do.
Jesus took on our infirmities
and carried our diseases,
and he never stopped
caring for the ills of the world.

Lord, we will sing for joy
when we meet back together again.
Our hugs will be
strong and invigorating.

We will laugh with joy
when we see friends and family
in person again,
when we feel our loved ones in the flesh.

Thank you for the precious gift of community,
and thank you that we’re learning
Love is stronger than any virus
And community transcends physical distance.

Amen, Lord.

God’s Guidance

March 1st, 2020

Recently, the pastors at my church did a short sermon series on God’s Will. They made some wonderful points, but didn’t talk much about how these things fit with God’s guidance. This post is going to mull over what I think and believe about God’s guidance.

In the choir on the third week of the series, we sang “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” and “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought” — so I expected that third sermon to touch on God’s guidance and God’s leading. God’s guidance does relate to “God’s plan.”

Now, what the pastor did talk about was very helpful. He mentioned that Time Travel movies have conditioned us to think that every little decision we make can drastically affect our futures. Combine that with talk of “God’s Perfect Plan,” and we put too much pressure on ourselves when we make decisions. He made the strong point that the idea of “God’s Perfect Plan” is not biblical.

God gives us agency! He allows us to make choices. Real choices that affect our lives and the lives of others. He doesn’t have One “Plan” for our lives — one that we can irrevocably mess up.

What we can do is align ourselves with God’s Will. We can make choices that align with loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

I like that message. Though my first thought is along the lines of What happens when other people around you are not aligned with God’s will and your life is affected? Okay, let’s get specific. Suppose your husband has an affair (clearly not aligned with God’s will) and divorces you.

Well, this message brings hope — Since God doesn’t have only One Plan for my life that I have to follow — my ex-husband can’t mess up my destiny. I already have seen that God has redeemed my single state and has filled my life with good things — some of which specifically came from my divorce. I would not have sought full-time work or become a librarian if I were still married, for example. And if I weren’t a librarian, I never would have gotten to serve on the 2019 Newbery Committee or received the 2019 Allie Beth Martin Award from the Public Library Association. Becoming a librarian has been a wonderful thing for me. Even though it wasn’t my personal Plan A for my life.

So let me receive the point loud and clear that someone else’s sin may affect your life dramatically, but it doesn’t pull you out of the possibility of aligning with God’s will. God can redeem the trials, and He promises in Romans 8:28 that He will work all things together for the good of those who love Him. That doesn’t mean that “everything happens for the best.” God doesn’t promise us “the best” at all times, and people sinning against you can indeed do you terrible harm. But I do believe that God can bring good out of anything.

In fact, I believe that if God can’t bring good out of it, He won’t let it happen. Unfortunately, He is very good at bringing good out of bad things! (I personally would prefer it if He would just keep the bad things from happening.)

So, yes, God gives us agency to make choices. And yes, He is with us as we live through the consequences of those choices — our own and others.

But I still believe that God gives guidance when we ask.

I mainly base this on James 1:5:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

In the Bible, wisdom consistently refers to what you do, to making good choices. So if you lack wisdom to know what to do, God encourages you to ask.

The Psalms have several passages where the writer asks God to lead.

Psalm 31:3 — “Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name, lead and guide me.”

Psalm 25:5 — “Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”

Psalm 23:3 — “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

Psalm 119:105 — “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”

Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness because of my oppressors — make straight your way before me.”

Psalm 143:8 — “Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.”

Yes, God gives us agency, but He is happy to help us figure out how to use that agency.

The pastor was urging us not to put so much pressure on our choices. If we have a big decision — whether to take a job in another state, whether to accept a marriage proposal, for example — we can’t mess up God’s will for our lives. Make the best decision we can, and God will be with us.

When faced with a big decision, though, is a good time to ask for wisdom.

One of the big good things that came out of my divorce was that I learned to ask God for wisdom. I was desperate, and I believe He answered.

But how does He answer? How does He give wisdom?

John Eldredge takes on this topic head-on in his book Walking with God. I’m going to copy here the same long quote I posted in my review of the book.

Now, I know, I know — the prevailing belief is that God speaks to his people only through the Bible.  And let me make this clear: he does speak to us first and foremost through the Bible.  That is the basis for our relationship.  The Bible is the eternal and unchanging Word of God to us.  It is such a gift, to have right there in black and white God’s thoughts toward us.  We know right off the bat that any other supposed revelation from God that contradicts the Bible is not to be trusted.  So I am not minimizing in any way the authority of the Scripture or the fact that God speaks to us through the Bible.

However, many Christians believe that God only speaks to us through the Bible.

The irony of that belief is that’s not what the Bible says.

The Bible is filled with stories of God talking to his people.  Abraham, who is called the friend of God, said, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me . . .’ (Genesis 24:7).  God spoke to Moses ‘as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11).  He spoke to Aaron too: ‘Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron about the Israelites’ (Exodus 6:13).  And David: ‘In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord.  “Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?” he asked.  The Lord said, “Go up.”  David asked, “Where shall I go?”  “To Hebron,” the Lord answered’ (2 Samuel 2:1).  The Lord spoke to Noah.  The Lord spoke to Gideon.  The Lord spoke to Samuel.  The list goes on and on.

I can hear the objections even now:  ‘But that was different.  Those were special people called to special tasks.’  And we are not special people called to special tasks?  I refuse to believe that.  And I doubt that you want to believe it either, in your heart of hearts.

But for the sake of argument, notice that God also speaks to ‘less important’ characters in the Bible.  God spoke to Hagar, the servant girl of Sarah, as she was running away. . . .  In the New Testament, God speaks to a man named Ananias who plays a small role in seven verses in Acts 9. . . .

Now, if God doesn’t also speak to us, why would he have given us all these stories of him speaking to others?  ‘Look — here are hundreds of inspiring and hopeful stories about how God spoke to his people in this and that situation.  Isn’t it amazing?  But you can’t have that.  He doesn’t speak like that anymore.’  That makes no sense at all.  Why would God give you a book of exceptions?  This is how I used to relate to my people, but I don’t do that anymore.  What good would a book of exceptions do you?  That’s like giving you the owner’s manual for a Dodge even though you drive a Mitsubishi.  No, the Bible is a book of examples of what it looks like to walk with God.

In my own life, a turning point happened soon after my husband had moved out, very much against my wishes. For months, very helpful books had been landing on my desk at the base library, books that helped me respond to my husband’s anger with compassion and that helped me more calmly work on my own attitude and gave me hope that he would come around.

But the turning point in my attitude came in a pastor’s sermon. He was talking about a very odd miracle that Jesus did in Mark 7, healing a man who was deaf and mute.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

I’ve always thought that story was a little strange. But this pastor pointed out something I’d never noticed but seems absolutely true once you think about it — Jesus was speaking to the man in sign language!

The man could not hear or speak. Jesus took him aside and got his attention. Then he dramatically pantomimed what he was going to do.

The pastor made this powerful point: “God speaks your language!”

It brought me to tears at the time. Because all those helpful books that had been showing up on my desk at just the right time? My language is books, and God was speaking to me that way. My language is also Scripture (I have memorized large portions of the Bible.), and throughout those divorce years, God continued to speak through Scripture as well. More than once, I’d think God was speaking to me through a verse. I’d ask for confirmation, and the next Sunday that verse would be mentioned in the sermon. (These were obscure verses, too.) That was enough for me.

Now, there’s a part of me that feels very presumptuous to think that God would pay enough attention to my life to speak to me. It’s that part that leads me to burst into tears most times when the coincidence is simply too big — I have to believe God is speaking.

Yes, God notices me. Yes, God cares about my life. Yes, God will give me wisdom and guidance. He will give that generously and without finding fault. He won’t be angry when I need confirmation.

So this is the flip side of putting so much pressure on a decision that we’re paralyzed. Yes, God gives us agency. But He’s generous to help us when we don’t know what to do.

And that flip side is what I want to say loud and clear: God loves you enough to be interested in your life and to give you guidance. He pays attention to you, yes, you!

I think a big part of why that hits me so hard is that I’m the third of thirteen children. It feels presumptuous to think that God would be concerned about the details of my life. But God notices even me!

Now, I have to add that as much as I learned to listen to God’s voice, to not be afraid to ask for guidance — all that was cast into doubt when things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would.

For a very long time during my conflict with my ex-husband, I really thought God was telling me that he would come back.

But about five years after he moved out, I did think it was the right thing to file for divorce.

I thought through what I believed God had told me. And the wisdom part, the part about knowing what to do was: “Wait on the Lord.”

And that was indeed wisdom. If I had filed for divorce or given up on my husband at the very beginning — I don’t think I would have believed that he had truly changed. I knew I’d given him ample opportunity to return. I still believe and hope that God was saying that my ex-husband will eventually have a change of heart and come back — to God. But he does not need to come back to me, and I finally figured out that wouldn’t be the best thing, anyway. (In fact, before I signed up for online dating, I made my friends promise to stop me if I was ever tempted to take my ex-husband back.)

So maybe I was wrong about what was going to happen. But I was not wrong about what God was telling me to do: Wait.

And there were other things God told me that turned out to be truly wise: “Do not go down to Egypt for help.” (Do not try to get him in trouble with his first sergeant for having an affair.) “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” (Got me not to send my initial answer to an abusive email.) After the divorce, when I was still obsessing over him: “Ephraim is joined with idols. Leave him alone!”

All of those things — and the many other ways God led me — helped so much!

But now, almost a decade after the divorce was final, it doesn’t seem like God is speaking as much any more. Is that because I don’t need it as much, not being in anywhere near as difficult a situation, or is that only because I’m not asking?

And what does it mean to walk with God, to align yourself with God’s will? I’m going to accept my new pastor’s reminder that we shouldn’t let our desire to follow God’s will be paralyzing.

I also think of a sermon my former pastor preached. He brought a chalkboard into the room and drew a long line that he said represented a continuum. On one end was “letting things happen.” He said that was living life like you’re on a raft, just going where the current takes you. This is often all in the name of “God’s will” and not exercising agency at all.

On the other end was “making things happen.” This is when you try to do everything yourself. It’s all about exercising your own agency to make sure your life goes the way you want it to go. Or trying, anyway. This is like living life on a motorboat, not relying on any power outside yourself.

But he said that where we want to be is somewhere in the middle, on the “Path of Trust.” This is more like living life on a sailboat, turning the sail to catch the wind and move with the power of the wind. It’s not trying to be in total control, but it’s also not just giving up any control at all. Walking on the Path of Trust is trickier than being on either of the ends of the spectrum.

It was when I heard that sermon that I realized that in my prayers, I wasn’t trusting God. I’d been insisting that God bring my then-husband back. I was telling God how things had to turn out. That wasn’t trust. That was me trying to be in control.

Walking with God when I’m not sure what I think God should do? That’s much trickier. To be honest, when I was praying so much, asking God for guidance about my failing marriage, in my heart I was asking God, What should I do to that will help my husband come back? I really thought it must obviously be God’s will for divorce not to happen.

God was faithful. And God answered the question, What should I do to walk with You as I live my life in this difficult space?

Now? I’m not in as difficult a daily space. I’m not asking for guidance out of desperation, but maybe I should still be asking for guidance. Because I do lack wisdom.

And then there’s the matter of what I want to happen in my life: I’d like to get married again. But how to find a man who loves the Lord and loves me?

And that’s where the Path of Trust seems like a good analogy. On the one hand, I could decide the Lord has to do it and not make any effort at all. On the other hand, I could throw myself into online dating and try to get the attention of any and every man I find there.

In practice, I’m tending to wobble between those two approaches, though leaning more toward the no effort extreme. But for the most part, I’m seeing the Path of Trust as having an online presence so that I’m not hiding under a rock, but still being very selective about what messages I answer, and not spending hours of time looking. I’m not sure if this is the best approach, but that’s the thing about the Path of Trust — I do think it can change.

But what if I let go of the outcome? What if I ask God for guidance today, but I don’t try to tell him how my life has to turn out? And what if I’m open to that guidance having nothing to do with finding a man, for example: Today, Sondy, you should try to get a lot more sleep, because you need to get well.

Hmm. The verse that came up in my Bible reading today was Psalm 127:3 —

In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat —
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Now, it may be completely crazy to take that as a message from God to me. Why would God pay that much attention to my life?

Never mind that I’ve been sick for eight weeks and counting and have been asking my friends to pray for me. Never mind that I asked God what I should say Yes to for Lent. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous to take this passage as God speaking to me, giving me wisdom?

And that’s kind of how it works. This verse leaped out at me today. It seems like a wise thing for me to do at this time in my life.

So I’m going to dare to say that God put that verse in my life today. Because He loves me, and does care about my life.

So for Lent, I’m going to try to shut off my computer earlier, not make sure I do all the things I’d like to daily before I go to bed. I’m going to try to go to bed earlier, and say to myself, “Sondy, God’s giving you sleep tonight because He loves you.”

I’d better start now….

Ash Wednesday and Illness

February 27th, 2020

It’s Ash Wednesday, and just this morning I was complaining on Facebook.

I’ve been sick for seven-and-a-half weeks with a nasty bug. Yesterday I actually took a sick day, hoping a lot of sleeping would help me shake it off, but this morning, I had a lot of chest pain. The pain itself was fairly mild, but was happening over an extended period of time. (Though after I got to work, I didn’t have very much chest pain the rest of the day.)

I’ve seen doctors at various times over the seven-and-a-half weeks. They’ve told me it’s viral bronchitis and it takes a long time to heal. There’s no sign of a bacterial infection to go with it.

Now the first week was awful — the main symptom being ear congestion and extreme room-spinning dizziness, but I was in California for my mother’s funeral, and my family took care of me. Even when I got home, I didn’t have to go to work right away, and I took it easy. Since then, I haven’t been all that sick — but I’ve been sick for a long time.

But today I felt convicted for complaining.

There’s a balance between acknowledging that I’m going through tough things and complaining — Why should this happen to me? There’s a distinction between facing difficulty and self-pity.

Just a few days ago, I was reading quotes on my Sonderquotes blog and found this one from Fred Luskin’s book Forgive for Good.

Follow the link to read the entire (long) quote, but it’s about telling a story about what happened to you where you’re the hero, not the victim. Talking about what you’ve overcome rather than how you’re being defeated by these big, bad problems.

So instead of feeling sorry for myself about this illness that’s hanging on and on, how can I look at it differently?

And the first thing that comes to mind is this: Maybe I’ll go easy on myself.

The fact is, this illness seems like a physical manifestation of emotional things I’m going through. And those aren’t “cured” in less than seven weeks, either.

I came down with the bug a few hours after my mother’s memorial service. My mother passed away after a very long bout with Alzheimer’s, but my father passed away unexpectedly two months before that. There’s a part of me that thinks I should be “over” my grief after seven weeks, just as I think I should be over that virus. I’m not.

I won’t say much about it, but a couple weeks after that, I became estranged from my oldest child. That is great grief, too. I am not over it.

And a couple weeks after that, my little 3-year-old niece Meredith was diagnosed with leukemia. That’s not exactly grief — but it’s worry and deep sadness that a sweet little girl would go through that. And she’ll be dealing with that for a few years, even if all goes well.

And so, yes, being sick physically almost feels like a reminder to take care of myself. Maybe if I can see and feel that I am not healthy — I will remember to be kind to my emotional self as well.

I’ve been reading and memorizing Isaiah 43 ever since our pastor preached a sermon on it a few weeks ago. The beginning is inspiring —

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you,
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned,
the flames will not set you ablaze.

No, I’m not burned. Yes, being physically ill as well as emotionally wounded helps me stop and quiet down and notice that the Lord is with me.

And another verse in Isaiah 43 seems perfect for Ash Wednesday:

I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more.

Yes, I’ve been complaining. And I’ve sunk into that periodically throughout these two months.

But the Lord doesn’t ask us to wallow. He blots out our transgressions because that’s the kind of God He is.

This illness reminds me of my weaknesses. That there are things I’m not able to handle. God doesn’t reproach me for that. But He reminds me that He is with me. And I need the Lord.

When I sing and pray, Lord, have mercy! I pray it from my heart.

And indeed, even the illness itself is touched with His mercy.

Nancy Hatch’s Memorial Service

January 9th, 2020

As I posted a link to the video of my father’s memorial service, here’s a link to my mother’s memorial service:

What I had to say begins at 45:00, and the part where seven of us sang the fourth movement of Brahms’ Requiem, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” begins at 1:17:00.

Here is what I planned to say at the service. (I also spoke at my Dad’s graveside service, but didn’t write out my remarks ahead of time. I learned my lesson.)

I haven’t seen a lot of my Mom since she had Alzheimer’s, because I live in Virginia. When I did see her, I’d see how much worse she’d gotten since the last time I’d seen her, and it would hit hard because I wasn’t seeing it happen gradually.

When I came here for Dad’s memorial service, Mom couldn’t do much of anything, and it broke my heart. But I wanted to be a loving presence, so I held her hand and said, “I love you, Mom. I love you.”

And I swear she answered me, “I love you.” It was three syllables and the right vowels. So my Mom’s last words to me were “I love you.”

And you know what? I believe her. Mom and I didn’t always understand each other, but one thing I’m sure of was that she tried her best to love me and to love all her children and grandchildren.

Alzheimer’s strips so much away from a person. When all that’s stripped away, she could have ended up a bitter and resentful person, but not Mom. Down to her core, Mom was left with her loves.

There’s a cute speeches phase of Alzheimer’s, just like there is for little kids. I got to have dinner with Dad on one of his trips to DC when Mom was in that phase. He told me that she’d said to him, “I love you! We should get married!” In fact, he said she’d never told him she loved him as much in their whole lives as she was doing then.

Another cute speech was reported to me by my sisters. They said that one day, Mom said, “I just remembered that there’s this place with rooms full of books, and you can take home as many as you want!” As a public librarian, this made me happy.

And that makes me remember that so many of my deepest loves in life are loves that my mother instilled in me.

She taught me to read. And instilled in me a love of books and reading and reading aloud to children. Exactly the passions that make me love being a librarian.

Mom loved little children and babies to the very end, and that’s a love she instilled in me. Though I prefer to enjoy *other* people’s children, as a children’s librarian, I’m lucky enough to get to do that on my job.

Lately I joined a church that has a wonderful choir. I’ve been reminded how much my love of music and singing and hymns and choral music came from my Mom. She made sure our family owned a hymnal, and she was the one who started Becky and me in our habit of singing hymns on long trips. She got me piano lessons and flute lessons and voice lessons and took me to choir concerts until I was old enough to sing in them myself, and then she attended all of mine. And she wasn’t faking interest – she loved to hear the choirs singing.

It was Mom’s idea to pay us to memorize chapters of Scripture. She was the one who’d patiently listen even when I didn’t necessarily know the chapter as well as I thought I did. And memorizing Scripture changed my life, because it found its way into my heart. Mom passed on to me her love of God and her love for God’s Word.

Mom, I love you, too. Thank you for passing on to me the loves that make me who I am.

The Depths of God’s Forgiveness

January 9th, 2020

This morning these verses in Micah 7:18-19 struck me:

Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

Hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

My photo above isn’t right for this, since my picture is of the edge of the sea, not the depths of the sea, but it was the best recent sea picture I have. But there’s no chance the waves are going to bring our iniquities back to shore.

I’ve long thought that evangelicals tend to go overboard with confession.

Now, I understand that confession is important. I learned I John 1:9 by heart when I was a little girl — “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But I was also taught as a little girl to “keep short accounts with God” and that “sin demands payment” — and the result is the idea that God’s willing to forgive, but he’s keeping track — and you’d better confess every single sin of omission or commission, or he’ll sternly disapprove.

I’ve seen prayer meetings stop for time of confession — and see people agonize over all the little ways they’ve failed God.

I don’t think that’s what God is after.

Look at how God is portrayed as the Father in the parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15). The son was ready for a profuse apology, but the Father didn’t even listen to that.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

At the end of my marriage, my ex-husband gave me a long list of ways I had hurt him over the years. I groveled and cried and apologized — but he didn’t accept my apologies. That’s what it’s like when someone demands payment.

God does not hold grudges! He doesn’t require us to make up to him what we have done. He simply wants us to be free from sin.

He says as much in Psalm 103 —

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

I think conscientious Christians can especially get ourselves feeling guilty for sins of omission. For example, I’m sick today, but starting to feel better — did I do enough good things?

That’s why that last verse quoted above comforts me so much — “He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” God does not hold against us that we are not perfect. Just as we do not hold against our toddlers that they can’t run and jump.

He loves us, even though we are as yet imperfect.

And though we’re told to confess our sins, and we’re told to examine ourselves, I think we can overdo it if it gets into guilt and groveling. We are God’s children. He’d like us to enjoy his presence instead of spending our time with him apologizing for things in the past.

George MacDonald shook up my thinking about this in the chapter “Salvation from Sin” from his book The Hope of the Gospel. (You can read it online through the link above.) Here’s a passage I especially love:

Not for any or all of his sins that are past shall a man be condemned; not for the worst of them needs he dread remaining unforgiven. The sin he dwells in, the sin he will not come out of, is the sole ruin of a man. His present, his live sins—those pervading his thoughts and ruling his conduct; the sins he keeps doing, and will not give up; the sins he is called to abandon, and clings to; the same sins which are the cause of his misery, though he may not know it—these are they for which he is even now condemned.

What does all this mean? I don’t know about you, but when I’m at the start of a new year, I start to think about, What did I do badly last year? What ways do I need to do better this year?

What if instead I think of God taking everything I did wrong or poorly in 2019, all my flaws and failings of 2019 — and hurling them into the depths of the sea?

Can I accept that God does not hold grudges? Can I accept that he loves me as I am today?

And then I pray: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Help me to live the life you’ve called me to and walk in your love today.

But even as I pray that prayer, I imagine the Lord interrupting me and saying, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on my child!”

Guilt and groveling? I don’t think God even wants me to think about those ways I’ve failed him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have hurled them into the depths of the sea.

Christmas Letter 2019

December 20th, 2019

Emmanuel — “God with us” — that’s what I’m clinging to this Christmas season, along with other tidings of comfort and joy.

I’ve decided that 2019 was an overdramatic teenager of a year — very big good things and very big bad things. Maybe 2020 will calm down!

I’ll go in opposite chronological order, to cover the bad news first, so I can finish with the good news.

On November 30, my mother passed away after more than ten years with Alzheimer’s. She’d been on hospice for two years, and this was not unexpected. The lovely part was that the day after Thanksgiving, my family in California came together to celebrate, as is our custom. My mother’s sister, Aunt Linda, came to watch Mom and she brought her violin. Mom’s sister and her children stood by her bedside, playing and singing hymns. Believe it or not, when they finished, a rainbow came out. The next morning, Mom went to heaven.

That was expected and really should be thought of as a blessing at last — but it was made harder because my father, who had been tenderly caring for her for years, passed away unexpectedly on September 25th, in the hospital from a blood clot two days after minor surgery.

So it feels like a wallop for my twelve siblings and me. The gathering of family at Dad’s memorial service was beautiful. But when my mother passed away, too, this time I didn’t have the luxury of the Denial stage of grief, and it hit hard right from the beginning. We did want my Dad to have a nice rest after all his work caring for Mom — and he has gotten that rest. Rather than seeing Mom off, he got to welcome her into heaven.

Another tough thing that happened this year was that the church I’d been attending since I moved to Virginia, full of people who love me and support me and got me through my divorce, that church officially adopted a policy that essentially says LGBTQ people are sinning. I strongly disagree with the policy, believing it is neither biblical nor kind.

The good side of that was that I joined Floris United Methodist Church, just fifteen minutes down the road. I heard the pastor making some of the same biblical arguments I’d been making about how Christians need to be inclusive. And to my delight, it turns out this church has an outstanding choir — and I hadn’t even realized how much I’d missed singing in a choir, joining the voices of others singing praise to God. Singing in the amazing Christmas cantata brought light to an otherwise dark December.

And that brings me to good news! I actually got the news of my father’s passing when I was on one of the best vacations of my life, traveling in Prince Edward Island with Darlene and Ruth, two of my childhood friends. There are two weeks of the year in late September and early October when we are all the same age, and we spent a week in PEI to celebrate being 55. We saw the L. M. Montgomery sites and beautiful scenery from all over the island. And we enjoyed spending time together. I wrote about the whole trip, with pictures, on this Sonderjourneys blog.

And the year started off with the amazing and wonderful experience of meeting with the 2019 Newbery Committee and deliberating in a locked room in Seattle to choose the most distinguished American children’s book of 2018. Our winner was Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina. One of the things the main character deals with in the book is her grandfather developing dementia, so that hit home.

After choosing the winner in Seattle, I got to visit my kids and my siblings and little nieces in Portland, Oregon. It was lovely to see them! Tim had started a new job, still doing computer work, and I saw his new apartment. Zephyr announced that she’s planning to marry Lily Dear in December 2020, and I got to meet Lily and welcome her into the family! Speaking of welcoming into the family, as of November 2, I will have to talk about nieces and a nephew in Oregon, because Robert and Laura had their third child, little Martin.

In June, we got to celebrate with the Newbery winners at ALA Annual Conference in DC, which ended up being a great big celebration to cap off all our hard work.

And the other amazing thing that happened at ALA Annual Conference was that I was given the 2019 Allie Beth Martin Award from the Public Library Association! This award is given “for extraordinary range and depth of knowledge about books and distinguished ability to share that knowledge.” Who even knew such an award existed? I was blown away to be nominated by my own library system, and then winning it felt like serious validation that I made the right choice switching careers when I was in my forties.

So, those are just the big things of the year — but they were very big things!

2020 will start with my mother’s memorial service on January 4th and finish with my daughter’s wedding on December 21st. I’m hoping in between will be plenty of love and joy.

To those reading this, thank you for your love and friendship! All that 2019 held was enhanced by the many dear friends rejoicing and weeping with me.

May this Christmas season bring you the comfort and joy of the knowledge that God is with us.

Ron Hatch’s Memorial Service

December 13th, 2019

I’m posting a link here to my Dad’s Memorial Service, which took place on October 10, 2019.

I’m posting the link so that some day if I want to watch it again, I can easily find it. I’m not quite ready to do that yet.

I’m afraid I’ll also post a link to my Mom’s Memorial Service, after that happens on January 4, 2020.