Psalm 146:5-10 / Ruth 4:13-17 / 2 Peter 3:11-18
“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,Psalm 146:5-10
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!”
by Leslie Linebarger
These days are long, and the nights are even longer. This year has been a year of pain, of set-backs, of loneliness, and of longing. In August, I received a mild brain injury, brought on when I fell and hit my head, which forced me to slow down and to recognize my limitations. In theory, I knew all along that I had limitations, but in August, they became a painfully embarrassing reality for someone like me, who likes to think that what defines me is my competence, my diligence, my efficiency. Suddenly, I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t remember words, I couldn’t remember events, I couldn’t keep up with relationships and all I wanted to do was sleep. Perhaps the most cruel side effect of concussion is the longing for sleep while not being able to sleep. For three months straight, I had a throbbing head, which woke me at all hours of the night and I would lay there, awake, thinking about the work I couldn’t get done, the bills I needed to pay, the shopping I needed to do in order to care for my family and provide a lovely home, the relationships that weighed on my heart, all my family members living so far away, the aching all over my aging, breaking body, and the children and grandchildren that have so many needs and dreams of their own, that break my heart into five million pieces every time I so much as breathe their names.
And now I find myself in Advent.
I wait in the dark where I long for sleep but sleep eludes me.
I breathe God’s name.
God with us.
I breathe God’s name. The breath fills me. The breath releases. God fills me. God releases me.
The beauty of this thought breaks my heart into five million pieces. This Light, this God With Us, fills me, is in me, is around me, has gone before me, is going out into the world, is touching every living thing with breath and life and beauty. This God With Us compels me to rest in my inadequacies, to love others in their inadequacies, to keep faith in times of doubt, to open my eyes to beauty that surrounds me and to lift up my head and wait with expectant joy even when the night seems neverending. A light has appeared in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. He has come, He is here, He is coming again.
Come, Lord Jesus.
I went for a walk on the beach today after work. We are now in full summer mode, here in my little beach town. The fog of June Gloom has burned off and the beaches are full of eager sun bathers, castle builders, shell seekers, book readers sitting in the shade of their umbrellas, and toddlers experiencing the thrill and the terror of the mighty Pacific Ocean for the very first time under brilliant blue skies and soft, warm sand, stretching from one horizon to the other.
As I put my headphones in and walked down toward the water to walk my favorite stretch of beach, I noticed a few large seagulls circling together, just up ahead by the water’s edge. Their wingspan was magnificent and they glided, easily and gracefully, in perfect unison, around and around, in a perfectly choreographed dance that beckoned me to come closer. As I approached the site where they were circling, I noticed a few more seagulls, congregating on the sand just below them, at the point where the waves stopped their landward journey and turned back again to the sea. And as I got even closer, I noticed that those on the ground were feasting on the rotted-out carcass of a stingray, that had been even more majestic than they when it had been alive. It was easily the size of twenty seagulls, washed up on the shore, guts spilling onto the beach, right there in the midst of the summer break families seeking peace and relaxation. The seagulls had no grace in tearing apart whatever flesh they could claim as their own from the body of the newly dead sting ray.
Lately I’ve been facing my fears. I am a fearful person, and I have spent much of my life working hard to avoid circumstances that provoke anxiety. Most of these circumstances for me involve social norms and expectations in relationships and culture. But this last year of my life has found me approaching my fears, and not only have I not been turning away, many times I’ve actually stood there, facing them down and then even barging right on through. It may have started unconsciously but I am now trying to consciously notice my discomfort when something makes me uncomfortable. Then I’ve been looking at it, and trying to be curious about it. I do my best to ask myself honest questions about why I am uncomfortable and once I am able to assess most things as not as dangerous as I once thought, I step right on into it and try to make it through to the other side.
It’s exhausting. Sometimes there are dead and rotting carcasses that I have to walk past.
It’s also freeing. Sometimes I find breath-taking beauty just on the other side of the unknown.
The other day, I pulled into my driveway and noticed my front yard, which looked like this as I walked through it into the house:
Kinda normal, right? Pretty, yes, but nothing special. Some dead grass mixed in with some surviving greenery. But then something caught my eye as I walked up the walkway… maybe it was a slight rustle from the breeze, or maybe it was a lizard skittering by. Whatever it was, it made me stop and lean in a little closer. And that’s when I noticed that this is what that same ground looked like when I got very, very close:
There, in between every single blade of grass (both the green grass and the dead grass) were hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly formed, almost microscopic, orange and purple flowers, beckoning me closer.
And to think, I almost missed it.
I recently heard a definition of the hermeneutic circle:
“The interpretation and analysis of a phenomena or an experience happens by moving between the parts and the whole. We see a part of something and then it shapes our story of the whole… and as we expand our understanding of the whole, it changes how we see the parts.”Hillary McBride – The Liturgists podcast
Three days ago, I became a grandmother for the 4th time. It was by far the fastest and most intense labor and delivery experience that I’ve ever been a part of and I’m finding myself in need of processing all of the parts of the last few days so that I can come into a deeper understanding of the whole.
Wednesday morning, I was sitting at my desk, working. I had been talking with Chris that morning about him maybe needing to go to Urgent Care as he had been having some increasing abdominal pain over the last week or so that was beginning to reach a severe level. I had also been having conversations with Grace because the transmission in her car had gone out a few weeks earlier which meant that we were down to one working vehicle between the three of us living in our home. Knowing that Sadie was near her due date, and knowing that her first baby had come much faster than the average first baby, I was unwilling to be left home alone without a car for too long. And so the three of us were having a conversation about Grace taking her dad to Urgent Care, when my phone rang. It was Sadie, saying something to the effect of “I think I might be in labor. I’m not really having contractions, but something feels really different. I mean, maybe it’s contractions? I might have just had one… it’s really low and there’s a lot of pressure but it doesn’t really hurt. I just wanted to let you know. Nothing’s happening yet, but I’ll call if I want you to come.”
It was 10:15am.
Here’s a screenshot of the texts that happened next:
In the meantime, we decided that Grace SHOULD take Chris to Urgent Care as he was in really bad shape. We figured he could always call someone else to get a ride home but at least that way, he would be taken care of, which he really needed. Grace called and told her work she couldn’t come in due to multiple family emergencies happening, took Chris to the clinic five minutes from our house, dropped him off, and came back for me, while I hurriedly finished up all that needed to be done at my job and we rushed out the door.
About halfway to Sadie’s, at 11:39am, she called again. “Where are you?” I could definitely feel a sense of urgency behind her calm voice and I was glad at that moment that we hadn’t taken the time to get food as we had briefly discussed, even though we were both very hungry. I assured her we were five minutes away. We pulled into her driveway at the same time as her mother and sisters-in-law and walked in the house to the birth tub being filled in the living room and Elisha applying counter-pressure to her back. Jude was still in his pajamas, happily sucking his thumb and observing. When the contraction was over, my very calm daughter asked if the tub was full enough for her to get in. We determined that it was and she climbed in, allowing the warm water to soothe her aching body. Callie pulled in the driveway next. She had somehow managed to find someone to watch her own two babies on very short notice so that she could be there for her sister. Now we had everyone except for the midwife. As Sadie endured one more contraction while in the warm water, she very quietly said, “I feel like pushing.”
The roomful of women exchanged eyes at that point and an entire universe of thoughts and emotions passed among us in that holy space that is the transition between darkness and light, pain and joy, sleeping and waking… death and life.
I texted Megan, the midwife, “she feels like pushing,” who immediately called me and kept me on the phone as she sped through the final minutes of her drive to Sadie’s house in the back hills off the California coast, trying to make it in time. She gave instructions and we all did what we came there to do. Some of us readied towels and hot water, some of us coached Sadie on how to breathe through that urge to push, some of us held the sweet, thumb-sucking Jude, some of us applied pressure to wherever Sadie needed it most on her back, her hips, her legs as that baby made it’s VERY rapid descent through the entirety of the only world he had ever known, which was my precious daughter’s very body.
The next many parts are a blur. Megan arrived, we helped her get in and set everything up, I snapped some pictures, Sadie pushed once and we saw a head, and many things were happening as she pushed again, including the midwife’s assistant walking through the door right as someone was saying “the baby’s out!” At which point Sadie reached down and lifted her baby out of the water and held him close and smiled as his lungs filled with air and he let out a wail.
It was 12:28pm.
Welcome to this world, Alyosha Jasper Brigham. This whole, big, beautiful world is yours, baby boy, every last bit of it. You are a welcome rearrangement to the parts that make up my ever-widening world. You, little guy, have helped me understand my wholeness more deeply these past few days, which now allows me to see all the parts in a new light. You, who I watched come through the water and into life, out of the depths of your mother who once grew within me, along with her sisters, as we all participated in welcoming you with love. You have come to join us here with a thousand other brilliant, beautiful creatures, through a thousand particles of light, by way of a thousand different parts. You, who are created and loved by the creator of the universe, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and will love you for a thousand generations.
May you have the same heart for this world that Dostoyevsky’s similarly named creation had:
“In his heart there is the secret of renewal for all, the power that will finally establish the truth on earth, and all will be holy and will love one another, and there will be neither rich nor poor, neither exalted nor humiliated, but all will be the like the children of God, and the true kingdom of Christ will come.’ That was the dream in Alyosha’s heart.”The Brothers Karamazov
P.S. Chris did not end up needing an emergency appendectomy, which was my fear that day. We still do not know for sure what is causing his pain, but he has been receiving care from multiple specialists and seems to be slowly getting better.
(my submission to our church’s Advent Calendar Project for today, day 20)
Psalm 80:1-7 / Isaiah 42:10-18 / Hebrews 10:32-39
By Leslie Linebarger
For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools. I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.
And just like that, we depart, hours after we arrived. Hours after we scrambled to get there, followed by days of doing one thing and then the next thing and then the next. After all of the hard work and the hard conversations and the hardness of just getting there, we arrive at the airport so that we can turn around and go right back home. As we board the plane in the twilight of the day, the sky deepens to all shades of pinks, blues and purple, and the lights of the city begin to illuminate everything around us. There is a line of planes on the taxi-way, the longest that I’ve ever seen. We sit there on that plane, inching our way up slowly in the traffic jam of airplanes. We sit there, each of us in our own place with our own feelings, alone with our own thoughts, facing forward with our seatbelts tightly fastened. Some of us coming from visiting family, some of us going to a funeral, some of us returning from a business trip, some of us hurtling headlong into a completely unknown future. All of us human beings with all of the joy and grief and heartbreak and delight that comes with being human.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we round the corner of the taxiway, and suddenly the tiniest sliver of a yellow moon becomes visible on the eastern horizon, reclining on its back with Venus shining brightly just over its left shoulder. As the plane inches ever closer, it occurs to me that I’m breathing deeply for the first time in days. This is an unfamiliar feeling but not at all an unwelcome one. It’s a feeling that must be something close to letting go, or release, and I feel it welling up within me, this glorious deliverance from the constant fight to just barely hang on. And finally, finally, as my breath has grown deep and a calm has come over me in the midst of the waiting, it’s our turn.
The engines rumble louder underneath us as we speed toward that fingernail clipping of a moon that we had glimpsed earlier. We are shoved back in our seats as the wheels come up, and we grip our armrests, pushing against gravity and its relentless hold on our bodies. In silence we rise into the night sky, the city lights below us crisp in the clear December air, scattered everywhere in no apparent order, seeming to dance as they twinkle up at us. In the midst of the dancing, chaotic colors of tiny, sparkling lights, there are also large, soft circles of yellow light lining the streets, constant and unmoving; the circles on the ground put there by the streetlights above them, straight and orderly, guiding drivers home ever so gently. The colors are many and lights are tiny, spread out beneath us for miles and miles. I press my face to the window and gaze at the vastness of humanity and I catch my breath at the beauty of it all. Yes, this is release. This is letting go. I am free and I am soaring through the night sky and I have zero control. As the city lights begin to fade away, the darkness spreads over the vast, growing, black ocean of an earth beneath us. The mountains before us are swallowed up in the impending darkness.
All is now black.
But I have hope in the midst of the darkness.
I am on my way home.
Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
I wake up way too early for how late I am going to be up tonight, on this Holy Saturday. Wide awake at 5:30, I lay there, trying to will myself back to sleep for about an hour. I squeeze my eyes shut tight. I try to find comfort on my left side, my back side, my right side. At 6:30, I decide it’s no use and I quietly gather my sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes in the dark of our room and I sneak out the door. I walk straight out the front door, where the fog is so thick I can’t see to the end of our driveway. It hangs from the leaves of the eucalyptus trees and runs in steady streams to the ground so that it sounds like it’s raining, even though it isn’t. I walk down the driveway and pause for a moment as two deer have also paused and stand there, staring at me. Their ears are straight up, their muscles are tensed, they are on high alert. Then slowly, slowly, they turn and gracefully walk into the woods. I wonder if they might have been figments of my imagination as they have now disappeared from sight completely and it’s as though they never really existed.
Our dirt driveway is damp with the fog and it smells of eucalyptus and earth and moss. The succulents growing wild on either side have started to sprout large, pointy flowers in the middle of themselves. Even the weeds are beautiful this time of year as the spring rains have turned them a brilliant green color and some of them even have tiny yellow and purple flowers at the ends of their impressive heights.
I turn onto the main road and I walk, noticing the sounds of lizards and snakes and God knows what else skittering through the undergrowth on the side of the road, the spider webs perfectly formed overnight that reach from branch to branch, the baby rabbit that ventures out into the road, waits for a moment and then hops right back to where he came from, his white, fluffy, perfect ball of a tail bouncing right along with him.
Last night, the full moon rose through this very fog as we sat around the bonfire, doing our Good Friday meditations. At the end of the service, the bell clanged 33 times, one for each year of Jesus’ life, and we left in silence and drove home through the fog.
This morning I walk through this mysterious wonderland, full of sights and sounds and smells. I notice my body reacting to the cold, damp air as my hands grow numb and I tuck them inside the sleeves of my sweatshirt. I breathe in the pollen of the new life that’s blooming all around and I feel a constant sneeze developing somewhere in that middle place between my nose and throat. I reflect on how that very Jesus, very God, was the creator of all of it. Of these trees that drip, these animals that run and slither, these grasses and flowers that bloom, of even my very being and the little hairs inside my nose that filter some but not all of even the microscopic particles in the air. And he walked among it himself in his body those 33 years.
Today I will fast as I wait for tonight. I will prepare food that will fill my senses during this last stage of my Lenten fast. I will take the freshly prepared food to the feast that will happen at midnight at the end of our Easter Vigil service. As I go about my day and as I run whatever errands need to be run, I will be thankful for whatever these flowers are that bloom wild on the side of our road. I will decide that they are my very own Easter lilies, placed here just for me, to remind me that he makes all things new.
Even now as I write, the sun is beginning to break through the fog. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
Death will not have victory over Life.
Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.
I arrive at church, we start the service outside and hear the story of Christ the king, riding into Jerusalem, victorious;
We wave palms and sing as we process into the church.
Once inside, my grandson reaches his hands up to me,
Arms outstretched, total surrender, face gazing upwards.
I hold him.
He lays his head on my shoulder and begins to relax,
I sway to the rhythm of the liturgy,
I sway to the reading of the passion of the Christ;
It’s a long and solemn reading today.
Ezra is easily lulled to sleep by both the swaying and the reading.
At long last, the retelling of the story is finished,
“By the words of the gospel, may our sins be blotted out,”
And the ornate blue and gold book from which the gospel was read, the fragrant incense wafting heavenward, the priest, the deacon, the acolyte and the cross… they all process back to the altar and we are seated.
I sit and Ezra wraps both legs and arms around me, and turns his head slightly upward,
One cheek pressed to my chest, mouth open, breathing evenly, deep in slumber;
I gaze at his sleeping face as the homily and then the liturgy continue.
We spend the next hour this way.
An endless hour participating in a heavenly dance while gazing on my sleeping grandson, as he snuggles against me;
I contemplate his face with a long and loving look,
I breathe in the scent of him as I give soft kisses to the top of his head,
When my daughter looks at me and at him and we exchange knowing smiles, I mouth to her “I love him so much.”
He sleeps on, even when the liturgy has finished, and we go forward to receive the Holy Eucharist;
I kneel there with his sweet, baby breath in my ear, softly snoring on my shoulder,
I eat and I drink and I turn him sideways so that even sleeping, he can receive a blessing along with the sign of the cross on his little forehead.
I remain kneeling while the priest who is also my husband, asks my daughter kneeling beside me, who is also Ezra’s mother, if he can also bless the unborn child in her womb.
He places his hand on her growing belly and says “the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, be with you and remain with always” and he proceeds to make the sign of the cross, and I watch his eyes grow big as he whispers to our daughter “Did the baby just kick?”
Her eyes grow even bigger because she has not yet felt this baby move and she says “I think it did!”
She looks at me, smiling, as he walks on down the line and she whispers in amazement, “It’s still moving!”
We stand and walk back to our seats where I settle in again and Ezra nestles deeper, eyes still closed, breathing still rhythmic;
I take it all in, still tasting, still swallowing, still digesting.
Amazed that I am here, that I am loved, that I am loving.
Thankful for this hour
… and for the hours yet to come.
We arrived at the campground in Malibu right at 2pm last Friday for Callie’s birthday camping trip. We set up our tents, we set up our food, Ezra crawled around like a wind-up toy in the dirt, and then we walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. When we found ourselves under the pink clouds, we kissed all the people that we loved. And then we walked back and prepared food in the dark and made s’mores around a campfire and slept under the meteor shower. We woke up to stunning sunlight filtering through the trees and cooked ourselves breakfast while we kissed babies dressed up as ferocious bears and laughed at so much silliness and warmed ourselves by the fire. Then we walked back to beach and carried strollers across the sand and some of us surfed while the sunlight turned the ocean into millions of sparkling diamonds. Some of us had funny faces before we wiped out. Some of us crawled on the sand and pushed our little cousins in the strollers. And some of us took it all in with thankful hearts before checking out at noon and driving the three hours back home.