Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought the prophet Jeremiah was a little harsh. He could have said almost everything he said… a little nicer. And I’m pretty sure he was never voted most popular kid in his class. But all of us have our brutally honest moments. Even best friends are that way sometimes.
Amy was my Occupational Therapist who saw me through the first month after my stroke in July and August of 2012. I went to Mid America Rehab Hospital on the anniversary of my stroke, July 8, 2013, and it was a very emotional day. Afterward Amy Facebook-messaged me and said I was the only one who could decide when I was ready to accept that this is who I am now.
I hated her words, wanted to throw them away. They were scratchy to my heart and my soul…. But I love her. I trust her. She was my Occupational Therapist. She is the woman whose face was full of joy on the day when I showed her that the fingers of my left hand worked! I will never forget the joy in her face. Never. That joy, which, my friends, is the face of God who wants only our success, our happiness, our fulfillment, is the face of love, of grace, of advocacy. Such joy is the face of God when we are rejoicing. That face is on our side, wishing us to win, to defeat the odds. I will never forget Amy’s face… God’s face. But then she said something to me that wilted all my excitement over her belief in me. I heard by what she said that I needed to decide when I would accept that this is who I am after having a stroke a little more than a year ago. I am a woman who always believed, even as a girl-child that she could do anything she set her mind to do. Then I had a stroke. And the last year has been a time of learning what I can’t do… yet.Soon after my stroke, the congregation who had called me to be their senior minister terminated me. Because my recovery seemed unusually rapid, I had proposed a plan for resumption of responsibilities as their pastor, building together to tend their needs and care for my own. I described us working as a team; congregation and pastor. It was very much like the plan I had already formulated for our ministry together while I was still in Phoenix, before I came to Independence, when I still lived with the expectation that my body would continue working as it always had. You see, I had been a new church planter in AZ, and whether for good or ill, we planters give all of ourselves. We are church secretary, receptionist, counselor, pastor, priest, web site designer, business manager, tree trimmer, and on and on. Quite honestly, those words describe most ministers. Never sell them short. They give way more than you know they are giving. On Saturdays I printed the worship bulletins out on my printer at home and tri-folded them by hand, secretly proud of the full-color graphics I had found on the internet that seemed to punctuate the points I hoped to make on the morrow in worship. I designed and ordered post cards to advertise our Christmas Eve services and paid for it out of my pocket because there was no line item for it in the budget. And I was never, and still am not, sorry for it.
I loved the work. It called forth from me the best of my creative processes, and I almost without fail found confirmation of them in worship the next day. That’s just about all that I needed… to know that the work to which God had called me was good work, appreciated and yielding fruit… in the form of a congregation passionately committed to carrying on the work Jesus started. It turns out to be the only congregation of which I was ever Senior/solo pastor in my short ministry.
And that is enough. To start a good thing, breathe life into it, and let it go, is to participate in creation. Not many people get that close to the Creator. I am blessed.
I confided my response to what my precious Amy said about accepting that this is who I am to my outpatient physical therapist, Deb. We talked about how stubbornly self-reliant I am and how convinced I am that my resolute optimism may be why I’m alive… and certainly how I’ve come this far, and she said, “It’s like God has been looking down on you all your life while you were succeeding, saying, “Look at her! She thinks she did that all by herself! I just love her.” Like God was waiting for me to figure out it was God at work all along…. and then my friend and colleague in ministry, Molly, reminded me that when her firstborn son was born very prematurely, with many, many challenges, that the endless days in NICU, listening to monitors, hanging on every word from the doctors, she was changed. Forever. Transformed. She was a new being, and there would never be any going back. And different wasn’t bad. She would never have chosen THAT way of getting there, but there might have been no other way…. And she reminded me that Amy might not have been saying I was ruined, spoiled, never to be any good any more, but rather that I now understand more, experience differently, am wiser than ever before, and that there may be nothing wrong with accepting that. There might not be anything at all wrong with who I am now. It might not even be painful, if I could just let go. For the past year I have been working like crazy to recover from this stroke, to be good-as-new again, so that no one could ever tell that I’d had a stroke. But I did have a stroke.I’m not ready to quit. I really, really, really want this left leg to be able to help get me around. I picture hiking the Grand Canyon with my grandchildren again. And so I’m not going to quit. For the past year I have believed that it was my stubborn, willful determination to recover that has brought me through.
Then a day or so after Molly’s message I received a private Facebook message from a woman I’ve never met, but was introduced to by Erin, a clergy colleague, a couple of years ago. Her name is Lisa Gammel Maas. Lisa sent me an article from Christian Century magazine to encourage me in my interest in becoming a Spiritual Director like she is. You see, I’ve always imagined in my retirement years being a counselor of sorts. With my deep connection to the God-thing, spiritual direction seems a natural fit. The author of the article talked about the value of engaging a spiritual director, and about this scripture we’re studying today about God’s people screwing up AGAIN, trading the amazing God who is a virtual life-sustaining fountain for something they could make themselves. God said, “Look at this! I’m a fountain, a constantly flowing source of fresh living water, and they have traded me for something they made themselves – a cistern to catch rainfall and runoff, and a cracked one at that! What in my name are my people up to?”
I lived in the desert for a while, you may know… long enough to understand how precious water can be. The Anasazi people built an intricate system of canals in the Sonoran Desert to capture and channel the water so they could develop agriculture to feed their people.A cistern can be as simple as a large cavity in the ground into which water is diverted and collected so it can be used later by the people. I’ve seen cisterns of poured concrete on Midwestern farms where every attempt was being made to preserve precious water for times of drought. I’ve also heard my Aunt Lois talking about the well on our family farm that never ran dry, even during the Dust Bowl drought. The well was fed by an underground spring… like the fountain that God was, according to Jeremiah… living water, fresh-flowing, apparently eternal.
Idols aren’t usually bad, immoral things; they are usually good things, valuable things, worthy of our loyalty, investment and protection. So valuable, in fact, that over time while we’re not watching, they begin to take up the space allotted to God. They move into the God-space in our lives.I began to wonder if the reason it was taking me so long to recover emotionally and spiritually from my loss of ministry is that ministry had begun to take up the God-space in my life. Had ministry become my idol? Had I made ministry into a cistern to capture God, to hold God in place, preserving God for the dry times so there would always be enough God? Any good thing… any dream… any calling can become an idol when it begins to take up the God-space in our lives. You know your dream may have become an idol when it seems to have left you, and yet you have trouble letting go of it.
I remember that as a young teen I felt really awkward at dances. I wasn’t very good at it at all, which was why I usually stood leaning against the gymnasium wall with the long line of other timid girls. Not many of the boys asked me to dance. To be honest, I was relieved. You see, I wasn’t very good at dancing. I had a hard time figuring out how to let the guys lead. Some of you know me well enough to understand that.Truth is, dancing is a partnership. Both partners need to know the steps. Even Fred Astair couldn’t have been so brilliant without a partner who knew the dance well enough to do it alone, without him... and yet had the grace to follow his lead.
As a teen it was a happy day for me when rock ‘n roll took over. I found my place at sock hops where we didn’t really have partners and everyone just got out on the floor and danced together, only independently, apart. No one leading… no one following. All of us just out there shaking our booties. It was great exercise and lots of fun.However… romance only blushes in the slow dances. You could only get “that” feeling when his hand was on your waist and yours was on his shoulder, and you waited that millisecond to feel his lead so you knew how to follow. And maybe that is what it means to be church… slow dancing with God, waiting just a millisecond to sense how God is moving.
I am beginning to understand what my friend, Spiritual Director, Lisa, said, that maybe it’s not either/or. It’s both. The stubborn, willful, bull-headed part of me is a gift from God, and has been God’s instrument for helping me recover. And as my Physical Therapist Deb suggested, God is out there somewhere saying, “Look at her! She’s figured it out! It’s not her or me… it’s us! It’s both/and.” I poured and poured over all my friends had said, and then...I could swear I heard God say, “Linda, may I have this dance?”
After all this discernment I hear my Occupational Therapist Amy differently. She was not saying it’s time to say this is as far as I can go, but rather that NO ONE can say that for me. So my resounding “NO! IT’S NOT TIME!” was appropriate. I’m not done yet! There still is much for me to do, and much for me to say. I don’t know yet where to go or what to do. The first step is a mystery to me. I only know that I heard, “Linda, may I have this dance?” and then God extended a left hand to me, and there is nothing for me to do but to place my right hand in God’s left and wait until I feel God’s right hand resting on the back of my waist (which feels so safe and secure, even when I have no idea what’s going to happen next), and then wait… that millisecond… to feel where God is leading, before I take a step.
Lord, God of Hosts, be with us yet. Amen.