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. I'm pretty sure he was never voted most poplar kid in his class. Maybe it's simply that he was misunderstood. Amy was the Occupational Therapist who saw me through the first month after a stroke in July and August of 2012. A year later I visited Mid America Rehab Hospital on the first 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.
Apparently reading her message through my filter of vulnerability, the phrase that dominated my interpretation was "ready to accept that this is who I am now." I deflected 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 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, my friends, is the face of God who wants only our success, our happiness, our fulfillment. It 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. 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. Then figuring out how to do it.
Soon after the stroke, the congregation who had called me to be their senior minister terminated me. Because my recovery seemed unusually rapid, I 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.
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, yielding fruit, and appreciated by 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 profession. And that is enough... to start a good thing, breathe life into it, and let it go, is to participate in creation. I am blessed.
I confided my inner response to Amy's words 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 first son was born very prematurely, with many, many challenges, through 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 somehow ruined, 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. (By the way, "who I am now" is not AT ALL the same thing as "what I can do now," but that's a topic for another day.) 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. And I have grown, learned more than I could have imagined, been transformed.
I’m not ready to quit. 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, coupled with God's healing energy, 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 Wathen, a beloved 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 getting it all wrong AGAIN. God said via Jeremiah, “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 long enough to understand how precious water can be. The ancient 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. 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 talk about the well on the family farm. It 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 admiration, 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? Had I begun to believe that church was the proper cistern for holding God so people could come and drink from it? Any good thing… any dream… any calling can become an idol when it begins to take up the God-space in our lives. 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. The problem was I had a hard time figuring out how to let the guys lead. Some of you know me well enough to understand that.
The 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, standing 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 rarely blushes while doing the funky chicken or the mashed potato. Your partner could only hold you close, and you could only get that romantic feeling during a slow dance. Maybe that is what it means to be church… slow dancing with God, letting God take us by the hand and lead.
I am beginning to understand what my friend Lisa said, that maybe it’s not either/or. Perhaps it’s both. The stubborn, willful, bull-headed part of me may just be a gift from God, and an 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 that my friends had said, and then, in the quiet...
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. I don’t know yet where to go or what to do. The first step is a mystery to me. So the only thing I CAN do is let God take my hand and lead me to a chosen spot on the dance floor, place my left hand on God's shoulder, my right hand in God’s left, and wait to 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 again… just a millisecond… to feel where God is leading before I take a step.
Lord, God of Hosts, be with us yet. Amen.