The Long Arm of God

My father never knew his father or did he ever really know a father’s love. When my grandfather walked away, he didn’t know that his sons would carry an empty spot in their hearts for him. One the fullness of years could not remove. He left home on the day of my father’s birth, leaving behind my grandmother and three small children. This grandfather has always been something of an enigma for his grandchildren. We’ve puzzled over his life, tried to fit pieces together and to make sense of who he was. I don’t think my grandmother ever stopped loving him. As a rather impertinent nine-year-old, I once mentioned to her that if they hadn’t gotten divorced, they would have been married fifty years. In her acknowledgment that “Yes, they would have,” tears sprang to her eyes and a deep countenance of sadness was written on her face.

One of my uncles remembered his father as a likeable person. Another carried so much pain, he would refuse to talk about him. My grandfather’s major flaw was that he was a compulsive gambler. According to family lore, he had gone through all of my grandmother’s inheritance. There were hard words spoken. The year was 1918 and a deadly flu was racing around the world. A priest was sent for, my newborn father was baptized and then my grandfather left his home forever. My grandmother was devastated. Three weeks later she caught the flu and nearly died. But, she was a strong woman, who took what life threw her and did what she could with it. Her courage was born of her faith. Eventually a divorce would end her marriage, and cause her to be excommunicated from the church of her childhood. A stinging pain would remain with her as she embraced another faith tradition.

I don’t know if anyone realized at first how permanent my grandfather’s absence would be. The family heard about him occasionally, as someone bumped into him in the Twin Cities, a very distant place in that time and era. To my knowledge, no one ever received a telegraph or letter from him. He died of smallpox, a lonely, broken man six years later. At his death, neither those who were working with him nor lived with him were aware he was the father of three sons. I doubt he believed that anyone cared about him or for him when death came. His life has always been something of a cautionary tale, of what can happen when an addiction takes over a life. I suspect that my grandfather was quite ashamed of the mess he’d made of his life. I imagine deep regrets for his lost sons and his inability to know them.

My faith tells me that he and they, all of us are held in the loving arms of God, who never forsakes us or leaves us. I’ve always felt sad when I’ve heard a person say they couldn’t believe anyone – even, or especially God – could love them. The scripture points to a different reality. The psalmist says of God, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:9-10) There really is no place where God is not. God waits for us, chases after us and celebrates each returning child. While we are still running fast and furiously away, God’s hand is hovering over us, anticipating the moment we will realize that God has been there, with us, all the time.

When the Storms Grow Wild and the Thunder Roars

In our early teen years, my brother and I had taken boat and motor and headed out to do some fishing. With no fish biting, we decided to land the boat and explore along the edge of the lake. Our search uncovered an old cemetery overgrown with weeds. We were fascinated as we looked through the tombstones, all but forgotten in this out-of-the-way place. We were so engrossed in our exploring that we didn’t notice clouds rolling in. A sharp clap of thunder told us we needed to hurry back.

By then, the storm was coming quickly. We had two miles of lake to cover and nowhere to stop. After attempting to out race the storm, we realized about two-thirds of the way home we needed to find some shelter quickly. Wind and rain picked up, lightning flashed, thunder boomed. We knew enough to get out of the middle of the lake, but there wasn’t much protection along the shoreline. We sat out the storm, anxious and fearful close to the shore. Ear splitting thunder crashed overhead while lightening sent daggers into the sky.

I’ve found myself in many other storms since then. There have been times I’ve waited them out anxious and fearful . . . Hopeful, that the limited protection I’d found was sufficient. In our faith we have been given the promise that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Most often I remember that. But from time to time, when the storms grow wild and the thunder roars, I need to be reminded of this truth. I need to be reminded that there is nothing on earth or in heaven that can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

At those moments, I need a friend to speak the words of hope. I need a person to remind me of what I already know. God has given us each other. We are blessed to have friends who encourage us through our stormy moments. We are blessed even more, when we can give encouragement to our friends.

An Unintentional Observer of a Life

I became an unintentional observer of Steve’s life as email destined for him, landed in my inbox. Somewhere, in the world of Comcast, we ended up with a similar email address. All of that worked just fine when everything was case sensitive, but after a bit, I started to get some of Steve’s email. I learned that we had some shared values. His friends sent the same sorts of either obnoxious or sincere religious emails to him as I was receiving. I was pleased to learn that he served on a planning committee in his community. He was a connoisseur of wines and dabbled in the home made variety. When his mother died and the children were left to divide up her household belongings, I saw that his mom had raised them well. The child in charge had carefully planned out what was fair for each and had listened to their wishes. I did regularly send back emails to all senders with a note, “I think you meant this for Steve” on my reply. They promised not to send me any more, but most did.

I’m quite sure that Steve would have preferred I wasn’t observing his life in this way. He should feel good about my conclusions though. Through the messages of his friends, he showed me he was conscientious and a person whose values shaped his life. He felt a need to give back to his community. There was a degree of civic pride. When I think about it, I’m surprised at how much I learned about Steve through his email friends. I knew that I would like him as a friend.

The use of all forms of social media is revealing much about us. Who we are is shown in the “likes” we link ourselves too and the comments we approve of. What is in our hearts is revealed in a more public sphere. Whether it’s an unintended look at someone’s email or checking out a social media page, we can’t hide the values that guide our lives. What I profess to believe and what I have put into an email are not always the same. Sometimes, I’m frustrated by the words which slip out of my mouth and onto a page. God continues in the business of transformation though. Day by day, God works in my heart urging me to become a kinder and more loving person, to use my words with care. So, I ask God for the grace to live with integrity, to be faithful in my following of Jesus. On the days I fail, I cling to the words of an old friend who told me long ago, “that we grow in grace.” I find myself singing the lyrics to Eddie Espinosa’s song, “Change my heart oh God. Make it ever true. Change my heart oh God. May I be like You.”

The Power of a Word

I received a note some weeks back that brought tears to my eyes. A person from a church I had served wrote, “I hope you know how much you are missed. I hope you know how much you did for us.” Off in retirement land, when I hadn’t felt like I’d done anything for anyone, I was touched by her simple words.

None of us really understand the power of words. We don’t realize what a note from us can mean to another person or how deeply a person can be touched by some small act of kindness, we have done. We don’t fully comprehend that God may well be using us to care for another person, by nudging us to write that note – to express those words.

I had a high school friend who moved away soon after we graduated. There were occasional letters between us. I knew where she was and something about her life, and she of mine. I was busy with a young and growing family and didn’t get around to answering her last letter. I would see it in a drawer whenever I went searching for something there. I put it off, thinking I would get to it later. Over and over the thought came to me that I needed to write her. Months passed that way. I reasoned that she was as busy with her life as I was with mine. I meant to send a letter, but a year and then another slipped away without my ever responding. I never thought about the urgency of time. In July of the year that I and my graduating class turned thirty-three, my friend died of cancer. I have wished hundreds of times that I had paid attention to the nudge that God was giving me.

I wish I could say that I always pay heed to God’s nudges these days. I am better than I once was about making the phone call, sending the note or slipping off an email, when a person comes to mind and stays there. I know now that God is telling me a person in my life needs someone to care . . . needs a reminder that he or she is loved.

I’m grateful for those moments when God has nudged another person to reach out to me. I’m often surprised by who that person is. But each time, I’m grateful that a person cares enough to let me know that I matter . . . to let me know they care.

Sabbath Time

Us northerners do look forward to our summers. In three short months we pack a years worth of visiting, celebrations, camping, fishing, cookouts, softball, t-ball, swimming lessons and assorted activities, deemed unsuitable for the other months of a Minnesota year. We look forward to moments of rest and relaxation . . . time to be re-created within. We need these moments. We were not created to work nonstop. Early in our relationship with God, we learned that Sabbath – one day in seven set aside for God was essential, not only to worship and honor God, but for ourselves.

The season of Retirement has become a season of Sabbath for me. I’ve found myself being drawn back, more fully into my relationship with God. I’ve known others who have found that Sabbath time in an illness or in recovery from surgery . . . moments when space and time allow for one to turn our hearts and to tune our spirits to God’s presence.

The rhythm’s of life demand that we pull back, take stock of our lives before we race to the next place. In a world where the noise of social media, text messages, cell phones and e-mails break into our silence, we need place and time set aside to commune with our creator. We are most whole when we are in touch and touched by God. In our quiet moments, we make room for God to speak to our hearts and feed our souls. The still small voice of God is most clear, when we let go of the noise and make time for God.

One of my favorite new hymns of the church is based on Psalm 42:1. Martin Nystrom’s “As the deer” captures my soul’s need for being in relationship with God. With the words . . “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you . . . You alone are my strength, my shield . . . you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.”