Category Archives: inspiration

Apocalypse and the Stuffed Giraffe

During a long, often frightening 2016 whose results only intensify the dynamics, a nation argues over whether to name its presidential candidates crooks, fascists, or worse.

At a lunch with a denomination’s representatives, talk turns to ways the polities of two denominations to which many seminary students belong are shifting. Just in pondering almost idly the effects, we find the conversation eddying across the many seminaries we personally know to be in crisis.

Terror strikes. Walls are breached or threatened. Police shoot away lives that matter and sometimes are shot. Temperatures hit constant global records while floods ravage Louisiana, fires burn across California’s Interstate 15, and Zillow.com projects nearly a trillion dollars worth of real estate possibly under coastal waters in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Fear stalks the land. Will we survive? I believe yes; here we are after millennia of catastrophes. But will our lives, communities, institutions, structures, countries, planet be recognizable?

Amid such questions my mother-in-law Mildred died of surgery complications after breaking a femur. The intensities, sorrows, and sometimes grace-filled moments of her final days unfolded as four family units scattered across the country had been scheduled to arrive for vacation in Maine by plane and car. Instead we kept vigil as she died. Now to get from her funeral in western New York to our remaining time in Maine we added a rented SUV to family cars.

After lunch that three-car, three-generational caravan of lacerated souls headed across 600 miles through hauntingly pastoral New York and New England landscapes as the sun faded hour by hour into the west and into late-afternoon sweet light. At a chaotic, crowded truck stop a rumpled man pestered us. So many disrupted days and nights and feelings had left us all shot. We didn’t want to talk. He wouldn’t stop.

Finally out of no sense of mission but hoping he’d then shut up, I engaged him. He launched into his story. He was a trucker from Las Vegas—where his wife with stage-4 cancer might, he’d just learned, be in her final hours. From the truck stop he’d try to drive straight to Vegas without pausing except for catnaps. Soon he left.

Then, enroute to his truck, he was back: with gifts of stuffed animals and candy for the children in our caravan. Weeks later came a photo of one reading books with her new giraffe snuggled beside her.

Across the under-maintained infrastructure of interstates, across an America at risk of apocalypse if we define it as the unraveling of stabilities and communal compassions as we’ve known them, an ordinary man, even a wearisomely intrusive man, races to say good-bye to his dying wife.

But in that liminal space between earth and Beyond, souls reach for each other. And amid all the anguishes of the era, as 2016 turns toward 2017, the images leap from the photo: A girl sitting on a rocker has swaddled a stuffed giraffe then tucked it in beside her. She sits with her picture books. The pages she’s focused on include an apple, a sippy cup, sneakers, a tractor, a boy on a toy car, an orange, a teddy bear, and much more. Her gaze shows that she is learning—even in these times—about the magic of the world she has been both cursed and blessed to be born into.

—Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University seminary (where he drew on some of the materials in this column in a presentation) and graduate programs. He writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post.

Body Fading, Essence Soaring, by Miriam Blank

KCGuestPostMiriamBlank300x300x72This morning, kneeling beside my mother on the deck, I was gripped by the fleeting treasure of her fragile resilient life.  The process of dying, I believe, is a holy space, just as is birth.

This morning, like every morning, I went over to ask her how her night was. Dad had her out on the deck surrounded by bird song and five flowering baskets from mother’s day.

She sat quietly, a little queen in her corner. I asked her how she slept and she got a mischievous smile. She had a dream, she said, that she was pregnant. She was a little worried that people might think, “Crazy old lady, what is she doing pregnant?”

But in her dream she was happy to be pregnant.  She said, “It was my baby.”

I thought of the days my mother was young. There is a photo of Mom at about 31, holding my oldest brother Nelson while pregnant with her next child.  No one can doubt how full of new life she is, standing quietly holding it all.

MaryLouBlank
Mary Lou Blank, mother of author Miriam, holding her first child and pregnant with her fourth in this photo taken during the Blank family’s missionary years in Mexico. Mary Lou went on to bear six children over nine years.

I told her, “Maybe it is a sign that even in this season of things breaking down, you are full of new life.”

We talked about how she is experiencing great joy, peace and love each day. She said she liked my interpretation of her dream; that it fit. Mom is more expressive of her love for everyone than she has ever been. She seems at relative peace with her losses in this season of endings. “Everyone has to die,” she has said, with a little smile.  She laughs often.  Her body so frail is spilling over with beauty.

I know others might not see it as I do, and I don’t always see it this way either. But I am bending over her being each day and am taking in each moment with new eyes, knowing more than ever that each day with her is a gift. Like parents who can’t stop talking about their little child, and can’t get over the miracle growing in their arms, I can’t get over her growing beauty.

Mary Lou, Lester, and Miriam Blank
Mary Lou and Lester Blank with author Miriam Blank

Others may see her listing to one side of the wheelchair, stuttering over a word, drooling, or looking distantly across the room and wonder at my delight in this season.  I don’t deny the sadness.  It is there, and I take my turn with tears. Her tiny body seems to be shriveling up and disappearing. She is so small now in her recliner; it seems to fold in and hide her away. She sleeps more, eats less, forgets more, and words are harder to say.

But as her body fades and fails, her essence soars. Her spirit flames. She shakes with the fullness of her life and the rich stories of love layered within.  She can’t get over the flowers and the blue sky. To her they are a new wonder every morning. She is full of new life. She is quietly holding it all.

–Miriam Blank, Gap, Pennsylvania, is a professional counselor, spiritual director, and certified life coach.  In the past Miriam worked 15 years as a registered nurse and certified nurse-midwife.

Madison, Max, and Angels Unaware

MadisonKCPost-MAK300x300x72dpiThis is the story of how Cockatiel Max and Shih Tzu Madison enhanced the well-being of the church. My oversight caused it, but I later wondered if a larger Oversight was also in play.

For months Manuel, as I’ll call him, and I had been trying to coordinate  our schedules. Finally calendars said hallelujah, try this. When I told my wife Joan she thought great, but what about the animals?

Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten. The animals and I live an interesting life. For various reasons, including where Joan’s mother is and because Joan travels constantly providing behavioral health consulting wherever she’s called to, we actually live in two states. Also in the mix are Max and Madison. Six years ago we decided to test whether they’d flourish as commuter animals.

They did. So now they know the routines and are eager to hit the road whenever it’s time to shift states. I’d scheduled the meeting with Manuel. But I’d forgotten Commuter Cockatiel and Shih Tzu. At first all looked fine–weather supposed to be cloudy and cool during the key period; they’d be okay in the car. Then the forecast shifted–sunny and 80s; death trap.

What to do? I wouldn’t return for weeks; trying for a petsitter made no sense. I e-mailed Manuel. Any picnic areas nearby? Could he stand a picnic with my animals if I brought food? He was flexible and understanding and gracious indeed. Absolutely!

At the appointed hour, Manuel told me where to park. There it was, a welcoming picnic table. I placed Max’s cage by the edge of the picnic area and tied Madison’s leash to a table leg.

Manuel broke into a wide grin. “I believe this is historic!”

Our broader context was also historic amid daily shifts in how individuals, congregations, conferences, and organizations linked to it are relating to our denomination.

Our agenda was simple: What might we learn from each other’s journeys? It was a good meeting. Sometimes heartrending as we learned of so much pain in so many places. Sometimes inspiring, as we pondered initiatives for hearing the Spirit within or beyond what is unraveling.

But this isn’t finally about that. It’s about how different it felt to sit in the sun and breezes with Max busily eating food in his cage and Madison exploring or dozing beside us. It didn’t feel like one more heavy meeting, heavy though the topics often were. It felt like a skylight had appeared in the ceiling of the sky and let in the universe. It felt like extra light and sweetness were shining on our picnic.

Time to go. Manuel networked a bit with Max and Madison before returning to his office and whatever cares awaited there. I put Max in his back seat spot and Madison in her dog bed beside me. We headed out this route and that one and finally on to the interstate with sunroof open, light streaming, wind ruffling.

Max and Alphonsa
Commuter Max back in the days he was joined by Alphonsa. Commuting beside them as they mostly ignored each other also used to be our cat Lily. Sadly, not only have Alphonsa and Lily been gone for years, but Max joined them in the great Beyond a few weeks ago.

Max preened before sticking his head under a wing and blissfully napping. Madison turned around and around to smooth out her bed for the six-thousandth time then with nose on paws fell into what seemed an unusually relaxed sleep. This thought arose: Max and Madison must have liked their picnic with Manuel and maybe being angels we entertained unaware.

Perfect Lawns and Dandelion Wine

DandelionsKCPost-MAKTheir very different personalities crossed my path just as the annual divide between dandelions as beauty or bane was in full bloom— and  unbidden came a mental image associating one of them with dandelion wine.

Next day as I walked to work paying particular attention, I noted just how stark are the differences in treatment of dandelions. First came a line of lawns radiating deep emerald green perfection. Then just as the eye got used to this as the norm came a ragged blanket of dandelions gone to seed, the line between barbaric chaos and the treated lawn beside it razor sharp.

After that came an unpredictable jumble. Sometimes back to emerald. Sometimes lawns whose owners clearly tolerated dandelions yet had recently mowed them into submission. Sometimes profusions of untidy stalks, heads gone old and gray and wild, gold mostly missing, mixed with unkempt grass and weeds. I haven’t done the demographic studies yet, but I do suspect they would show correlations between dandelion vistas and socio-economic variables.

Then to the personalities. One is more driven, restlessly surveying the horizon for the next opportunity, focused on achieving results, assessing outcomes, revising methods whenever the feedback loop calls for it. Here Big Data is today’s exciting new tool. The numbers are crunched, they point in promising directions, and in fact there is proof in the pudding: often amazing feats are indeed achieved and call for admiration.

The other is more laid back, not exactly somnolent but not driven, either. There may be hints, in more of a heart-softening than problematic form, of brushes with depression. Here data and numbers aren’t irrelevant but are one or two, maybe even three, levels down. First come people. People in all their beyond-statistics quirks, in their sufferings, their ragged edges, their lives sometimes golden but often in dandelion-esque fashion, beautiful today, gone to seed tomorrow.

Next came the progression toward dandelion wine. After spending time with the first personality, I did feel admiration. I also felt unsettled; does the grass really need to be that flawless? Might it be okay to let a few dandelions sneak into even well-manicured lawns— and personalities—to give us their annual saffron carpets, evanescent yet so lovely during their brief flowering? We’re learning that apples or tomatoes modified for beauty and long shelf-life lose their taste; the ones that bless your tongue are the heirloom varieties, blemished,  spots and lumps and oddities dancing with their tastes. Are people maybe sometimes like that too?

After being with the second personality, I realized life felt slower, gentler, calmer. The frenzy had faded. Outcomes mattered less and the tenderness of each passing minute mattered more.

Later that evening, in the afterglow, arrived the image of dandelion wine, which comes from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel of that title set in Green Town, Illinois, and of the summer in which Douglas Spaulding, age 12, experiences through dandelions and all that goes with them the very wine of life.

As Bradbury put it in a 1975 introduction, “Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.”

And as part of telling of that boy growing up and old, Bradbury reports in one chapter, “The Lawns of Summer,” on this special grass, which I imagine creating perfect emerald lawns like the ones I walked by except for one more miracle: it grows to just the right height, then stops. Bill, Grandpa’s boarder, excitedly reports that he’ll plant the new grass and soon enough mowing will be done forever.

But Grandpa has this crazed notion that mowing grass and even pulling weeds can nurture the soul, can be, as he puts it, “a way of life.” The sound of lawn mowers and the smell of cut grass are gifts of being alive he wants never to lose. Not to mention that “a mess of dandelion greens is good eating once in a while” and that the bees will vanish as the high-tech grass kills off dandelions and clover.

He gets through to Bill. When Grandpa wakes from that afternoon’s nap, he hears the mower going again even though Bill had just cut the lawn that morning while anticipating the day the magic grass would put an end to all that. When Grandpa questions Bill, wondering if the sun has addled him, Bill just joyfully grins through a spray of green.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review;  blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Shot Through with Holiness

HolinessKCPost-MAKAs I headed for retreat in Arizona’s Verde Valley, words of Eastern Mennonite Seminary colleague Linda Alley, insights honed as spiritual director, still rang: “I imagine it as a pilgrimage—the journey itself will teach you and not necessarily the destination. And . . . as every pilgrim comes back changed and brings gifts . . . , you will also. . . . I wish for you many holy moments.”

What happened? Three factors stand out:

First, during retreat, around when the Washington Post (Paul Schwartzman, March 6, 2016) said psychologists and massage therapists report client panic over apocalyptic election scenarios, a loved one called to process such anxiety. What, we pondered, is our hope if this really happens?

Montezuma Well provided one complex response. A spring has long fed this near-lake. Its waters probably originally fell on the Mogollon Ridge far above and miles away 10,000 years ago. Eventually the Well drew people, their cliff houses dating back a thousand years still visible in the rim. The water exits into a channel built perhaps by the Hohokam, who irrigated 60 acres of crops. The National Forest Service says that “For many cultures, Montezuma Well is . . . sacred. . . . a place of power, not to be visited lightly. . . .”

Almost forever, as known human history goes, that spring has fed that well. Now there I was, drawing hope from being alive in this moment, grateful to learn from prior journeyers. Complicating hope was that the cliff houses are empty. The Europeans who eventually arrived didn’t totally destroy the beauty and bounty, but local mesquite trees adapted to almost no rain are threatened as humans lower the water table.

Any hope for our own future will need to thread through the possibility that our culture is already shaping the ruins future civilizations will visit.

From Arizona I traveled into a second factor, politics juxtaposed with the convention of the National Council for Behavioral Health, Joan’s employer. I attended awards evening just as primary election results arrived. Often winning: being biggest, baddest, boldest; urging torture, war crimes, racism, xenophobia.

Although Christian language wasn’t explicit, awards in contrast celebrated serving, in effect, “the least of these,” those facing mental and behavioral challenges.

The climactic award went to a sheriff who talked down from suicide persons preparing to leap from the bridge he monitored. Though that was heroic enough, a standing ovation supported his naming his own depression and his walk with a suicide-tempted son.

Then in a few final Verde Valley hours, I showed Joan my places of pilgrimage. At Sycamore Community Park, she reacted as I had. Through a sometimes worn and dusty town (near tourist-ridden Sedona but entirely different) runs Beaver Creek, lined by ordinary houses, running under an ordinary bridge. Yet it carries the outflow of Montezuma Well. So in its ordinariness Beaver Creek bears millennia of hopes dashed and raised, cultures vanishing and rising.

Sycamore Creek Park
Beaver Creek, Arizona

“But it’s like the Branch,” Joan said.

Branch Creek, Pennsylvania
Branch Creek, Pennsylvania

Precisely. Creeks transposed and viewed from certain angles, only details would have told us which was which. Two-fold holiness: first, this site offered our souls a path into the holy. Second, it reminded that in our own ordinary lives there is, a quick walk from home, holiness as well.

The world does seem to teeter near apocalypse. We don’t know how much will die before resurrection. But I’m grateful for what Linda helped me see along the way.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

 

Mysteriously Upheld

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72Experiencing the known world as falling apart is no new thing. That’s what reading Dead Wake, in which Erik Larson tells of the German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and how this drew the U.S into World War I, reminded me. To be suddenly plunged into World War I or II would stun us.

Still we live amid our own sense that normalcy is not holding. That’s why stories about the end of civilization are popular. Of many apocalyptic novels I’ve read, a favorite is Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s elegiac account of disease striking all Earth, grounding the planes, leaving her main characters living in an airport before finally they must see what’s left beyond.

Her vision sears my heart. This is because she shows in fast-forward what we fear is already unfolding in slow motion. It’s also because, even post-apocalypse, she spies hope. Her final pages gleam.

Mandel inspires me to keep pursuing hope. Even now. Especially now. That’s what I’m pointing toward with “Unseen Hands,” the title of my new quarterly column for Mennonite World Review (which will also appear as Kingsview & Co blog posts). I want to pursue the unseen hands in personal experiences; larger church, cultural, and global dynamics; biblical resources.

The image itself, which comes from a dream I later heard echoed in Marty Stuart’s “The Unseen Hand” gospel song, launches me on the journey. Unseen hands are for me first of all personal. They came to me in that years-ago dream when the mountains seemed too many and high. I was climbing what in waking moments is the steepest grade I regularly encounter. Suddenly unseen hands, giant invisible hands, supported my back. Same hill. Same life. But newly walkable.

Years later an invitation to an assignment that scared me came by cell phone just as I was climbing that same hill. I remembered the dream. I felt the hands. I said the yes that might otherwise have been no.

Meanwhile in the larger culture I glimpse unseen hands in, of all places, those richly layered, streaming TV shows suitable for binge watching. Two examples: The Killing and River. Both touch on painful issues of the day, whether racism, immigration, tensions across cultures and religions as diversity soars. They address sin, shadows, sickness of soul. Yet also, quite strikingly, they ask about atonement, forgiveness, healing. Main characters in both are broken people, grappling with addictions, abuse experienced and inflicted, abandonment. Both show tussles with mental illness that simultaneously scar and strengthen sufferers.

And both, so sparingly yet so movingly that when the moment comes it outshines most sermons, point toward unseen hands. Each offers scenes in which golden light breaks through not only metaphorically but literally. Yet what could be cliché makes the soul shiver—maybe because earned by the unsparing (if perhaps over the top in latter episodes of The Killing) portrayals of streets and characters drenched in rain, violence, wrong turns, and sorrow.

I sometimes wonder how the Jews survive their own apocalypse. As exiles by the rivers of Babylon they weep, hanging up their harps rather than, as Psalm 137 indicates, singing God’s song “in a foreign land.”

Walter Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms, 75-76) says they do it in ways I recognize from The Killing and River: honestly naming their bitter realities, including their raging thirst for vengeance, while maintaining a “resilient . . . . hope against enormous odds.” They stay true to a vision of the Lord’s unseen hands through which “There will be a homecoming to peace, justice, and freedom.”

They have much to teach us.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

PawPaw, Rockets Whoosh

Apollo11KCPost-MAK“PawPaw,” he excitedly reported, “rockets go up in the air, whoosh!”

The image took me back, instantly, to when I was 14 and for six months lived for almost nothing but waiting for Apollo 11 to take off and turn the type of whooshing-rockets science fiction I loved into reality. If Apollo 11 managed to make it to the moon, who knew, maybe someday we’d arrive on Mars and learn that the haunting stories Ray Bradbury told in The Martian Chronicles were more history than fiction.

“Did you know, Kadyn,” I asked, “that a long long time ago rockets took off and landed on the moon?”

His eyes widened. “They went up, whoosh, to the MOON?”

“Yes, can you believe it? You know what? There are videos of it. Do you want to see one? We could Google it.”

“Yes, yes! Mom, Mom, PawPaw and I are going to watch videos of rockets going to the moon.”

So we Googled Apollo 11 blast-off videos. Of course there they were, link after link. We clicked. YouTube came up. A rocket was sitting there on the screen in the blue day, wisps of smoke puffing out every now and then.

Kadyn was transfixed. “Is it going to go up?”

He had just been singing a nursery song the day before that included “5-4-3-2-1 blastoff.”

“Yes,” I reported, “see those numbers on the screen? They’re counting down to blastoff, and when you hear them get to 5-4-3-2-1, up it will go.”

5-4-3-2-1 goes the count. A great cloud of fire, burning yellow and white and orange and who knows how many colors, surges around the rocket. For a while it just sits there, fire raging and raging.

Apollo11LiftoffCloseUp

Then slowly slowly, startlingly slowly given the fury of the flames, story upon story of that Saturn V rocket crawl up past the holding arms.

Apollo11ClearingTowerCropped

We watch  until the rocket is too far up to see except for the faint contrail.

Then the YouTube screen switches. We’re circling the moon. “Is that the moon, PawPaw? Did the rocket go all the way to the moon?”

We watch and watch. We see the moon lander detach from the moon orbiter. We see Neal Armstrong’s eyes, startlingly steady as they gaze at his flight instruments. We watch the moon’s surface grow closer and closer as Mission Control, down on Earth, monitors the countdown. We watch as the camera steadies. The Eagle has landed.

I found it hard not to shed tears, which I didn’t want to do, given that it would trigger “PawPaw, why are you crying?” and what in the world would I say to that?

I’m still not fully sure why the urge. Maybe because just like that I felt 14 again, before all that was to come, wonders and terrors, had befallen me and the planet. Maybe because it still stuns me that when I was a boy science fiction always primed us to expect more and then yet more. In 1969 we could only imagine what unbelievable things would be happening by 2016. Maybe not spaceships to the stars yet, but surely a colony on the moon? Some people on Mars at least long enough to lay a copy of The Martian Chronicles on the red sand like Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left earth equipment on the moon as Michael Collins waited above for them?

But no. When Kadyn and I watched the Eagle pop back up from the moon to return to Collins, it felt almost more like science fiction than when it first happened. So did it as the cameras panned over people of all races and nations and colors, all over the planet, gazing spellbound at TV screens. How did we do that? How did we manage to be unable now to do it again?

So maybe the tears were about the fading of some dreams. But maybe also about a few more things.

For one, even as Apollo 11 blasted off, people understandably wondered if this was the right way to spend the countless dollars and energies it had taken in a world so awash with deprivation and misery for so many. Barely more than months before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had been killed. Race riots blazed across U.S. cities and napalm burned the flesh off those we considered our enemies in Vietnam.

Maybe the tears were partly awe that, so many decades later, the world could still produce grandchildren.

Above all, I suspect they were caused by the gift of being able to witness the fresh wonder of a child gazing at images that thrilled his budding mind and spirit. As so much unravels today, his face fixed spellbound on the screen made me pray that, though I’ll be long gone, half a century from now he’ll be in my role. He too, I dream, will share with a grandchild what happened, oh so amazingly, back when he was a boy and the world was in such trouble yet look, yes, here we still are—and can you believe it, this really did happen. Let’s watch!

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; Mennonite World Review “Unseen Hands” columnist; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Disbelieving in Wonder

BalloonKCPost-MAKThe horrors keep mounting up. Even at a distance they trigger disbelief, “This can’t be happening” exclamations of shock and dread. The trauma for those onsite must splinter hearts and souls and sometimes sanity itself.

On Sunday my wife Joan and I took a walk. We spent much of the time talking about the terrors of recent days, terrors made all the more terrible because for so many months now we have taken so many walks after so many awful things have befallen our human brothers and sisters, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any of the other forms of faith through which we long for God.

We reached few conclusions. We agreed that some of the things some people are saying are so beyond the pale we can’t believe we’re hearing them. We especially can’t believe we’re hearing them so often from Christians that we shudder, time and again, at even being associated any more with our own tradition.

We noted the problem of speaking up for the truth when everyone these days means to be speaking for the truth. How are we called to speak when we all, as we utter the things the others consider blasphemous and obscene and yes, beyond belief, do so in the name of God?

As we thought about this, we saw on the far horizon a hot-air balloon begin to drift in. Wow, cool. Hey, look, it’s coming this way.

BalloonatSunset

Wouldn’t it be great if it came across those trees and even closer? It did!

BalloonNearsLanding

And closer. Closer. Closer. Close enough to make us nervous. What if it got too close to the power lines overhead and to us?

Closer. It drifted past, just feet away. It slowed. It hovered. It landed on the lawn right beside us. The pilot in an orange vest seemed to be training a passenger.

BalloonLanding

Children lived at the property the balloon had landed on. Their parents came out and greeted the balloonists. After some cheerful chatting, lo, the pilot asked the children if they wanted to get in the basket. The parent in me imagined them jumping in and the balloon jumping up and away and who knew what next. But their parents, sturdy sorts, accepted this moment of grace. The children climbed in.

Carefully, so carefully, the pilot let loose a sliver of flame. The balloon rose, just a foot or two above the lawn. Slowly slowly the pilot took it across the lawn. Then ever so gently he set it back down again.

Another few moments of cheerful chit-chat, more flame, and up the balloon soared, headed east in the fading glow of the west-setting sun.

BalloonTakesOff

Joan and I returned to our walk. Excitedly we shared our disbelief. When we came back past the balloon-landing lawn, the children’s mother was working outside. We asked how her children were doing.

She grinned. They were inside, she said, watching and watching and rewatching the video of themselves being taken up in the balloon that came out of nowhere to transport them into a moment of disbelief, of adventure, of joy they would likely remember the rest of their lives.

BoyGirlWatchBalloonLeaveIMG_20151206_161042

The one doesn’t fix the other. A fantasy that descends from the sky to make imaginations dance and spines shiver doesn’t atone for the terrible things that have been descending from above and flaring from guns. But they were haunting moments of grace, those fleeting minutes of disbelieving not in dreadful things but in the unbelievable fact that this wonder—hinting at the sort of treasure for which all God’s suffering, frightened, terrorized children so ache—had descended from on high.

—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Water Spouts and More, by Renee Gehman Miller

KCGuestPost-ReneeMillerOf all the bedtime Bible stories, Jonas had picked the story of the healing of the lepers, so on a recent, unstable kind of day, I found myself reading:

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten men were very sick. They were so sick, the doctors couldn’t make them better. They were so sick they couldn’t be with their mommies or daddies or boys and girls.”

I didn’t think he noticed a waver in my voice, but after I finished the story and we were lying in the bed, he said, “Tell me the truth, Mommy.”

I panicked a little. He was likely just trying out a new phrase he’d heard me say, but I was nervous about what was to come when I asked, “Tell you the truth about what?”

“Umm. . . .” He took a moment to fish in his mind for something he wanted to know the truth about before saying, “Um, about the water spout.”

Now I was trying not to chuckle. Of course I had no idea of what possibly could’ve brought his thoughts to “the water spout” in this moment (no, it wasn’t in his story of the 10 lepers, nor had it rained that day), but here we were.

“Well,” I said, “The truth about the water spout is that it helps catch the rain that runs down the roof so that it can all flow right down one road to the ground.”

“Oh,” he said, satisfied. “Okay.”

ReneeJonasAnthonyHay

Thus were the pleasantries of bedtime held intact for the night, even as my thoughts lingered on the men who were so sick the doctors couldn’t seem to fix them.

Nine days before, I had received a phone call to come in for an impromptu appointment with the doctor, which is never good.

It was an appointment during which the doctor left at one point because she wanted to give me time to punch the wall if I so desired. Not because I appeared to want to, but because she was concerned about my stoicism in the face of her words and thought maybe I might find some needed cathartic relief if she left for a moment.

It was an appointment during which Anthony and I exchanged words in what ought to be considered a foreign tongue for 31-year-old people who are not certifiably insane. (Or are we?)

And just like that I was scheduled for a return to chemo, something I never thought I’d do. Lung surgery been planned for the prior Thursday was canceled, apparently not because anything changed about my lung nodules but more because of the general up-in-the-air-ness of my case.

There will be two new (to me) chemo drugs, a loathsome ten weekdays on, five weekdays off per cycle, four cycles (until right before Christmas, I think), then scans, then determine if more chemo is the way to go or not.

I have a sort of post-traumatic-stress type association with chemo. It takes up a lot of time that is precious, it destroys what’s healthy while maybe getting rid of the bad.  While I am very skeptical of its ability to do much (any) good for me, I will proceed simply because this is the door we are in a position to access at the moment. I’m not quite sure, though, how I will return to the third floor, sign in, sit in that chair, and say “yes” when they hold up that bag of poison and ask me to verify that I am the person whose name is printed on the label.

Right now if you looked at me, you’d probably have no idea anything is wrong with me. Starting chemo again feels like unveiling truths that may start to become as plain as with the water spout. The truth you can see when Mommy has to rest so much, and her hair is falling out (again), and she goes to the doctor’s almost every day, and she can’t be out in public, and her leg that hurts seems to be having such a big effect on the rest of her, too.

And I wish he could face the transition to a big-boy bed or to school before learning about cancer. I want to create a masterful façade out of it all like the father in the Italian movie, Life is Beautiful, who convinces his son that the concentration camp is all one big game for which they must wear uniforms and strive to win the most points by following the rules.

If we are going to talk about the truth, let’s please just talk water spouts.

ReneeJonasAnthonyFence

We have disciplined ourselves to live one day at a time these past couple of years and will continue on in this way, one uncertain step at a time in an ever-changing plan. We continue to look into options for treatment, and flew halfway across the country recently to begin that process. We learned of a possibility to pursue that comes with a bigger price tag and no guarantees or refunds, but it sure sounded better than our alternatives. We still have a couple places we’d like to check out, but in the meantime, we go to chemo.

In a time when all the doors seem either closed or opened to the wrong way, we knock on Jesus’ door and say, “Tell me the truth,” and that is the happy ending to this otherwise Eeyore-esque journal entry.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

The reality, for me, in light of these truths, is that even though we have had some really bad days recently, we are still finding that in our days there is joy, and hope, and faith, and a good deal of love.

—Renee Gehman Miller, writer and editor, was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in 2013. Kingsview & Co readers who once subscribed to the blog’s prior incarnation, DreamSeeker Magazine, will remember Miller’s lively and creative contributions to DSM as former assistant editor and columnist. Her “Ink Aria” columns can still be searched for and read at DreamSeeker Magazine online. “Water Spouts” is adapted from one of the many eloquent CaringBridge posts through which she has shared her journey since 2013.

Imagining God’s Imagination, by Barbara Esch Shisler

KCGuestPost-BarbaraShislerI begin with my own small imagination. I have a blank piece of paper, a pen, and an idea for a poem. I write, cross out, rewrite, edit, and throw it in a folder. I get it out again, read, reread, rewrite, put it in the computer. Eventually I may have created a poem.

But of course, I have created nothing. I already had language, a vocabulary, images, experiences, memories, stories, dreams, and more, to work with. What I did was assemble a poem. God created a universe from nothing.

So who is this incomprehensible Creator God?

Here again, imagination is what we have to look through, a different window than hard facts. The Bible is rich with images of God, each describing some aspect of God. We all have our favorites. When I try to imagine Creator God imagining the cosmos into existence, this is what I come up with:

A force field of energy so enormous and powerful and beyond description, Huge . . . throbbing with pure love and joy and growing, swelling, ballooning, until the energy becomes so volatile it explodes with a whopping Big Bang, and flies into tiny bits of divinity that set off the process of creating a universe saturated with God’s life.

Now, it’s billions of years later and a fabulous universe exists, and a teeny pea of a planet with human animals are somehow miraculously worthy of God’s embodiment in the flesh. . . . Wow.

How can our little minds absorb this? It takes more than mind. It takes body, soul, spirit. Thank God we have five senses to try to take in the evidence of what God imagined into being:

Color astonishing enough to make us cry: name the sunset, rainbow, fall maples, fresh snow on spruce, cardinals, daffodils, monarchs. Name the sounds: music, wind, waves, frog and bird and locust. Name tastes of ripe tomato, sun-warmed peach, mint and basil. Name smells, name the touch of rain, grass, fresh-turned soil, the fur of a kitten, the cheek of a newborn baby. The universe is a marathon of feasts to glut our senses. We might well be saying “Wow” all the time.

When God’s creative energy let loose during the Big Bang it found its way into our human DNA and set off an innate longing to imagine and assemble new things, whether it’s art or machines, medicine or philosophies. The most beguiling and thrilling thing about this for me is that it all came about because of love.

Gregory Boyle, a Franciscan priest who works with gangs in Los Angeles writes in Tattoos on the Heart about God’s gladness and delight in human beings. Boyle’s ability to see God’s pleasure in tough, mean, dirty, drug-addicted gang members, to believe in their preciousness just as they are. This takes some imagination on my part. I get stuck in how God must see the ugliness, cruelty, suffering and sin in our world. How are we then creatures of beauty and goodness? Proverbs 8 says that God’s wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world, delights in the human race. Is God grieving or delighting?

Richard Rohr says that spiritual maturity means being able to hold two opposites as true at the same time. God suffers and God delights. I need to grow into a better balance of God’s joy and gladness even when I get stuck in God’s disappointment and sorrow with all that has gone wrong in creation. (Actually, I’m hoping to fall overboard someday into an ocean of God’s joy and gladness)

Brian Swimme is a specialist in mathematical cosmology, author of a book called The Universe is a Green Dragon. Here’s what he says about allurement and the universe:

Love begins as allurement. Think of the entire cosmos, 100 billion galaxies rushing through space. The dynamics of the universe is the attraction each galaxy has for every other galaxy. Each part of the universe is attracted to every other part. The result is the creation of community. Love is the word that points to this alluring activity in the cosmos.

Swimme acknowledges in his book his indebtedness to science, art, and religion but especially to the Mysterious Source of these realities.

Two poets of the 1700 and 1800s give me words to describe the holy mystery of creation.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower—
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour.
—William Blake

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here root and all in my hand.
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”
—Lord Alfred Tennyson

 Mysterious, profound, extravagant words . . . but what it all comes down to is one simple word we all know: Love.

A song we used to sing says, “It’s about love, love, love. Everybody sing and shout ‘cause that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love.”

Barbara Esch Shisler is a retired Mennonite pastor and spiritual director, active in her Perkasie Mennonite congregation. Her life as wife, mother, and grandmother is filled with friends, gardening, dogs, movies, books and much more. Reading and writing poetry have been a lifelong joy and learning. She is author of the collection of poems Momentary Stay (Cascadia/DreamSeeker Books, 2015).