Tag Archives: Guest 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.

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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.

Bless the Lord and the Wild Things

KCGuestPostDanHertzler300x300x72The writer of Psalm 104 had an appreciation for wild things. I have a somewhat limited appreciation for wild things. If they threaten my garden, as do woodchucks and raccoons, I go after them. If they are only passing through as wild turkeys, I enjoy them.

As our environment unravels and the wild things are threatened, Psalm 104 catches my attention. The psalm is one of what William P Brown calls “the seven pillars of creation.” The other six are Genesis 1 and 2, Job 38-40, Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes and Isaiah 55. Verses 24-35 of Psalm 104 provide the essence and deserve reflection.

The second creation account in Genesis tells of a man and a woman in a garden. They had what they needed but were expected to take care of it. The story tells us that they blew it. The history of humankind follows this pattern.

Whenever people get organized they seem to do one or both of two things: 1) beat up on somebody or 2) trash the environment and the wild things. The psalm writer observes that the wild things look to God “to give them their food in due season.” But evidently the food they needed was not always available.

At the end the writer puts his finger on the human problem and hopes “that sinners be consumed from the earth and that the wicked be no more.” That’s too much to hope for. Somehow we need to acknowledge our own sinfulness and recognize that having “the wicked be no more” is too broad a prayer request.

But more than the psalmist could recognize, we know we depend on the environment and that we may be in the process of destroying it. Indeed it could happen that not only the wicked but everyone and all creatures could be no more if present trends continue.

Our psalmist lived in the time of the Fertile Crescent. There was power at each end of the crescent—Egypt at one end and Babylon at the other end. Palestine was said to be a land of milk and honey. It was also to be a land of political instability because the power people would go through it to get at each other. They would go through the crescent since they could not cross the desert.

But the psalmist is not concerned with politics. It is the wild things that get his attention. The earth is full of them and they are sustained by the hand of God. It is amazing to see what niches some of the wild things have found.

Take the monarch butterflies. These butterflies overwinter in Mexico or California. When Mary and I were in California in 1980 we saw a cluster of them wintering in California. In the spring these butterflies start north. They take three generations going north. They lay eggs and soon die. The next generation hatches, grows up, and continues the journey. These larvae feed on milkweed. Milkweed is poisonous, but the monarchs can handle it, which is good because then birds hesitate to eat them.

The fourth generation makes the trip south in one generation. I saw several monarchs on my flowers one year. I suppose they were on their way south. But now monarchs have a problem. They feed on milkweed and farmers especially in the Midwest use Roundup to kill the weeds. Then monarch larvae have nothing to eat. I noticed three milkweed plants along the edge of my lot last summer and left them there. Whether or not any monarch larvae had fed on them I don’t know, but I left them there.

As I say, a typical human tendency is to cut and slash But once in a while we find an example of someone who works at restoration. I used to get a magazine called Westsylvania. In autumn 2004, it carried an article on how the wild turkeys were brought back. According to the article, wild turkeys had just about died out through overhunting, but in the 1950s a program was devised to try to bring them back.

There were still some remnants in the Bedford County mountains and the program devised was to clip the wings of some turkey hens and put them in an eight-foot-high fence. Wild gobblers came in and mated with them, the eggs were collected, and then the hens were put in the pens again. “The breeding program proved so successful that it ended in 1955. By then, even the game-farm raised turkeys—who by then carried just one-sixteenth tame genes—had become too uncontrollable.” By 1968, Pennsylvania began the spring gobbler hunting season.

Recently I saw a flock of 20 turkeys in the field across the road. The best thing about turkeys is that I can’t see that they cause problems in my garden.

We have gotten caught in what is coming to be an environmental disaster. After Edwin Drake drilled an oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, oil became plentiful and as time went on more and more uses were found for it. Especially in transportation. Today we are trapped in our cars.

In his book Terra Nova, Eric W Sanderson says that we will need to get away from oil, cars, and suburbs. He says we need to live more closely together and go back to trolley cars and trains along with walking and bicycles.

When Mary and I built a house three miles from town we didn’t think about the implications of all the driving we would do. Also, Scottdale was a marketing center with grocery stores, clothing stores, and a good shoe store. Today with Walmartization all of those have gone away and Scottdale is basically a bedroom community of the big box stores at its edges. Yet those who live in town are less dependent on oil than we in the country. I have noticed that all of my grandchildren live in town.

Whether the changes can be made in time to save the environment from disaster remains to be seen. In his fantasy, Sanderson sees basic transportation changes as early as 2028. That does strike me as fantasy. However, I was interested to see in the September 29, 2015, issue of the Connellsville Daily Courier that a “Transportation alliance” is forming to represent all of our local counties. What this means I’m not clear.

In the meantime it is possible to do something about the problem of electricity generated by fossil fuel. I have signed up with a company called Ethical Electric which uses environmentally friendly generation. I noticed that the first bill based on this new system cost two cents more per kilowatt hour. I think I can handle that.

As an old farmer, I still like a place in the country, but I see that without recognizing it I have become dependent on a system that needs to be changed. I do not look forward to giving up my place in the country. But to maintain it I have an automobile, a pickup truck, a tractor, a garden tiller, and two lawn mowers. If I were to move to town I would need only the car and maybe a lawn mower.

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Daniel Hertzler and a spruce tree he had photographed by Maynard Brubacher as part of an effort to sell it. But so far there has been no market for it. Dan reports that “Mary planted the tree about 1960 and it keeps growing. What can be done with it remains to be seen.”

The writer of Psalm 104 had no idea what would come to pass in the era of oil, suburbs, and automobile transportation. I can only believe he would support efforts to save the earth for the wild things as well as for our descendants.

Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, book reviewer and occasional preacher. He retired in 2015 as an instructor for the correspondence course, Pastoral Studies Distance Education. He is author of the memoir On My Way: The View from the Ninth Decade.

The Unmapped Way, by David L. Myers

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The Unmapped Way

An early Tuesday,
Late September morning
And the clouded light
Lines the closed slats
Of the window blinds.
Muted shapes
Of sofa and chairs
And last night’s
Wine glass on the
Coffee table silhouette
The room. Soon enough
There will be fillamented
Incandescence
And humming steel.
But for now
There is only this
Silent habitation
From whence cometh,
Finally,
A turning toward surrender,
A calming in holy defeat,
And gratitude for
Once again being on
The beautiful,
The unmapped way.

—David L. Myers has been a pastor of four Mennonite congregations and worked in a variety of denominational leadership settings. Currently he serves in the Obama administration, having been appointed by the president in May 2009 to direct the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In 2011, he was also named as senior advisor to the FEMA administrator. During autumn 2015 he is Practitioner in Residence at Eastern Mennonite University.

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.”

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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.

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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.

Being Saved, by Barbara Esch Shisler

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Being Saved

An old man
crouches in a November rain
calling a little dog.

From the dark cage in a puppy mill
to the universe of a fenced yard,
she runs wild, drenched and trembling,
desperate for what she doesn’t know.

His sciatica aches.
He chases, pleads, swears, plots.
He stays with her through
the cold afternoon,

until help comes and she is caught,
carried, wrapped, warmed,
held fast—
home.

Barbara Esch Shisler, author of the Kingsview & Co post “Imagining God’s Imagination,” 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) from which “Being Saved” is drawn by permission.

Editor’s note: As Pope Francis electrifies many with his vision of mercy and compassion for all humans and creatures and earth itself, I see Barbara Shisler’s “Being Saved” as naming honestly the chasing, pleading, swearing it can take—even as she opens our hearts to the tenderness of being carried home by God and each other the Pope is inviting.

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).

Losing Seth, Part 2: In the Heart of God, by Larry Dunn

KinsgviewCoGuestPostSethLarryDunnAs I shared in “Forever,” Part 1 of “Losing Seth,” the death of our son Seth four years ago raised many questions for me. Most remain unanswered. Foremost has been the question of God’s presence in this experience of immeasurable loss and suffering.

In his well-known book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on the death of his own son Eric, noting the connection between suffering and love. I shared some of his thoughts along with those of my own at a memorial service at Bethel College in Kansas, where Seth was set to return for his senior year:

To the why of suffering the Christian gospel gives us no answer. It eludes us. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it. For some unknown reason love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony.

When I called one of my closest friends that day to give him the news, he simply repeated, “No! No! No!” Suffering is the shout of no by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers—the shout of no by gut and gland and heart to pain, to death.

Thank you for your no. Thank you for your suffering—alongside us, alongside one another, alongside God. And thank you for your love—your love for God, your love for one another, your love for us, and your love for Seth.

In a chapter I wrote for the book A Road Too Short for the Long Journey potentially to be published by a colleague on grief, I tried making sense of the “mysterious presence” of God which I had experienced largely as absence. There I wrote,

Where is God in all of this? My youngest son Isaac said, “God was the first one to cry when Seth died.” Such an idea, if thought about too carefully, might throw many into a crisis of faith. But without another explanation, I need this to be true. How else to understand God’s silence? How else to account for God’s absence?

Sometime later, during Lent, the solidarity I had felt with God was wearing thin. The God I thought I knew had been completely, delinquently, irresponsibly absent. I desperately wanted to give God a chance to break the silence, and decided there was only one thing left: to match God’s silence with my own. To listen. To sit quietly and wait. After some weeks, I spent two days at a Catholic retreat center to continue my vigil. The spiritual director there, a compassionate and wise nun, suggested that I write this Absent God a letter. Through anguish and tears and nearly an entire box of tissues, my soul groaned:

God, I’m tired. I’m tired of the pain and the sorrow. I’m tired of walking down this path alone. Tired of the grieving. Where have you been? You’ve been absent since that day, that day I prayed like I’ve never prayed: “Please God. Please.” And what difference did it make? None. I have a lot of questions and you have a lot of explaining to do.

About a year after Seth’s death a friend and his family were involved in a terrible car accident in which a passenger in another vehicle was killed. Later, as he spoke to some others about this traumatic experience, he referred to God’s provision of safety for his family.

Still unable to find anything of God in my own tragedy, I became sensitive to the inadequacy of talk about God. Knowing he would understand and not take offense, I wrote a long email inviting my friend into a conversation:

I have wondered why—if God can and does act in such ways—he chose not to (or was not able to) in Seth’s case. I have yet to come up with an answer that is satisfactory or even makes much sense. Other than the fact that God allowed it and would no doubt desire good to come from it, I can see no other part for God in what happened to Seth. I have prayed often for my sons’ well-being and can imagine a dozen, a hundred, a thousand good reasons why God might want each of them to live long lives.

But if God desires such good, and indeed acts in the world in the way your comment implied, then why would God not protect Seth (or, for that matter, the person in the other car of your accident whose family was also praying at the side of the road) in the same way as he protected your family?

Not everything happens as God would wish it to. I believe that God was indeed happy that no greater harm came to your family. But certainly God found no joy or purpose in the death of the other person or in Seth’s death as some like to suggest about such tragedies. I’m beginning to think that God is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful as we like to think. Perhaps God experiences and responds to what happens in the world just as we do.

What I had previously accepted as reasonable was becoming problematic in light of Seth’s death, and as a seminary graduate I felt foolish that I had not questioned it sooner; that God’s relationship to the evil and injustice of the world—what theologians like to call the problem of theodicy—had to become personal before I more seriously considered what John Caputo refers to as the weakness of God.

Old, inadequate notions of God were being discarded. New ones would take more time. Faith reconsidered. I was reminded of something that C. S. Lewis had written following the death of his wife:

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

There is no danger in saying no to the dreadful belief in a magical deity who arbitrarily intervenes on behalf of some and abandons others. That is not a mystery but a misconception about the Divine. There is no reward, no gain, no redemptive outcome, no compensation or justification, no sacrificial exchange for some higher good, no rationale or explanation—theological or otherwise—for an irreparable loss such as ours.

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Susan, Eli, Larry, and Isaac Dunn

 My no to that event four years ago is a yes to a future hope, one still unimaginable in Seth’s absence. But God is nothing if not the possibility of the impossible. I do not yet know what the promise of God offers for me, or for Seth. But for now, perhaps Ann Weems, in her book, Psalms of Lament, describes that hope best:

O God, in your mysterious power
you make the oceans roar
and the starfish
wash upon the shore.
And my son lives
in the heart of heaven,
and I live
in the heart of earth,
but we live together
in the heart of God.
(From Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems. © 1999. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press)

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.

Losing Seth, Part 1: Forever, by Larry Dunn

KinsgviewCoGuestPostSethLarryDunn

August 1, 2011. The axis of our world shifted that day, our lives forever changed in unimaginable ways. Two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, our oldest son Seth died in a tragic accident while we were together on family vacation.

As an academic, I write. It is one of the things we academics do. How such writing relates to our personal lives, however, particularly in relation to difficult matters, is seldom discussed. Though I have read much about grief, I did not set out to write about it. Yet somewhere along the way I came to realize that I had written a great deal: an obituary and eulogy, some reflections for a memorial gathering, a brief baccalaureate address, emails to colleagues, a devotional, an invited chapter—all related to Seth.

My many years of education have trained me to turn almost anything into an academic exercise, to be philosophical. To the extent that academics has to do with learning, I’d have to say that the experience of losing our son has been a miserable failure. I have learned so much more from Seth’s life than his death. Perhaps that’s because I have experienced grief not primarily as an intellectual process but as an emotional and spiritual one. So I offer here an awkward attempt by the head to make sense of the aching of the heart and soul.

I am struck by how much August 1, 2011, has become the point in time around which everything now revolves. First one week gone by and then another; a memorial service in between that now seems like a distant dream. September 1. October 1. Birthdays and holidays. A year and then two, and now, unbelievably, four years without him. Without hearing his voice. Without feeling his embrace. “Hey Pop!” he used to say, and I would reach up to hug him as he towered above me.

Seth Play photo

This marking of time brings past, present, and future together, each point a painful reminder of life without him. A text message that remains on my cell phone from that morning . . . just hours before. A photo of Seth at work . . . one month before. An event remembered from when our three boys were small, at the time just another moment in our life together . . . now marked as ten years before.

Time before that day becomes a countdown of the time remaining in his life. The innocence of not knowing what could not be known can now be seen in everything we did before that day, seen in our eyes in pictures even before he was born. Innocence no more.

Grief involves not only what was but what might have been and now will never be. Seth was in the prime of his life, on the cusp of his senior college year, ready to launch into the world, full of potential for so much good. Now graduations and weddings and baby showers become reminders of what we and others will miss out on in a future without Seth.

Some recognize the difficulty involved with joining in the celebration of these events and the sadness they can bring on, understanding this aspect of our loss. A few, mostly those who have suffered a loss of their own, gently enter into grief with us. But much of the painful inner reality of our experience goes unrecognized by others, or so it seems. As C. S. Lewis noted following the death of his wife Joy, “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

How long will this grieving go on? How much more time will I need? Will there continue to be moments and days that feel like that first moment, that first day? Why does the pain return with such force when weeks or even months go by that seem to reflect some healing? Why does the head keep pressing for progress, the gaining of insight, the making of sense, the redemption of death’s injustice, when my heart mends ever so slowly? When will sorrow be replaced by gratitude? Where is God in all of this?

Perhaps anticipating these questions, playwright Margaret Edson, in whose play “Wit” Seth had performed at Bethel College, put it this way upon learning of his death: “What doesn’t crumble? Our love. Where do we keep it? Safe inside. How long does it last? Forever.” Our good friend Jean Janzen echoed these thoughts in a beautiful poem she wrote for Seth (used by permission):

Original Blessing

Child in the burning,
stopped heart in August,
this valley ripe
with peaches and heat.
What are the words
of original blessing?

Child become ashes,
the heaving and sobbing.
Body from body
into the blaze
of original blessing.

Child in the wind,
its current now lifting
into the arms
of original blessing.
Arms of the Maker,
arms of First Lover,
“Mine” the first word,
and the second, “Forever.”

A space filled with grief and sorrow, suffering and pain, mystery and questions with no answers is not an easy place to dwell. And yet I must enter into to get out of, go through to get past. I don’t seek healing that is free of tears and sorrow since my wound reflects some measure of my love for Seth and his worth to his family and friends and mother and brothers and me.

For now there seems no other way. This is not hopelessness, but the reality of his absence and my grief. It is what makes possible my solidarity with others who endure suffering and loss. Including God.

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.

 

Thy Will Be Done on Earth, by Duane Beachey

KingsviewCoGuestPostDuaneBeachey“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” [Religion] ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”  —Jeb Bush in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” —Psalm 24:1

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” —Jesus

Some Christians are dismayed that Pope Francis is offering his views on finance and the environment. They suggest the Pope should stick to spiritual concerns and leave economics to people who understand finance—in other words, the people with the money. But if the people with the money can be trusted to shape good economic policies, shouldn’t we be able to critique the results of those policies?

As the Pope has noted, the results are abysmal. The world is seeing huge disparity between the very wealthy and the other 90% or 99%.  Even if you accept that a capitalist, free market system should provide equal opportunities not equal results, don’t the numbers tell us whether our economy is structured to benefit everyone or primarily the top 1%?

When God looks at all the inequity in the world, with some having great wealth while some live in abject poverty, does that express God’s will on earth? Does anyone think it will be that way in heaven?  So while we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, clearly that is not what is happening.

The Christian family includes widely differing beliefs and doctrines, but we all pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” How many of us ask what that looks like? Jesus declares that the kingdom is here—among us or within us (Luke 17:21). So wherever God’s will is being done on earth, isn’t that a sign of God’s reign? Isn’t God present wherever the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, and wars end?

The economic system we have created is purposely stacked in favor of those with the money. Capital is purposely favored over labor as demonstrated by the fact that income from labor is taxed at twice the rate of income from capital. Warren Buffet says repeatedly he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretaries. Some of the largest corporations pay no income tax because of loopholes they have lobbied for.  Corporations are structured to have greater power than labor. All of this is deliberately designed to tilt the field.

Although a growing number of Christians across the political and theological spectrum are taking seriously the scriptural concern for the poor, I am baffled at how many Christians, often leaning conservative, have come to embrace a political party with the economic philosophy of the “robber barons.” Lower taxes on the wealthy, no regulations, “right to work” laws, a desire to cut spending for the poor and for children. These policies primarily benefit those with the power and wealth. This is the philosophy of Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist who despised the poor and honored the rich—pretty much the mirror opposite of Jesus—but who has been a hero of Paul Ryan, the Republican budget writer.

The real irony of how U.S. politics and religion have intersected is that to a large degree those who take the name of Christ most insistently, and those who claim to take the Bible most seriously are the very ones championing a politics with little concern for the “least of these.” Theirs is not a political agenda that is good news to the poor, that aims to feed the hungry, release the prisoner, heal the sick, and proclaim a message of peace to the world.

Indeed most liberal secularists and atheists embrace a politics and an economic philosophy more geared to the vision of the Lord’s Prayer: “ Thy will be done on earth.”  Jesus said, “Truly the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the reign of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:31)

If we begin with a belief that the earth is the Lord’s, that  all we have belongs to God and we are his stewards, then this is the main question we as God’s people need to ask: How does God want his resources used? If we pray that God’s will be done on earth, how can we dedicate ourselves to that vision for the earth? Specifically how can we structure an economic system that advances the common good?

Why is economic disparity not a significant moral issue across the whole church? The economic world we have created hardly looks like God’s will being done on earth. Through the Law and the Prophets and on through the teachings of Jesus, God is clearly concerned about how we, individuals and nations,  take care of the poor, the widows, the fatherless, the sick, and the aliens.

And beyond the weakest members, God is concerned about workers and the wages they are paid. The Bible addresses those who hold back on workers’ wages or as Malachi 3:5 lists, “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, (emph. added) along with oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens. (See also Lev. 19:13, Deut. 24:14, Jer. 22:13, and James 5:4.)

Jesus condemns those who carefully tithe everything, but forget the more important matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). He condemns those who offer long pious prayers and then swallow up or foreclose on the houses of widows (Mark 12:40). I’m sure this was all legal. Laws are usually made by those with money. But legal or not, Jesus is clear that it wasn’t and isn’t right.

During the recent financial crisis billions were spent to bail out banks, but most of the homeowners who lost their homes weren’t bailed out. If people losing their homes doesn’t look like God’s will being done on earth, God’s people should be pleading their case in the courts and in the congress. Amos 5: 12 (NIV) says, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”  Verse 15 adds, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Do you know what the very next verse is—verse 18? It’s a verse well-known to anyone who has sat through a revival meeting. You probably know it by heart: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” This great call for repentance is a call to repent of not doing right, not seeking justice, not defending the oppressed, or taking up the case of the fatherless, or pleading the case of the widow in court.  And you probably thought it was a call to repent from drinking and sex.

To those who say the Pope should stick to spiritual matters, both Isaiah 1 and Amos 5 and Jesus and 1 John 4, tell us God despises all our religious observances and worship songs and offerings while we are ignoring the needs of the poor. The prophet Amos tells us, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” And on the end of that same verse—verse 23 he paints a wonderful picture of what God’s will being done on earth looks like. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Justice for the poor is a far greater priority to God than all our worship.

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. (Isaiah 58:6, New Living Translation)

Duane Beachey, Isom, Kentucky, is a Mennonite pastor pastoring two small Presbyterian churches in Appalachia. He and his wife, Gloria spent over eight years with Mennonite Central Committee in Appalachia and stayed to pastor. Duane is the author of Reading the Bible as if Jesus Mattered (Cascadia Publishing House, 2014). Duane has spent most of his life working in low income housing ministries.

Author’s note: I’m interested in starting a conversation to develop a theology that challenges Christians including Christian business people to making just economic structures central to how they live out their faith. Also to envision economic ideas and models that benefit everyone and not just those at the top. I welcome input for this vision.

What the Body Knows, by Jean Janzen

KingsviewCoGuestPostJeanJanzenPhotoLeft

What the Body Knows

Maybe it’s the ocean’s rhythmic tug
that helps me sleep, my body’s own
surge remembering its deepest pulse.

Think of those Celtic monks who
scaled the slippery rocks carrying
vellum and inks while the sea broke

and battered beneath them. High
in a crevice, a hidden stone hut
with cot and candle. The scribe

dips and swirls his quill to preserve
the story—Luke’s genealogy,
name after name, letters shaped

like birds in every color, a flight
of messengers released into history.
Each word unfurls the promise,

like Gabriel kneeling. The body
knows that wings, like waves,
can break through walls and enter,

that the secret of the story
is love, that even as we sleep,
its tides carry us in a wild safety.

—Jean Janzen, a poet living in Fresno, California, is the author of six previous collections of poetry who has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and other awards. A graduate of Fresno Pacific University and California State University of Fresno, she has taught at Fresno Pacific and Eastern Mennonite University. Janzen is author of What the Body Knows, from which this poem is excerpted (DreamSeeker Books/Cascadia, 2015, used by permission of publisher and author).

Editor’s note: Kingsview & Co guest posts will often not be intended to integrate directly with the flow of prior and future posts, and certainly this haunting poem can stand alone in its telling of the story’s secret. However, it’s also offered here in awareness that it joins the flow of “Blogging Toward Kansas City 2015” and the yearnings of so many of us, amid tumult in church and culture, to experience “that the secret of the story / is love, that even as we sleep, / its tides carry us in a wild safety.”