What Gives You Pause?

Before he studied to be an industrial engineer, my dad taught in a one room schoolhouse. Sometimes he would remember a favorite lesson and try to teach it to me. Once he asked me to read a sentence he jotted on a 3×5 card:

All that that is is all that that is not is not

Without punctuation, not knowing where to pause, the words were nonsensical, a jumble. Then he added the missing pauses and asked me to try again.

All that, that is, is; all that, that is not, is not.

This tautology always made Daddy smile, especially when he could share his puzzle with the uninitiated. I can still see him seated at the 1956 gray Formica kitchen table, white shirt sleeves rolled, the slide rule in his shirt pocket nudging a pack of Lucky Strikes. I can still hear his soft chuckle. Of course the statement was silly, an unnecessary repetition of the obvious. However, knowing where to put the pause gave the reader power over the text, allowed her to make the reading meaningful. That was my introduction to the importance of punctuation – and the pause.

Life can seem like an unpunctuated sentence at times. Days follow days like laundry hung on a clothesline. Where is the meaning in that? Of course, our work and our culture offer us some interruptions from monotony – the “weekend,” the “vacation” However, interruption and pause are not quite the same thing. One is happenstance; one intentional.

The pause that matters most – I believe – is the moment of chosen reflection, the drawn breath of gratitude, the recognition that life is a gift. To be aware in the present is to experience the IS-ness of life. The Biblical story of Moses and the Burning Bush (one most notable pause) teaches us that God’s name is I Am. As a result, for those who subscribe to the faith story that we are all the children of God, we know our name, too. We are the Am Family.  And if all that, that is, is; and, all that, that is not, is not, then we better make sure we IS!

I don’t know how you make sure you IS, but I find that I reflect best by reading and writing.  Through the power of story I can discover if I am being who I intend to be or if I need to make mid-course corrections. Reflection is a powerful tool.

The South Bend Tribune recently published an article about the Reading for Life program in which a juvenile offender is paired with a mentor to read a book with significant themes and strong heroes who must make important choices.  Other communities have implemented similar programs with equal success.  Why?  Because a story allows humans to pause their narrow focus on themselves long enough to make connections with another, to consider our similar frustrations and pain, to entertain new possibilities for making life more meaningful.

That result is what everyone wants more than anything else in life – meaning.  And that understanding happens when we struggle with the text of our own lives, when we put the pauses in the best order to make sense of what IS.  Not what we pretend, not what we dream, not what we desire, but what IS.

I hugged a fellow widow at church yesterday who asked the usual question, “How are you doing?”  I gave the usual response, “I am fine! How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, too.” We exchanged knowing looks.  “What are the options, right?”

Right.  Except there are other attitudes to choose from.  To choose to face life as it really is and yet to be grateful, to remain aware of the gift life represents, and to work through grief in hope I think represents the best path.  But I must insert regular pauses to keep that awareness, to help make that meaning clear.

In life, it is not the pause with Coca-Cola that refreshes, but the pause in the Presence of I Am.  Punctuate responsibly.



And so begins a series of “firsts” in the grieving process. Today is Ron’s birthday – the first since his death on March 11th (my birthday). I am teary. Not surprising.  At first I was tempted to give in, to begin this day filled with reflection on my loss.

However, Facebook popped up a “year-iago-today picture” for me this morning. The image caught me by surprise, fluttered briefly on my screen, and then disappeared into my news feed before I could decide whether I wanted to repost it. The photo was from Ron’s birthday party at Summertrace rehab center on Sunday, July 13, 2014. We were all wearing mustaches. Ron was trying to play “Drop-the-Ring-on-the-Birthday cake.”

Of course the picture brought tears to my eyes, but it also reminded me of the burden Ron bore every day – his paralysis and pain, his cough (he tried to eat rice pudding Dean made for him, but couldn’t), his tired smile (he wanted to enjoy the children, but needed to go back to his room to rest).  So much weariness and struggle – for both of us. How could I wish him back for another birthday like that?

And so I choose to celebrate his re-birthday today.  I rejoice that he no longer has to compromise with physical life, a dynamic spirit trapped in an uncooperative body.  He did his best.  He stayed as long as he could.  The tears are for me, not for him.  Yet I should not weep.  This is a day for the first celebration of his legacy – to be glad that in this life he did more than exist, he lived by faith, he made a difference, and he loved me.  How fortunate we both were. How fortunate we both still are.

So I will dry my tears today – again and again, if necessary.  I will embrace the day and its gifts  I will remember that the longings I feel are reminders of the eternal nature of love.

The only defense against grief is life.  To live in sorrow is a selfish indulgence of my own needs that helps no one and has no power to transform.  That attitude is the antithesis of Ron’s legacy, a disservice to his memory.  So today remember with me what Ron stood for in his life:  letting the needs of others set our daily agenda, understanding that our gifts are meant to be shared, holding ourselves to a standard of excellence, but knowing God’s grace holds us secure in our striving.

May every “first” celebration remind me of Ron’s approach to living.  This year will give me lots of opportunities to practice.  In fact, this coming July 18th would have been our 34th wedding anniversary.  So now I can just reread this post to regain my focus.  I’m sure I will need to.  The process of grief is not linear, but recursive.  That’s why the “firsts” really never become seconds or thirds.  Time does not dull grief; we must let time change our use of grief.




What’s in your bucket?

I have long loved the story of the “Woman at the Well” found in John, Chapter Four of Holy Writ. The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus always seemed to me to be the practical illustration of John 3:17 (not quite so famous as 3:16) that says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  I’ve always read the woman-at-the-well story as a “Jesus-rescues-the-fallen” tale.  I’ve even performed the story publicly that way.  But recently, the UCC Still Speaking Daily Devotional opened my mind to a new reading of that familiar passage.

This viewpoint asks readers to see Jesus as the one who’s needy.  You see, he’s the one who’s thirsty, and she’s the one with the bucket.  I never thought of the encounter from that perspective.  Interesting.  And then it occurred to me:  “What if all of us saw our experience of religion that way?”  What if we truly believed God needed us, more than the other way around?

You see, I think far too much we believers perceive ourselves as sinners pleading for redemption, as beggars hoping for heaven, not as God’s children equipped for meeting the needs of others.  In other words, we create religion to be all about OUR needs, not God’s. We go to church (the well) to get our own cool drink, not anticipating that Jesus will ask us to draw forth an offering for him.  Or we don’t bother to go to church for reasons as equally focused on ourselves:  “I don’t get anything from church.  The sermons are boring.  I can feel just as close to God on the golf course.”  Why does it never cross our minds that WE might be needed to do something for God, rather than the other way around?

You might take umbrage at a viewpoint t,hat proposes God might ever be needy.  Surely the great God of the Universe can manage without the likes of us.  Yes, of course.  However, don’t good parents show their children how to behave by saying, “I need your help, Johnny, to bake this cake.” Or, “Please hold the door, Sarah, while I carry in this bag of groceries.”  The goal is to include children in the tasks of living in order that they might be useful, that they not grow up expecting life to serve them, and that they might know their own value.

Granted, the story does affirm God’s power.  Jesus does offer “living water” of the Spirit to this Samaritan, a woman of questionable moral credentials.  He sees her spiritual need.  He makes it clear that she should ask him for a drink that would quench her existential thirst forever.  They banter about the proper place for and nature of worship, and he makes it apparent that he knows more about her than she knows herself.  Then she runs away to evangelize her village and brings them to meet this new-found messiah.  But nowhere does it say Jesus got the drink he asked for.

Now, sure, you can tell me that the whole “draw me some water from the well” request was a ruse on Jesus’ part to save her wayward soul.  We figure she’s a big sinner. Why else would she be going to the well in the noonday heat except to escape the judgment of her neighbors regarding her previous five husbands, or to avoid the other women’s gossip about her current sinful living arrangements?  She needed saving in our perspective; perhaps that was her perspective as well.

But consider an alternative reading:  she wasn’t the needy one – Jesus was.  Abundant, thirst-quenching life was already hers for the asking, no strings or salvation conditions attached.  What if in this storyJesus communicates to US that humans are the ones who are missing the point:  God reveals through this woman that – while God knows everything we need – it is our job to recognize what God needs.  Each of us has a bucket.  The well is deep.  We need to be about the work of drawing upon the resources granted to us in this life.  God is thirsty for what only we can share.  God needs us to get on with the work we are capable of doing.  Instead, we argue about what is the best way to worship.  We discourse about what is the “Truth.”  We are quick to try to get others to understand our experience oF God so we can feel important. Meanwhile, Jesus stands around thirsty.

Can you envision him shaking his head at the senseless response of humans?  His incredulous look when we fail to see the problem? His dumbfounded shoulder shrug inspired by our philosophical wrangling when we could easily honor this simplest of requests?  Sadly, I can.

Yet there is a bright spot for us in this story.  Jesus seems to forget about being tired or thirsty as he shares God’s hope for humankind with this woman and her friends.  He draws on the very Living Water he tells her about as he reveals to her the nature of God’s promise to accept us as we are – male or female, privileged or outcast – of God’s ability to level walls of separation and mistrust between those who claim to be followers, and of God’s power to draw us together despite our differences.

The Good News is also that (1) we have everything we need to be helpful to God on earth. That (2) we are welcome to come into God’s presence even before we get everything straightened out in our lives, and that (3) God invites our participation to bring God’s story to a happy conclusion on earth.

We know the way to the well. It’s our everyday path of life. We have a bucket. It’s the tool we use to dispense compassion and justice to those who thirst for our help.  The question is — Will we be distracted by our “religious agenda,” or will we be the ones attending to Jesus’ request to share what has been freely given to us?

Each person brings a bucket to the well of life. The point is not to let it remain empty.  Others thirst and we can help.  It’s that simple.