I grew up living in apartments in large cities. From eight years of age until thirteen, I actually lived on the seventh floor of a ten story apartment building near downtown St. Louis. After I met and married a Tennessee boy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, we moved to Nashville where his parents had both a downtown apartment and a large weekend country house in a neighboring rural county.
As our own family grew, we spent more and more weekends at Birdsong, their hundred year old log house that now had all the modern conveniences, but still radiated the warmth and charm of a by-gone era. It was on a two hundred acre rural setting of both woods and fields with a river sized creek complete with waterfall and swimming hole. It also had fields of peonies, horses and barns, a pond, a replica of Fort Nashborough built for the grandchildren to play in and a historic ruin of a real civil war powder mill.
At first I followed my mother-in-law on excursions into the woods to look for Jack-in-the Pulpit and tiny delicate wild Iris with a city dweller’s fear and trepidation. “Snakes and ticks and poison ivy, oh my!” But after a new and deeper awakening to the reality of God, I began to fall in love with His creation from its obvious glories to its fascinating hidden world of tiny treasures.
When I was expecting my fifth child by Caesarian section along with a scheduled hysterectomy, my in-laws decided to sell Birdsong. They offered to trade us the main house, barn, the tenant house, pond and the thirty- five acres of creek front woods and fields in exchange for whatever we could make from selling our house. Not only did I covet Birdsong, but this was an incredibly good financial trade for us. Our house was a pleasant traditional two story, four bedroom house in walking distance of an excellent public school, but Birdsong was twice its size, historic, beautiful and uniqueThere was even a tenant house that we had been remodeling. After prayer and discussion, my husband and I decided this was the chance of a lifetime and we put our house on the market a month before Thanksgiving when our baby was due.
While I was in the hospital recuperating from my C-section and hysterectomy, our house sold with the agreement that the buyer could have possession by January 1st. To say the least, the move was a daunting prospect at Christmas time in my post-operative condition with a new baby and four other children under ten. But, it seemed like a miracle to sell so quickly for the price we were asking. Besides, I wanted Birdsong more than I had ever wanted anything. To top it off, my husband’s oldest brother had hired a baby nurse to stay with us for the first two weeks I was home. This was a perfect baby gift that would help us with the move considerably. The move just seemed meant to be.
Unfortunately, shortly after we got home from the hospital, we discovered that our baby, who was miserably unhappy both night and day, needed surgery for a painful strangulated hernia. Our wonderful baby nurse and I prayed together for healing for him. But instead, at the hospital the night before his surgery, an intern discovered that our baby also had a heart valve defect. It was obviously his first examination of a baby boy, since he didn’t think to protect his new Christmas tie from a tiny fountain of pee. Shaken by his discovery, but hoping his lack of experience had allowed him to be misled, I called my pediatrician, who managed to get there in fifteen minutes. After emergency tests, the surgeon and our pediatrician agreed that the heart defect didn’t appear life threatening and since it was the type that sometimes closed naturally, they went ahead with just the hernia surgery. It was a scary, stressful time of tears and exhaustion, but with many people joined in prayer for Tommy. After the unscheduled surgery there was only room for us in a four patient room. The spoiled princess part of me was distressed over having to be in a room with three other mothers and their crying babies, all of us sleeping on cots literally under our babies in their high metal cribs. But, I had hardly had any sleep since my surgeries, so when Tommy awoke hungry the first time in the wee hours after his surgery, I didn’t even wake up when he cried. The kindness of strangers touched me deeply, when I finally woke and discovered that the other mothers had fed him his bottle and rocked him tosleep, so I could sleep. It was a humbling glimpse of how false my priorities were.
The day we brought him home from his surgery, my in-laws came to visit and announced apologetically that they had accepted an offer for Birdsong, including the whole two hundred acres and all the smaller buildings . I was devastated. My heart felt literally broken and I recognized that coveting really is different from just wishing for something. Eventually, I accepted that God was trying to set me free.
But ending up two weeks before Christmas having no where to go after the following week was pretty much of a shock. At that day and time there were no condos or apartments in our neighborhood. Checking the papers and calling local realtors turned up nothing to rent while we tried to figure out what we wanted to do. I didn’t want the children to change schools mid-year, in case we decided to make the change to living in the country somewhere else than Birdsong. Available houses were as scarce in our school zone as apartments. After I had called the last realtor, I sat on the couch with tears flowing down my cheeks. The kind baby nurse, an older African American woman with seven grown children, sat down beside me and put her arm around my shoulders.
“What do you need exactly?” she asked.
I thought about not being able to drive or climb stairs for over four more weeks and answered, “A five bedroom, one story house in walking distance to our school to rent for nine months. That will give us time to decide where we want to live without our children having to change schools.”
She responded immediately with a smile, “All right, we’ll pray for exactly that and a can of oil.”
“A c-c-can of oil?” I stuttered.
“Yes,” she said, “We have to take the baby back to the doctor’s tomorrow, and I’m not comfortable driving your car and mine needs a can of oil.”
I tried not to look incredulous, as she began to pray very specifically. When she finished and we said, “Amen” together, she smiled cheerfully and went to get me a cup of coffee. As I sat there stunned, the doorbell rang. It was Sarah, a woman that I knew from the school’s Parent Association.
“Eileen,” she said,” I’m sorry to bother you. I hope I didn’t wake up the baby, but my car gets eccentric sometimes and it has stopped at the end of your driveway. Can I use your phone to get my mechanic to come?”
“Sure,” I replied, “If you’ll ask him to bring a can of oil.” After making her phone call, she joined me for coffee while we waited for the mechanic and the can of oil.
“I hear you’ve sold your house and are moving to the country,” she said.
“Well, yes and no. The move to the country fell through and I’m in something of a panic. I don’t want the children to have to change schools until we figure out where we want to live. And right now there is nothing available to rent around here.”
Sarah’s eyes lit up as she asked, “Do you know about the Keck’s house?”
“No, where is that?” I responded.
“It’s one street over and two houses down from you. You can see the back yard from here. They are going to the Philippines as missionaries for nine months. They are supposed to leave the first of January, if they can find a renter. They aren’t advertising, because they will be leaving their furniture and possessions and don’t want to rent to complete strangers.”
Breathless with my heart racing, I asked, “What is the house like?”
“It’s a one story with four bedrooms and a study, and a large den. It also has a wonderful yard and patio.”
I actually gasped in disbelief. “That would work perfectly for us and we have a large basement storage area at our office where we could easily store their things. That would probably be safer for their belongings and happier for our kids.”
It turned out that we had many mutual friends with the Kecks, so they were happy to rent to us. Dr. Keck taught theology at Vanderbilt and had a library of books that I read hungrily in the months we lived there.
So, three weeks later we moved a block away and after several months of looking for land in the country, we bought our own ‘hundred acre wood’ with a creek and hundreds of tiny wild Iris all along the banks. That fall, we moved into a marvelous house my husband had designed very specifically for us and in a county with a much better school system than where Birdsong was. Eventually, my husband moved his own business here to Dickson county
One of the best parts of this memory is the woman who prayed with me. She had raised seven children in serious poverty and mostly by herself, due to her husband’s dependence on alcohol. To her, I must have seemed like a spoiled affluent weakling, yet she cared about my problems and believed God would help me just as He had her when she needed it.
An important addendum to this story is about forgiving. I was grateful for my in laws’ original very generous offer, but they seemed oblivious to the challenges their change of plans presented for us and I was not feeling very kindly toward them. I still couldn’t drive, and our baby and I were both still recuperating. Christmas expenses and moving were draining our resources and as temperatures dropped along with my size, I needed a winter coat. As I was wondering how to solve this, my mother-in-law appeared at our door. She came in obviously in a hurry handing me a shopping bag, saying, “I was in Dillard’s buying underwear and saw this coat. You may not like it or need it, so you don’t have to keep it, but something just told me to buy this for you.” And there was the most beautiful coat I had ever seen. It was a perfect fit. She brushed away my thanks and hurried on to an appointment.
As I prayed for grace to forgive, I thought, If she can hear God in this, maybe God has a reason for all of it. And I was able to shift perspective, let go of coveting and start looking forward again, seeking God’s will without assuming I knew what His plan for us was. Time has made it clear that we were meant to start a totally different life . A few years later, another crisis of circumstances led to starting an architecture firm in our new area which has been once again a challenging, but grace filled, serendipity.
Sometimes, it seems to me, there are values that we accept when we tell the creative force behind all things that we want to be aligned with its highest purpose, then we become part of the flow with complex circumstances uniting to accomplish this in our lives. And the pattern is like a tapestry that we are part of, seeing only the crisscrossing mish-mosh of threads from our perspective, while a glorious work of art is emerging from a universal, eternal perspective.
(I do admit however, on a feeling level, it often feels like being grapes in a wine press! And God has very large feet. )
I think one very basic human trait is wanting more of whatever we need or value most. The “what” varies greatly from person to person, but we always want more of it.
Some people want things you can see and touch. Whether it’s collecting unusual or expensive things, or something as simple as recipes, or tools, or books, or even as someone once said to me, ” I just want the land I own and all the land that touches it.”
Other’s collect people: friends, lovers, fans, followers, students, or people to help in some way.
Quite a few collect power whether it’s over family, fellow citizens, employees, soldiers, clients, or even animals.
Many want visible accomplishments, whether on a grand scale like city planing, building sky scrapers, or simply working with our hands at a craft or garden. It’s the being visibly productive that appeals.
Others seek experiences, like travel, extreme sports, or the arts, nature’s beauty, even food.
Then, there are the challenges of developing skill in things as varied as golf, or dance, or photography, or writing poetry. Then it’s the always trying to become more proficient.
And the lucky ones are focused on collecting knowledge, which is something in abundance and variety all around us.
And of course,there’s collecting wealth for its own sake, like the story of King Midas.
I guess failing to achieve in any of these, there’s always indiscriminate hoarding.
But what we all have in common is that we always want more.
And maybe that is what old age, even illness, is about. It can free us to stop and let go. Then we can be still enough to open our hearts and minds to the greatest treasure, the glory of God,. And that is what all these things have in common. They are tiny tastes of the glory of God.
The first thing you should know about me is that I am not you. A lot more will make sense after that. (Melissa Skidmore)
A scripture that has echoed through my mind over the years is the one about getting the log out of our own eyes, instead of judging others. The problem with that is that the log in our eyes keeps us from seeing ourselves. We ALL have blind spots when it comes to seeing our whole selves.
Years ago I began to work with a personality indicator called the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator ( MBTI.) It was spooky to take it and then read the description of my way of being in the world. How could anyone know those things!!
The MBTI helped me become more aware not only that we come into the world with very different ways of being, seeing, understanding, valuing and responding, but that the world needs all of these diverse ways of being. It also needs us to become aware not only of our gifts, but of our blind spots. That’s the only way every ones’ gifts can be valued and work together for good.
The MBTI years ago when I studied and taught it, focused on affirming our gifts. So kind of naturally many of us just focused with relief on our own gifts, not realizing the importance of “gifts differing.” And not using the knowledge to rid ourselves of our blind spots. Belatedly, I recognized that there’s a built in pattern of growth in us where we become more receptive to the gifts we did not have and usually did not value equally to our own natural ones.
There’s a catch to this. To develop in the area opposite to our strongest gift or way of being in the world requires dying temporarily to our own way of being and seeing. It’s a dying to self. Technically, the MBTI doesn’t make any religious claims or statements. But let me tell you, this dying to our most valued gift is a real part of becoming whole, of becoming the best person we have the potential to be.
Unfortunately, dying to our “selves” is never easy or comfortable. By my age, I have seen creative people bog down in misery when their gifts seem to have dried up. I have myself panicked during a time that the Scriptures no longer spoke to me. I have heard others panic when ritual or their life long way of praying no longer works for them. But, I have also seen accountants become “creative” in good ways, artists learn to keep accounts, and engineers open their eyes and hearts to the mystical.
What I have witnessed and experienced convinces me that the universe is designed for opportunities and challenges to come our way at a time in our life when we are called to die to our strongest gift and become not only more balanced and whole, but more humble, and thus more understanding of those “others” that we have judged harshly most of our life.
What I found through sixty years of living with a man who was totally different in every area of being from me, is that only by becoming free to understand and value opposite ways of seeing and being in the world do we become free to truly and humbly love.
Recently I discovered that in the twenty years since I worked with it, the MBTI has been further developed in ways that help this process. It begins by helping us become aware of and accepting of our way of being in the world. Then, it can also help us accept that our way is a gift to the world, but it isn’t enough. We then begin to see how this dying to self can free us to become whole or “holy” and better able to understand and truly value BOTH ourselves and those who are very different from us. It isn’t either/or. And no way is better, because no way is whole without the others.
Many years ago I was taking a turn preaching to a sizable group of Directors of Religious Education from very diverse denominations at a training week for DRE’s. I was going to use Paul’s scriptures on the Body of Christ and how all of the parts were equally important. As I was reflecting on this scripture, suddenly in my mind’s eye I saw a figure coming toward me. It was coming very slowly and jerkily, because the legs were clumsily, tripping over each other and the arms were flying in different directions and the head twisting back and forth. My immediate response was horror. “This is what we have done to the Body of Christ!” And I cried out, “Lord, what can I do?” And into my mind, clear as a warning bell I heard, “Admit what you can’t do.” As I have grappled with many aspects of this challenge over the years, two things have become clear to me, One: The world needs all of us, different political thinking, different religious understandings, different cultures’ values, gender traits, racial strengths, talents, skills, on and on and on. And Two: Only the grace of each of us truly knowing ourselves and knowing with heart and mind that we are loved as we are by God, can we become humble enough to love those very different others, just as we are loved. And that is the only way we can ever live in peace. We need all of us.
The MBTI isn’t gospel. But it can be an amazingly helpful tool for knowing ourselves better, and coming to value ourselves in a way that allows us to equally value others who seem completely different from us.
There’s a site on line called “16personalities.com that offers greater understanding of “going with the flow” of our developing selves until the day we die. I am finding it both challenging and helpful in learning to go with the flow of scary changes becoming opportunities for my new life at eighty-one as a widow.
Four ways of being: Thinking,feeling, doing, creating.
Thinking usually involves questioning and problem solving.
Feeling, whether positive or negative, is usually in relationship to someone or something.
Doing often involves care taking of things or care giving of people.
Creating is about possibilities and may involve any or all of the other three.
Life involves all of these and though none of us does all of them equally well, I’ve noticed that through the stages of our lives we seem to eventually be challenged by life to develop in the areas we don’t have natural gifts for. This applies to our spiritual lives also.
At different times in my life I have found grace through very different resources. In my twenties I began to question my religious upbringing and for a few years I made the world and its pleasures my focus, but my questions finally took me on a journey of studying various religions in a search for meaning. Then in my thirties, a friend helped me begin to relate to Jesus, not only as a Savior and Lord, but as a best friend, and prayer became a conversation with him. Starting to read the scriptures to get to know him better brought them alive for me and I began to see their connections to even small things in my daily life. Gradually, they opened my eyes to the struggles of people around me and I began to recognize ways I could help them. Then to my consternation, the Scriptures ceased to speak to me and health issues kept me from helping others, but then rote prayer suddenly became my way to inner peace and a sense of the presence of God. Taking up art as a hobby continued to bring me the freedom to live in the present moment creatively. Somehow, all of these ways of being came together and I felt a hunger to share my sense of the love of God expressed in Jesus, the presence of God in all things, and our oneness with God and each other. That led me to worship where I could give what I call my sermons from the molehill at Sunday worship services. We are all on a Spiritual journey whether we know it of not. But it does not go in the same order or timing or tidy little stages for us. We are all different, so our journeys will be different. And the places best for us to grow and learn spiritually will be different. But I’ve become convinced that over our lives we will experience growth in all of these ways of being. And eventually we become able to recognize God in everything and each other. This is very oversimplified, but is the essence of what I’ve experienced in my spiritual journey.
Young, tender, vulnerable.
Funny and fun loving.
A crooked boyish smile.
Blue eyes with a Christmas morning sparkle.
Slow dancing, holding me gently, like I was fragile and precious. Love poems before we ever even kissed. Dozens of roses and one time a black orchid.
Cutting in at dances when I went with someone else.
Dancing, I only come up to his chin.
I often ask: “Are you still up there?”
And every time he answers: “Always.”
And he meant it.
I look at you through memories
of running in the rain,
of funny children’s stories
and haunted Halloweens.
Of how you learned to hold me
and simply let me cry,
listening to my fears
to heal me of my fright.
Of you overcoming phobias,
so I wouldn’t be alone
while camping in the woods
or giving talks on Type.
Of nightmare trips in broken cars
and cabins full of scouts,
houses filled with strangers
and jeep rides in the night.
Letters shared in parking lots
and rooms full of golden flowers,
the kaleidoscope of memories
that fill my heart with love.
Psalm of Fifty-eight Years
All these years of tenderness and love, of fears and frustration and laughter
there has been you.
Your love has always been my strength because I knew you would be with me, any where I went. Now, in this new heartbreaking time of fearing the ocean of loneliness that lies ahead. I struggle to let go, to set you free, to not make it harder to accept whatever comes. Grace comes at night when I turn to God , who has been with us always in both the pain and joy. Then I know we’ll be together once more with tenderness, and laughter, and love at home with God.
I Miss You
In the silent nighttime loneliness,
even in the sunshine’s warmth
and cheerful chatter of the birds,
there’s still an emptiness.
I miss you.
I even miss your morning frown
from reading that day’s news,
when I would try to get a smile
by showing you the comic strips.
I miss your laugh.
In the busyness of daily chores
I often turn toward your door
to ask you someone’s number,
then catch myself, suddenly in tears
from missing you.
You always were so softly quiet,
I’d wonder if you’d gone out.
Yet silence now is so profound,
it has the very solemn sound
On Fridays, our party night,
I fix our usual picnic supper
and find my favorite TV show,
but you’re not here to snuggle.
I miss your snore.
Even church is not the same.
I keep waiting for you to come
and fill the empty spot beside me.
Then my tears begin to blind me,
because I miss you.
I remember that I complained
about how little we just talked.
Now, it would seem enough
If I could just hold your hand.
I miss you so.
I ‘m truly happy you now have joy.
I trust there’s a reason I’m still here
and that grace will get me through
until we’re together once more.
But I still miss you.
Sarah Smarsh on That Moment When, a new show by PBS News Hour on Facebook Watch says a lot of what I have experienced about the differences and the similarities between people. Many people simply don’t question the strongest influences in their childhood, particularly those that gave them some sense of security in a frequently confusing and frightening world. Their minds don’t work that way., They learn differently, not by extrapolating or questioning their experience, but by building block by block on what they experienced and were taught. For many, the two influences that gave them some sense of security were parents and church. And their personalities and mental processes did not incline them to question the only security they had. Why would they? But some of us are born asking questions and challenging authority. Instead of security, we experience the status quo as a jail. We were what were called “strong willed children” by traditionalists and as ” children who color outside the lines” by creative people. As such, the more an authority figure, whether parent or teacher or preacher tried to control us, the stronger we pushed back. Not because we had our own world view, but because we wanted the freedom to explore, the joy of finding new ideas. BOTH are necessary. Creative personalities often throw the “baby out with the bathwater” and seldom consider the practical limitations of ideas. The need is for dialogue and balance, not assuming stupidity or evil on the part of those who approach life differently. I was once told that a high IQ had a downside because no matter if you are a genius, NO ONE is always right. And the Bible is full of chosen people who were used by God, but had blind spots and weaknesses that got them totally off track, such as David and even Peter in his conflicts with Paul. The call now is to not push each other into ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but to listen through the jargon to the important values of each side of issues . How many innocent people do we justify killing as collateral damage when we become involved in cultural conflicts on the other side of our shrinking planet? The question isn’t really do we kill or not, but whom and why. How many killers do we kill in hope of it being a deterrent to other killers and who decides when someone is beyond redemption? How many killers get out of jail and kill again? How do we choose between an unborn baby and its eleven year old mother’s mental and physical well being after she was raped or the victim of incest? How many unborn babies do we kill because we want to drink and sleep around? We have to recognize that one law or political slogan doesn’t fit all situations and together find the flexibility to attempt to decide different choices in the light of human spiritual values, not just blanket laws or knee jerk reactions to situations that have not affected our own life. And to do that, we ALL have to admit that we see through the glass (and in the mirror) darkly. Pride blinds us. We need each other.
When we know with both heart and mind that we are loved at our worst and unfinished at our best, our lives become adventures in grace.
This is a twist on my Once Upon a Time. I like Tony’s better.
Down with this easy world
we live in now
where thought becomes word becomes deed
at the blink of a trigger
one hard thought
breaks a heart
and hard thoughts fly like missiles
in the night
one hard word
breaks a spirit
and hard words fly like bullets
through the halls
one hard deed
might break a world
and hard deeds wait in shadows
for their time to come
Here’s to a harder world
than the one we have now
where thought and word and deed
work together to keep things right
one soft thought
keeps someone alive
when it leads to one caring word
against the darkness
and one simple deed changes
a hard moment into something shining
Here’s to the end
of playing it easy
Here’s to the start of doing the harder thing
until it becomes easy