Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.

Longing for Isaiah’s Light

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.

The Prophet Isaiah

Snow is falling outside my window. In the abstract and theoretical, it is beautiful. The flakes are big – the stuff of fluffy snow, easy to shovel, brilliant for play. A couple of inches have already accumulated. I see it on the ground and the top of our bird feeder. Birds are wisely taking cover – not willing to venture out and gathering in a nearby hedge.

Outside my window, downtown Boston – usually easily seen at this hour, is hidden by the clouds and fog of this winter storm. Inside the contrast is palpable as white lights cast a welcome glow on this grey morning. The dark and fog are kept at bay, not allowed in infringe on the light in our home.

I am lost in thought, wordless longing in my heart. It’s an other-earthly longing – a longing for wholeness, for wrong to be made right, for the broken to be fixed, for the hurt to be healed, for my own soul to rest instead of restlessly wander.

How weary we all grow from tragedies – the only thing that seems to connect us in this disconnected world. And even tragedies bring on the cynics and the tragedy police, willing all of us to grieve more than we are able when the crisis happened half a world away.

How I long for Isaiah’s light. How I long for the light to dawn. Like a sleepless night where I just can’t wait until the clock tells me it’s time to get up, like an endless trip where I can’t wait to land, like a boring talk or class that I think will never end – no, none of those do justice to the deep longing for a world to be made right and the light to dawn. It’s a longing all its own.

I look over at the white lights, noting how their glow creates warmth and hope on this grey day. This is what light does. It illuminates, it radiates, it brings hope. This is why we long for Isaiah’s light.

This longing for Isaiah’s light takes me into the New Year, urges me on to a faith that is based not on an ideology, a mantra, or a dogma, but on a person. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Isaiah’s light, a light that shines in the darkness – a light worth staking my life on. The day is still grey, but the light shines on.

A Friday Prayer

The peach looked beautiful. It had the feel of a peach that was ripe but not too ripe and it smelled perfect. Inside it was rotten to the core. I discovered this as I was cutting it into slices.

So beautiful on the outside, so rotten on the inside.

How like the United States, with its rhetoric of greatness and it’s perfect exterior. Well trimmed lawns, good highways, fancy buildings, plenty of goods for consumers, coffee shops by the thousands, grocery stores by the million, parades and protection are all a part of the eye candy that is the U.S. Yet it takes but a moment of digging to uncover the rotten interior. From rates of abortion to treatment of foreigners we live in a society consumed by self and misguided protection. We daily watch men and women with little soul and even less integrity mismanage a nation in crisis.

Bullet holes in black boys haunt our collective psyche as we try to dismiss of racism. We hear the cries of children ripped from moms in wombs and at borders, breastfed babies panting for milk from mothers who are nowhere to be found. Pride and corruption are rampant and the innocent struggle for justice.

Cries of “I can’t breathe!” fall on our ears. Coffins fill with black bodies and we try to justify this by focusing on rioting and violence, claiming they are not the way to handle this. How dare we. How dare I. We listen to the voices of white theologians and dismiss the voices of prophetic black theologians, because they might make us uncomfortable. How dare we! How dare I!*

Like the Old Testament prophets we cry “How long O Lord? How long?

Tears dry on faces that look up to the Son for justice.

We plead the cause of the orphan, the immigrant, the falsely accused, the unborn who were never given a chance, the dead who can no longer speak.

We plead and we pray.

May we allow the surgery of confession and repentance to root out the rotten core. May we fall on our knees in humility and repentance. May we see with eyes of justice and love with hearts of compassion. May we act with hands of mercy and speak with lips of wisdom. May we pray for our leaders and for ourselves.

May we, like the prophet Micah, do justly, love mercy, and Walk humbly with our God.

Amen and Amen

*This paragraph was added 5/29/2020.

God of the Displaced and Exiled

Oh God of the displaced and exiled,

Hear the prayers of those in limbo.

Wipe the tears of mothers who parent children without a home.

Feed those who are hungry; keep safe those who are in danger.

Give strength to the helpers and the healers; to those who work tirelessly for justice.

Give us the spirit of courage and not fear that we might welcome the stranger in our midst.

Root out lazy prejudice that would block us from receiving those in need.

Give us ears to hear the voices that cry out in desperation, making impossible choices for their families.

Consume the conscience of lawmakers and policy enforcers with the holy fire of compassion, that they may open their hearts and their borders to those desperate for shelter.

Remind us that your prophets spoke words many years ago that are still true today; remind us that you have always cared for the oppressed, have always urged your people to care for the displaced and exiled.

Oh God hear my prayer for the displaced and the exile.

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”*


All week my heart has been aching for those displaced. This morning my brother Dan sent me an article that the United States is on track to admit less refugees than it has since the beginning of the refugee program in 1980. There is simply no excuse. With the resources we have and the crisis being what it is, there is no excuse.

*Daniel 9:19

Be Still and Create

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“In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.”

Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness


I sit on my couch, coffee beside me, mindlessly playing a game on my iPhone. This has never been a problem for me before, but it is now.  I was the one that never succumbed to this kind of mindless drivel. I would create through writing, decorating, or planning innovative public health programs.  Now, even when I have time I struggle to focus; struggle to keep any sort of disciplined schedule.  As I play the game, my mind wanders. It wanders to my mom, a recent widow; to one of my children who is going through a crisis; and then on to other more mundane worries. They all have one thing in common: they are out of my control. What is in my control is pressing five red squares linked together. This will create a rocket, and with that little rocket, I will win this game and claim victory over a machine. And then I will do it again, and again, and again.  Until I don’t win, and I restlessly realize that I have just spent an unthinkable amount of time on a phone game.

In The Art of Stillness, author Pico Iyer talks about how many people in Silicon Valley try to observe an internet Sabbath. People take a 24 to 48 hour break from their online jobs creating high tech instruments and content so they can relax and reboot. Employees take this time so that they are at maximum creativity when they return. They rest so they can create programs that keep us, their ever-willing customers, online all the time. It is a profound irony that someone somewhere may have taken an internet Sabbath and then created a game that I now sit and play for hours. I squander my moments of stillness and with it, my ability to create.

I have run out of lives on my game, and so I wait. I wait and I think about what it means to be still; what it means to renew my mind and soul so that I will pay attention; so that I will have both the desire and the will to create.


I live in a city that goes to bed late and gets up in the early morning hours. My first activity as I leave my apartment is to walk 15 minutes to the subway. Noise is immediate and continuous. It’s in the train engine roaring, in people having conversations, in the homeless population at Central Square, sometimes insulting each other and other times laughing, but always loud. I travel three stops to my office in downtown Boston, the busiest section of the city. The pace and demands are relentless, wordlessly declaring that being still is an absurd impossibility. And this creeps into my subconscious mind, so that even when I have time, I have bought into the lie that being still is impossible.

Yet all around, I see evidence of how being still creates life. The small purple flowers of crocuses have just emerged from a still earth.  The brown branches of long dormant forsythia have given birth to brilliant yellow flowers.  Budding trees and bushes join this holy movement and add their pops of color against a grey April sky and cold sterile buildings.  After months of stillness, spring bursts forth like an artist who has taken a sabbatical and moves on to create her greatest work of art.

It is the work of a God whose infinite creativity spoke a world into being, who marked off the dimensions of the earth’s foundations as morning stars sang.

“Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you possess understanding!
Who set its measurements—if you know—
or who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its bases set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
when the morning stars sang in chorus,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”*

Between marking off the measurements of the earth’s foundations and laying its cornerstone, was God still? Did he create, and then sit in stillness, communing with members of the Trinity, only to go back days, months, and years later and create more? Has stillness always been a part of creation?

Be still, and breathe.

Be still, and create.

Be still, and bring life.

Be still, and know God.


The lives on the game have refreshed. I pause a minute and realize that what I long for, this game cannot give. Only taking a time to be still will equip me to write the words I long to write, to create the programs I long to create.  I reluctantly shut off my phone, the hardest step in the process of disengaging from what has become my adult pacifier. Outside the city is still. Inside, I sit in stillness, my own communion with the holy Trinity. This moment is perhaps the most creative thing I will do today, but it is a start and it is enough.


*Job 38: 4-7 NET

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How Long?

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Earlier in the week, Boston could not shake the heavy fog that lay heavy in the air, covering the tops of buildings like thick grey smoke. It dulled my mind and all I seemed able to do was trudge through life.

How long will this fog go on, I wondered silently, the weather deeply embedded in my psyche.

Even as the sunshine came through in all its blue-skied glory, the fog inside stayed.

How long?

How long O Lord? How long will tragedy break us? How long will we shed tears over those we love? How long will those who perpetrate evil continue? How long?

I was deep in inner fog as I walked from work to the subway last night. The station was crowded as I rounded the corner to catch my train. But there to the side lay a woman on the floor. She had just fallen and another woman was crouched beside her. I stopped, and a couple of us helped the woman up. She was small and elderly, wearing a heavy jacket along with the dazed look that comes with a fall. She spoke no English, and as we helped her to a seat, we were not sure if we should call an ambulance or just wait.

She made it clear that she wanted to catch the next train, so we helped her across the gap and onto an incoming train. As we were sitting with her and attempting to communicate, we discovered that both the woman who had fallen and the initial helper spoke Mandarin. She offered to walk the woman to her apartment building, and the last I saw of them they were slowly walking toward the exit, talking with their heads bent close together.

Something about the entire event felt so incomparably sad and hopeful. Like the Psalmist, who in one breath says how long, and in the next proclaims hope. How long will we slip and fall? How long will we feel the pain of loss and betrayal? How long will we pray for healing?

And yet – there is hope. There is hope in strangers and passers by; there is hope through a phone call to a friend; there is hope in the messy emotions of the Psalms. There is hope in sunshine after fog; hope in pregnancy after miscarriage, hope in restoration after betrayal. And when there is not sunshine, when new life does not come, when restoration is not realized? There is still unreasonable, glorious hope.

How long?

As long as Good Friday gives way to Great and Holy Saturday. As long as Great and Holy Saturday prepares the way for the light of Pascha. As long as there is life, there is still hope.


“How Long, Lord? …. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.”*

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Aeschylus


*From Psalm 13

A View from Above

Bab Zuweila

Bab ZuweilaTwin minarets

In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from a thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.

Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.

You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of tiny people, walking about as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar and even from this distance, you can see the beautiful colors.

It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.

Lent is a time to step back and step up; a time to see the view from above. 

That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.

That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.

Whether we live in the shadows of a Hindu temple or near the courtyard of a grand cathedral; in a small village or are one of millions in a large, modern city, we know what it is to see poverty and suffering, crime and inequality, evil and difficult circumstances. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.
“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias

Note: This piece has been adapted from a piece written for A Life Overseas.

Forgiveness Sunday and Housecleaning my Soul

“We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from others, but should link us to them with ever-stronger bonds”. [source]

Every two weeks I have house cleaners come into our home. They come in with their high-powered vacuum and buckets. They come in with energy and determination. And then they clean. They clean places that I wouldn’t think of, they polish and they dust and they scrub. When they are finished, the whole apartment sparkles. It smells good and it looks good. Everything comes under their scrutiny and cleaning tools. I love the days that these house cleaners come.


In my faith tradition, Today is “Forgiveness Sunday”. Forgiveness Sunday is set aside every year to remind us of God’s great forgiveness toward us. It also reminds us that because God forgives, we can forgive.

Forgiveness Sunday is the last Sunday before Great Lent begins. The focus is on two things: Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, which really means their exile from direct communion with God, and our need to forgive and be reconciled to others. The two have more in common than we might think at first glance.

The practical application of Forgiveness Sunday is not easy, either physically or spiritually. In a special service we go to each member of our parish and prostrate ourselves before them saying: “Forgive me, a Sinner.” Their response is “God forgives so I forgive. Good Lent.” At the end of the evening you are physically exhausted and spiritually humbled.

It takes a lot to ask for forgiveness.It is a humbling experience to say “Please forgive my for any offense.” It is even more difficult when there are specific things that need to be named. But once done, the sense of relief overwhelms all the other feelings.

Forgiveness Sunday is the beginning of housecleaning the soul, a process that takes place in my life during Lent. During Lent, the dirt of envy is cleaned, the dust of resentment is uncovered and cleared away, the filthiness of hatred and unforgiveness is exposed and wiped out, the refuse of malice is put into the garbage. My soul undergoes a process that is grueling and freeing.

And so the journey of Lent begins.


How Do You Draw Mercy?

dock into ocean mercy of God

If you were asked to draw a picture of mercy what would you draw? How would you take the tools of pencil and paper and use them to craft a concept like mercy? Would you draw an event in your life; an event where you were shown mercy and after that you would never be the same? How do you draw mercy?

But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.” William Langland

Though crafted with words and not a drawing, this quote has given me a picture of mercy that I never want to forget. I found the quote through Madeleine L’engle’s book One Live Coal to the Sea; a book where she explores mercy in the life of a family. Mercy in the midst of evil and dysfunction; mercy despite selfishness and betrayal; mercy when life demands justice.

In the midst of life’s journey, in the middle of hearing, seeing or thinking about evil, it is easy to forget the mercy of God. Mercy for apathetic teens and adults, mercy for passionate teenagers shot out of evil intent, mercy (dare I say it) for the men who shot her, mercy for me.

Today I picture that live coal, burning hot; a coal that can ignite a fire or burn a body, causing great pain and damage. And I picture that red, hot coal hitting the vast ocean where it can no longer do damage; where it is overcome by something so much more powerful. It is so far beyond my understanding, so much bigger than I could ever imagine. Evil confronted by the mercy of God and in that confrontation losing its power — one live coal to the sea.

How do you draw mercy?

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8

Advent Reflection – Silence and Liminal Spaces

When I wake in the early morning I am always struck that our home is silent. There are no voices raised in conversation; no arguments, no agreements. There is no music, no sound of chopping or mixing from the kitchen, no sound of running water.

Of course if I really listen I hear noise from the traffic on Memorial Drive a few blocks away. I hear noise from household helpers – a refrigerator’s hum of activity; radiators spluttering, working hard to bring heat to the house, the low-pitch of an electric heater.

Actually, it’s not really silent at all. There is activity, there is movement, there is work being done.

It’s this I think about when I think about what I’ve always thought to be the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments.

Was it really 400 years of silence?

I don’t think so.  Just because we aren’t privy to details and many recorded conversations does not mean that God was silent. God did not stop working, because he never stops writing his story.

People were longing for the Messiah, but in their longing they continued to hear God. Priests in the temple continued to serve faithfully, to pray, to worship God and seek to know more. The human heart continued to long for God, continued to seek God, and continued to find God.

Those four hundred years were a beautiful, liminal space; a threshold to a new beginning. It was the time between what was, and what would be.

In my life I am too quick to dismiss liminal spaces, too hasty in wanting the next thing. But so much can happen in the space between.

Richard Rohr, a theologian and Franciscan friar says this about liminal spaces:

“We keep praying that our illusions will fall away. God erodes them from many sides, hoping they will fall. But we often remain trapped in what we call normalcy—“the way things are.” Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers. It can be a pretty circular and even nonsensical existence.

To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin.

Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way.

This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.”*

Simeon and Anna were two people that lived a long time in that liminal space. It was this space and seeking that allowed them to know the Christ Child when they saw him.

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

    you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation,

    which you have prepared in the sight of all nations, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”**


Many of us are in the liminal spaces right now, the time between the “just ended” and the “not yet begun.” I think of this as I sit beside a tree, lights glowing, providing a protection against the grey of the day. Is this the sacred space of God’s waiting room”? I wait to see.

*Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), 155-156.

**Luke 2:29-32

Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn

In Memory:Ralph Edward Brown, June 7,1926 – October 24,2017


On June 7th, in 1926, a baby boy was born to a family in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was fourth in the family, joining three sisters, a mom and a dad. Two years later his youngest sister was born and the family was complete. He was named Ralph Edward Brown and he is our father and grandfather. 

His mother–the original Annie Hall–struggled to nurse him. He seemed unable to take either breast milk or regular formula and almost died. It was the milk man, aware of the concern of the family, who suggested to Annie that she try sweetened condensed milk. Having nothing to lose, she diluted this in a bottle and to everyone’s astonishment and as though ordained by God, he survived and thrived. All his life he claimed that he owed his love for sweet things to his early diet.

At four years old, tragedy struck the family with the death of his father during a hospitalization for a broken leg. Annie, left with five children and a broken heart, raised the family with grit and grace during an era when life was not kind to a widow and her children. He recalled a community of friends and relatives, many from Morningside Baptist Church in Pittsfield, who walked alongside the family during this time.

Ralph grew into a young man with a personality and character as large as his smile. He entered the Air Force branch of the military on graduation from high school, but instead of flying planes and braving enemy combatants, by his own admission he spent his entire military experience in bureaucratic paperwork, filling out tedious forms in triplicate. Two years later thanks to the GI bill he was able to attend Gordon College, at the time a Bible college in the Fenway area of Boston, and it was there that he met his life-long love, Pauline. Pauline evidently stole his heart after a couple of “Joyces” and perhaps a “Ruthanne” – he has never been totally clear on this. They were married in 1951, sixty six years ago this year, amidst mountain laurel and a host of relatives and friends.

They welcomed their first-born on March 16th, 1953 – a boy, Edward Ralph and a year and a half later their lives dramatically changed. 1954 had them taking a 3-week journey by ship to a country that would become their home for the next 35 years, the country of Pakistan. Ralph became as comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor in a Marwari village and eating onion curry as he was preaching from the pulpit at Morningside Baptist, followed by a pot-luck church supper. Over the next few years, they also added Stanley, Thomas, Marilyn and Daniel, followed by seventeen grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren — so far.  

In 91 years of life there are many stories. Some are known by your children, while others remain untold. If we wrote all our stories and memories, this memorial service would be tediously long instead of a loving tribute. But there are three things that our dad and grandpa has held to in his life. His love of God, his love of family and his love for fun. From his legendary ability to swish a basketball through the hoop from the midway point on the court to his absolute consistency in an alcohol-free lifestyle; from discussing ordination of women to discussing infant baptism; from his first granddaughter Melanie to his last grandson, Jonathan, he has remained a steady, Godly example and force in a world that often shifts with the wind.  

In his years since moving to Rochester, he has settled in here, made many friends, and treasured and valued many friendships that he found here. The whole family is so thankful to the people at Ridgeland community church, for giving them a church home, and for Browncroft Community church for giving them a second church home. 

During the nine months of struggle with the illness to which he finally succumbed, Ralph continued to treasure the friends, family, and all of the fellow believers who together have made a home for Mom and Dad here in Rochester.  

While his last months were a struggle, he got to see his youngest grandson graduate from college, his granddaughter get married, and to see two great grandchildren that he hadn’t yet met. 

Every night, his good night began with words of thanksgiving. And, while his last words were ’Tom, I don’t think I can make it’ (meaning to the breakfast table), we know that in those last steps and last breaths of his life, he was carried to eternity in the arms of his Lord. He lived out the words of one of his favorite hymns:


In Christ alone my hope is found;

He is my light, my strength, my song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all–

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

Soul Care and the Reconstruction Process

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When you live in a city you cannot avoid the ever-present construction/reconstruction process. Cranes, detours, iconic orange cones, and construction workers with yellow hard hats and vests are a part of the city landscape.

Healthy cities know that to continue to serve both residents and visitors, they need to repair, construct, and reconstruct. City planning has to allow for growth and change, and sometimes change comes through reconstruction.

The Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston has been under reconstruction for the past three years. It’s a lengthy process. The work takes place steel rod by steel rod and plank by plank with skilled workers supervising and doing the work. When the work is complete, it will be ready to sustain the heavy traffic of cars, trucks, and trains.

Ultimately, the work won’t be noticeable to any lay people. We will just use the bridge and remember back to the time when it was being fixed, and perhaps inconvenient to our travel plans. While cities try to minimize the inconvenience, they know that not doing the needed reconstruction will ultimately prove far more inconvenient.

Sometimes the only way to make things better is to fix them, to reconstruct them.

And so it is with our souls. There are times when our souls need to be under construction and reconstruction, when that is the only way for them to withstand the constant force of life in all its uncertainty.

I heard once at a conference that our “churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal”. This is part of the reconstruction process — realizing that your soul needs to heal and the wisest thing to do is to allow time for the reconstruction and healing process to take place.

our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to healTweet: our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal

A number of years ago my husband and I went through an extended period of healing, an extended reconstruction period. It lasted over six years. During that time we did nothing beyond attending church and getting together with safe friends. We didn’t take part in any Bible Studies, we were not involved in any ‘ministry’, we did no service. We went through a season of healing and it was invaluable.

Besides achieving the desired result of healing and reconstructing, we learned several things.

1. We learned that we were far more use to God as people willing to be healed than we would have been had we tried to maintain a façade. The Psalmist David in a prayer of repentance says: “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” He speaks to the mercy of God, his loving kindness, the bones that God has broken. God has never, and will never, despise a broken and contrite heart. It’s the heart of the proud and the deceitful that concerns him far more.

2. We learned that our worth was not, and never will be, in what we do. Church service, ‘ministry’, getting involved – none of that is wrong. In fact, when done out of love for God it is a gift to be used for his glory. But it does not constitute our worth. Our worth is in this: That we are made in the image of God, his creation, his love. Distorted theology about our worth, thinking it is about what we do rather than who we are, is far more dangerous to the soul than taking time out for healing.

3. We came to realize that when you go through a season of healing, God brings people into your life who are broken and need to hear that there is redemption, there is healing. Even in the midst of the hardest parts of healing, we would meet people who needed to know there was hope, needed to know we were also walking the long, arduous path called ‘healing’. Perhaps broken seeks out broken? I like to think that the broken intuitively sense that they can learn best from those also willing to go through the reconstruction process.

4. We learned that the words ‘ministry’ will never be synonymous with ‘God’, and when we make it so, we are in a state of serious delusion. If we are not careful, ‘ministry’ becomes God. The word itself is held up as the ideal, instead of God himself being the ideal and ministry the result of our love for him. Defined as ‘the one that serves’ we can see ministry for what it is – not an end in itself, simply a way to reflect a love of God.

5. Mostly we learned that God is close to the broken-hearted. He cared not about our lack of service, he cared about our souls. Deeply, urgently, consistently he worked in our souls to reconstruct them to His Glory. The cuts that we sustained by his hand during the healing process were cuts of a gifted surgeon, done only to rid us of what would harm. And oh how they hurt, how they smarted. But when all was done, when surgery ended, the dead tissue was gone, only the healthy remained.

While a major construction and healing period is over, we are still ever aware of our fragility and propensity to go out on our own, thinking our souls are fully fixed. But the reality is somewhat different. Just as the Longfellow Bridge will go through this extended reconstruction period and emerge stronger, it will always have its points of weakness, its need for inspections and regular upkeep.

Like the reconstruction of the bridge, the reconstruction of our souls may not be visible to the lay person. But we know, regardless of what the outsider may observe, that ultimately not being willing to have our souls reconstructed would bring damage beyond what the eye is capable of seeing.

As I pass the bridge today it is early morning and still dark. If I strain my eyes I can see that construction workers are already present, ready to continue this important work of keeping a bridge safe and useable.

It is early morning and still dark, but God is present, ready to continue this important work of keeping me safe and useable in this beautiful and continual work of reconstruction. 


Note: This post has been revised from a piece written four years ago.

A Fight to Live

On Sunday afternoons we observe post liturgical nap time. It is a sacred time where the apartment is absolutely still as we go to our respective spots and either nap, read, or rest in general. We have done this as long as we have been married and I don’t believe it will ever change.

This Sunday I curled up on our impossibly soft couch with an article in the New Yorker called “The Death Treatment”. What is normally a restful time was interrupted by a chilling read.

The article centers around the story of Godeleiva and Tom, a mother and a son in Belgium. In September of 2011 Godeleiva sent an email to her son and daughter telling them that she had filed an euthanasia request with a Doctor Wim Distelmans and was waiting the results. Her reason? Psychological distress. She had been in therapy since she was 19 years old and was now 63. She was done, finished – it was time to die.

Wim Distelmans, a Belgian oncologist, has become a sort of celebrity in Belgium. His accomplishments are not artistic, though some may call them so; instead he is seen as one who is promoting a “tremendous liberation” for promoting assisted suicide as a human right. He lectures across the country – at clinics, schools, and even at cultural centers.

When Tom received the email declaring his mother’s intent, he talked to his supervisor who basically told him there was no way Distelmans would approve the request without first talking to the family. But the next time Tom heard from his mother was the day after she was euthanized. He received a letter written in past tense saying she donated her body to science. The rest of the article dives deeply into the Belgian law and it’s intersection with Tom’s personal story and his struggle to come to terms with his mother’s decision.

The practical implications of the law in Belgium gave me an icy chill and at one point I thought I might have to stop reading the article.

In the past five years, the number of euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands has doubled, and in Belgium it has increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.

The laws seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions. Patrick Wyffels, a Belgian family doctor, told me that the process of performing euthanasia, which he does eight to ten times a year, is “very magical.” 

I know people with all those illnesses and disease states. I know them and I love them. They teach me much about what it is to live well in the midst of suffering.

For terminal illnesses, the Belgian law requires that two physicians consult on the case while the non-terminal cases require three. But, the article states, doctors are applying “increasingly loose interpretations of disease”.  Indeed, 13 percent of those euthanized in 2014 did not have a terminal illness.

“We at the commission are confronted more and more with patients who are tired of dealing with a sum of small ailments—they are what we call ‘tired of life.’ ”* 


Six hours from Boston, in the city of Rochester, New York, a man I love very much is nearing the end of his life. He is 91 years old and he is my father, my dad. He has a cough that stuns the onlooker and his body is weakening by the day. He can no longer do the things he loves, the things he has done his entire life – some simple, like driving, others more involved, like traveling across the country and the world.

Yet, despite his body betraying him, he continues to fight to live. “We live by degrees – we die by degrees.” As long as he has breath he will fight to live. He sees life as a gift, a gift from God. He does not see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, but something that can, and is, redeemed. He does not see suffering as a mistake, an omission of God’s love, but a place where his love can shine through.

“Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known…That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”**

My dad is suffering, but he is still living. Because living matters. Because my dad’s story matters. Because my dad’s story is not complete on this earth until God says it’s complete, until he enters into the glorious grace and arms of his Father and hears the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”


As I finished the article, the light was fading into dusk. Autumn’s soft chill had me wrapped in a blanket and light from both outside and in bathed the room in a soft glow. My mind was alive with thoughts and feelings of life and of death. I often struggle with tears as I think about the universal suffering in the world and the personal suffering of individuals. But as I thought about the article I had just read and contrasted it to my father’s fight to live, I had a moment of crystal clarity: My dad’s fight to live is a beautiful grace.  

“I do not feel like I have the courage for this journey, but I have Jesus—and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us—carry us in ways we cannot comprehend.” from Kara Tippetts

*From the article: Although their suffering derives from social concerns as well as from medical ones, Distelmans said that he still considers their pain to be incurable. 

Evil is Real – So what do we do?


“Evil is real – and powerful. It has to be fought, not explained away, not fled. And God is against evil all the way. So each of us has to decide where we stand, how we’re going to live our lives. We can try to persuade ourselves that evil doesn’t exist; live for ourselves and wink at evil. We can say that it isn’t so bad after all, maybe even try to call it fun by clothing it in silks and velvets. We can compromise with it, keep quiet about it and say it’s none of our business. Or we can work on God’s side, listen for His orders on strategy against the evil, no matter how horrible it is, and know that He can transform it.”*

Lord Have Mercy.


Where do we go during times like this, when evil stalks and lurks? Where do we go when the world feels crazy and safety is as illusive as winning the lottery? What do we do? Where do we go? How do we respond?

I have become tired of judging others for reactions that are just as valid as mine. We create a people’s court, judging the hearts of people by the status of their social media pages. As though judging the hearts of others will add comfort to the situation.

Evil is not the final word.

I have written about evil before, and my words grow stale in the face of more and more tragedies. But I am compelled to continue to write. I am compelled to continue to feel through writing.

“The extreme greatness in Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it” says Simone Weil. 

So I go to the words of Scripture, knowing that they have brought comfort through the ages to men and women who have faced evil, men and women who have gone through suffering and lived to write about it.

They all have one thing in common, and it’s something that I think about as I write. 

They all knew that evil wouldn’t win.** 

Note: post has been updated since first published with excerpts from Evil is Not the Final Word. 

*Catherine Marshall in Christy

Life as Story

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“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.

Early this summer, I read the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a Boston-based doctor, researcher, and author, famous for books that have transformed the medical world, specifically The Checklist Manifesto, Better, and Complications.

Being Mortal is the first of Gawande’s books that I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. He is a brilliant, gifted story teller, and the stories of people at the end of their lives that are woven through Being Mortal touch the deep parts of my soul. In short, he accomplishes what he sets out to do: recognize what it is to be a human, designed for life but trapped in a finite body.

But this post is not a review of what is without doubt a fine book; instead I am struck by his emphasis on life as story.

At one point while I was growing up, there was an emphasis at my boarding school on finding the “perfect will of God”. As a teenager, this became incredibly important to me. How could I find that perfect will? How could I know that my every decision would lead me into that perfect will of God? I prayed fervently and breathed deep sighs of relief during those times when I felt I had “found” that perfect will. Like treasure buried deep beneath the earth, one had to dig hard to find that perfect will. It was elusive. Others seemed to find it, but not me.

In later years I came to see this from a completely different perspective. I came to see my journey with God as far bigger than finding God’s perfect will. Because who of us can know that perfection? We are told in the scriptures that we “see through a glass dimly” and “know in part”. I began to realize that finding God’s perfect will was not what the Christian life or Gospel message is about. Instead, it is understanding that life is story, and God in his infinite love has us and redemption at the center of the story.

When our lives are reduced to a quest for a perfect will or a series of decisions, they become mediocre. As Gawande says “Life is meaningful because it is a story.”

When my Christian life is reduced to a series of dos and don’ts, then it becomes mediocre and joyless. Just as I struggled in high school when I was anxiously searching to find the perfect will of God, I struggle thinking that if I don’t do the right thing at the right time, I will fall under God’s disapproving stare. I will then either anxiously try to do the right thing to please him, or I will ignore him alltogether. Neither option is palatable. They are both exhausting and defeating.

Because here is what I’ve come to know: God has written a story, a love story, and that love story has people at its center. Our lives are a story within the Greatest Story. While dos and don’ts diminish the story, understanding the Author’s great love for us enhances it.

Life as story is deeply comforting. It takes pressure off me. I stop seeing life as a series of events and choices, of dos and don’ts and begin to see the beauty of a narrative. When I reclaim my Christian faith as a story, I re-discover its beauty.

It makes me want to live the best story possible. 

“There are plenty of true doctrines and right ethics [in the Bible], of course, but they come within the larger thing, which is the story of how the Creator is rescuing and restoring the whole creation, with his rescue and restoration of humans at the heart of it.” NT Wright

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It’s Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be

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Friends, my youngest cousin tragically lost her husband just a day ago. My heart is breaking for her and her two littles. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. They are a young family and my heart hurts thinking of the grief and loss that they are experiencing. He leaves behind so many who will mourn his death.

One of the ways I can best show love to people is through writing. So today, I dedicate this to Jayna, my beautiful cousin and her sweet girls.

If you are one who prays, can you pray for this family? I have included more information here. 


“It’s not the way it’s supposed to be” – the cry of the mother whose child has been shot in a kindergarten class on a seemingly normal Friday in December, presents already purchased, hidden in a closet in anticipation of a Christmas morning. The “hurry up! we’re going to be late” already a memory of the day. The “make sure you tie your shoe laces, don’t forget your lunch, honey you can’t wear that shirt, it’s dirty” now poignant reminders of a life that was, that is no longer.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The cry of the husband burying his wife and little one – deaths from a complicated childbirth; the cry of the husband who buried his 28-year old wife, dead from a brain tumor; the cry of the young woman who watched her husband die on their honeymoon; the cry of the mother of a soldier – killed during the war on terror; the cry of thousands of mothers in Afghanistan and Syria – all of whom have watched a child die.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

And the cries echo toward the Heavens, in agony, in fear, in anger, in the deepest grief imaginable to man. And the throat catches, and the grief is wordless and boundless and rips the soul, the Whys and the Hows echoing all around. Hearts broken with grief, words of “how can we go one? how will we heal?” whispered through sleepless nights.

And on this day I look up and shout toward Heaven “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” And in the quiet, still of the morning, He whispers in my heart “I know child, I know.”

And so “I lay my ‘whys’ before your cross — In worship kneeling. My mind too numb for thought. My heart beyond all feeling. And worshiping realize that I – in knowing You, don’t need a ‘why’. “*

poem by Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham.

Turning Away from Glory

 

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We climbed out of the car on Saturday night to a dark sea of shining stars. The night was clear and perfect, there was no light pollution to block our view. “Let’s lay on our backs and look at the stars!” said my younger daughter. The 25 year-old negotiated with the 57 year-old and we opted for chairs on an upstairs balcony. We settled in and gazed upward. All those glorious stars, light years from where we were. We argued whether we saw the Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt, finally laughing that it really didn’t matter. What mattered were those moments of just stopping and staring at that beautiful, dark sky. Minutes passed but still we stared and talked and stared some more. There was something both glorious and deeply comforting about recognizing our smallness against the vastness of the universe.

The sky clouded over and we went back inside, back to our evening, back to life before the stars.


Yesterday in the United States, all eyes turned from the usual sharing of outrageous news stories to stories and video footage of the eclipse of the sun. It was a refreshing change.

This was history in the making and I would not miss it. I followed the clock and knew that in Boston the moon would cross the sun around 2:40 in the afternoon. I almost missed it. I was at a meeting when my eye glanced at the bottom of a computer screen and saw the time. I jumped up. “It’s the eclipse!” I said. I rushed out of the room and my colleagues told me I had missed some of it. “But it’s not too late! They’re sharing glasses downstairs. Go. Run.”

The collective enthusiasm propelled me quickly downstairs. In front of our building was a crowd passing around a couple of pairs of glasses. Someone passed them to me. I put them on and I looked up.

It was amazing. We were not in the line of totality and the day was bright around us, but still, looking through those dark glasses and viewing the eclipse was incredible. The sun looked like a bright crescent moon in a dark sky. I watched as the crescent moon sun got smaller and then grew bigger and bigger. I passed off the glasses to someone else. They went around to two more people and then came back to me. I put them on again and the crescent moon sun had become an oblong. After my third viewing I knew I needed to return upstairs, back to my meeting, back to life before the eclipse.


I am not naturally given to star-gazing or eclipse-watching. My heart bends toward daylight and sunshine. When it is dark outside I want to transform the dark into light with white lights and candles. But these two moments of star-gazing and eclipse-watching were moments that I needed. They were glimpses of glory in the midst of the mundane. They were a caution to pride and a call to humility. 

Yet, even as I sat there, I knew I didn’t want to sit there forever. Instead, I was ready. Ready to get back to life’s normal. For how long can we sustain the glorious? In our earthly bodies we fear the glorious, fear that it will paralyze, or worse, kill us. The glorious is so far above and beyond us that we cover our eyes – if not with dark glasses, then with our hands.

In her essay “Total Eclipse”, Annie Dillard writes “One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.” 


In the book of Exodus in the Old Testament there is a chapter where Moses is having a conversation with God on Mount Sinai. He wants assurance that God will go with him; the assurance of God’s presence with the people of Israel. He says to God “Show me your glory!” God responds in these verses:

“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence…But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” …“There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” 

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, people were afraid of him because his face was radiant. It reflected the glory of God. 

A second-century theologian, St. Irenaeus, wrote that “the glory of God is a man fully alive.” Moses was indeed a man fully alive.

Maybe, as Annie Dillard describes, if we weren’t so quick to turn away from glory and run back home; maybe if we were more willing to ask God to show us his glory, and then to sit in it, we, too, would be fully alive.

Our faces would be radiant, for they would reflect the glory of God.