Spirit-Streams

Streams of thought and reflections about life;
from God's heart to mine; from my heart to yours.

Helen and Joe 

“Hemorrhoids.” 

“I’m sorry, what?” Helen said, burying her face in the menu. It’s just like my Joe to embarrass me in an elegant restaurant like Tony’s. I’d have thought after 49 years I’d be used to it. 

“Hemorrhoids!” Joe said, this time loud enough for the surrounding tables to hear. 

Helen lifted her face slightly and eyed him over the top of her glasses. He wasn’t smiling. “Where do you see that on the menu?” she asked. 

“It’s not on the menu,” Joe said, looking frustrated. 

“Well, thank God for small favors. Maybe they can special order them for you.” The young blonde at the table behind Joe snorted, trying to stifle her laugh. 

“I don’t want hemorrhoids!” Joe said, and this time several heads turned. He lowered his voice. “That’s not what I’m talking about.” 

“I’m certain I don’t want them either, dear. What are you talking about?” 

He turned his attention back to the menu and said, “Virginia’s son, Ethan, is having hemorrhoid surgery. She needs us to watch Buster so she can take him to the hospital.” 

Helen lowered her menu and looked at Joe. His grey hair was still thick and wavy, and he kept it meticulously trimmed. The same with his eyebrows which were full but manicured. His black framed glasses gave him the look of a well read, intelligent man, Helen thought, matched by the confident way in which he held himself. The blue herringbone jacket he had chosen for this evening, with his red and blue striped tie made him quite handsome for his eighty-one years. After half a century of marriage, Helen could not imagine ever loving someone as much as Joe. Which is why his last statement struck her so hard. 

“Joe dear,” she said gently. “Virginia’s been dead for fifteen years. You know that, don’t you?” 

He looked at her for a moment, confused, then glanced around the room. Without a word, he turned back to the menu. He scanned it, and a moment later said “I’m thinking of having the salmon. I’ve always liked the salmon here.” 

You’ve never liked the salmon here. 

Helen reflected on the first time her mother showed signs. It was just a word at first. She called me Lillian. Granted, it’s not unusual that someone would misspeak a name, but Aunt Lillian had been gone for some time. I let it go by. It wasn’t long before she told me she’d been working at the factory. Not in your condition, I thought. And not since you retired 20 years ago. 

Helen’s thoughts were interrupted by Joe’s complaints. 

“Is he ever going to come back and take our order? It’s been at least twenty minutes. You would think in a place like this they would be more attentive.” 

“I know you’re hungry dear,” Helen said with a wrinkled brow. “But I don’t think it’s been nearly twenty minutes. Why don’t you have a roll to hold you? You know the rolls here are always fresh.” 

“Mmm, I guess I could have a roll,” he said in a whiny tone. “But they need to speed up their service, or we’re not coming back. I have to watch my sugar, you know. I’m not feeling too good right now.” 

My beloved curmudgeon, Helen thought. Behind all that grumbling and crusty exterior is just a tender soul wanting to be loved. 

Joe opened a roll and was buttering it. The aroma was exquisite and the butter began to melt almost immediately. 

“My, that smells good, doesn’t it?” Helen said. “I think I’m going to have one too.” 

I’m going to miss my Joe, Helen thought, when the days of confusion come, and the man I knew is no longer the man in front of me. Her stomach tightened. 

But I will always love you. I just hope I can be who you need me to be. I’m not as young as I used to be. And truth be told Joe, I’m a little scared. 

She took a roll from the basket and allowed the heat to warm her hands before breaking it open. 

The waiter approached and stood at the table, leaning forward with his hands clasped. “Are we ready to order?” he asked. He would be taking their requests by memory. 

“About time,” Joe said, barely audible. 

“Yes, we are,” Helen said. “I’ll have the Lobster Newburg, with a Caesar salad and baked potato.” 

“Very good, ma’am.” 

“And my husband Joe will have the hemorrhoids. But no salt. He’s on a restricted diet.” 

Joe shot her a glance. 

The blonde snorted again, then choked on her glass of water. 

“I’m sorry ma’am?” 

“I’m having the salmon,” Joe said, then looking at Helen, “and I can have salt, so don’t leave it out.” 

Helen smiled back. 

No, you can’t, but I’m not fighting you here, not tonight. Enjoy it while you can, Joe. 

“And what would you like for your sides?” 

Joe didn’t answer. He was staring down at the table, his face blank. The waiter gave him a moment, to be polite. 

“Sir, what would you like for your side orders?” 

“He’ll have the baked potato with sour---“ 

“Helen,” Joe said with a scowl, “I can order that myself.” 

“I’m sorry dear. Please, go ahead.” 

The blonde’s eyes went wide. After they finished with their order, she stepped over to Helen. 

“Mrs. Wellington?” 

Helen looked up at the young lady, possibly in her mid-thirties, tastefully attired in a red wrap-around dress and matching diamond earrings and necklace. She searched her face, looking for something familiar. 

“I’m sorry dear. Please forgive me, but I don’t recall your name.” 

“Oh, that’s okay. I would be very surprised if you did. I’m Angelina Stoker. My family lived next door to you about twenty-five years ago. When my mom was hospitalized with cancer, my sister Debbie and I spent about two weeks with you and your husband, until she came home.” 

Helen looked down and searched her memories, her eyes moving back and forth as though reading entries. Her eyes got wide and she looked back at the blonde. 

“Little Angie!” she said. “Oh my goodness, I recognize you now. How are you dear?” 

“I’m great! How are you and Mr. Joe doing?” 

“We’re doing good. It’s our anniversary and this is our favorite place to celebrate.” 

“How sweet. Happy Anniversary! I’m here on business and I always make it a point to eat at Tony’s when I’m in town. Your voice was so familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it until Mr. Joe said your name.” 

“You know dear, that was a very special time back then. I hadn’t thought about it for years. But we did have fun didn’t we?” 

“Oh my goodness! Miniature golf, swimming at the beach, learning to make canolies. But our favorite part was you reading stories to us at night. I’ve never heard anyone who could make a story come alive like you.” 

“Why, thank you Angie! It’s one of my favorite things to do.” 

Joe looked off in the distance, lost in thought. 

“You know, I hadn’t thought about those days in years,” Angie said. “But when I realized who you were, they came back like a flood. And I just wanted you to know, those were probably the best two weeks of my life back then. Even with my mom being sick. You made us feel so loved. And I just had to thank you.” 

Helen’s eyes moistened. “Thank you so much, dear. It was truly our pleasure. We thoroughly enjoyed it ourselves.” 

“Mrs. Helen, I hope you’ll forgive me for eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation earlier. I work with the elderly, and I just wanted to encourage you with something that has greatly encouraged me. And that is, at some point it’s no longer the memories you create. It’s simply the moments you share. Just like the moments you shared with us back then.” 

Helen thanked her and they chatted briefly before Angie had to leave. Their food arrived, and the lobster was delightful. Joe complained about the salmon. She let him rant and just smiled. 

I know I can do this. God knows, I don’t want to do this. But I can do this. I did it with Mother. Even when she couldn’t remember barely fifteen minutes before. Angie was right. It was no longer about the memories we created. That would never be again. It was the beauty of the moment, the priceless treasure of an experience well lived. Deeply enjoyed. Lovingly shared. And yes, too soon forgotten. But with your help God, I can do this.

Novels and Hurricanes 

Imagine the building you currently occupy being flattened to a height that barely reaches your knees. The attic or story above you is now beneath you. Instead of walls two feet away, you see the remains of the gas station across the street. Even worse, imagine being buried beneath the rubble of what used to be your building. Now imagine that for 50 miles around you, nearly every other building is in that same condition, and thousands of your friends, neighbors, and family are dealing with the same devastation, if they are still alive. Trees that would not even budge from the impact of a speeding dump truck are now uprooted, snapped in half, by the brutal pounding of the wind. Welcome to a Category Five hurricane. 

Through the course of the latest cyclones to pummel our country, I’ve read speculations about what kind of message God must be sending to America, with polarized accusations about whom in America the Judge of all men is addressing. Some have said it is God’s warning to conservatives, others paint it as a wake-up call to liberals. I was staunchly on one side of that fence until the writer in me sat down to coffee with the theologian in me, and shared some of his insights about novels. 

In a novel, the destructive assault of a hurricane, or villain, or other crisis, is often not the story per se. It is simply the setting for the story. The real story begins when we see how the hero responds to the crisis. It progresses as we see how the hero is changed by the crisis. And it ends with a message about what a true hero does or learns to do in such a crisis. The message, however subtle, speaks to how we perceive the crisis, and how we respond or should respond armed with that perception. 

With that in mind, perhaps the hurricanes themselves are not the message from God. Perhaps they are only the setting. The real message is about how God’s people respond to the storm, armed with a faith that sees beyond the chaos, into the heart of their Heavenly Father. And the story is the acts of sacrifice, and love, and faith which God’s people demonstrate, even as they also are growing through the tumult. The story is the experience of fervent, answered prayer, and faith working through love. 

Ephesians 3:10-11 explains that “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, the church is displaying to the heavenly company of angels, demons, and saints, what God’s wisdom looks like when it is walked out by His people. And not only to them, but to the people of this world, who can see our good works shining, and thereby glorify our Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16) 

As believers in Christ, indwelt by His Spirit, we are a part of the greatest love story ever told. It is not a story set in the tame, conjured world of a hack fiction writer. But it is the epic masterpiece of the Author of Life, set in the breath-taking, heart stopping, page turning reality of this present age. And Christ, through us and in us, is His message.

Reflections on 9-11 

Sixteen years ago today, our world was forever changed by an attack from the air that stole the lives of thousands of Americans. They had done nothing to provoke or deserve such a vicious assault. With few exceptions, they were not even armed. Those who did carry weapons only did so for local security. They were clerks, technicians, and managers; salesmen and accountants; computer techs and janitors. And yes, they were firefighters and police, who had rushed into a crumbling inferno for the desperate chance of saving what innocent lives they could. 

As I read the variety of tributes, tender and profound, that were posted to social media today, I found myself strangely untouched, uncomfortably too comfortable, if I may ashamedly admit that. My mind was aware of the gravity of the day. My sense of value appreciated the depth of both beauty and evil that was put on display as we watched the events of that cataclysmic September in 2001. Yet my heart felt a disconnect, a distancing from the emotions that are normally present when I reflect on this time. To some degree I felt perplexed. Yet to a deeper degree I felt guilty, even embarrassed about my shallow response. This was a historic moment of exceeding proportions, but my tepid state was barely a blip on my emotional radar. 

My humble confession is, instead, that I found my eyes filling up over the death on September 3rd of some guy named Walter Becker, one of the founding members of the band Steely Dan, whose music I used to bask in, soak in, drink in, as a youth many decades ago. It’s not that I knew Mr. Becker, or that I even knew much about him. It wasn’t that his death was in any way extraordinary, or unique, or even had an impact on my own state of affairs. My daily routine would not be affected in any manner by his passing. 

But it was the fact that some of my closest friends, who used to share that music with me, who used to dream future dreams, and hope distant hopes under the serenade of those tunes had also passed away, far too early, and far too many years ago. It was a reminder that in spite of all that we thought we would enjoy together, life for them had ended long before it should. And as I wept over Walter, I wept in truth over Wilton, and Jay, and Sylvia, and too many other friends or family who never got to see 40, or 50, or 60 years of age. 

And that’s when it crystallized for me. That the lives lost on 9-11, quantified in statistics, honored and remembered on a broad, national platform, were and are grieved as individuals. Individuals with names, with dreams, with families. They were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and grandparents, actively engaged in making a living by serving others with their time and their talents. And the people they use to dream with, and hope with, and plan with, never got to share those dreams, and hopes, and plans with them in the day they were finally fulfilled. At the table of celebration would be an empty chair. And their absence would be carried daily, the sound of their words hushed daily. The touch of their fingers, the glint of their eyes, and the joy of their laughter, missed daily. 

And that, I believe, is the deeper tragedy of the 9-11 attacks. That the lives lost on that fateful day were judged by a few to be mere collateral for political ends. That the breath-taking mystery which every life embodies is anything less than the priceless miracle God intended it to be. That a breathing, caring, human soul can be simply and selfishly dismissed to make a point. 

And now that my own soul has been properly shaken, and my perspective properly adjusted, my heartfelt prayer is that I will gain a greater awe of the handiwork of God that is the person standing in front of me, behind me, or beside me. May my words and actions reflect that true perspective, in honor of the God in whose image those lives were created.

Earth and Stars 

A friend of mine from work recently posted a quote on my wall in Facebook which said “Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble for you are made of stars. A Serbian Proverb” I was fascinated by that quote, and as I prayerfully considered my response, the Holy Spirit brought to mind a song by Joni Mitchell, (and made famous by CSNY) entitled Woodstock. 
The chorus of that song says:
“We are stardust,
We are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
 
As we look back at that Garden in scripture, we’re told that God created man from the dust of the earth.  Now when you look at a planet in the sky, from our unaided perspective, it appears not as a planet, but as a star, reflecting the light of the sun. So maybe in that sense, we really are stardust.  But we’re also told something very fascinating in that same passage and that is that “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”  In other words, he obtained consciousness.  He became aware.  He could observe and think, and ponder and reflect.  He could experience joy and sorrow.  He could dream and hope. And he could love and hate.  As scientist Hugh Ross has noted, one of the most perplexing questions that science and philosophy wrestle with is, “Where did consciousness come from?”  And we’re told in the Bible that it comes from God, which may explain why we have such an insatiable yearning in our hearts, because we sense the voice of that divine spark calling us back to Him.
 
And this may also explain why that sense of rest and wholeness is so elusive, because after Adam rejected the counsel of God and sinned, he experienced the spiritual death of separation from the very One Who had given him life. And that is also why the most cataclysmic event in history, was when God Himself became man, and took on flesh and was born as Jesus of Nazareth.  He later suffered as a man, and died as a man, nailed to a cross, to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we could be reconciled to God.  So that we could literally “get back to the garden”!
 
Doesn’t that boggle your mind?  That the very God who created man; the uncreated eternal God, who breathed life into man and gave him a soul, should become one of His own creations?  And then allow Himself to be killed by His creation, so that He could give eternal life to all who would believe?
 
But it gets even better!  Three days after his death, Jesus rose from the dead.  And he arose in a glorified resurrection body that would never die again.  That body was so glorious, so radiant with the power and splendor of God that His face literally shone like the sun.  And for all who put their faith in Christ as Lord, Jesus puts that same glory into them, so that one day they too will be raised from the dead and shine with all the brilliance of heaven.
 
It’s one thing to be made of star dust, if dust is what you want.  But it’s another thing to shine like the stars as the children of God, who Himself is Light, (and in Him there is no darkness at all). 
 
As The Bible says about our future body:
And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam (Jesus*) became a life-giving spirit… The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Cor. 15:45,47-49)
 
So my friend, you are not an accident.  You are not a mistake. You are not a random event in an impersonal meaningless universe.  You were made for glory!  You were made with a destiny!  You were made to bear the image and likeness of God, and to shine with the glory of His love!  And that is what Jesus offers to those who live by faith in Him.
 
But what of those who refuse God’s loving offer?  What of those who are lost; who persist in their own self will; who embrace what is carnal, dark and selfish versus that which is pure and noble and good?  Are they stars as well? Yes, they are stars as well.  But sadly, scripture refers to them as “wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.” 

God loves even these.  He sent His son Jesus to die for them, that they also may be saved, for He desires all men to come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. And He is only too happy to save them, if they will simply come to Him.  It’s what we all hunger for in the depths of our soul; to be reconciled with the one true Lover of our soul; to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever.  No longer wandering stars, but stars who have found their place in the universe; who have laid hold of their destiny.

As the prophet Daniel has said:
And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
 
We are “dust”.  And we are “stars”.  And through Christ we can finally find our way, back to the garden.

(*my insertion)