Friday, August 28, 2009

Would You?

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Would You?

With strong convictions, an infected township decided to reside in the confines of their village for more than a year so their citizens would not spread the bubonic plague. This Sunday, pilgrims will gather near the English village of Eyam for a service of remembrance. During 1665-1666, Eyam’s population of 500 plus suffered the loss of half their friends and family.

In the 1300s, bubonic plague’s first recorded victims were in China’s Gobi dessert. Bubonic plague, contracted from rats and fleas, traveled from that region aboard trading ships. A PBS special “Secrets of the Dead” said “In October of 1347, a Genoese ship fleet returning from the Black Sea -- a key trade link with China -- landed in Messina, Sicily.” To the horror of dock workers “most of those on board were already dead, and the ships were ordered out of harbor. But it was too late.” From there, the killer disease spread to Europe and before it subsided an estimated 25 million died.

Again, in the 1660s the bubonic plague raged and killed 100,000 in London, a sixth of the population. In September of 1665 a batch of fabric was sent from London to the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. Local tailor George Viccars took the damp fabric infested with fleas into his home and hung it by the fireplace. Within four days he died and soon other villagers caught the disease. A few families panicked and fled north, but the town turned to Rector William Mompesson, who urged a self-imposed quarantine to prevent the disease from spreading to nearby villages. The noble villagers agreed.

For 14 months no one went beyond the town boundaries. Neighboring villagers left food at Mompesson’s well and coins of payment were left in the water. Church services were held outdoors to avoid clusters of people meeting together. Families buried their deceased in garden plots and back yards. Ironically the local grave digger, even though he buried many, survived. Mrs. Hancock of Riley buried her husband and six children within eight days.

Bubonic plague can turn into pneumonic plague, affecting the lungs and then the disease spreads from human contact. The plague oppressed the villagers for over a year and on November 1, 1666, the last victim died.

The rector’s wife Catherine Mompesson nursed the ill and dying for nearly a year and then she was among some of the last to contract the disease and die on August 25, 1666. Plague Sunday is celebrated the last Sunday in August and this year, as in the past, a red rose entwined wreath will be laid upon her gravestone.

Some believe a children’s nursery rhyme commemorates the plague and describes the disease and the fatalities: “A ring-a-ring of rosies / A pocket full of posies / A tishoo! A tishoo! / We all fall down.”

After the scourge was over the first outsiders ventured into Eyam where they expected to find a ghost town, yet miraculously half the population had survived. The abovementioned PBS special details how researchers traced and located direct descendents of Eyam plague survivors. Researchers hoped to find these folk to be carriers of a protective gene. They did find such a gene and for more information check out the PBS site.

Now, the medical community is preparing to protect the earth’s population from the less deadly h1n1 virus, and many ordinary citizens will also have opportunities to serve those who get this flu. If the flu is contracted, we can follow the good people of Eyam’s unselfishness and avoid exposing others.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He described a premier love, a love superior to self; a love lived out in a hamlet some 350 years ago.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Solace in Mundane Tasks

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I washed, dried and folded my guestroom bed sheets. After that, I ironed and starched and lavender scented the pillow cases. We had overnight guests and we’re expecting more, and I like to have a fresh set of sheets in case we have pop-in family who need a place to rest for a night. With just a little tidying, putting away clutter, and shaking out the welcome mat we’re ready for company.

Ironing pillowcases is one of those household tasks that don’t seem like a chore to me. When I mentioned that among a group of women, one other woman agreed that plunging her arms into sudsy water to hand wash dishes is her oasis of calm. Several of the housework skeptics said, “You’re both crazy.”

When linens need pressing, I’m eager to fold down my hide-away ironing board and with a hot iron push wrinkles aside. Maybe that lets you in on my personality. I like to fix things for people, make it better, or kiss away the hurt. I want to smooth out the rough spots, but we all know that’s not always possible.

That knowledge reigned again this week—not being able to fix some of the broken places in life. We lost a dear friend, Lee Roy, of 25 years. Within five minutes he was gone. After we heard the news, we drove several hours to see his wife, Paula. Lee Roy was her best friend and the love of her life. Those who knew them saw a couple devoted to each other. In times past, we met Lee Roy and Paula every few months for dinner, usually halfway between our homes in the Bay Area and Montgomery, Texas.

Because we are in the same business, our husbands spoke almost every day by cell phone. The four of us have a lot in common. We know the names of each other’s grandchildren and pets, and we’ve shared our families’ worries and needs. And now I want to fix things for Paula but I cannot.

At times like these, most of us have experienced the inadequacy of words. I like words and sometimes even get to trade them in for a paycheck. But I’ve found that spoken words or even purchased words in sympathy cards cannot properly convey the weight and density of sorrow.

The real desire of our friend’s heart cannot be fixed. Death is what it is and now she travels a road not by choice but one delivered to her doorsteps way too early. Her gut-wrenching loss made me cherish the daily handholding with my husband. Our goodbye kisses became sweeter just because we had the privilege. The solemn morning after our friend’s death, there was an extra long hug between David and me as we parted for the day.

After David left that morning, I went into my utility room, I needed to iron. I needed to press the wrinkles out of something. One of the things I like about ironing is that it’s routine work that allows my mind to stay or travel a long distance from the ironing board. Also, it’s a great time to pray. For my friend this has been my plea, “I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy. I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble. When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way” (Psalm 132:1-3).

Off and on throughout this week, I’ve done laundry and I’ve had more of my husband’s shirts to iron than in a long time. I steamed the collars, smoothed the yokes, and pressed the wrinkles out of sleeves, treasuring the work.

My main prayer request for our friend is for comfort and deep strength. I know she loves to mow her yard and I hope when she gets to trimming the hedges again that she can find solace in the task and the quiet time.

And she’ll be in my thoughts as I iron, smooth out what I can, and pray.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pass the Bread

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She kept coming into her own kitchen offering to help. The women who were working at her sink and serving up the homemade food kept saying, “We don’t need your help . . . Go . . . Sit down . . . Get some rest.” She needed rest. Between work and keeping her household running, her family had additionally kept an hourly vigil at the hospital with a terminally ill parent.

Now because of the parent’s death and funeral, her household ran over with out-of-town extended family. By the day of the funeral, she and her husband had little energy to expend and the family still needed to eat.

When food is shared the givers join Christ in ministry. In the Bible on one occasion in an isolated area, a hungry crowd numbering in the thousands needed food. Aware of the crowd’s hunger, Jesus said to his followers, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).

On that day, Jesus’ mission was at least threefold – teaching the crowd and disciples about God’s caretaking, providing an actual meal, and cloaking his disciples with servant robes.

That evening when God multiplied small loaves and tiny fish, the disciples became food pantry trainees. The Lord of Harvest provided the bounty and asked the manly disciples to don aprons. From heaven, a chain of blessings began. From his storehouse, God scattered provisions to the needy. And with Jesus beside them the disciples willingly became the middlemen. Stepping in the gap, they passed out what God had multiplied.

Due to the generosity of a group of cooks at my home church, weekly meals are taken to those in need. We’ve taken meals on Christmas Eve, other holidays and ordinary days. I especially remember one such family who traveled to Texas from New York to attend funeral services for their WWII veteran. This family was exhausted from grief and the trip, and when local women cooked and served a noon meal the family tasted Jesus-on-a-hillside hospitality.

Many churches provide this same ministry when a family’s primary cook is too tired to wield a spatula and a skillet. With chicken and dumplings, pecan pies and homemade rolls, cooks build bridges between God’s hand and the hurting.

Eating a meal you didn’t prepare or buy is a relaxing agent for the suffering. Watch for those times when you can ease a burden just by showing up with a chilled salad, fresh fruit, or batches of sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies.

From God’s hand, to yours, to the hurting -- “Pass the bread” takes on a whole new meaning.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Lyrics in My Heart

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Caleb, an age 4 character in Hallmark movie “Sarah, Plain and Tall” hears a farmer playing a song. Later Caleb says, “Maybe I could get a harmonica. I could carry it with me wherever I go. It would be like a little music in my pocket.”

While re-reading through the Psalm lyrics, the songs of the Bible, a few of the phrases reverberated in my mind. Just as favorite melodies of a song make laps in the mind, these psalm phrases latched onto my heart — like words backed with Velcro.

One is “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 17:8). Because of David’s wording in his prayer-song, my personal requests became more specific. Because I’ve seen mother hens shelter vulnerable chicks, I could visualize being sheltered beneath God’s wingspan.

However, on those occasions when the faith gauge is low, different words from the psalms cycle around in my thoughts, “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).

This question from David comforts me. God doesn’t mind when my doubt is verbalized to him. Honesty with God is not a bad thing. He already knows if I’m feeling out of touch, needy, and my questioning words don’t shock God. Like a chick, I may not be able to see his face, but I still know where I am—under his protective wing.

Another psalm meditates on God’s “works” and “mighty deeds,” recalling times when God helped the Hebrews. Their walk on dry ground through the Red Sea is recalled. “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen” (77:19).

The Hebrews knew God cut that swath through volumes of water, and although God’s footprints were not seen, he opened a path of escape from enemies and opened a trail to strengthening the Hebrews’ faith.

On a rainy day, my young son slipped out of my sight and left our country yard traveling into farm dangers -- ponds, cattle, and woods. Scanning damp ground outside our fence, I prayed to see small footprints, and, thank God, tiny mud-depressions led the way to my child. Much like that, I recently tracked God through the Psalms.

After this recent read-through of the 150 Psalms, I again heard an orchestra in my heart—ancient lyrics spinning round and round. The many “sightings” of God’s footprints within the psalms remind me of his care.

Today, remember that you are the apple of his eye. If doubts and fears arise ask God your questions, whatever their subject. Read a few psalms each day until the imprints of his good care are stamped on your heart. Then you can have many lyrics resonating too, music that goes with you, much like music in pockets.