Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Time That I Have Left, It's All I Have Of Worth

Beautiful art installation at the chuch
It snowed again last night, and more fell lightly this morning as I walked through the parking lot towards this church that was once home, once my workplace; this refuge, this place of grace and grace and grace upon grace.

I saw a few people I knew; warm hugs and greetings and quick family updates, although in this day and age of Facebook status updates, most of us know the bare minimum about one another's lives. It's easy to reconnect.

I found a seat close to the front - second row, because I am easily distracted, and I do not want to be - and the service began.

You make all things work together for my good

Of course, You do.

And as I sang, my heart whispered 'and for Your glory' at the end of every line.

The worship pastor is an excellent musician on several instruments, but he sat at the piano today. He played and my soul felt it's worth, truly; I was drawn towards a place of expectant submission in worship. From the seats, with no agenda, no plan, no idea of the music, I was ready to be led, and my ears focused on his fingers on the keys and I was there. I trusted what he played, how he played, how he didn't play, the spaces in between, and everything I am - musician, worshiper - converged and I was not distracted and I was in the presence of God.

I heard a powerful message; four points, emphasis on an awareness of sin and brokenness as a propelling force for a most urgent mission: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

And then they began the closing song, one I had heard of but never heard in worship.

This time that I have left, it's all I have of worth
I lay it at your feet, Lord; it's less than you deserve
And though I've little strength, and though my days are few
You gave your life for me, so I will live my life for you

Here I am, take me
As an offering
Here I am, giving
Every heartbeat for your glory

And at the end, the constant refrain began, pulled straight from the heart of worship that resounds from Isaiah to Revelation:

Worthy, worthy
You are worthy
Worthy is the Lord

Over and over and over and my hands lifted high, and I never wanted it to stop, because I was there and that's all I wanted to say.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Raising My Ebenzer

Blakes, overlooking the falls in Chagrin.
I moved to Ohio in 2000. My kids' dad took a new job, and we made a very big change to a northern climate, a new culture and a radically different church environment (though we didn't appreciate the differences at the time).

I left Ohio in 2004, bent and broken, my marriage in flames and my kids' lives changed forever. I moved east in the clutches of a powerful sense of shame and failure. I found refuge in my parents' home, and in a church that was made for broken people like me. I sat under the teaching of a pastor who became a friend, who never stopped reminding me that I was not who I used to be. New life grew around the shame, not really leaving it behind or letting it go, but accepting it and cloaking it with grace.

Those seeds of grace were planted here in Ohio, in this little community that is a bit of a paradox: small, homey, quaint - in many ways, quintessential small-town America. And yet, at that time, also the county with the highest per-capita income in the state.

I left Bainbridge, but I returned time and time again; first, to bring the kids to their dad, who continued his life here for some time. Later, I came on my own, when my path began to include someone who had family ties here.

On this most recent trip, we drove into my old neighborhood. Pulling up in front of the old, barn-red house with the gambrel roof, I found myself still. I looked at the driveway, at the mailbox, at the neighbor's house; the slight hill covered with snow, the breezeway between the garage and the front door. It was all so familiar, a relatively recent point in my past, and it felt so close. As if it were still within my grasp. I thought, "I could still be here. We could be in this house. If things had been different, if I had not done what I did, if we'd made different choices...we could still be here."

I indulged that thought for a moment.

But it was not true.

Too much has changed, and it was going to change, somehow, and in the deepest part of myself I know this: We would have left. Maybe through a different course, perhaps leading to other outcomes - but change was on its way. It was inevitable.

This makes me sad, somehow. And yet it is a truth that settles me.

I feel at home here, and it surprises me, so much so that I dwell on it. I lived many years in Texas - longer than I ever lived here. I was raised in western Pennsylvania, in similar landscape - so maybe that's the connection, that the hills and pines and snow and seasons all feel so familiar, that the climate is the same as the one that shaped my earliest years. I have lived in my current home longer than I have lived anywhere since I graduated high school. And yet here, in this suburb of Cleveland, I sense that I am deeply rooted, more so than any other place I have ever been. I feel I belong.

My husband does not feel the same, although he spent a much longer part of his life here. He does not share the sense of safety, of home, of groundedness that calls, "Welcome home" every time I come here. He skirts around the outside of the places he once knew, unwilling to enter into any sort of familiarity. He is not comfortable here, not like I am. He has his reasons.

I vividly recall standing outside of Fellowship Bible Church one afternoon, when plans were in place for our move to Virginia. Sharing thoughts with Pastor Jamie Rasmussen, I mentioned that I doubted I'd never be involved with music in church again, that I felt sure that God would lead me in a different direction, for although He hadn't abandoned me, I had certainly squandered the opportunity He had given me to be part of leadership. Jamie looked me square in the eye and said, "Don't count on it. God's not done with you yet. I wouldn't be surprised if He brings you back."

The seeds of grace were planted and lightly watered here, and a year later God put Pastor Brian Hughes in front of me to say, "You are not who you used to be", and thank God I'm not, and now twelve years after first taking up residence in Northeastern Ohio I find myself driving up and down Route 306 wondering why this always feels like home.

I wrestle these thoughts every time I am here; I muddle through the notion that there is some call, some reason that I would return to make a life here, and I simply can't find it. My children, my family, my life, my calling are all in Virginia.

So what is this thing?

I ask myself again and again, and tonight I think perhaps a glimmer of the truth that whispers to me finally cracked through the cords of my unfocused, ever-wandering mind.

I became real here.

This is the place where I laid down my arms, the weapons I'd formed to wield that proved I was a good Christian girl, that I was acceptable to God, that I was a dutiful wife and a good mother. I crashed and burned here, and although it was dangerous and painful and sinful and wrong on so many levels, it cracked the facade, the display of "good girl" that was exhausting all of my emotional and spiritual resources.

This is where I gave up.

And this is where I realized that losing my life meant I could finally gain it. In giving up, I had room for salvation, and all my best intentions to act like a good Christian gave way to simply being a sinner, saved by grace.

I think that's the power, the draw. There is a fundamental truth for me, that this is a place of birth. In spite of the sorrow and the things that were broken, I met grace here, in a community of people and the reality of Jesus. Regardless of whether I might ever have relationships with any of those people again, this place rings true for me. It is my Ebenezer, the place that says, "This marks the place where God helped me."

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mary And Gathering The Trash

It is Christmas Eve.

It is raining.

I am home, gathering up my thoughts and my wayward tension and a pile of stuff that will be offered to friends and family.

Actually, I'm gathering up the trash, too. It's a lot less poetic, but it is the reality of my day. The trash has piled up, and it's time to go to the dump. So, on this Christmas Eve, the mundane calls for attention.

My soundtrack for these morning activities couldn't be more perfect. A song, new to me this year, has pushed my thoughts beyond the baby in the manger whose birth we'll sing and celebrate tonight and tomorrow.

I'm thinking today about a young girl who was feeling the pangs of labor on this day (and yes, I know that December 25th is not really the day of Jesus's birth, but it's where we are centered right now. So....)

I've had children; I know the tightening in your belly that signals it's time. The way the pressure begins to expand, the strong awareness in your soul that assures you that this time - yes, it's real, this is what it feels like to go into labor, and how the pressure and rhythmic contractions turn to a deep, sonorous pain. How it hurts and yet there is so much strength gathered in the center of the pain that you get a glimpse, for the first time, of the primal core of your being and you know that you are headed to a point of no return, that this will happen, that you will push a tiny human out of your body and there will be life and you will be a mother.

All of those things burn in the core of the recurring pain, the clenching and unclenching of your womb as your body plays its part in this miracle.

And I am thinking today of this young girl, her pain the culmination of a journey she couldn't have imagined for herself and that few would easily believe. On this, the day before the birth, she was, simply, a woman about to give birth, in a strange and less-than-favorable circumstance.

Jesus, Savior. Jesus, Son of God. My Savior and friend, the One who brought redemption. Fully man, knows our grief and sorrow, and yet capable of resurrection after death. I believe in Jesus.

But today I am thinking a lot about the woman who walked her own jagged path. Her baby is born, and the angels come sing, and - in the words of Patty Griffin - 

"Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place".

Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for a better blog post than I'll ever write, for the nudge toward the best and richest Christmas song of the season for me, for the rich history and the words and the "creative work of a God who lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things."

Today, I am filled, and I am prompted to mindfully live this day within the same melody of obedience that rang over Mary.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Imagine It Is Christmas

Showing off the hand-sewn gifts David gave.
We suspended reality for a short 24-hour period. All the kids are home for their respective breaks from school. Later today they are leaving for an extended time away with their dad. So we declared Tuesday, December 18 to be Christmas Eve (along with Sarah's birthday), and today is our Christmas Day.

I wasn't sure how it would work - getting in the right frame of mind, having all the gifts wrapped, really believing it was a true and proper celebration. I worked yesterday morning, and I had a rough time turning off the switch midday to focus on my family and our time together.

Sarah & Mom
But we got there. We celebrated Sarah's birthday with Christmas dinner - ham, scalloped potatoes, rolls, deviled eggs, green beans. Tradition.

And as the evening rolled on, when everyone returned from last minute shopping, I sat at the piano. First song up was the Linus and Lucy dance from A Charlie Brown Christmas...and they all came running.
Sarah & Dad

They danced.

And then we moved on to the carols, singing from an old copy of a Baptist Hymnal snagged from Fellowship Bible Church many years ago. The harmonies rang; we sang with our eyes closed and our ears attuned to one another.

And suddenly it was Christmas Eve, just like that.

We woke up to stockings filled with fun stuff - from head scratchers to chip clips, with candy and books and earbuds and all sorts of other stuff in between.

Daniel's GREAT gift from Shannon...found in
the basement of her CRU house!
And then we exchanged gifts, the way we always do; the youngest delivers gifts one by one to everyone in the room, and then one by one - from youngest to oldest - we open the gifts and do the "oooohhhs" and "ahhhhs". Everybody gives to everybody, and it's always entertaining.

My mom and dad come, and they deliver their gifts, and the kids give to them - my dad always gets some form of candy turtles, and my mom always gets some sort of body wash.

This year's cardboard box
Then Tony gives the word for the big reveal of his amazing-super-wonderful gift. Somehow, he outdoes himself every time. The first year it was a foosball table accompanied by a cardboard box full of cereal boxes (42 of them, if my memory serves...); next, a cardboard box full of 67 individually wrapped gifts from the Dollar Store (including pigs feet. That was a fun one.) Last year there was a new family computer, along with another cardboard box full of various flavors of chips. Like 50 bags of chips.

Catch the theme?

We've come to expect the big cardboard box, and no one - including me - ever knows what we'll find inside.

This year was funny; they quickly determined that it containted vast quantities of Oreos and Ramen noodles (chicken flavored) - and nothing else. And then Sydni pulled out a small, wrapped gift. She opened it to find a Dick's Gift Card, and everybody went nuts looking for more gift cards. Tony shook his head and said he didn't know where it came from...but no one believed him.

It was true. There was one wrapped gift in the box - the Dick's Gift Card - and nothing else. Turns out the card has $42.67 credit on it. And no one knows where it came from.

Makes an interesting, weird gift even more so.

It was a good day. Our family, together, is what matters.

As we planned for this holiday season, I felt good about them leaving and having some extended time with their dad. It's Florida, which will be fun and relaxing. It's a good break for them, a good time for making memories and spending time together.

And yet...if I'm honest, I'll tell you that I don't feel so good about it now. I'm going to miss them. The real Christmas Eve will come along at church and we'll wake up on Christmas Day and I'll feel the absence of their presence in my gut.

But all things together, I'm blessed. Especially this year, I'm aware of this: they come, they go, they travel, but they're always here, somewhere, just a day away from a hug. We make memories with the time we have, whatever amount of imagination it takes to set the scene. And it is well, and it is good.

And it is Christmas.

Merry Christmas, y'all. Have some Ramen. And some Oreos.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Hero Dies

I was catching up on the final bit of Mark last night; our church has been reading that particular piece of the Bible together (which, in itself, is a very cool aspect of community that prompts a bit of awe in me - processing together the same words, letting them sink in to several hundred people, reading at different places and times, all receiving something similar and yet uniquely theirs...)

But I digress.

Anyway, I was catching up - because I'm running a bit ragged, and I fell behind - and I got to that part where Jesus is standing in front of Pilate and they've got the option to let Jesus go or release a truly bad guy (murder, anyone?) and Pilate opts to let the crowd decide.

I know how the story ends. I've read it, I've heard it preached, I remember the bit from Jesus Christ, Superstar. I know the crowd goes ballistic and screams "Crucify Him!"

But there's this: I got to that part in the text, and although I know what happens, I found myself caught up in the tension of the moment, in the power of the story.

"As the crowd came up and began to present its petition for him to release a prisoner, Pilate anticipated them: 'Do you want me to release the King of the Jews to you?' "

I read those words, and my heart and my head beat with three syllables:

Let him go.
Let him go.

The power of the story captivated me. Maybe that's part of it: reading the gospel as story, reading in somehow connected in community. Appreciating the drama and the plot and the tension and release; feeling the impact of the arc of truth. This time of Bible reading has brought something new and unique to my life - to my relationship with the one who Created me.

And as the climax approached, as the end drew near, I found myself longing for the crowd to do the right thing. Let Jesus go!

knew it wouldn't happen. I know, in the end, the torture and crucifixion and death are inevitable. I know the hero dies.

But I can't help but wish for something different. Even knowing full well that without the pain, there is no healing. Without the death, there is no life. Without the darkness, there is no light.

I just want to avoid the tragedy. To skip the part that hurts.

It occurred to me today that there is truth in my emotional reaction to this familiar story that applies to more than just what happened to Jesus. I do my own share of screaming-crying-praying that same phrase, but one more focused on my own discomfort:

Let me go!
Let me go!

It is a daily thing for me, the tossing and turning at night, anxious, worried, frustrated, trying to wish away the pain. Sometimes it's a tiny grain of concern, sometime it's a larger, more pervasive issue. But it seems it's always something that I wish would go away, would dissipate, would dissolve.

Thank God it doesn't work like that. Although the simpler, more selfish part of me would like nothing more than easy days and restful nights, the truth has been told in the daily and monthly and yearly little deaths and little lives that cycle through my existence. It takes the pain, the mistakes, the failures and the wrong choices to bring to life the part of humanity that is most deeply rooted in truth.

That's what I want. A true life.

My heart hopes that Jesus walks free, but my head knows it cannot be so. It's through the awkward and painful playing out of that story that the emotion of the heart unites with the logic of the head. The horror comes, the hero dies.

And in the end, all is well.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

I Missed It

A few weeks ago, my Facebook status update linked to this event and I wrote, "I wouldn't miss this for all the money in the world!"

Well, I missed it tonight. I had tickets, and plans to go, until I mentioned it to my 13-year old son - along with an apology, because this show was scheduled for the same night and time as the son's Junior High Christmas Band Concert.

Let me just say here that I've been to six Junior High Christmas Band Concerts already. I've heard most of the material - in some cases, six times. I know that the spring concert is the big, exciting one. And I know that the tall, skinny percussionist in the back would only be playing on two songs - a simple tambourine part, and the sleigh bells. No solos or duets, no special appearances - just two songs.

I said, "Dude, I'm really sorry, but I've got tickets for this show, and I've been waiting all year, and your dad's gonna be there at your concert, so I'll just miss it this time."

And this boy - this lanky, easy-going, do-anything-I-ask-without-whining, gets-himself-up-at-6AM-every-morning-without-his-mom's-assistance - this wonderful kid who never complains about anything except a lack of bacon, this boy looks at me and says, "Mom. Kids come first."

There was a beat of silence, and then he said, "It's okay. It's just a concert. No big deal."

He thought the conversation was over, but it wasn't. As most important things do, it rolled around in my heart until it started to crack.

My heart, that is.

I had one chance to see Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God this year, to fall under the spell of this music in a new way, since it was ingrained in me after our own performance last year. They come through Richmond every two years; it will be 24 months before I get another opportunity.

My boy only has one 7th grade Christmas concert. This was it. And though his great attitude is sincere, the first words out of his mouth demonstrated a more honest reaction.

And an honest conviction. He knows I believe that kids come first.

He just needed to remind me that what I do matters more than what I say.

For the record, I gave my tickets away, and I do believe the people who went in my place were more blessed than I every would have been. I've been grouchy and a bit sad all day - even though I know I made the right decision - but in the end, everybody was where they belonged tonight.

Especially me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I Am Beth Stoddard

I spent 12 hours at church today.

Twelve hours in the building.  I didn't leave once. When I walked out the door in the dark, I forgot where my car was.

I'm not kidding.

It's been a long few days; it's the MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR. Seriously, in the church world, Christmas is more than just holiday cheer. It's special services and complicated productions and lots of extra busyness - and there's the reality of the "regular" Sunday services coming every seven days.

We had an event for our music and production team on Saturday night; I cooked chili for 30 people. We had Sunday services, a Sunday night worship event, regular meetings and planning on Monday, and today a long staff meeting, staff lunch, several more meetings and a Blue Christmas service this evening. In the midst of it all friends were getting injured, friends going in the hospital and people just being human.

My kitchen is a wreck. There's a wet load of clothes in the washer that's been there for...a few days. My daughter just sent me a paper to edit for one of her classes. My other daughter needs me to mail a bunch of Secret Santa Christmas gifts that she accidentally hid in my closet.

My boys have had to forage for dinner for the past two nights; our "dinner" this evening is a rotisserie chicken from Walmart. My husband just walked in the door, and I encouraged him to just stand at the counter and pick what meat is left off the carcass. I'm too tired to get him a plate.

So I'm busy.

But no busy than many of you, I'm sure. It is what it is. It's what we do. It's who I am.

In the midst of it, I'm learning a lot. My boss has this running mantra lately; when I express a bit of doubt or concern or confusion or lack of confidence, he gives me this serious look and says, "You're Beth Stoddard."

He's trying to encourage me and empower me, I know; he's good about helping me get out of my head and into rational thinking. But every time he says this, I want to say, "Duh. So what?" And then I kind of want to hit him.

But tonight, driving home, exhausted, God used that mantra to speak a truth into my heart. That's a fancy way of saying, Something clicked, and I attribute it to a higher power.

I am Beth Stoddard. I am exhausted, and I am Beth Stoddard.

I have been Beth Brawley for most of my adult life; with that name, I grew into a fierce love for my children. I was a survivor, a single mom for a time with a huge capacity for getting things done. I worked hard and went hard and I did things.

I married three years ago, and the transformation has been slow, a subtle shifting. But most of the pieces have fallen into place, and I'm different now. I am the same woman, with the same personality and abilities and passions and weaknesses and faults.

But I am not who I used to be. Literally.

I am Beth Stoddard, and somehow God is showing me this new identity, this new name - with new roles as my kids grow up and leave home, as my role as a wife and business partner expands, as my responsibilities at my church broaden.

I get it. I'm ready.

Full disclosure: for the most part, I am Beth Stoddard. Really. I have taken my husband's name...but not completely. Like Brian preached about last week, I am almost Beth Stoddard...but not completely. I've never taken the legal steps to change my name on official documents. I've asked myself "why" several times; it's not a lack of love or commitment. It has something to do with letting go of who I was, how I saw myself, how I defined myself.

I get it.

I'm ready.

And after an exhausting day doing what I am called to do, I'm confident of this: "There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears." (Philippians 1.6, The Message)

In some ways, it doesn't really matter what my name is. I know who I am.

But sometimes, a little clarity goes a long way.