Alone Again, Naturally--reflections and art by Sean Shimmel

There’s a nameless disorientation I’d never imagined in the death of family . . . my sister Johneen, my father, Pat, my mother, Barbara, and then finally my dear brother Tom.

With such entirety, origin itself floats away untethered, lost. 

As a Christian betting decisively on the hope of our Lord Jesus, death has lost its final sting. But until then, such sorrow. Yet even that sorrow somehow honors, rather than dissolves, good hope. In place of death as a blithe natural Circle of Life, there’s an acknowledgement of horror, a repulsion of the Fall. 

And through tears, there’s a longing for all that’s one day right again . . . together.

This piece pulls in so many references. Influences like Gilbert O’Sullivan’s title, Elton John’s "Rocket Man", David Bowie’s Major Tom and Evard Munch’s "The Scream". And I found myself pulled to George Winston’s "Longing/Love" while finishing up the final touches. 

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Eclipses and Sparrows by Rachel Rim

The universe is vast beyond the stars/But You are mindful when a sparrow falls.
—Fernando Ortega, "Jesus King of Angels"

Six days ago, on August 21, along with millions of other Americans spread across 2,530 miles from coast to coast, I donned funky sunglasses and squinted up. The sky, unnaturally dark for one o’clock in the afternoon, revealed an orange sliver—not the moon, but the sun blocked by the moon. Even though it was a partial and not a full eclipse, it was still an eerily strange phenomenon. As I stared up at the sky (not directly at the eclipse, of course), I thought about the universe—its vastness, how little I understand about it, how small I am by comparison.

Less than twenty-four hours before the solar eclipse, I was walking out of Target with my mom and sister. They paused ahead of me and crouched down beside a parked car. When I reached them, I saw what they were staring at: a tiny sparrow, wings injured, fluttering around in a panic. Its desperation was palpable. Though we tried to coax the bird out from beneath the car (my mom even called over two teenage boys collecting carts to convince them to help), we could do nothing to help. Every time one of us got near the sparrow, it would frantically hop-fly to the other side of the car, staying just out of reach, mistaking our desire to help for malicious intent. There was something profoundly frustrating about wanting to help—being so much bigger, smaller and wiser than the tiny bird—and yet still thwarted by its frantic fear.

The universe is vast beyond the stars/But You are mindful when a sparrow falls.

With every day I wake up in the morning, I grow increasingly convinced that this is one of the central struggles of the Christian—to recognize both our smallness and our significance, to trust not just God’s power but his tenderness. We, too, are sparrows—wounded in our way, trapped beneath hard asphalt and an often frightening world. Sometimes hands meant to heal come too close, and we flit away because vulnerability is just as terrifying as suffering. Sometimes we would rather stay trapped beneath the car because the universe is vast beyond the stars, and hurricanes hit and racism seems to have an infinite number of lives and our own selfishness is as formidable a trap as the underbelly of a car is to a sparrow. Solar eclipses and solar engines; dark skies and darker selves. It’s difficult to know where to turn, where to look in the sky, which direction to run.

Yet we run to him. To the one who owns the vastness of the universe and yet condescends to know the pain of the sparrow. To the one whose power is beyond our understanding, but so also is his tenderness, and as the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “perhaps his sorrow is splendor.” The Christ who bridges polarities, who reconciles paradoxes, whose sorrow is splendor, is a Christ we can trust.

He creates eclipses and sparrows, and we are safe in his hands.   

Entangled Flight by Virginia Hughes

A flash of feathers in rapid succession catches my eye from the kitchen window. A mourning dove is flailing in the crabapple tree. 

I cautiously approach speaking just above a whisper, "It's all right, let me see," reaching around the bird's back to gently hold it. Both legs are caught fast in kite string. A wide web of string is forming in the nearby branches from the bird's wild thrashing. Once it quiets, freeing it may begin.

My husband finds the smallest scissors and we commence the delicate process of cutting and unwinding string off the impossibly skinny legs of the dove. Snip, snip, I shakily avoid the slender legs, the tender feet. We pray it doesn't die of fright or make a sudden movement and suffer more within our hands. 

Once freed, I set it gently on a branch. It grips with one healthy set of tiny talons, the other claw misshapen, unable to clasp around the branch. The wounded claw hangs awkwardly in the air as the dove balances on one leg like a flamingo.

The nature center’s oft repeated lecture about leaving wild things alone echoes in my mind. I remember my children on nature center field trips watching caregivers feed baby squirrels, fledglings and bunnies with an eye dropper. A stern lecture always ensues about leaving wild creatures in their place. 

A different bird broken by a car driving in front of our home had sent us previously to the nature center for help. We sat through our reprimand for touching it, “The robin is not surviving and should have been left to die!” My young daughters burst into tears. Cruel world. I reassure my children that the wounded bird should not have been left dazedly, dodging cars. What a macabre street theater, with youngsters as the audience, front and center. It was kind to seek mercy for the wounded creature.

Today's bird, the dove in front of me, may need more help. Will the nature center fashion a tiny splint for that ruined claw after lecturing me, of course, maybe provide a bird sized grain of pain med? 

How does so much string become part of a bird? Perhaps while nesting, going about her birdly-mom duties, she pecks a useful looking wad of string, never suspecting it to take on a life of its own, ensnaring and nearly ending hers. She is overwhelmed when something good takes a sudden turn in the wind.

Motion in front of me catches my attention as the bird pulls her gimp leg up slowly raising and lowering both wings, gripping with one claw, wide-eyed and blinking. Up to a higher branch she flies. Adapting and balancing on the one leg again, she eyes me cautiously, lifts off the branch and flies swiftly away. She is freed yet marked by her battle with the string.

I am the mother bird with many good intentions, in over my head with lots of strings attached. Such is the nature of birds and other mothers. Daily I walk by faith and pray for wisdom to share with my children living in a broken world. The closeness we desire with our children is a God-given gift worth fighting for when conflicts arise and communication gets strained. We are entangled for good.

In physics, entangled means to cause the quantum states of two or more objects to become correlated in such a way that they remain correlated, even though the objects are separated spatially. Aha, math backs up the existence of our familial heart strings. They are so very strong yet stretch quite thin at times. When I struggle, I flail like the dove in the branches. It gets me nowhere until I remember to become quiet in God's presence. Worship begins and the spirit frees me of all but his goodness. I remember the words from an old hymn, “Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.”

I am freed, yet marked by my battle with the string. May I forever embrace my entangled flight. 

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above.

Watching, Waiting by Cheryce Berg

I’m packing up two sons for college this fall. Although not really, because they haven’t started packing. Just me, in my mind. Wondering if we have extra-long twin blankets or power strips or plastic bin of the size that might squeeze into the crevices called dorm closets.

I want to be prepared—not just with plastic bins, but with my heart. Life moves quickly when two of your sons are 19 and 18, those ages precariously balanced on the precipice between teenager and adult. They sometimes slide down one side, other times the opposite. And I’m finding myself looking to the Lord more often, waiting and watching for direction in this season of parenting.

I read this week in the Old Testament of the Israelites living in the wilderness, and I imagine how those mamas must have felt. They, too, didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. Of course, their worries about chariots in pursuit, lack of water in the desert or snakebites make my concerns look pitiful. But still we are all mamas, wanting to take care of our families.

And trying to remember to watch for the Lord for direction.

I wander through Numbers 9 for a few days, reading of the cloud that is the Lord, how it covered the tabernacle in the Israelites’ camp in the wilderness. How the entire camp was to remain when it remained and set out when set out.

I notice verbs—covered, lifted, settled, camped, set out, rested, remained, continued—climbing up and down over each other. Rising and falling, not in a pattern predictable by man, but in a landscape of hills and valleys created by the Lord.

I think about those mamas, watching the cloud that is the Lord. Watching as they set up tents for their families, gather manna day after day, mark the growth of their little boys into young men. All the time watching out for the Lord.

While he rested and remained in sight, they were to do the same. But when he set out, they were to be ready. Ready to roll up their bedding, wrap up their kneading bowls in their cloaks and herd their children at the sound of a trumpet.

“Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out. At the command of the Lord they camped, and at the command of the Lord they set out.” (Numbers 9:22-23)

I camp on that thought—the remaining and the being ready, the commanding and the setting out. The vigilance required in watching the Lord. The complete faith in his guidance. I know that just a few chapters later in Numbers they will stop watching and run ahead, with deadly consequences. I don’t want to read that part yet, so I rest in Numbers 9.

And I determine to watch for the Lord as I parent my boys on the precipice of adulthood. So I know when to remain and when to set out, in my words and thoughts and actions.

And I praise him for the verbs ofNumbers 9, how the Lord covers and settles and abides; then commands and sets out before me.

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There are probably a lot of parents reading this right now and thinking, “Yes, yes. That’s exactly how I feel.” This is the time of year when parents with sons and daughters of those precipice ages pack them up, say their good-byes and send them on their way to college. With Wheaton College right across the street from College Church, we will see an influx of new students on Sunday, August 20. We will have the privilege of not only welcoming the students to our church family, but also reassuring their parents that we will watch out for their sons and daughters. So, next Sunday, look around for new faces, especially if those faces look a bit nervous and sad or anxious, and welcome them to College Church, take them to the Welcome Center for a visitor’s bag, walk over to Commons, or encourage them to check out the special work College Group will be doing to say “welcome.”

Choose to Fly by Pat Cirrincione

Flight. Where does it take us? To the moon and back? A journey we may or may not wish to make? As I ponder this word, so many images come to mind. The flight of Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. Their forty-year flight in the desert, which could have been so much shorter if they had obeyed God, who took them out of bondage. Like the Israelites, we, too, make mistakes on our personal flights.

We fail to listen to someone who may know better than we do about making the journey a more comfortable one, perhaps even bringing joy to everyone involved in the walk. We fail to see the pitfalls or the temptations in route. We whine if things don’t go our way, even though the fault might be ours for refusing to listen to those who have gone on ahead of us.

Then there is the flight Mary and Joseph made back to Egypt to keep their infant son safe from a murderous, jealous king who was not about to be dethroned. But this newborn king would want something more—the hearts of all people to turn to him in submission and love. I’m sure that many of us have fled from this all-out submission to Christ.

If you’ve read any of my posts, by now you know that I have a tremendous capacity to flee from bugs of any sort. I hate to admit this, but I have demonstrated the same capacity to flee from our Savior.

I thought that I could live my life any way I pleased, going from one temptation to another, prizing achievement and acclaim more than anything else. I ignored the basic beliefs of my faith and followed the idols of the world. I wanted to accumulate fame, riches and notoriety as stage actress.

I had many opportunities to follow that desire as different opportunities came my way—from an internship with Second City (thwarted by my fear to travel downtown by train during the sixties), to being offered my acting green card to perform in the Goodman’s children’s theater (the idea of touring and living in flea bag hotels held no appeal to me), to different opportunities to perform on stage in different venues. Each time, however, something came along that pulled me away from the starlight.

Personally, I thought it was my wonderful personality, good looks and charm that got me into other positions in the corporate world, and opportunities to perform in many Crusade of Mercy shows, singing, dancing, acting—even getting a small part in The Nutcracker ballet.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized God had been directing the flight of my life all along. God says to return to him. Our hearts must take flight back to our Lord and God. We should turn to him in prayer as King Hezekiah did in Scripture. Only Yahweh can turn our lives around as we trust him. As our souls fly back to him we are blessed with his steadfast love, his voice of hope and peace. Only then can we turn away from our idols, and take flight from pride, self-worship, greed and the grotesqueness of sin.

We cannot live or “take flight” in this world without first placing our complete faith in our Creator. Only then will our souls soar to the highest point, to a God who watches over us. When we take flight from God we lose, because we need him the most. I conclude with a quote from Pro Football Hall of Famer Tyrell Davis who said: “Know God’s hand is always on the small of your back, propelling and guiding you forward.” Then move ahead, with gratitude in a God who will make you soar with the gift he has blessed you with.