What Mean These Stones?

IMG_9484 2Piles of rocks like this one mark the pathways I follow on my long daily uphill trudges deep into the forested mountains near my home here in Germany. Today, I felt to stop at this one. I spotted a small angular stone at my feet and placed it without ceremony on the very top of the heap. Then, tugging my red neoprene jacket closed across my chest, I sat down cross-legged in my gray jogging tights right there on the bed of pine needles and gravel.

Under a shroud of birdsong, the following lyrics came to my mind:

“Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither to thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home…”

That verse from the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is one I recall mumbling through when I was younger because, honestly, I wasn’t sure why we were singing about Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge in an otherwise lovely anthem to Christ. The word “ebenezer,” I’ve since learned, means “stone of help” (stone=eben; help=ezer), and holds a key to our spiritual steadiness. It might also unlock greater understanding of who we women are and what we are doing with our gifts, resources, time, lives.

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“Ebenezer”, or stone of help, appears twenty-four times in the Old Testament. In 1 Samuel 7:12, for instance, after intervening in and winning Israel’s battles for them, God commands his followers to raise stones and stack them, therewith constructing a lasting memorial commemorating the miracle he has wrought in their lives. In Samuel we read:

“Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

And in Joshua 4:21-23, after the Israelites cross the Jordan whose river bed has been miraculously rendered dry by God’s hand, God again commands his people to raise or stack stones as a lasting monument to the wonder they have witnessed.

“And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? Then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land.”

With a simple stack of stones not only would the eyewitnesses of God’s help be reminded of what they knew of God’s power, but generations yet to come would be reminded of what God had done for their fathers and, in turn, could do in their lives.

Of course, God didn’t need these monuments. Man did. God knew man’s nature then as he does now. He knew that once our crisis passes and our adrenalin levels have normalized; once our howling prayers of fear or desperation have faded to a whimper, then a drone, then to vain repetitions; once we’ve stepped on safe dry ground and slid back into daily distractions; once we don’t need him quite as acutely as we maybe once did, we quickly, tragically and cyclically forget him. Without deliberate mortal markers that cause us to remember him, we will forget.

Poor creatures! We all seem destined to die of spiritual Alzheimers.

Against such disease, God commands us to do the unlikely: grab some rocks. Stack stones. The point here, significantly, is not that men, as slaves, build some monument of vanity to God. Nor is the point for man to construct a Tower of Babel to physically ascend to God. The object of the stones is simply to take the time to remember. It’s not complicated or sophisticated work. Anyone can do it. But raising rocks of remembrance will do our eternal spirits the ultimate good. Simply remembering God and connections with him will invite him into our very immediate and intimate midst. We will meet and be one with him exactly where and when we remember him. This is the sublime and simple promise we hear weekly in the sacraments prayers: If we will  but remember him, we will have God with us.

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What might this all mean for women specifically?

While “ebenezer” is used twenty-four times in the Old Testament, (out of which sixteen times it refers to God as our ultimate and divine “helper”), it is only used twice to refer to Eve. When God presents Adam with an “ezer k’negdo”, God gives man not a “helpmate”, as the word has traditionally been mistranslated. Rather, God is blessing Adam with a mighty help — a help meet or equal to Adam’s needs. Eve is given to man and the sons of Adam as a protector against mankind’s enemy. Woman is a formidable partner who comforts, strengthens, and helps win humanity’s most fierce battles. She saves.

We women are all Eves. Women are charged with the holy mission to identify the enemy of mankind in all its forms and lead out in this tired world’s battle. For my work with Their Story is Our Story (or TSOS Refugees, a grassroots NGO where I am a founding member), I am fighting to give voice to my oppressed, persecuted, and voiceless refuge sisters and brothers the world over. And at Mormon Women for Ethical Government, (a non-partisan, peacemaking political activism NGO for which I am also a founding member), we aim to harness our covenant power, wrapping it up in our natural sisterly unity in order to identify, confront, and defeat darkness within government.

But as with anything that has great potential for power, there will be opposition. The danger, as I have observed it in myself, that threatens our effectiveness is if we rely on ourselves or any other faulty source of guidance and forget God. If we rush into our days, not with soothing scripture but with scathing news headlines blazing in our minds. If we, in all our passion for what is good and light, drive ourselves into the ground, cynical and depleted and empty in the end. If we catch ourselves feeling mostly frantic or furious, overextended or overburdened, exhausted or even excessively excitable. If we “feel dark clouds of trouble hang o’r us” which “threaten our peace to destroy”, then we must stop.

We must find a stone.

We must bow our heads.

We must remember him.

We must remind ourselves that in this battle — like all the others since before the world’s foundation — he has been our Savior:

“We doubt not the Lord nor his goodness/
We have proved him in days that are past.”

So sisters, raise your ebenezer! Stack stone upon stone upon stone. Take slow, systematic inventory of your intimate history with God. Reflect on him and his unspeakable love until your entire body feels refreshed, renewed. Write down that witness you have until tears mix with ink. Read it out loud until your throat constricts with gratitude and awe. Share that belief with someone, without shame or exaggeration. Remember stone by stone by stone what he already has wrought in your life and then witness to someone else that he will do just the same in theirs.

Here is just the start of my stack:

I remember when peace extinguished bone-crushing anguish
I remember inexplicable moments of epiphany
I remember a burning prayer answered in the cool of the night
I remember impossible insights via the spirit
I remember dreams that warned and instructed
I remember dreams that were more visitation
I remember his voice and his hands on my troubled head
I remember a-ha! revelations and slow-melt awakenings
I remember pounding my fists on the tiled kitchen floor. And his patience.
I remember holes and hunger filled
I remember the right person saying the right thing at the right moment
I remember when I knew. I simply knew.
I remember he has always, unfailingly remembered me.

IMG_9462(A version of this piece was published on June 24th, 2018 as one of the weekly Sabbath Devotionals for the members of MWEG, or Mormon Women for Ethical Government.)

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2018.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Peace: The Christmas Message

They were wholly preposterous words.

“On earth peace, good will toward men,”(1) sang angels hovering over a land heaving with political and racial tension, ruled by a degenerate despot, choked by Roman oppression, crowded in on all sides by competing foreign powers — a land, which in just one generation would collapse under revolt, its temple razed to the ground.

Gustav Doré, Empyrean Light

Yet it is precisely into the heart of such a conflict-rife setting that the shimmering, pulsating words “peace” and “good will” spilled down the conduit from God’s presence. Like pure water, they gushed into this murky sphere, sending bright, ever-expanding ripples across the thick Judean night. Peace, proclaimed the angels. Peace on this harsh, hostile earth.

The word “peace” makes us pause, shake our heads. Can reasonable people really believe in, let alone strive for peace? Can we, knowing what we do of human nature and of mankind’s history of soaking this earth’s crust in fratricidal blood — can we hope for peace?

Let us proclaim without reservation that not only can we hope for peace, but we must. At Christmastime especially, when we kneel before the Prince of Peace, we renew our covenant to hope for peace, to claim and proclaim peace, and to proliferate His peace.

One can hope for His peace only because it is independent of outward circumstances. His peace begins internally, in a heart aligning itself to truth and light, and once cultivated in that heart, extends ever outward to touch and embrace all of mankind.

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Such was the LDS General Presidency holiday message to the church in 1936, where members were urged to “manifest brotherly love, first toward one another, then toward all mankind; to seek unity, harmony and peace … within the Church, and then, by precept and example, extend these virtues throughout the world.”(2)

Like the original angelic annunciation, that plea for peace came at a time of escalating global tumult. The Great Depression was still ravaging the USA; the Spanish Civil War was surging; Stalin was executing his own; Mussolini was forging an “axis” alliance with Hitler; and the latter was promoting a devilish political agenda, which became official when he proclaimed himself the head of the German armed forces. This timing means that, five short years following that December Christmas message, untold numbers who had heard that call to peace would be called to the front lines of the bloodiest and longest conflict of history. On the beaches of Normandy, in the rice paddies of Okinawa, and in the rural jungles of the Philippines, perhaps those soldiers remembered that, despite the weight of the rifles strapped on their backs and the sodden camouflage uniforms stained in mud and blood, their covenant was then as always to manifest brotherly love and seek for peace.

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Modern conflict both global and intimate — whether originating in Pearl Harbor, Korea, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Libya, or Washington D.C.; whether due to joblessness, chronic or terminal illness, abuse, abandonment, addiction, the death of our beloved, the death of our faith — “mocks the song of peace on earth, good will toward men.”(3) Yet our gentle God rejoins all of this sharpness with a soft call to partake of His peace.

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It is this kind of peace that both opened and closed his mortal mission. The peaceful greeting angels sang at his birth He repeated in the hours prior to his death. Before the Roman guards would barter for his last bit of clothing, press thorns into his flesh, and hammer iron spikes through his hands and feet, He taught His followers that “peace on earth” would not mean peace in this world, but peace above and beyond it. “Peace I leave with you,” He said, “my peace I give you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(4) In the face of all that He knew would surely come of torture, betrayal and blood (His own and His disciples’), “peace” surely seems a wholly preposterous word.

Or a holy, preposterous word. A blessing.

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When those angels blessed the quaking shepherds with a portion of holy peace, those same shepherds in turn took that testimony to what might well have been a quaking Joseph and Mary, who themselves perhaps needed reassurance that God’s peace, in their tiny Child, had indeed come to earth. Simple shepherds were among the first witnesses who heard and carried the blessing to others, thus revealing one of the secrets of God’s peace: it is always to be shared.

It must also be dared, wrote anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment… Battles are won not with weapons, but with God.”(5) Internal battles, Bonhoeffer seems to be saying, are won, and peace claimed when we do “the works of righteousness” receiving the reward of “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”(6)

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From a modern-day prophet comes wise counsel:

“No man is at peace with himself or his God who is untrue to his better self, who transgresses the law of what is right either in dealing with himself by indulging in passion, in appetite, yielding to temptations against his accusing conscience, or in dealing with his fellowmen, being untrue to their trust. Peace does not come to the transgressor of law; peace comes by obedience to law, and it is that message which Jesus would have us proclaim among men.”(7)

This season, will mine be the soul into which His sweet serenity enters? Into whose unsuspecting life will I dare to carry His gentle greeting? With which family members, friends or even strangers will I share His gift of peace that “passeth all understanding”?(8) And when this Christmas has passed, will we each have experienced something new about His peace? Will we have believed, received, and gifted to another that holy, wholly preposterous peace?

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.(9)

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1 Luke 2:14
2 Greetings from the First Presidency,” Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, 22 Dec.
1936, p. 315
3 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Henry W. Longfellow
4 John 14:27
5 Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Eric Metaxas, pp. 81
6 D&C 59:23
7 David O. McKay, Conference Report, Oct. 1938, p. 133.
8 Philippians 4:7
9 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–1876)

My Deceased Son’s Answer to What It’s All About

photo (2)Headstone still fresh on his grave, my eldest son showed up in the middle of the night with the key to the meaning of life. In this dream where Parker appeared, I was guiding my three surviving children through a city I knew well. It was evening, I was sad and wrung out and felt pressed to get to my car, to get back home.

Suddenly behind me I heard my youngest, Luc, (seven years old at the time), squealing like a newborn. Call it my Mother Bear, call it my short fuse, I swung around to snap the head off of whomever was bugging my boy.

The instant I spun, lip curled and neck tensed to snarl, instead of a “Hey! Cut it out!”, I snagged on the “ow” of “out” and gasped. There, in shorts and his favorite blue t-shirt with his trademark cropped hair was 18-year-old Parker, as unscathed as the last time I’d seen him alive, the day before he died.

He was playfully dangling his youngest brother over a trash can.

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

You know that full body-and-soul whiplash that yanks you from nearly biting through someone’s jugular to buckling to your knees and kissing their feet? Melting, I lunged toward Parker, and he, (with a look that said, “Oh, Mom, you know I was just kidding around,”) handed his little brother to his sister and reached for me.

His shoulders were familiar, as was his smell. Desperate, I pled, “Tell me, honey. Tell me everything you’ve learned.”

He pulled back a bit. That mini freckle on his nose. That scar on his eyebrow. That one steely fleck in his right iris. It was my child’s face, only seasoned. Slower.

I waited for words.

Bending down, he whispered, “This is it,” and he took a small breath. He searched my eyes, then:

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

“That’s … that’s it?” I gaped, “There’s nothing more? Nothing else?”

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

Since that dream it’s been my mantra. And like most mantras, it slips out too slickly, sounds cliché, yet has more layers than the Himalayas, more depth than the trenches of the Pacific. It risks oversimplification, and yet it will take my whole life to comprehend. But here’s how I’ve broken it down up to now:

Every relationship.

Every.

This means the obvious: all my bona fide biological ties, my family. Then my family through marriage. Then my besties, my closest friends. Then all ranks of associates and regular contacts like teachers, students, classmates, work colleagues, teammates, neighbors, congregation members, parents of my children’s friends, the lady who delivers my mail on her yellow bike even in the snow and rain, the commuters who share my daily ride on the bus, the blue-haired widow who waves as she walks her Dachshund past my window evenings at eight.

All are people with whom I share different degrees of blood and intimacy, experience and history, all people with whom I share space, time, ideas, efforts. All people with whom I share myself and who share with me something of themselves.

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

In addition to these ^ relationships, there are interactions with those I meet sporadically or even just once. Like the guy loading my mulch on a cart at the garden store. And the lady who cut me off on the freeway exit ramp this morning. Or the infant who cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the parent who slept with his headphones on while his infant cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the crew on that flight. The passengers on every side. The pilot, whom I never saw and who never heard the infant, but whose voice we all heard and whom I trusted to take me “cruising safely at 37,000 feet.”

I interact, most of the time mindlessly, with all of them.

Then there are those I’ve never actually met, but with whom I’ve had some sort of fleeting or superficial interchange. The rabid politician in the news, the celebrity whose fifth marriage is material for a trash mag I leafed through at the doctor’s office, the musician whose song I wail along with in the car.

And the virtual relationships, the FB acquaintances, Instagram posters, Twitter commenters. Blog followers.

And the people on either end of history; my ancestors, my progeny.

Or people on either side of the globe; my countrymen, my political foes.

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

All this social interaction, all this mortal jumble? It’s more than learning about teamwork, or an effective way to get stuff done. And it’s also more than learning tolerance and compassion and patience with crying infants and drivers on the Autobahn.

“Every relationship is to bring us to God,” maybe, has to do with this:

Author Toni Morrison, in an interview, remembered having been the young mother who, when her kids walked into the room, scanned them up and down looking for faults. She’d be thinking, Tuck in your shirt, or Comb your hair. She felt that her critical stance meant she was caring for them, which I get only too well. It is what I was doing in my dream when I wanted to ream out the thug behind me who was, I thought, evidently hurting my youngest child. I was set for censoring.

Morrison then offered another approach. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says ‘I’m glad to see you’. It’s just as small as that.”

There Are No Neutral Interactions

An approving glance. An encouraging smile. A forgiving shrug. A step forward. A brave nod. This is how we move ourselves and others toward the best in humanity and toward deity.

A whispered judgment. A punishing glare. A jealous glower. A turned back. A swift dismissal. A spin around to bite through a jugular. This is how we move ourselves and others away from each other, away from divinity.

What if I were to enter all my social encounters not perched to swoop in with criticism, or stiffened behind all sorts of false boundaries (like a difference in race, religion, political grouping, jealousy, shame, whatever), but poised, instead, radiating one primary thought: “I am glad to see you”?

I believe it would change me, the other person, the encounter, everything.

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I know.  You’re saying, “I’m glad to see you” is easy when you really are glad to see someone. And in my case in the dream I was more than glad. I was unzipped, liquefied with love and longing for my son.  Let me say the obvious: when there’s been no bad blood, and you see your absent beloved again, every minor critique you might have stockpiled during mortality vanishes in the hot flash flood of love.

But what about all the other relationships? What about most of them, the ones that exact superhuman effort from us? The ones where we’d rather say, “I’m glad to see you … go“?

That’s where Parker’s advice really gets traction. While most great mythic traditions and even modern pop spirituality claim God is found above and outside of the messiness of human interaction, maybe while sitting solo and contemplating a snowflake from atop a lone peak, I’m saying that God is found in the trenches. God is down here in the grit. God’s in the mix.

And so, too, say the experts. Harvard professor Michael Puett comments on what ancient Chinese philosophers would think about modernity’s going–it-solo attitude, and why our personal relationships are what mortality is all about:

They [Chinese ancients] saw each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

 For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. [Can I get an amen?] That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

In other words, there are no neutral interactions. All of our actions and reactions send vibrations into a vast webwork that either brings us and others to God (or to wholeness, light, love, healing, The Source of All Meaning, whatever you call The Best Thing You Dare Imagine), or drives us and others from the same. Every thinkable link I have to every last human being plays not just a part in how I grow and experience meaning and joy, but adds in some (major or infinitesimal) way to others’ wellbeing. And that truth is why relationships are what it’s all about, and why they are at once so infuriatingly hard while being so immeasurably valuable.

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

Yes, there are those few relationships that flourish without a lot of effort, and therewith offer a glimpse of what godliness might feel like. But more often relationships are plain old spiritual work. They grate on us. Leave us blistered. There are those, too –– and we’ve all had them––that don’t just pumice us. They skin us alive.

And how do those relationships bring us to God? In my experience, they bring us to an understanding of God’s nature. They let us learn of Him.

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Him. Let me take license and talk specifically for a moment about the God I worship. The Being I strive to comprehend and hope to emulate responded majestically in all relationships, but particularly in the most injurious ones. Herod, Pilate, Judas, Peter, Roman centurions, mocking Sanhedrin, ungrateful lepers, and the centuries’ long saga of modern scoffers and arrogant erudites –– before them all and for them all Jesus Christ stands blameless. No figure in history, no God of any other myth possesses the dignity, selfless love and self-mastery in human relations that Christ embodies. No other being I know of has not only withstood betrayal, exploitation, usury, abandonment, cruelty and hidden agendas but has gone so far as to absorb abuse in all its forms and transform those evils into healing for all, including the abusers.

Like everyone, I’ve known a small portion of those injuries I just listed. When I have, (like recently, when a close friendship took a turn I never expected into an unmarked dead end), I had to fight to muzzle my Mother Bear, retract my claws, and swallow my snarls.

And right then, in rushed Parker’s words. They helped me breathe through what felt to me like lovelessness directed at me and my family, but just as important, they showed me how far I am from mastering The Master’s manner in response to hurt and betrayal.

What have I learned, then, from what my son taught me in a dream?

That all relationships –– including the ones we might have to step out of for everyone’s wellbeing –– are gifts that help us approach God.  By reflecting on His exquisite response to even the ugliest human tendencies (others’ and our own), we see how far we mortals are from His standard of loving-kindness and perfect compassion. In the end, then, every relationship brings us not only to God, but also to the God within each of us.

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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What do you think? Which relationships have taught you the most? Tried you the most? Are those two kinds of relationships one and the same?

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

Taking the definition of “relationships” a step further, what other interconnections besides those with humans “bring us to God”?

And to the basics: What does “bring us to God” mean to you?

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.