Jan working at the Julie Quinn workshop in 2012
I was on the chiropractic table a week or so ago, letting my spine relax and waiting for an adjustment. It was the first time in quite awhile that I had a quiet moment. I was surprised by a welling up of tears that flowed down my cheekbones and into my ears.
That turned my thoughts to a dear friend of mine named Jan. I'd met Jan in college and we'd been friends for over 30 years. There was a 20 plus year age difference, but that didn't matter. Our friendship was rare and a treasure. She was like an older sister to me. We spent a summer in London together, went on painting trips together, shared the ups and downs of life together.
When I stepped away from art to care for my mother, I stepped away from friendships as well. Not intentionally, but there wasn't enough time to do everything that needed to be done. While my heart still treasured Jan and other friends, I was no longer present in her life. There was the occasional card and phone call, but I rarely got a chance to spend time with her, and I missed it.
When Mom passed away, I was exhausted. I'd gained weight, broken a leg, had surgery and was worn out. Instead of picking up and reconnecting with life, I turned inward. After about a year, I was slowly re-emerging, but Jan was starting to have serious health issues. She was so sick and weak that I could only call. She couldn't have visitors.
Then, the doctors changed her treatment and that seemed to make a difference. Slowly, she was gaining strength. I could visit, although sometimes had to wear a mask. We'd sit together, have tea together, chat, do Zentangles or jigsaw puzzles. Later in the summer, she was strong enough that we took an art workshop together. We were happy and hopeful of doing more art projects together.
But our joy was short lived. She was gone by mid September.
The last few months we had together were sweet. She made sure to tell me I had been a good friend, and I made sure she knew I loved her.
But now she's gone, and I'm laying on a table with tears in my ears. Shortly after she died, I called her husband to see how he was doing. We talked about Jan and our grief. He told me he'd been lying in bed, thinking of her when tears came and rolled down his cheek, landing in his ears. It reminded him of a song, “I've Got Tears in My Ears from Lying on My Back in Bed Crying Over You.” This made him laugh and think, “Donna would know that song.” We laughed when he related this to me and I laughed on the chiropractor's table.
Laughter and tears. Grief is such a strange thing.
It was 8 a.m. and I was sitting in a local park, listening to the birds call back and forth. While scientists have ascertained that what they are really doing is proclaiming their territory (essentially saying, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”), I prefer a more poetic view of their melodious work.
Birdsong brings relief
to my longing
I'm just as ecstatic as they are,
but with nothing to say!
Please universal soul,
practice some song
The poem turns into a prayer. “Please Lord, practice Your song, Your love, Your joy, Your artistry through me.” As I pray this, my thoughts turn to the Psalms, which are prayers turned into poetry. Learning them has been a good way to increase my prayer vocabulary. What do the Psalms say about birds singing? “The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches,” Psalm 104:12. They are singing in earnest this morning.
The singing birds, the lush green park, the summer morning mist continue my meditations toward the psalms. “Let the morning bring me word of Your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in You. Show me the way I should go, for to You I entrust my life," Psalm 148:3.
Worship and poetry entwined.
Later in the week, I returned to that prayer. “Please Lord, practice Your song, Your love, Your something through me.” This was as I was approaching a restaurant to meet a friend who was grieving. I wanted to serve the Lord well, and my friend well. What I thought would be an hour or two, ended up being an entire day of loving service as we went to a park, talked about loss, had ice cream, lost her keys, and retraced all our steps.
As I was driving home, I realized that God had taken me up on my prayer. What I think is important to do (projects, generally), is not as important in His economy. A grieving heart in need of comfort and company was His plan for that day. What if I had not made myself available to Him to practice His song of love? He would have found another way to bring comfort, but I would have lost a valuable experience and lesson. I would not have been God's song.
“Ugh! Take it away!” These were the first words I heard my mother say. Our relationship went downhill from there and never really improved.
And yet, God chose to work in our lives. Why? I do not know. But He did, and about 50 years later I put aside my art career to care for a mother I hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years I was her caregiver, advocate and overseer, and it changed me. Spiritual development rarely happens when things are going well. It takes the crucible of painful circumstances to refine us and transform us into the image of Christ as Paul speaks of in Romans, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” Romans 12:1-2).
When my mother contacted me to ask for help, I had to ask myself some questions.
Mom is gone now. I am trying to move back into a life of creativity. This, too, is a journey. Although for 20 years I was a studio artist with gallery representation, I am finding the transition difficult. But God has had some surprises along the way.
I think God has an excellent sense of humor, but I often find I'm the only one laughing. Voltaire (a French author from the 18th century) said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Why is that? I think people have this image of God as someone really angry, ready to drop the hammer on anyone who screws up. This in spite of the fact that over and over again, God uses relational language in scripture to illustrate that He is a loving Father who wants only our best.
A better picture of God was given to me by Tim Cosby. Tim has been an associate pastor and now is a personal coach. He talked about God as a father with a two year old, bending over and gently coaxing the child saying, “Come, come, come.” A good father doesn't blame a two year old for being imperfect. A good father encourages, directs and gently corrects. A good father has a sense of humor.
An example of God's humor is this blog. Never have I dreamed of being a writer, nor would I have imagined I'd have anything worthwhile to share with a large audience. I know writers with a capital 'W'. Writers that are published, that have regular columns in weighty literary magazines. Writers of substance. Me? I have always struggled with words and been painfully aware of their limitations. You think you have expressed something clearly, yet you find instead there has been miscommunication and misunderstanding. Words have often frustrated me. I'm a painter. That's my medium.
So God thought He'd give me a compelling story. A story that needed to be told, not painted. I tried to explain to Him that I'm not a writer and that I couldn't do it. He reminded me that He delights in using the weak and the foolish. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” I Corinthians 1:26-29.
Weak and foolish? Well, I certainly qualify for that!
God and I laughed.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.