Lemon & Honey; Mystery & Grace

It’s Sunday afternoon – the time when I feel all the things. The time when I simultaneously cry tears of sorrow and yet still feel hope for the world; the time when liturgy – fresh in my mind from the morning – clothes me in a bubble of God’s love.

Though fog covered our area this morning, it has long since burned away replaced by afternoon sunshine pouring through our living room windows. My friend Brit recently introduced me to a song that I have on repeat. “Give us a vision of your love Lord, Let us fall in love with you again.” Bathed in sunlight and lyrics I can hardly imagine the tears that I cried just yesterday when I did not have a vision for anything other than despair. The truth is that in the comfort of my now it is easy for me to have a vision of God’s love. It’s tomorrow, Monday morning, when I will struggle.

We are two weeks into Lent, the rhythm of the season ordering our days and evenings. We rid ourselves of all things dairy and meat, taking up the physical Lenten fast. That is often the easier part of Lent. The more difficult part is the self examination and willingness to repent and learn.

I often feel like I have to hype myself up before Lent begins. I need to be in a place of strength and single purpose, ready to take on extra services, prayers, readings, fasting, and more. A couple of weeks ago when I sent my godmother a note that alluded to this, she responded “I think our desire to enter Lent with us being somehow in control is maybe not the way God wants us to start off.” Her words gave me hope. Isn’t the whole point that we are not in control? That we aren’t, God is, and we need to allow him control?

My love of comfort is ever before me. I love tea, sunlight, good coffee, books, comfortable pillows and chairs, bouquets of flowers, candlelight, large cinnamon rolls….the list goes on and on. These are all good gifts from a creative God who loves beauty and invites us into all things lovely. Still, I am well aware of when my love of comfort pushes against all things difficult.

Beyond the physical are, of course, those things that are far harder to talk about. The heart pieces that keep me up at night, and waking early. The deep pain over relationships that are fractured, the prayers for wisdom to do the right thing, the nervous feelings that take over and distract me.

Yet, Lent is for all these and more. It is the bitter and the sweet, the lemon and the honey. It is correction and love, repentance and forgiveness. It is tears of the heart and joy of the soul. It is muted colors and longer days. It is death and it is life. It is convicting and it is restoring. It is mystery and it is grace.

May you rest in mystery and grace this season, and may there be room in you heart for both lemon and honey.

The Courage to Stay Small

In a recent Whatsapp conversation with a good friend, I posed these questions: “Can you become someone well known and still maintain your integrity? Can you be great in the world’s eyes and still be humble? Can you be great and not lose your way?” The conversation was in response to a well known organization that recently released a statement about the organization’s questionable leadership practices.

My initial response to this organization was not kind and I am embarassed to admit it. My inner “Nasty people will have their come uppance!” arrogance was quickly confronted by a Holy Spirit willing to continue working on my heart. As quickly as the thought arrived, a deep sadness replaced it.

How do we lose our way so quickly? How do we fall for the bright lights and shallow praise over and over again, ignoring the big heart issues, willing to give up our integrity for a short dance in the spotlight?

Thankfully, I listened to the prompt and began my own soul searching.

This searching and self reflection brought me to my writing. When I first began to write publicly, I was so excited to be writing, so anxious to begin something that I had wanted to do for a long, long time. I would get emails from friends saying “Oh! I love that you are writing! I love your words!” and this encouragement reached a hungry, willing part of my heart. Early on I discovered the ‘daily stats’ section on my blog. It was so exciting when I had 10 people who came to Communicating Across Boundaries. Then 30, then 40, then 100! It was amazing! People were reading my words and my words resonated! Then one day, I thought there was a mistake. Within a short time, 4,000 people had come to my site. I started getting comment after comment from complete strangers. Someone Important had discovered my blog, my words. At the time, it was the uprising in Egypt and the start of the Arab Spring. My daughter was in Egypt and I wrote about her. I wrote honestly and from a position of anonymity. When the response came, I felt anything but anonymous. I couldn’t peel myself away from the movement on the stats page.

I became obsessed. With a current world population of almost 8 billion people, my words had reached a whopping 4,000. Wow.

Hopefully, you’re seeing the humor of all of this with me. I thought I was hitting the big numbers. A quick reminder of the world’s population was all it took to bring me down from my floating cloud of glory to a hard earth bump.

I’ve since realized that yesterday’s internet sensation or hero is tomorrow’s villain and spam.

But the bigger issue is the message all around me that I am so willing to absorb. The message to get, have, or be more. More posessions, more house, more education, more status, more followers, more influence. I am assaulted with this from sun up until sun down in blatant and subtle ways throughout the day.

How do I have the courage and the willingness to stay small?

It is critical that I learn to live beyond the messages of more, to live securely in the message of “enough.”

On a side note, it helps immensely to have adult children. They keep me incredibly and delightfully grounded. But, it’s not their job to call out their mom on her striving for more.

This I know: Striving to be bigger and more is exhausting, defeating, chaotic.

Enough is calming. Enough is sobering. Enough is freeing.

A constant striving to be bigger and more leaves me depleted and continually searching for contentment. If I just get this, then I will be content. If I just get one more degree, one more follower, one more writing piece accepted…the list is never ending.

As I write and reflect on the courage to stay small, I remember an incident from a number of years ago. I applied to a graduate school program. I was convinced that I would get in to this program. After all, I reasoned, I’ve watched mere children of 21 years get into this program. The program will be so happy to have one such as me. I mean, what wasn’t to love? My writing was good, my essay sound, my background impeccable. Oh – except for the grades I received in my nursing program, but that was a long time ago.

I was soundly rejected. The day I received my rejection I cried until there were no more tears. I knew in that moment, I was not enough. I would never be enough. And then I called one of my brilliant brothers – in this case, the youngest one. The one who I lovingly offered a scowl and a doll to when he was a tiny baby. I thought I had cried enough tears, but they came on again at the sound of his voice. I tearfully told him the story.

He listened. He comforted. And then he said something that I’ve come back to over and over. He said “I think you need to figure out why it matters so much.” He then reminded me of a C.S. Lewis essay that came from a lecture Lewis gave in 1944.

In this essay, CS Lewis takes a profound look at our desire as humans to be “insiders.” He calls it “the inner ring.”

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left.”

This inner ring can be in any area of life…whether it’s about academics, status, belonging, or influence. We are not born understanding these rings or how to get into them.

At the beginning of the essay, Lewis poses this question: “I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.”

To be a part of that inner ring often means acting or speaking in ways that we end up regretting, we forget who we are, we lose our way, all in the quest to get to the inner ring. Sometimes getting to the inner ring involves giving up our integrity, our honesty, and pretending we are someone who we aren’t.

Call it influence, status, or the inner ring – it all leads to a similar place.

This brings me to my initial questions of my friend, Rachel: “Can we become someone well known and still maintain our integrity? Can we be great in the world’s eyes and still be humble? Can we be great and not lose our way?”

Lewis’ response to the dilemma of the “Inner Ring” is to break the cycle. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we will no longer wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it, by striving so desperately for ‘more.’

Breaking the cycle of longing for the inner ring, whatever it is for you, for me, is about the courage to remain small. It is the courage to not seek an inner ring, to not strive for more. It is the courage to seek God first, middle, and last. It is the courage to give any praise or influence we do have or receive into the capable hands, heart, and mind of the omnipotent God of the Universe.

The courage to remain small is perhaps best worded in Matthew’s Gospel “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”* May I have the courage each day to remain small, to lose my life in the service of the One who must remain large.

Do not despise the day of small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

Zechariah 4:10

*Matthew 10:39

Photo Credit: https://www.instagram.com/arunbabuthomas/

For Your Aching Heart – On Blessing & Beauty

It’s been a week. I heard of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer at the beginning of the week and the news of the invasion of Ukraine at the end. This did not include my own struggles and sorrows, made seemingly more difficult in the winter season. A conflict with a hospital, a work struggle, and feeling dismissed at multiple levels had me talking through tears in the presence of a gifted counselor.

I know what most of us are seeing. We are scrolling through news and social media where yellow and blue colors light up our feed. Many of us are oceans and continents away from conflict, yet we feel the heavy weight of invading injustice.

It was not so long ago when our world posted the same messages for Afghanistan; when feeds filled with the Afghan flag and images of fleeing Afghans. And yet, and I think it’s important to remember this, soon the crisis died for most.

It is good to be aware of world events. It is good to be willing to take on prayer for nations and leaders. Yet, there’s a real danger to this kind of emotion derailing us and taking us away from what is in our midst, for giving us license to ignore those things that we do have some control over. Might I suggest that it’s easier for us to post passionate prayers for a country far away than it is for us to love our neighbor with different political views? It was certainly easier for me to bemoan the evil of a world leader than confess the darkness in my own heart that led to yelling at both a nurse and a doctor. And yet, truly respecting their work and loving them is a small but significant step toward peace-building.

In the midst of a broken world’s chaos and turmoil, I continue to believe that one of the best antidotes is seeking blessing and beauty.

A volume of John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us sits on the bedside stand in our guest room. I looked at the book this morning in an effort to clear my mind and seek poetic words of beauty. In a passage on page 215, there is a section called “Blessing our World Now.”

“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events. The usual answer is: nothing….yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior….When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.”

As I read and reflected on this I began to think of images of healing and transformation, of blessing and beauty.

The image of Ukrainians gathered on their knees on the snow covered ground, in prayer for safety and peace; a gifted physician taking the time to hear my anger and walk me into greater understanding and resolution; a cardinal in a snow covered tree; facilitating a retreat with staff who work all day with those at the farthest margins of our city; talking through what helps give us perspective with a colleague; laughing with a friend; and facing my own weakness with an eye toward the One who is strong. All of these are compelling pieces of blessing and beauty.

I don’t know what chaos holds your heart today, but I do know that living in the chaos of despair never adds to world peace. I know, because I’ve tried it. Just as blood, tired from traveling through our bodies arrives back into the heart to be replenished with oxygen and go back again, so do our heart’s emotions need to be replenished with hope, beauty, and blessing. When our hearts are heavy with grief it is difficult to see beyond the grief. It takes courage to step out of despair and connect with the life around us, the life we’ve been given, willing to be filled with the oxygen of beauty and blessing.

If your heart and soul are weary and in despair, I offer you the antidotes of blessing and beauty.

Prayer for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance, May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough, To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

Verses from The Space Between Us

Prayer for Ukraine and our world from Psalm 46 and words from my nephew:

“Offering prayer in the midst of chaos can seem trivial and unhelpful. I get sick of calls for thoughts and prayers when what’s needed is action. Yet today I woke up to this image…Ukrainians gathering outdoors in February (!) to pray, even as the shells begin to fly. I’m reminded of the solidarity that prayer gives us, both with one another, as well as with the One who put the stars in the sky, yet knows us by name. I’m reminded that prayer is far from trivial. I will pray for the people of Ukraine, as well as for those around the world whose actions may be helpful toward ending this. May they know courage, and may we find the courage to support them.”

“He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow  and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.” -Psalm 46

Today, may your heart be strengthened through blessing and beauty.

Reminders of Death, Reminders of Life

It’s a late February morning as I type this. I am back in cold Boston after a respite in warm and sunny Southern California followed by warm, humid, and sunny Central Florida.

It is never easy coming back to the cold. I describe myself as solar powered, someone who functions best when sun is ever present and palm trees are in the background. Whether you have ever been to Boston or not, I think you all know that this is not my current reality. February in Boston is best described as cold, grey, and lifeless. There are no promising shoots viewable in the ground. It takes faith to believe that February will ever be over and that spring always comes.

Besides being cold, February will always be a month where I pause to remember my brother’s death. It was two years ago this year. Two years since a dreaded phone call and the grief that followed. Two years where we could have used his hard earned life wisdom. Two years ago I walked through the door of the permanent loss that death brings and am slowly learning to embrace an existence where longing is a breath away, and I accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, within this is a mystery, because it brings me closer to the One who understands death, pain, and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. 

As I lean into the cold and grey reminders of death, I find reminders of life. These are like dewdrops of surprise after a dry spell and I find I must write them down. I am grateful for long walks in warm weather; for an extended family wedding where a new couple began life together, the sacrament of marriage once more publicly declared before family and friends; for foliage that takes your breath away; for a fresh mango sliced with lime juice and tajine; for a walk through a wildlife preservation, jumping and wary every time someone mentioned an alligator. Yes – and even for a return where today is 50 degrees and my home is filled with sunshine.

I recently heard a phrase in a song that continues to go through my mind. “So always remember to never forget'” and while it has nothing to do with February, the words are gold.

Reminders of death, reminders of life – May I always remember to never forget and may my February days be reminders of the mystery of both.

How about you? How is your February?

The Persistence of Joy

Last night, on the eve of my birthday, I was celebrated at my younger daughter’s home. The evening was filled with candlelight, white flowers, twinkle lights, and a dinner that rivaled a 5-star restaurant.

It was a delightful and joyous birthday celebration coming after a year that was tear-filled and hard in plain language. I woke this morning, amazed at the grace that touches my life – sometimes as soft as a fingerprint, other times as solid as a weighted blanket.

Joy is so utterly persistent that it can be found, not just at the end of a hard year, but throughout the hard. Sorrow and joy coexisting under the umbrella of grace.* Collectively and individually we know this. Our broader world and our individual worlds may face untold tragedy and sorrow, but we are dishonest if we do not admit that joy surprises us with its strength in the midst of this.

And that’s pure grace. That somehow joy cannot be stolen. It creeps up and surprises us in its delightful resilience. It shouts “I’m here!” And though we may want to push it away, it pushes back – sometimes in candlelight, friendship, and family; sometimes in cards and texts; sometimes in small morning whispers.

Tomorrow I will wake up and it will be a new day on a new year around the sun. Last birthday, if I could have looked into a window and seen the future ahead, it would not have helped me. It would have terrified me. Just as I could not have predicted all that this past year held, this next year too is unknown. The power of God’s grace and comfort is not for our future fears (although it will indeed be available) but for our present realities.

And though there are 365 days of unknown on this blank slate of a year, there is, and always will be, joy. Joy that can’t be stolen, joy that is so much more than mere happiness, joy that comes new every morning, as consistent as the sunrise.

May you discover the Life-Giver of joy,

see your beautiful bloom,

and know that hope is always worth holding on to,

because redemption is coming—and in fact—is already happening here and now.

Can’t Steal My Joy by Bekah Bowman

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”


*I first heard this phrase and wrote about it here: The Sorrow/Joy Continuum

Blessings for a Restless Heart

I’m in a coffee shop sipping a delicious latte while I work on a report. I stare out at bright sunshine, trying to find the right technical words while Aretha Franklin serenades all of us, her voice and style distinctive, beautiful, and unmistakable.

From where I sit, I see sunlight reflected off the Charles River. Trees stand with perfect posture on the river bank, their bare-treed branches naked but still tall.

At this time of year I tend to retreat into my winter cocoon. The cocoon is a way that I cope with the cold world around me. My cocoon has a lot of good things in it. Hot drinks to warm the soul, good books to fill my mind, and a journal to write my thoughts. But the cocoon is too self-indulgent to stay in for long. This is why I have found my way to a coffee shop – because just being around people is a reminder to me that I must step out of my cocoon and communicate.

I am acutely aware of all that I have, all I’ve been given. From a warm house to a spot in a coffee shop drinking an expensive drink, my material ‘blessings’ are uncountable. And at the same time, I am so restless. Restless for what? I’m not even sure of that. Just restless. Restless for more.

I’m caught in one of those all too human dilemmas – the “blessed yet restless” dilemma. 

In years past, I would want to climb the walls when this restlessness began. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the walls, at least I could book a trip somewhere, anywhere. I would want to do anything that would take away this restlessness. Worldwide travel restrictions that began in 2020 and ebb and flow these two years later create a pause on clicking “book trip” and my mind goes through rapid tests and vaccine cards, often ending up in a sigh and a click as I close the travel site. Perhaps, ever so slowly, I’ve come to see this as one of winter’s gifts.

Winter’s gift reminds me that a restless heart can’t be filled with material things.  It’s not a good job, a beautiful home, or a full bank account that fill up the empty, restless spaces. It takes something far better than the material and transient things in my life. A restless heart doesn’t need material things, it needs the beatitudes – the blessings.

My restless heart needs to know more about the blessings – the comfort for those who mourn; the righteousness for those who hunger and thirst after it; mercy for the merciful; the Kingdom of Heaven for the poor in spirit; and seeing God for the pure in heart. Those are the blessings that fill a restless soul.

As I sit restless, wanting to climb the walls of winter and jump to the other side, I turn my face to the sun coming through the ice frosted window. I stop and wordlessly surrender this restless heart. As I do, I find that it leads me straight into the arms of God, where comfort, righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart find their home.

Lengthening Light

Today the darkness begins to grow shorter and the light to lengthen, as the hours of night become fewer…. realize that the true light is now here and, through the rays of the gospel, is illumining the whole earth.” St. Gregory of Nyssa

I sit in my living room, watching daylight arrive. The Christmas tree continues to bring much needed light to the room. Orthodox Christmas was two days ago and our tree illuminates, providing beauty and hope in the still dark days of winter.

I’ve often talked about how I am solar powered. No matter how cold it is, when the sun is out the days feel easier. Light makes all things better. The days of winter are indeed dark and yet, the light is lengthening. Darkness is growing shorter. My colleague told me that from January 1st to January 31st, daylight increases by two minutes every day. A year by year, decade by decade miracle of light and seasons.

The thing about light is that you can never diminish it by taking from it. When you light a candle from another candle, it doesn’t take any light from the first candle. They both burn bright. When you put a window into a wall, the outside light is not diminished by bringing light inside. Maybe that is why there are so many metaphors of light in scripture, because the nature of light is that even a little light will spread. A fraction of light is more powerful than all the darkness that surrounds it.

We are not in an easy time. World events collide with personal tragedies yielding an entire universe that feels like it will never be right. The news shouts at us from every corner, a dark and bleak picture of humanity. Beyond the miracle of seasons and measured time, what does lengthening light mean for us at this time in history? At this time personally? Perhaps our challenge is to witness this lengthening light as a witness to God – God who is above all the seasons and all the chaos. God, who illuminates the world with never diminishing, always lengthening true light. A light that pays attention to the tragedies, but knows there is a story beyond and above our current reality.

In the midst of the horror of Nazi Germany, Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for his outspoken resistance to Hitler, wrote these words that speak to lengthening light and to our present day turmoil: “The grey horizons must grow light. It is only the immediate scene that shouts so loudly and insistently. Beyond the present tumult there exists a different realm, one that is now in our midst. The woman has conceived the Child, sheltered him beneath her heart, and given birth to the Son. The world has come under a different law. Christmas is not only a historic event that happened once, on which our salvation rests. Christmas is the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.“

Lengthening light, grey horizons growing light, “the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.”