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/

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?

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.

Words to End the Year

It’s noon on December 31st and grey fog fills up the space outside, making its way indoors only to be greeted by light and warmth. New Year’s greetings from around the world have begun, the first one being from my niece in Thailand, where papaya trees dot her yard and memories of our gathering immediately after my brother’s death flood my mind.

Many of us are ready to put this year behind – but for what and toward what? Will next year really be better? We don’t know. We forge forth, willing it to be so, shocking ourselves with our strength and perseverance. Believing somehow, without evidence, that “If something so impossibly catastrophic and unimaginably awful can happen, perhaps something impossibly beautiful and impossibly redemptive can also happen.” (paraphrased from @nightbirdie as quoted in Ann Voskamp blog) And yet, that is the very definition of faith.

Rather than try to pull words from an empty place today, I want to give you some words that others have written that have resonated with me. These are words of hope and wisdom, words to start a year.

On The Word: “This year would have been crushing without God’s Word, shining like a pillar of fire, hovering like a daytime cloud, in what has often felt like a wilderness of worrry and woe. There is so much gooness to savor in this life, and learning to be ruthlessly regular in savoring it is a discipline that I know I’ll have to keep practicing, forever.” Laura Merzig Fabrycky

On Hope: “Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.” Tanya Crossman in When Hoping Hurts

On Loving Others: “The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are by a God iwth an upsetting sense of community.” Barbara Brown Taylor

On Forgiveness: “Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross” David French from The Dispatch

On Dwelling: “But I know the place that comes next won’t be a place of stable ground, of settling. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me – of for many of us with wandering hearts and souls that chase after wherever God calls us next. It’s not a place or people or a single purpose that brings our hearts to rest. It’s not stablitiy or control. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O lord and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” said St. Augustine of Hippo…..and yet, my heart feels at rest among the mysteries of what is next and who I am becoming, of where my family’s story is headed and how God will lead. I coudn’t ask for a better place to dwell than here in the unknowing with the God who knows it all.” Nicole Walters in A Place to Dwell for Restless Hearts.

On Stories and The Word: “In the beginning was the Word, after all, as I suspect is shall be in the end: stories will remain our transit points, our shorelines, and our home.” Edwidge Danticat as quoted in Plough Magazine

And so as we end this year, making the small mark in history as the year that was 2021, I am reminded of words I wrote earlier in November, words that remind us that each of us walk a hard human path, and giving grace becomes not just important, but necessary.

“We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

“And so, in this New Year, I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

And to you, who continue to read words in this space, thank you! May your hopes for the New Year transcend your helpless somethings, may you know peace, joy, and the incredible grace of God.

Waiting in Peace

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"*

An extraordinary Christmas story from World War 1 tells of a Christmas Eve truce forged by soldiers on opposite sides of the war. Taken from several different sources, including letters written home by soldiers involved, the story goes that on Christmas Eve in 1914, British troops heard German troops across a field singing Christmas Carols. The Smithsonian account writes that “The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: ‘Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.’” 

Another account, written by Private Frederick Heath gives this account of the night: “All down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” 

“Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”

Christmas 2014, one hundred years after the truce, a British company created an advertisement based on the event. The video poignantly shows a reenactment of the Christmas Truce brought on by hearing enemy troops sing Christmas Carols on a cold, weary and war-torn night.

A strange and extraordinary peace. The next day, fighting resumed and commanders sitting safely inside their plush offices were none too happy about the reports that came out of the night. Nevertheless, for a few hours there was peace in the midst of war.

The ad has been viewed 23 million times, an indication of how desperately we long for these stories of peace in the midst of war. No matter how contrary we are, as humans we come to points where we are aching for peace. Whether it is peace in our families or peace in our friendships, whether it is peace in politics or in ideas, we come to places of weary cynicism. Is there nothing that can help us forge peace? Is there any hope for humanity when we can barely stand our neighbors, let alone the person on the other side of the globe or the opposite end of the political spectrum?

We are hungry and thirsty for these kind of stories, for knowing that there is hope for peace in the midst of war, there is hope for peace in families and marriages, hope for peace in church conflicts and disagreements, hope for peace in our own hearts.

Into this world that longs for peace came a Savior. A baby – small, unassuming, vulnerable. Hardly a threat save to an insecure demagogue, who so feared losing his kingdom that he had every male child under two years old killed. A small baby who came into a world of occupation and displacement, a world of outside rulers and internal threats. A baby, prophesied to be the Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. Is it any wonder that so many years after the miraculous birth of the Prince of Peace, a cautious peace was forged in the middle of a battlefield?

This second week in Advent, in this season of waiting, we wait in peace. May our hearts turn with longing to the only one who can create lasting peace. May our hearts turn to the one who enters gladly into our lives, not only during the Christmas season, but every day that we will have him. God incarnate, long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."*

*Words are from the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadworth Longfellow created into the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

Waiting with Hope

Of all the books I’ve read, Wendell Berry’s character of Hannah Coulter is perhaps my favorite fictional character. You journey with Hannah throughout her life from when she is a girl until she is an old woman, entering into events and relationships that tell you who she is and what she longs for and loves. As Hannah enters her later years in life, she has some things to say about the difference between hope and expectations.

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” It is not surprising that Hannah is talking about her adult children when she says this. Every time I read this book, I find myself nodding in agreement, for parenting has been one of my best teachers about hope vs. expectation. When you are a parent, it is easy to get these two confused. Hoping for your children vs. expecting for them gives a parent a necessary freedom. You realize you cannot control the outcome. Instead, you must trust the process.

This distinction between hope and expectation feels profoundly important in our world. Hope means to cherish or desire with anticipation. It’s about a process, a state of being, about faith and trust. Expectation is about an outcome. It depends on certain things happening that we may have no control over.

On this first week of Advent, hope is the theme, and it is a good theme for me to reflect on. In truth, I have not felt hopeful lately. I have felt desolate and resigned. It is difficult for me to imagine resolution in some areas where I am struggling, some areas where our world is struggling, and I realize I have neither expectation nor hope. I simply have resignation and sadness.

How do I turn this into hope? We cannot conjure up hope like magicians who produce rabbits out of hats, but there are times when we can take baby steps that move us toward hope. Hope is often a long wait and walk in the dark. But when we’re walking in the dark, even one step towards a glimmer of light moves us closer. And so it is with hope. Fractions turn into wholes and small sparks into full fires.

You think the winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Then there are those times when we need others to hope for us. I remember a few years ago saying to someone “I know you don’t have any hope, but I can hope for you.” And so it is with me right now – I don’t have a lot of hope, but I do have others who are hoping for me. This is what it is to belong to the living body of the Church. When I begin to fall, others reach out to catch me. When I lose hope, others hope for me.

I have often wondered why hope is the first in this season, why we cannot begin with something else like peace or joy, but I think hope sets a foundation for us as we wait. A sure foundation that begins this season where we wait for the Incarnation and the one who is Hope personified.

In a beautiful reflection, writer Ann Voskamp recently offered these words about hope:

Hope against hope- that the emptiness will fill, that the wound will heal, that the miracle will happen, that the ashes will rise, that the prodigal will come home, that the marriage will mend, that the page will turn, that the next chapter will dare to bring any dreams come true and more than enough grace to meet you and carry you through, regardless. What you don’t know how to live through, Hope Himself will carry you through.

Ann Voskamp

Perhaps this year, you are one walking in the dark without hope. If so, can I and others hope for you? Can we offer a fraction that can turn into a whole? Or perhaps, you are one who can hope for others this year. Will you offer it this Advent Season, without reservations or conditions?

“I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5