Lenten Journey: A Lenten Vent

Over my personal church history, I wasn’t really exposed to Lent as a practice. As a young girl we attended a Baptist church, and later I went to an interdenominational boarding school and a Bible college of the same variety. There was a brief season at St John’s Shaughnessy, an Anglican church in Vancouver, before I met Lowell and we headed to India. There we attended an international fellowship made up of a wonderful blend of countries and cultures. Now Lowell and I go to an Evangelical Free church of Scandinavian descent.

I suppose it was in India at the international fellowship where I was first really introduced to the idea of Lent. I remember my friend, Ellen, who had grown up Methodist, deeply contemplating what she would take up for Lent. That intrigued me. She seemed to really examine herself, she took her propensities and weaknesses seriously. Motivated by nothing but true longing that Christ be more fully formed in her she chose carefully a self-imposed discipline or a fast to serve as her trainer.

I had never really entertained the idea before but here was a close friend modelling what it might be like to intentionally choose a path of preparation for Holy Week. Since then Lent is something I anticipate. I look forward to the lean long days of discipline. I think and pray about abstinences and observances. I consider areas of my life where I seem to have given over control to calories, or indulgences, or sloth. I search out my sore spots, my weak places, my gluttonies, my greed and I seek out the Great Physician and his suggested treatment. Some years I’ve given up social media, other years sugar in my coffee or sweets. I’ve given up certain television shows. I’ve given up bread. I’ve written a daily thank you note. This year I’m going for a daily walk.

Last year just as Ash Wednesday was dawning and friends on Facebook were saying goodbye-announcing their intentions to be absent from that digital social space for the duration of their Lenten journey—another well-meaning friend, boldly posted that Lent is unnecessary and unuseful. He flouted his freedom to not participate. He proclaimed that he’s always aware of the death and resurrection of Christ, that no preparation is necessary for him, since Christ himself made all the preparations necessary for our redemption. His Facebook post stirred something up in me. To be honest, it made me more than a little angry. It seemed to me that he had missed the entire point.

I don’t have to observe Lent. There is nothing in scripture that commands that I do so. I do not assume that it impresses God, that my denial of self accumulates any heavenly points. I don’t fast during Lent because I have to, rather I observe Lent because I get to.

I think many Christ followers are so committed to grace and to the freedom they’ve experienced as a result of the deeply freeing knowledge that there is nothing they can do to earn God’s favour that they’ve thrown out many of the spiritual disciplines we can choose to engage for the purpose of deepening our faith. It’s as if, in a visceral response against legalism, they’ve actually legalized grace. Any ancient spiritual practice that hints at a rule or an imposition has been abandoned. They no longer want to think about obedience, or confession, or fasting.

But there’s great benefit in practicing Lent that I don’t want to miss out on. There is a sense that in observing Lent, we participate in the sufferings of Christ. We identify with the great sacrifices he made on our behalf. It’s a way to cultivate empathy with our Saviour. It’s a way to pause and remember all that he did for our great benefit, our great blessing.

Lent also humbles me if I let it. It’s big and long and beyond my normal capacity for self-deprivation. In order to do it well I must throw myself on the mercy of Jesus. I need his help in giving up myself: my cravings, my self-obsessions, my fickle wants. And when I fail I get to experience the humiliating reality that I have simply done that: fail. Nothing changes in the spiritual realm. I’m still deeply beloved. I’m still invited to continue to pursue, even as I am completely pursued. I can experience the profound God of A Million Second Chances. I can come back, soak in his undeserving grace and start again.

Lent also affirms the reality that our bodies and our spirits are braided together. We are wholly one—our bodies providing the container, the temple, the vessel– for our souls. How I live in my body matters. Our emotions, our faith, our food, our sleep habits, our exercise routines, the prayers we pray, our splinters and bruises are all inextricably linked. As I drag my body out the door for my morning Lenten journey/morning walk I know this full well.

In participating in Lent I’m joining together with my brothers and sisters worldwide who are also observing Lent. The communion of saints from yesteryear who’ve given something up to better remember the death and resurrection of Christ—I’m part of that circle. Those that have yet to be born, yet to choose to live leanly during their Lenten expression—I’m part of that circle too.  Lent connects me to a larger reality outside my own self. It allows me to join with others on a pilgrimage journey that winds around the wide world, picking up people from the far away gatherings of scattered believers, to the cross of Christ. From where I stand I can see people from every tongue, tribe and nation.

I, for sure, do not have to sacrifice for Lent but it’s what I get to do. It’s a privilege that I’m pleased to practice.

The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penancerepentance of sins, almsgivingatonement, and self-denial….In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics. (Wikipedia)

 

“Pardon Our Dust”

We invite you to follow along with Marilyn and Robynn, both grace-desperate Christ followers– one a newly welcomed Orthodox the other a patchwork Protestant– on their Lenten journey. This is the first in this honestly human series.

 

Lowell and I, together with some friends, attended the evening Lenten Service at St Paul’s Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. The nave is under construction and we met in the basement of the annex. Father Patrick took that inconvenient and unfortunate circumstance and skillfully wove it into the homily. He recalled another renovation experience he had when he was in grade six. At that time the Kansas City airport was under a significant renovation process. To his boyhood mind it seemed to be in disrepair for years. What stands out in his memory is the sign that was posted all over the airport for the duration of the project, “Pardon our Dust.” He went on to use the same disclaimer in connection with the church’s current construction project, pardon our dust.

During the homily Father Patrick said something I’m not likely to forget, “Ash Wednesday is the most honest day of the Christian calendar.” And it’s true, isn’t it? Ash Wednesday is a day we intentionally declare our brokenness, our need of rescue, our deep understanding that there is nothing we can do in our own strength or ingenuity to bring about the transformation we all need. We are marked with the sign of the cross, “Remember that you are dust and it is to dust you shall return.” We are reminded of our fragility and our brevity. Wearing the ashes on our forehead we announce to ourselves and to the world that we stand in need of grace and perpetual mercy.

Pardon our dust.

When we lived in North India we rented an ancient old stone house on the banks of the Ganges river. When we first moved in there were walls down and thick weeds growing up over some of the debris. The room that would later be transformed into a guest room had a hole in the roof and bird nests in the rafters. Mold grew up the walls of the courtyard. There were rocks piled up in front of the house. Termites had eaten door frames and window ledges. Another building that would later be changed into a retreat center was completely over run with branches and buried in its own brokenness.  Slowly we began to clear things out. Working together with friends we hired a contractor who rebuilt the guest room, added a bathroom and toilet and a sitting room. Over time we reclaimed corners in the courtyard and we planted flowers. We cut back the mango tree to allow in some sunshine. A kitchen was built, windows were screened, doors were repaired. Rocks were eventually cleared out, grass was grown, more flowers planted. Friends moved in after we left and more space was sanctified. It became this beautiful sacred place.

The thing that used to irk me the most, was when visitors would come, and like us, they would see the potential in the property. They had, of course, no idea how much work had already been done. All they could see was what could be done. They saw implicit promise and they’d remark on it.

Wow… this property is amazing!

Think about what you could do with the place!

The possibilities are limitless.  

Have you ever thought about planting a garden?

How did you find this place? It has so much potential.

Perhaps we should have posted signs, Pardon our dust. Acknowledging the potential seemed to deny the ongoing agonies of transformation we had already embarked on. It didn’t honour the work, the tears, the frustrations, the sweat, the struggle, the effort we had already expended. What we needed was for our guests to Pardon our Dust. We longed for them to admit the work of transformation, to see our desperate need for grace in the ongoing work of redemption. To sit with us in the place of brokenness. To have eyes to see the beauty in all of it–the broken bits, the cleaned up corners, the salvageable spaces. To clearly imagine what yet might happen, what glory might yet be shed across the yard, what visions of continued growth might be just around the corner.

Pardon our Dust also serves to remind us that these are temporary times. There is an end in sight. It’s true we’re limping along now, accommodations are being made, we’re making the appropriate changes. Like any renovation or construction project there is a beginning, a middle and an end. We will get through this. We will be made over. Transformation will happen.

Lent gives us this profound opportunity to admit our great need for a savior. For a season we’re honest about our propensity to sin and selfishness. We acknowledge our need. As a community we readily admit we need each other. We journey toward the cross. We travel together, human and humbled, knowing we’re on the way to reformation, all the while aware we are dust and our terrible need for pardon.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a

season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

(from The Book of Common Prayer)

When Your Fear Goes Through the Roof–A Repost

I’ve worked for hours on a piece that isn’t ready yet…. I’m trying to wrangle some of my heart’s response to the past couple of weeks into words. It hasn’t gone smoothly. So until I get it done I give you this piece I wrote in November 2015. The situations have changed. Perhaps the fear hasn’t. 

Many people are sincerely afraid when they think on the events of the last few weeks: the twin attacks in Lebanon, suicide bombing in Afghanistan, the plane crash in Egypt, protests for justice and equal treatment on campuses across the US, the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Terrorism and the threat of violence have paralyzed people. What once only happened far away creeps closer with every news broadcast. Our world seems hazardous and our safety in great jeopardy. Fear has taken root and has quickly converted to a deep paranoia that colours every opinion, every conviction, every decision.

Consequently there is a growing number of American States that have emphatically decided to close their doors to Syrian refugees. Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback, in a recent editorial in the Wichita Eagle wrote with words wreaking of worry, “My first priority as governor is the safety of all Kansans, and in this dangerous environment, we must take prudent and responsible actions to protect our citizens. That is why I signed an executive order directing that no state agency, or organization receiving grant money from the state, will participate in or assist in any way in the relocation of Syrian refugees in Kansas.” (www.kansas.com/opinion)

Fear is universally understood. When I hear fear in another person’s words empathy for them rises up in me. I have felt afraid many times and it’s not a pleasant place to be. Even this past weekend I spent a nearly sleepless night battling my own set of freak-outs. Friday late afternoon, along with thousands of others, I learned of the Paris attacks for the first time. Lowell is scheduled to fly to Paris on November 25th. He along with thousands of delegates and participants is descending on Paris for the COP 21 International Climate Summit. By Saturday night fear had stirred up my soul into an intolerable frenzy. I turned and tossed all night. I’d fall off to sleep only to be awakened by dreams with bad guys and chases and dark corners and Lowell. I lied there and tried to speak reason to my tortured thoughts. But reason was weak when the lights were off. My imaginings wrecked havoc on all rational thought. I was afraid.

When faced with fear we have choices. We can give into it and let it control our behavior—which is what I did Saturday night with less than restful results. We can ignore it, silence it, stuff it down. Or we can bravely name it and bring it to the only place of hope for healing. The antidote for fear is always faith. The only analgesic for anxiety is peace.

Something happened on Sunday. Whereas Saturday night I was convinced that Lowell should cancel his planned travel to Paris, by Sunday afternoon I knew he should go. I had found a place to put my fear. This may seem overly simple. To the unafraid or to the petrified this might sound shallow and silly, perhaps even trivial or trite. But trust me. I have found a safe place to store my fear and you can too.

I’ve written before about the story in the gospels where the four men—hopeless to do anything to solve their lame friend’s problem—load him up on a makeshift stretcher (essentially an old bed) and they bring him to Jesus. Out of complete desperation, and in full awareness of their own weaknesses and limitations, they actually dig a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus is staying. There in plain view of a large crowd, the same crowd that kept them from going through the door, they lowered their friend down on his stretcher right in front of Jesus.

In the past I’ve done that for my friends and family members that have suffered. I’ve done that for whole countries. I’ve lowered all of Pakistan down on a large charpai (rope bed) at the feet of Jesus. I’ve prayed “dragging, lugging, lowering, pleading prayers” for whole regions. And now, maybe because I’ve had so much experience in doing this for others, I’m doing this for myself. I’m taking my fear through the roof–from up where it’s crescendoed down to Jesus where he ministers. My fears, my anxieties, my perpetual little panics, my worries, my what-ifs, my worst-case-scenarios—they are all laid out on a bed with a tear stained pillow case and turmoiled linens…and I’m laying them out at the feet of Jesus.

Yesterday a young friend asked me what that looks like to, “lay our worries at the foot of the cross,” or to “give our fears to Jesus”. Author Tim Keller says the imagination connects what we know to be true in our heads with what we long to experience in our hearts. There is great power in our imaginations. I imagine bundling up all my fears and bringing them to Jesus. I imagine his expression as he sees me approach. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I throw all my worries at him…as if he’s somehow to blame for it all. He just gently catches it. Sometimes I picture myself pitching my panic at him. He doesn’t even flinch. I cast my cares on him knowing full well he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

Playing Whack-a-Mole with our emotions doesn’t work. We cannot bop these things away. We cannot stuff them down forever. Far better is to recognize what’s going on inside us. Allow our fears to surface—acknowledge their presence. Identify them. Name them. Be gentle with your worries. There is no shame in being afraid. And then lead your fears to the bed, to the stretcher. Help them climb on. Look around inside. “Search me, O God, and know my heart? See if there are any other anxious ways within me.” (Psalm 139:21) Trap the little fear foxes and tie them down on your makeshift stretcher.

I understand the fear that drives a person to curl up into the fetal position. I resonate with the temptation to shut down, to self protect, to hold on to those I love closer, tighter, with shorter reigns. But we are called to external living. We are called to step outside, to love others generously, to welcome strangers warmly. We are called to exit the constricting circle of our fears and to enter into the wide space of faith and grace. This will not happen unless we invite our fears out of the shadows and out into the light. When we openly admit we too are afraid, bravely carrying our strapped down fears to Jesus, even that is an act of trust and surrender. This is where the work of resisting the power of paranoia begins. The Spirit of God softens our souls and leads us courageously into the risky place of love.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4).

Giving our fears to Jesus is not magical. Anxieties aren’t immediately silenced. Fear isn’t –poof!—instantly gone. In fact nothing fundamentally changes. And yet, something noticeable does happen. Jesus does not ignore the cries of those who suffer. With his love, he calms your fears, he separates you from them, he releases you from their power. Remarkably he intentionally stays close to your broken heart. He has a special love and affinity for those who call out to him when they’re hurting. With a tangible presence he surrounds you with unfailing love and comforts you in your troubles. It’s of great consolation to me that there is nothing that can separate us from that love—not even our frenzied fears for today nor our worst-case-scenarios for tomorrow, as hellish as they may seem.

(Psalm 9:12, Zeph 3:17, Psalm 34:4 & 18, Psalm 145:18, Psalm 32:10, 2 Cor 1:3-4, Romans 8:38)

Traveling Mercies

When I was a kid there was a prayer we prayed every time we set out on a trip, which was often. My childhood was marked by travel and transition so you can know that we prayed this prayer frequently. Every trip was prefaced with a prayer that included a little request for “traveling mercies”.

Two weeks ago I was on my way to Thailand. As I buckled my seatbelt, and ensured my seat back was in its upright position and my tray table was closed and locked, my carry-on stowed under the seat in front of me, this prayer came to me. The words, “traveling mercies”, surfaced in my prayer. I smiled at the habituated prayer that had come to me from the faraway places of my mind but then I began to muse about its meaning.

Certainly this is a prayer for safety. It’s a prayer for protection. Travel has its risks. I think it might also be a plea for ease. Heaven knows travel can be rigorous and exhausting.

In the Dallas airport, on my first brief lay over, I met three Bangladeshis in the magazine kiosk who spoke Hindi. I sat next to a Pakistani woman explaining to her husband, left behind and suddenly hungry, how to make chicken curry in the pressure cooker. I watched two little girls playing with each other, in and out and around their daddy’s legs. In Houston across the darkened departure lounge I caught sight of a little girl’s mime show for her parents when she thought no one else was watching. Sitting just across from me two bedraggled parents kept trying to hide their toddler’s pacifier. The dad, with a wink at me, slid it behind his back to his wife, and then quietly explained that they didn’t want him to fall asleep until they were on board. I smiled understandably. The little person was agitated and outspoken about it! He fussed and fretted. He wanted his pacifier. When the dad left to use the restroom, the mom sheepishly smiled at me, pulled it out from her bag and I got another conspiratorial wink. That time I burst out laughing.

A well-wishing text message from a friend, a kind word from a fellow passenger as we went through security, a timely bus to take me to the next terminal, a good cup of coffee, a bird flying through the terminal to the delight of passengers old and young, a pleasant seatmate, earplugs, a kind flight attendant these are all mercies. When a connection is made, luggage is found, your debit card works; when you happen upon mango sticky rice in the airport food court, when you find the bus that promises to take you south to Dolphin Bay, when you manage to sleep some, when there’s someone to meet you with a taxi at the other end—these are all undeserved delights. This is the stuff of traveling mercies.

Today we are embarking on a collective journey. The destination is unknown. We’re being told that we’re heading in one direction, but I for one, don’t trust the man in the cockpit. There aren’t enough seat belts to go around. I’m nervous and more than a little anxious. Not all the passengers understand the situation. There is bickering and battling in the economy seats. Business class and First Class have seemingly inserted their earplugs and put on their eye patches. Those seated in emergency exit rows don’t know what they’re doing, some of them have admitted such but they’re still being asked to sit there. Already I’m feeling nauseous from motion sickness and really we haven’t started moving yet. Turbulence is ahead. It’s going to be a long flight.

I woke up this morning in a dense fog. It was dark outside and I wondered if the sun would shine today. Knowing the trip ahead, I breathed in and out, and prayed for traveling mercies.

Lord, protect us, deliver us, bring us safely to the other side. We ask humbly for traveling mercies. Let us see you at work. Give us eyes to recognize the little gifts.

Help us to bravely stand up for those whose travel documents are in question.

Give us grace to serve our fellow passengers. Help us to be nice to each other. Grant us strength to do all the good we can en route.

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breath. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination.

But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.

Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables

Ocean

Last week we watched the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables. We have all seen it live (in London, no less!) but I believe that the next best thing to a live performance is this movie.

I cannot see Les Misérables without crying. The story,full of redemption and grace, is timeless.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France. While it is commonly thought to be about the French Revolution, it is actually a different insurrection in 1832 that was quickly and violently stopped.

A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne, and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man.’ He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is profound as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace, but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

Les Misérables is great theology wrapped up in an excellent story and beautiful music. Watching either the movie or the live production is nothing if not a holy experience. In Les Misérables, love and kindness are woven together and so grace and mercy triumph.

The Bishop plays a small role in this musical, but it is the Bishop that I have been thinking about since last week. From the beginning, the Bishop takes a risk on this prisoner, Jean Valjean. He doesn’t know why he’s been in prison. Just that he is a man, troubled and in need of food and shelter. In the movie rendition, two older women who obviously care for the Bishop’s residence, look aghast as the Bishop extends hospitality and kindness to this dangerous stranger.

In the theologically rich book of Romans, there is an ending of a verse that is never far from my mind. It’s the end of verse 4 in the 2nd chapter and it reads like this: “not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”* 

We can’t say no to something, unless there is something better to say yes to. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean a picture of something better, of a life lived well, of grace, and of God’s kindess. Jean Valjean cannot say no to this offering and his entire life is changed.

God is infinitely creative in his design of holy moments and experiences; but there are times when I need my vision checked and restored in order to see and participate. Last week, sitting on a couch and watching Les Misérables was one of those holy moments, and I am grateful.

***

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trespasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

*The end of the verse is part of a longer conversation as the whole passage is about passing judgment on others, but for the purposes of my reflections I have chosen to focus just on this verse ending.

Note: For an interesting and informative read take a look at the article “Enjoy Les Miserables. But please get the history straight!”

A Psalm for 2016


A Psalm for 2016 by Robynn (Based on Psalm 136 and written at Sister Irene Nowell’s suggestion) 

2016 has been a difficult year. The entire globe can testify to this. War, terrorist attacks, the zika virus, political chaos, hacking and doping. Social contracts, that we’ve assumed to be universal, have been shredded. Nothing feels safe or reliable any more. We stand on shaky ground. 

A couple of months ago I attended a workshop on the Psalms led by Sister Irene Nowell OSB. Sister Irene is an Old Testament scholar. She has written no less than nine commentaries on Old Testament books including one on the Psalms. At one point during the seminar she led us through a spiritual exercise. We read through the first part and the last part of Psalm 136. In the middle of the psalm we diverged into our own stories. We recited to one another the highlights and heartbreaks of the year. And then we remembered the refrain: His faithful love endures forever. Whatever plot twists your story has taken this year, whatever losses you’ve suffered, whatever rejections, disappointments, humiliations, agonies you’ve encountered: His faithful love endures forever. 

The juxtaposition of the harsh realities of life on the planet with the faithful love of God are impossible to wrap my brain around. It seems almost trite and silly to think about God’s love in the face of world suffering. But it also feels completely impossible to face the suffering of the world without reference to the mysteries of God’s faithful love. 

I’ve followed Sister Irene’s advice again. I’ve reworked 2016 into Psalm 136. 

Psalm 136

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights—

His faithful love endures forever.

the sun to rule the day,

His faithful love endures forever.

and the moon and stars to rule the night.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Paris Climate Agreement ratified and went into effect.

        His faithful love endures forever. 

 The Brexit vote left Britain, Europe and the world reeling.

        His faithful love endures forever.

An inspiring All Refugee team competes at the Summer Olympics.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The situation in Syria continues to decline. Aleppo is nearly obliterated.

        His faithful love endures forever.

Fifty were tragically killed in a nightclub in Orlando.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The brightest and boldest super moon in over 70 years broke through the November night’s sky.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The Chicago Cubs won baseball’s World Series!

        His faithful love endures forever.

In an unprecedentedly ugly election cycle, Donald Trump, wins the Elections in the United States.

        His faithful love endures forever.

Mother Theresa was made a saint.

       His faithful love endures forever.

India, without warning, banned the 500 rupee and the 1000 rupee note.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox church met for the first time since 1054.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Harriet Tubman is going to grace the front of the American twenty dollar bill.

            His faithful love endures forever.

This morning’s sunrise was radiant in broad stripes of bright colours across the dark horizon.

            His faithful love endures forever.

When the world news was too much to bear fake news sites did what they could to make it worse.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Too many black men were killed by too many white police officers.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Former dictator Hissene Habre of Chad was convicted of crimes against humanity and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

            His faithful love endures forever.

India unveils the world’s largest solar panel plant!

            His faithful love endures forever.

Five young students in Manhattan, Kansas: Isaac, Adelaide, Lilly, Kathy and Bronwynn, stood up against the status quo for the 57 Native American students who have been personally hurt by the Indian mascot.

            His faithful love endures forever.

 He remembered us in our weakness.

His faithful love endures forever.

He saved us from our enemies.

His faithful love endures forever.

He gives food to every living thing.

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven.

His faithful love endures forever.

[Picture Source: https://goo.gl/images/tjg0LQ%5D

Foundations & Generations 


We traveled to Los Angeles this weekend for an early Christmas with our son and daughter in law. It was a beautiful weekend with sun and palm trees, the warmer temperatures a welcome change from an arctic freeze. Our East coast cold can chill the bones and the soul. 

From eating our fill of great Mexican food to sharing an early Christmas, we made the most of our short time. 

As parents, we watch our kids exit our homes to create homes of their own with nostalgia and some tears. Memories of toddler kisses and bedtime stories will never completely fade.  Instead they remain, packed into the boxes our minds create for these things. But there is incomparable joy in watching our children “become.” That is what we now get in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.

As I grow older and watch my children enter into adulthood, I ponder a recurring theme of foundations and generations. This circle of life depends on both to be successful. To function well as adults we need secure foundations; foundations of nutrition, of physical nurturing, of spiritual guidance. A healthy new generation will not grow without a solid foundation. 

Moments of connection with adult children are both hopeful and nostalgic, seeing a new generation ‘become’on the foundations of the past. 

When we are in the middle of building foundations, we make mistakes. There are times when we fail our kids and we fail ourselves; times when the foundations seem shaky, built on sand and not on rock. Still other times, by grace we get it right. We shake our heads in disbelief and amazement – it worked! The foundation is strong and secure, the next generation can build on what came before. But only a foolish parent takes full credit, refusing to see that this is all grace. 

We travel back on a lonely Sunday night flight, the plane full of weary travelers, perhaps others like us who have traveled to see a new generation springing from an older foundation. 

I look at the man by my side, and I am so grateful. We’ve navigated some rough waters together, some that threatened to drown us. But they didn’t. Instead we travel together, united in our prayers and love for this next generation. 

And so it is, foundations and generations–as old as the human race, reminding me that our journeys matter. 

The Simple Pin

Since November 8th, the day that shall live on in infamy, people have started wearing little safety pins. I was unaware of this until my friend Jill explained their significance and gave me one to wear.

To wear a safety pin is to make a statement. Where this began is a little uncertain. There are stories from World War II of Dutch resistance members wearing the safety pin in loyalty to Queen Wilhelmina. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the UK, there was reportedly a woman, who used the twitter handle @cheeahs, who wanted to demonstrate publicly that she stood in solidarity with the immigrant community. Immigrants were treated with suspicion in the UK. The Brexit vote seemed to open up a door for hatred, threat, and violence. Hatred had a voice. What about a voice for safety? So this woman wanted members of the immigrant community to know she was a safe person. She wanted to stand with them. Here in the US people are wearing the safety pin to similarly align themselves with people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, and immigrants.

On Thursday, following the election, our youngest daughter came home and reported a story about her Muslim friend. His mom was nervous to go out of the house wearing her hijab. The world now felt like an unsafe place for her. I know of another young woman, this one white, who is a victim of sexual abuse. Fear and a renewed sense of her vulnerability left her paralyzed for several days after the election. I wish with all my heart that these two women would know that I and so many many others are safe spaces in this new atmosphere.

While the safety pin has been a meaningful symbol to many it’s also been met with eye rolls and it’s share of sighs and “Oh brother!”s. The Internet is full of sarcastic posts and tweets and articles that disclaim it. Perhaps it’s another meaningless attempt by white people to band aid up a fatal wound.

I’m not naïve enough to think that wearing a safety pin is all that we have to do. But surely we have to do something even to communicate hope to those suddenly a feared? Maybe the safety pin is a good place to start.

Perhaps the pin serves as more of a statement to myself. I will do something. I will respond. Maybe it emboldens me to reach across community divide, to smile at a stranger who looks differently than I do, to make conversation with someone I don’t know at the grocery store, on the bus, at the library. Maybe it reminds me that there is always something I can do—something small, something a little bigger, something bold.

My friend Jill is a perfect example. Jill is a gregarious extrovert. She loves people without restraint. This election cycle has been hard for her too. She sees the ostracized further marginalized and it’s hurt her. She hears the racial slurs, the negative stereotyping and she sees what it’s doing to her country, her community, her family.

A week ago, Jill donned a silver safety pin. She wore it to the airport, through security, to the departure gate. In the departure lounge she looked around to see who might need someone to connect with. She approached a black man across the way and commented casually about his t-shirt. He was wearing the team mascot from the same high school where her freshman son attends. They struck up a conversation about teenage sons and sports.

Fully aware of the pin on her lapel, she crossed the lounge again and sat next to an elderly black woman. Jill struck up a conversation. Before long the two women discovered they had Albuquerque in common, and interesting family systems and a love of cookies. After they boarded the plane and were en route to Dallas, Jill escaped her seatbelt and sought out her new friend. She handed her a card with her phone number and address on it. She told Ms. Johnson she would be bringing her cookies. “No you won’t!” Ms. Johnson responded in disbelief. “Oh yes I will,” Jill laughed!

When the plane reached Dallas and Jill was deboarding, the flight attendant made eye contact with Jill’s safety pin and then with Jill. Tears filled her eyes and she reached out and hugged Jill.

Jill sent me this text message: I think the safety pin has meant more to me as a reminder to be bold and seek out others. I was not afraid to look for those who might need a smile. Honestly I have not worn my cross necklaces lately-even before election. It just has too many negatives. But the safety pin felt right-be an ally, just be there, show that you care and are not judging. 

White people wear your safety pins! Don’t pretend to think that this enough…but understand fully that this is a beginning. You’re making a statement even to yourself. We have work to do…. We are going to need all the courage we can get and if a pin can poke our consciences and wakes us up to do something it’s worth it!

I just got another text message from Jill. “I just took my new friend, Ms. Johnson, cookies! It was very special.” Wow! Maybe the safety pin can also serve the same function as strings tied around our fingers, reminders to actually act on our best intentions.

 

You can read more about the pin:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-poignant-reason-people-are-wearing-safety-pins-after-brexit_us_5773da43e4b0352fed3e8368

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/11/11/safety-pins-brexit-donald-trump-election/93639074/

https://www.bustle.com/articles/195044-wearing-a-safety-pin-isnt-enough-here-are-8-concrete-ways-to-be-an-ally

 

The (Political) Work of Forgiveness

Here at Communicating Across Boundaries we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the massive elephant (and the donkey) in the room. Both Marilyn and I, although this was not planned or discussed, have largely avoided politics in our writing this election season. I’m not sure what Marilyn’s reasons are but mine have been deep and wide: I don’t think either candidate needs any more free press, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to formulate an objective sentence, I’m too angry to write coherently. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Lowell, in his blog, The Liberator Today, quoted conservative commentator Erick Erickson who wrote “A Clinton administration may see the church besieged from the outside, but a Trump administration will see the church poisoned from within.”   Erickson went on to say, “I think Hillary Clinton will do lasting damage to the country. I cannot vote for her.  Having fully weighed my opposition to Trump, I think Donald Trump will do lasting damage to the witness of the Church in America and I therefore cannot vote for him. I am without a candidate. I will not harm my witness nor risk Trump’s soul to serve my political desires.”

You may or may not agree with Erickson’s opinion on Clinton or Trump—I’m not sure I completely do– but surely one thing we can all agree on is that this presidential race has been more ugly and more divisive than most. Trump and Clinton have joined up to divide more families, more groups of friends, more religious communities than anyone would have thought possible. Things have been said, opinions have been discussed, names have been called. Together, Clinton and Trump have successfully arrived at a new type of bipartisanship — both parties are divided and realigned, they’ve been shuffled and dealt out in surprising ways.

An American president will be voted for on November 8th,. One candidate will be chosen by the people. The other candidate will have to join the rest of us in coming to grips with the outcomes. Once the president is elected the real work will begin–and I don’t actually mean the work of the presidency. Each of us will have to get to work. We have some serious forgiving to do.

It’s folly to trivialize or minimize how difficult forgiveness can be. When we’re hurt there are a hundred physical and physiological mechanisms responding in us. Biologically we are wired with a fight or flight reaction to pain: our blood pressure rises, our heart rate accelerates, pupils dilate, our muscles tense up. These reactions were given to us to defend our bodies. There’s a reason we call them “defense mechanisms.” That response transfers into how we respond to emotional pain too. We clam up, shut down, freeze over, self-protect or we scream out in anger, rage or protest. Reacting is hardwired into us at our creation.

Forgiveness works against how we’re naturally determined to be. Part of the work of forgiveness is working against our natural selves. Up hill, up stream, against the current. We cannot will or make forgiveness happen. Poet Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” It is virtually impossible to do the work of forgiveness without a measure of supernatural grace.

My husband Lowell went on to write:

We each bring our hearts to God with the humble prayer of examen, and ask him to reveal what each of us brought (or failed to bring) to our current state of affairs. God is generous …  Surely, he will examine our hearts with gentleness and woo us to the Cross. If we have said a harsh word to another person in the heat of 2016, did not speak the truth in love, or knowingly perpetrated a lie for argumentative advantage, then we should seek out that person or persons and ask for forgiveness. … Reform will also lead us to forgiving others, and I do believe God will not nurture reform without it involving forgiveness one to another.**

Collectively we’ve been through a rather traumatic election cycle. We’ll need to be kind to ourselves and to each other. It’s going to take time to recover. Foundations that we have presumed to be firm have suddenly revealed their fragility. Indisputables have been disputed. Unquestionables have been questioned. Presumptions have been poked and prodded. We’ve felt fear and dread. We’ve been incredulous and angry. Panic has poked through our patriotism. The spirit of the Trump campaign has given us permission to be rude and unkind, to not censor our commentary on those that are different than we are. The demons of our demagogues have been dark and destructive. Democracy is not the safe space we thought it was.

In a spirit of reconciliation we need to roll up our sleeves and engage our broken communities with acceptance and hope and work towards healing. We need to grieve our losses, own our despairs and our disappointments. Now is the time to begin the work of forgiveness. It won’t be easy. Forgiveness never is. But it’s important work for the sake of our souls. For the past two years we’ve bitched about political polarization. Unity can only be realized on the holy ground of forgiveness. It’s the start line, a place for both sides to meet, in the ongoing political race. Forgiveness alone provides the freedom to move forward for the forgiven and for the forgiver. It gives us a vision for hope. Slowly our focus shifts away from the ugliness of the past to a glimmer of hope for the future.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book, Sacred Fire, writes, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive! To die with a forgiving heart is the ultimate moral and religious imperative. We should not delude ourselves on this. All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.” (p256)

**(http://www.theliberator.today/blog/2016/10/12/naamans-voters-guide-for-2016-4how-quickly)

*Photo credit: johnlund.com

 

The Welcome Prayer

I have to admit I’m really struggling this week. I’m angry at some recent news from an organization close to my heart. I’m disgusted by the political situation in the country where I live. I’m horrified by the people that excuse sexual indecency and the language of predatory sexual assault. I’m embarrassed by those Christians in leadership that refuse to remove their blinders and truly see what’s happening.

Meanwhile racial imbalance continues to effect communities across this country. More Syrians fleeing their ravaged homeland have died this week in trying to escape. Much of Haiti’s infrastructure has been erased by fierce winds and waters. Over 800 people died in the wreckage. Thailand’s beloved King has died leaving thousands mourning and in uncertain transition. Yemen is still reeling from the double bomb attack at a funeral last week which left 140 people dead and over 500 injured. The situation in Kashmir is heated and precarious. The Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, once again on trail for blasphemy, has had her case adjourned for the time being with the threat of false accusation still hanging over her.

It’s too much. Never before have I been so tempted to cancel everything, stay in my pajamas, and curl up in my bed for a few days. I’m heart sick and worn out from it all. I want to make friends with denial and ignorance. I’m done.

I was awake early this morning working on a different blog post. It was an angry rant full of passion and fury. As I was madly pounding at my keyboard I realized that the piece had taken on a life of it’s own. The words were nearly typing themselves. Anger was colouring in ugly shades outside the lines of reason and wisdom. I pushed my chair away from my desk, poured myself another cup of coffee and paused.

Leanna Tankersley tucks into her very insightful book, Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding, a chapter entitled, Welcoming It All. In it she includes the Welcome Prayer as written by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk:

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions. I let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

Tankersley goes on to say, “I love these lines, this concept, this practice. The Welcoming Prayer takes us out of our heads and into a space where we stop, even for a very few minutes, our analyzing and figuring. We relinquish our strategies and allow God to work within us, in the place where we are far more malleable than our mind. We are opening ourselves up to a divine encounter which is never a bad idea.” (Leanna Tankersley, Brazen, 2016. pg 200).

Admittedly it’s a hard prayer to pray today. I don’t want to “let go of my desire for power or control.” I don’t want to “let go of my desire to change any situation.” I’m rattling at my chain for change and decency and solutions and justice. But, if I’m honest, the rattling isn’t doing my soul any good. I’m worked up and out of shape. I’m a mess. I’d love to escape and avoid and hide.

Even as I sip my now lukewarm coffee, I think there might be a meaningful way to separate myself from the mess of it all. It strikes me that there’s a profound difference between burying my head in the sand and lifting my eyes up to see above the muck. Both refuse to focus on the crud and horror of what’s happening. But one gives me permission to welcome what God is doing. Looking up allows me to make eye contact with a broader perspective and with Hope itself! If I look up I see above the landscape, I see the horizon, wide and eternal, stretching beyond what I now know, making way for what’s to come.

Perhaps today is a day to breath deeply: in and out. I need to remember what is true. I need to be faithful to what I cannot see. I need to call to mind the presence of Christ and the Living Hope that dwells in me. I need to make space inside to choose to welcome what God wants to do in me.

My husband Lowell often quotes from the novel, Brothers K, by David James Duncan. There’s a scene in the novel where an old baseball coach is advising a young batter, “He said there are two ways for a hitter to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said—which sounds almost the same, but is really very different—is to want the very pitch you’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also the one that’s going to strike you out looking. And even the one that’s maybe gonna bounce off your head.”

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today—even the pitch that’s going to strike me out, even the one that’s going to hit me in the head and knock me out— because I know weirdly enough it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions—including trying to sort out the world’s wounds. It’s not easy but I’m going to try to let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself and the anger and angst I feel when I can’t. Oh God please help me open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

 

Widening Our Embrace

Ronald Rohlheiser, in his book, Sacred Fire, addressed especially to older pursuers of the faith has a short section entitled, “Be Wide in Your Embrace.”

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269)

However there is a side benefit of this widening embrace that I had never thought of before until a couple of weeks ago. Rohlheiser goes on to suggest an interesting correlation:

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things.

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

 

Some of you know I’ve been working for ages on a book I’m calling, God is Weird. (And when I say “working” what I really mean is I’ve tossed the idea around, opened a file by that name on my computer and generated a very rough outline and a couple of chapters.) The notion of God’s weirdness struck home 17 years ago when a dear friend from childhood died too young. She left a four-day-old infant daughter, a desolated husband, grief stricken siblings and devastated parents. I was floored by God’s response to our prayers for healing. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t come barging in and restore health and order and a mother to the tiny child. I was beside myself with anguish and I was very angry. The only thing that made any sense in that moment was how obvious it was that God himself made no sense whatsoever. He was, in my mind, completely strange. He was weird.

And he is. He’s strange. He’s completely foreign to us. He does things differently than we do. Often we shake our heads, completely befuddled. We grieve, we stomp our feet—angry, our worlds upset. We cry out confused to the core.

It’s not like he didn’t warn us. Scripture is full of references to the Otherness of God. God is Holy and the word Hebrew word “qodesh”, holy means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness”. It also means, “otherness, transcendent and totally other” (patheos.com).

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
   For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT)

If we close off our hearts to anything or anyone that’s different than our souls will suffer. The unintended consequence is we risk closing our hearts off from God. We think we’re protecting ourselves—protecting our children—we build walls, put up fences, grow shrubbery to block out our neighbors. We keep our eyes averted. We look away. We cross the street. We pick up the pace.

Admittedly the temptation exists to protect ourselves from God himself too. I understand that. He seems so unpredictable in his strangeness it often feels super scary to continue to open our hearts to Him. We fear what he might do. We panic at the prospects of where he might push us. He might mess with our personal status quo. It’s too terrifying to think about.

But what kind of life do we want? It’s a dark death-life if we seal our souls off from living. It’s impossible to close off only the things that make us uncomfortable. When we shut down we shut out all of it: the good, the bad, the joy, the sadness, the exhilaration, the risk. We shut out the familiar and the Stranger.

In the moment we chose to accept strangers—those previously considered “strange” to us—we’re choosing to open ourselves to God’s wide mercy and to his wild ride. He meets us in those moments of choice. He sees our fear and he steps in with courage. When we deliberately incline ourselves to the other, we find not only a potential space for friendship and human kindness, we might also find God.

 

‘Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:40)

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Heb 13:2)

A Short Correspondence on the Issue of Feeling Trapped

Dear Robynn,

I enjoyed your “Friday’s with Robynn” post (A Hidden Pearl. January 29,2016). It really resonated with me, so thank you for posting it. It was very thought provoking for me.

Earlier this year I experienced a very similar feeling to the one you had having returned from Thailand. My friends and I arrived back from India on January 5th. But my first day of work felt so meaningless. I sat behind my desk and stared at my computer thinking, “who care’s about organizing this stuff….!?!” It felt so pointless and so mundane. And it took me a long time to get back into the swing of things and be motivated again.

It brings back fears I have of being trapped and not being able to move and travel or something. But at the same time I wonder what is it that I hope to find overseas that I cannot find here? Being in India this Christmas was fantastic, but it showed me that even if I was to move back it would not be the same as all the memories I cherish and the experiences I wish to recreate there. As a TCK am I cursed to always be discontent where I am living? Am I always going to be trying to re-establish what I lost? It scares me.

I found that book you lent me very challenging; The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I love the idea of building that strong community with the people around me and knowing a place and its people intimately, but putting down roots and making that decision that this is where I will live and work and help to build the Lord’s kingdom is terrifying.

Thinking of the Pearl of Great Price is comforting in the midst of all this going on in my head and in my heart. Jesus is here in America just as much as He is in India and Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment. I need to move away from this idea that I will find peace in any country of this world and move toward knowing I will find peace in the One who created this world.

I think its high time I started to search for this Pearl! And like you said, that hunt for Him will never disappoint!

Dear Young Third Culture Adult,

Thank you again for reading what I write! And thanks for so honestly interacting with it too. I love your heart.

I can so relate to the fears you’ve articulated. I still fear being stuck more than anything. Sometimes when I think about the decision we made to stay here in Kansas I feel a sense of panic begin to creep up from my toes. The idea that we are trapped here, in this house, in this city, in this country freaks me out. I have to constantly present my heart to Jesus asking for daily grace and new mercies.

I think I probably told you this story already…but when my husband Lowell and I decided to buy the little blue house on Colorado Street I resisted. I was anxious to move out of the trailer court only because I really wanted a basement here in Tornado Town. But the idea of BUYING felt so permanent and so forever and so stocks and barrels like. I felt claustrophobic. It stirred up anxiety in me. After we had put our signature on hundreds of papers, initialed countless more and signed our souls over to the bank Lowell and I went out for lunch. Most couples, I imagine, celebrate the purchase of their first home. For me it was a bittersweet time. I cried, wet, salty tears. I’ll never forget Lowell’s response. He put his hand across the table and gently took up my shaky hand. He looked me in the eyes and said what I longed to hear. This doesn’t mean anything. We are not stuck here. If Jesus calls us to Mongolia tomorrow we’ll sell the house. This is not a big deal. There was such reassurance in those words. I felt such relief.

You are not trapped. You are not stuck. I think the enemy of our souls piggybacks on this issue for the Adult TCK. He wants you to think you are stuck. He wants you to feel that a life in your passport country is a purposeless life. Whatever he can do to undermine your sense of worth and calling and purpose He will do. He comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus comes to give us life abundant—“a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

Returning from Thailand in January was difficult at first. But then out of the blue I started reading a book about prayer. It struck me that our purpose is sure in Christ. We are here for the Kingdom of God. We are here for His Glory. We are here to make Jesus famous. Those things have not changed—no matter where we live. But our enemy likes to erode our sense of who we are. He likes to confuse. He steals our purpose. He makes us feel like we have nothing to offer, that we are meant to live somewhere else. It’s the same argument he used in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The enemy tries to tell us that God is cheating us, that God knows we thrive somewhere else but he’s stuck us here forever to rot away.

It’s changed the way I’m praying. I’m now asking God to protect my sense of purpose. I’m asking him to give me a divine satisfaction with the space he has for me. I’m asking for contentment and joy. And then I’m asking for protection over that satisfaction, over that contentment, over that sense of purpose. Understanding my sense of purpose as something the enemy is opposed to is a new thought for me but I’m trying this out and seeing Jesus victorious in it. To be honest, and this is surprising me even as I write it, I haven’t thought much about my purpose for the last couple of months since I started to pray that way. I think Jesus really is protecting that….declaring it off limits to the enemy of my soul who has tortured me there for so very many years.

Resist the guilt my friend. You wrote, “I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment.”  What might feel like guilt is really an invitation. Jesus is inviting you into deeper places of stability and affection and contentment. He longs for you to find those things in him…

We are so in this together. I wish I could tell you that these things go away. I’m afraid this is your opportunity to find Jesus faithful for many years to come. This is your place of need. This is your thorn in the flesh. But I can also say with great rigor that Jesus WILL BE faithful at every turn. I’ve battled these things over and over again. I can see how Jesus has used this in my story to push me deeper into Who He Is! My faith has grown. I’ve learned that in this suffering He has been kind to me.

 

This is my Body–A Repost

I’ve been thinking about the aging process and how it plays out in my body. And then I remembered this piece I wrote three years ago. I think it relates. It seems like we need to do the work of coming to grips with our limited capacities, our weariness, our weakness. This is (still) my body, breaking and broken. 

Though they may be out there, I have never met a woman who is not consumed with food, and body image.There are those who are clinically diagnosed with eating disorders but all of us are to some degree disordered in our relationship to food and to our bodies. It started, of course, in the garden with Eve and the fruit. It was food and it spoke to her. Granted the fruit didn’t actually talk, but her soul’s enemy spoke to her and the message was mixed in with the food. Temptation with a spiritual marinade, a dipping sauce, a glaze.  Ever since then we’ve battled burgers and burritos; biscuits and beans. Our fight with food has been handed down to us through a long line of mothers.

I am no exception. I’ve wrestled food since I hit puberty. It’s a love-hate relationship. I love to eat. I hate how food gathers and stays on my body. I love the taste and smells of food; the texture, the flavours. I hate the pull and power of food. My history with food includes unseemly weight gain with entering and reentering cultures, with culture shock and stress.

Lately my body has been out of whack. My metabolism is on strike. My ability to burn calories seems to be deterred by fatigue and hormonal changes. I’ve never loved exercising. I love people. I’ll go for a walk if a friend will go with me. But a walk just for a walk’s sake seems like a waste of time. I don’t enjoy it. Now I can hardly eat anything and the weight still seems to creep on. It’s depressing. It’s disheartening.

Last week I was praying again for grace in this…. I don’t want to obsess about it. I don’t want to become consumed with myself, with food, with my body or with my feelings about my body. I was trying to release all that again up to Jesus who understands about bodies. He chose to be bodied, to take on flesh, to become a person. He came for our souls and for our bodies. He healed the lame, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Jesus healed diseased bodies, broken bodies, bleeding bodies. He touched bodies that no one else would touch. He associated with bodies that others avoided.

As I was praying for my body and my emotions about it…these words came to mind. “This is your body.” It seemed a divine pronouncement over me, over my agonies, over my physical frame. I repeated it slowly, out loud, “This is my body. This is my body.” I felt somehow it was a remedy for my conflicted distorted soul stuck in this conflicted distorted body. This is my body. I’ve been chewing this over and over. It keeps coming to mind. As the negative thoughts come, this thought has dropped like a sweet warm blanket to cover the ugliness of my beliefs. This is my body.

At the last meal that Jesus shared with his friends he tried again to explain to them that he was about to be executed, that he would die, that he would come back to life. It was a mystery to them. They couldn’t understand it. Using what was right in front of him (the food!), Jesus, picked up the bread, and he broke off a chunk. This was a metaphor they could figure out. It was the language of survival and comfort. It was memory and mystery. It was bread. “This is my body,” he said, “Broken for you. Take it. Eat it.”

Jesus wasn’t just giving them a cute expression, a fun phrase, or a clever speech. When Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you,” it’s significant. His broken body—his sacrifice—has the capacity to redeem me. All of me. My body. My relationship with food. All of it. His body restores my body. He offers us his broken body for our consumption. We are invited to, “take and eat”. We consume Jesus and we are satisfied. That alone means something for my food issues and my body issues and my brokenness.

In that moment at that last meal when Jesus proclaimed, “This is my body, broken for you,” it makes me wonder if in some sense Jesus himself had to come to grips with his own body and its impending brokenness. He was about to endure the profound breaking of his own body. He leans into it and he accepts it. That has implications for me accepting my own body and my own brokenness.

This holy truth, with its layers and layers of implication and revelation, has been slowly seeping into my soul this week. This IS my body. It’s the body I’ve been given. It’s no surprise to my Creator that my metabolism is malfunctioning. He’s not shocked by my disdain for exercise. He’s not horrified by longings for a piece of cake or a handful of snack mix. He actually loves me completely. From the freckles on my arms to the hair that’s coming in grey and wiry; from my ingrown toenails to my one short thumb; from the ski-sloped nose to my varicose veins…all of it designed and delighted in by my Potter, my Maker.

And it’s broken. Broken because of the Fall. Broken in childbirth for my children. Broken in India for the sake of my calling. Broken in aging. Broken in natural deterioration. Broken here for my holy now. Broken for Jesus.

We follow in his example. We mimic our model. We saw him lay down his body for the sake of his friends and so we lay down our lives for the sake of ours. It’s our way of participating in the redemption of others. We give ourselves up. We give ourselves over. And we experience that brokenness for the sake of others. Our bodies become a type of sacrifice, living and holy.

Part of the mystery includes offering to Jesus our brokenness. Our Catholic brothers and sisters understand this. When they write about suffering some of the first words out of their mouth are almost always that we get to give our suffering as an offering to Jesus. There’s certainly no sense that Jesus takes and eats us. He doesn’t consume us or use us up.  But we do get to offer up our broken bodies to him, our broken and stale bread, our broken and moldy connection to food.

That is a spiritual reality made present and tangible in our physicality. Hurting, aching, bearing, enduring, suffering. All in our bodies. St Paul wrote that he was glad to suffer, for his friends, in his body…somehow he knew he was participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for Jesus’ body, the church. Paul understood that suffering bears fruit. He was “willing to endure anything” –and as preposterous as it sounds–he even considered it a privilege, a divine opportunity, if it would result in the rescue of another or in glory going to God.

This is my body, a holy temple filled with his Holy Spirit presence. Broken it may be. Damaged. Wounded. Lumpy. Chicken pock-marked. But there is a mystery at work in my members. And I give myself up to be consumed by others. I get to participate in that redemption-rescue mission work, where bread is broken and wine is poured.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.  Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2)

(Col 1:24, 2 Tim 2:10, Phil 1:29)

We Had a Prayer Meeting

On Wednesday evening we had a prayer meeting. Our church isn’t big on prayer meetings. Prayer, yes. Prayer meetings, not so much. They happen very rarely. And this was no ordinary prayer meeting. The leadership of the church called us together to pray for racial reconciliation. The announcement read like this: “In light of the racial unrest of this summer, please gather with our elders on Wednesday, August 31st at 7 p.m. to pray for racial reconciliation in the Church and in the world.”

True to my nature I was in the foyer of the church visiting with a friend and arrived in the sanctuary just as things were about to start. Lowell guided us to a circle across the room, close to the front, where we knew one single mom of young black sons. He wanted us to pray with her. The circle also included other friends we’ve known for a long time and two young black women we had never met. We quickly introduced ourselves, shook hands and sat down as our pastor stood to welcome people and begin the prayer meeting.

The format was pretty straightforward. We sang a song or two, Pastor Steve shared some scripture and some thoughts, suggested prayer requests were projected on the screen, and then we prayed in small groups around the room.

It would have been better had I had a chance to chat with the young black women before we started. It would have been much easier to pray about such weighty emotionally charged issues, issues that are far from black and white, had we known everyone in our small group. As it was I felt so uncomfortable and so awkward. Who were these women? What was the condition of their hearts on this topic? Were they students at K-state? Were they from Manhattan? Were they from places torn apart by fear, prejudice and violence? What were their stories? Who were they?

I joined in the prayer, praying haltingly, hesitantly, tiptoeing around the deeper places, always aware of the place in my stomach that felt so very uncomfortable. I wanted to leave the room. I wanted to find some excuse and leave the room. The discomfort and dis-ease I felt in the pit of my stomach were poignant. It didn’t help that the two black women for reasons unknown to me (were they shy? did they know anyone in the circle? were they feeling as uncomfortable as I was?) didn’t pray out loud.

Midway through the evening, Pastor Steve invited Dr. Kimmery Newsom to the front to share before launching the next round of requests and prayers. Dr. Newsom is my personal friend. A strong black woman with unbelievable drive and determination, she’s a professor at Kansas State University and knew most of the people at the meeting. Her quick wit and expressive face diffused the dynamic with laughter. You could feel the room exhale and relax.

Kimmery greeted the elephant in the room. “Many of you are probably feeling uncomfortable. And that’s ok.” She read scriptures about love: the love of God and the love we are called to. “They will know we are Christians by our love,” she quoted. And then she ended matter of factly with this, “This isn’t a race issue, it’s a sin issue.” When you’re told to love, not loving is a sin. It’s that simple.

Love compels us to join a circle that includes people we don’t know. Love is willing to feel uncomfortable. Love sits with the discomfort in the belly, admits it, attends to it, but chooses to stay in the room. Love holds steady. Love takes a risk. Love is willing to step into the places that feel uncertain, awkward, and vulnerable for the great cause of unity and reconciliation.We are called to love. In this way we participate in the healing of our country, our community and of our own soul’s core.

The prayer meeting finally came to an end. My distress did not destroy me. I was not undone. As soon as the final amen had been said I turned to the tall young woman sitting to my right and enquired after her. My inner disquiet was silenced and we chatted freely. The holy work of prayer still encircled us, giving space for true communion graced with love.

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Yeah, so we had a prayer meeting.

We can Celebrate!

When my husband was little, his mom looked at her boys (four at the time) and said: “Pick your cake and stick with it!” So each of them picked a favorite cake and every year, that was the cake they had on their birthdays. It was a wise move for a woman who had four boys by the time she turned 21.

My husband picked carrot cake.

When we first got married, I don’t think I had ever made a carrot cake. But I began that year and have made one every year since. It is a production of sugar and oil; of carrots and coconut; of pineapple and nuts. It is delicious. Truly delicious.

Yesterday evening I went out to buy all the ingredients. As I was paying for them, I looked at the woman at the checkout counter and said “I think I might make the best carrot cake in the world!” She burtst out laughing and relayed her story of trying to make a carrot cake, wondering why it didn’t turn out right only to realize she had forgotten the carrots. At home I began the process — first whipping up eggs to a light yellow, then adding the other ingredients until it was ready to bake. It now sits on our kitchen counter, a splendid golden brown, ready to be iced with homemade cream cheese icing.

I have noticed that the older my husband and I get, the less interested we are in celebrating birthdays. Yet, in so many ways, we have so much more to celebrate now than when we were younger.

We can celebrate the confidence that comes when you realize your security cannot be in your looks or your physical strength; when you ruefully laugh at another grey hair and an extra chin. We know when we look in the mirror that we don’t have to believe everything that we see.

We can celebrate a growing family, a grandchild who even at two months old lights up our life, bringing giggles and so much joy.

We can celebrate our children – amazing human beings in their own right. Each uniquely gifted, each walking a journey that includes both joy and pain.

We can celebrate the extraordinary friendships we have with both family and friends — some who have walked by our side for years and others who have more recently come into our lives.

We can celebrate the miles and kilometers that we have traveled; the countries we have traversed; the people we have met along the way. We can celebrate the journeys that are still to come, the adventures that are awaiting us.

We can celebrate that we don’t give up. Ever. We are doggedly determined to continue living through the hard; determined to love better and learn more.

We can celebrate that we know how important it is to express love, to walk through the hard stuff, to support each other when life gets stormy and forgive each other when the inevitable conflicts and opinions start to choke out compassion and love.

Most of all, we can celebrate God’s great kindness to us; celebrate a God that has promised to sustain us through old age and beyond.

So Happy Birthday Cliff!

Thank you for bringing the world so much laughter and joy. May we celebrate well today! 

Note: We can also celebrate Carrot Cake!

  • 2 cups grated carrots (I put them in food processor with pineapple juice)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 cup coconut
  • 1 cup crushed pineapple
  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Put carrots in food processor or equivalent and add some of the pineapple juice. Blend and set aside. Beat up those eggs! When they are whipped to a frenzy add in the light brown sugar. Beat that up until it is smooth and perfect looking. Then add white sugar and do the same thing. Add the oil and beat until blended. Add in cinnamon, vanilla, baking powder and soda. Add 2 cups of flour and blend till smooth. Then add mashed carrots, coconut, pineapple and walnuts. Mixture will be dense. Put into greased 9″ by 11″ pan and bake for about 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and then frost with your favorite cream cheese icing.

 

Hospitable Me

One of the sweet daily habits of our marriage is that Lowell makes the bed. When we first got married and he was still dew eyed and love drunk he asked me what the one household task that I least liked was. I didn’t hesitate. I hate making the bed. I love a made bed but I really begrudge making it. From that day forward he has made our bed.

Not long ago as he was pulling up sheets, smoothing the bedcover and piling on pillows, he mentioned that he had once heard that making your bed is like extending hospitality to yourself. That captured my imagination and all summer long I’ve been thinking about the idea of being hospitable to myself. What does that look like? What would it mean if I greeted my weaknesses with grace, my strengths with kindness? What would change if I embraced my past and invited it into my presence? How might that level of acceptance of who I am—including my whole story—change the way I respond to me?

You see I’m very good at slamming the door in my own face. I’ve been known to shake my head and say, I Don’t Think So or No Thank You to myself! I’ve been known to meet myself at the door with shame and contempt: You don’t belong here. You’re not welcome. Some of me that has snuck past has been quickly boxed up and stored in the deep basement of my soul. There’s no place for that me here.

It still feels like there are large chunks of me that seem to be at odds with the world I live in. I’m very aware that I’m a foreigner. It seems that I should be more settled by now—I’m mean good golly we’ve lived here nine years—and yet somehow that hasn’t been my experience. There are so many things about living here that I don’t know. I’m often clueless and unsure of myself.

On the other hand there are lots of things I know that no longer are necessary in this current context. I know how to get around South Asia. I’m really good in airports. I know how to speak Urdu and Hindi. I know how to bargain and barter with joy. I know how to think in Celsius and kilograms. I know how to take a bath in a dipper of water. I know how to use a pressure cooker. But none of that matters any more.

A good friend invited me to read Leanna Tankersley’s book, Brazen (with the fabulous subtitle: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding) this summer. One of the chapters in this rich volume, Allow for Expansion, invited me to begin to open the door to myself with some degree of welcome. Please permit me to quote her extensively. This is good stuff!

            …there are so many different aspects to me. Like you, I’m not one self. I am a strange amalgamation of different, sometimes seemingly contradictory selves: athlete, creator, nurturer, ideator, homemaker, extrovert, introvert, football fan, poetry lover. I’ve often erroneously believed I must trade each of these in for the next, instead of learning the fine art of embracing all these different aspects of my identity, letting each of them inform the collective me that is becoming.

            …The temptation for me is to say, “That is no longer me; this is now me” and abandon parts of myself as irrelevant or no longer….In fact, the Hebrew word of life—hayim—is actually plural … we are a dynamic unfolding of many selves.

            If I would have known then what I know now, I would have realized I was expanding, not necessarily losing. Expansions can be so drastic that they feel disorienting. A new facet of me was arriving. One I had to meet and embrace and get to know. I was going through an incredible change, but that didn’t mean other parts of me were being replaced.

            Allow yourself to become, to expand. Don’t feed the temptation to replace your selves. Expand your self. Don’t be afraid of all these parts of you. Welcome the mother in you even as you are overwhelmed by her responsibilities. Welcome the achiever in you instead of rejecting her as soulless. Welcome the sensual in you instead of demonizing pleasure. Welcome the artist in you instead of believing she must be defunct now that you are running a household. We are both complete and becoming. Let yourself expand. (Leanna Tankersley, Brazen, 2016. Pgs 83-85).

I’m slowly changing how I greet myself. I’m giving me permission to be fully me. I’m learning to accept my whole story—including the pieces that I’ve previously poured shame on. I think I’m learning to welcome Robynn; to embrace her as God made her, with the story He gave her and for what she has to offer.

This is who I am—Robynn Joy Bliss—a combination of vast assortments of me! I choose to accept all those versions of me. I’ve been a foreigner most of my life. I often feel like I don’t belong or I don’t fit in. I choose to accept that piece of me too. I can be kind to the foreigner immigrant me, I can, because Jesus is. There are gaps in my knowledge but that’s ok. I am human. No one knows everything. Everybody has something they don’t know. I can be gentle to that me. I can ask for help. I can choose to humbly admit my ignorance and naiveté. There is no shame in that.

If I pigeon-holed myself, I, my family and friends and the world would miss out on the fascinating fullness that is Robynn Bliss (slightly paraphrased Brazen p84).

Admittedly looking up the word ‘hospitality’ in the dictionary did very little to satisfy my sudden longing to explore what it would mean to be hospitable to me. Hospitality is the, “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests.” But I was struck deeply by the example of hospitality that Merriam-Webster used in a sentence. “It was refreshing to be met with such hospitality after our long journey.”

Merriam-Webster is on to something. It would be refreshing to be met with such hospitality after this long journey. I’m determined to learn to extend this to myself with acceptance and joy; with generosity and warmth.

Welcome Robynn. It’s been a long journey. Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Please make yourself at home. Unpack your things. Take as long as you need. You are welcome here.

 

 

“I’ve Always Been a Good Girl”

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“I’ve always been a good girl.” I couldn’t help overhearing the woman at the table next to me. I was sitting outside at a coffee shop. Sound carries, and though I had no intention of eavesdropping, the phrase stuck with me.

Her voice shook slightly and I could hear the angst.

I thought about all the times I’ve heard that phrase from people.

“I’ve always been a good girl. I’ve always been a good boy.” (Or woman. Or man.)”

“I’ve always done the right thing.”

“I’ve never gone out of line.’

I’ve heard the statement in hundreds of different ways, but the meaning is the same. “I’ve always been a good girl.”

I have noted that this statement precedes something difficult that is happening in the person’s life. What it is saying is “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?”

But what, really, is good? Who is good?

A number of years ago, I was talking to a friend. Her daughter had just begun dating a guy at the church we were attending. They were both young. She had been in college for a year and he was just graduating from high school. They were both picture perfect when it came to external character. So I asked my friend what she thought of the match. “He’s a good Christian boy!” was all she said. So I looked at her, and I started to smile. “So – what’s a “good” Christian boy?” I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to know. She burst out laughing and said “The minute I said that, I thought, Marilyn is going to ask me what that means!”

When we say those words “He’s a good Christian” what do we mean by them? Isn’t it the same as that phrase “I’ve always been a good girl?”

Years ago, someone came to Jesus to have a conversation. He began the conversation in this way: “Good teacher….” He went on to say more: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus’ answer is curious: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” He immediately tackles the “good” statement. As the conversation moves forward, Jesus talks to the man about the commandments. The man is thrilled. You see, all his life, he’s been a good boy. He’s done all those things — and more. He’s always been a good boy. He’s ‘that guy’ in the church youth group.

Jesus does not compliment him on his behavior. Instead, we are told he “looked at him and loved him.” 

That’s where I want to stop today – because for all you good girls and boys out there, Jesus is looking at you and loving you. He knows the gap in your armor. He knows the stress you put yourself through to try to be good. He knows that ultimately, that will never, ever be enough. 

“I’ve always been a good girl.” I don’t know what the woman was dealing with that day, but I know she was in distress.  Being good will never shield us from life’s hard, hard battles. Good people have the same mortality rate as bad people – and it’s one hundred percent. Good people have bad days. Good people get in car accidents, get hurt, get cancer, get in fights, and get angry as they watch those that aren’t good go through life so well.

But with eyes of compassion, Jesus looks at the one who has always been good, the one who is exhausted from trying so hard, and he loves them. 

Hit and Run

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Last Thursday, a car ran over two pedestrians just outside my office. It was in the center of one of the busiest tourist areas of the city.

The car was on top of the victims as the driver ran off into the crowds. Several people helped to lift the car off the victims and they were rushed to a nearby hospital. Miraculously, none of them sustained fatal injuries.

I can’t stop thinking about that driver. Part of me thinks “How could she do that? How could she possibly just run off like that?”

Unfortunately, the other part of me understands exactly why she did what she did. I am just like her in more ways than I would like to think. There are too many times where I would rather run from things that I did or said then face them. There are too many times when I don’t want to stay and face my current reality. There are too many times when I think running is the answer.

It’s the Jonah effect. Jonah was the infamous guy in the Old Testament who ran from God and ended up in the belly of a whale. He just couldn’t do what God wanted him to do. He couldn’t face the reality that God had for him. 

Yet, when we accept our reality, we receive so much grace. Grace to live well. Grace to love well.

It’s in the book of Jonah that we find a profound prayer; a prayer that is offered to God in the midst of a crisis. In the middle of the prayer is a verse that I have always loved “Those who cling to worthless idols, forfeit the mercy that could be theirs.”*  Other translations say it like this: “Those who cling to worthless idols, turn away from God’s love for them.”

Running from my current reality will never work. Instead, as I run I forfeit the mercy and grace that is mine for the asking.

The hit and run driver was found. She faces far worse charges than she would have had she faced the reality of her actions. But my heart understands her motives far too well.

I think of this today as I face my current reality: Stop running. Stop avoiding. Face reality. Accept grace. 

These are words to live by. 

*Jonah 2:8