Live Slowly; Enter in Gently

I find it impossibly difficult to return to writing after summer time. It’s so maddening. I finally have the space and the quiet I need to write and … nothing. Brick walls. Dead ends. The words refuse to come. I have nothing to say. I have nothing more to write about.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I really don’t write much during the summer. Like many I greet every summer with joy at the longer lazy days. Summer in Kansas smells like fresh cut grass and barbecues, sunscreen and chlorine. I enjoy my kids streaming in the front door and heading out the back. The youngest teenager still needs shuttling around and it pleases me to drop her off at the pool or at a friend’s house. One would think that with flexible scheduling would come serendipitous wide-open moments to write. However in my experience those moments never seem to materialize. I end up frustrated and greatly peeved at the people and perturbances that seem to conspire to keep me from picking up my proverbial pen! The problem perplexes me every year and then I’m perpetually surprised at my perennial seasonal shock!

The summer is now over. At least here in Kansas it seems that way. University students are pouring back into town and settling in on campus. Our local school district officially welcomed back elementary and secondary school students on Tuesday. The air is cooling off a little at night now. The fall football schedule is published. Summer is over.

I sat down to write yesterday morning. Granted, I did have some technical problems with my aging Macintosh computer, but that didn’t fully explain why I had the hardest time writing. Nothing would come. I started several attempts, bits of words, bobs of ideas, but nothing stuck. I couldn’t write. I contemplated messaging Marilyn that I’m done. I can no longer write. I really do have nothing to say.

I suppose it’s similar to how I felt when we got back from our family vacation on August 10th. August 11th I woke up completely overwhelmed. I sat in my chair with my morning cup of coffee and quietly contemplated the day and the daunting list of things to do. The amount of things on that list left me paralyzed. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Lowell joined me on the other side of the room, in his chair, and he enquired after me. I took a deep breath and said, unbeknownst even to myself, “I’m determined to live slowly today.” I’m not sure where that bubble of wisdom broke loose from but it rose quietly to the surface in response to my own panic and Lowell’s question and it seems to apply to the writing thing too.

More wisdom came today when I finally prayed about my writing woes. I brought my stubborn fingers to the Father; I laid bare my broken word bank to his scrutiny. Any purpose in me that points to writing comes only from him. I’m created to bear the Divine’s image to the world…part of how I do that is through my words, my writing. Of course it makes sense to pray about it. And as I did another quiet thought floated to the top, “Enter in Gently, Robynn”.

It was balm and bandage. It was consolation and (hopefully) a quiet cure. I will live slowly. I will breath in and out the creative courage that comes from the very Spirit of God. I will enter in gently.

I know the application is broader than returning from a holiday or coming back to writing. We are given many opportunities to live slowly and enter gently. Oftentimes it seems more efficient to rush through our panic, to push past our own obstinacies or hesitations. But I think more often than not, even if the to-do is accomplished, we’ve only served to muddy the waters and stir up our spirits to greater anxieties. Living slowly and with gentle rhythms works against that frenzy and mysteriously frees us up to be more present, more whole hearted.

There’s an old song we used to sing at boarding school. I think the words went something like this: I want to be the pen of a ready writer; and what the Father gives to me I’ll bring. I only want to do his will. I only want to glorify my king. I knew it was from a psalm but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it well enough to find it. Until today. Psalms 45:1 is a writer’s holy mandate and when read gently reads like this (in a modern slightly me-modified version):

My heart bursts its banks,
spilling beauty and goodness.
I pour it out in a poem to the king,
shaping the river into words….slowly and gently!

 

 

Eyes to See

What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.” Anne Lamott on Facebook

It’s been a hot, dry summer. Though I love the heat, this area is not desert. All  around us is evidence of an earth badly in need of rain. Grass that is usually bursting with the green of new life is like straw, brown and crackly under our feet. On Saturday evening, we took a walk to our favorite spot — a place we call “the end of the world.” It’s the end of a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. As we approached the spot where we usually sit by the ocean, we noticed the sky darken above us. We knew the signs– a thunderstorm was coming. We decided to head home. Five minutes after we arrived, the heavens opened. A torrential thunderstorm brought water and cool to our earth.

For 15 minutes, cool, refreshing water flowed from sky to ground. And then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped. The sky, so dark moments before, erupted into amazing colors. Redemptive, healing rain ending with brilliant colors.  I looked at the colors and I thought “All is well.”

***

The other day, being in a frame of mind where the  state of the world seemed particularly bleak, I googled “Awful things that happened in the Bible.”

As in so many things Google – I was not disappointed. The first thing that came up was an article called Top Ten Horrifying Moments in the Bible. 

The article appropriately begins with Job. Job’s the guy who lived out God’s celestial wager with Satan. As Satan walks to and fro, we are told that God says “Hey! Take a look at Job! He loves me! He has integrity. He walks with me!” And Satan gives all sorts of reasons why Job loves God – in essence, who wouldn’t love God  if they had riches and land, beautiful children and safety? So the wager is on.  And at the end, after Job has lost everything except his life, we have this joyous proclamation “I know that my Redeemer lives! And that in the end — I will stand. After my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I will see God.”

And there we have it: “I know that my Redeemer Lives.”

God has always been in the business of taking our broken world and helping us to see redemption, helping us to see him. Sometimes we see only the briefest glimmer;  other times it’s over the top fireworks – but always, always there is redemption.

It is in the chartreuse of the sunset.

It is in the patience of the suffering.

It is in the snow-capped mountains.

It is in the salty waves of the ocean.

It is in the vast expanse of the heavens.

It is in the caregiver of the loved one with dementia.

It is in the laughter and tears shared with friends.

It’s in the resilience of the refugee.

It is in the prayers of the mom of the prodigal.

It is in the burst of sunrise that comes over the horizon.

It is in the scent of a newborn baby.

It is in art and in film; in food and in work.

It is in a long obedience in the same direction.

It is in the Body, and it is in the Blood.

Horrifying things will happen — we live in  a fractured world. But redemption?

Redemption is everywhere. We just need eyes to see. 

A House of Cards

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Note: I wrote this piece four years ago, right after my fifth child graduated from high school. Before this past weekend, I felt exactly like this post. Then came the weekend and the gift of rest, the gift of peace. So I’m not in the same place right now. But perhaps some of you are – because all of us have houses of cards in some way or another. 

*****

My house of cards has fallen. I build it up so carefully, all the while realizing that something has to give. We are not created to sustain long periods of stress and yet, stress has been building in my world for months.

On Wednesday, my fifth child graduated from high school. The ceremony was living, breathing evidence of perseverance through adversity. Everyone on stage clothed in a black graduation gown with a cap and tassel has lived more of life than they should have in their short years. And we celebrated. Big time.

With this graduation I ended over 22 years and approximately 4025 days of school; of school functions and lunches; of good teachers and bad teachers and mediocre teachers; of interacting with parents I love and showing grace to parents I don’t love; of fundraisers and so much more. And it was bittersweet. And it was time.

And my strength was gone. Gone like the chewed bones of the ribs that were eaten at the graduation party. Gone like the cups, plates and silverware tossed in the trash for tomorrow’s recycling. Gone like the people who had come, celebrated and left. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry until there were no more tears to cry and my tears had watered every flower, bush and plant in the Boston Public Gardens. Instead I called a friend and sobbed, talking through all the emotions I was feeling.

Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord

Sometimes all of life builds up like a house of cards and one little movement sends it crashing down, lying in a jumble of aces, spades, hearts and diamonds.

And that is what happened. My house of cards fell. I have gone on my own strength for so long that it took the tiniest of motions to cause the collapse and demise of my carefully constructed, but pitifully weak, house.

Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer

After a heavy dose of tears and wise words of a friend, swallowed with a big bottle of self-reflection, I found myself in a place of humility and exhaustion. It was so good. It was so hard. 

You are the everlasting God, the everlasting God. You do not faint, you won’t grow weary 

I have tried to fix and rescue, protect and provide. Only — there are times when it is impossible. When the broken cannot be fixed and the drowning cannot be saved; when those who need protecting need more than our feeble efforts and provisions have run out. And that is where I was. I was weak. I was needy. My strength was gone.

You’re the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need

In the post-tears exhaustion that followed, I surrendered  with smudged mascara, tear coated contact lenses and weary willingness to lean on the One who gives life and the bread of life, the one who lifts us up on wings like eagles.

Strength will rise. Indeed. 

Simply Grace

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Frustrated, I stood outside a movie theatre. I had two extra tickets to a show, completely free, no strings attached. Two tickets on opening weekend of a show everyone was talking about – everyone wanted to see it.  My daughter’s two friends had been unable to attend, so rather than let the tickets go unused, we found our seats and I headed outside to give them away.  I thought it would be an easy task.  The theatre was in a busy area and I would be able to catch people before they arrived at the ticket booth, saving a family money and the potential of a sold-out show.

For 10 minutes I  stood there offering them to those passing by. Every person looked at me and then the tickets with suspicion and a quick “No thank you, we’re fine.” I knew they were fine, that wasn’t the point. The point is I had something they all wanted, in fact they were all heading to a line to buy something I could give them for free.  And I had no takers – no one, absolutely no one wanted these tickets. Finally cold, tired and completely frustrated I walked inside and joined my family.

The first words out of my mouth were “No one wants grace – no one can accept these for free!” I have thought about this single event many times since it happened. The tickets were a complete waste, never used. Thrown away to add just one more bit of trash to an already full landfill, never fulfilling their purpose.

*****

The movie, Babette’s Feast, takes place in 19th Century Denmark, in a small village. Two aging sisters center their life around the church their now deceased father pastored. The church congregants operate under rigid rules and a commitment to austere living. Both of these sisters had opportunities to leave the village earlier in their lives, but not wanting to go against the wishes of their father, they stayed. Now it is many years later and a French refugee, Babette, has landed on their doorstep. She has no money and nothing to give, but the sisters take her in and she begins to cook for them. 14 years later, Babette receives word that she has won a lottery of 10,000 Francs. It coincides with what would have been the 100th birthday of their father. Babette convinces the sisters that she wants to cook a special feast for this anniversary. She sends her nephew to Paris to bring in the finest ingredients imagineable for the dinner.

As plans for the dinner unfold, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will be too sumptuous, too pleasureable so they hold a meeting with the other congregants and decide that though they will eat the meal, they will not show any pleasure in doing so. To show pleasure would be to sin.

The day of the feast arrives, and an unexpected guest, a former suitor of one of the sister’s arrives. He is now a famous general and has married someone of royalty. He ends up at the dinner but knows nothing of the plans to show no pleasure. As he begins to eat, he is amazed at the dinner. He showers lavish praise with every bite and tells stories of the food he is eating. He is astonished at the beautiful food and drink. Everytime Babette comes into the room, he marvels to her, finally saying the meal rivals the best meal he has ever eaten, and that at Café Anglais, an expensive restaurant in Paris.

During much of the movie I wanted to scream at the villagers “Don’t you see what’s in front of you? Just enjoy it! Enjoy the gift! Take, eat, drink – this is a gift of grace. Don’t refuse it!”

Instead, I watched while the General’s enthusiasm and the beautiful meal break down barriers and walls that the villagers have constructed and all begin to enjoy the meal. At one point, the General raises his glass and makes a toast: “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” 

At the end of the evening, in a small kitchen full of dirty dishes and remnants of the feast, the sisters find out that Babette has spent every penny of her winnings on this meal as a gift. The cost of the meal equaled the cost of one meal at the restaurant in Paris. It is then that they learn Babette was the chef at the Café Anglais.

*****

Babette’s Feast and the refusal of the tickets I tried to give away have something in common. They are a reminder of how easy it is to refuse grace – we’d rather work or pay to earn what we get. The idea that grace could be free brings up a suspicion and potential hostility in us. If we didn’t earn it, we don’t deserve it. If we didn’t pay for it, we shouldn’t have it. We can’t relax and enjoy a good gift.This spills over into what we think others deserve, or don’t deserve. 

The less I am able to receive grace, the more it affects my view of the worthiness of those around me. I see them undeserving of grace.

This is a terrifying thought and pulls me into a dangerous place. A place where I put myself and all those around me out of the reach of grace. I have no answers for this other than when I catch myself in that position, to cry out to God to stop me,  to reach out with all I have, and grab this gift, with the hope of convincing people that it is of far greater value than mere movie tickets.

“Grace is Everywhere,” said the dying priest in Georges Bernanos ‘s novel Diary of a Country Priest. Yes, but how easily we pass by, deaf to the euphony.” Philip Yancey in What’s so Amazing About Grace?

Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Belonging & Fitting In

I was in the middle of writing a blog post when Lowell showed me this section in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly. The quote shot straight to a deep place in my soul. Brown had identified and articulated so clearly the struggle I was trying to capture in the post I was agonizing over. I’m abandoning my efforts this morning. Receive rather this from Brene Brown:

“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting is is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

She goes on to explain how she asked a large group of eighth graders to break into small groups and brainstorm the differences between fitting in and belonging. Their insightful answers were spot on.

“Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.

Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.

I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.” *

Brown’s quote is tucked into a chapter on parenting. She emphasizes the importance of children having a sense that they belong in their own family. For me the issue is broader than parenting or family structure. Belonging and fitting in have been a part of my struggle to settle as an adult wherever I’ve landed.

I’ve been mulling these themes over in my head this week. I’ve been trying to come to a deeper place of acceptance of who I am –even trying to embrace those spaces that still don’t seem to fit in, or those times where I’m still not convinced I belong. I’m afraid I have yet to land on firm conclusions but I invite you into the process. I’m praying for insight. I’m asking Jesus for his opinion on these things. I’m telling my struggle’s story to a few close friends. I’ve met with my soul care provider and mentor, Diann. Certainly the struggle has served as an invitation to trust God in deeper ways and for that I can be grateful.

Brene Brown asked eighth graders, let me ask you. What has been your experience in the difference between fitting in and belonging?

*Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Avery, 2012), 232.

Summer Survival Tips– Part II

 School is about to get out here in Kansas. For many moms that’s a sweet joy. They anticipate leisurely time with their children, afternoons at the pool, evenings in the park. For the rest of us summer is a stir-fry of a wide range of emotions. We feel joy, panic, loss of routine, guilt, anticipation, dread. These are the moms I have in mind as I write this. I am that mom.

 This is the second in a short two-week series with tips on how to successfully survive summer. For the first half of the list click here

I’ve had several moms contact me this week. The relief that they’ve expressed that they’re not alone in the deep and wide emotions they experience in their maternity is palpable. The notion that there are others out there that might also need help in surviving summer allowed them to exhale and breath a little freer. We are in this together!

  • Cultivate a creative hobby

When you have some down time avoid the temptation to always turn on your own screen. There’s certainly a place for that. But I think it’s also important for our souls to cultivate hobbies that restore and rejuvenate. That comes through creativity and creative expression: paint, needlepoint, woodwork, restoring an old piece of furniture, cross-stich.

  • Model self care

Your kids need you to look after yourself. It will be much easier for them to learn to do this as adults themselves if they’ve seen the adults in their childhood do it first. It’s ok to tell your kids no. It’s ok to say that you need some down time. It’s ok to tell them that you’re tired and you need to lie down on the couch for a few minutes. Even little kids can be taught to play quietly while mommy rests.

  • You are not responsible for the happiness of your child

You can set up great activities, you can provide safe structures and routines, you can ensure good nutrition but you are not responsible for the ways your child chooses to respond.

  • Be present

When my children were younger they weren’t competing for my attention. I didn’t have a smart phone that tempted me to quick check email or Facebook or twitter or Instagram. I do know the magnetic pull now though. It’s so easy, and it feels so important, to check in with my phone. I don’t know what the answer is but I know from the moms and dads I’ve watched in airports or church foyers or grocery stores or at the park that kids suffer from an “absent” parent. Adelaide’s choir teacher likes to say at concerts, “please turn off your phones or devices that make sound. Your kids can see from the stage the under glow of your nose if you’re on your phone and they know what you think is important.” It’s true. I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to have a planned moment or two during your day where you check your phone but otherwise plan on ignoring it. You might have to turn off your notifications. Maybe put your phone away until it rings with an actual phone call! I know this isn’t easy but I really wonder if it might not be critical to the emotional health of your children to know that there parent is present.

  • One activity a day is more than plenty

There’s a notion out there that says that kids need to be occupied from sunrise to sunset with planned activities– play dates, art classes, trips to the museums or the zoo, swimming lessons, crafts, yoga classes. All of those things are good things but it is possible to plan your kid’s life to death (theirs, yours, and the activity in question’s!). Years ago I found something online that simplified expectations in regards to activities but for the life of me I couldn’t find it today. The author suggested a rough weekly guide: Make it Monday; To the Library Tuesday; Wildcard Wednesday; Service Thursday; Road trip Friday. I’ve seen other ideas online that help simplify things as well. Come up with your own…as long as it gives you permission to extend grace to yourself, and freedom for spontaneous fun, it’ll work!

  • Down time is good time

I know I don’t have to say it but downtime is really good for you and for your kids. An unscheduled day seems longer. A free afternoon gives kids opportunities to dream and imagine and relax. They need that. You need that. Resist the guilt and the pull that says you need to plan out every minute of every day. Don’t do it!

Summer will not last forever. Summer will pass into autumn; autumn will yield to winter and winter will give into spring. Take deep breaths, abandon your expectations, allow your days to be pockmarked with joy and giggles. Find another parent who honestly admits her heart. Live in the here and now. Welcome the miracles of the mundane. We will get through this together. We will survive summer!

 

A Note to Moms who Work Outside the Home:

You women are amazing! Here are a couple of things I want to say to you in particular:

  1. Learn to marinate your soul in a daily GRACE wash. You are a good mother. Your mothering is broader than this summer.
  2. Arrange good childcare for your kids. Do what needs to be done to provide safe and healthy care for each of your children. It might look different for each kid each summer.
  3. Communicate that plan to your kids without apology.
  4. Don’t skimp on self-care and rest and adult conversation. This is vital to you continuing on in your mothering role with any amount of joy!

 

“I Will Not Let You Go Unless You Bless Me!”

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There are sometimes few words to describe spiritual struggles. The words seem trite and small compared to how real the struggle feels. So we are left wordless and longing, wishing that somehow, someway, the struggle could be over and our faith repackaged, reconstructed into something we understand.

But if we understood it, would it be too small? 

These are my questions these days as I wrestle with God and as I move into the second week of the Lenten Season of the Orthodox Church. The questions have led me to look at Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.

In terms of deceit, Jacob was a master and stole the birthright blessing from under the nose of his twin brother. Poor old Esau is left, becoming the hidden part of a title of a children’s book for the words that are recorded “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” I won’t even touch that because it’s too disturbing, but it should be noted that Jacob’s life hardly improved after he received that fatherly blessing. Instead, he ran away and ended up having to work hard for a wife, only to be deceived by his future father-in-law into marrying the wrong daughter.  He ended up with two wives and enough domestic disputes to fill a six-season reality show. Parents who want to censor books that their children read may want to begin with the Bible. It doesn’t take long to find deceit, murder, and rape. But it also doesn’t take long to find redemption woven throughout the narrative and God doing what he continues to do so faithfully: Take a mess and by his mercy change it into something remarkable. 

So while Jacob’s life from the beginning is interesting, my thoughts have centered around an event that is well-recorded in Biblical history; a time when Jacob physically wrestled with God. At God’s leading, Jacob left his father-in-law’s home, accompanied by his wives, his children and his flocks. He hears that his brother Esau is coming, and, remembering how he deceived him so many years before, he is rightfully nervous. Jacob ends up alone in the desert and he wrestles with God. Not an emotional wrestling, a physical wrestling. But here is the astounding thing – Jacob was winning. Jacob, a mere mortal is wrestling with God – and Jacob pins him down. “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” says God. But Jacob will not let him go.

“I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” These words have to be some of the most arrogant ever quoted in scripture. But God listens; God blesses him, and Jacob’s faith finally becomes his own.

I will not let you go, unless you bless me. These are bold words, yet Jacob said them.During this season, these are the words I want to say to God. I want the courage to hold on tight and say “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!”  

As for Jacob? In a few years he would face some of the worst trauma in his traumatic life when he was deceived into believing his beloved son Joseph was dead. Even so, his words as he told of his encounter with the living God are unforgettable: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”

___________________ 

REMEMBER! The book giveaway of Meditations is still open until the Monday after Western Easter! Leave a comment on that post and you will be entered into the drawing. Two copies will be given away, so your chances automatically double.

*Story is from the book of Genesis 32:24-32

Surprised by Spring

  
My heart’s been in a bit of a dither. I’ve had a strange week.

Last Friday afternoon was a tad unsettling. I was a part of a conversation that misfired. We couldn’t seem to connect. I kept misunderstanding her and I could tell that caused frustration.

Saturday I felt keenly my foreignness. Kansas was caucusing. I hardly know what that means and even my ignorance highlighted the fact that I clearly do not belong. Certainly I cannot vote. To be honest Donald Trump’s continued success is completely disconcerting. This is a year I’d love to be able to vote.

On Sunday I had a strange experience at church where I felt the tightening grip of anxiety in my chest just as I was about to go into to teach the elementary school kids the Bible story. I had a difficult time breathing. That has never happened to me before. I love those kids. Teaching is what I do. I hid in a bathroom stall for a few minutes, wiped tears from my eyes, took long deep drinks of oxygen and said some breath prayers. As quickly as it had surfaced, it was gone. I was fine. I went in and with animation retold the incredible miracle story of Lazarus dead and then Lazarus alive! But the anxiety freaked me out. It seemed so un-Robynn. What was happening to me?

Still the week wasn’t over. On Wednesday we received disturbing financial news from the non-profit we work for. They’ve been switching computer systems and the status of our account hasn’t been accurately reflected in our online statements. The weakened Canadian dollar, sending our son to university, my own studies in spiritual direction all have taken their toll. The deficit in our account is discombobulating to say the least.

My dad has been in and out of the ER the past couple of weeks. He has had kidney stones again this week and a strange and stubborn infection. Our youngest daughter hasn’t been feeling well. The middle one has been consumed with her future—career choices and college, ACT scores and the pressures of AP classes have kept her brain abuzz. There’s been some relational stresses simmering and those are never pleasant.

In the middle of this week, suddenly, we were surprised by spring. While the noises of the week were deafening my soul and doing their best to stomp out hope, spring silently tiptoed in. Lowell was on the front porch and he called to me to come look. Across the street, in full dress uniform, stood a magnolia tree dripping with huge pink corsages! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. Suddenly I had eyes to see. Daffodils and jonquils are peeking out mischievously. There’s a creeping bush next door that now boasts tiny coral pink flowers. Forsythia, the prophet bush that always announces the arrival of spring, is glorious and golden, and has popped out with a burst of yellow all over town.

There is consolation in the predictable rhythms of nature. Winter is over. Spring is here. We will have summer. We will see fall. Faithfully the seasons remind us of order and calm. Hope pushes through the dormant soil of winter, past the dead leaves of last year’s autumn and bursts into bloom again. Spring celebrates new life and the power of resurrection. The old is gone. The new is come. As quickly as this week’s stresses surfaced, they are quieted. I will be fine. Spring came in and with great animation retold the incredible story of the earth dead and then the earth alive! Miracles never cease.

   
    
    
 

Should-less Living

  

 

Today I will not should on myself.”– Mary Michael O’Shaughnessy

This past week I’ve had several conversations with people in all kinds of contexts where I’ve encountered the horrible weight of the dreaded “should”. So many live under a great sense of difficult obligations and heavy rules. Most of those still feel they are not living up to all that is expected of them. They should be doing more. Their yoke is not easy; their burden is not light.

I should go to church.

I should probably attend that wedding.

I should pray more.

I should wash the dishes.

I should volunteer to do that.

We each respond to the word ‘should’ in different ways. How we hear that depends on the ears we’ve developed over time as we’ve lived out our stories. If we grew up believing that God is harsh and demanding, that he doesn’t care, that he’s out to squish our happiness we will hear the ‘shoulds’ in scripture the same way: hard, dictatorial, demanding, cruel and contributing to our misery. That type of God seems controlling and oppressive. If, however, you grow up and into a God-view that promotes the One who gave up His Son for us, the one who saves us, the One who redeems our lives and generously transfers us from darkness into light upon light everything is different. That God understands we are dust. He knows our frailty—we are that way by his very own design. Knowing that God allows us to hear the ‘shoulds’ as invitations to enter community living with God himself, to participate in the type of life God lives.*

Is it possible then to live life without the weary weight of the ‘should’? What would that even look like? If a new God-view is a part of that—how does that work? Can our opinions of who God is be converted half way through our stories? What new freedoms would we experience if we weren’t bound by the tyranny of the oppressive ‘should’?

I’ve been mulling these things over and I offer up these ideas for exploring should-less living. They are curiosity driven and not entirely comprehensive. I feel certain I will be exploring this topic more, but I give these to you in hopes that we will explore this together.

— Not all of these are from me. I asked people I know that live from a place of freedom for their thoughts on it and I’ve credited them at the bottom of the post. These friends seem to have skirted the ‘should’ in a grace-filled way. The first set of these thoughts deal with the heart behind the ‘should’—the next are perhaps more practical in how to respond to the rising ‘should’ that pops up on our soul’s radar from time to time.

  1. It would behoove each of us to examine how we view God. Who do I think He is? How do I think He reacts to me? What characteristics qualify his personality? Who is God? I would suggest writing this out. Spend some time on it. So much of how we “do” life is based on this fundamental starting line. When you’ve got it penned down, take a step back, and look at it objectively. You might invite someone else to take a look too. Have a conversation about this. Seek out a friend or a clergy person or a spiritual director. Invite God into the conversation too. Ask him to reveal his True Self to you!
  2. If what you are carrying around is not easy and not light, might I suggest, shaking that off, and taking up Jesus…or better yet, let Jesus take you up. As He gently gathers you in his arms, He will carry you close to His heart (Is 40:11). What he gives to you to hold on to is lightweight and effortless. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly (Matt 11:28-30 The Message). *
  3. Our culture puts so much pressure on us. We live with so many expectations placed on us—do more, make more, work harder, be skinnier, look younger, eat healthier. But when we start living in and out of Jesus our perspectives change and the things we ‘should’ do no longer have the same hold on us. Grace flows out of that truth. The pressure is off! The things we now want to do from our new pivotal point in Christ far exceed the things we used to feel obligated to do. The oughts are gone! *
  4. There is a profound difference in being driven to do something and being called to it. Driven ‘shoulds’ drive us toward burnout and resentment. When we are called to something everything changes. We experience joy and a mysterious sort of energy. *
  5. Obedience is a virtue. The question really is Who or What are we obeying? *
  6. “Duty only takes us so far; at some point we must delight in what is ours, in the relationships and responsibilities that are ours. It is duty and desire together that make for a good life, not only knowing what I should do, but wanting to do what I should do.” Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation. p222.
  7. As we are settling these things in our stories it’s imperative that we not impose our understanding of our freedom and our calling on anyone else. That’s when the ‘shoulds’ become cumbersome and wearisome. Another’s shoulds are not ours. They do not belong to us. We do well to remember that in our enthusiasm for a cause. My friend Russ said it like this: “We need to present (our ideas) graciously to others not as authoritative but as the out workings of the gospel in our lives allowing freedom for God to lead another differently according to (God’s) wisdom, goodness, sovereignty, and the Spirit of truth. We ought not to assume the position of God in these matters but rather be like, dare I say, the Bereans (who) seek out the truth in community. We must be able to teach all that he has commanded, no more and no less.”
  8. Simple ‘shoulds’ are invitations of sorts. They invite us to examine our own hearts. To be curious about our motivations. To peek past what we do, to why we do it. Accept the invitation. Sit with your ‘should’. Notice its pull. When do you feel it? What effect does it have on you? Who or What are you wanting to please? Ask what this ‘should’ is doing for you? What would happen if you didn’t obey the ‘should’? What might that feel like?
  9. My friend Susanne commented, “If you get a feeling of dread at the prospects of doing something you might want to reconsider your commitment. One should avoid long term or indefinite commitments to things that don’t bring you joy.” Another friend, Yvonne, texted, “I know if I’m going to resent doing something, then I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t do it!”

I know in many ways this is too big for one blog post—but I’ve felt compelled to give you what I’ve got, to at least stir up some grace in each of us, to begin conversations about freedom and joy and restored commitments to the One who came to give us “a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

 

 

  1. Taken from three texting conversations: one with my friend and pastor Steve, one with my friend and cousin Maria and the last with my friend Cindy.
  2. Some of these thoughts distilled from a message from my friend Russ.
  3. This wisdom also came from my friends Maria and Cindy.
  4. These thoughts came from my dearest Lowell.
  5. This is also from Lowell.
  6. Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation. p222.
  7. My friend Russ thinks deeply about this stuff.
  8. This is the voice of a Spiritual Director!
  9. My friends Susanne and Yvonne are good at discerning their no–and finding joy in it!

Inhaling Grace

walk

A warm, damp wind blows my hair and my face as I walk up Tremont Street, making my way to work. It has rained during the night and the streets show recent puddles. The fifty percent accurate weather forecast reckons it will rain some more, and then the temperature will drop and snow will begin during the night.

The weather in New England is as fickle as the human heart and causes almost as much chaos and damage. But, unlike the heart, the weather is given more grace by others.

I think about this today as I walk. I’m tired. I feel the weight of life’s journey on my body. I know myself well enough that I won’t make any decisions right now. As sages are wont to say “this too will pass.” But it still feels difficult. It still feels like I’m not doing enough to bring light, grace, and joy into this world of grey.

But maybe it’s not about me doing ‘enough’ — maybe it’s about me relaxing and realizing that I need to stop. I need to stop and inhale grace with each breath – breathe in, breathe out. Inhale, exhale. Breathe in grace, feel it fill my body.

Unsure of my own words and thoughts, I gratefully read those of another:

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

“Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day’s chalking.”
Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace

I breathe in once again and know I’m ready for another day’s chalking, another day of grace.

His Mercy Echoes

generations quote

 

Yesterday my mom wrote a comment on my post that is worthy of a space of its own. Here it is: 

From my mom – Pauline Brown

I recently read the story told by a Vietnamese American woman. Her grandparents, her mother and two aunts escaped as Saigon was falling. The woman had worked for the American Embassy, but in the end was abandoned. They had to get out because of the American connection.

The three girls were separated from their parents, neither daughters nor parents knowing if the others had gotten out alive as they all saw one of the last helicopters shot down in flames. They miraculously found each other on Guam amongst the thousands of other refugees. As a child she and her cousins loved to hear the story of what she called their “Exodus from Vietnam.”

But the other part of the story is that there was a little Baptist Church in Lafayette, Indiana whose people had decided that they should sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family.

Far away, at a small Baptist church in Indiana, some Christians were convinced that God’s heart was for those whom nobody wanted.

They were praying for that family long before they ever saw them. They met them with a furnished apartment, doctor’s appointments, clothes, all the practical help they needed, and such love as they had never experienced. At the end of the article she says this:

“This is also my story. I grew up knowing that I existed because somewhere in the world, a group of people believed that God was asking them to show mercy to those who needed it. I grew up knowing that this sort of a God is a God worth trusting. His mercy echoes down through the generations.

And I thought to myself, “What if every church in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and all the countries of western Europe each sponsored a refugee family? I wonder how much of a difference that would make for the millions fleeing.” 

It might be a small dent in the total, but how much it would mean to each of those families! And His mercy would continue to echo down through the generations.

May God help each of us to do what little we can to show His love and compassion to these desperate people He loves.

Story and quote credits to Juliet Liu Waite, Christianity Today December 2015, titled “The Waters of My Family’s Exodus.”

Striving to be Kind

frederica quote

Whether it’s about a red Starbucks cup or a political opinion, we live in a world that is increasingly divided, even as it is more connected than any time in history. In this world of online chatter, I think alot about how to respond to those with whom I disagree. For a people pleaser, this is hard. I want to be true to who I am and what I believe, but I also like people and the truth is, I want them to like me.

These past weeks have been so difficult for me. Those of you who read regularly know that I’ve been writing about refugees since I began to blog.  Refugees, displaced people, the one who doesn’t belong – they have my heart, my time, and my money. So when I see misinformation, misguided claims, and pure meanness about refugees I find it difficult to stay calm, and incredibly difficult to be kind. I want to lash out.

But that doesn’t work. The idea that my being mean and angry will help the situation is ridiculous. “The battle is not won or lost on the public stage.”

And so I pen an audacious blog – “Striving to be Kind,”  as though I have a market on kindness. And I don’t, not in any way. But more and more I am struck by how important kindness is in my responses to people.

In a wise post last year, Robynn wrote: “It’s better to be kind than right.” Those words were important for me to read.

It’s in the book of Colossians that I find a framework for how to be kind.

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.  Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace,seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Continue in prayer and thanksgiving. I read these words and I realize that without prayer, I don’t have a chance. Just as I need time to strengthen relationships with my husband and my family, so do I need time with God. Prayer strengthens me. Prayer calms me. Prayer centers me. Prayer helps me to be kind, because through prayer I remember the kindness of God toward me.

Walk in wisdom. Wisdom is about knowledge and discernment. Wisdom is about insight and sound judgment. Wisdom helps me know when to stop talking. Wisdom helps me know when to challenge. Wisdom helps me to know when to slow down, when to warm my tone, when to watch my intent. 

Speak with grace. There are ways to speak that are gracious and affirm the other person, even as I disagree with them. Abba Dorotheos of Gaza is a saint in the Orthodox Church. He lived in Gaza in the fifth century. I was introduced to his writings about three years ago, but I began to reread them this fall. His writings are as pertinent today as they were in the fifth century, because they are written toward the heart of man and that hasn’t changed. One of his disciples said this about Abba Dorotheos: “Towards the brethren laboring with him he responded with modesty, with humility, and was gracious without arrogance or audacity. He was good-natured and direct, he would engage in a dispute, but always preserved the principle of respect, of good will, and that which is sweeter than honey, oneness of soul, the mother of all virtues.”*

Abba Dorotheos gives clear instructions not to attack the person’s entire character with our words. It’s one thing to say “The man lost his temper.” It’s quite another to say “That is a bad tempered man.” One speaks to a point in time, the other to the entire character of a man. Let’s be honest – in online communication, character and ad hominem attacks are the rule rather than the exception.

I wonder what advice Abba Dorotheos would give us in this age of online communication, where insults fly between total strangers and anger is ignited across the interweb. I think he would repeat the words that he wrote so long ago: “ Listen to what the Lord says: “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He shows here the root and cause of all ills and their cure, the cause of all good, namely, that self-exaltation has brought us down and that pardon cannot be obtained except through its opposite, humility.”  

For this is truth: I can’t be gracious if I am full of pride.

I have a long way to go to have this framework branded on my soul, but every day gives me opportunity to practice.  

*“Strive always to love those who hate you. Never forget that we aren’t dealing with a fog-like “movement” but with real three-dimensional persons, whom God loves just as much as he loves you. Christ saves only sinners—people like you. So be courageous, but always loving, for the battle is not won or lost on the public stage but inside the yearning heart of every person.” Frederica Matthewes-Green

*St. Dositheus – disciple of Abba Dorotheos.

Sacred Gifts: A Basket, A Chicken Jug and A Simple Bar of Soap

sacred gifts

Over the last three weeks I have received three very unique and very personal gifts. Each of these gifts has meant something to me. They’ve blessed me in my deep places—partly because of the timing, partly because of the person behind the gifts, partly because they demonstrate that I am loved. But mostly because they showed that three times someone thought of me and, oddly enough, it reminded me that God thinks of me too.

Three weeks ago Lowell and I were spontaneously invited out for dinner with friends. We had a grand time. We drank delicious drinks and ate yummy food. There was a lot of laughter at our table. It was a special evening. In the middle of it, adding to the spectacle of a night out, the Kansas State University marching band filed into the restaurant and began to play pep rally tunes. The tubas and trumpets, the flutes and the French horns saturated the space and the music filled in all the gaps. I couldn’t stop laughing. It struck me as hilarious being surrounded by such loud happiness.

When the meal was over and we were leaving the restaurant, my friend Diann said she had something for me in her car. They offered to drive over to where we were parked but Lowell and I walked with them to their car. From out of the back seat Diann pulled a ceramic red basket. It was adorned with ribbons and filled to the brim with autumnal goodies: pumpkin spice chai mix, pumpkin spiced pancake mix, pumpkin biscotti, earrings and a note. I was overwhelmed by the gift. I couldn’t get over it. As I carried it to our car I kept shaking my head. Why would Diann do this? There was no occasion. It seemed too extravagant.

When we got home I set it on the table and tears filled my eyes again. I fingered each gift gently and wondered at it and the woman who had given it to me. The next morning when I saw it I cried again. I texted Diann, “I can’t tell you how much the gift meant to me. It’s completely disarmed me… I keep looking at it and getting tears in my eyes. Thank you for your kindness to me.” Her response was the last straw, “You’re welcome Robynn Joy. You do a lot for others and I know very few come back to thank you. Jesus experienced this too.” And then I cried more tears.

Two days ago, another friend Tanya, dropped in. She had found a gift for me and wanted to drop it by. It was a golden coloured water jug with an orange handle and an orange spout. The whole thing was shaped delightfully and a little ridiculously like a bird. As she pulled it out from where it had been hiding behind her back I caught my first glimpse of it and I burst out laughing. I laughed and laughed with genuine joy! It made me so happy.

Tanya knows my love of birds. She knows it’s the secret language Jesus uses to communicate his care for me and his provision for our family. The jug makes me think of all that. It also demonstrates that Tammy thought of me. It’s a sweet thing to be thought of when I wasn’t there. She saw the goofy jug and she thought of me. That means a lot to me. I used the jug to pour water at suppertime and I couldn’t stop smiling. The bird was graciously spewing up the water on our behalf, filling our cups, satisfying our thirsts. I giggled seeing it work it’s magic!

This morning I went to visit another friend. This is someone I’ve known for over four years. We’ve met monthly for most of that time. Over the years she has let me into some secret places of pain and sadness. This past summer as she was confiding in me some of those agonies associated with a particular place—a location her family insists on visiting two or three times a year—we talked about what it might look like to redeem that space. What joy could she hand carry into that place? How might that spot previously associated with loneliness and isolation be recovered and replaced with hope and contentment. It struck her she might like to try a new hobby there. She thought she might like to make soap!

Today, months after that summer time visit, she handed me the most glorious bar of golden soap you’ve ever seen. The red palm oil naturally dyed it a sunshine yellow colour. The soap is soft and smooth to the touch. It smells of redemption and restored dignity. It smells of hope and a little bit like heaven too. To me the soap represented the cleansing work of the Spirit in our stories. Jesus stepped in and helped sift through some of my friend’s pain. She brought the olive oil, coconut oil, the lye and the essential oils. He brought the healing remedies, the therapeutic components. Together they made soap—all smooth and sunshiny.

There are dark days ahead. Disappointed expectations always seem to pop up during the winter. Sadness and sorrow often drop in around the holiday season. I’m grateful for my three sacred gifts. These presents bring love and cheer and hope all dressed up in a basket, a chicken and a simple bar of soap. They call to mind the Presence of the Giver of all good gifts who lavishes kindness on his children. Three of my friends thought of me and somehow their gifts remind me that the Giver also thinks about me. He unexpectedly and delightfully demonstrated that with a bar of soap, a basket and lovely yellow chicken bird jug!

A Final Note for Those in Crisis

sanctuary

I thought it fitting to write a last word on the crisis piece. The comments in the piece Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis hurt my heart. And so this piece is for you. All of you who wrote in the comments – thank you for your heart. Thank you for your vulnerability. This one’s for you.

Know your safe people and cry and laugh with them. Be kind to those who aren’t safe, but don’t let them into your sanctuary.

There is being vulnerable and then there is being safe. Can safety and vulnerability coexist?

I think they must coexist. Particularly at different points in our lives. Only when we feel safe can we be vulnerable. When we are in the midst of a crisis, not matter what the crisis is, it’s difficult to be vulnerable. Because all of our safeguards are gone.

When we let people who are not safe into the sanctuaries of our souls they tend to break things. They take those fragile pieces and treat them poorly, throwing them around, tossing out words and behaviours that shatter our safety. And when those fragile pieces break, it can take a lot of work to put them back together. Trust is broken easily, but repaired slowly.

Several years ago I heard a story about a public school in New York City that wanted to take down the fence around the school yard. I’m not sure why, perhaps they wanted children to feel more freedom. But the opposite happened: instead of more freedom, children huddled together in the middle of the play ground. They were afraid and they could not move freely. When they had the fence, they could run and play, there was safety around the perimeter and it made all the difference. The fence, instead of constricting, gave freedom.

We need fences in the sanctuaries of our souls. We are not made to be emotionally naked with everyone, everyone is not safe. But with proper fences, we have freedom to be vulnerable. 

So know your safe people, and be vulnerable with them. But keep proper fences, not walls that cannot be penetrated, but fences that allow freedom around the sanctuary of your soul.

Lastly, can we learn to give grace to those who mess it up? Give grace to those people who muddle through their own discomfort with crisis and loss, and say things that are stupid? I think this is something that I will work to learn the rest of my life, but they too are deserving of grace. The time comes into everyone’s life when they will suffer crisis and loss. No one is immune to this. Some have far more than their share of loss, others seem impervious to even raging storms. But the human experience includes loss. Every relationship ultimately ends in loss. When that person, the one who used the wrong words, goes through loss, may we be the first to give grace. 

If you are just coming by, you may want to take a look at these two posts:

Note: The content in this piece is largely taken from here.

Giving Grace to People in Crisis – the Sequel to Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis

Clear Tea grace

When I wrote the piece “Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis,” I had no idea the nerve that I would touch. Sadly, I think it resonated deeply with people because they have heard all the stupid things I mentioned. I was honored to read through the comments; I was saddened by what I read. It makes me believe that we need mandatory workshops in crisis care.

But the question remains, what are some good things to say to people in crisis?

Here are a few things that I’ve found tremendously helpful.

  • You can cry. Weird isn’t it, how we need to be given permission to cry? I’m continually amazed both as a nurse, and as a human being, at the reactions that people have to their own crying. The most common response is people saying “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to cry.” This is heart breaking. When we apologize for crying, we are apologizing for our humanity. We are apologizing for our vulnerability, instead of realizing what a gift it is to be vulnerable. Tears cleanse our souls; they remind us of our humanity. Tears are gifts of the hurting heart. Being given permission to shed these tears is critically important. In giving permission, we are saying “It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to be human. It’s okay to hurt.”

In the process of shedding tears, souls heal and wrong is made right. 

  • Can I bring you pizza? Or dinner, or wine, or….! Being physically cared for is the most important part of the beginning days of a crisis.
  • I can drive you. Again, this is meeting those critical first days of chaos, when thinking is blurred, and even brushing your teeth feels impossible. This is also important throughout the healing period. Driving to hospital visits, to grocery stores, to appointments….all of these add up for the person in crisis. To have someone share the driving helps share the burden.
  • I cleared my schedule so I can come sit with you at the hospital (or at the appointment, or in the court room.) Often crisis periods mean a lot of sitting. To have someone sit with you, without being restless, is a way to care for people in crisis.
  • Let me make you some tea. I admit, I come from the part of the world where tea cures everything. But you know something? It really does. Tea brings warmth and comfort. Tea brings hope and strength. While coffee tends to bring energy, tea brings calm to any situation.
  • I can pick up your kids. Another tangible, concrete expression of care.
  • You’re right, it isn’t fair. Instead of contradicting someone, and telling them that life is never fair, affirm their voice, affirm their pain. People are smart, they know when they are being irrational and unreasonable. We don’t have to contradict them and give them lectures on life.
  • It IS too much to bearSo many difficulties in life feel too big for us. They are too overwhelming, and when we are in the midst of them, we don’t think we can get through. And so we need someone to bear our burdens. I remember climbing a mountain in Pakistan when I was a teenager. I was with two of my brothers. It got to a point when I was done. It was too hard and I wanted to turn back. My older brother Tom looked at me and said, “I’ll help. We do this together.” He put his hand on the my back and literally propelled me forward. That was all I needed. We walked upward like that for a few minutes, and that was enough. I made it the rest of the way on my own. I think of that often when I think about walking with people through crisis. “We do this together, you won’t be alone” are powerful words.
  • I’m so sorry. Saying those words aloud, letting them know that you are grieving with them, sitting beside them in silence as they pour out their hearts, this is the fellowship of suffering.

In all of this, I am reminded of the kindness of Jesus.Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.*” These words from the Gospel of Matthew are beautiful.  The goal of crisis care is burden sharing. It is compassion and kindness that eases the pain, that shares the load. Jesus ends with these powerful words that offer rest and hope: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s an offer of grace in the midst of suffering.

So there we have it: In the midst of crisis, we are to offer grace. Not guilt, not lectures, not warnings, not platitudes, not self-righteous monologues – we are to offer grace. 

May we seek the heart, mind, and words of Jesus as we walk beside people in crisis.

And to you in crisis – here is a final word. 

Note: Some of these must be done in relationship. Obviously, if the kids don’t know you, then picking them up could be disastrous. But there are other things that can be done without being in a close relationship.

*Matthew 11:28-30

Free Wine–Reposting a yet Awkward Moment!

wineglass-553467_1280

I have a friend who volunteers at our local wine festival. When it was over she was given a case of bottles of wine that were all partially consumed. They had all been opened. Some were nearly empty. Some were quite nearly full. She also scored a box of wine and several bottles of beer. Clearly it was too much alcohol for one person to consume on her own so she generously offered us the box full of bottles of wine. 

We enjoyed trying wines we wouldn’t normally be able to afford. We tasted dry wines and sweet wines, different wines and familiar wines. The festival was nearly two months ago now and we’re down to only two mostly empty bottles of wine in our fridge. This kind gift of free wine reminded me of another experience I had three years ago with free wine. As I re-read the following piece, I felt the same rush of embarrassment flush over me….

Lowell and I went to see All My Sons, an Arthur Miller tragedy, on Saturday night. During intermission we decided to share a glass of wine. We got in line. It’s a small community theater. The foyer is intimate, small, cozy. As we waited in line Lowell chatted with the gentleman behind him–his major professor from his graduate study days. It’s small town moments like this that I love. We are part of the community. When we got to the front of the queue I handed the bartender my credit card, asking simultaneously, “Do you take plastic?”

He shook his head with a little regret and a little joy but then he continued, “What do you want? I’ll be happy to get it for you.” I was embarrassed and a little flustered, “Oh, that’s ok.”

“No really. I give away alcohol all the time. I’m technically not allowed to charge. This is all donation based. If you want you can come next time and leave a donation to cover it.”

Knowing myself, my memory, I shook my head, “With my forty- two year old brain I don’t trust myself. I wouldn’t remember!”

“Oh that’s ok. What do you want? What can I give you?”

I was flustered. The line was waiting. It’s a small space. Everyone was watching as this other drama unfolded.

“I’ll have a glass of red wine please.” I asked sheepishly, awkwardly.

Lowell’s professor leaned in and offered, “Lowell, what do you want? I’ll cover yours.”

“Well now you have a choice,“ The bartender replied flamboyantly. At this point Lowell leaned in and whispered that he was going to the restroom. I was on my own.

The grey haired bartender began the tour of red wine choices. He described each one with poetry and enthusiasm. This one was mild and dry, this one full-bodied and rich. I tried to interrupt with a quick choice. Sure, that one, that sounds great. Thank you. I was so self-conscious.

The bartender grabbed a stemmed glass and flew it through the air. He placed it on the table and poured the fluid red generosity into it. I thanked him sincerely and walked down the line, past the audience.

As I passed, a friend of mine spotted me. She reached out and touched me on the arm and said she’d pay for it.

I was flushed and flustered as I found my seat in the dimly lit theater. I blushed as I sipped my blushed beverage. Hesitatingly. Red wine. Slowly.

Lowell joined me. He whispered in close, “You handled that really well.” We shared the wine. Savoring it. The lights dimmed and the play continued.

Later that night as I relived the play and the memory of the intermission– I was struck by the grace and generosity of it all. I was also amazed at my own reactions. I had been so unsettled. So self-conscious. So disconcerted.

But God is like that bartender. He gives away Free Wine. He wants us to have the best, our favourite. He wants to lavish it on us with flare and flash. It’s grace! It’s unmerited! It’s extravagant and embarrassing and unnerving. And we’re surrounded by it. We receive it; we extend it to those around us. This is amazing grace!

“Is anyone thirsty?  Come and drink—even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free!
Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food. “Come to me with your ears wide open.
Listen, and you will find life.”

Isaiah 55:1-3

Thank you Taylor Swift!

concert

Thank you Taylor Swift by Robynn

All summer long our youngest daughter has been dreading entering the eighth grade. Seventh grade wasn’t a positive experience for her. She really loathed it. Friendships changed. She bravely tried out for tennis and basketball but didn’t make the teams. She ran for student council but didn’t win the position she hoped for. It was a year of serious disappointment. Anyone who knows this kid, knows she processed all this pain and heart ache out loud, at home, all the time, with me. It was a really hard year. None of this endeared her to the prospect of another year in middle school.

Before the school year was even out she presented a fully developed PowerPoint presentation on why we should take her out of school and begin immediate homeschooling.

In May I received a phone call from a lady named Erin. Erin indicated that she was calling from the state of Kansas’ online education office. She was calling to speak to Bronwynn Bliss in response to her request for information. Bronwynn was across town enduring the last weeks of seventh grade, I was home receiving her phone calls. I was afraid Bronwynn wouldn’t be able to come to the phone.

When school let out in May, Bronwynn, waited three or four days before beginning her discernable dread of returning to school in August. We heard about it all summer long. She couldn’t possibly return to school. In her mind a conversation would convince us. Passionately she presented other options: Catholic school, private Christian school, online school, homeschool, another local middle school. She created pros and cons lists, ranking each entry with a score, adding up the results, doing the math. The results, mysteriously, always revealed that she couldn’t return to school.

On the last Friday of the summer I was sick in bed with a residual migraine that would not lift. Bronwynn camped out next to me and began her pleas with greater vigor and determination. The poor kid knew that summer was coming to an end. Her time was running out. She was trapped and in greater and greater anguish. Pulling out a fresh page in a new notebook she began her lists again. There had to be a solution and she was bent on finding it.

Sunday afternoon, in the middle of the growing agonies, flowing tears, knowing looks, we got a simple text message from a friend, “Would Bronwynn want to go to the Taylor Swift concert with me in September?”

That’s all it took! Taylor Swift saved the day. Bronwynn went from dejected to delirious faster than an Aston Martin One-77 can go from zero to sixty miles an hour! Everything changed. Hope was in the air. We had something to look forward to beyond the horrors of the present realities.

Emotionally I felt like I was strapped into a roller coaster going at unnatural speeds, taking head jerking turns and twists. She had gone from tears to squeals. Her personality morphed right in front of my eyes. She had been transformed, converted, changed. Suddenly. In the blink of a text message. I was astounded and if I’m honest, a little whiplashed!

It struck me that there is great value in having something to look forward to. The mundane is monotonous. Routine often seems to rip up our happiness.  Our real lives are marked with pain and frustrations. The news from around the world is bleak. We slug it out, day in, day out and it feels like the joy seeps out with the day. We push past ‘hump day’ (Wednesday) to the weekend but even our weekends seem bleh: yard work, errands, laundry. Having something further out on the horizon to look forward to seems to change everything!

There is coming a day when all will be well. Things will be set right. Peace will be restored. Beauty and order and loveliness will be reinstated. It’s a day just past what we can see. We have to live through this week, and the next, and possibly a few more but the day will come. The promise of it gives us something to think about in the midst of what we currently endure. We can fix our eyes on what is unseen and get through what we see, up close, relentlessly in our faces all day long. Somehow—and this is pure mystery—that upcoming day gives hope to this day. It infuses today with meaning and a sense of purpose. It gives us something larger than ourselves to look forward to, something beyond our own particulars to anticipate.

The Taylor Swift concert was all it took! Monday midway through the day, Bronzi casually sauntered through the kitchen, “I think I’m ready for school mom.” As she continued out of the room, I literally felt myself reel from the effects of emotional vertigo. I held onto the kitchen counter and breathed a steadying prayer of gratitude. Thank you Jesus for Taylor Swift. Thank you Jesus for our friend who thought of Bronwynn. Thank you for hope and expectation.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/concert-performance-audience-336695/

Shards of Glass


  
Last Monday, after a lot of thinking, I wrote a post to Franklin Graham. Graham had made a public statement that I felt was deeply hurtful and out of line. I wrote it in defense of many of my friends. It ended up being shared far more than I anticipated, largely because some kind friends with more influence than me passed it on.

The more it was shared, the more comments I received, and the more I had to screen the comments.

I was up for it – after all, I had written it, published it publicly, and I needed to take ownership of what I had written. That’s what grown-ups do.

But grown-ups also need to know their boundaries. They need to know that a personal web site is not a democracy. Everyone doesn’t get to have their comments published. So when comments were rude, when they were ad hominem attacks toward me or my Muslim friends, when they simply criticized and did not add to the discussion, I deleted them from my email. They never saw the blog site. They were extinguished.

I thought I was doing well. We had a blueberry pancake breakfast as a family. I began cleaning a kitchen cupboard, with hopes of ridding our kitchen of some pesky moths.

And then a can fell onto two of my favorite wine glasses that were resting on the counter, and suddenly I was a mess. Shards of glass were everywhere, and tears blurred my vision. I loved the wine glasses – they were purchased during our last trip to Egypt, a time when Egypt was deep in the stress of a post uprising chaos. But my tears felt way more powerful than grieving a mere material thing. As I swept up the shards, I suddenly knew why.

I realized that those comments felt like shards of glass to my soul, to my heart.

My son came to help. “You okay, mom?” He asked the question with compassion.  This child is child of my heart. He knows these things. I nodded my head but kept my face down.

Shards of glass at the ready. Shards that cut and hurt. Shards with potential to destroy. That’s what we are like – ready to attack with shards of glass when we disagree, instead of  grace and careful words. We humans are a passionate people about our own views. All of us, whether we choose to comment or not. And our passion can be good, but when it contains shards of glass, we intend for it to hurt. We want to destroy with our words.

So we swept up shards of glass together, and I said the Jesus Prayer. Because in truth, that’s the only thing preventing me from piercing others with shards of my own.