Lonely Tears and Sunflower Hope

I wake up lonely. This does not happen often, but when it does I know tears are just below the surface and I feel the heavy weight of distance between me and the world.

It is not surprising, but it is unwelcome. Just last week I was surrounded by family and life, by water and activity in Istanbul. My husband and I had a 3-country trip planned to celebrate both of us turning 60 this year. Besides the state-side celebrations, our plan was to go to Egypt, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

All of those plans were laid in the large, globe sized pandemic grave of missed opportunities and revised plans and expectations. We felt glad to be alive and have food in our cupboards. Forget any grand plans.

But as the summer wore on and curves flattened, borders opening their doors just a tiny bit, we decided to push them open wider. My brother and sister-in-law and niece and her family were all in Istanbul, a place open to Americans with no quarantine needed. We may not get to Egypt and Kurdistan, but we could certainly take the nine plus hour flight to Istanbul.

And so we did. We left on a Friday night, arriving on the other side of the world on a Saturday afternoon. We took in the beautiful breezes on the Bosphorous as we went on ferry rides to the Black Sea and over to the European side of Istanbul. We took a cable car up to Pierre Lotti’s house overlooking the entire city, and we ticked a stay at the famed Pera Palace off of our bucket list. We ate delicious food, drank hot glasses of steaming tea, and laughed until our bellies ached.

Better still, our son who lives in Greece decided to surprise us, showing up at dinner time on our second day in Istanbul. The tears and joy filled my heart.

The entire trip was a gift. A gift of beauty and family, of hope and longing fulfilled.

And then – we returned. We returned to more strife than we left. We returned to a nation that is fighting, fearful, and jaundiced. We returned to mask shaming and covid deniers. We returned to a nation full of people who assume the worst of their fellow human beings, who spit on the Imago Dei to win an online argument. And me? I’m the worst offender of all.

For the first few days I braced myself. “I’m okay” I kept on saying. “I can do this.”

But today? Today I woke up and the loneliness that had hovered just around my heart closed in, squeezing it to a full physical ache. I began to cry. I cried and cried and cried. You know the kind of tears that are so healing and good for the soul? Those kind. They weren’t tears of self pity. They were tears of loneliness, brokenness, and pain for our world.

I felt lost in pandemic exile, trapped in lonely isolation. I sensed the cold weather that will inevitably come, and like the runaway bunny, my thoughts run unchecked and too far into a cold, lonesome future.

I know where to take this ache, but it feels heavy and I’m not sure I can carry it and drop it at those feet, those dust-covered, blistered, scarred feet of Jesus

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

It is now several hours later. My eyes hurt from the crying, my soul is exhausted, but somehow I know it will all be okay. This God who has heard me since I was a little girl when the tears flowed in boarding school still hears me, still comforts me with his invisible presence. Hope blooms out of lonely tears, like the sunflowers that unexpectedly bloomed in our garden, welcoming us on return.

May the loneliness I feel be the catalyst for reaching out harder, praying longer, and knowing even more fully that sometimes only God alone can be the comfort we all so desperately need.

And So We Gather

It is late afternoon as I sit on the beach, watching the waves creep closer and closer to where we are resting. I hear sounds from others enjoying the ocean – a father calling his daughter, a grandmother telling her granddaughter not to swim too far, and other quieter voices but none interrupt my deep sense of peace and rest.

It will soon be high tide and the beach area will almost disappear. The tides in our area are pronounced, going out as far as a quarter mile on some beaches. It is amazing to all of us, but particularly to the first time visitor.

We have gathered with family, making sure all are well and virus free. While gathering with family at any time is special, given the loss, stress and sadness of the last months this feels like the best of gifts.

Perhaps this is the biggest lesson or gift of the pandemic. That which we thought was certain is no longer so. That which we thought was negotiable, available, or practical has all changed. We have developed a heightened awareness of what is a right and what is a gift. Most things, I have learned, are not rights.

Perhaps too, we have exchanged expectation for hope – a good and necessary exchange.

On the one hand, gathering as a group may seem foolish in these times. We are, after all, in a world wide season of uncertainty. But perhaps that is exactly why it feels even more important to gather.

A few years ago during my first visit to Iraq, I remember talking to an Iraqi woman who had to flee her home during the time of ISIS. I remember saying “How did you survive?” – one of those foolish things that Westerners sometimes say to those who have endured more than they can imagine. I remember her looking at me and saying “You keep on living, because the alternative is not an option, and it surprised even us how strong we were!”

The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.

Wendell Berry

And so we gather with good food, the occasional and expected small frustrations, laughter, good conversation and games, ever understanding that we must all keep on living, perhaps the act of resistance and love that is most needed during times of uncertainty.

Reclaiming Lost Things

We used to rent out our beloved cottage in Rockport for a 9-month season. From a financial standpoint, it was smart. From an emotional one, it was awful. At the end of each rental period I would walk into the cottage with a sense of dread. How had the renters treated our beloved space? How had the cottage survived a group of strangers? What would be broken? Dirty? Irreparably damaged?

The first thing we would do is clean. We would scrub and polish until it regained some of the sparkle. Then I would redecorate. I would change things around and make it ours again. I would reclaim it for our purposes.

When something happens that you have no control over – losing a job, having to leave a country, getting a cancer diagnosis, a death, a pandemic, or a myriad of other things in life – you feel like your life is not your own. Things are happening to you and around you. Things that you did not choose. Your place and purpose suddenly change, and you are left in a tornado of doubt, fear, anger, and loss. Part of recovering is reclaiming.

How do you reclaim what is lost?

How do we reclaim our spaces, our bodies, our marriages, our places of refuge, or our very identities that sometime feel lost in crisis, betrayal, or death? How do we reclaim our faith? How do we scrub, polish, redecorate, and reclaim?

It’s a slow process, but the spiritual truth to this is profound. Perhaps the biggest piece is realizing how little control we really have over things that happen to us. It’s a paradox to be sure, but reclaiming is about getting honest, admitting that there are very few elements of our lives where we have control. We cling tightly to so many parts of our lives, imagining that we have far more control than we actually do. Our hot fists hold on, like a child that doesn’t want to relinquish their favorite toy. “Mine!” we cry. “It’s not fair.” “Why us?” “Its’ my life.” So many responses, but all in the same hard-held fist.

After realizing how little control I do have, it’s about moving forward with what I know. Taking back what is lost.

In this season I’m thinking a lot about reclaiming and being reclaimed. I remember our Rockport cottage as it would once again become ours, its beautiful interior being scrubbed and made new. The same thing is happening during these quieter days, where time loses meaning and days blend together into the season of a pandemic. If I’m willing, I experience an inner housecleaning and reclaiming that can only take place when I lay down my right to control, when I allow the hard inner work of repentance and trust to replace the anger, frustration, and the “it’s not fair” that floats barely under the surface. Perhaps its really when I realize that reclaiming is really about being reclaimed.

My fist opens. My body relaxes. And, over time, my soul is renewed and reclaimed.

The Blessing

The Lord Bless You

The Lord bless you, and keep you.

It’s grey outside, a day marked by fog and sadness. It is a holiday weekend in the United States. It feels far from celebratory. But this year it feels right to be lost in a fog.

Make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you.

Maybe you are feeling like I am these days – that life and the world feel weighty. I hear and read bad news and evil on every page and around every turn. From too many deaths in the Black community to second waves of COVID-19 to division about both, our news is flooded with opinion and voices. It all feels like too much. It is too much.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace.

And then I pause for a moment, and I watch “The Blessing” for what feels like the thousandth time. This song (based on several different Bible verses and written co-written by Steven Furtick and Chris Brown and with musical artists Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) began in the UK in early May. Since then, my husband and I have watched renditions from India, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden, Spain, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar…too many to list and too many to count.

May his favor be upon you and a thousand generations.

The words and music fill my soul and I feel my eyesight and my heart healing. There on my screen are people of every beautiful color and hair of every amazing texture, from every country imagineable, singing a blessing. A blessing that is thousands of years old, originally penned by writers of books in the Old Testament.

And your family, and your children, and their children, and their children

And I know that this story, this story God is writing is bigger than our immediate crises, it is holier and more beautiful than any response to injustice that humans are capable of, it is more powerful than any imperfect government or political party.

May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you, He is with you, He is with you

The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. It is far bigger than superpowers, politics, political parties, and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

In the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping and rejoicing, His for you, He is for you.

It is a story that makes us laugh and weep, bow down and rise up. It is a story that sustains and delivers, that breaks the conscience and demands that we act. It is a story that convicts and comforts, that holds us and heals us. Because this God of the universe, who created us, who loves us, who transforms us – he is for us.

He is for you, He is for you, He is for you, He is for youHe is for you, He is for you

And when we believe this in our bones, than we are changed.

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

So if you are feeling like I’m feeling, stop for a moment. Take a listen. And know that He is for you.

Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.

On Cardinals and Bread Making

A female cardinal heads toward our bird feeder, interrupting my thoughts as I stare out the window. She is not the dazzling, deep red of her mate, instead her beauty is more subtle – a beak that the most beautiful lipstick could scarcely imitate, a warm red hue at the edges of her wings, but otherwise a light, lovely brown. Her mate is nowhere to be seen, smartly taking cover on a chilly May morning. It is early morning and her interruption is welcome during this time of solitude, nature reminding me that all will be well.

I am deeply influenced by the weather and I look out the window toward the city of Boston, grateful for sunshine and blue sky. Despite that, I find myself sighing, willing myself to focus on the beautiful distraction of the cardinal and not the unknown of the days ahead.

The spoken and unspoken words within all of us are “When will this end?” And even as we speak the words, we know that many have gone through far more difficult times for much longer periods. The cry “How long, Oh Lord?” daily escaping their lips, seemingly without answer.

Those daily chores of eating, taking walks, working from home, video chatting with friends and family, texting and more texting have all achieved heightened importance.

But by far, the most therapeutic, calming act for me has been making bread. I have loved making bread. Not sourdough, with its complicated starter that seems to the uninitiated an organism as needy as a newborn baby. Instead, oatmeal bread – a tried and true recipe that has fed our family through new born babies, tragedies, cold winters, and joy-filled soup suppers. It is therapeutic to create and it is therapy to eat.

I love eating bread, I love making bread. I have written in the past that making bread is better than a counseling session. It is redemptive work, this work of bread making. It grounds me in something solid and sustaining. It is no wonder that throughout history, from France to Egypt to Boston, bread riots have come about when shortages occur or prices rise. Bread is symbolic to life.

Every place I have lived in the world has given me more and more appreciation for bread and the thousands of ways to create it. Each type comes with a unique flavor despite most of them using fairly standard ingredients. Head out to the bazaar at dinner time in Kurdistan or Pakistan and you will hear vendors shouting, luring customers in to buy the fresh naan, fresh bread, hot out of clay ovens.

During this time of worldwide uncertainty and fear, we all long to have something to sustain us. The abundance of recipes and people creating starters for sourdough bread is evidence of how we look to bread to do this for us. In the midst of so much unknown, we want to hold on to the known and the stable, want to grasp things that will take us through uncertainty. No wonder Jesus said “I am the bread of life” to his disciples.

Bread. Beautiful, life-giving, life-sustaining bread – both the physical, tangible bread that I eat and the less tangible spiritual bread of life that I daily seek. Bread that brings order out of chaos, comfort out of despair, and peace out of pandemics, and with it the reminder of words that have lasted thousands of years. “Take. Eat. My body broken for you.”

[Picture Credit: Image by Laura Retyi from Pixabay]

A Salute to All of Us

Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Here’s to the moms, homeschooling when they always said “I’ll homeschool when it snows in Djibouti… or Miami … or Chiang Mai.” In other words “Never” and never has suddenly become now.

Here’s to the restaurant worker, who is suddenly furloughed from an eighty hour work week.

Here’s to the teachers turning their carefully thought out lesson plans into online classes.

Here’s to the young woman who just got a job at Target excited for her first paycheck only to find out there will be no more.

Here’s to the nurse, carefully isolating herself from her family to keep them safe.

Here’s to the student, lonely and feeling trapped.

Here’s to the graduate who will not be able to walk.

Here’s to the bride, who tearfully postponed her wedding Unsure of when it can be rescheduled.

Here’s to the women and men setting up home offices and new systems, trying to continue their jobs.

Here’s to the grocery store employee, wiping down carts and checkout counters with bleach.

Here’s to the healthcare workers, on the frontlines of care.

Here’s to the priest and the pastor, the imam and the rabbi, praying for congregations in crisis.

Here’s to the homeless, fighting one more difficult day, one more crisis in a long list.

Here’s to the families trapped on three sides of the globe, to the third culture kid trying to get home, to the parents and siblings, brothers and sisters separated.

Here’s to the family grieving with no funeral, the community rallying with no physical contact, the church seeking to function while apart.

Here’s to the poor and the refugee – those whose reality has changed little, but whose hope looks even bleaker.

Here’s to the helpers, the doers, the prayers, the seekers, the scholars, the researchers, the neighbors, the givers, the comforters, the organizers, the activists, the optimists, the pessimists, the realists, the pragmatists, the lonely, the sad, the fearful, and the angry.

Here’s to our collective humanity and image bearing. May we reach across what divides us and open our hearts wide to the God who loves us. May we be willing to give of our abundance and receive from our need. May we have patience and resilience, may our eyes be open wide to the world and our small part in that world.

And may God be with us and comfort us.


Advice from a friend in Shanghai:

Since we got a head start with the COVID-19 over here in China, some friends have asked me for advice in navigating this time. Take only what’s helpful for you!

  1. Stay at home. Yes, I totally understand the urge to resist this, but the sooner you can accept it and stay home, the better it will be for everyone, including you.
  2. Assume that you could be the carrier. I haven’t been too worried about contracting the virus myself, but I became much more careful when I started thinking how I could potentially spread it to others.
  3. Don’t bring germs into your house. Wash your hands as soon as you come home. In Asia, we take off our shoes at the door, and this might be a good practice for everyone right now. Consider changing your outer clothes or showering if you’ve been out in a public place. Don’t forget to clean your phone and your keys!
  4. Focus on what you can control (yourself). There are too many things that are outside of your control right now. Instead, find ways you can boost your immune system and/or prevent your exposure. For many Asians, that means wearing face masks and opening the windows. I personally use essential oils to support to our immune systems and buy fruit for my family like a mad woman. Whatever strategies can strengthen you, whether it’s making grandma’s chicken soup or deep cleaning your house, I say go for it!
  5. Take care of your own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The stronger you are, the better you can survive and even thrive during this time. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise daily. Pray like crazy. Turn off the news. Watch something funny. Call a friend. Do a conference call with a group of friends. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Get e-therapy. Learn something new. Go for a walk or a drive. If you have a balcony or a yard, sit outside in the fresh air and sun.
  6. If you have faith, put it into action. Trust in God. Meditate on His promises. Listen to worship music. God is greater than our circumstances, and He provides for us even in times of uncertainty. Be a light during this dark time. Don’t give in to fear or settle for mere self-preservation; your neighbor needs the hope and the love that you give, albeit in creative ways. Look out for those who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to domestic violence.
  7. Be generous. Give a gift card to someone who is not able to work during this time. Support your church even though the services have been cancelled. Pay your employees. Order take-out. Support small businesses. Donate blood. Give a phone call to someone who is vulnerable. Send a card to someone in a nursing home. Offer to shop for someone else. Donate to a food bank. Sew cloth masks. There are endless possibilities to sow seeds of generosity during this time. [From my friend Ruth and used with permission.]