Weary of Walking in the Dark

At the time of darkness, more than anything else kneeling is helpful.

St. Isaac the Syrian

I’m weary, and I wonder about you. Perhaps you are weary as well.

When I try and get to the bottom of this I realize that I’m weary of doing the next right thing. I’m weary of praying for my enemies and loving those who hurt me. I’m weary of family fractures. I’m weary of getting up every day and working. I’m weary of walking forward with so many unknowns.

Most of all, I’m weary because all seems dark and God seems so very distant.

Job’s friends would stop me right now. “Have you looked at your life?” they would ask. There must be some unconfessed sin. There must be some reason why God is distant, why all is dark. But here’s the thing – to believe that all of the dark and difficult things we go through are a result of our behavior is distorted theology. Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew are clear: “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” In fact, in the Old Testament, the Psalmist is constantly asking why the evil prosper and do well, seemingly free of trouble, something that turns a health and wealth gospel upside down.

Sometimes there is not an earthly answer. Sometimes all we get is silence. Sometimes darkness is everywhere we turn.

It’s in this season that I have taken to reading the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. This book is an interesting study on darkness. When asked in an interview what her ‘working definition’ of darkness was, she said this:

Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.

Barbara Brown Taylor in Religion News Services 2012

Taylor’s search led her to explore darkness literally and metaphorically. Through exploring a cave; being led in complete darkness by a blind person, physically experiencing life through her other senses; and by spending the night in a solitary cabin with no light to be found, she experienced the physical absence of light. Beyond that is her deep exploration of “dark nights of the soul” and how the physical experience of dark can perhaps teach us something of the spiritual. Her search is not to diminish the need for light, rather, she wants the reader to appreciate the importance of darkness both physically and spiritually.

The book is marvelously free of platitudes and that in itself is a gift for me in this season. But it is also a reminder of a truth I know, but regularly need reminders. When we are in hard, dark places, God may seem distant, but He is as fully present as in the light. He dwells there with us. Psalm 139 verse 12 reassures me of this: “Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

So here in the dark, where I am exhausted in weariness, where I have no words, and where the way forward seems absent of light, will you join me in a quest to believe it is okay, to believe that he is here with us in the dark? To sit as companions, free of clichéd conversation, and know he can be trusted? I don’t have much beyond that for you today – but perhaps that is enough.

“Even when light fades and darkness falls–as it does every single day, in every single life–God does not turn the world over to some other deity…Here is the testimony of faith; darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

What Place or People Made You Who You Are?

“What place or people made you who you are?

What place or people gave you your fundamental values and shaped the way you see the world?

A number of years ago when I was worried about one of my children, a wise friend said to me “Every chance you can, remind them who they are.” I remember my silence as I thought about what she had said. It was so simple, but so profoundly helpful.

Remind them who they are. Remind them that they belong to a bigger story. Remind them that they are beloved. Remind them of laughter, of fights, of homes and houses, of moments. Remind them.

I’m thinking about that on this Friday morning. Fall is slowly arriving in our area, evident in the chilly air that greets me each morning. Soon we will see the reds and golds that make this area famous for its leaf peeping. apple picking, and cider donuts washed down with hot apple cider.

I’m in a place of needing to remember what shaped me, remember the stories passed down to me, remember the faith of my father and mother, remember who I am, remember that his mercy indeed echoes down through the generations.

Questions of belonging and identity come throughout life in many shapes and forms. When we are younger, they cause more crisis, more angst. When we’re older, it’s more like a subtle despair and deep longing. We silently chastise ourselves for what we feel is the immaturity of our struggle. We try and push it off on other things like our jobs, our friendships, our churches. But a look in the mirror reveals a more difficult truth. And when, as my friend Liz Rice says, our “umbilical cord(s) of identity”* stretch out to cities, countries, and people who are far away or no longer exist, the result can be a profound sense of loss.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to pause, give thanks and move on to the next right thing. Focusing on the losses has the defeating effect of creating more loss. The older we get, the more unbecoming it is to wallow in self pity or despair. Besides, there are walks to be taken, coffee to be savored, sweet rolls to be made, and pedicures to be had. Wallowing won’t give me any of those beautiful gifts.

And so today I pause and I think about those people and places that have shaped me, that have helped me shape my values, my loves, my longings, and the way I see the world.

*Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation

Words to End the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Questions

In March of this year I happened on an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Empty Religions of Instagram.” The subtitle was telling “How did influencers become our moral authorities?” I am not from the demographic that this piece was written for, but I found myself nodding along as I read, struck by the author’s insight into what I’ve seen, what I’ve perhaps feared. As is often the case when you are nodding along thinking “yeah! people need to read this!” I found a mirror held up to my own life. How often do I go to social media for my soul, not even realizing that’s what I’m doing? How often do I get my own dopamine rush and look to my online crowd that I sometimes, and perhaps wrongly, call my “community” to console, praise, and approve of me.

I urge you to take a look at the article, but let me quote a couple of paragraphs to frame why I am writing about this today.

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.”

It was about two months later when I began reading a completely different genre than a newspaper article in George Saunders new book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. This book is like taking a graduate school course in literature, something I have longed for but never had the time to do. Saunders references other big questions in his introduction: “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He talks about the process of writing as a way of “training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiousity.” Saunders then takes us through several essays/short stories written by Russian authors with exercises and commentary mixed in between. It is a wonderful book.

But both these writers who come from completely different places and generations have me thinking about some changes I need to make so that I too can connect to those big questions in life, so that my writing doesn’t stem from a desire to please, but instead stems from a desire to challenge, to encourage, and to chase beauty. Why? Because my own observations are that those three things are lacking in our online discourse.

Quite frankly, I have become a lazy writer. I have become too reliant on quick responses and feedback that are abundantly supplied online, instead of pursuing the rigors of writing longer pieces with substantive content. And that is not fair to those of you who read or to myself. I sell both and all of us short.

So I am announcing, in an effort at accountability, that I am heading off of social media. While I won’t be deleting my accounts, and while this blog will automatically post to my facebook page, I will be heading away for an indefinite time. It’s time. I find myself increasingly cynical, discouraged, and dishonest as I observe my own interactions on social media. As much as I want to be a presence for the good and the beautiful, I fear I too often follow the crowd.

My real life communities and friends are where I can have the most lasting impact. My neighbors and coworkers, whom I adore, get less of me when my focus is on my next post. My family gets only half of me when I am focusing instead on those who don’t know me, yet ironically, I seem to care deeply what these strangers think.

I’m writing this as I sit in our cottage in Rockport. In the midst of all the beauty that is Rockport, I feel tired and I feel scared. It’s not only the writing piece. It’s also the significant challenges our family has faced this past year. Challenges that largely go unshared on social media. If I’m looking at the big questions, I find my mind worrying about the small questions: What if I lose the small audience I have? What if I just get distracted by something else? What do I hope will happen? I don’t know. I only know that the questions I ask are a minute fraction of what really matters, and the questions that both Leigh Stein and George Saunders ask are questions worth asking again and again….and again.

It’s time to delve deeper into the big questions. I hope you will come along for the journey.

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

Leigh Stein

If you would like to keep up with my writing or communicate, please feel free to subscribe to the blog, email me at communicatingblog@gmail.com or through messenger.

Sudden Storms

Earlier this week there was a high wind advisory in our area. It was well warranted. The winds raged from 44 to 50 miles an hour and shook everything around. Though it must have been predicted, for me it was sudden.

We happened to be in Rockport at the time and our entire condo quivered and shivered throughout the night. Beyond the whistling sounds typical of high winds were the sounds of shutters and vents banging, branches hitting the outside walls, and overall ghost-like moans of the storm.

I lay in bed unable to sleep for a long time. The storm felt insurmountable. When would it end? Would the electricity go off, taking with it the heat and hot water? Would there be damage to the condo? So many questions. I fell into an uneasy sleep only to wake again to the seemingly never-ending storm.

The storm reflects my life right now. A sudden storm of events brought with it howling winds and shaking circumstances. The questions too were similar. When would it end and what damage would it do? These questions crowd my mind as I fall into an uneasy sleep.

But the actual physical storm did end. The electricity didn’t go off. There is no damage. There is no evidence of the violent winds that ripped through the area. Today came and with it sunlight reflected through every window. Beauty and light after a storm.

And with the sun came a quiet hope for the life storm, a tiny capsule of rest and redemption. In this light I begin to believe that someday this will all be redeemed.

The Hope that Kills You

Picture Credit – NPR

Note – Spoiler Alert

I just finished watching the Apple TV show, Ted Lasso. For the uninitiated, this show is about an American football coach who is recruited to coach a failing British football team – the sport known as soccer in the United States. The show is delightful. While the language is salty and my eyes rolled at some of the innuendo (mainly because both feel lazy) you have this truly good man who is thrown into an impossible situation. He knows nothing about football that is not American (ie soccer),he knows nothing about the UK and their ardent and tumultous love of football, and he is clueless that he is being exploited and used. Despite that, he goes into the situation with optimistic joy. He has this ability to make everyone he meets feel a little bit better about life and about themselves. Even the most cynical character is changed by meeting Ted Lasso.

Very little in the show is predictable. While we humans love a story line of the underdog becoming a hero or the losing team suddenly winning, this is not a story that follows those feel good predictable narratives. Instead, it does something far better: It gives the viewer a sense that no matter how bad things get, it really is okay, that resilience is not developed by overcoming a flatline, but by coping with mountains, valleys, and flatlines. That’s the magic of the show.

A marriage fails, an aging soccer star hangs up his jersey, a scorned woman continues to be completely mocked by her ghastly ex-husband, and a team does not win. But despite all of that, the players, the coach, the assistant coach, the locker room assistant – even an arrogant journalist – all become better people.

The players learn to play as a team. The locker room assistant learns that his observations are worthwhile. The arrogant journalist learns to give someone grace instead of maligning them. The scorned ex-wife/owner of the team learns to apologize and really mean it.

It is remarkable.

The last episode of the season is called “The Hope that Kills You” and it is one of the only times when you see Ted Lasso angry. He’s angry about the phrase. His philosophy is not about winning, it’s about playing – specifically, playing well, playing as a team, and having fun. But this last game is against a significant rival and has far-reaching implications for the team. Over and over he’s told “Hope will kill you.” It’s a phrase that grew out of a downtrodden people and team; a phrase that spoke of hope deferred over and over and over until it was no longer viable. Hope is a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. This, for Ted Lasso, is unbearable. He can handle multiple insults coming from every side, he can handle outright and subtle ridicule, but he cannot bear watching people dismiss hope.

This is where Ted Lasso and the current state of the Pandemic world collide. Hope within this pandemic has died. It’s a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. We are daily given doses of why we can’t hope, why we must be cautious, why nothing will ever get back to “normal.”

It’s exhausting to have so many voices telling us that hope is going to kill us. And I for one, am done. Not only does the pessimism exhaust me, it defeats every thought, every dream, and every plan. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a fatality.

So I’m going to go all Ted Lasso on you – I’m going to loudly proclaim that hope is not what will kill you, it’s the opposite. No – hope won’t kill you – it will help you live.

Hope, my friends, will help you live. Sometimes it’s all we have.

Somehow in our world we give gold stars to sophisticated cynicism and educated skepticism. Those with hope are audaciously childish and need to be put in their place. So we put them in their place. We put them in their place with statistics and data, with charts and graphs, with “that will never work” and snide side glances. And if that doesn’t work, we put them in their place with mockery and ridicule. Just like the crowds in Ted Lasso.

He responds with unrelenting optimism, with tireless goodwill, with determined effort to see the good in each human being and situation he encounters, and it drives some people crazy. But he keeps it up.

I want to be like that. And if it’s put on my tombstone “Above all, she had Hope” then what a grace.

What a grace indeed.

“The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible…..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 in Hannah Coulter

[Picture Credit https://www.npr.org/2020/11/10/933599086/how-ted-lassoed-his-way-into-our-hearts%5D

Therapy in a Hair Salon

I feel something oddly comforting as I walk into the hair salon. It smells of conditioner and peroxide, of hair color and shampoo. Everything is black, grey,and chrome. Sleek black chairs with chrome swiveled bases, black framed mirrors, grey baskets on black shelves, shiny black sinks with chrome fixtures, silver sprayed plants, and a vintage grey metal trunk serving as a resting place for a plant and magazines. The look is sophisticated and sleek, luring me in with a vision of all that I am not.

For I am neither sleek or sophisticated and, though I should feel out of place in this space, I don’t.

A lovely young woman with shiny dark hair and smiling brown eyes greets me, laughing as I confess that I look a fright.

“When I saw myself on a video chat the other day, I was so puzzled. I thought my grandmother had come back from the dead only to greet me through 21st century technology, and then I realized it was me!” I said shaking my older than middle aged head.

“Ahh! We’ll get you fixed up in no time,” She said leading me to a chair.

As she expertly worked my hair we chatted and my sad, busy week suddenly felt not so bad, not so sad.

We talked about the pandemic, about masks, about the vaccine hesitation in different communities. We talked about family and loneliness, about fear of others and the sadness of loss. We talked about long summer beach days and picnics on the sand, about her favorite television show centered on Persians in Los Angeles.

None of us has made it through this past year unscathed. Instead, we bear the wounds of disconnection and the discomfort of fraught friendships. We hold this tension in our bodies and our souls. We are more desperate than we know.

We are created for each other, for community, for the kindness and conversation of both strangers and friends. The stylist may never realize the impact she had, the therapy she gave on that black and chrome chair, but in the comforting conversation of a stranger I found myself relaxing. I left more whole, more thoughtful, and less of a fright.

Thanks be to God.


Image by bigpromoter from Pixabay