New Beginnings and the Seduction of Safety

I resigned from my job yesterday.

Yes – we are in the middle of a recession. Yes – it was on paper a good job. Yes – I need to pay bills.

And I also know that it was a good decision. As soon as I sent the letter, a backpack of burdens fell off my back. I didn’t know how heavy it was until it fell off.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the poet John O’Donohue speaks to new beginnings in a fresh way, a way that I have never considered:

"In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground...." 

I first read the poem over a month ago and the words on playing with the “seduction of safety and the gray promises that sameness whispered…” began going through my mind on repeat. This was me. I knew I had outgrown this organization a long time ago, but I’m a sticker if nothing else. I never quit, even when perhaps I should.

So I stuck, and I gossiped and I whined and – well you get the picture. It has not been pretty nor has it been healthy. Writing and submitting my letter of resignation is an act of faith and an acknowledgement that leaving this position is an important step forward.

When I first began writing publicly, I relayed a poignant story that Sheila Walsh told of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in this retelling of the story and a child’s simple comment. The times that I would go farther except my backpack is too heavy – the things I carry too weighty. 

I love the story and I love the visual picture.

My resignation is my way of shedding the load that is keeping me back, an active way of saying “I can go farther without this heavy backpack.” With it, I step into a new place and I accept what comes.

There will be growing pains, of course. There will be times of fear and some self accusation. But right now, there is so much delight, there is peace, and there is so much grace.

Here’s to entering the “grace of new beginnings.”

You can read the entire poem here.

Safety Was Never Part of the Promise

If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no.

Madeleine L’Engle in And It Was Good

The first conversation in the United States about safety that I remember came after 9/11. Suddenly “the enemy” had come to our soil and we were no longer safe. Money, big houses, security systems, fat retirement accounts, and good jobs were not enough. Most of those killed in 9/11 had those and more but it did not save them.

The solution was war. No matter what lawmakers and politicians say now, the general consensus made by the powerful of the land in the United States was that war was warranted, war was justified. And so we went to war.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

“The enemy” moved closer. The enemy was now at our borders. Those who would take our jobs and bring in drugs must be stopped. Those who would bring their ideology to disrupt our “way of life” had to be kept out. So we proposed walls and fences, bans and limited entry.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

ISIS emerged, a real threat to people living in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, but arguably not so much to those watching the nightly news on their plush, comfortable couches. There was more fear. The world was a scary, scary place. A formation of a broad international coalition was designed to defeat the Islamic State and ISIS went undercover to emerge only randomly.

But it did not take away the fear.

As my husband and I periodically went to the Middle East to work with humanitarian aid groups on the ground the number one question people would ask us is “Is it safe?”

I never knew how to respond. In the essay “The Proper Weight of Fear,” my friend Rachel Pieh Jones writes what is a fitting response to that question:

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.“

Rachel Pieh Jones in The Proper Weight of Fear

And then came 2020. Suddenly “the enemy” was no longer over there, far away from our homes and our television screens. The enemy couldn’t be kept out through a wall or closed borders. Instead, the enemy was everywhere. It was a virus, a virus that could be anywhere at anytime, floating through the air, ready to randomly attack. But it was more than a virus. The enemy was our neighbor. It was anyone who was not wearing a mask. It was the spring break revelers and covid partiers. It was the people who didn’t take the virus seriously. It was the person passing us who coughed. The enemy was the person who shopped at our grocery store and chose to go the wrong direction, defying loud orange arrows. Danger was everywhere and our fear was out of control.

But even when we wore masks and did all the right things, people were still afraid. Afraid and deeply angry at those who did not do the right things.

It turned out that no one was safe. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts, random strangers…they were all potential carriers of this virus that rocked the world.

We learned that no place and no one was safe. As much as we wanted to carve out our little utopias where everyone was safe, where the enemy was far away, and fear was nowhere to be found, it was not possible. Instead, everywhere we looked there was danger. It didn’t matter how big our houses were or how much we scrubbed our groceries, we were not safe. We couldn’t build walls to keep people out. We couldn’t create wars to send a message. Our own families became our enemies. We were victims of a virus much smarter than us.

So we created vaccines. The vaccines would solve the crisis were the words from the leaders. We would all be safe. We could begin living.

Vaccines were created – But they did not take away our fear.

Some chose not to get vaccinated and they became the enemy. And then “the Omicron” came. And even if we were vaccinated, even if we were boosted, Omicron invaded our households and took hold of our news sources. An insidious enemy, you didn’t know where it was and you didn’t know how to avoid it. Locking doors didn’t help. Cleaning didn’t help. Isolating didn’t help. Even the vaccine couldn’t keep us safe from the virus. We needed boosters. And more boosters. And still more.

The saviour vaccine had failed us and it did not take away our fear.

Could it be that we have safety all wrong, that we will never be truly safe as long as we live on this earth? Could it be that safety was never promised, that the nature of being human is one of risk, one that will ultimately lead to death on this earth for everyone?

What do we do in a dangerous world when we crave and long for safety? What do we do in a world that demands risk-taking just by existing?

We keep on going. We keep getting up, even when it’s difficult, oh so difficult, and we dread the day. We keep on loving, even when it hurts so much. We keep on taking risks, because life itself is a risk and trying to live risk free is a terrible and impossible life to live. We keep on going from strength to strength, because really – the only truly safe option is recognizing that we are not safe.

If we strive to be safe, we will never, ever win. That’s the reality of life. We were never promised safety, we were never promised a life without difficulty. We were promised God’s presence.

And in his presence today, I slowly learn to rest.

[Photo by Bill Nino on Unsplash]

Lemon & Honey; Mystery & Grace

It’s Sunday afternoon – the time when I feel all the things. The time when I simultaneously cry tears of sorrow and yet still feel hope for the world; the time when liturgy – fresh in my mind from the morning – clothes me in a bubble of God’s love.

Though fog covered our area this morning, it has long since burned away replaced by afternoon sunshine pouring through our living room windows. My friend Brit recently introduced me to a song that I have on repeat. “Give us a vision of your love Lord, Let us fall in love with you again.” Bathed in sunlight and lyrics I can hardly imagine the tears that I cried just yesterday when I did not have a vision for anything other than despair. The truth is that in the comfort of my now it is easy for me to have a vision of God’s love. It’s tomorrow, Monday morning, when I will struggle.

We are two weeks into Lent, the rhythm of the season ordering our days and evenings. We rid ourselves of all things dairy and meat, taking up the physical Lenten fast. That is often the easier part of Lent. The more difficult part is the self examination and willingness to repent and learn.

I often feel like I have to hype myself up before Lent begins. I need to be in a place of strength and single purpose, ready to take on extra services, prayers, readings, fasting, and more. A couple of weeks ago when I sent my godmother a note that alluded to this, she responded “I think our desire to enter Lent with us being somehow in control is maybe not the way God wants us to start off.” Her words gave me hope. Isn’t the whole point that we are not in control? That we aren’t, God is, and we need to allow him control?

My love of comfort is ever before me. I love tea, sunlight, good coffee, books, comfortable pillows and chairs, bouquets of flowers, candlelight, large cinnamon rolls….the list goes on and on. These are all good gifts from a creative God who loves beauty and invites us into all things lovely. Still, I am well aware of when my love of comfort pushes against all things difficult.

Beyond the physical are, of course, those things that are far harder to talk about. The heart pieces that keep me up at night, and waking early. The deep pain over relationships that are fractured, the prayers for wisdom to do the right thing, the nervous feelings that take over and distract me.

Yet, Lent is for all these and more. It is the bitter and the sweet, the lemon and the honey. It is correction and love, repentance and forgiveness. It is tears of the heart and joy of the soul. It is muted colors and longer days. It is death and it is life. It is convicting and it is restoring. It is mystery and it is grace.

May you rest in mystery and grace this season, and may there be room in you heart for both lemon and honey.

Reminders of Death, Reminders of Life

It’s a late February morning as I type this. I am back in cold Boston after a respite in warm and sunny Southern California followed by warm, humid, and sunny Central Florida.

It is never easy coming back to the cold. I describe myself as solar powered, someone who functions best when sun is ever present and palm trees are in the background. Whether you have ever been to Boston or not, I think you all know that this is not my current reality. February in Boston is best described as cold, grey, and lifeless. There are no promising shoots viewable in the ground. It takes faith to believe that February will ever be over and that spring always comes.

Besides being cold, February will always be a month where I pause to remember my brother’s death. It was two years ago this year. Two years since a dreaded phone call and the grief that followed. Two years where we could have used his hard earned life wisdom. Two years ago I walked through the door of the permanent loss that death brings and am slowly learning to embrace an existence where longing is a breath away, and I accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, within this is a mystery, because it brings me closer to the One who understands death, pain, and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. 

As I lean into the cold and grey reminders of death, I find reminders of life. These are like dewdrops of surprise after a dry spell and I find I must write them down. I am grateful for long walks in warm weather; for an extended family wedding where a new couple began life together, the sacrament of marriage once more publicly declared before family and friends; for foliage that takes your breath away; for a fresh mango sliced with lime juice and tajine; for a walk through a wildlife preservation, jumping and wary every time someone mentioned an alligator. Yes – and even for a return where today is 50 degrees and my home is filled with sunshine.

I recently heard a phrase in a song that continues to go through my mind. “So always remember to never forget'” and while it has nothing to do with February, the words are gold.

Reminders of death, reminders of life – May I always remember to never forget and may my February days be reminders of the mystery of both.

How about you? How is your February?

Blessings for a Restless Heart

I’m in a coffee shop sipping a delicious latte while I work on a report. I stare out at bright sunshine, trying to find the right technical words while Aretha Franklin serenades all of us, her voice and style distinctive, beautiful, and unmistakable.

From where I sit, I see sunlight reflected off the Charles River. Trees stand with perfect posture on the river bank, their bare-treed branches naked but still tall.

At this time of year I tend to retreat into my winter cocoon. The cocoon is a way that I cope with the cold world around me. My cocoon has a lot of good things in it. Hot drinks to warm the soul, good books to fill my mind, and a journal to write my thoughts. But the cocoon is too self-indulgent to stay in for long. This is why I have found my way to a coffee shop – because just being around people is a reminder to me that I must step out of my cocoon and communicate.

I am acutely aware of all that I have, all I’ve been given. From a warm house to a spot in a coffee shop drinking an expensive drink, my material ‘blessings’ are uncountable. And at the same time, I am so restless. Restless for what? I’m not even sure of that. Just restless. Restless for more.

I’m caught in one of those all too human dilemmas – the “blessed yet restless” dilemma. 

In years past, I would want to climb the walls when this restlessness began. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the walls, at least I could book a trip somewhere, anywhere. I would want to do anything that would take away this restlessness. Worldwide travel restrictions that began in 2020 and ebb and flow these two years later create a pause on clicking “book trip” and my mind goes through rapid tests and vaccine cards, often ending up in a sigh and a click as I close the travel site. Perhaps, ever so slowly, I’ve come to see this as one of winter’s gifts.

Winter’s gift reminds me that a restless heart can’t be filled with material things.  It’s not a good job, a beautiful home, or a full bank account that fill up the empty, restless spaces. It takes something far better than the material and transient things in my life. A restless heart doesn’t need material things, it needs the beatitudes – the blessings.

My restless heart needs to know more about the blessings – the comfort for those who mourn; the righteousness for those who hunger and thirst after it; mercy for the merciful; the Kingdom of Heaven for the poor in spirit; and seeing God for the pure in heart. Those are the blessings that fill a restless soul.

As I sit restless, wanting to climb the walls of winter and jump to the other side, I turn my face to the sun coming through the ice frosted window. I stop and wordlessly surrender this restless heart. As I do, I find that it leads me straight into the arms of God, where comfort, righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart find their home.

Lengthening Light

Today the darkness begins to grow shorter and the light to lengthen, as the hours of night become fewer…. realize that the true light is now here and, through the rays of the gospel, is illumining the whole earth.” St. Gregory of Nyssa

I sit in my living room, watching daylight arrive. The Christmas tree continues to bring much needed light to the room. Orthodox Christmas was two days ago and our tree illuminates, providing beauty and hope in the still dark days of winter.

I’ve often talked about how I am solar powered. No matter how cold it is, when the sun is out the days feel easier. Light makes all things better. The days of winter are indeed dark and yet, the light is lengthening. Darkness is growing shorter. My colleague told me that from January 1st to January 31st, daylight increases by two minutes every day. A year by year, decade by decade miracle of light and seasons.

The thing about light is that you can never diminish it by taking from it. When you light a candle from another candle, it doesn’t take any light from the first candle. They both burn bright. When you put a window into a wall, the outside light is not diminished by bringing light inside. Maybe that is why there are so many metaphors of light in scripture, because the nature of light is that even a little light will spread. A fraction of light is more powerful than all the darkness that surrounds it.

We are not in an easy time. World events collide with personal tragedies yielding an entire universe that feels like it will never be right. The news shouts at us from every corner, a dark and bleak picture of humanity. Beyond the miracle of seasons and measured time, what does lengthening light mean for us at this time in history? At this time personally? Perhaps our challenge is to witness this lengthening light as a witness to God – God who is above all the seasons and all the chaos. God, who illuminates the world with never diminishing, always lengthening true light. A light that pays attention to the tragedies, but knows there is a story beyond and above our current reality.

In the midst of the horror of Nazi Germany, Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for his outspoken resistance to Hitler, wrote these words that speak to lengthening light and to our present day turmoil: “The grey horizons must grow light. It is only the immediate scene that shouts so loudly and insistently. Beyond the present tumult there exists a different realm, one that is now in our midst. The woman has conceived the Child, sheltered him beneath her heart, and given birth to the Son. The world has come under a different law. Christmas is not only a historic event that happened once, on which our salvation rests. Christmas is the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.“

Lengthening light, grey horizons growing light, “the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.”

Waiting with Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

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

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

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

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

Ann Voskamp

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

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