No Better Place Than This…

“Third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, foreigners.”

“We find each other in unlikely spaces. In the shared experience of other, we find belonging and rest, whether in a short ride to an airport or a long-distance phone conversation. These moments of connection seem to come at the right time, sustaining us until the next encounter, preventing us from falling into an abyss of self-pity and isolation.” (p. 181 of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging)

I got together with a fellow immigrant (she – a real one, me – an invisible one) the other day. Talking together was easy and natural. Oh there were plenty of missed cues, and ‘what do you mean by that?” questions, but the ease with which we communicate across those boundaries are what was so refreshing.

We were at home in the shared experience of being outsiders. We are the ones who don’t completely fit into our surroundings, but work to live well despite the poor fit. The gift of shared experience lasted for a couple of hours, and then it was time to be on our way. We left the coffee shop, bound more tightly together by our vast global network of people, places, events, and memories. We left with more stories that link us to each other and to the world.

As I walked back to my apartment, a cold rain was falling. Slush and rain puddles crept through my boots, but somehow it didn’t matter. I thought about friendship and contentment, and how long it sometimes takes to accept our reality.

It has taken me a long time to live effectively in my passport country. For so long I looked and wished for a better place. Slowly, I’ve given up a dream idea that there is a better place than right here, right now. I no longer live with unrealistic expectations and frustrations with those around me (at least not most of the time!) Instead, I’ve realized there is no better place. Right here, right now – wherever that is for any of us – is the best place.

“There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…”

And in the “no better place than this” I will continue to meet strangers and soulmates, fellow immigrants and those who have lived here forever. I will connect immediately with some and tentatively with others, because that’s life.

And in all of this, I will learn more about loving and keeping place, and in doing so, join it to Heaven.

Good News on a Good Friday

 —For those who Celebrate Good Friday and for those who don’t!
Newly arrived humans lived simply and they related to God personally. He would show up at their house in the evenings and hang out with them. I imagine they talked about their days, the wonders of the created world, how they really felt about things. Eventually though the humans made an unfortunate choice. They chose to ignore some basic boundaries God had set. They chose independence and self. They chose to disrespect God. They chose their own way.

Everything changed that day. Where there had been intimacy, openness and sweet vulnerability now there was shame and suspicion. Difficulty and opposition and relational competition were all born from those misinformed choices the humans made. Evil and selfishness and sin all entered the world that day. I guess it goes without saying, but relating to God was no longer a walk in the park either. God gave them over to what they seemed to want—their own way.

God set up an elaborate reward system and sticker chart based on an even more complicated plan of laws. If the humans wanted to reconnect with God they’d have to work at it now. And the laws were elaborate and complex. There were ceremonial laws that told the humans how to worship. Civil laws outlined how humans should live each day and moral laws dictated the goodness and badness of everything. The whole point of the system was really to highlight that the humans couldn’t do it. There was no possible way for them to obey every single law. There was even a law saying that if they couldn’t obey all of the rules then they were guilty of breaking every one!

God let that system go on for quite a long time.

One summer when I was a college student I worked as a nanny for two children, Jamie and Kristen, a six year old boy and a four year old girl. At the beginning of the summer, the mother, who was a librarian at the local public library, asked me to help train her son. It seemed he had taken a class on sexual abuse. The parents and teachers assumed it would provide language to children if they were ever in that situation. An unintended consequence was that it provided little Jamie with an entire arsenal of body part language to use to horrify and provoke. He had taken to calling people shocking things!

I tried all kinds of ways to motivate Jamie to curb that kind of talk. He was in time out. He wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I tried everything in my amateur discipline tool box. Finally, I set up a sticker chart. If Jamie could go for five days without calling me the vulgar name of choice I would take him to Dairy Queen for ice cream. Jamie loved ice cream. I had found a currency that communicated. Day one was a success. Jamie got a sticker! Day two went well. Jamie got another sticker. Day three and day four meant two more stickers. He was doing so well. On day five after lunch I was loading the dishwasher when Jamie came running through the kitchen. As I bent over to add another plate, Jamie came dramatically toward me almost in slow motion, he kicked me in the behind and burst out with the word he had kept so carefully under wraps all week. “Penis head,” he yelled, and kept running. I was so shocked and so disappointed. I had been looking forward to ice cream too.

I found Jamie in his room crying. He already knew the gig was up. He knew he had blown it. Angry tears rushed from his face. Jamie was mad at himself for not being able to do it and he was mad at me for setting up the dumb sticker chart that highlighted his failure. All the chart had successfully shown was that Jamie was incapable of earning the ice cream.

The same was true for the rules and law system God set up. It served to demonstrate that people cannot, on their own, keep the system satisfied. The laws highlighted their failure to keep them. And really that was God’s whole point. Humans wanted to do it on their own, the choices they made at the beginning proved that, and yet they couldn’t. If Shalom was ever to be reestablished in their relationship with God, if they were ever to be at peace again, God would have to step in.

And that’s where Jesus shows up.

A couple of months ago I was on an airplane. My seat mate asked me why I was going to Thailand. I told her I was a spiritual director and I had been invited by a group that were meeting for retreat to offer soul care. She wanted to know what that was. I told her that I firmly believe that Jesus wants a relationship with each of us. I think he’s involved in our stories. He’s lurking. The spiritual director comes along side with curiosity and helps identify where Jesus might be and what he might be up to. It intrigued her.

I really do believe it. Jesus is present in your story. He’s calling you deeper. He doesn’t care where you come from, what passport you carry. He’s inviting people from every religious or irreligious background: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics to relate to him with honest hearts. Your previous religious experience doesn’t disqualify you in anyway. Rather he longs to breath a whole new way of thinking about relating to God into your soul.

Jesus isn’t like any other spiritual experience you may or may not have had. He cuts through the rules and the crap, the expectations and the ways you’ve always done things and he says, Look, See. I’m doing a whole new thing here. And there’s no point system or reward card in place. You don’t have to do this, subjugate yourself in that way, accumulate this, check that off, maintain these five things in order to score points with Jesus. He eliminated all of that. All you really have to do is come with an honest heart. There are no awkward silences. He has already initiated a friendship with you. He’s already started the conversation. Just respond. Just admit that you’re clueless to do it on your own. Just admit that other systems seem to bog you down.

Ask him to make himself known.

And then be prepared to be spiritually transformed.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Gratitude

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There’s this wonderful tradition built into the tapestry of American culture: Thanksgiving. Every year on the last Thursday in November, Americans gather in families, in groups, with friends, in communities for the sole purpose of expressing thanks. Granted a lot of the gratitude is buried under the gravy and the goodness of green bean casserole and the great mountain ranges of mashed potatoes but still the heart of it remains. This is a country determined to mark their thankfulness with an official holiday to underscore it. I love that!

I’ve spent some time thinking about gratitude recently. What does it look like to be truly grateful? Where does thankfulness come from? How can I cultivate it? Yesterday’s turkey dinner and the joys of family reunited still distract me a little but here are some of my scattered thoughts on thankfulness—

  • Each of us has the capacity to be grumblers. It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to commiserate and spiral downward into self-pity. We all have struggles and things we’re up against. Each of us face circumstances we’d like to skirt around. But even as all those things are true, the opposite is also true. We all have so much to be thankful for.
  • Being thankful is a choice. We were created with the amazing ability to choose. It was perhaps the most dangerous of decisions our Creator made. Giving us freedom to choose meant we might choose badly, we might choose against our Creator, we might choose self-destruction. But He still chose to give us that gift. And because we have that, we can now choose to be thankful.
  • It takes intentionality, effort and practice. Being thankful doesn’t come easily to us. Sometimes I think it’s the hardest work we’re given to do. The Psalmist admits as much when he says, “Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God…” (Psalm 50:14) It’s a sacrifice. It demonstrates our surrender. It takes work.
  • Meaningful memes or clever quotes on thanksgiving, while inspiring for two or three minutes, don’t necessarily result in a grateful heart. You have to actually be thankful. And for that to happen you have to stop and consider the gifts you’ve been given and then say that powerful pair of words: thank you!
  • One of our core needs as human beings is the longing to be known. Often it translates initially into wanting to be seen. William James says, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.” There is nothing worse than feeling invisible, unacknowledged, unappreciated. In a strange way, gratitude is the antidote to this. When someone stops and says thank you to you it affirms that you exist. You have been seen. You matter. One of your longings has been met and there is some healing in that.

”Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”*  Like Piglet, we all have the capacity to contain a lot of thankfulness.

My husband Lowell described faith recently as our ‘thank you’ when we receive the grace that God extends to us. If we believe that we are rescued by grace through faith (Eph 2:8)—then grace is the undeserved gift Jesus gives and faith is our heart’s response, our ‘thank you’. Unless we receive the gift of God, unless we respond, unless we say thank you we’ll be stuck in our own befuddlement. Receiving the gift, given freely, ‘just because’, certainly not because of anything we’ve done to deserve it is the humblest most life-changing moment of thankfulness we’ll ever know.

The Apostle Paul exhorts readers in his letter to the Philippians: ”Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7) Honestly laying our hearts out to God, telling him thank you for all that he’s up to allows us to experience a profound peace that’s difficult to understand!

The world is in an abysmal way. The refugee situation in Europe, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the after-effects of Paris and man-hunt in Brussels, the horrendous situation in Mali, the helicopter crash in Kasmir…all of it weighs on the world’s shoulders. It’s too much. The unequal distribution of the world’s resources seems cruel and unjust in times like this. The “why” questions stammer in my soul when they’re not tripping over my tongue. I can’t understand it. I don’t imagine that I ever will.

What I do know is that for whatever undeserved reason I have been tremendously blessed! I am among the lucky few. I have so much: peace and stability, leftovers from yesterday, Netflix and a public library. I will be thankful. I’m determined to approach God with gratitude this holiday season. I want to “Enter his gates with thanksgiving; (and) go into his courts with praise.” (Psalm 100:4) Want to come?

*A.A. Milne

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

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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!

Why Stories Matter

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“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
― Joan Didion

As a public health nurse, I live in a world of quantitative data and quantifiable results. Two times a year we must demonstrate to funding sources that our preventive health program works. We need to show that the money we spend translates into more women getting mammograms and pap tests, to more women and men getting colonoscopies. If the numbers don’t show it, it isn’t working.

But I’m a story-teller. I’m a person of stories living in a world of numbers. A person where time is of no importance while I listen or watch a story being told. I am a story-teller and lover of stories that works in a world that gives money to the efficient, that weighs and measures importance based on data driven by numbers.

Numbers mean little to me. Tell me a thousand have died and I will feel sad; tell me the story of one of those who died, tell me about the mother that hugged her child goodbye that morning only to find out by noon that she would never feel the warmth of that child’s body again and I will weep. Tell me the story of one little boy, whose body washed up on the shore of the sea, and I will act. The story helps me make sense of the numbers; the story makes the numbers real.

Stories move the heart to act. Stories cut across cultural divides. Stories connect us to each other. Stories help us to understand ourselves and others better. There’s a reason that Jesus told stories. He could talk all day long to hard-hearted humans and give them commandments and rules, but they would have dismissed him and gone on their way. Instead, he gave them stories. Stories of people like they were, stories that used the context of Middle Eastern village life, stories of shepherds and fields and Samaritans and Pharisees. And in the stories, they saw themselves. 

So keep on telling stories – yours and those of others. And keep on listening to the stories of others – Because when we stop telling stories, we will stop being human. 

“Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.”*

A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.*

*[Source: Story of My Life: How Narrative Creates Personality]

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Faith

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I wrote this over four years ago, when only a few people read Communicating Across Boundaries. So I post it again – mostly because I needed to remember.

By all counts, my faith is middle-aged.  It began as a child – fear and wrinkle free.  It grew as a turbulent teenager with angst and rebellion, heartfelt sobs and belief that I, not God was the center.  My faith then went into its twenties with belief that it could change the world, the thirties where it sobered up and grew theologically, and now – now as I am thoroughly “middle-aged”, it is scarily, chronically, beginning to ache and feel like there is no way it will hold up until it’s 80’s.

This is the place where my soul sat in church one day – disconnected, disenfranchised and discombobulated – looking at the younger and far more vibrant souls and hair of those around me.  Watching their ease and enthusiasm with one another did nothing to comfort me or help me to say “Wow, I’m glad I’m here – I’m glad I left the warmth and lack of accountability that my couch offers me and came HERE to this place!”  Though thoroughly familiar with the church since I was a young child, I felt a stranger and completely alone.

And the speaker (who I will admit is over 48 so did not fall into my judgmental inner diatribe) began with the genealogy of Saint Matthew.  “Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob….Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar…Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz Begot Obed by Ruth” and on and on we went until the end of the chapter.  In what could have been the dullest sermon of  the decade, I felt my middle-aged faith begin to revive on the power of scripture.  I felt a bit like Augustine when in his doubt he heard a small child say “Read”.  The speaker’s words entered my soul with life-giving nourishment.  That God, with his infinite understanding of the human condition, placed names not theology in this first chapter of Matthew, was a balm to my soul. For what is theology if it can’t transform the human condition? 

Recognizing how my life related in some eternal way to this genealogy, that in the past had been just names, was transformative.

My connection with a duplicitous woman (Tamar), a woman who was a prostitute (Rahab), and a foreigner forbidden from the temple for 4 generations (Ruth) was a connection only a sovereign God could make.  God’s supernatural ability to allow me, in the words of the speaker, to have “No regrets – an abiding and deep confidence in the Providence of God – that I in all my faults and flaws am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan” (paraphrased) was a gift to me in this season of life.

A middle-aged faith is still how I would describe my journey– but just as I have seen the graciousness of God in my past decades, I will “entrust myself to a faithful creator and continue to do what is right” and I will never dismiss Matthew 1 again.

The Resilient Orthodox: We Come Needy

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The morning light reflects off the gold of the icons and it is beautiful. The church is quiet, save footsteps walking up to venerate the icons. We are in community, yet we are alone.

We come needy. We come with hearts heavy with the burdens of the week. We come with anger and with pain, emotional and physical. We come with sickness and sorrow. We come with hearts longing for more, knowing that though we are created for eternity, we get mired in the clay of the every day.

And in this place, where Heaven meets earth in divine liturgy, we will glimpse the eternal. 

In any group of people, there are so many stories of life lived, good and bad,

We have children with autism and diabetes; foot problems and depression. We have bodies that betray us and hearts that are alternately hard and soft. We have tongues that choose to speak life-giving words or words that damage and destroy. We have children who weigh heavy on our hearts, ones who we pray will not lose their way. We have parents who can no longer move well, or speak well, or think well. We have burdens deep and wide. But in this space, we can place them before the altar of God’s infinite love.

We are humans made in the image of God, made for his glory and in this space we take time to remember that.

We come needy to the altar and hear the words of the priest as he gives us the Holy Gifts on a spoon. For a short time, we remember. We enter into the eternal and time doesn’t matter. We don’t try to solve the mystery of salvation, we accept it as the needy ones. 

We come needy, and we leave full.