“Trust Talks”, re-visit

This post, written in January 2015, refers to a book I edited for a friend several years ago. The free e-book, which I will send you upon request, is an excellent tool to help you reveal and heal the hidden hurts that are getting in the way of communication in your relationships. I’m re-visiting the post in June 2019 to connect with my post “Both Sides” staying with the theme of improving communication.

In 2010 a friend called to ask if I’d be willing to accept an editing job. As a therapist, he had discovered a strategy to use when communication had broken down in relationships; he felt led to share this tool through a free e-book. Would I be willing to sign on for this labor, he asked, knowing that my pay would be of the ‘eternal rewards’ kind?

I had met this man, Brad, and his wife, Lori, several years earlier when we had toddlers at home. My husband and I joined them in their home on Monday nights for a time of worship and prayer that included a half dozen other people. It was our one night out each week. We hired a babysitter to come put our kids to bed so that we could have fellowship with these people who had previously been strangers. These Monday nights were oxygen to us. We never missed. No matter what the circumstances, we got ourselves across town so that we could join others in singing, scripture, and prayer.

This couple supported us outside Monday nights, too. Brad encouraged my husband, who was just beginning his own counseling practice, by meeting with him and providing professional oversight and collaboration. From time to time, Brad also provided, at a deeply reduced rate, counseling services for each of us. Lori taught our children piano lessons. If that’s not enough, whenever we went out of town, they let our golden retriever hang out with their golden retriever.

What I came to know about this family was that they were God’s people. They had humble spirits and open hearts. They were passionate about speaking into the lives of others — sharing what they had learned with whoever would listen. Many times I heard the voice of God through them. Often, that voice provided healing.

So, would I be willing to edit Brad’s book about an effective communication strategy that he had used in therapy to break down walls of resistance in relationships? Guys, he asked me this in 2010, the height of my butt-kicking, name-taking soldiering years. I was busy with three teenagers. I was teaching full-time. I was a pastor’s wife with tons of responsibility. Why in the world would I say yes to more?

But I did say yes. It was the summer. I had responsibilities, sure, but I did have a little bit of room. So, yes. Yes! 

I might not have been willing, at the beginning, to admit that there were communication break-downs in our own family. And Brad and I lived three states apart; there was no way that he could have known that either. But as I engaged in the text, it became obvious that the first recipient of the free e-book would be me. As I read scenario after scenario I saw myself in the conversations-gone-wrong. I felt the emotions that the people in the book were expressing. I also saw where their listeners shut down.

As I read about the author’s strategy for ‘graphic word pictures’ I began to put my own emotions into words that I felt others in my life could grab onto. The ‘graphic word pictures’ were not accusations, but representations of my feelings. I practiced by writing one for my husband. Just one ‘graphic word picture’. We’d been having trouble communicating emotions for a while. We’d both been in the trenches, and, as soldiers, hadn’t taken time to identify what we were feeling, let alone to appropriately communicate those feelings to each other. As soldiers we’d been busy surviving, deflecting attacks, patching up wounds, and running for cover.

But as I read, I found myself retreating from the front, pulling off bandages, and examining wounds. I took a first look at the depth of the injuries. Seeing the damage, I painted a word picture of it for my husband so that he could fully appreciate the depth of each gash, the amount of infection, and the need for healing. He didn’t respond defensively; instead he helped me ice and elevate. He brought me a cool glass of water. He sat beside me while I healed.

Just because of some words.

I had the opportunity recently to talk to this friend again. I was struggling to communicate some emotions and had written a graphic word picture to try to express my pain. I emailed him and asked if he would read what I had written to see if I was correctly utilizing the strategy. He read it, then asked me to call him. For an hour he allowed me to see not only the wound I had described — the one on the surface — but also the much deeper crippling wounds that I had been ignoring. He helped me pull back the protective layers of body armor so that I could see the severity of my injuries. He helped me describe them with words. As we did that work, I cried and cried. The wounds were real, but I had not been acknowledging them. I had ignored the pain and soldiered on.

In the midst of my soldiering, God saw me. He saw all the hurts I was covering, and He cared so deeply that he utilized my desire to return a favor to a friend to expose those hurts and begin the healing that He’s still working on many years later. I recently opened the e-book and noticed that the publishing date was 2011, long before my health crisis, but in the middle of a summer that would impact the lives of our family for years. None of that was a surprise to God. He knew what was coming, and He was already beginning the healing of wounds that hadn’t yet been inflicted.

That’s what He does — He sees the big picture of our lives and steps into them. He sees our attempts to work things out on our own, and He inserts people and circumstances designed to disrupt us, to slow us, to change our trajectory. For some of us he has to be persistent — we are so bent on our own ways, that we fail to see all the different paths He is offering.

After five years in this little house by the river — a different season, a new chapter that we were invited into –I am still often tempted to return to my life of soldiering. The hard-charging, butt-kicking, name-taking lifestyle is a survival strategy that has worked for me in the past, so when the going gets tough, it’s the path I turn to. However, any soldier will tell you that the lifestyle takes a toll — physically, mentally, and emotionally. And, frankly, it’s effectiveness is a facade.

All the disruptions in life — all the interventions, all the people, all the circumstances — have taught me what I should have known all along: I have no need to fight. I am a child of the King.

Who do I think I was battling, anyway? All this time I have been sitting in the palm of His hands.

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”

Romans 2:4

“Trouble Talks”

I was sharing some of my troubles with a friend the other day, and when I realized what I was doing I apologized.  “I am so sorry I used our time to complain about my life.”  She replied as most of us would, “Not at all.”  But then she followed that up with, “It actually makes me feel a little better in a weird way.”  We talked more and came to the conclusion that it is comforting to know that you are not the only one who has a complicated life.

Years ago I heard a speaker at some women’s event (I’ve been to dozens over the years.) who said that for centuries women have gotten together to cook, or sew, or do laundry, or drink coffee, or go for walks.  The speaker (I wish I could remember who it was) said that regardless of time or place, these women almost always have engaged in conversation that she called “trouble talks”.  They have shared their burdens about marriage, children, work, finances, housing, etc.  In these “trouble talks” women have found support, camaraderie, connection, community.

I am a verbal processor, so this is no shock to me.  I talk through everything — with my husband, a coworker, a sister, my mother, a friend.  But I think I have been missing the communal piece of this — the banding together of women.

Somewhere along the line I got the memo that in public gatherings with other women, I needed to present myself as flawless, above reproach, intentional, skilled — perfect.  I’m certain my own insecurities fed into this lie that I believed, but it was also likely bolstered by my beliefs about being a leader, a teacher, a pastor’s wife.  And it was probably fueled by our culture that seems to promote competition among women rather than community.

But over the last six months, as I have tasted sisterhood in a new way — through my Bible study battalion, through new friendships, through regular sharing, I am learning the blessings of being vulnerable and “bearing one another’s burdens.”

A couple weeks ago, in my Wednesday Bible study, one of the women shared a concern about her adult children.  She painted a picture of the “trouble” she was experiencing.  The women around our table listened, nodded in understanding, shared the woman’s sadness, offered suggestions, and prayed.  I didn’t feel a shred of judgment in the room — just pure care.

I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that each of us in the group (each of us in any group) have our own “stuff”, our own “troubles”.  Her sharing, her vulnerability, allows another in the group to share her “troubles” in an environment that is free of judgment.

Now, of course, I am not advocating that we each run to our respective groups and share every little detail of our lives.  Many things are private, and should be.  But it is healthy to foster the creation of safe spaces where we can come alongside people we trust, share our burdens, and have our load (at least temporarily) lightened.  It’s not a sign of weakness to need others.  It’s a sign of strength to recognize the need and to ask for support.

It’s all part of the turning that is resulting from what I am learning in this next chapter. 

Galatians 6:2

Bear each other’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.

Inhale. Exhale.

I feel like I keep writing the same thing over and over — how I am amazed at all the friendships and connections I have in this next chapter.  Some of these connections are new — my husband’s coworkers, my Bible study battalion, and my new students.

But some of the characters that show up in this next chapter were players in earlier chapters — some a long, long time ago.

My Thursday morning walking buddy was my college suite-mate.  Back in the 1980s we shared bathroom space and late-night snacks. Today we share our journey through chronic illness, marriage, and parenting while walking laps at the mall.

Before Thanksgiving I reconnected with another friend. She was a member at the congregation we served in the 1990s, where all of our children were born.  We became close through our home Bible study group, Marriage Encounter, and the church’s worship team.  She was the director of worship; we’ll say I was support staff and cheerleader — I wrote song lyrics, prayed with the team, and led them in Bible study before practice.  Her children attended my high school Bible study on Sunday mornings.  We were friends.

Another friend from the past is actually responsible for us being here in Ann Arbor.  She is on staff here as Director of Worship Arts and alerted us to the posting for a Dean of Students.  Back in the 1980s she and I worked side by side as work study employees for this university’s Office of Development.  Computers were new and we were hired to enter thousands of donor names into a database. We also wrote thank you letters and gave campus tours.  Through that connection, I began attending her father’s congregation, ate dinners at their family table, and felt like I belonged.

These three women from my past want to join me for a Bible study.  I already have my Bible study on Wednesday mornings — you know, my batallion.  But these gals are my friends, they know parts of my story, they belong in my story.

So today a few of us met to discuss what we should study.  I was running late — the only one without a job and was late.  I sank onto a sofa with them and just breathed.  Familiarity.  Love.  Acceptance. Inhale, exhale.

We talked for over an hour without touching on Bible study.  We just swapped stories of life.  And as we were preparing to part, I think I asked, “so what do we want to study?”

It seemed like we were going to go with Ephesians when one of the others said, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Acts 3:19.”  We turned to find it. “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you.” Repent.  Turn. So that times of refreshing may come. Ahhhhhh. Inhale. Exhale.

One of the others said, “It reminds me of Isaiah 30:15: In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.”Ahhhhh.  Inhale.  Exhale.

The first woman said, “It sounds like we could all really use this.  A turning away from the way that we are going so that we can experience refreshing.”

I said, “Maybe we could just think about those verses for a little bit and see where that leads us.”

The other woman said, “Maybe we could write a devotional book for women like us who could also use some refreshing.”

Could we? Really? You would want to do that with me? We could spend the time together? We could commit to that project together?  And through it we could grow closer and we could all be changed together?

I hugged them tightly saying, “Is this real?  Are we really here together? Is God really this good?”

I pinched myself, and guys, I think it’s real. Inhale. Exhale.

Psalm 34:8

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.

We don’t know everything

On December 21, 1989, my husband proposed to me, and when I accepted he said, “Things are going to get busy.”  If I would have known then what ‘busy’ meant, I might have turned back.

But God orders life in such a way that He lets us see just a bit.   At that moment, I could say yes, even knowing that my future husband was a divorced father of a four-year-old.  But would I have said yes if I had known that we would live in eleven homes in twenty-four years?  That we would ultimately be the parents of four children? That I was not only marrying a teacher, but a therapist, and a pastor, and a university administrator?

Maybe.  I was a starry-eyed twenty-three year old when I said yes.  I knew what was behind me — divorced parents, an eating disorder, my college education.  I had survived so much already. How hard could this be?

Hard.  You probably know all too well that life is hard —  just when you think you are sailing smoothly, a storm pops up — a job change, an educational challenge, a health issue, financial trouble, extended family trouble, and the list goes on.  Sometimes it feels as though we can’t handle even what this particular day holds — how on earth would we manage if we had the whole script in front of us from day one?

I was still a little starry eyed in 2004 when my husband said to me, “God is calling me to the seminary.”  In six months’ time I finished coursework for my Master’s degree, prepared a house for selling, sold/gave away half of our possessions, packed up a family of five, and relocated three states away.  I was excited because of what I knew — God had called my husband into ministry.  Would I have been so excited if I had known,  really known, the struggles our children would face in St. Louis?  Would I have been happy to embrace a life of busy-ness, a busier busy-ness than we had ever known?  What if He’d said, “You’re going to be there for 10 years, you are both going to experience significant health issues, and there is going to be plenty of family strife.”  Would we have still signed up?

Maybe.  I mean, back then we were still, in our minds, pretty invincible.  We might have still signed up.  But maybe not.  We might have been scared.  We might have wanted to protect our family from struggle.  We might have wanted to protect ourselves from struggle.

And if we would have done that, the story would be much different than the story is today.  We have been changed.  I am not the starry-eyed twenty-three year old who agreed to marry my husband.  I am not the optimistic ‘let’s do it!’ wife who moved mountains so that we could answer God’s call.  I have been changed.

And I’m still changing, because life keeps happening — the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

It’s pretty easy to thank God when He gives you a beautiful granddaughter to hold and adore. It gets a little more difficult when you, or the people who you love, are hurting. But I find assurance in knowing that even before 1989, God knew every little thing that He would bring into my life — even the stuff of today.  He knew in advance that He would be with me through all of it — that He would be carrying me in the palm of His hand.

This morning the pastor at the church we were visiting recalled, through the genealogy in Matthew 1, God’s faithfulness, especially in light of the faithLESSness of man.  He started with Abraham’s unfaithfulness, then Isaac’s, and so on.  His point was that God knew, from before the creation of the world, that we (all of us) would screw it up.  And yet he planned, from before the creation of the world, to keep a covenant with His people.  The covenant did not depend on us doing the right thing, saying yes at the right time, or answering a call.  It only depended on the faithfulness of God.

And He is faithful.  Faithful to love me when I couldn’t have cared less about Him.  Faithful to hold me when I felt all alone.  Faithful to heal me when I was hurting.  Faithful to carry me when I was too tired to walk on my own.  He knew before time began that He would be faithful in all these things, even when I was faithLESS.

Back in 1989 I didn’t know what was in store for me, and today is no different.  I have no idea what will come into our lives in the years to come, but I do know that God will remain faithful to us.  He will continue to carry us in the palm of His hand.

Deuteronomy 7:9

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God;

He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations…

Next Chapter Employment

In my quest for employment, I have inquired about and applied for many positions.  I’m getting the most work from a web-based service called Wyzant — this site helps me find students and helps students find me.  So far I have tutored a high school freshman getting ready for finals and a high school senior preparing for the ACT.  The site also connects me with editing jobs– I’ve helped a high school student with a short story and a college student with a transfer application.  Each day new opportunities pop up on Wyzant.  The site provides an email portal, a place for a my schedule, and secure payment.  It’s clean and professional.  I like it.

I mean, the joke among my friends is that this is a step up from the gigs I was getting through Craigslist.  Each time I mentioned I was meeting a new client I found on Craigslist, my family and friends rolled eyes, gave cautions, and laughed a little nervously.  But to be honest, my best client is one I found on Craigslist.  He’s been with me since November as he writes his Master’s thesis for his graduate degree from Harvard.  I’ve never met him, but we send documents back and forth through email, talk on the phone, and text.  I woke up Monday morning to an email that said, “Got my draft done!” I am so looking forward to reading and editing this work on high stakes testing and educator cheating — it’s fascinating! Craigslist has also allowed me to meet a local author and an international graduate student, and not one axe murderer!

Tomorrow I am starting a journey on perhaps the most legitimate of pursuits so far — employment with the Educational Testing Service as a certified test rater.  I was unaware until my confirmation email came — after a lengthy application and verification process — that the subject area I will be working in is — gasp — math!  (As I typed that little four-letter word, I heard laughing all the way from St. Louis, Missouri and Tanzania as former colleagues envisioned me doing anything — aside from counting — with math.)  Tomorrow morning I am supposed to spend four hours — four paid hours — learning how to be a test rater.  If I don’t pass the certification tomorrow morning, they will pay me to retake it one more time.  Well, ok, I will give it a try, even if it is math.

To be fair, the content is elementary level. And there was that one year when I was a long-term substitute teacher in the fourth grade and I lead math lessons from the chalk (yes, chalk) board.  I don’t remember anyone complaining that their number sense was destroyed for the rest of their educational career, but I have moved around a lot; maybe they haven’t been able to find me.

This journey has been very interesting.  I have no idea where I am headed, but I am exploring several different paths.  The good news is that I feel energized.  I love meeting students who want to learn.  Yesterday, as I was headed to meet a new student at a library I had never been to before, I received a text. “Mrs. Rathje, This is S________.  I am at the library.  I secured a private study room, 2B.  It is up the stairs and on your left.  See you soon.”  Did you get that? A high school senior arrived 30 minutes before I did, found us a room, logged into the internet, got a login code for me to use, pulled up her ACT score report, and greeted me with a smile and a handshake when I walked in.  (All the high school teachers out there are reading this with their mouths hanging open.)  This girl, who is a full-time student, a cheerleader, and part-time McDonald’s employee, leaned in with me for two hours and learned strategies for improving her score on the ACT.  She looked in my eyes, asked me questions, and agreed to do extensive homework before we meet next time — on a Saturday morning for two hours.  

Pretty sweet, isn’t it?  So, I have no idea where I am going to end up, but I am not minding it one bit.  Each day I have a new experience.  I’m not bored in this next chapter. 

Psalm 90:17

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us —

yes, establish the work of our hands.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

We spent the weekend with our granddaughter.  She is just two and a half weeks old and weighs just over seven pounds.  We have only seen her twice, but we are head over heels in love.

Everyone said it would happen.  They warned us that we were in for a ‘new kind of love’.  And I am sure that we have had just a taste, but that taste has made us want more and more.

We lost hours holding her and staring at her while she was sleeping — watching her face change from peaceful, to smiling, to irritated, to sleepy.  We talked to her and walked with her and fed her and changed her.  We were amazed, truly amazed, by this little life that we knew nothing about just a short time ago.  We examined her fingers and her toes.  We touched her hair and smelled her skin.  We took her in.

And now, sitting in my house by the river, I am looking at the photo of her tiny little hand inside the larger older hand of her grandfather.  How many times will he hold that hand?  When she’s crying, or scared, or excited, or angry.  How many times will he wish that he could hold that hand?  When she’s far away or busy or holding someone else’s hand.

Right now she is so tender and pure — a brand new blank book with all kinds of stories waiting to be written.  So many of us are watching in wonder and amazement.  All she has to do is breathe and we are awestruck. One little accidental smile and we beam.  Nothing that gets written in this book will change the ridiculous love we have for this little girl.  We are just overcome with happiness to be witnesses to this brand new life and whatever it holds.

We pray we get to hold her hand from time to time, but when we can’t, we rest assured that she is resting safely in the palm of His hand — the One who formed her inmost being, the One who knows the plans He has for her, the One who has redeemed her and called her by name.  He holds her in the palm of His hand, for she is His and He made her.

Psalm 139:14

I praise You because [she] is fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful.

Next Chapter Living

I sent you a little subliminal message yesterday; I don’t know if you saw it.  In the midst of explaining my need for a day without driving, I mentioned that I had been busy for six days.  In a row.  Many of you are saying, “Welcome to my life.”  I know.  I used to live your life.  I used to move at break-neck speed for days, weeks, months, even years at a time.  But, guys, this is the Next Chapter.  

When we were packing to move to Michigan, I remember sitting in a chair as my husband packed stuff into boxes asking me what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to get rid of.  Why was I sitting in the chair?  Because I didn’t have the strength, the physical strength, to pack a box.  And I thought I would always feel that way.

When my daughter graduated from high school last May my mother and older daughter were in town to help.  I went to work every day.  They cleaned my house from top to bottom, did all the grocery shopping, prepared all the food, and basically ran my life for me.  Because I couldn’t do it myself.  And I was beginning to believe that I would never be able to do things for myself again.

On moving day, my husband and a dear friend of ours followed behind the movers cleaning our house so that renters could move in when we left.  They worked tirelessly for hours while I drank water, then tea, then water, then tea.  Our daughter volunteered to run out for lunch, knowing that I didn’t have a plan; I was busy sitting on the couch catching my breath.

All last year, I would groan myself out of bed in the morning, shower, get dressed, drive to school, interact with students and colleagues all day, then drink some caffeine to help me stay awake for the twenty minute drive home.  I rarely cooked.  I did the minimum around the house.  I tried my best to interact with the people I love.  And then I fell into bed — often before 7:00pm.

For much of August and September, here in the house by the river, I carefully planned my days so that I could have a rest either in the morning or in the afternoon.  I was sure to fit in a walk or some other exercise, but I often spent several hours either reading or watching TV.  My big accomplishment most days was preparing dinner for my husband.

But guys, it’s January, and I worked six days in a row.  Now they weren’t the ten-hour days of my former life, but they did involve getting dressed, driving to meet a student, preparing for that student, interacting with her, and then driving home.  Not only did I meet with a student, I also did some proofreading for another student, encouraged the grad student I am working with, sold a half-dozen items on eBay, prepared paperwork for the tax man, cooked, cleaned, exercised, AND interacted with others socially.  Without a nap. Without going to bed at 7:00pm.  Ok, I have to be honest.  Near the end of that stretch I crawled into bed one night at around 7:30 and read until around 10:00.  I was physically exhausted, but not yet ready for sleep.  And then yesterday, I really needed the day at home.  But you know, being home, I still did laundry, cooked dinner, dusted and vacuumed, paid the bills, and managed to interact with people that I love.

Guys, it’s the Next Chapter! I am feeling better, not perfect, but better.  I am finding a new pace that seems to be working.  I am learning to listen to my body and take a break when I need one.  I’m not pain-free, but who is?

Now, I’m not going to run back to my old life, although it was meaningful, and important, and great at the time.  In fact, I don’t know fully what the Next Chapter looks like, but I am hopeful.  I may need rest along the way, but I am confident that I will have plenty to do in this Next Chapter.  Thanks be to God.

2 Corinthians 5:5

Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God,

who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

A Day without Driving

I’m not getting in my car today.  I guess I should say, “Barring any unforeseen emergencies, I am not getting in my car today.”

When I was working full time, having a day when I didn’t have to get in the car was my idea of a day off.  Some people love to drive, not me.  I appreciate the fact that we have a vehicle, don’t get me wrong.  I am blessed to be able to drive to the gym, to the grocery store, to visit family, and to run for coffee.  But I just don’t love being in the car.

For one thing, I don’t sit well.  Even when I am at home, I move around a lot.  My family has gotten used to the fact that while we watch movies I fold laundry, or iron, or work on a puzzle, or play Words With Friends.  I have trained myself to linger after meals to chat without stacking and clearing the dishes.  I’ve already shared how I deep clean while talking on the phone. I’m not good at being still.  Not even in the car.

For another thing, I appreciate the risk that comes with driving.  I am a fairly good driver, contrary to my brothers’ opinions. I can drive in heavy traffic in the city, and I know how to be cautious in rain or snow. However, I am not the only one on the road.  Countless individuals climb behind the wheel everyday — some of them texting, or talking, or intoxicated, or distracted, or otherwise ill-equipped to be behind the wheel.  We are all just one poor choice away from an accident.  I appreciate that fact and the stress that comes with the risk of driving.

For the last six days I have driven every day.  I have had lots of social and work appointments. I have enjoyed them all — tutoring, and exercising, and going to Bible study, and joining friends for dinner.  It’s been fun!  And tomorrow we are climbing into the car to drive to Cincinnati to see our granddaughter.  More fun!  But today I need a day when I don’t have to get into the car.

I’ve already had the parade of beverages (thanks to my new, functioning blender).  I’ve done my Bible study.  Now, I’m going to do my Pilates while still in my pajamas.  I plan to finish a book I’m reading, handle some paperwork that is piled on my desk, and cook a proper meal for dinner. I’m going to breathe deeply today, cuddle with Chester, and maybe even throw on my boots and trudge through the snow with him on a mini-walk.

But I’m not going to get in the car.

Tomorrow?  That’s another story.  I’ve already made the list:

  • Make the final Minimalist Challenge donation
  • Stop at the bank
  • Exchange books at the library
  • Go to gym
  • Meet with former student
  • Drive to Cincinnati.

Yep, it’s going to be another day in the car.  But today? Today I will rest.

Isaiah 30:15

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.

My Sweet Battalion

Today is Wednesday, and one of the blessings of not taking a regular job is that I get to stay in my Bible study.  I can’t believe that I didn’t even know these ladies just five months ago; they are becoming some of my dearest friends.

In the fall we had around sixteen women every week; now, because many of our gals flew south for the winter or have chosen not to brave the wintry roads, we are down to about nine or ten.  The size of our group is different, and so is our study.  We spent the fall studying 1 and 2 Thessalonians; now we are getting up close and personal with the Sermon on the Mount.

What hasn’t changed is the sense of belonging and community that I felt from the first moment.  These gals look forward to seeing one another.  We pray together, study the Bible together, laugh together, and sometimes even cry together.  When one shares a burden, others offer encouragement.  When one celebrates, all celebrate.  And all kinds of partnerships have formed within the group.  Some have partnered to collect funds for missionaries, or toiletries for the homeless, or to gather books for inner city children.  Others meet for coffee, or lunch, or to go walking.  One calls on another who is lonely.  Another stops by to check on one who has difficulty getting out.  True community.

Today in our study we discussed our failures in life — how we regret them, how we have learned from them, and how God has used them to draw us closer to him.  One woman, reflecting on her life, expressed wonder at the fact that God has shown her mercy — he didn’t give her what she deserved.  The teacher in our study shared that when we do wrong, we pray for mercy, but when others do us wrong, we pray for justice.  Ouch, that hurt.  How powerful would it be, if each of us who had been shown mercy would pay it forward and show mercy, overwhelming mercy, to those who have wronged us?

As the teacher shared those thoughts, the nods and knowing glances, the conviction and the desire to change were shared among the women.  These women, not one of them younger than I am, acknowledged their need to grow, to change, to repent, to draw closer to God.

The power in that is phenomenal.  The encouragement is undeniable.  What if nine women in a small town in Michigan decided to go about showing mercy to those in their lives — their spouses, their children, their neighbors, their pastors, their leaders, their coworkers?

I left Bible study, ran a couple of errands, and found myself at my desk in my house by the river.  I picked up my personal devotion book, which today, using the metaphorical language of battle, encouraged me to Arm myself for battle (with the Word of God), Stay on course (with God’s purpose as my goal), Stick close to my battalion (my girls, of course), and to Stay alert (for opportunities and for hindrances).  When I got to the part about ‘sticking close to my battalion’, I smiled.  My sweet ladies are quite the battalion — I wouldn’t want to oppose them.  They are strong in number, united in purpose, and fully armed for battle.  I am proud, and blessed, to join their ranks.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

From 1989 to 2015

In 1989 I began my professional teaching career in a small second-story classroom near the corner of Seven Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit, Michigan.  I had nine students in a self-contained classroom.  Each of my students had been diagnosed with a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, or some other ‘problem’ that prohibited his or her success in the ‘regular’ classroom.

So why did they get me?  God only knows.  I was fresh from college with only a semester of student teaching under my belt — student teaching in a high school classroom in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Although I had worked for eight months in a group home with behaviorally ‘disordered’ girls, I had little to no experience with students who had these kinds of learning challenges.  I had no special education certification. None.  I had one course in college called ‘The Exceptional Child’.  What did I think I was doing?

Ah, to be young and invincible.

That year in that small classroom with those kids — Larry, Larry, Braun, Andrea, Charmaigne, Andrew, Maia, Chris, and Robert —  began to shape my heart and create the cheerleader/coach within me that would get in the corner of many kids who believed they couldn’t do it, were doomed for failure, and didn’t measure up.   I was so determined not to fail at this first job, and none of them were going to fail either.  Not one.

I’m not going to lie, it was a chaotic year.  I had to learn how to respectfully disagree with my principal.  (Yeah, that was an ugly lesson.)  I had to acknowledge that I had no clue what I was doing. (First privately, then for all the world.)  And I had to find my allies.  (Two male coworkers who found great joy in pranking me and getting me to laugh at them, and ultimately at myself.)

I have no idea if I taught those kids anything that had to do with the curriculum.  I am not even one hundred percent sure that I knew what the curriculum was!  But do you know that I piled all of them into a 15-passenger van and drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor, participated in chapel at my alma mater, checked out the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, then went out to lunch at Pizza Hut with our Book-It Rewards? I paid no attention to time, so we got caught in rush hour traffic on the way back to school and I returned them to their parents far later than our anticipated arrival time.  I don’t remember any parents being upset at our tardiness.  In my memory, they all matter-of-factly retrieved their kids and thanked me for taking them on the field trip.

That classroom was the germ-infested petri dish that fostered the growth of Rathe-isms such as “what they say says more about them than it does about you,” “anybody can change,” and “see what had happened was.” Each of those Rathje-isms, my students will tell you, has a sermon attached to it that gets recited year after year after year.

It’s 2015.  Last week I was tutoring a high school freshman who is scared to death to take her first round of semester exams.  She kept saying, “I’m not good at __________.” I was transported back in time to my little classroom in Detroit where I started coaching students to say, “I’m getting better at ___________.”  I looked across the desk in the basement of a home in Dexter, Michigan and said to the little freshman, all 95 pounds of her, “We’re going to change that phrase.  You’re going to start saying ‘I’m getting better at _____________.”

I loved that class in Detroit.  They taught me so much.  I’ve been sharing their lessons ever since.

Philippians 1:6

“…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”