I look just fine

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Friday afternoon, I sat at my desk grading some student work. I had untied the blanket scarf that I’d had wrapped around my neck and transitioned it from scarf to blanket so that I could wrap up as I worked. I was tired. And chilly.

Then, when my supervisor entered my office and shared some sadness with my coworker and I, I moved the blanket from my shoulders to up around my head, like a babuska. I huddled inside, rounded my shoulders, and audibly sighed.

Any stamina I had left after two forty-hour weeks was quickly dissipating. I didn’t have the bandwidth to take in sadness. I only had enough left to finish my tasks for the week so that I could stumble home.

Nevertheless, my coworkers and I paused for a minute and were sad together.

When the day was finally ended — most of the t’s crossed and most of the i’s dotted (I couldn’t be bothered to ensure all) — I tied the scarf around my neck, put on my coat, grabbed my backpack, and started the journey home.

I knew, as I walked out of the building, that I would spend most of the weekend in recovery, most of the next three days resting, hydrating, and giving my body time to heal.

I’m not sick. I am not injured. I have an autoimmune disease. And when your spoons are gone, they are gone, baby. After a couple long weeks — even a couple long hours — you can find yourself sitting at your desk wrapped up in a blanket, practically sucking your thumb.

I look just fine. You wouldn’t know that most of the past month I’ve been caring for a persistent case of iritis, which has involved — so far — two trips to the ophthalmologist and a course of steroid drops, OTC ibuprofen, and plenty of rest. You wouldn’t be able to see that for most of the week I’ve been trying to convince myself that I don’t have a urinary tract infection (sorry for the TMI) and that at this very moment, I’m contemplating a trip to the doctor to pee in a cup and find out if it is an infection or just inflammation.

I look just fine. In fact, I want to look just fine. I try very hard to look just fine.

Before I even walk out the door each morning, I do two HOURS of self care so that I can have the stamina to live my life — complete my job requirements, maintain my emotional health, and prevent myself from an autoimmune flare.

The alarm goes off at 5:30. I go to the bathroom and give the doggy the same opportunity. Then, I head to my home office, sit on the futon, read some Scripture, and write my three morning pages. Next I do yoga. (I am currently following a 30-day plan called “Home” by Yoga with Adriene.) By the time I’ve done all this, I am usually rushing to grab the clothes I’ve lain out the night before on my way to the shower. I wash with delicate soap and shampoo that won’t incite psoriasis, and I take time to apply carefully-selected moisturizers and cosmetics that do NOT annoy my skin. I dress in clothing that is comfortable and shoes that won’t irritate my feet. Finally, I make gluten-free oatmeal (yes, that’s a thing) and a cup of green tea, both of which I carry out the door with me so that I can make it to work by 8. I cherish this luxury of time to connect with God, connect with my mind, connect with my body, and prepare myself for the day.

In addition to my daily work, I also have other regular maintenance routines that I follow. I go to regular physical and dental check-ups like anyone else, but I do much more. Weekly, I see at least one member of my team — my chiropractor, my physical therapist, or my functional medicine practitioner. Once a month, I see a therapist, and twice a year I get an injection from a pain management specialist.

I love this routine. And, I have noticed, after having developed it over the past few years, that it makes me feel and look just fine — most of the time.

Even all this preventative practice can’t consistently keep autoimmune flares at bay.

It does a pretty good job, I must say. When I first started struggling with autoimmunity, I felt (and, quite frankly, looked) lousy most days. My eyes hurt, my skin was inflamed, my joints were stiff and sore, and I had zero stamina. I could barely keep my eyes open on my drive home after a typical day. I was convinced I’d landed in a new reality. I would never be able to hold a full-time job again. I would always be in pain. I would always feel (and look) miserable.

That was seven years ago this month.

Fortunately, the past seven years have led me to this place — a place that is full of hope. I have found a different way to have a career — where forty hour weeks are the exception not the rule, where I can occasionally sit at my desk wrapped in a blanket on a Friday afternoon, and where I can spend my weekend recovering instead of worrying about 75 AP essays that need to be scored and returned.

It would probably be a healthier rhythm even without autoimmune disease, but my dream was to teach in a high school or college where current systems don’t typically allow teachers to have a reasonable amount of work. High school and college English teachers work much more than 40 hours a week and have very little, if any, time for self-care or recovery — especially not teachers who have high expectations of themselves and their students and who are soldiering through their own personal crises.

Ironically, I was living my dream of speaking into the writing of people who were finding their way, when I realized I had lost my own way.

Autoimmunity has given me back my life — a better life than I could have imagined, even considering the frequent eye issues and other systemic flares. Because of the routines I have had to employ in order to function, I am much more aware of who I am and what my priorities are.

Because of autoimmunity, I look — and actually am — just fine.

I have spent most of the weekend recovering. I’ve stayed mostly in pajamas, wrapped in an afghan, eating foods that don’t contribute to inflammation, and using all the practices that restore me — Scripture, writing, yoga, crocheting, college basketball, and movies. I’m feeling a bit better. I may head to the doctor yet, but for right now, I’m going to crawl over to the couch, turn on a good flick, and continue to rest.

I’m sure I’ll look just fine in the morning.

My son, pay attention to what I say;

    turn your ear to my words…

 …for they are life to those who find them

    and health to one’s whole body.

Proverbs 4:20 and 22

Finding Common Ground

Click the link above to hear me read this post (pardon the early morning voice), or simply read on.

January 2020 is the start of a new year and a new decade. It is also a leap year, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, an election year.

It’s been pretty hard not to notice, what with the numerous debates, countless political ads, and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

And, for me, talk of the election and all things political has seeped into daily discourse, family gatherings (much to my mother’s dismay), and, most notably, my social media feeds.

I am happy to say that I have a pretty diverse online community; I’m quite sure it includes representatives from the far right, the moderate right, the moderate left, the far left, and people who claim to not care about politics at all. I don’t block people, even when their posts piss me off, because I want to hear divergent views. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, so I sometimes see, as I scroll, posts that encourage me, posts that confuse me, posts that irritate me, and posts that make me want to reply in a way that I would likely regret later.

Recently, I saw a post from a friend who said it was all the [insert specific political party]’s fault that [fill in current political issue] was happening. I saw that another friend of mine had replied, so I scrolled on.That friend said that, no, it was actually the [insert opposing party]’s fault because “look at all this evidence”. And so it ensued — a virtual exchange between representatives of two different parties. Now, I will say, that these two individuals, both intelligent and well-read, were able to isolate some key issues and continue their exchange beyond the typical name calling and finger-pointing, but neither granted any space to the other; no allowances were made. Both stood firm in their convictions, unwilling to budge.

When I saw this conversation, I wanted so badly to step in and ally myself with one of the speakers. I placed my cursor over the “write a comment” space, started to type, then, in a moment of sudden good judgment, hit the backspace button and closed the lid on my laptop. (I would like to here record this adult-like behavior since I don’t always make such sound-minded choices.)

I considered those two friends over the next few days. I am aware that they have known each other for decades. They have fond memories together, but they, at least in this post, had positioned themselves against each other and were unable to find common ground.

I wonder what would’ve happened if they had had the same conversation across the table from one another, over a sandwich and a coffee, looking into one another’s eyes. Would they would have been able to cede some of their firmly-held ground or been willing to step across the line into one another’s territory if only to look around?

It’s hard to know.

Another friend posted about a family gathering at Christmas where a [insert family member here] had come in spouting rhetoric from [insert political figure here], inciting an argument. Both parties continued to engage, firmly arguing their own positions, until one asked the other to leave. They couldn’t be in the same house together — on Christmas — because of their differing political views.

I don’t think these are isolated incidents. Scenes like these are becoming common. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into these opposing factions that position us one against the other, heels dug in, fingers pointing. And where do we picture it will end? Do any of us believe — truly believe — that we can shout “the other side” into submission, that we can prove our “rightness” and their “wrong-ness”? Do we think that one side will ever “win”?

Because guys, I’m not seeing anyone winning right now. I’m seeing a lot of anger and posturing, name-calling and accusing, and all kinds of refusal to find the common ground where we can come together.

And isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want to come together in the United States of America? Don’t we want to live in a “more perfect union”? Don’t we want to embody e pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one’?

Can we accomplish that through finger-pointing, name-calling, and accusation? Not in my experience. I picture that the longer we glare across the line, attaching blame to those on the other side, the further we get entrenched in our positions, the less willing we are to change.

And change doesn’t have to mean surrender — for anyone! If we could find, in the space between us, just enough room to set up a table, if we could invite one another to sit down, we just might have a beginning.

Of course, we’d have to shift our approach. Instead of trying to cram our own beliefs and opinions down the throats of the others, we’d have to agree to ask one another questions and listen to the responses.

For example, when one side says, “We need to do more to fight climate change,” we could respond by saying, “Oh? Tell me more about that. What kinds of ideas do you have?”

When someone says, “I don’t want anyone to take away my right to own a gun,” we could ask, “Really? Tell me why?”

If someone says, “Women have the right to do what they want with their bodies,” we can say, “I can see you are passionate about this. What’s your story?”

When another says, “We have to do what’s best for this country,” we can say, “What do you picture that looking like?”

What might happen? What kinds of conversations could we have if we just opened up some space and agreed to step inside of it, leaving our need to be right and our firmly held convictions behind?

Might we be able to see that we are indeed united on many issues — caring for our parents, providing for our children, reaching out to those in need? Could we be surprised to find that everyone on that other side doesn’t meet all our preconceived notions? Is it possible that in the space we find ourselves standing, we might see new possibilities that we’d never before imagined?

I’m just saying, it might be worth a try. Of course, we might decide that it feels safer to stay in our own yards, fists clenched, jaws set, unwilling to compromise the beliefs we hold so dear.

What were they again — those beliefs you hold so dear? What were the causes you were willing to fight with an old friend about? What issues kept you away from the Christmas gathering? What might you gain by clinging so tightly to them?

It could be a really long year if we stay in our trenches flinging grenades at one another.

Can’t we find enough common ground to stand together on? Can’t we reconcile with one another? Don’t we have enough grace for that?

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Romans 12:18

20/20 in 2020

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My husband and I have a long-running joke between us that he could paint the house purple and it would take me a few months to notice.

I don’t see everything.

Once, one of our children got multiple piercings on body parts that were not covered by clothing, and I didn’t realize it for a couple of weeks.

I miss details.

It’s not that my vision is poor. I mean it is (-7.75 for those who know what that means), but my glasses correct me to 20/20.

My vision is fine; I just don’t see stuff.

For example, we can drive down the same street every Saturday for five years in a row and one day I will ask my husband, “Is that a new gas station?” He’ll say, “No, it’s always been there.” Or, he’ll say, “Doesn’t the road feel great now that they’ve resurfaced it?” and I’ll say, “They resurfaced it?”

Now, I might be able to blame a little of this on the cell phone. I mean, my husband often drives, and I’m often checking texts, getting navigation, or responding to messages, so I might miss some things because I’ve got my face in the screen, but guys, the piercing incident happened way before iPhones. I barely even knew where my phone was back then.

The fact that I miss so much probably has more to do with my laser focus on the mission — a last vestige of the soldiering life.

[If you are new to my blog and don’t know what I mean by ‘soldiering’, you can get a quick snapshot by clicking here. Or you can type ‘soldiering’ into the search bar at the top of the page.]

One important skill of soldiering is to be able to tune out distractions so that you can focus on the mission. The brain can’t attend to every stimulus it is exposed to all at once, so a soldier learns to zoom in. She can see an enemy approaching at a great distance while filtering out a whining dog at her feet. She can detect an approaching storm that will necessitate a tactical shift, while overlooking the construction crew working on the highway she’s driving on. Her mission is survival, so she prioritizes necessity and imminent threat.

For much of a decade, during my soldiering season, I was laser-focused on survival. I saw what was necessary for that mission — feeding my family, putting clothes on their backs, and getting them to doctors, therapists, sporting events, and concerts. I also attended to my students– planning their lessons, grading their papers, and writing their college recommendations. If my child or my student brought an issue to me — put it right in front of me — I saw it as part of the mission. I would work to solve, soothe, or fix whatever was broken and then get back to whatever I was working on.

I saw little in my periphery, little that wasn’t pointed out, little that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Now, I’m obviously not a trained soldier; I was just pretending to know what I was doing as I marched through some very difficult years. In the face of uncertainty and possible harm, I strapped on my backpack and started kicking butts and taking names. I turned my eyes to problems and crises in an attempt to control my surroundings, but I missed so much — some of the greatest threats to our family and their well-being. An untrained soldier might manage to survive, but she’s likely to mess up all kinds of missions along the way.

In these last five years, during my recovery from soldiering, I have dropped my weapons, taken off my backpack, and slowed my pace, but I’m still trying to adjust my vision. I still tend to scan for danger or obstacles rather than giving a more realistic assessment to a situation.

Just last week, I met a new student with some significant learning challenges. Even after decades of working with students with all kinds of learning profiles, I was intimidated. He’s got some real barriers to learning and all I could see were the obstacles we would have to overcome so that we could complete the learning tasks in front of us. I was looking at those challenges, and my anxiety started to rise. How would I be able to work with this student during the last hour of my day when I was already fatigued and facing challenges of my own?

My focus on potential problems was for nothing. Not long into our session this teenager and I were laughing, learning, and listening to one another! What I had seen as potential disaster ended up being a very successful hour of instruction.

In my attempts to survive by hyper-focusing on potential dangers, I’ve missed a lot, but shift is happening. I’m beginning to see more clearly. I’m beginning to understand that the period of uncertainty and crisis is over — my strategy of scanning for danger is no longer necessary.

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

I’m praying for sight, but I’m also asking for vision. I’m longing to see what’s right in front of me while also being able to dream ahead. I long to see clearly enough where we’re going so that I follow the path that will get us there.

And in 2020, I want to understand that there is really just a more connected here. It’s a here where I see the pain of the person in front of me, even when she is doing her best to hide it, where I hear insecurity when I’m presented with bravado, and where I acknowledge the actual fragility of the bravest of soldiers.

May 2020 be the year that we clearly see one another and acknowledge that we’re all trying real hard to do the best that we can.

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Mark 8:25

Honor One Another

Right now, people you know and people I know — people we see every day — are feeling a bit desperate. They’ve been scrolling through social media, and they’ve seen picture-perfect families, lit-up Christmas trees, and December graduations that have shown them how far they are from measuring up. They’ve seen group poses and party pics that have reminded them of their own disconnectedness.

They feel defeated, deflated, and discouraged.

Many in our culture — the one that promotes wealth, success, status, and achievement — have compared themselves to a curated social media standard or to the people they see at school or at work — the polished public facade of put-togetherness — and have found themselves lacking.

And this sense of inferiority has implications.

The National Institute of Health reports that 19 percent of the US population suffers from anxiety and over seven percent have suffered from a major depressive episode in the last year.

On an average day in the United States, 129 people commit suicide.

This year alone, 409 Americans have committed mass shootings, injuring 1,466 and killing 441.

Why? Why are people picking up weapons and intentionally seeking to hurt others? Why do so many try and succeed in ending their own lives? Why are such high numbers depressed and anxious?

Of course the answers to these questions are complex, but could it be, at least in part, that people simply don’t know their own worth? Their own inherent value?

With all of our emphasis on achievement, success, and wealth, have we lost the ability to see the inherent value of each person — the implicit value that is separate from our accomplishments, our status, and our ability to present a flawless front to the world? Are we unable to find that value in one another and in ourselves?

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, in his recent series on the Culture of Christmas spent an entire Sunday on how we, as a community, can create a culture of honor in which we recognize, value, and honor each person — where we see the implicit value in each individual.

Is this possible? Can we create (or re-create) such a culture in a community that is made up of people like me? I struggle to get my focus off my self and my to-do list for long enough to even see the people around me, let alone honor them!

I was in the mall the other day, and I was on a mission. Bent on hitting my step goal while finding two specific Christmas gifts, I put in my earbuds and got to it. I stepped my steps and found my gifts. Mission accomplished. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that other than the salesperson who helped me, I didn’t remember one single face from that trip to the mall. Although it’s mid-December and the mall was crowded with people, I was so totally focused on finding my gifts and getting in my steps that I didn’t notice one other person. I didn’t give honor to anyone.

Honor, Pastor Gabe said, is the recognition of the value, contribution, and importance of others; it recognizes their implicit value.

What does that look like?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like me, fully engrossed in the podcast playing in my ears, motoring through the masses on my seek-and-find mission.

No. When I picture honoring someone — truly seeing their inherent value — I imagine myself figuratively cupping their face in my hands, looking straight in their eyes, and seeing, with wonder, what their parents saw in them on the day they were born. In honoring them, I acknowledge the miracle that despite all odds — despite illness, dysfunction, calamity, neglect, and abuse; despite chance and hazards and accidents and trauma– a human being has been created cell by cell, has grown to its current state, and has survived. Whether or not the being whose face I am beholding has accomplished anything in life beyond that survival, he or she is a miracle — a child of God, someone’s hope and dream, and a life worth acknowledging, an existence worth honoring.

And honoring the inherent value of all people means I’m holding the faces of a lot of people who don’t look like me, don’t agree with me, don’t want to listen to me, and might even annoy me.

Over the last couple of weeks, perhaps nudged along by Pastor Gabe’s message, I’ve attempted honoring others by taking one small action — yielding the right of way. Instead of speeding up to get in front of others, I’m trying to remember to let them go in front of me. (It’s a baby step; I know.) I’m driving into parking lots slowly, allowing others plenty of space to find their spot as I’m staying out of their way. I’m walking through stores (other than my recent journey to the mall) with the intention of not cutting anyone off, of anticipating where others are going, and of allowing them to step in front of me. I’m trying to show that I recognize that people have inherent value.

It’s a very small action. To be fair, I can’t actually walk up to people, take their faces in my hands and say, “Wow! You are quite a miracle!” I’m pretty sure that would be counterproductive. However, I can look the sales clerk in the eye, smile, and thank her for bagging my items. I can turn to my coworker when she speaks to me and listen to her instead of continuing to fill out the document I’m working on. I can acknowledge that my student is ticked off because he has to do two hours of instruction with me after he’s already been in school all day and honor the legitimacy of that feeling. I can walk through the mall a little less intensely, seeing the other people in my path, smiling, nodding, allowing them to step in front of me, and noticing their humanity, their worth, their inherent value.

It might mean I might have to slow my roll, overlook some grinchiness, and give up my right to have everything in life go exactly according to plan, and it might mean I get to a few places a little late, but what difference will it make?

Will my small changes stop gun violence? Will they put an end to depression, anxiety, and suicide? Will my small attempts to make eye contact, to listen, and to acknowledge the worth of others cause significant cultural change?

I hardly think the actions of one middle-aged woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan can shift a whole culture, but they might cause an ever-so-minute shift. If I notice one person’s value and they then notice another person’s value, perhaps together, we might create enough space in which a few more people can live and breathe, where they might begin to have hope, where they might discover a reason to keep living.

I’ve been accused of being too hopeful, too idealistic, too pie-in-the-sky. But guys, I’ve been changed by people who noticed me, who looked in my eyes, and who acknowledged my inherent worth.

Small actions can yield huge results.

Is it possible that as we pause to acknowledge the value in the lives around us that we might become like mirrors in which people begin to see their own inherent worth and that we might, in turn, more fully understand the value of ourselves?

Is it worth a try?

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10

Warning Flags!

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I got up early one day this week and headed into work with an extra spring in my step. I was looking forward to some concentrated time to attend to several tasks that needed to be completed by the end of the week and was expecting about two hours of almost uninterrupted time to focus on them. I was charged up to be super productive, and I drove to work practically whistling “Hi ho, Hi ho!”

I parked my car, walked into the building, and ascended two flights of stairs, excited to get right at my work. However, when I walked into our office and saw our office assistant on the phone, I had an uneasy feeling. A 7:55am phone call could mean one of two things: 1) a student was cancelling instruction, or 2) a staff member was calling in late or sick.

I quickly learned that it was the second option, and I would need to cover a session with a student, sacrificing one of my coveted hours of uninterrupted work.

My inspiration and positive attitude quickly turned to frustration and irritation. I mentally stomped through the center gathering materials, grumbling under my breath about how I would be behind for the rest of the day.

I was annoyed, and it was going to take real work to shift my attitude.

Now, I love working with students, but this was not the morning I had expected. The plan that had me whistling and practically skipping into work had been altered, and my psyche was flung from enthusiasm to disappointment. I had to take action so that I could still give my student — and myself — a quality hour of instruction.

With set jaw, I mentally talked myself down — certainly I can recover from one lost hour. I could ask our office assistant to reschedule an appointment, I thought, logging into my computer. I could still get everything done. My blood pressure was coming down; it’ll be ok, I thought. Then, I settled in with my student.

By the time we were finished with our surprisingly fun and effective session, I had mentally realigned my tasks and developed a new set of expectations for how the rest of my morning would go.

And then, you guessed it, my office manager informed me that after my meeting, I would have to take another student hour and sacrifice my newly adapted plan.

I bet you are thinking that at the second change in plans, I much more easily adapted.

Nope.

I am quite sure my face said it all, “I am not happy. This is not how I pictured my day going.” I glowered and muttered a few discontented comments as I looked at my calendar and my list of tasks. I was definitely and obviously frustrated.

Once again, I talked myself down: Ok, Ok, shift this here, shift that there. It’ll be fine. Come on; you’re a professional. I completed a couple of tasks and then moved into the meeting. I celebrated with a parent who shared some great news, I fully enjoyed my second hour of instruction, and I did, actually, manage to once again redistribute my work and make another plan for its completion before the end of the week.

Everything I was hoping to get done, would get done; it just wouldn’t happen in the way that I had expected.

So here’s the question: why did these small interruptions make me so upset? Why couldn’t I more easily shift gears? Why did I get emotional at each transition?

I retold this saga to my husband when I got home that day, still kind of simmering emotionally. “Why,” I asked him, “why did this make me so upset? I hate feeling this way! I want to be a team player, to go with the flow, to step in and help. Why is it so hard for me to shift gears?”

He, the therapist, said, “That’s your flag. When you respond to something in a way that seems off, you need to ask yourself why.”

As we talked some more, we unearthed a couple of things that were bothering me — some stressors that I hadn’t been realizing were stressors– and I made a plan to address them.

By the next day I was able to communicate some of those frustrations with the people who had the ability to do something about them. This allowed me to stop burying my emotions and, rather, express them appropriately.

I am feeling stretched thin. I am disappointed by this reality. I don’t feel heard.

When I stated my grievances, I was told, “Please be sure to share these things when they come up; don’t carry them around for so long.” But, you know what? I didn’t know how much I was bothered until I started paying attention to the flags.

When my husband said, “That’s your flag,” several images popped up in my mind of other times recently when my emotions flipped like a switch as a result of seemingly insignificant circumstances. I thought to myself, I’ve been overreacting to small things for quite a few weeks. I guess I have been more bothered than I was aware.

This has, of course, happened throughout my life. I’ve snapped at an inconvenience, I’ve growled at a surprise turn of events, and I’ve stomped and slammed when the people in my life didn’t behave in the way that I expected them to. However, rather than noticing these behaviors as flags, I often just chided myself and felt guilty for reacting so emotionally.

I saw myself as too emotional — I cried too much, laughed too loud, and had big emotional responses to almost everything. But I’ve come to see my emotions as a gift — they reveal what’s going on inside of me when I am unaware, and they stand by the side of the road, waving bright red flags so that I’ll stop and take notice. They draw my attention to internal hurts and frustrations so that I will do the work that allows me to be present for others.

Paying attention to the flags this week helped me unearth the real issues. I was never upset that a coworker called in or that I needed to work with a student when I wasn’t planning on it. I was upset for legitimate reasons that had nothing to do with the current situation. I just wasn’t allowing myself to admit it.

Now that I’ve acknowledged some underlying stressors and have some strategies for managing them, I’m hoping to have a more balanced response to the unexpected changes that will undoubtedly arise this week. Maybe when my plans get rearranged, I’ll be able to roll with the punches, unfazed.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:6

A letter to my (our) mother(s)

Many, many years ago, you carried me in your womb, labored me into the world, and cradled me in your arms. You took me home to the nest you had prepared and began a daily practice of making sure that I was clean, well-fed, and protected.

You bathed me, diapered me, rocked me, fed me, and made sure that my older siblings were gentle with me. I was safe and secure in your nest.

My earliest memories have you shampooing my hair in the kitchen sink, combing out my tangles every. single. day., providing me with Sunday dresses and patent leather shoes, bringing home my favorite dot-to-dot books, and baking hand-cut Valentine cookies. I was loved and nurtured in our nest.

As I grew older and discovered my full-range of emotions, you laughed too loudly with me, listened compassionately as I railed about the injustices in my middle school life, stood on the other side of my slammed bedroom door, and felt my hurts.

In those early years, we often drove an hour to visit your mom, my grandma, in the space where you had grown up. She always greeted us with hugs and delicious meals. Although she was seemingly invincible–keeping an impeccable house and creating gourmet dishes for masses — I saw you quietly stepping in to help her — going up or down stairs to save her steps, lifting heavy loads, and helping her care for her mother, your grandma.

And when we visited your grandmother’s house, where laughter was abundant, the cookie jar was always full, fresh cut flowers were set out with intention and care, and my great grandma was queen, her daughter (your mother) stepped in with ease to fill a cup, lend a hand, or wipe a dish.

I grew up watching all of you, three generations of women, quietly care for your people — providing meal after meal, buying gift after gift, tending one sick or frail creature after another.

Eventually, I left home, but as I struggled to build my own life, I often came back to familiarity. On every return, I found a refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods, a bed made up with freshly-laundered sheets, and a heart full of love ready to receive and see me in whatever state I was in. You were one of the first to notice that I’d lost too much weight, that I’d found the wrong –and eventually the right — man, and that I was overwhelmed with parenting.

And, when you saw a need, you came to my nest — swooping in, as moms and grandmas do — bringing treats for the kids and a breath of reinforcing fresh air (and coffee) for me. Time after time you showed up and saw me where I was — in the midst of my less-than-perfect nest-building years — and you brought judgment-free support, some gadget or tool I needed, and candy. Always candy.

You also continued, during this time, to fly frequently back to your mother’s nest to care for her and your dad. As they grew older, you stepped in to accompany them to the doctor, to take them for lunch at Wendy’s, to arrange for care in their home, and finally, to help them leave their nest for good.

I believe it was the hardest work of your life.

Nevertheless, you carried on, not only helping me at my nest, but helping your other children with the nests they had, too, created. You flew from one to the other, providing support, offering food, and sharing joys and sorrows.

In time, you helped me launch my own into the world. We threw parties and wrapped gifts, and washed dishes — so many dishes. You’ve cheered them as they’ve found their way and consoled them when they’ve wandered off. When they’ve been absent, you’ve prayed them through, in groans sometimes too difficult for words.

And after so many decades of showing up, delivering supplies, and coming through in times of need, you find yourself at home, limited by illness and injury, and unable to do all the things that you’ve always done and still, in your heart and mind, would like to do. You feel frustrated and sad and so tired.

I see you, so I get in my car and drive to you. I don’t bring much other than companionship, an offer to drive you to the store, and a compelling need to eat all the candy in your candy dish.

I want to help — to decrease your pain, to take you places, and to support your desire to see your people — but mostly we sit and watch football, Animal Planet, or — finally — The Great British Baking Show. We look through pictures, we eat meals that you still insist on preparing for me even though I’ve been preparing my own meals for over thirty years, and we go to bed early.

You make sure I have plenty of blankets, something to read, and snacks that I can eat, when I am the one who is trying to help you. And finally, you allow me to iron a few pair of pants and a couple of blouses, to wash a load of towels, and to drive you to the doctor.

Thank you.

Thank you for showing me how to show up, how to pay attention, how to lend a hand. Thank you for letting me show up, pay attention, and lend a hand to you.

I am, after all, the next generation of women who care for their people.

And you are, after all, my people.

Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Proverbs 31:28

We are all Learning

It was an extraordinary day that I’ve been thinking about for a week.

It started when one of the people I love called me at 7 am to admit a failure at work. Some words had been spouted toward a coworker — the kind that aren’t easily called back. Supervisors had gotten involved and, rather than meting out punishment, had normalized the situation saying something like, “We are all learning. We want to support you as you grow through this.”

As I hung up that phone call, a nurse arrived at my door. I’ve agreed to be part of a study in which I set some goals to improve my health or quality of life, I track my progress, and this nurse follows my path, provides coaching and encouragement, and we see what happens.

Perfectionist that I tend to be — I immediately identified a few habits that I am ashamed of and stated my intention of eliminating them. The nurse, fellow human that she is, reminded me that we are just setting goals — some days we will meet them, some days we won’t. That’s how life is.

We are all learning. Not one of us has it all together. She wants to support me as I grow through this.

When the nurse left, I started listening to a sermon I’d missed a few days prior. We’ve been in a series on Exodus for several weeks, hearing about the Israelites’ journey through slavery, the plagues God used against Pharoah, and — this week — the miraculous rescue of the Israelites.

They’d been suffering in slavery for four hundred years and just like that, he swoops in with shock and awe and delivers them out of slavery.

And you have to ask yourself why? Why did He wait so long?

And then, once he had parted the Red Sea and delivered them from the Egyptians, why did He allow them to wander in the wilderness for an additional 40 years? Couldn’t He have spared them so much pain? Didn’t He see their difficulty? Couldn’t He tell they were lost?

And questions like that lead me to why? why did you let me continue in my soldiering for so. damn. long. Why didn’t you send a messenger much earlier? Wouldn’t you have spared us all so much pain? Didn’t you see the difficulty? Didn’t you see the looming consequences? Couldn’t you tell we were lost?

And I hear our pastor, Gabe Kasper, say, “In the difficulty of the wilderness, God shapes His people…God will place us in difficult circumstances, in challenging situations, in order to shape and form our character…and to strengthen our faith.”

We are all learning. Only One of us has it all figured out. He wants to support us as we grow through this.

I can see it. I can. I can see how through that difficulty my character has been formed. The most desperate of situations have pressed me to make new choices, live differently, and see clearly. They have, indeed, strengthened my faith.

I was lying on the table of my physical therapist the other morning, chatting about some recent develops in the long journey we are on, when she said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’m ready.

As the Israelites stood next to the not-yet-parted Red Sea, the Egyptian army bearing down upon them, Moses said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.”

I have only to be silent.

I was sitting in an instructional meeting at work — me, an educator for the last thirty years — and I found myself being challenged to consider how my tone, my energy, and my language can motivate or demotivate my students. How the nuance of my voice, its inflection, and my message can make or break a lesson. The presenter said that we should use language that is calm, neutral, and assertive to direct our students toward their tasks. We should use messages like, “Read this paragraph, starting here,” in a calm tone, as we point to the page and then wait expectantly. When we give a clear direction and the space to respond, we provide safety — a secure spot for our students to step into.

And safety is everything!

Knowing I am safe, emboldens me to take a chance — try reading the words or even make a mistake. If I feel safe, I can try, because I don’t fear judgment or punishment or embarrassment. When I’m given direction from a calm, neutral, assertive voice, I don’t feel bribed, used, or threatened. I feel free.

The nurse from the study spoke in a calm, neutral voice, offering reassurance as we wrote out my goals. She showed me how to record my progress and scheduled our visits for the next eight weeks when she will check in and offer support.

I breathe easily, I know I’ll be ok whether I meet my goals or not — whether I walk more, watch less television, or sit on the couch all day.

Moses (perhaps in a calm, neutral voice) said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.” The Israelites bravely stood there; the Red Sea was parted, and they walked through on dry ground to safety. When their pursuers followed, the sea un-parted and swallowed them up.

Now, long story short, the Israelites didn’t immediately apply all the lessons they’d learned from their time in slavery or from this amazing rescue, so they ended up wandering around in the wilderness for an additional 40 years, so that God could continue to shape them and turn their hearts back to Him.

And, coincidentally, after my rescue from the soldiering years, I did not immediately apply all the lessons I learned, so I ended up walking through some additional challenges through which God has continued to shape me and turn my heart back to Him.

Just yesterday, our pastor delivered the truth that I’ve been clinging to– the words that let me know I’m safe and that I can step into this learning day after day — “God in His sovereignty is in control of whatever situation I am in.” He, the one who has been with me through the soldiering, through every difficulty, through every rescue, through every lesson, is in control.

He keeps showing up because He wants me to know that He is the Lord my God. He knows I’m just learning, and He wants to support me as I grow through this.

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

2 Sam 22:20

Game Tapes

A couple of weeks ago, the Michigan State Spartans, in the last moments of a tight game against the Arizona State Sun Devils, attempted a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. Although Matt Coghlin put the ball cleanly through the goal posts, the field goal was disqualified because the Spartans had twelve men (rather than eleven) on the field at the time of the kick. They were given a five yard penalty before another shot at the kick, but Coghlin’s second attempt went wide right. The Sun Devils won the game 10-7.

It wasn’t until the next day, after countless replays of the game tape, that officials admitted that a Sun Devil defender had illegally leapt over the Spartan offensive line during the second field goal attempt which should have resulted in a fifteen yard penalty and a third attempt at the field goal. The referees had missed the call.

If the Spartans would’ve only had eleven men on the field, if Coghlin would’ve made the second field goal attempt, or if the officials would’ve seen the violation, MSU would’ve tied the game and sent it into overtime.

They should’ve had that chance because they should’ve only had 11 on the field, Coghlin should’ve made that kick, and the officials should’ve seen the violation.

I wonder if any players, coaches, or refs have replayed those tapes and thought to themselves that it could’ve gone much differently. The Spartans could’ve had a win. The Sun Devils could’ve lost.

But all the would’ve, should’ve, and could’ve won’t turn back the clock and change the result. It is what it is. What happened happened.

We watch ‘game tapes’, too, don’t we? We rewind to times of difficulty, loss, or failure and review in slow motion the exact moment where things might’ve gone differently. We try deleting scenes and inserting new clips, but it doesn’t work. The film is indelible. It is what it is. What happened happened.

My husband and I recently took a trip to St. Louis, mostly so that he could officiate at a wedding, but also so that we could bear witness to some old films. We lived in St. Louis for ten years, and surely we had moments of both victory and defeat, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that our eyes were drawn to the twelve-men-on-the-field/missed-field-goal moments and not as as much to times of celebraton.

A drive through our old neighborhood pressed play on events surrounding our unspoken broken — memories of what we witnessed, what we missed, and what we can’t change. A stop at a traffic light on a busy road called forth images of a broken down car, a frantic teen, and a failure to understand the layers of pain underneath the surface. A walk through our old grocery store took me right back to the soldiering days of fitting in shopping between school and workouts and dance lessons and soccer games.

What a harried life we led. We were doing so much and moving so fast, that we didn’t take the time to assess the damages along the way. We didn’t watch the game tapes in the moment, so we kept making the same mistakes over and over again.

And now that I’ve finally taken the time to view the tapes, I can’t seem to look away. I rewind again and again, slowly analyzing missteps, oversights, and outright failures. I get trapped in regret and what ifs and I feel myself spiraling downward into a bottomless sea of grief.

If only I would’ve when I should’ve than I could’ve.

But I can’t. It is what it is. What happened happened.

On our recent trip to St. Louis, we grieved, but we also went to lunch with good friends, had coffee with former neighbors, and spent the day with former ministry partners who might as well be family. Our loved ones sat with us in our reality as we showed them clips of our game tapes — the grief and the celebrations. We laughed, we cried, and we dreamed.

We can’t go back and rewrite what happened, so how do we move forward?

I’m quite confident that Mark D’antonio called his team in for a film session on the Monday after the Arizona State game and, with them, analyzed each play — each one that worked, each one that didn’t. I’m confident they had a moment revisiting the twelve men on the field situation and the failure of the refs to make the call that would’ve given them one more try. I’m sure they clarified lessons learned and strategies to try again. And then, I’m confident, they put the film away.

And we’re trying to do that, too. We don’t want to delete our films; they hold too much. However, we can choose, after having looked their reality straight on, after having acknowledged our roles, counted our losses, and seen our strengths, to archive them. We can put them away in the vault for safekeeping. We don’t want to forget what happened, or deny it, because all of life changes us, informs us, softens us, propels us.

The Spartans couldn’t stay steeped in regret or what ifs; they had to move on. The next game was days away, and if they allowed themselves to swirl downward into the pit of despair, they would be missing an opportunity to prepare for their next challenge, their next game, their next opportunity.

And that’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying to prepare for the next challenge, the next game, the next opportunity. I’ve analyzed the mistakes, I’ve dwelt in the what ifs, and now I’m going to try to move forward differently.

Slowly. With intention. Eyes wide open.

I’m looking for redemption and restoration. And won’t He just do it?


Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.

Psalm 71:20

A return to the story, a re-visit

Our congregation published an Advent Devotion Book that you can find here. In it, you’ll find a short excerpt from this post. I wasn’t thinking Advent when I wrote this in September, but it makes sense to reshape our worry into longing for Christ’s return when we will see the end of the story play out.

Walking through the grocery store, I heard a ping, then another. I looked toward the sound and saw a woman grabbing her phone, looking at the screen, then smiling. She put the phone down and continued pushing her cart down the aisle. I saw her several more times as I made my way through the store. Each time, it was because I heard the ping first. Her phone was calling her attention; it caught mine, too.

As I pulled into campus the other day, I drove past a half a dozen teenagers who had just finished rowing practice on the river that flows behind our house. Waiting for their rides, they sat in a silent clump, all hunched over their phones.

I get lost in my phone, too. In fact, as I sat next to my mom yesterday, watching a football game, I was scrolling mindlessly — looking at social media, checking email, Googling to fact-check.

We’re on our phones all the time. We’re always taking in information– seeing what’s going on in the world– trying not to miss anything. We read, we post, we comment. Much of our daily life revolves around our phones.

I’ve been thinking about our phone culture over the last few days as I’ve noticed a pulsing chorus in the background of my days. From a collection of very diverse voices I am hearing a resounding cacophony: The world we live in today..so much violence… fires… racism… sexism…crime… poverty… corruption…. what can we do? It’s terrible…

Terrible…

Terrible…

And you know, the fact that we are continuously scrolling through our cell phones (or sitting in front of our televisions), is related to this narrative –this growing societal anxiety. If we are frantic — about the environment, crime, money, scandal — then we continue to scroll. When we scroll, our anxiety increases. What can be done? It’s terrible! Terrible! Terrible!

The cycle is self-perpetuating.

And we’re becoming a culture of reeling, hand-wringing, panicking worriers, chanting with the masses, “It’s no use! We’re doomed! This is surely the end of the world!”

And, to be fair, the issues we face are real. and significant. and scary.

I’ve found myself reeling and worrying, too.

Friday morning, as I was writing out three pages of mind-dump, I cried out, “Lord, help! Lord, lead! Lord, please!”

Not long after, I was listening to a sermon centered on the text in Exodus 1-2 where Pharaoh orders that the Israelite slaves be beaten and that their babies be murdered, a time when certainly the people were reeling and panicking. As I pictured the slaughter of innocents, I heard our pastor share these words:

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.”

NT Wright

I got kinda choked up, and I leaned in.

As I listened to the rest of the sermon, I remembered how God had shown up for the Israelites, how He had miraculously delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, how he had saved even little baby Moses as he bobbed down the stream in a basket made of reeds. I felt a peace wash over me as I remembered that the God who rescued Moses and the Israelites is the same God who hears me as I “cry out” on the pages of my notebook.

The same God who heard David and Hannah and Mary and Peter.

I am part of a bigger story — a story that was written before the beginning of time, a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An end! Guys, we already know the end!

Last weekend, my granddaughter wanted me to watch a “scary movie”. When I told her that I don’t like scary movies, she said, “It’s ok, Oma, I will sit next to you and cover your eyes if you get really scared.” So, figuring that I’d probably be ok if a four year old was coaching me into bravery, I agreed. Throughout the movie, whenever a scary part came up, she put her little hand on my glasses so that I wouldn’t get too frightened. Toward the end of the movie, the scariest part of all, she narrated for me ahead of time exactly what was going to happen so that I would know in advance that everything was going to turn out ok.

And guys, we already know that even if it gets pretty darn scary, it is all going to be ok in the end.

“See, Oma, I told you!”

Sometimes we need to return to the story, remind ourselves how it all turns out, where the story has come from, where it is going, and what our part within it ought to be.

So I listened to that sermon. Twice. (Click here if you’d like to hear it.)

Then, I turned on Pandora and heard these lyrics:

The weapon may be formed, but it won’t prosper.
When the darkness falls, it won’t prevail.
Cause the God I serve knows only how to triumph;
My God will never fail.”

“See a Victory” Elevation Worship

Hundreds of times during the day, I check my phone — for texts, for calls, for updated news, for weather reports. Just once every morning, I return to scripture as I drive into work. And I wonder why I feel a bit unsettled and somewhat frantic. My dosage is off. I’m taking in too much frenzy and not enough fact. And when I do that, I can forget.

I can forget that:

I was lost, ’til You called me out by name
And I was down, ’til You picked me up again
And I was wrong, ’til Your love it made me right
I was dead, ’til You sang me back to life.”

“Garments” Cory Asbury

When I return to the story — not only the story of scripture, but the story of God’s faithfulness in my own life — when I see where it has come from and where it is going, I start to wonder what my role within this grand story might be. I wonder if my role is to join the masses in frantic scrolling, hand-wringing, and worrying, or if it is to continue to return to the story, to remember that I already know the ending, and to live a life a hopefulness — a life that knows that times get dark and scary, but it’s going to be ok in the end.

Because guys, we live within a story that has been crafted by the Author and Creator of life. He has designed for each of us a life of hope and significance. Each of us matters before Him, and we have the great privilege to live into that truth and to share that truth with all of our fellow scrolling, hand-wringing sojourners.

We are not a people without hope.

We are a people who know the story of how God has been kind and merciful to His people over and over again — in the direst of circumstances: famine, flood, subjugation, tyranny. We have seen Him provide for us, connect to us, and lead us.

We know how the story ends.

Death is all around us
We are not afraid
Written is the story
Empty is the grave.”

“This Dust” Kip Fox

Let’s keep returning to the story; let’s remind ourselves that we’re gonna be ok.

Screw ups

We’re pretty hard on ourselves, aren’t we?

Last week, when the phone rang at work, I answered and gave the answers the caller was looking for. I stumbled a little bit, because the call had interrupted me in the middle of another task, but I heard the mother’s heart of questions, and I gave her honest answers. However, I didn’t follow protocol and provide only the prescribed answers I was supposed to give on an initial phone call. Instead, I provided a few bits that are usually reserved for a lengthier conversation so that they can be provided in context. In carelessly oversharing, I might have said too much and gotten in the way of a student receiving the help he needs.

Ask me if I scolded myself, tried to offer excuses, or felt shame.

I think you already know the answer.

In an Instagram post, an athlete who competed over the weekend expressed the emotion that comes from a missed goal, a less-than-hoped for performance, a perceived failure. I heard frustration, disappointment, and even anger — a bludgeoning of the self for not doing better.

I see it in my students, too. Even though we celebrate every success, hooray for each minor victory, and applaud the journey of all of our students, they know when they’ve read a word incorrectly or when they’ve missed the point of a story. I see their eyes look down, their shoulders slump. I hear their internal (and sometimes external) voices saying, “Ugh! I’m so bad at this!”

And, you know, sometimes we are bad at this — all of this.

We undercook the roast. We drip bleach on the darks. We spill coffee on our white shirt. We break glasses, run over nails, and forget to pay the bills on time.

Even worse, we spend time with family and fail to look our loved ones in the eyes. We don’t ask about one another’s relationships or jobs or health, and we poke open wounds intentionally.

We screw up, make mistakes, lack empathy, and are sometimes downright mean. And when we realize it, we can really rake ourselves over the coals, can’t we? We can stay up all night rehearsing and re-rehearsing scenes, imagining what could have been different if only we’d left the roast in the oven a little longer, had put the bills on autopay, or had really leaned in to see what was going on in the lives of the people sitting right next to us.

And if we stay there too long, we can begin to believe that not only do we screw up, but we are indeed screw-ups. We are losers, miscreants, pond scum.

And once we have re-named ourselves, it becomes very easy to own that identity: I’m a screw-up, and I’m probably going to screw up more today. I don’t even know why I bother trying, I’m just going to get it wrong again. We might not say the words out loud, but we can get a pretty elaborate tape running. Or am I the only one who tells myself, “Geez, why do I even go out in public? I always say the wrong thing! I miss the point over and over again. When will I ever learn?”

The narrative can get so loud that it can drown out the still small voice that says, “Yeah. You screwed up. You’re human. Forgive yourself. Apologize to the ones you may have impacted. Try again.”

Our internal narrative is frantic — wanting to go back and un-do. Its mantra is shoulda, coulda, woulda. It refuses to believe that life can go on, that this too, shall pass, that anyone could forgive us or give us another chance.

But if we can hear the quiet voice of the One who designed second (and third and hundredth) chances, the One who can restore even the most broken of relationships, the One who forgives the unforgivable, we might just hear (and believe) a different narrative.

We might be able to tell ourselves that people make mistakes. It’s a fact. We can’t get around it. I can probably expect to make a hundred mistakes on a given day. I’m definitely going to say the wrong thing, make the wrong facial expression, and laugh at the wrong time. It’s a given. I am going to forget to pick up an item even though it’s on my list, take the wrong exit, and leave a sweater in the dryer for way too long.

And when I do, I can shrug my shoulders and say, “Yup, I blew it again,” but instead of berating myself and burying myself in shame, I can forgive myself, apologize to the ones that were impacted by my actions, and try to move forward. Of course, I can take steps to minimize my errors. I could, for instance, slow down and double-check my list. I could pause and think about my words before I let them come out of my mouth. I could stand, for a moment, in the shoes of the person in front of me, and consider her needs, her heart, her life.

And, I might find that I’m able to hear that she, too, is listening to the shoulda, coulda, woulda mantra of self-blame and that she, too, is being tempted to own the identity of screw-up. I might be able to reach out, touch her hand, and say, “It’s ok. I screw up, too.”

And, you never know, we might embrace and offer one another absolution, “You’re forgiven. I’m forgiven. We’re forgiven.”

And, acknowledging that, as humans, we are going to find ourselves in this same space over and over again, we might agree to stick close, to lean in, to walk together, even when — especially when– times get tough, and messy, and it seems like all is beyond repair.

Because on our own, we can’t always distinguish what voice we are listening to, and we might need someone to call us back from the ledge — to take our hand and remind us that we’re gonna be ok.

We are. We’re gonna be ok.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 3:32