Tempted by Despair; Choosing Hope

And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.

It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.

After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.

I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.

I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.

These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.

All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?

We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?

What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?

I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.

I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.

We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.

Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.

And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.

We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.

I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.

Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.

I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.

Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.

And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.

I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.

We’re all broken — every last one of us.

We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.

And He. Is. Coming.

In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.

We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.

We will see every broken piece put back into place.

And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.

And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.

Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.

I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.

And He is coming again.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:20

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

Off the couch, at the table

Trying something new. Click above to listen to me read this post.

I recently wrote a post, On and Off the Couch, which was both an acknowledgement that I had been grieving some substantial losses for quite some time and an announcement that I was ready to move away from that period. A recent experience helped me take the first steps.

While I was still sitting on my dilapidated pleather couch, the University of Michigan reached out to me — would I be willing to participate in a study the Nursing School was conducting? The participation requirements were that you a) be over 50, b) have a chronic illness, and c) have a wifi connection. The study would take 6-8 weeks, and upon completion, I would receive a $150 gift card.

Well, why not? Since I’ve lived in this little house by the river, I have been open to experimentation. In fact, I once even called myself a lab rat! What did I have to lose? The goal of the study is to determine if ongoing nursing care can impact the lives of those with chronic illness. Let’s find out.

Going into the study, I was picturing that a nurse would come to my house, clipboard in hand, checking boxes to make sure that my home environment was safe. I was guessing that she would give me some tasks to do. I knew that I would be expected to make a voice recording every day and to meet with my nurse via video conference once a week.

I was not anticipating being nudged off the couch and supported into a new rhythm of life. I did not see that coming.

Yes, I was ready. The couch was sodden from all the tears I had shed on it and was practically disintegrating under me. I could see that I was going to have to stand up soon, but I gotta tell you, I was still pretty comfortable, so I was lingering for as long as possible.

Then in walked this nurse, who sat across the table from me, asking me some non-threatening questions and inviting me to set some goals. What types of change was I interested in making, she asked.

I told her all the changes I had already made — practicing yoga, avoiding gluten and dairy (and now corn), and writing every day. I said, “If there is any stone that has yet to be turned over, it is probably addressing my weight. Since chronic illness benched me from running in 2013, I have gradually put on about 10 pounds.”

I wouldn’t say I am overweight, but I am not overly thrilled with the way I look, even if by lifestyle I have diminished most of the symptoms of my illness and I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I keep trying to decide if I should just be content and accept this as how I look as a 50-something woman, or if I should try to make a change.

I don’t overeat. I do yoga usually five or more days a week, and I often go for a 20-30 minute walk sometime during the day. What more could I do to drop some of this weight?

“Maybe,” I suggested to the nurse, “my husband and I need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Maybe we should go back to eating dinner at the table.”

I cringed as I said it. I didn’t want to make this commitment. We had established quite a rhythm during the Season of the Couch. Come home, utter a few words to one another, fill our plates, and plunk down in front a string of meaningless shows. It was quite comfortable. We were together, after all, and we didn’t need to say a lot. Couldn’t we just continue coexisting in our misery?

But I knew, I knew, it was a change that needed to happen.

We were the ones who, when our children were small, ate all our meals at the table. We all ate a big breakfast together before the kids left for school and he left for work. Those who were home with me ate lunch at the table. At dinner, we all gathered for a sit down meal — no matter how fatigued we were, how distressing the conversations got, or how many glasses of milk were spilled (typically three). Although it was sometimes stressful, we valued the face time this gave us as a family.

Even when the kids were teens, we still made an effort to eat breakfast in close proximity to one another (maybe standing with a bagel or a bowl of cereal in hand) and come together for dinner. I’d be lying if I said that every meal was blissful and meaningful — they were not. However, this rhythm allowed a check-in, a reading of the temperature of the room, a moment to gauge the health of the family and the individuals in it. It was sometimes difficult to look all that hurt straight on, but we continued.

I think when we moved — just the two of us — to this little house by the river, we started out at the table. It was natural. He was working all day, and I was taking some time off. Making dinner and setting the table gave me a project in the afternoon. We would sit across from one another, sharing a re-telling of the day, making plans for the upcoming weekend, or discussing a planned purchase or a current event.

But when our bottom fell out and we found ourselves scrambling for something to hold onto, we landed on the sectional in the living room, plates in hands, eating quietly, and watching Jeopardy or Law and Order. It was a comfort to be together, not talking, just existing in our grief.

So we stayed there.

Until I uttered those words, “maybe we need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV.”

When I said them, the nurse asked me, “Will your husband be open to that?”

“Well,” I said, “I think he’ll initially grumble a little, but I think he knows we need this change, too. I think he’ll be on board,”

And he was. When I told him my goals, he gave a sigh, then said, “Yeah, I’m in.”

We started that evening. I made dinner, we filled our plates, and instead of walking toward the couch, we sat at the table, across from each other, and practiced having conversation over dinner.

“What was your day like?”

“Have you spoken to any of the kids today?”

“How are your parents doing?”

It was a little awkward at first, using those conventions that we hadn’t used in quite a while, but over time, we remembered how to have a conversation over dinner. We found the rhythm of clearing our plates and putting away leftovers together. We discovered that we can watch a television show or two in the evening rather than scrolling through several.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it was one of the first steps in getting us off the couch and out of the season of grieving.

I met my nurse, Karen, about six weeks ago. My husband and I have carried our plates to the living room three times since then. All of the other nights we’ve eaten together at a table, either at home together or out with friends or family.

We’re talking to each other; we’re laughing. It sometimes feels like we’re celebrating.

And, in a sense we are. Our reason for grieving hasn’t changed, but we have reason to hope that God is in the process of making all things new.

I haven’t lost any weight — not the kind that can be weighed on the scale. Instead, I’ve found some joy that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t feel again.

It seems to me that ongoing nursing care can make a difference in the lives of people with chronic illness (and chronic grief). I’m thankful to Karen and the University of Michigan Nursing School for giving me the opportunity to participate in this study.

I’m not sure this is the kind of change they were hoping to make, but it was the kind of change that we needed.

I will turn their mourning into joy;

    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

Jeremiah 31:13

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

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

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

prayer helps

Over the weekend I talked with my 90 year old godmother, who has now lived for over a year in her home alone — ever since her husband, my godfather, fell and broke his hip. She is so sad and lonely; her load is heavy — managing a home, driving to and from the facility where he lives, and dragging herself out of bed every morning. One thing sustains her — prayer.

I saw my mother this weekend, too. She has chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and severe joint pain throughout her body. Each day for her, too, is a struggle — getting out of bed, managing her symptoms and the side effects of the medication she takes, and completing the tasks that give her life meaning: preparing meals, sending care packages, and praying for her grandchildren.

Life has taught these women the power and solace that can be found in prayer. They have learned that, more than anything else, prayer has the ability to affect change — on the grand scale and in their every day lives.

I’m no expert at prayer. I’m a novice — I have good intentions and I love to dabble, but I haven’t developed the discipline nor done the due diligence that lead to excellence.

My first reaction to any problem is to strap on my gear and get busy finding solutions. It’s muscle memory from years of survival in the trenches. See problem? Find solution.

In fact, just last night I was watching news reports about two mass shootings over the weekend — one in El Paso and one in Dayton. From my tired Sunday afternoon haze I practically jumped to my feet, incredulous: Why is this still happening? Why haven’t we done something? These are real people with real families! We need an immediate buy-back program, followed by a targeted approach to identifying people at risk, and an extensive program for eliminating hate speech and bias and building strong relationships among the diverse people of our country!

I was on a roll. And we do need to act. Immediately. But all my sputtering in my living room on a Sunday evening won’t likely make a difference. I might play a role in ending gun violence in our country, but my frantic single-handed strategies don’t usually get me anywhere.

Eventually I run out of steam, and I begin to hear a faint sound calling me to prayer.

Someone recently said to me, “Don’t talk to me about prayer. That helps you; it doesn’t help me.” That’s not entirely wrong.

Praying does help me. When I pray, it’s often because I can no longer keep trudging along under the weight of the overloaded backpack of worry, concern, hope, and expectation that I find myself lugging around. I collapse under its weight, drag it into my lap, and pull out some of the weightiest pieces.

I take a good long look at each one and then hold it up for examination. I see a pair of hands extended toward me, waiting to accept each burden.

I lift each concern, each person, each hope as I say, “Please…..would you? I trust you. You’ve got the power… the wisdom…the patience…to manage this. I do not. You have the perfect answer. I do not. I’m so tired of carrying it… Please…do your best… heal… restore… redeem… renew… forgive… support… please.”

And this does help me. It does. When I lift my burdens to the hands that are strong enough to carry them, I’m lighter, and hopeful, and relieved, because the God who created all things is able to do what I cannot do. He is able to take those items from my backpack and transform them into beautiful treasures– reminders of once-worries, once-pains, once-griefs.

But that is not all.

My prayers, your prayers, our prayers combined don’t just help us — no. They transform the world. They call upon the Almighty, the One who owns all the might, and they enlist His power, all the power, and He, our great Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer takes JOY in answering.

But, sadly, prayer is not the first place I turn. No, I’m pretty strong, so I can lug that backpack around for quite a while as I climb rocky trails of possibility, moving boulders and downed branches out of my way. I am confident that I can solve each dilemma, rewrite each tragedy, and heal every hurt.

I’ve got stamina, too. I can wake up in the morning with a plan for how to restore a broken relationship and rehearse reunion scenarios in my mind all day long, alternating settings, dialogues, and supporting characters. By the time I fall into bed, I have imagined countless scenes and accumulated unfulfilled hopes by the dozen, but I haven’t brought two people back together again.

But I’m resilient. I can get up the next day and try again on another issue, perhaps the upcoming election, the educational crisis in public schools, or the unconscionable prevalence of mass shootings. I can toss around solutions in my head all day long — examining candidates, exploring school reform, and designing gun legislation. You’d be amazed at what goes on in this mind as I’m driving to work, walking at lunch, cutting up vegetables or folding laundry. I expend all kinds of energy in my attempts to solve the world’s problems.

But all my scene-writing and strategy-planning is not making a difference. It’s merely my futile attempt at managing the items in my overloaded backpack. It’s my way of coping — my way of not sinking under the weight.

And, to be honest, it’s not even soldiering. Soldiers don’t strategize or rewrite history. They obey orders. They execute strategies. They complete missions. They report back.

My writing of scenes and brainstorming of strategies is not an attempt at soldiering, it’s worse –it’s an attempt at commanding. I not only want to carry the backpack, I want to give the orders.

I believe that’s called insubordination.

Sigh.

So much energy expended and none of it is necessary.

In fact, I don’t even need to carry the backpack.

I’m lugging it around trying to find my own answers and solutions, when I’ve been invited (some might say commanded) to turn it over, to lift it up, to surrender it.

And when I surrender it, change happens.

Change in me.

Change in others.

Change in the world.

Because those hands that are reaching out to receive the items I’m lifting up, are able (unlike mine) to heal, restore, redeem, renew, forgive, and support. Sometimes I am invited into the process, and sometimes I’m invited to stand still and behold the work of the Lord.

And that does, in fact, really help me. It changes me. It renews me. It gives me hope and strength.

I know that tomorrow when I wake up, I am very likely to forget all this, strap on my backpack, and start lifting up boulders in search of answers, but I pray that I tire quickly and remember to sit down and surrender my load into more capable hands.

The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.”

Psalm 6:9

Of writing and making meaning, Re-visit

On Monday, October 28, 2019, I wrote about writing –how considering purpose and audience impact what we write. Today, I’m re-visiting a post from July 2019 where I closely examined the power of the writing process. Many truths about writing can be applied to life in general.

Every week I feel a hum of anxiety around Wednesday or Thursday….”what am I going to write about this week?” Usually by Friday an idea is forming — an image, a topic, or the sharing of an experience. On Saturday I put words on the page. Sunday is for revising, slashing, and rewriting in order to form a cohesive draft before I fine-tune on Monday morning and finally click “publish”.

Last weekend, I dug out a months-old draft and decided to carry it to completion. I wrote most of the day Saturday — drafting and deleting, writing and revising. By Sunday morning, I had a completed draft. I felt I was about ready to post, so I clicked on the “preview” button at the top of my draft. A dialog box popped up:

I paused, and thinking my most recent changes were the only portion that was unsaved, I took a quick snapshot of the last three paragraphs, and then ‘proceeded’.

To my shock and horror, I lost much more than the last few paragraphs. I lost most of my draft. Because we’d been without power at our home, I had changed locations twice over the weekend, connecting to different internet sources, and had apparently failed to save all of my changes during several hours of drafting the previous day. I fumbled and clicked around the WordPress platform trying to find what I’d lost, but it was all gone.

This Sunday morning, I started with nothing. I had no topic or image on Friday, no drafting on Saturday, not one word on the page at 8:15am. So, rather than staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration, I just started typing, because that’s what I tell my students, “Don’t just sit there — write something!”

I’m writing from the coffee house at our church while my husband stands one floor above me in the sanctuary, delivering a message about storytelling and how we attach meaning to the events in our lives. He puts a graphic on the screen something like this:

Experience —> Story —–> Feel/Act

He, the therapist (and educator and pastor) explains that all humans have experiences, they tell stories about those experiences, and the stories they choose to tell direct the feelings and actions that grow from those experiences. The stories we tell about our experiences are where we find meaning.

And I realize that I just told you a story about my experience with my writing last weekend. And I’m starting to tell you a story about my experience with writing this weekend. I’m trying to find some meaning here.

A few times in the past several months, I have come to the keys frustrated — about events that to me seem unjust, inhumane, misdirected, and born of ill motive. On those days, my fingers can barely keep up with the words as they throw themselves onto the page. When I finish, I walk away. Later, when I’ve cooled a little, I come back to soften, to add complexity, to explore my feelings, and to find the meaning buried in my messy spill of words.

Other times, when I’m more contemplative, my writing feels like a letter to a friend, a telling of the truths of my life, longing for a listener who will resonate, someone who will say, “Mhmm, I get that.” My fingers move slowly, words coming from my heart and my guts rather than a fiery emotional response. Often through tears I work to translate emotion into print, to share my story, to create meaning out of pain, joy, sadness, or celebration.

Sometimes I battle thoughts of insecurity, “Why do you think anyone would want to read anything that you write?” Or, fear that I will offend, “Yikes, do you really want to say that? What will your family think? your friends? the people at church?” Or that I will share something too dear and personal for those that I love the most, “Is this story really mine to tell?”

In those moments, I come back to my motive. Why do I write? I write because whenever I put words on the page something shifts for me. As the words form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, meaning takes shape. The shift is subtle. I can’t always tell that it’s happening, but it always does.

Even in my re-telling of last weekend’s lost draft, I see the variety of stories I had the opportunity to tell, I could’ve said, “Sorry, guys, I had an excellent draft, but I lost it. I’ll try again next week.” And certainly the world would’ve kept turning. Or, I could’ve told the story of what an idiot I am — how could I make such a careless mistake? WordPress even warned me!

Instead, in the moment, I chose a different way: I gathered myself, and began step by step to rebuild what I’d lost, telling myself over and over, “You can do this. You are not finished. The thoughts that were true in the first draft will find their way onto the second draft. Do not give up.”

I had an experience, I told myself the story of persistence, and I was able, through my frustration, to rewrite the post. All 1400 words of it.

And in coming to the keys this week, having no topic in mind at all, and telling the story of that experience, I have discovered that writing about my process of writing is really writing about more than just that. As I sit in the coffee shop below the sanctuary where my husband is preaching about Jesus’ storytelling and His way of making meaning, I’m being prepared for when I will join him for the second service to take in the meaning he’s been making.

He’s been pouring over scripture, writing his own thoughts, creating the slides that appear on the screen behind him, and practicing his delivery. He’s been staying late at the office, getting up early in the morning, and reviewing his notes as he lies next to me before falling asleep each night.

He, all week, has been putting words onto a page, watching them form into sentences and paragraphs, and, he’s been writing stories. Through that process, has been making meaning.

I can’t speak for him and how his process works, but I can tell you how it happens for me. Never do I know, when I first sit down, what I will ultimately say in my writing. I come to the page and write about what I have experienced. I share my stories and am often surprised by what I learn as I draft, re-read, revise, and edit. I pay attention to what I keep and what I toss — what resonates and what is dross.

And usually, I discover that the pieces of life that I’ve put on the page have somehow transformed into meaning. It’s as though the experiences have been crafted, or at least allowed, by a Creator who delights in story. The one who wrote us into His own story — imagine it! — allows us the time and space to experience our own stories. He invites us to see the intersections, the co-existence, the interconnectedness — to find meaning.

A lost draft becomes an opportunity to build resiliency. An empty page offers a time to reflect. An hour in a coffee shop becomes a necessary pause — a chance to write and see the making of meaning.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

Matthew 7:7

Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68