Life Course: Humanity and Forgiveness

Teachers sometimes utilize an approach called ‘layered instruction’ to ensure that all students attain mastery. Taking into account the individual learning styles and abilities of their students, they design multiple lessons using a variety of modalities over a period of time .

For example, when I was teaching writing, I introduced the strategy of using sensory details by showing my students photographs. “Your writing,” I would say, “should include enough sensory details, that your readers begin to see images, like photographs, in their minds when they read your words.” For some students, that statement would be enough. They would begin to include details in their writing. Others needed isolated practice in describing a scene.

“Show us where you were,” I would say.

The student might say, “in my bedroom.”

“Tell me what color the walls were. Was the floor wooden or carpeted? What kind of furniture did you have? What sounds did you hear?”

A few students just needed some questions to get their imagery flowing onto the page. Others needed to read a variety of models. Some needed to read their own pages out loud and get feedback from peers. A few picked up the concept quickly; some improved gradually over time. Most needed all kinds of practice.

Layered instruction starts with basic principles and, over time, adds nuance and a variety of applications to develop complexity and a thorough understanding.

I’ve been taking a course in “Humanity and Forgiveness” for a little over fifty years, and my instructor has had to utilize a layered approach. I wasn’t fully engaged in the content for a while, and I may have some undiagnosed learning challenges, so I’ve taken longer than some to get the basic principles. However, my instructor has continued to provide a variety of opportunities to move me toward mastery.

Here are some of the key ideas I’ve picked up.

  1. All of us mess up. Most mess up every day. Even those who intend to do well cannot avoid missteps, oversights, and outright screw-ups. It’s in our nature. Humans are imperfect. The sooner we admit this, the better prepared we will be to manage the inevitable — the actual blunders, the resulting consequences, and the imminent regret. My five-year-old nephew told me this week that “Only God is perfect, Aunt Kristin.” He’s obviously a faster learner than I am.
  2. We can choose to plan for the inevitable. Try this, “Hey, Self, I know you are going to try your hardest today, but you are going to get some things wrong. Some stuff you are going to mess up accidentally; you might even screw up a few things on purpose. It happens, so have a game plan.”
  3. A game plan can be simple. “Hey, Self, in those moments when you realize that you’ve really blown it, how about you take a breath, acknowledge your mistake, forgive yourself, and then do your best to restore the situation.”
  4. We can extend this mindset to others. “Hey, Friends, you are human. You make mistakes — it’s to be expected. You try hard all the time; I’ve seen you. So when I notice you run a stop sign, swear at your mother, or totally disregard the feelings of your friends or coworkers, I’m going to say to myself: ‘Well, there she goes being human,’ and I’m going to forgive you and lend you a hand, if you’d like, in restoring the situation.”
  5. Harshly judging ourselves or others is destructive; it does nothing to restore a situation. If I have acted selfishly, neglected my responsibilities, or totally gone off the rails, calling myself an idiot or a loser will not help me feel better, do better, or move closer to restoration. If someone else has broken my favorite coffee cup, run into my parked car, or been rude to me on social media, categorizing them as a low-life miscreant or microbial pond scum, will not make me feel better or put me in a position to forgive them, myself, or any other human that rubs me the wrong way.
  6. The healthiest response to screw-ups — our own and those belonging to others — is forgiveness. And forgiveness doesn’t make any sense.

Our pastor recently told the story of The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), which compares the forgiveness of monetary debt to the forgiveness of sin because learners like me can wrap our heads around the tangible (money) more easily than the intangible (mercy). In the story, an employer forgives his servant an enormous debt –let’s say a million dollars. The employee owed an amount so great he couldn’t fathom repaying, and his boss said, “I’ll cover it.” A million dollars isn’t just a number on paper that we can put a line through; it’s a stack of bills a million dollars high. If you owe me a million dollars and don’t pay me back, that money comes out of my bank account. I use money that I was planning to spend on a new home, a new car, or my kids’ education, to pay your debt. That’s what forgiveness is, my pastor said. God assumes our debt. He pays it.

Then, He offers us opportunities to pay it forward. He assumed my million dollar debt; maybe I could cover the cost of someone else’s mistake.

How much does it ‘cost’ us when someone flips us off in traffic — a dollar? Can we let that go? Can we assume that loss? How about when a coworker talks about us behind our backs. What did that cost? Ten bucks? Can we cover that? What if someone breaks into our house? Assaults our child? Seduces our spouse? What “cost” is too high?

Major crimes might seem impossible to forgive, so it’s a good idea to practice on small ones. My husband snarled at me after a long week of work; I can brush that off. A coworker forgot to put supplies away before he left for the day; I can take care of that. The doctor’s office charged me the wrong amount; it’ll cost me a little time, but that’s ok, accidents happen. We can practice forgiveness by overlooking these small ‘offenses’.

My justice-obsessed heart had long kept track of all this little stuff; it had wanted a reckoning for every small crime. I practically had a balance sheet of what I was ‘owed’ for all the little hurts that had been inflicted upon me. I had been looking for repayment — a balancing of the books, an eye for an eye.

It’s in the Bible, you know.

But instead of repayment, I incurred more losses — dishonesty, betrayal, neglect, theft. My ledger sheet had become quite extensive. Everywhere I looked I saw someone who owed me. I’d experienced many losses, and I wanted repayment.

Here’s the problem: I, too, am human and have screwed up over and over again. If my mistakes were billed out to me, millions wouldn’t cover it. I have no hope of paying it all back. I am buried in suffocating debt.

And I hear the words, “I’ll cover it.” Just like that the bill is wiped clean. I owe nothing. Nothing for lying to my friend. Nothing for yelling at my small children when they didn’t understand. Nothing for neglecting my hurting teenagers. Nothing for holding onto judgment for every little (and big) offense that anyone ever did against me.

I owe nothing.

So I walk my ledger over to the shredder.

Before I release the paper to get chewed up by the row of teeth, I take one last glance. Some of those debts are large; assuming them will cost me.

But one more thing I’ve learned about Humanity and Forgiveness is that holding on to that ledger costs me more. Carrying around that spreadsheet and looking for repayment robs me of opportunity, of joy, of freedom.

During his sermon, my pastor, slapped this little tidbit on the screen:

Forgiving forgives the unforgivable; it can only be possible in doing the impossible.

Jacque Derrida

Yeah. I can’t un-see it.

So, I do the impossible. I shred that spreadsheet, and instead of feeling the cost, I realize that I am free.

See, I told you it doesn’t make any sense.

You might want to test it out for yourself. I might be wrong. It’s happened before.

I mean, I am a human, after all.

Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Colossians 3:13

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Wow. Thanks.

Have you ever found yourself replaying the blooper reel of your life, only you’re not laughing?

It seems the highlight tape — all the moments where you really shined —  has been lost or erased and the only film left is your missteps, failures, and blatant rebellious choices?

And you watch it over. and over. and over.

Yeah, I’ve been attending a private viewing for a while, so when our pastor opened up Titus on Sunday morning and started ticking off all the requirements for leaders in the church — being hospitable, self-controlled, upright, disciplined — and all the disqualifiers — being arrogant, quick-tempered, insubordinate, or greedy– I knew right where to cue up examples of how I have blown it and have proven myself to be unfit for the call, which is ironic, since my husband and I have spent our entire adult lives in church work.  It wasn’t long into the sermon when I found myself slinking down into the pew, buried under the weight of conviction.

And at 52 years of age, it’s tempting to think “I’ve ruined it all. I can’t go back. I’ve caused so much damage.” And once that thought has formed, it threatens to become a truth that one might believe, even cling to.

So, I was sitting there slunk down, feeling pretty pitiful, when I heard the words, “to the redeemed, all things are redeemed.” I wrote them down; my ears perked up.

I heard my pastor admitting his tendency to be so exceptionally hard on himself, afraid that he will get it wrong and fail his family, his church, his God. He said that when he had admitted this to a friend earlier in the week, the friend had replied, “If you are teaching your child how to ride his bike and he falls down, don’t you run to him and say, ‘it’s ok, we’ll try again.'” And I could see the scene: I could see my pastor bending down to his child, scooping him up, wiping his tears, and speaking those words of encouragement.

And as I saw my human pastor in my mind’s eye, I simultaneously saw my Father, looking at my blooper reels. I heard Him say, “It’s ok. You can try again.”

And then, while I was still taking in that image, I heard my pastor say, “Every failure has been wiped clean because we are in Christ.”

And then we were receiving communion.

And then I heard myself singing: Let no one caught in sin remain/ inside the lie of inward shame/ but fix our eyes upon the cross/ and run to Him who showed great love/ and bled for us/ freely he bled for us (full song here.) 

And I was choking on the words because they were what I needed to hear.  Inward shame is a lie. I have been caught in sin, but I don’t have to remain there, wallowing, slinking, hiding.

All has been redeemed.

If I believe that Christ died for my sins, then I believe that my sins are paid for — they are redeemed.  I don’t owe a penalty.

It sounds really cheesy and Sunday school-ish.

Unless it’s true.

And it is.

Tonight, a full 36 hours after the pew slinking and song singing, I was reading Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow, and I saw this prayer:

Hi, God, 

I am just a mess. 

It is all helpless. 

What else is new? 

I would be sick of me If I were You, but miraculously, You are not. 

I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. 

Wow. Can this be true?  If so, how is this afternoon — say two-ish? 

Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings.  

You have never once let me down. 

Amen. 

And I think to myself, didn’t He just meet me where I was yesterday? Say noon-ish?  And didn’t He prove again that He will never let me down?

He sure did.

Wow.

Thanks.

Romans 8:1

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

 

Old dog, new trick

I worked on my last blog post, “Choosing Community” for a couple of weeks — drafting, re-drafting, revising, and deleting. It was late Sunday morning, and finally satisfied with what I had written, I decided to publish. During the last hour or so of wordsmithing and fine-tuning, I had noticed a message in the upper right hand corner of my drafting screen; it was in a red font that probably even used the word ‘warning’. I think it said something to the effect that my ‘latest changes hadn’t been saved’. I shrugged it off and clicked the ‘publish’ button. Hm. Nothing happened. Ok, I thought, I guess I’ll refresh the screen, then the ‘publish’ button will surely work.

Click.

Gasp!

My latest changes had really not been saved. (Imagine that!) The last hour or two of work was lost. “I feel sick!” I said out loud. “Why didn’t I copy and paste to Word before I tried to refresh the screen? How am I going to recreate what I had? Why can’t I just slow down once in a while?”

I’ve had many of these kinds of moments in my fifty-two years of life.

So many.

Why didn’t I just look in the rearview mirror before I backed out of the garage into the car that was parked behind me? 

Why didn’t I let the housecleaning wait while I took a short nap? 

Why did I use that tone when I spoke to that child?

Why did I drive in that snowstorm? 

How did I miss that?  What was I thinking?  What is wrong with me?

Sometimes late at night, like tonight, I lie down to try to sleep, and as I close my eyes, I  see a replay of all the missteps and poor choices I have made in my life.  It’s like watching a blooper reel, only I’m not laughing.

Instead, I’m fretting. My heart rate is increasing. I’m finding it hard to breathe.

If only I had _____________, then ___________________.

Over and over and over again.

Why do I punish myself so? Where did I get the idea that I would never make mistakes–that I would be a perfect daughter, friend, mother, wife, employee?  Who told me that every mistake I make would have dire and irrevocable consequences for me and all the people in my life?  I know who — me, that’s who.

I let everything weigh too. darn. much.  I’m still kicking myself for a frustrated comment I made to one of my kids around 2001.  Seriously.

As my therapist says, my expectations of myself are so high, not even I can see them.

So tonight, on the eve of my fifty-second birthday, I am deciding it’s time for a change.  This old dog is about to learn a new trick.

Today and yesterday, as I was driving to and from work, appointments, and errands, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, called “Emotions” (if you’d like to listen to it click here).  The episode discusses a different way to look at emotions (most of which was over my head but some of which was quite healing and liberating).  One liberating part was the idea that emotions are learned and so can be re-learned or re-directed.  The podcast, which cites the research of a professor at Northeastern University, in no way implies that emotions should be stifled or disregarded. (I’ve tried that strategy, thankyouverymuch.)   Instead, it suggests that we often experience emotions in light of constructs that we have been taught or have believed about ourselves or about the world.  For instance, I have, for whatever reason, long held the unspoken belief that I have to be right, even perfect — getting it wrong is unacceptable.  This simple subliminal construct — ‘I need to be right’ — has shaped the way I have experienced failure.  If I miss an item on a test, let down a friend, or break a glass while doing dishes (which I do about once a week), I have failed.  Imagine all the mistakes an average human makes in any given day and you will have a rough estimate of how many times a day I consciously or unconsciously give myself the message that I am unacceptable.

Yeah.  It’s pretty toxic.

Now imagine if I shifted my thinking to be based on the construct that ‘All of life is a series of missteps that provide opportunities for growth.’   If I lived my life based on this construct, I would expect myself to make several mistakes during the day,  and rather than judging or belittling myself, I would instead search around each ‘oops’ for the growth or learning opportunity. I would make no fewer or no more mistakes, I would just have a different emotional experience.  Instead of viewing a torturous blooper reel when I close my eyes,  I might drift off to sleep watching a highlight tape.

Sound too Pollyanna-ish? I don’t think so.  I think it sounds life-changing.

Get this — on Sunday, after I took a few minutes to accept the fact that my ‘final draft’ was evaporated, I sat back down and finished my blog post for the second time.  It didn’t turn out the same as the lost version. As a matter of fact, as I was rewriting, I was still processing my thoughts about community, and I wrote myself to some different ideas than I had in the previous version.  My mistake allowed me an opportunity to think a bit further about my experiences in community.   My ideas had more time to flesh out before I finally hit ‘publish’.

Before I had even listened to the podcast, I had been provided an example of the concept that it was presenting.

Yesterday morning, a friend and I had a quick exchange of text messages which ended with her saying, “I don’t believe in coincidence,” and me responding, “Neither do I.”

This morning my first errand was to drive to a hair appointment before work.  In autopilot, I took the exit that I typically take to work which was not in the direction of the hair salon.  The exit ramp landed me in the middle of a traffic jam.  I was at a juncture — I could belittle myself for not paying attention, or I could lean back in my seat and soak up the podcast. (Yes, I was at that very moment listening to the podcast about shifting mental constructs to allow for different emotional experiences.)   The funny thing is, I knew it was a juncture.  I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Ok, I guess we’re gonna go this way today.”

It’s a small step toward a huge change.  I am not expecting that I will notice each and every juncture like this. Because mental constructs reside deep beneath the consciousness, they have the power to shape our experience in very subtle ways. I’m going to miss some opportunities; I’m going to make some mistakes.

Nevertheless, I am hoping over time to shift from self-deprecation to tender grace.  It’s gonna take some time, but I do believe this old dog can learn this new trick.

Romans 12:2

“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”

 

 

 

How hard can it be? pt. 2

So, it seems like the turning would be the hardest part, doesn’t it?  If you are headed down a road of your own choosing, recognizing that you are going the wrong way and deciding to turn around should be the most difficult step, shouldn’t it?  I have not found that to be so.  I have found two other parts of repentance to be much more difficult — 1)  keeping my eyes from looking back, and 2) continually stepping forward.

Here’s the thing — walking down the road of my own choosing causes a ton of collateral damage.  You would think that once I realize this, I would want to turn quickly toward a path of safety and run just as fast as I can.  Not so.  I am drawn to looking back at all the wreckage.  I get lost in regret and what ifs.  I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see how much I was hurting myself and others?”  My eyes turn back and guess what happens next; my feet follow.  Just that quickly I have lost my way again.

I can lose hours of my time paging through the photo albums of poor choices and missed opportunities.  I mean, I can still lose sleep over the way I treated a childhood friend in 1972.  A terse word with a student can occupy my thoughts all evening.  I can make myself physically sick by rehashing parenting decisions and formulating ways to do things differently.   It’s as though I think I can rewind the movie, cut out the scenes I don’t like, and splice in a version of how I wish it would’ve played out.  But we can’t do that.  What happened happened. I can’t undo what I did, and I can’t undo what others did.  I can’t, but for some reason, my brain still wants to pretend as though I can.

And I think I know why. My mom and I were sitting side by side last week, watching the Olympics and lightly chatting.  I mean, I thought it was light chatting until she said something about getting lost in her regretful thoughts.  She said that she can spiral downward very quickly when she starts thinking about the mistakes she has made in her life, but when she feels herself doing that she says, “Get behind me, Satan!” I about jumped out of my rocking chair — she had hit the nail on the head!  If the enemy can get my eyes turned toward regret, my feet follow.  He just has to grab my chin and turn my gaze toward what I did wrong in 1983 or 1998 or 2004 and pretty soon my whole body has made its way back to a path of my own choosing and I am no longer aware of Jesus walking beside me.  I can’t hear his voice any more.  I don’t care to look into his eyes.  I am a soldier on a mission to make things right, and you’d better get out of my way.

But, guys, I can’t make things right.

It won’t work.

I can’t undo what’s been done.

And I’m not supposed to try.

In these moments, I need the second part of the clause, but, so often, I miss it.

I hear, “repent,” but I don’t seem to hear “believe the gospel.”  Or maybe I hear the words, but I don’t understand the message.  I mean, what is the gospel, after all?  It’s God’s commitment to me — He already knows that I am human, that I am bent on turning, and that I cannot of my own strength follow Him.  He knows that I am going to continually walk down a path of my own choosing, and yet He has promised to be with me wherever I go.  He doesn’t leave me or forsake me.  He has seen all my lousy decisions.  He has watched me ignore the people in front of me.  He has seen me choose myself over others time and time again.  And yet, He loves me.  He has patience with me.  He forgives me.  He continually chooses to walk beside me, to reveal himself to me, and to allow me the time and space to choose over and over again to turn away from my destructive path and toward His Way.

And that is not all.  He is in the business of redemption and restoration.  He takes the wreckage from my past and transforms it into beauty.  It’s beyond my comprehension.  I thought my parents’ divorce was the end of my life, but God used that experience to prepare me to be the wife of a divorced man and the mother of his child.  I don’t hold my husband’s past against him. It’s just part of his story, and now it’s part of mine.

In the mid-80s, I was anorexic.  My whole life revolved around reducing the amount of food I ate and thereby reducing the amount of me.  I was on a path of destruction that many never walk away from.  However, God, in his grace kept walking beside me, he kept talking to me, and before I knew it, I had turned around.  I was worried that I might have done irreparable damage to my body and that I would never have children, but my worries were for nothing, because God is in the business of redemption and restoration.  Not only did he restore my physical and emotional body, he has used my path to minister to others who have similar stories.

Time and time again, I’ve heard stories of people who have witnessed God transforming much greater disasters into stories of restoration. It is what God does.  He creates, he redeems, he restores.

Lately I’ve been spending way too much time in the photo albums of regret.  There is a time and a place to look back and grieve.  Sometimes we need to spend seasons in mourning.  However, when mourning turns into self-blame and punishment, it’s time to close the album for a bit.  It’s time to turn around, walk down the path that has been designed for me, listen to the voice of the One walking beside me, gaze into His eyes, and recognize that He is in the business of redemption and restoration.

God is faithful, and He will do it.

Psalm 30

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

How hard can it be? Re-visit

First written in February 2018, this post further examines the topic from Righting the Course. I’ve cleaned it up for you here in May 2019.

It sounds pretty easy. I mean, it’s really just one independent clause. I’ve read it, or heard it read, certainly dozens of times in my life.  In my mind, I see Jesus peacefully walking along a dirt path, probably next to the Sea of Galilee, wind blowing through his hair, gazing lovingly toward his hearers. His voice is gentle, as though he’s giving the simplest of invitations, “repent and believe the gospel.”

How hard can it be to 1) repent, and 2) believe the gospel?

Pretty darn hard it turns out.

I have spent a fair amount of time writing about repentance. It’s such an archaic sounding word, isn’t it? Kind of King James-ish, if you ask me. Why in the world would I use a word like repent in 2018 when it conjures another image, one of a wild-eyed, locust-eating John the Baptist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Repent and be baptized!”

Can’t we all just hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

We could. We could gather together, hold hands, and sing Kumbaya. It might be soothing for a moment, but it wouldn’t provide the healing and restoration that true repentance gives.

Perhaps way back in confirmation class was the first time I heard repentance described as “a turning”. I have imagined myself walking down a street of my own making headed toward a future that only seems bright, and then, realizing that the path is actually headed toward harm, I turn on a dime to head in the opposite direction toward a future hand-crafted for me — one that I don’t have to manipulate myself into.

Doesn’t that sound so “one and done”-ish? Yeah, true repentance isn’t like that. True repentance is realizing that I keep ending up on that same darn street and that I have to keep turning around and heading in the other direction. I am bent on turning. I keep ‘figuring out’ a better plan, a more exciting path, a way that seems right to me.

The road I typically end up on is one that promises to make me happy. In my younger years, it promised make me thinner. Over the years, it has offered financial security, family peace, work satisfaction, physical healing, or some other sort of relief from some other sort of stress. It promises an escape from the troubles of this world. But guess what — it has not once delivered.  Oh, sure, I walked a path for a while that certainly made me thinner, but it also left me empty. I have patched together short-term fixes for all kinds of messes, but none have lasted. All of my efforts lead me to the same conclusion — I do not have the answers.

So, I turn. I walk away from my own path, and I promise myself, and God, that I’ve learned my lesson. I’m done trying to soldier through. I’m done coming up with my own solutions.

But before long, whether I realize it or not, I’m back on my own path.

Why?  Because I forget the second half of the clause — “believe in the gospel”.  I know, I know, more John the Baptist, but guys, the dude was running around shouting because he understood the good news! He knew what has taken me a lifetime to learn — all my answers are crap. They set up me to be my own rescuer and they inevitably fail. John the Baptist understood that Jesus was the answer, and not just in the Sunday school answer kind of way.  He was the solution. The remedy. The Way.

But you know, even though I believe that, I don’t always believe that. Instead I believe that I need to solve my own problems, pay for my own mistakes, and forge my own path. I get confused and think that repentance means guilt and punishment.

It doesn’t.

Let’s picture the scene a little differently. Let’s have Jesus walk right up beside us wherever we are today. Let’s have him walk with us on our path for a little while; let’s hear his voice and begin to trust him. I see him walking as quickly or as slowly as we want to go. I imagine him making a lot of eye contact, so much so that I stop looking at whatever it is that I’ve been chasing at the end of the path of my own making. Before long I  want to go wherever He is going, just so that I can continue to see those eyes and hear that voice. I imagine hearing him say things like “Follow me. I love you, and I forgive you. Don’t worry; I’m preparing a place for you.”

Turning isn’t so hard when you know that you are turning toward love, when you recognize where you belong, and when you understand, finally, that he’s had you all the time in the palm of his hand.

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

Isaiah 30:15a

Driving Lessons

Early in my driving career, I didn’t pay much attention to the rear-view mirror.

It’s not because my driver’s education teacher, Mr. Horn, (Yes, seriously.) didn’t teach me to use it, or remind me to use it.  It’s not my stepfather’s fault either (bless his heart for taking me out driving in his meticulously-kept Caprice Classic).  Both Mr. Horn and my stepfather emphasized the need to adjust the mirrors so that I could glance at them from time to time to make sure I wouldn’t run into anything.

It’s not their fault.  They taught me the value and necessity of using the rear-view mirrors, but I was all about the forward motion.  I wanted to get on the road and make progress toward my goal  — friends’ homes, work, school, dates, etc.  I had places to be that were in front of me; I didn’t have a lot of time to look back.

The problem is that those mirrors are there for a reason.  Just ask my friend’s dad — he no longer has a tree next to his driveway.  I wasn’t paying attention to what was behind me; I was looking at my friend,  saying goodbye as I got on the road to the next destination.  I also hit my share of mailboxes. And once, forgetting that we had purchased a second car, I backed the first car out of the garage right into the new-to-us vehicle that was parked behind it. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Through trial and mostly error, I have learned the value of the rear-view mirror.

Lately I have been looking into it quite a bit.  In fact, I have been looking back so much that it has been hard to keep my focus on what’s ahead of me.

Here’s the thing — when you put the car in park, and you are no longer moving forward, you take a few minutes to pick up the crap that fell on the floor, you check the visor mirror to see if you have anything in your teeth, and then, if you sit there long enough, you start thinking about all the places you’ve been.  And I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot more time thinking about missed turns and fender benders than I do about grand voyages and thrill rides.  You know what I’m saying?

Now, so that I don’t forget the value of sitting with it, I must point out here that it is good to look back at the traffic violations, detours, and collisions.  After all, beside the inherent value in grieving losses, we can also learn our best lessons from the mistakes that have cost us dearly.  However, we must not stay stuck back there on the side of the road weeping over the loss of property or, God forbid, life.  We must grieve, yes, but we must also be brave enough to get back in the driver’s seat, buckle up, set a direction, and put a foot on the gas.

Have you had enough of my extended metaphor? How about just one more thought.

The best drivers, I’ve heard, find a way to balance their determination to get to the next stop with a sustained consciousness of their surroundings and a sober realization of what is behind.

I look forward to being a better driver.

 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory..

2 Corinthians 3:18

 

 

 

 

Still my Soul

Time change.  Spring Forward. I did not want to wake up this morning.  I stayed up to watch the end of a basketball game last night. You know, March Madness.  It’s the first weekend of our Spring Break and I guess I was feeling a little like celebrating.  I made popcorn and baked muffins.  I wanted to snack, sip wine, and watch collegiate basketball. It wasn’t terribly late, mind you, but when my husband gently woke me this morning at 7, I grumbled.  Ugh.  “Five more minutes.”

I’m not great at morning.  It seems I used to be.  I think I used to bound out of bed ready to face my day, but this has changed.  I’m a morning grumbler.  My husband is good in the mornings.  He is cheerful, kind, thoughtful, and ready to face his day.  Poor guy.  He unsuspectingly tries to engage with me, and I snarkily reply.  Before he knows it, my snark has inspired a response from him.  That’s when I notice that I’ve been less than kind.

So, yes, this all happened this morning.  By the time we were in the car making our way to church, the banter was a little testy.  I feel bad because he’s on his way to church to preach, and I am going to sit in our church’s coffee house for about two hours doing whatever I choose to do.  I can read, grade papers, blog. I have time to shed the snark before I go to the second service; he is going to walk right into serving.  He has to quickly use whatever skills he has acquired from twenty-six years of living with me to shed the snark and return to his normal cheerful self. I know he is able to do it, but still feel badly.

While he’s doing whatever he does to prepare to greet people and deliver the message that he’s been working with all week, I shuffle down the stairs to my corner seat, unpack my bag, open my computer, and begin to review an essay that I’ve been helping one of my students with.  I’m reading through her claims, her analysis, and her evidence when I find myself singing with the coffee house’s piped in music,

Be still my soul, Lord make me whole

Lord make me whole*

I pause.  Hm. Yes, that’s why I am snarky this morning.  My soul is restless. I’m tossing around complaints and worries. I’m holding them in my hands and examining them over and over.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.  I’ve gathered items all week — the health issues of family and friends, the knowledge that people in my life make choices that I don’t agree with or approve of, the constant barrage of the ‘news’ feed, my own persistent health issues, and countless other gems.  I’ve been caressing them all week, and I haven’t changed their reality one bit.  I involuntarily join the plea of the song, “Be still my soul, Lord make me whole, Lord make me whole…”

The song ends, and I go back to the essay.  I give the feedback I promised then order a pot of extra strong tea.  I can feel the snark hanging heavily on me, so I know I can’t turn right to my blog.  Come on, Kristin, you know the drill.  Turn to the Scripture, first.  That’s where you’ll find your truth.

If you aren’t convinced yet of the power of a regular reading plan, let me share with you what I found today. It was waiting for me — Day 132, Psalm 66.

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.  You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; 

As I’m reading, I’m shaking my head.  I’m embarrassed. It’s not like my worries and troubles are a crushing burden.  Yes, I do have concerns that are real. However, in the grand scheme, I have been very gently ‘tried’.  In just this past week I have heard stories of others who have had true ‘crushing burdens’ on their backs, who have actually felt like ‘men [were riding] over their heads’.  Comparatively, my troubles are small.  I read on.

yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.  

I just have to sit here for a minute.  Indeed, I have been brought to a place abundance. Even if I didn’t have a church I loved to come to every Sunday, even if I didn’t have a committed husband who wakes up happy each day, even if I didn’t get to live in a community that energizes me, even if I didn’t have my dream job, even if I didn’t have four children that make me very proud, I would still have much abundance to write about.

I’m convicted, obviously.  I examine the gems in my hands and realize that they are mere pebbles. I exhale and continue to read.

I will come into your house with burnt offerings; 

I mean, I’m already here.  In just a little while, I will ascend the stairs and enter the sanctuary.  I will carry my pebbles up with me and leave them there for You.  I think You’ll probably be more effective with them.

Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.  

Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. 

Guys, I can’t make this stuff up.  Mere words transform my snark into confession, humility, and gratefulness.  It’s a miracle –one that I don’t want to overlook today.  He cares enough about me and my ‘burdens’ to speak directly to me. He has stilled my soul again.  May He still yours, too.

*The Brilliance. “Dust We Are and Shall Return.” Brother. 

How Many Times do I have to Tell You?

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

I’ve said it to my children.  “How many times do I have to tell you to rinse out your dish and put it in the dishwasher?”  “How many times do I have to tell you to hang up your wet towel?” “How many times do I have to tell you to call me when you get there?”

I’ve said it to my students. “How many times do I have to tell you that MLA format requires you to double space and use 12 pt. font?”  “How many times do I have to tell you the due date?” “How many times do I need to tell you to document your sources?”

But today I am hearing the words myself, “How many times do I have to tell you?” But while I growl my words in exasperation at my children and my students, I am hearing the words spoken gently into my heart as my chin is lifted tenderly by gentle fingers that draw my eyes upward.

How many times do I have to write the same blog?  How many times do I have to admit that I am “bent on turning” and that I did it again, I turned and went my own way.  In this very busy semester, I went back to what I know — soldiering.  Ok, fine, it has been a milder version of soldiering.  My regimen now includes daily doses of rest, reading, and recovery.  It mandates several repeats of yoga and walking.  It requires completing responsibilities to family such as laundry, cooking, and bill paying.  On the surface, it looks pretty healthy.  But it’s subtle soldiering.  Want to know why? Because I’ve been relying on myself and listening to the voices in the trenches.  How do I know? Because I’m surly.

There, I said it.  I’ve been surly.  Again, it’s a subtle surly.  I’ve been able to be fairly pleasant to the people in my life, but my internal monologue is grumbly and negative.  That’s part of the reason that I didn’t blog last week or the week before.  I sit down to type and the interior pops onto the page. It’s the only thing my fingers know how to do. I mean, they try to produce a positive message, but it ends up sounding saccharine — not at all genuine.  And I can spot fake from about a mile away.  Even when it’s coming out of my own fingers. Yuck.

So, today I’m waiting for student papers to come in.  I’ve graded everything that’s in my possession. I have nowhere to be today.  I’ve got the day to myself.  Yes, I plan to do some baking, but I feel the pull to my Bible and prayer journal.  I feel the need to catch up on my YouVersion reading plan — I’m about three days behind.

Being my surly self, I got diverted several times on my way to my reading, but finally I plunked down on the futon and opened the app on my phone.  Yes, I know, even getting caught up on YouVersion is a bit like soldiering…shhhh…it got me there, ok?

I was scrolling through the daily readings…blah, blah, blah,….fine, Isaiah, I see you. I kept reading and scrolling, reading and scrolling, Isaiah, my friend, you have so. many. words. Like a true soldier, I continued to read and scroll, gonna get caught up, you know. But then something happened.  My soldiering self sat down when I heard a voice that I recognized.  It wasn’t a voice from the trenches.

It wasn’t saying “do more, be more, get more;” it said, “he will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.”

It didn’t say, “be the greatest, prove your worth;” it said “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” (Hop. Flit. Jump.)

I’m tired of hopping and jumping, I thought.  And almost immediately I read, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

What must that be like, I grumbled weakly, to not grow weary?  And I read, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.”

Oh, yeah.  I’m not alone, am I?  The world does not spin because I’m trying so hard. “Fear not, I have called you by name; you are mine.”   I am His.  I don’t have to prove my identity through my performance.  “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember my sins.”  Really?  You don’t remember that I was just blogging about my propensity to turn and here I am again, confessing to the same exact sin?

“I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like a mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.”

I hear you.  I’m turning. How could I not?  You are speaking directly to me.  How did you manage to do that through the Bible reading plan on my phone?

“I call you by your name.” Yes, you sure do.

“I name you, though you do not know me.” You’re right.  I haven’t been acting like I know you.

” I am the Lord your God. I am God and there is no other.”

Yes, yes you are.  And let’s just get it out in the open.  I’m bent on turning, so you’re probably going to have to tell me again.

“Fear not, I am the One who helps you.”

Isaiah 40-44, selected verses

Shifting Gears

Once upon a time, a middle-aged woman took a break from work to rest and assess some health issues.  For six months, she barely worked at all.  Instead, she cultivated friendships, attended Bible study, exercised, read, wrote, and rested.  For another six months, she gradually eased back into the working world. Through trial and error she learned what amount of work was enough and what was too much.

Or did she?

I’m entering my third year here at the little house by the river. That first fall I had so much time on my hands!  My house was so clean and uncluttered! I prepared meals fairly regularly. I took time for coffee and lunches with friends. I traveled to see family regularly.  I exercised several days a week.  I started most days with Bible study and blogging.  It was a lovely season.

I’ll admit I was a little bored.

I’m not bored any more.

My new challenge is to offer myself grace when my house is cluttered and in need of a deep cleaning, when my husband and I have to scrounge through the fridge to find leftovers — again, when I turn down one more offer to meet a friend for coffee, when it’s been weeks months since I’ve seen some of my family, when I miss a full week of exercise, or when I’ve failed to make time for daily Bible study and prayer.  Because, honestly, this has become the norm for the moment.

I know it’s just a moment.  I agreed to a heavier course load for a semester — not forever.  We are taking two international trips in the next four months, but then we probably won’t go anywhere again for years!  It’s a season, just like many other seasons we have weathered.  It’s just for a moment, but in the moments, it feels overwhelming.

So, instead of taking time to pause, reflect, and pray, I spend those moments online ordering travel pillows and earplugs.  In place of going to the gym, I fit in an appointment for immunizations.  Rather than meeting friends for coffee, I spend the morning grading papers and preparing for the next class.  When I could take a day trip to visit family, I find myself on the couch recovering from another hectic week.

It’s a season, I tell myself. Yet life is made up of seasons, is it not?  Do I wait for the next season, when I’ll presumably have more time, to fit in the disciplines and pleasures I love so well?  Or do I adapt so that I can taste them even in this season?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

I’m in the sixth week of this semester.  So far — yes, it’s Tuesday — I’ve managed to start my week off with worship, connections at church, a completed stack, time with my husband, a couple of prepared meals, an hour of Pilates, a physical therapy session, and, this morning, an hour of Bible study, reflection, prayer, and blogging.  Ahhhh. Now, see, isn’t that lovely?  Why don’t I keep this rhythm every day? Every week?

Well, because I am human.  I am bound to be buried in the to-dos very shortly.  After all, I am not only planning for tomorrow’s classes and grading yesterday’s papers, I am also preparing my students for the fact that I will be gone for a week.  As if that weren’t enough, I’ve also planned to see seven private students this week and travel to see our granddaughter this weekend.

As my husband would say, “Every bit of it is good stuff!” I love being in the classroom!  I love reading student writing! Watching students learn is what feeds me!  And, certainly, squishing that little granddaughter is second to no other activity in my life!

Yet, I remind myself, if I want to be able to do all of the stuff that I love, I must take time to oxygenate myself first. I can’t be an effective wife, mother, friend, or teacher, if I let myself get completely depleted.  And that’s what happens when I neglect my personal disciplines and my social interactions.  Let’s be honest — the messy house isn’t gonna kill anyone. And, truly, there’s enough cereal and chunky soup in the kitchen; no one is going to starve.

I’m learning, guys.  Something has to give.  If I want to teach more and — gasp — travel, I’ve got to shift my expectations of myself.  In the past, I’ve sacrificed self-care in order to maintain an orderly house and the appearance that all is well.  What I’m learning is that being truly well is less about appearances and more about my daily disciplines and meaningful connections.

Hang in there with me folks, I’m shifting gears and trying to enjoy the journey.

I Timothy 4:8

 

 

It’s all about that grace…

It’s been week-long lesson time over here at the little house by the river.  It all started last Monday when I arrived twenty minutes late for my first class of the semester.  I had made a mistake — missed the mark. I felt embarrassed and ashamed.  I fumbled through that first class making apologies and praying that my students wouldn’t base their opinion of me on that gaffe.

The same class met two more times last week, and truly, my students were gracious.  They arrived on time (mostly), they did their assignments (pretty much), and they engaged in classroom activities.  They, from all appearances, had offered me grace — undeserved favor.  My performance didn’t earn respect, but they gave it to me anyway.

So, I went forward through my week and offered the same to everyone else I interacted with, right?  That would be a nice way to end the story, wouldn’t it?

However, as humans go, I’m pretty run-of-the-mill.  I have a short memory, and I don’t like to apply the same rules to others as I do to myself.  I want everyone else to be perfect and to earn the favor that I give to them.

Turns out that most humans are pretty run-of-the-mill, aren’t they?

I’ve been struggling with a few humans in particular.  Their actions, or lack thereof, have left me fussing and fuming.  I have not been quiet about my disdain for these few individuals.  Their decisions, in my opinion, have been less than ideal; they have missed the mark.  In fact, most of the people I have fussed and fumed to have agreed with my assessment.  I have every right to cast judgment on these people because of their poor choices.  Certainly they have been wrong and should be held accountable.

It’s true.  All of us, in fact, have been wrong and should be held accountable.

So, a companion of mine (who shall remain nameless) and I were recently driving on the highway.  We were missing church to go to a family event, so the thoughtful driver (no names, I promise) had brought a devotion along to read in the car.  While the driver drove, I read the devotion about grace — this was not orchestrated; it was just the devotion for the day.   When I read the words, “Remember, grace is not given to us because of our goodness, but in spite of our sin,” I gave a hard gulp.  How many times have I received grace in spite of my sin? So many times. Each day. Today. Yet, I withhold that grace from others — maybe because their sin is different from mine, maybe because I have decided that they are unrepentant, maybe because they have hurt people whom I love.  I decide that they are not worthy of my grace.  They haven’t earned it.  But grace, by definition, can’t be earned.  Or deserved.  My driving companion and I mused on this for a moment and acknowledged how each of us had failed in this arena.  We had failed Grace 101.

Not long after I finished reading the devotion and  we had finished our musings, said driver had what we like to call “the pedal to the metal” when we flew past a Michigan State Trooper stealthily resting in the median.  Just as we zipped past him, the trooper flung himself out into the lane behind us.  My driver said, “He got me,” slowed the speed of the car, and moved toward the right lane in anticipation of being pulled over.  One other car separated us from the trooper when his flashing lights went on.  We watched the other car pull to the shoulder, fully expecting the trooper to move forward and pull us over, but instead, he pulled onto the shoulder behind the other car.

My driver and I looked at each other and exhaled.  “That,” I said, “is grace.”  We had been breaking the law after all; we had missed the mark.  We deserved a ticket but received undeserved favor.  Just in case we needed an object lesson to go with our devotion.

So I moved forward from that car ride and spread grace lavishly, right?

Have I mentioned that I am a run-of-the-mill human?  Within forty-eight hours I had meted out harsh judgment on others in my life. I had determined what mark they should reach and, noticing their failure to meet it, had poured on scorn and disfavor — exactly what they deserved.

But God, being ever gracious and merciful, gave me the lesson once more this morning.  He reminded me, through the gentle words of my physical therapist, of His great love for me and His great love for others.  Not only that, He reminded me of the privilege I have of bearing witness to His grace in the lives of those who desperately need to hear it.

I’ve missed the mark so many times, yet He continues to pour grace on me — through students, through pre-packaged devotions, through State Troopers, and through physical therapists.  Perhaps I’ll be able to bear witness to that this week.

John 1:16

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.