Blessing upon blessing

I was standing in a local thrift shop sorting through 50-cent coffee cups. My husband had asked me to grab a half-dozen or so for his office so that college students who come in to grab coffee can take one ‘to-go’. I visit this section often — not only to stock the student life office, but also to replace the many cups that I break or absent-mindedly leave in my path. I was picking out some sturdy looking cups for the students when a beautiful floral pattern caught my eye — it was a little small for my taste, but it was so lovely I decided to put it in the basket with the others and make it my own. Only when I got to the cash register did I realize that it had scripture written on the inside of the rim.

….one blessing after another…

Sometime in the months since I brought it home, I made an un-official decision that this cup will be for special circumstances only. It’s not to be carried out the door in the morning rush, clutched through rush hour traffic, and plunked on my desk at work. No, this cup is for the lingering pondering cuppa. It’s for sipping while sitting and savoring. It’s an object of beauty that I’ll use when I need a little encouragement, a little healing, a little celebration, a little recognition of the grace that has poured out one blessing after another.

I’ve got it in my hand right now.

I’m by myself in my little house by the river for 48 hours of self-imposed solitary confinement. My husband is out of town, so I am seizing the opportunity to be quiet, forget about the clock, take care of a couple tasks, make a few long-overdue phone calls, and spend some time reflecting.

Regular doses of solitude heal and restore me.

So what have I done so far? I’ve practiced yoga, done some writing, read a few chapters in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, slept until I woke up — twice! — and watched six episodes of Queer Eye (a delightful show with a message of healing and hope).

I’ve done some cleaning and organizing, paid some bills, folded some laundry, and worked on a puzzle. I’ve spoken at length to both of my parents and to my parents-in-law. I’ve eaten when I’ve been hungry, lounged on the couch in yoga pants, and sipped several cups of tea.

My dog has been following me from room to room, plunking down wherever I plunk, and occasionally standing in front of me, staring me down, until I remember that it is time to walk around the yard.

It’s on these kinds of days, when the agenda is fluid and my expectations for productivity are low, that tucked away thoughts and feelings jangle loose. I’ve poured a lovely cup of tea to enjoy while I observe them.

I’ve been thinking about the visit I had with my breakfast club girls last week. We got together to celebrate my recent birthday; they showered me with gifts and treated me to dinner. As we chatted and laughed, I was struck by the contrast between this birthday celebration and the one we had last year, when I’d been been buried in grief and had cried as they’d leaned into my pain. This year, I was filled with gratitude for their partnership in my suffering, for their unconditional love, and for willingness to acknowledge and celebrate my blessings.

I’m also looking back at my weekend away with one hundred or so pastors’ wives. I pulled out my notes this morning and remembered our time in Bible study where we sat around tables using pens and colored pencils to draw visual reminders of what we were learning. I heard our voices singing together — both in worship and in fun. I saw friends who I only see at this conference, smiling and saying, “We missed you last year!” I felt the compassion of a soul sister who pulled me aside, probed gently, and let me share just a bit; she bore some pain with me and then shared in my gratitude.

I’m scrolling through thoughts of dinner with my godparents, laughing with friends until my sides hurt, and car rides with new and old friends. I’m relishing in the realization that unlike the last time I gathered with these women, I didn’t need rest breaks, or pain medication — not even when I stayed up way past my bedtime.

Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

I’m spending this weekend alone so that I can reflect on these blessings. I said no to a few people (probably disappointing at least a couple) and chose solitude. And because I did, I’ve had the time to notice each of these jangly thoughts as they’ve settled down beside me. I’ve had opportunity to look closely at how I’ve been blessed, and I am now restored so that I can step away from my solitude.

It’s a new way — a new rhythm.

Toward the end of the soldiering years, I remember my husband, who was also trying to slow his pace and find a different way, telling me about a rhythm of sabbath. The idea was to pause daily, weekly, and yearly — to intentionally plan for space to pause. I remember thinking, “That’d be nice, dear, but you do see that I’m busy here, don’t you?”

And somehow, after almost five years in this little house by the river, we have joined this rhythm. Each day the two of us wake up in the dark — before we see our people or do our things — we each take a time of reading, writing, reflection, and intentional movement. On Sundays we extend this rhythm by continuing on to worship with our community. Each year, we’ve miraculously been able to get away for a week or two alone to put our phones on silent, to forget about the clock, and to read, write, reflect, and rest.

This is one more realization that just floated down and snuggled in next to me. I never would have believed we could live this way, and here we are.

I’m going to make another cup of tea and savor every last moment of this solitude, this sanctuary, this sabbath. This in itself is one more blessing.

Ten out of ten would recommend.

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Mark 6:31

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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

Hey, Thanks

A year ago, my husband and I were at the beginning of a season of difficulty. We were experiencing impact from past trauma which was affecting our emotions, our health, our faith, and our finances. Each day, it seemed, revealed new levels of despair, and we felt powerless. So what did we do?

Well, we cried a lot. We sought counsel — pastoral and professional. We prayed — “in groans that words cannot express.” We enlisted a trusted group of prayer warriors — confidants in arms. We made tough decisions. And we watched hours and hours of The Great British Baking Show — no joke, that show was one of the best choices we made last year. So much pleasantry and punniness — you can’t not feel lighter after having watched it.

And yet no quick rescue came.

Instead, month after month we continued — in counsel, in prayer, in judicious adherence to the decisions we had made, and in periodic detachment from reality by way of Brits engaged in a battle of the bake.

And slowly, over time, we began to experience restoration.

I’m reflecting because some friends invited me away this past weekend to engage in some restorative practices. It seems we’re all always walking in brokenness, and sometimes a pause can allow for healing.

We ate great food and talked and laughed. We did yoga together. And then one friend pulled out presentation boards and a pile of magazines, scissors, glue, and markers — she had provided a project. Our goals were broad — to find words and images that could express who we are, where we have come from, or where we are hoping to go.

We sat at a large oval table in front of a window overlooking a frozen lake, quietly flipping through pages, clipping out words and images, and arranging and re-arranging them on our boards. Pandora was playing Lauren Daigle and Corey Asbury, and voices could be heard humming or singing along. We occasionally commented on what we were doing, but mostly we were focused and quiet.

After we had each gathered a pile of clippings, we began the process of arranging them on our boards.

the process

As I experimented with layering images, I discovered themes emerging. I began reflecting on the past year and how our difficulty had led to so. much. healing. One section of my board captures my continued physical healing with images of tea and yoga and aromatic flowers and fruits. Another reflects on the transformation of my spiritual life — praying hands, a solitary walk, and ‘searching the scriptures’. A roll of dollar bills sits on a plate near the words “Reset your expectations” and “God Provides” signifying financial healing.

I was surprised by the number of flowers on my board, particularly after such a long year of grief wherein I cared little about what I wore or how my hair looked, let alone the adornment of jewelry or flowers. But as each bloom grabbed my eye — roses, wildflowers, hibiscus, and lilacs — I tore and clipped. I lavished my board with flowers. I couldn’t seem to get enough, because, guys, I’m not mourning any more. I’m celebrating. I’m thankful.

As I arranged words and images on my board, I was overwhelmed with thanks — for physical healing over the last several years, for spiritual healing in the past several months, and for newly discovered financial healing.

I heard Pastor Brian Wolfmueller say recently that when we give thanks, we “shift our view from doing to reviewing.” That’s what this process of clipping and arranging was for me — an exercise in reviewing.

A long Margaret Townsend quote about the importance of breath sits in the lower right corner near a box of tissues, a hand, and a photo of my husband and me taken at the height of last year’s difficulty. We’re smiling in the photo, but I can assure you that tissues were not far away. I am thankful for this photo because it shows that despite the fact that we were desperate for most of last year, we were committed to being desperate together. In the midst of trauma, our marriage bond was strengthened. We learned the importance of breathing through difficult situations and sitting in them together. One of the reasons that we were able to grow through these very difficult circumstances was the support of loving friends who continually made their presence known in very tangible but unobtrusive ways. They were compassionate rather than judgmental. They loved us when we were hurting.

And I guess that leads me to the last set of images. Our story of unspoken broken is centered in a city. Most of our trauma happened there, so you would think we would want to run from all things urban, but the opposite is true. Although we are safely nestled in a little house on an idyllic little campus, in a cushioned community, our hearts continue to lean toward the city.

Just before Christmas, we traveled to Detroit. We hopped off the highway to get a view of the neighborhoods — to see the brokenness and abandonment and to witness the opportunity for transformation. As I was paging through magazines this weekend, I found images of Detroit and I couldn’t turn past them. We love our life in Ann Arbor — our church, our friends, our jobs. We have experienced so much healing here and are so thankful for all the opportunities we have been given. I don’t know why I was drawn to this photo, but I put the city in the center of my board. It seems to belong there.

finished product

When we were all finished creating, we each retreated to privacy — to soak in a tub, or nap, or write — and then we gathered again. As one-by-one we shared our boards and what we had discovered, I was reminded of one more thing to be thankful for — the community that surrounds me, supports me, weeps with me, and celebrates with me.

I am so, so, thankful. And the words of Pastor Wolfmueller remind me that I can sit here and be thankful to the One who is making all things new. I can review the blessings for a bit. I can focus on what what’s next some other day.

 I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 9:1

Take Care for the Holidays

I’ve been easing myself in to the holiday season.  It all starts with emails and phone calls early in October.  Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving turn into talks about Christmas. Who will we see? Who will we miss? Where will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

Holidays matter. They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So each year we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering turkey dinners, caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. And we build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week.  You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “Well, we always go to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends locally.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer in February.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on a Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that.  They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety.  Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy.  Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow, the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in.  That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life.  My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more.

 

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

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

 

Making it happen, for 28 years and counting

Yesterday, when a friend heard that today was our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, she said, “Sometime we’ll have to talk about how you made that happen…”

Yeah, so, that’s not exactly how I would characterize the last three decades.

I didn’t make anything happen.  I’ve made numerous mistakes, swift judgments, and poor choices.  I started off strong — making the assumption that I knew how to be the best wife and mother there ever was, and so I’ve spent the last twenty-eight years learning humility. I’m not an expert at communicating, loving, being patient, or putting someone else first.  The fact that we’re celebrating twenty-eight years of marriage today is not a reflection of our success, but a testimony to the grace and steadfastness of God.

We got married in our mid-twenties both of us having been touched by divorce. We had little in our savings, and I was still paying off student debt.  During the first year, we lived at three different addresses  — moving once when my job location changed and again when our son moved across the state.  We changed jobs, too!  My husband left teaching to be a full-time graduate student, and I switched from being a classroom teacher to a resource room teacher to a teacher in a residential school all before our first anniversary!

The stress of that first year alone might have done us in, but we were starry-eyed and convinced that we had won the lottery, and we were going to have the best life ever, even if we did have moments where insecurities led to worry that lead to yelling or tears or silence.

Because we did (and do) have those.

I remember one time, it had to be in the first month (or even week) of our marriage. Who even knew what started the squabble, but there we were in the kitchen, standing like two giant X’s, arms and legs splayed, chests out, voices raised, fingers pointing, spouting the kind of words we had never said toward one another before. It was terrifying — ours was to be the perfect marriage — how could this happen? Doors were slammed; we fell to silence.  And then we began to learn how to repair.

Undaunted, on the heels of that first year, before John had even finished his counseling internship and secured a salaried position, we decided that we’d like to start our family.  Before our second anniversary, we’d moved again, he’d begun an internship, and we were expecting a baby!

Shortly after our third anniversary, he was settled into a position on a church staff, we had purchased our first home, and we were expecting another baby!

By our fifth anniversary, our youngest was on the way!

It was the season of babies. We were elbow deep in diapers, blankies, and sippy cups. My husband, on a church staff, worked long hours while I navigated days of feeding, reading, playing, and rocking. It was such a rich time what with all the cooing and snuggling, but the pure physicality of it all was exhausting.  I was daily relieved when John joined me in the second-shift — the bathing, rough-housing, and putting to bed. We had established a partnership — he picked up where I left off and vice versa, but it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. Sometimes, utterly exhausted, I glared at him for arriving home five minutes late or for forgetting to pick up milk on the way home. Often, when he saw me hanging on by a frazzled thread, he pushed me out the door to catch a breath, take a break, or sit in silence. He’s always been quick to care for me — to see my needs often before I know I have them.

Throughout the years, we’ve shifted roles many times as we navigated five more moves, two more graduate degrees, various stages of parenting, and numerous professional positions. Recently, we’ve found the most cherished roles of our lives as Oma and Opa to our two precious granddaughters!

We’ve walked many roads together.  We’ve attended weddings; we’ve been eye-witnesses to divorce.  We’ve visited hospitals to welcome new born babies; we’ve been in the room for the last breath of life.  We’ve been in conference rooms and court rooms.  We’ve been in churches and synagogues.  We’ve been to Austin, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. We’ve even been to Canada, Africa, Israel, and Haiti! We’ve heard the best news and the worst news — all of this,  together.

After twenty-eight years we’re still happy to sit across the table with one another and talk for hours or to share the couch as we watch a whole Netflix series in a weekend.  We can power clean our little house together in a just over an hour or spend an entire day cleaning out one storage closet. We are comfortable talking and laughing while surrounded by friends and coworkers or simply drinking tea on our patio in the quiet of the morning, each reading our own book and saying absolutely nothing.

How did we make that happen?  How did we live through more than 10,000 days of groceries and schedules and arguments and chaos and laundry and car repairs and taxes and track meets and homework and work functions and insurance claims and health challenges and road trips and still want to spend the next twenty-eight years together?

We didn’t make that happen.  None of our choices made that happen. Except one, maybe.  We decided, way back in 1989, that if we got married, we would stay married.  We would make our marriage vows to God, and He, we trusted, would make it happen.  Though we were young and ill-equipped, we knew already that if we were going to have a life-long marriage, God would have to carry us in the palm of His hand.

And He has.

Isaiah 46:4

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He,

I am He who will sustain you.

I have made you and I will carry you;

I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Corn chips, anyone?

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I ran across a meme that said,

“Is anyone else just going through life like ‘I just gotta get past this last difficult week and then it’s smooth sailing from there!’ but like…every week?”

I chuckled.

I had just been reminiscing about how when we were first married every need we had seemed to cost $5.  We needed $5 for a last minute item from the grocery store to finish dinner for guests who would arrive in half an hour, $5 for the hardware to fix the door that wouldn’t latch quite right, $5 to contribute to the group gift at work.  Each item was just $5, but when we added them all up, the total pressed us.

Later, when our children were small, it shifted to $10.  A package of diapers was about $10, so was the team t-shirt, or enough burgers and fries at McDonald’s to feed three kids and justify their time in the Playland. It seemed we never had enough $10 bills to cover all the items on our list.

Before long, the price of ‘everything’ grew to $20.  Then it was $50, then $100. Each time we had an unexpected expense, we shifted, braced, ponied up, and prayed that if we just “got past this last difficult week” then it would be “smooth sailing.”

Back then ‘crises’ looked different than they look now, too. I remember the time, for instance, when my husband and I returned from a long day at our respective teaching positions, looking forward to the chicken dinner that had been roasting in the crockpot all day, only to find that I hadn’t turned the crockpot ‘on’ and that the chicken was still raw.  I thought the world had ended.  I had wasted “all that food”; certainly I was a failure as a wife.

Or the time when I had planned the menus for a three-day visit from out-of-town guests, budgeted carefully, brought all the groceries home, prepared the first meal, and discovered one of our guests snacking on the corn chips that had been purchased for the next day’s nachos. I dragged my husband into the bedroom and said, “What are we going to do? Now I don’t have everything I need for tomorrow’s meal!”  I was seriously distressed.

Over the years we have certainly weathered much worse that prematurely noshed nacho chips.  We have managed through many ruined meals, illnesses, broken hearts, car accidents, disappointments, and surprises.  And still, I keep hoping that this will be “the last difficult week” before we hit the period of “smooth sailing”.

We have had seasons of smooth sailing. Many. However, I haven’t seemed to grasp that “smooth sailing” isn’t what is promised.  In fact, it is far more likely that we will face “troubles of many kinds”.  The troubles are the given.  The reprieves are the unexpected blessings.  So why do I set myself up to believe the opposite?

I guess I want to believe the best. I am inherently a glass-half-full girl.  Yes, our finances are going to work out.  Of course, our children are going to be healthy.  Surely, we will be successful and well-liked.  Naturally, everyone will agree with us. I choose the path of hopefulness to a fault.

The problem with believing the best will happen in every situation is that I don’t always prepare for any alternative.  I don’t guard myself for the ‘given’ of disappointment.  I don’t store up for the days of famine. I believe that everything is going to run just how I planned. I don’t buy extra ingredients just in case; I buy exactly what I need. So, I’m often found standing, mouth agape, in shock that someone is standing there eating my corn chips.

But here’s the thing — people are going to eat the corn chips.

Now, I do realize that corn chips are not a big deal.  They are hardly even a $5 item. But the $5 items teach us what to do when we are one day faced with a $100 or a $1000 item (or even several of them all in the same week).  I can get pissed that someone ate my corn chips, I can ask them to run to the store and pick up another bag,  or I can simply say, “Oh, I’m glad you felt at home enough to help yourself!”

In trying out different responses to these $5 items, I am building resiliency–muscle–that will sustain me when I am hit with a more substantial crisis — someone I love is hospitalized, or we discover we owe Uncle Sam a lot. Again. Or we lose a loved one, or get a life-altering diagnosis.

We face troubles of many kinds. All of us do. All the time. My troubles seem huge to me right now. So do yours. Our hearts are broken in a million places and we are devastated. We’ve been lied to, cheated on, forgotten, abandoned, mistreated, and deceived.

The corn chips pale in comparison, don’t they?

But the $5 problem and the corn chip crisis have a lot to teach us.  I wish when I came home to the cold chicken in the crock pot my first response would have been, “Ok, God, what’s for dinner now? And what do you want me to learn from this?” Instead, if I remember correctly, I spouted lots of self-deprecating phrases, stormed around the house, probably cried, and ultimately got a pizza. It’s ok. I had a human response. However, I think that ultimately God wants more for me than self-blame, shame, and anger. I believe that in my $5 problems and my $100,000 problems, God longs for me to look to Him.

What if, in every decision, instead of mustering my resolve and believing that I myself will be able to manage every situation, I instead turned, raising my eyes and my hands to God, and admitted that all of it is too much for me?  What if I acknowledged that my pennies and my corn chips all come from God?  How would I experience life differently?  How would I weather crisis and even trauma?

I’m not too old to learn a different way.  Honestly, I’m given opportunities every day.

If you are in the habit, as I am, of kicking butts and taking names, of putting out fires on the fly, of keeping multiple plates spinning, of trying to handle everything on your own, this type of change will be a challenge.  The impulse in every difficult situation is to be a first-responder — to stop the gushing blood, provide oxygen, perform compressions, and avert any casualties.  Fighting that impulse is hard, especially if ultimately you are truly the only one who can help.  But here’s the thing: God has every situation in the palm of His hand. He’s got it. He can handle everything for the few moments it takes you to pause, look Him in the eyes, and ask, “Is there something you’d like me to do here?”

That’s all. Just pause and ask Him.  He may say, “Stand by. Help is on the way.”  He may say, “Yes, I really need you to stabilize this situation until help arrives.”  He may say, “Stand down.”

Mm.  This soldier certainly does not like to be told to “Stand down.”

But. If I trust that God has everything in the palm of His hand and that He alone knows the best course of action, don’t I want to check with Him before I act? Before I pay the $5? or before I lose my mind about a stinking bag of corn chips?

It sounds pretty simple when I put it like that, but I’m telling you, this is the lesson of my life. It’s about time I learned it.

John 16:33

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

In Violation

It started out innocently enough. I had just finished a counseling session, and I was going to stop by the grocery store on my way home.  In an area of town that I don’t often drive through, I used GoogleMaps to find my route and was listening to a podcast as I pulled up to a traffic light, turned right, realized where I was, and casually proceeded to drive the final mile to the store.  Pulling into the left turn lane, I noticed a black SUV was right on my tail.  When I made my turn into the parking lot, so did the SUV, which was suddenly lit by red flashing lights.

A cop.

Seriously?

Had I been speeding?

Indeed, I had.  I had been going about 47 mph in an area marked 35, where “the residents have been complaining about speeding drivers.”

Sigh.  It’s not the first time, but it’s the first time since I’ve been back in Michigan.  Because of that, the officer wrote my ticket for only 5 over the limit and informed me that instead of getting points added to my license, I could take an online driving course.  It would be easy, he said, and my insurance company would not get notified of my offense.

So here I am spending my morning taking one of several ‘certified by the State of Michigan’ Basic Driver Improvement Courses.  That’ll be $37.45, please. (In addition to the $150 or whatever I paid for the ticket. Ouch.)

One recurring message in the course is that attitude has a significant impact on driving. The content warns against driving when angry, sick, impaired, or distracted.  I am, of course, already aware of the impact of driving under emotional distress, and truly, I was pretty relaxed when I was pulled over.  I was not angry or overly emotional despite just coming from therapy.  I wasn’t distracted by my phone — I had looked at my maps, yes, but my route really required just two turns and about three miles of driving, so I didn’t need to keep the app open.  I had a podcast running, but it was Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, which is like having a good friend riding shotgun — pleasant conversation sprinkled with laughter. Nevertheless, my mind was not fully focused on driving.  I was watching the road, yes.  I knew what street I was on and where my destination was, but I truly did not see the officer until he was right on my tail, and when he asked me if I knew how fast I had been driving, I had to admit that I had no idea. My attitude wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t fully engaged.

The course suggests a driving mindset that involves SIPDE — Scanning, Identifying, Predicting, Deciding, and Executing.  We should, in order to avoid accidents, be continuously Scanning the road ahead, behind, and around us; Identifying potential dangers such as weather, erratic drivers, and changes in traffic patterns; Predicting what might happen — slippery roads, flat tires, sudden slow-downs; Deciding what we will do if any of our predictions come true; and Executing our plans when the need arises.

Sounds like a great plan, but if I’m gonna be honest (and by this point, you know I am), that is not the way I drive or do anything, for that matter. I barrel through life ‘handling’ what is front of me.  I know, I know, numerous posts on this blog discuss my turning away from soldiering ways, and I do try.  Really, I do. But guys, these patterns are hard-wired; any attempts at change further expose how far-reaching they are.

Most of my life runs on auto-pilot. Get up. Eat. Caffeinate. Shower. Dress. Drive. Teach. Eat. Teach. Drive. Cook. Eat. Clean. Sleep.  Insert reading, puzzling, laundry, conversation, worship, exercise, etc. as needed.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, when I said in my recent post, Old Dog, New Trick, that I was working on reprogramming my internal constructs so that I can experience emotions more healthfully, I was actually committing to a life-time effort at change. Each minor change will expose the next area of dysfunction — kind of like that proverbial string of Christmas lights; just when you have replaced one burned out bulb, you discover that three more are faulty.  Similarly, this little three-hour basic driving course is exposing a symptom — failure to focus on driving — of a larger systemic problem — failure to focus on life.  When I fail to focus on driving, and disregard the SIPDE system, I risk a collision. When I fail to focus on life, and disregard opportunities to scan, identify, predict, decide, and execute, I risk myriad kinds and degrees of disaster.

For me, it usually takes a brush with the law — penal or spiritual — to stop what I’m doing, examine the situation, pay the fine, and consider change.

Yeah, we’re not talking about a speeding ticket any more.

As per usual in my life, the lesson is layered.  I’m a slow learner, to be sure, and I need my instruction to be differentiated.  It’s not likely that I will learn to slow down my mental processes and my life patterns unless I have a tangible representation to glue the lesson to — a speeding ticket, and not just a speeding ticket, but a speeding ticket that requires me to sit through traffic school.

My friend the other night at our small group, the one I mentioned here, reminded me that we often just want to treat the symptoms, but unless we deal with the root problem, the symptoms will not go away.  My husband said yesterday that if we have a hole in the roof and we just keep putting out buckets to catch the incoming rain, we’ll be forever emptying buckets.  However, if we climb up on the roof, assess the damages, call in a professional, and fix the problem, we can put the buckets away.

I’ve been carrying and emptying buckets my whole life.

And I’m tired.

So, what, my dears, is the root of the problem?  I think I’m getting closer to the source.  I’m picturing that it has something to do with a mind bent on surviving rather than living, on putting out fires rather than planting trees, on quieting my inner child’s cry rather than allowing her the space to find joy.

I’m getting there.  One day I may fully understand the source of the problem, but even if I never do, a Professional is already on the scene.  He’s doing his work, and I’m trying to slow down enough to lean in and watch Him in action. I might learn a few things.

Revelation 21: 5

“Look!  I am making all things new!”

 

 

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.