Coronavirus Diary #8: Watching and Waiting

We’re gardening today — spreading dirt and manure on the ground, raking it back and forth, making holes and troughs with our hands, and pushing tiny little seeds into the earth in the hope that they will split open and produce new life.

We’re welcoming the chance to be outside — to do something besides Zoom calls, watching television, housekeeping, or cooking.

We’ve prepared the ground — loosened the soil, coaxed out all the weeds that had sprouted since the winter thaw, and lined our little garden plot with pinwheels that will hopefully spin in the wind and deter any critters from helping themselves to whatever pops up.

We’ve purchased seeds — carrots, beets, peas, lettuce, kale, radishes, and cantaloupe — and a few plants — tomatoes and peppers. We’ve halved a few seed potatoes, donned our gloves, and gathered our tools.

We do this each year, of course — put in a small garden — because we really love the taste of fresh tomatoes, and because I just can’t get over the wonder I feel when tiny seeds split beneath the soil and push fresh life toward the sun.

We’re on our knees in the dirt and manure — spreading the filth with our hands and dropping in tiny seeds of potential.

While we are at it — dirt beneath our fingers, and sweat glistening on our brows — we’re planting red and white petunias in the beds that face campus, small flags of welcome, in the hope that instructors, staff, and students return soon.

We’ve put chairs and a small table near the garden so that we can sit and watch — sipping tea, reading books, working crosswords — and wait for the first fingers of green to break through the earth, the first humans to walk onto campus.

We’re waiting and watching for new life, rebirth, resurrection.

And isn’t that what we are all hoping for right now? Aren’t we hoping that as new life springs from the earth we’ll find new life in our days? Aren’t we hoping that when we emerge from our homes, we’ll feel refreshed, renewed, restored?

Aren’t we hoping that the funk, the fatigue, and the frustration will fall away? that the sick will be healed, the hungry will be fed, the poor will be made rich? that we’ll gather with our people, embrace, and rejoice?

I mean — yes! That’s what we hope for!

And so we get on our knees in this rich soil of possibility. We plant seeds of hope — for recovery for the sick, for employment for the jobless, for reunions of distant loved ones, for reconciliation among those divided, for a new way, a new path, a new life.

I can’t stand next my garden and shout my seeds into growing. I can’t demand that my tomato plants produce fruit. In fact, my only role is to place the seeds in the ground, water them, and wait.

I can’t demand that this virus stop spreading, that demonstrators put down their weapons, or that leaders come together in a united approach for the good of our country. I mean, I can try, but for what? My power lies only in my willingness to go to my knees, to share what I have, to encourage the lonely, to watch, and to wait.

It can feel a little powerless unless you remember that every single year when I’ve pressed tiny seeds into the earth, new life has come forth — whether I’ve been sitting next to the garden watching or have abandoned it to go on vacation. The tiniest seeds of faith have yielded fruit.

Every. Single. Year.

More so, the prayers that I have whispered, cried, and shouted from my knees have born rich fruit — miraculous answers, incredible victories, astounding reconciliations.

Time after time after time.

So, I return to what I know. I get on my knees and plant my hopes — for my garden, for our world, for our future. Then, I watch, and I wait.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

Coronavirus Diary: Thoughts from Confinement

I don’t even remember when all of this started, do you? The information has been coming in waves and the impacts on our lives seem to change in the moment.

I first heard about the coronavirus sometime in January. At that point it seemed so removed. I understood it was in China and that a whole city was on lockdown, but that information seemed very intangible at the time. What did I know about a city of 11 million on the other side of the world? How could I conceptualize what a shut down of that magnitude might look like?

On February 11, I must have been driving home from celebrating my mom’s birthday with her when I heard the news that the coronavirus had been given the name Covid 19, and still, though I knew that a whole cruise ship had been detained with 700 sick onboard, I couldn’t picture it impacting my life at all.

One month later, as I was driving back to my mom’s to support her recovery from surgery, President Trump was preparing to address the nation and announce a halt on all travel from Europe. This began a series of quickly escalating restrictions. That was March 11, 18 days ago.

By Friday, March 13, many schools had closed and many businesses began to send their workers home.

By Thursday, March 19, I, too, was working from home.

On March 24, Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, declared that all in the state should shelter in place.

And here we are.

How quickly we have all shifted into this new reality! We’ve moved our necessary supplies home, we’ve shifted all our meetings online, and we’re learning how to stay connected from a distance. And that’s the best-case scenario.

Some have lost their jobs, gotten sick, and even lost their lives. In fact, as I write this on Sunday afternoon, the grand total of those infected is over 700,000 world wide. Over 34,000 have died.

This past week, I was having a video chat with a parent when she shared that her father was in the hospital sick with the coronavirus. His health was declining, and he would likely not make it. The hardest part, she said, was that no one could be with him. He was suffering alone.

And many are — suffering alone.

Countless elderly spend their days in locked down facilities, confined to their rooms, restricted from visits. Many others live alone and are doing their best to care for themselves, get the supplies they need, and bide their time.

But the two populations that keep popping up in my imagination — the two groups that seem most vulnerable to me are the homeless and the incarcerated.

Last Monday night, as I was driving home from what would be last last medical maintenance appointment for who knows how long, I passed a homeless shelter. I was struck by a mass of people standing shoulder to shoulder at the entrance of the building. How are their needs being met? Do they have access to the news that suggests they keep six feet away from one another? Where can they shelter in place? How are our shelters providing food, supplies, and space for those who are in such desperate need while still protecting their staff and volunteers?

What must the inside of a jail or prison look like right now? I have to imagine that inmates are confined to their cells. Are they able to get outside at all? What kind of access do they have to health care? How terrified must they be?

Today an inmate in Louisiana became the first inside the American prison system to die after contracting the coronavirus; how quickly will it spread?

Some jurisdictions are releasing non-violent, aged, and chronically ill prisoners. Some cities are providing additional emergency housing for the homeless. However, I’m certain such undertakings are monumental and will result in further complications. Where do prisoners live when they are released? How will they support themselves? Who will follow the homeless and make sure that their needs are met?

How will we care for the most vulnerable?

What about those who are mentally ill, medically fragile, or ‘sheltering’ in place in abusive or neglectful homes?

How must they be suffering?

I’m sitting here in my house next to my dog, comfortable, well-fed, employed, and well. I have everything I need, and still I find myself struggling a bit — feeling crabby, wondering how long this will last, and disappointed that some of my plans have changed.

This pandemic has challenged us all — we’ve never lived this way before. We’ve never been so restricted, so isolated, so aware of one another and our struggling.

We’re communally groaning. And yet, we are not without hope. Not even close.

You don’t have to look far to be inspired.

Leaders and agencies are trying to meet the needs of the homeless, the imprisoned, and those who are in dangerous situations. (If you are able, financially support these efforts.)

Countless medical professionals are showing up to work everyday, donning personal protective equipment, and caring for the sick and dying with dedication, skill, and compassion. (Let’s all pray for their health, stamina, and encouragement.)

Teachers around the world are finding ways to connect with their students and provide learning opportunities in creative ways with whatever resources they have. (If you’ve got an awesome teacher in your life, send them an encouraging note or an e-gift card to Starbucks or Target.)

Grocery store employees are staying in the trenches — restocking shelves, disinfecting carts, adapting in the moment, and making sure we have everything we need. (Be sure to smile at them, thank them, and recognize their sacrifice.)

And what about those Shipt and Instacart drivers! It’s amazing that they’re willing to go to the stores for us, risking their health, so that we can stay put. (Make sure you tip them well!)

Companies are stepping up. The company I work for gave all employees 40 extra paid vacation hours and 80 extra paid sick hours. Verizon emailed me yesterday to tell me they’d given me an additional 15 GB of Personal Hotspot to help me stay connected. The founder of Zoom gave free access to educators and students. Other companies are stepping up to provide hand sanitizer, medical masks, ventilators, and the like. (Let’s shout out these companies and continue to patronize them!)

The United States government approved a relief package that will deliver cash payments to qualifying individuals and families, will provide extended unemployment benefits to displaced workers, and will support small and large businesses who have been impacted by virus-related restrictions and shut downs. (It wasn’t easy, but our leaders collaborated across party lines to make sure we are supported. Let’s urge them to continue working together!)

As we shelter in place, we are limited in how we can care — but we can support those who are on the front lines.

And we can pray.

Last Sunday, our pastor challenged our mid-sized congregation to a bold task — could we maintain a 24-hour prayer vigil for the duration of this crisis? He asked if individuals would sign up for 30-minute blocks of time around the clock to lift up our world, our nation, our state, our community, and each other in prayer. Since Sunday, March 22, every slot has been filled. Dozens are committed to calling on God to sustain us, protect us, heal us, and support us during this time.

And that’s just in our small church community. Undoubtedly, thousands are praying around the world — calling on God to have mercy, to provide for our needs, to heal the sick, to comfort the mourning, and to show us how to care for one another during this unprecedented crisis.

I wonder what that sounds like — thousands and thousands of voices calling out to God.

When I imagine us all praying together, I don’t feel alone or isolated or anxious — I feel connected, heard, and calm. I know He sees it all — me, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick, the dying, the helpers — and that He holds us all in the palm of His hand.

if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14

From Fear to Peace

If we weren’t already fretting and stewing — what with climate change, the presidential election, forest fires, and one report of sexual assault after the other — now we’ve got Covid-19, the corona virus. First it was just in China, then Italy and Iraq, but now it’s in Florida, New York, and even Indiana. Am I the only one who checks the map every day to see how far it has spread?

When I walk into work every morning, I see a sign taped to the door:

And, dutiful employee that I am, I take a pump on my way to the time clock.

The other morning, a potential new employee came to our suite. I heard the doorbell and went to let her in, “Hi, I’m Kristin,” I said as I offered her my hand. She looked a little startled, but she took my hand, and then, when we were done shaking, immediately spotted a bottle of hand sanitizer and took her pump.

I wasn’t offended. This bug is real, and all of us are being a little more diligent about washing our hands, disinfecting surfaces, and covering our coughs in the bends of our elbows. We are doing everything we can to prevent contamination and contagion.

However, Covid 19 isn’t the only thing that’s catching — a culture of fear has been infecting humanity, and it didn’t start with the corona virus. This high-alert culture has been gaining speed by way of the twenty-four hour news cycle that becomes increasingly theatrical what with it’s dramatic musical themes and foreboding voice overs. It’s been fueled by Twitter (not to mention Reddit) threads that provide a venue for instant confrontation between strangers who virtually shout accusations and point fingers. And it’s been stoked by public figures who use their platforms to raise anxiety rather than suggest solutions, provide reassurance, or take action.

And we are quickly becoming a society that scurries through life, checking our phones, looking over our shoulders, and distilling its opinions into 280-character statements that it frantically flings into the cosmos.

We are scared — scared of disease, scared of climate change, scared of war and fire and crime and each other.

Drunk on adrenaline and cortisol, we stumble through our days, checking our news feeds, judging (and berating) those we don’t agree with, and posting carefully curated photos to convince our friends (and ourselves) that we’re fine — really, we’re better than fine.

But then we lie awake at night worrying about if we have enough money to pay our bills, if our kids are alright, if we will indeed catch the corona virus, or if that old white dude will win the election. The worries keep cycling in our minds, and we can’t get back to sleep, so we open our phones and start scrolling to see if anything has changed. But guess what? It hasn’t, yet we keep scrolling and posting, thinking that we’re up anyway, so what will it hurt, not realizing, that we are merely adding more fuel to the fire.

When we finally drop the phone back on the night stand, we feel no better than when we picked it up — only more tired, more worried, and more unable to sleep.

How can we break this cycle? How do we protect ourselves from the pervasive fear epidemic that is infecting all of humanity?

Prayer.

It’s that simple.

You may think it’s corny. You may be thinking to yourself, “oh, geez, here she goes with that Christian stuff again,” but let me tell you, prayer is the only thing that calms my fears. The only thing.

I’ve tried logic: making claims, gathering evidence, and providing reasoning.

I’ve tried self-determination: see the last five years of my blog for anecdotal evidence of how that worked out.

I’ve tried blaming everyone around me for what’s wrong in the world — predators, politicians, and people who don’t think like I do. All that does is make me angry on top of scared.

The only effective way of dealing with fear, is surrender. And it’s so counter-intuitive that it takes me way too long to get there. I try all other strategies first every time. I come up with a good plan, I try to work the plan, and then when the plan doesn’t work out, I blame myself and everyone around me for the failure.

Then, weeping and wailing, I crawl into an empty room, open up my notebook or my laptop, and begin to write. Often I start with raging and railing vitriol — oh, the injustices!, then I move to grief — oh, the agony!, and then to the realization that my writing has become a prayer.

You see all this, don’t you? You see how we are pointing at one another and shouting accusations. You see how angry we are, how hurt, how afraid. And you are the One who can change this — You can stop a virus. You can restore the earth. You can make us whole. You can bring us together. And will you? Will you please? Will you stop this virus dead in its tracks? Will you show us how to do better at taking care of all you have created — plants, animals, and the people we love? Will you show us how to open our clenched fists? Will you fill us with love and understanding for one another? Will you show us how to to bring our fears to you?

And I find I’ve brought them to Him, and I’ve trusted that He will make a way when it seems there is no way. He will wipe the tears of those who grieve. He will sit beside me when I’m lying awake at night, and He will invite me to tell Him all that is on my mind. And He will listen. He will change my fear into compassion; He will motivate me to take action — to not let worry paralyze me, but to let it propel me.

When I pray, when I share my heart with the One who created me, fear floats away and peace descends.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Do Something! A Re-visit

I wrote this piece last year, with no idea of what 2020 would bring. It seems even more relevant today in the midst of a global pandemic and worldwide protests over racial injustice. Will you join me? Will you do something?

On Sunday August 4, 2019, Ohio Governor Mark DeWine addressed a crowd on the same day that a mass shooting killed 9 and left 27 injured. He had just barely begun to speak when someone shouted, “Do something!” Before long, many had joined the chant, “Do something! Do something!”

DeWine was moved to action. Within 48 hours, he had proposed several changes to gun laws including a red flag law and universal background checks; his initiatives also included measures related to education and mental health. He announced his actions saying, “We must do something.”

Now that is what I’m talking about.

The people in that Dayton crowd, along with many others, are done with hand-wringing and weeping. They are tired of excuses and finger-pointing. They have seen enough bloodshed, and they are demanding change.

“Do Something!” they yell, and I find myself joining their cries, “Do Something! Do Something!”

Last week I wrote about prayer — the lifting up of our burdens to the One who is able to change everything.

I’m not taking that back.

Pray. Keep praying. Never stop praying.

But here’s the thing, we can pray with our breath and our movements at that same time that we are doing something.

Yes, we can have dedicated times of solitude, where we go in our prayer closets or lie on our beds and cry out to God. Do that! However, you can also put your prayers into motion. Much like you talk to a friend as you go for a run, drive down the road, or cook a meal, you can continue in conversation with God as you do something about the things you are lifting up to Him.

You can cry, “Do you see this, God? Two hundred forty-six people have been killed in mass shootings in the United States this year,” while you are demonstrating in front of a governor, or writing a letter to your congressman, or donating money for mental health resources in your community or educational services at your local school.

You can say, “Lord, I’m really worried about the environment, I beg for your mercy and the renewal of our planet,” as you ride on public transportation, use cloth shopping bags, or carry your compost outside.

You can sob, “I’m begging you to heal my broken relationships,” as you encourage the people you encounter every day, as you go to therapy to process your regrets and learn healthier strategies, as you do your best to rebuild relationships.

We can be people of prayer and still do something. We can do more than put on sackcloth and ashes, grieving the loss of a life we once knew. We can speak out and fight for change. We can defend the defenseless, call out the unjust, and offer solutions.

We can engage in conversations about politics — ask the hard questions, admit that we don’t have all the answers, and even change our minds.

We can volunteer in our communities — working with the homeless, tutoring public school kids, or leading clean-up projects.

We can support the people in our neighborhoods — being available, providing resources, dropping off flowers or meals.

I don’t know what your gifts are, but even while you are praying, you can do something.

Why should you? Why should you expend any effort? What difference is one person going to make any way? The problems we face are big — almost insurmountable — rampant gun violence, a drug epidemic, a decaying environment, a world-wide sex trafficking network, an immigration crisis, our dysfunctional families, and our own broken hearts.

We could crawl into our beds, cover our heads with blankets, and weep as we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

But, friends, while we wait for His return, He is inviting us to do something.

I am not suggesting that you strap on your gear and go about butt-kicking and name-taking. Instead, I am suggesting a mindful, prayerful approach to action.

You and I can consider the items we are continually lifting up in prayer: a family member with health concerns, a strained relationship, personal debt, the environment, racial disparity, and violence against women, for example.

As we lift us these concerns, we can be asking, “What difference can I make? What is one thing that I can do? How can I help?” And we will begin to see opportunities: we can make a phone call to encourage that family member, we can respect the requests of the one who just needs some time and space, we can pay off some bills and move toward financial freedom, we can decide to buy fewer products packaged with plastic, we can vote for proposals that promote equity, or volunteer at a local women’s shelter. We can do something.

We don’t have to do everything, but we can each do something.

Imagine the impact of 10 people consistently choosing to do one thing toward improving a neighborhood, of 100 people dedicated to just one action to decrease homelessness, of 1000 people committed to improving the lives of children living in poverty.

You could be the start of transformational change, if you just decide that you are going to do something.

For the past few years I’ve been looking for something big to do. As I’ve been sorting through the broken pieces of my life, I keep trying to put them together into one redemptive action that will somehow turn my tears into wine. I want to end poverty and violence and heal all the broken hearts. I want a project, a mission, a cause.

And as I lift the broken pieces up in prayer, I hear a still small voice saying, “you don’t need to single-handedly change the world, Kristin, but you can do something. How about you just start with one small thing?”

But there is so much that needs changing!

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

I want to help!

“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”

Ok. I hear you. I’ll start small, but I’ll dream big.

I’m praying that others will pick their one small thing and join me.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

Colossians 3:23

prayer helps, a re-visit

Our pastors started a seven-week series on prayer two Sundays ago, at the beginning of Lent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this Lent, more than any time I can remember, has me turning to prayer — for our country during this election cycle, for the world during this coronavirus pandemic, and for my family as they weather transitions, health struggles, and other life challenges. On Monday, I wrote about the power of prayer to turn us From Fear to Peace; today, I re-visit a post from August that further explores the power of prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe that’s called insubordination.

Sigh.

So much energy expended and none of it is necessary.

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

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

And when I surrender it, change happens.

Change in me.

Change in others.

Change in the world.

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

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

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

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

Psalm 6:9

The Prize is in the Process

One of the things I like about the instruction I am doing right now is that we don’t give grades. We don’t design instruction to meet a finish line; instead, we celebrate every step of the process — every attempt, every mistake, every win. All day long, I cheer on my students (and my staff) for showing up, for trying hard things, for taking chances, and for participating in the process.

It’s scary to participate in a process that you have no guarantee of finishing or winning. Would you register for a 5K if you didn’t think you could at least finish? What if every time you have attempted a 5K you have collapsed before the first turn? Who of us would sign up for something that has — for us — repeatedly ended in failure?

That’s what my students do every day. Students typically come to Lindamood-Bell when other attempts at reading or comprehension or school in general have ended in failure or severe difficulty, and we ask them to work on the thing that is most difficult for them — five days a week, often two or more hours every day. Even showing up is difficult for most of our students, yet they do show up. So we celebrate even that. We greet them enthusiastically, and we clap and hooray when they try something — especially something that has seemed difficult. The instruction is more focused on the process than the product, and, unfailingly, each of us — the students and the teachers — are changed.

These kids have taught me that the prize is often in the process.

My friend, Marv Fox, says in his soon-to-be-released book, Become, that all things are necessary steps toward achieving our goal. He sees every challenge, every setback, as an opportunity to build muscle that will propel him forward. If he bombs at a public speaking engagement, he learns from that experience — he evaluates the steps he took in preparation and delivery and determines what he can tweak before the next opportunity he has to speak. He doesn’t stop speaking because he bombed; he sees the ‘bomb’ as an opportunity to learn and grow — to be changed by the process.

Marv is not alone in this belief, of course. Yesterday, I participated in a conference on prayer. One of the presenters, Connie Denninger, co-founder of Visual Faith Ministries, reminded participants that everything that happens in our lives is part of our spiritual formation. She said, “I wish I wouldn’t have had to go through some of the things that I have, but they have brought me to the place that I am.” Part of her story is that, as a pastor’s wife, she had never been comfortable praying. When Connie’s mother died at a relatively early age and Connie felt that she had lost her best prayer warrior, she was devastated. Who would pray for her now? In answer to her question, God put Connie on a journey toward a life of prayer that she now chronicles through her blog. In fact, this ministry, formed with friend, Pat Maier, now involves others in Visual Faith communities across the country. Connie and Pat have invited others to join them as they celebrate their process.

For the past several months, I have been reading and writing my way through a book called The Artist’s Way. Each chapter invites the reader to engage in a rhythm of writing every morning (the morning pages), and exploring activities that invite creativity (artist dates). I really did not want to read this book (in fact I wrote about it here), but committing to this process has been transformative. Each morning, as I show up, I find reason to celebrate. I am amazed at what I find myself writing on the pages and how my attitude shifts from the first line to the last. My morning pages have no goal. I have not determined that I will write for 30 days or 60 days or a year and then quit. I have just decided to enter the process of writing every morning and to watch and see what happens. The process alone has been the prize.

Several months ago, my husband was asked to help lead the prayer conference that I participated in yesterday. He is invited to all kinds of events, and I don’t always join him. I have to be judicious about what I say yes to; I always have to be mindful of how much gas I have in the tank. So, when he told me he was going to be part of the prayer conference, I didn’t initially intend to go. He was leaving on a Friday afternoon and would be gone until Saturday night. After a long work week — all that cheering and clapping and such — I knew I wouldn’t have gas in the tank to travel to Lansing and participate all day long on Saturday. I knew that for my weekend re-fuel, I would have to be on the couch.

However, a week or so ago, I discovered that the conference would be live- streamed! So, I sat in my pajamas, with my dog by my side, and joined the discussion of five individuals who have committed to the process of prayer. They shared what they’ve learned by choosing to make prayer — conversation with our Father — part of their everyday lives. They haven’t determined to try prayer for 30 days or 60 days or until their prayer gets answered. They have chosen to daily enter the process and see what happens.

None of the presenters said that they have discovered the key to prayer or that they have arrived at some destination in their prayer life. Rather, they celebrated the fact that they get to join in what God is doing because of the gift of prayer. They each acknowledged that they often have to overcome obstacles to continue in this commitment, but they all affirmed that the activity of prayer itself — the process — is transformative.

I won’t be able to share in one blog post everything I learned yesterday by sitting on my couch and joining others in listening, thinking, writing, and praying, but I will tell you that my choice to show up and invite the change that comes with entering a process was rewarded. I learned. I shifted. I grew.

Yes, commitment to the process takes time, but as I’ve learned from watching my students and from being a student, the process has power to create change. So I’ll continue to show up and to participate in yoga, in writing, in prayer, in life. I’ll sign up, even if I keep falling down, because the running, the falling down, and the getting back up are building muscle, preparing me for what’s next, and propelling me forward.

 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus,

Hebrews 12:1-2

In my anger

Psalm 4:3-5

    the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, and do not sin;
    ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. 
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.

 

I’ve been angry lately.  Frustrated. Hurt. Angry. Downright pissed.  Life, as my friend said to me recently, isn’t turning out the way I might have expected.  Reality is not meeting my expectations, and I’m livid. I literally cannot see straight.

For most of my life I’ve had a default response to mad — seethe, mutter, slow boil until bursting, then slam, yell, stomp, and verbalize the snot out of anyone in my path.  It’s pretty gratifying, actually.   It’s a release that refreshes.  Ah,…I got that off my chest, I grin. However, that release and refreshing lasts a maximum of four to five minutes before regret and shame show up. I see the carnage in my path of destruction, and I realize what my anger has caused.  My rage hasn’t cured my problem;  I have just transferred my hurt onto whoever or whatever was in my path.  While momentarily satisfying, rage is not productive; it’s destructive.

After a face-to-face encounter with reality over the weekend, I was already well into the slow boil of anger on Monday evening when I walked into our small group.  Because the anger is related to the unspoken broken* in my life, I had resolved to armor up, batten down the hatches, and ‘get through’ our Bible study reflection with my husband and the three others in attendance. To my relief, others carried the conversation, so I was able to  focus on keeping my yap shut and clutching my pain in my fists.

The discussion was business-related — projects, strategies, etc.  I was thankful that the topic was outside my area of interest and enjoying my silence when a friend said, “Kristin, are you familiar with the Lean strategy?”  My answer, “No,” was probably curt and clipped.  However, since I’m an adult and I am truly not trying to be overtly rude, I did turn my gaze toward him and maintain eye contact for the next few minutes.  I heard nothing except, “you can’t set goals until you determine what the problem is.  People always want to talk about the symptoms, but you have to identify the problem.”

And so began an internal spiral past all kinds of symptoms in search of a root problem.  This one is complex. What, Kristin, is the problem here?  Don’t just look at symptoms. And so, the internal hum gained some fuel and continued its slow boil.

My body doesn’t know what else to do.  This problem and its symptoms will not abate overnight, and though not essentially mine, they have immediate and far-reaching impact on my reality.  I can feel the hum in my cells.  They are trying to do what they know how to do — solve, soothe, fix — but they are coming up empty.

Yesterday,  a conversation with my therapist allowed some deep hurt to surface, and I came home a bit calmer.  My slow boil had been reduced to a simmer.  I quietly and slowly moved through the motions for an hour or so — preparing dinner, changing the laundry, sweeping the kitchen floor.  I ate dinner with my husband, brushed out the dog’s coat, then took a warm shower.

It was only 7:45 when I climbed into bed, picked up Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, and started the slow descent toward what I hoped would be sleep.  Sleep has been difficult — I take elaborate measures to calm the hum that churns all day.  Sometimes if I read fiction, I can calm myself enough to close my eyes and fall asleep.  Other times, like last night, I can sense that quieting the hum is going to require a little more intentionality. After about an hour of reading about two brave women surviving World War II in France,  I reached to my nightstand and grabbed Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, the book that my breakfast club and I are reading.

Taylor’s book is a slow examination of literal and metaphorical darkness. It asks questions like why are we afraid of the dark? what would happen if we turned out some lights, put down our technology, and actually sat in the darkness? how important are the rhythms of light and dark (both literal and metaphorical) in our lives and what happens when we subvert those rhythms? It’s contemplative to be sure.

The chapter I opened to last night first met me where I was: Taylor affirmed that “we find ourselves unable to […] sleep, […with] several free hours to obsess about everything from how we will pay our Visa bills to who will take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves” (64). Indeed.  My solve, soothe, fix mechanism is strong, and I can spend a whole nighttime obsessing about how to alleviate symptoms or searching for the root problem.

Then, Taylor spoke to my heart with the words of poet Li-Young Lee, “All light is late.” Four small words that reminded me that understanding often comes after acting, that wisdom is found in hindsight, and that, though late, light always arrives.

Finally, Taylor spoke right to my unspoken broken* in words that can only be ordained by God and penned by her hand: “it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down” (67).  It is truly hard for me to discern whether the ache inside is a symptom of dying or resurrection, but I trust in the God of restoration even when I cannot see.

He is with me in the light and in the dark.  He calls me to lie down on my bed and be silent.  He encourages me to read and to ponder in my  heart.  He urges me to offer my unspoken broken up to Him. He reminds me to trust Him because He holds everything in the palm of His hand.

In my anger, I call out to Him. He hears me.

 

*Voskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Community, a re-visit

On Monday, I wrote about the ways I am witnessing change in Transformational Spaces. This post, written in March 2018 and dusted off for you here, recalls my journey into understanding the power of community.

I can spend days in solitude — reading, writing, working on puzzles, going for long walks.  I love to be alone.

In my childhood, I would retreat to my room to listen to the same song over and over again on a record player, spend hours in the side yard of our house twirling my baton, read away a whole afternoon in the living room recliner, and take solo rides on my bike to the boundaries of the small town I grew up in.

As an adult,  I have looked forward to whatever private moments I have been able to carve out for myself — reading, writing, walking. Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and family with a deep committed love. However, while I enjoy lively family dinners and picnics with friends, I also long to retreat to solitude — sometimes to a fault.

In fact, when the going gets tough — when I am battling interior or exterior demons — I tend to go a little beyond solitude to isolation. If my troubles seem a bit too heavy to bear, I might bunker down in a small cubicle on the top floor of a library every evening for an entire semester, for example. If I’m barely surviving my responsibilities, I might put on a veneer of friendliness over a heavily armored soul before venturing out among the citizenry. I am not quick to reach out; I am sure to turn in.

My husband, on the other hand, is very intentional about connecting with others.  Wherever we have been, he has initiated small group interaction. He believes so strongly in the power of  community that he makes it happen, often in spite of my foot dragging.

“I’d like to start a small group in our house on Saturday nights. Ok?”

Every Saturday night? Who? Why?

My introverted self whines and moans, and then I tidy the house, make some food, and open the door. I’m always glad I did, but it is not in my nature to initiate it. I tend toward the solitary.

In St. Louis, we led a small group community that started one Monday night when my husband said, “I invited two guys over tonight. You don’t have to do anything, but I think they are going to come every week.” I sighed and grumbled “every week?” as I quickly kicked shoes into closets and threw dishes into cupboards.

I’d been soldiering internally at the time, and I wasn’t looking forward to anyone getting too close. The thin veneer that I wore into public spaces was tenuous at best. We were a bit of a mess, truth be told, and I didn’t want anyone to see the ugly underbelly of our lives. However, my husband had been pressing for community, so finally, I gave in. What harm could a couple of grad students bring? Certainly we would be caring for them in their struggles, not vice versa. I could easily keep them at arm’s length.

They arrived after dinner — two young single guys who hadn’t eaten. We sat in our living room and chatted, read a few Bible verses, and prayed. At the end of an hour I heard myself telling them to arrive a little earlier the next week; I would have a meal ready for them. Before long, the two grew to about twenty young adults who crammed into our living room every week, eating whatever I happened to scrounge together. Sometimes we had guitar playing and singing, sometimes pranks and laughter, sometimes headier conversations.

At first, I maintained my comfortable food provider/discussion leader role, veneer firmly in place, but those kids had a habit of showing up, petting our dog, talking to our kids, lying around on our floor, and making me laugh that allowed them to worm their way beneath the armor and into my heart. This soldier who marched down school hallways kicking butts and taking names all day long, often went home on Monday nights, made a meal, and then quietly wept as these kids prayed for us — for our lives, for our children, for our health, for our future. When my husband moved to Ann Arbor a year before me, they kept coming to our house every Monday night without fail. They were a constant encouragement and a source of unconditional love. Toward the end, as we were emptying our house for the final move, they lugged furniture, painted walls, and scrubbed floors beside us.

I grieved leaving that group more than anything else that we left in St. Louis. They had taught me the value of community — of sharing life together, of listening to one another’s concerns, of helping to carry one another’s loads. Certainly, I thought, I would never find that kind of connection again.

I was wrong. Since I’ve been in Ann Arbor, I have had plenty of solitude and time for reflection, but I have also repeatedly found myself in close community. I landed in my Bible study battalion almost the minute I got here. Soon after that, I was sweetly surprised by reuniting with a college suite-mate who meets me for mall-walking that often leads to burden-sharing and tear-wiping — right there among the shoppers. A little over a year ago, I started getting out of bed at 6 am twice a month to join four other women for breakfast — we’ve read several books together and have grown close as we’ve discussed how these texts apply to our individual journeys. We are learning together how to be vulnerable, how to support one another, and how to take off our armor in the safe space that we have created.

Additionally, my husband and I have together recently joined a small group with other members of our congregation and are part of a launch team for a new worship service at our church. In each group we are hearing stories, making connections, and finding meaning. We’re leaning in to difficult conversations, we’re praying over one another, and we’re building community.

I am continually overwhelmed by the richness of these relationships — the kind that can see the underbelly with compassion rather than judgment, that can sit in the difficulty rather than searching for solutions, that can both laugh and cry within the space of an hour.

I had learned these lessons earlier in life, to be sure, but in my soldiering years I forgot,  probably because I was so intent on guarding, protecting, and surviving. I didn’t want to let anyone in; I didn’t want them to look under the armor and find out that I was wounded and weak.

Truthfully, it doesn’t always feel pleasant to peel off the armor and expose what’s beneath. I would prefer to keep my unspoken broken* just that, but in the safety of close community, wounds are witnessed, tears are shed, and healing begins. And not just mine.

As it turns out, everyone has their stuff — their unspoken broken — health issues, failed relationships, struggles with work, and money, and time. The surprise to me was that when others saw the pus-filled wounds beneath my armor, they didn’t gag and look away; they leaned in, applied some balm, and showed me their own scars. I didn’t feel judged, but loved.

Building community takes bravery, commitment, and time. It’s worth it, even for a lone soldier like me.

Hebrews 10:25

Continue meeting together, encourage one another.

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

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. 

Best Practices

In my trudge through the mundane and my continuing struggle with crabbiness, I am making an effort  to be intentional about my ‘best practices’.  Why is it so hard to do the right thing?

I get pretty methodical about attending yoga class 2-3 times a week, but this has a pretty significant physical pay-off almost immediately.  The strength and flexibility I am obtaining and maintaining from regular yoga is noticeable. Of course, the mindfulness of attending to my breathing and setting aside my “brain activity” for an hour or so a few times a week has emotional pay-off as well.

I also don’t struggle with eating foods that improve my health.  Although I don’t notice an immediate positive payoff from eating the right things, I do experience almost immediate consequences if I eat the wrong things.  For instance, because I take homeopathic remedies, I don’t drink coffee.  Apparently coffee can ‘cancel’ any benefit you get from homeopathic remedies.  Last weekend, to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I had a small glass of kahlua — the only alcohol my mother drinks.  (And when I say ‘drinks’, I mean “flavors her ice cream with.”) It didn’t dawn on me until about 24-48 hours after that glass of kahlua that  kahlua is made from coffee.  Why did I remember?  Because the psoriasis on the palm of my right hand that had been almost completely under control, raged angrily.  When I had scratched my palm to the point of bleeding it occurred to me that perhaps I had ‘cancelled’ out my homeopathic benefit. Ok, fine. I’ll stay away from coffee and kahlua.

Exercise and diet are very easy for me to maintain.  I probably owe that to my history with an eating disorder.   Although, my motivation has changed over the years from losing weight to feeling well, the ability to stick with a plan is pretty solid.  However, the best practices that attend to my spiritual health are so much harder for me to maintain.

One hundred and twelve days ago, I got the YouVersion Bible app on my phone.  I committed to reading the entire Bible in one year because our campus pastor told me to.  I’m pretty good at following instructions, but I’m also pretty good at procrastinating.  I’m almost always running about three days behind in my reading, but I discovered recently that if I put in my headphones and listen to the daily readings while I walk, I am more inclined to stay on track.  I’m not as religious about Bible reading as I am about getting my steps in. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Last year, you might remember that I was reading Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope: Ten Weeks of Devotional Prayer.  The book encouraged me to write down my prayers in a journal after reading each devotion, so I did!  It was a great practice.  In fact, I think I have read through the book almost three times.  But when I don’t pick up the book, I don’t write down my prayers.  And, full disclosure, when I don’t have a regular time devoted to writing down prayers, my prayers often devolve to haphazard spur-of-the moment utterances.  Yeah, it’s embarrassing.

And you remember my battalion? My group of ladies that I met with on Wednesdays the first two years that I was in Ann Arbor?  The ones I did countless Bible studies with, prayed with, and got encouragement from?  Well, my schedule doesn’t permit me to join them any more.  And, though I claim to be mostly an introvert (yes, I know I look extroverted sometimes), I need the community of ladies and the regular time in my schedule to ensure that I am working through a Bible study, challenging myself, and connecting with God through Scripture in meaningful ways.

Not only that, I need my Sunday morning body of believers and a regular message from my pastor.  Even that has been disrupted over the last several months.  Because we had the distinct privilege of traveling to South Africa and Israel, the opportunity to visit with family over the holidays, and the honor of joining other congregations where my husband preaches, our attendance at our own congregation has been spotty.  Yes, we have worshipped in other places — almost every Sunday, but it is not the same as gathering with our own church family and experiencing the spiritual journey that happens when you join with others in one place.

Failing to follow these spiritual best practices — daily Bible reading, prayer, group Bible study, and community worship —  has consequences that, although not immediately noticeable, build over time and become quite evident eventually. Eventually has arrived. The evidence of spiritual apathy over here is quite real.

So, how am I returning to these best practices? Sluggishly, I’ll admit.  As I mentioned, I’m plugging into my Bible ‘readings’ while I walk.  I am meeting with a few other women who have committed together to reading Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  And, on weeks like this one, where I am not attending my own congregation, I am re-committing to regular attendance at chapel services here on campus.  I guess you could say that the campus community is our second congregation — we grow within this spiritual family, too.

My blog seems to follow a theme.  I’ve been teaching my literature students that authors use themes to convey messages through their writing.  Those themes, I tell my students, can be stated in terms of a subject plus a verb — for example, ‘struggle transforms’, ‘tradition endures’, and ‘lies always surface’.

I force my students to follow a formula when writing analytical thesis statements — Author, in Title,  verb + how or why.  For example, I might write this on the board tomorrow: ‘Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses Christopher’s struggle with autism to convey the theme that difficulties can be overcome.’

Or, I might write this: ‘In the story of my life, God, through continually offering grace despite my habitual turning away, conveys the theme that He loves me.’  That’s His best practice.

Jeremiah 31:3

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.