Applied Learning

In the spirit of learning from my lessons, let’s apply the last two blogs to my current reality.

Fact #1 – I can’t plan for everything.

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

How do we live in the tension of recognizing these facts while living out our daily realities?

My current reality is this: I just returned from three weeks away from my home.  I intentionally didn’t plan any work for this week — not even tutoring — because I knew I would need a week of recovery.  Autoimmune disease is such that any stressor — good or bad — can cause a physiological response.  Flying can cause a response. Eating a delicious Cuban sandwich on fresh – delicious –  glutinous bread can cause a response. Working seven days in a row in an unfamiliar environment can cause a response.  Seeing an old friend can cause a response. Taking a detour can cause a response. Eating sorbet — before or after lunch — if it is out of the routine, can cause a response.  (Yes, in the past three weeks I have done all of those things.)

A ‘response’ can mean different things to different people.  For me, a ‘response’ is typically any of the following — fatigue, eye inflammation, increase in pain or fatigue, or, if the stressors are cumulative or particularly intense, what I call a ‘knock down’.  I got ‘knocked down’ a couple of times during the vacation. It’s really not pleasant.  I usually get a pretty solid headache, gastrointestinal distress, systemic pain and fatigue, and usually, the symptoms are so intense that I can’t sleep.

In the past five years, I have been knocked down enough times that I recognize the feeling and have come to take these episodes as reminders that I am trying too hard, that I am doing too much, and that I have to be mindful. I used to feel frantic during a knock down; now I lean in.  I fill a tub full of epsom salt water and slither in.  I lie there for as long as I can with a cool cloth across my forehead.  I drink a lot of water.  I take a homeopathic remedy called nux vomica (as recommended by my doctor), and I rest. I eat healing foods — rice, popsicles, scrambled eggs — and I prop myself in front of something mindless on the television. A standard knock down takes about twenty-four hours of intentional recovery.  Some have taken longer, some have resolved more quickly.

I fully anticipated a knock down during this week.  So, I planned nothing.  Well, not nothing. I planned things that would set me up for success in the coming weeks.

While stressors can lead to a ‘response’, intentionally proactive behaviors can build resilience, like money in the bank.  They don’t prevent a knock down, but they do build my core strength so that the likelihood of a knock down is reduced and the recovery from one is perhaps shorter.  What builds resilience for me?  Well, a regular schedule, for one.

If I follow routines — get up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast (gluten-free oatmeal with coconut oil and honey has been a recent trend), drink the same drinks (one green tea followed by one black tea), exercise, complete a task or two around the house, have one or two social interactions, and complete one or two professional tasks, all while taking periodic breaks throughout the day — I build resilience.  If I am being proactive,  I have to create my to-do list with this in mind.  I have to ‘plan’ blank spaces into my day.  Margin is essential.

Intentional reading and blogging are perhaps more important steps to building my resiliency than I give them credit for. Long ago, I learned to override feeling with doing. Because I didn’t want to feel pain or get lost in any type of emotion at all, I busied myself. That is a temporary fix, but feelings don’t go away.  They get buried.  Deeply buried.  I have found that if I read a particular genre of books (I’ve referred to many of these types of writers in this blog — Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and the like), then I gain access to emotions that I long ago buried.  While I am ‘hearing’ and feeling the stories of others, I recall my own stories and am able to attach meaning to them.  The follow-up, of course, is this blog.  If, in the wake of reading and reflecting, I sit down at my computer here in the quiet of my little house by the river, I give myself time to process the emotions that have been stirred up.  For you teachers out there, the reading is the receptive portion of the lesson; the blogging is the expressive.  I, like most students, need both in order for the lessons to have any hope of sticking. (And, like most students, I need repetition of most lessons in order to achieve mastery.)

How did I get the privilege of the time that enables a lifestyle with margin? that allows for reading and processing?  The only explanation I have is that the One who has eyes to see me and who knows my needs better than I know my own, determined that because I would never plan this type of life for myself, He would plan it for me. I was living a life that powered through and led to an epic ‘knock down’.  He saw it, and in compassion, He set me down into a new reality–one that allows for margin, one that allows for reflection, one that allows for healing.  Which exposes the next lesson:

Fact #3 – I am held in the palm of His hand.

I am really trying to rest in this reality.  Muscle memory makes me want to jump up and start doing so that I won’t have to feel the pain that has been exposed in the stillness of this chapter.  However, the knowledge that comes through the power of the knock down coupled with the words of some key people that are speaking into my life right now remind me of the words of Elizabeth Elliot that Ann Voskamp quoted in The Broken Way :

…”out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.” [Voskamp follows with] The most crushing lie a life can hold on to is that life is supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks.  Loss is our very air; we, like the certain spring rains, are always falling toward the waiting earth…

I embrace the knock down because His hand is holding me and leading me to a better life in this next chapter.

Psalm 103: 13

The Lord is as kind to his followers as a father is to his children.

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.

 

Swan-dive to Mundane

I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine.  I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office.  She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.

“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.

“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk.  Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”

“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”

Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core.  How does she do that?

The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem.  Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food?  Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.

It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it?  It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However,  we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.

Some of the crash was circumstantial.  I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra.  I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together,   and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.

Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation.  I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home.  For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else.  Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.

Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right?  The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.

The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley.  The physical therapist?  The husband?  Oh, they saw the shift.  I did, too.  I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.

It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that.  And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now.  You have other people depending on you.

And I believed that voice.  I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.”  I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.”  I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.

So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up.  I turn to the keys.  I am honest.  I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys.  I’m turning.  It might take a minute, but I’m turning.

Psalm 30:1ff

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.

Traveling Companions

Every day in Israel has been full of surprises — the beautiful and excellent food, the wide variety of geographical features, the incredible detail of the archeological finds, and today, the leathery knees and elbows of camels.  However, the best surprise I have had is the quality of the group that I am traveling with.

I’ve already mentioned Hela, our guide, a Messianic Jew from New York City; she is rich in knowledge of Israel after extensive training and twenty-two years on the job.  She keeps spewing out facts, answering questions, and throwing in an occasional pun. Oy. Then there’s Dan, a friend and colleague from Ann Arbor; this is his fourth trip to Israel. He started planning this trip about eighteen months ago, brought John into the plan over a year ago, and added me last Spring when the number of students necessitated a third chaperone.

Of course I am thrilled to have my husband and best friend, John, on this trip of a lifetime.  He is very conscientious, not only of me, but of everyone on the trip.  He is so aware of what everyone’s needs are and anticipates how he can best be of service on the trip.  He’s our Johnny on the Spot.  Beyond that, he is fun to be with.  He is always ready to try something new, like float on the frigid deep sea water before breakfast this morning, climb onto the back of a camel with me and ride it across the sand of the Negev, or eat candied mushrooms — I promise you, they were amazing!

But most amazing of all? The students we are traveling with.  I gotta admit that in the days leading up to the trip, I might have had some reservations about traveling to the other side of the world with thirty college students.  I had met almost half of them in Ann Arbor, but the rest were absolute strangers to me.  Not only would I have to co-exist with these people, who, by the way, are aged 19 to 56, but I would be responsible for leading ten of them in small group meetings every evening, keeping track of them throughout the day, and being available for any crises that might arise.  What if we had one (or more!) high maintenance travelers? What if roommate conflicts arose? What if students got lost?  What if they refused to follow the rules?  Well, I thought, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

All of my worries were unfounded.  Seriously, all of them. From the moment we gathered on the morning of January 6, these students have been easy going, friendly, receptive to one another, willing to lend a hand, and genuinely interested in all the information they are being exposed to.  Granted, they are getting a grade for this adventure, but they could still be apathetic.  Many students are, but these kids are engaged. Let me show you what I mean.

Almost every day, they have had to be up, packed, finished with breakfast, and on the bus by or before 8am. They ALWAYS are.  We have not had to wait once for anyone. Several times a day, we stop at a site, Hela says, “bring your Bible and your camera,” and all thirty jump off the bus, follow Hela, and start taking pictures and notes the minute she starts talking.  When she says, “go,” they disperse and milk the site for as much information as they can squeeze out of it.  If Hela says we are staying together, they stay together.  If she says, we are going to eat falafel, they eat falafel.  If she says, “You should order the St. Peter’s fish,” they order the St. Peter’s fish.  I am telling you, they don’t whine, they don’t complain, they don’t wrinkle their noses, they are all in. Always.

And in the evenings, after we have all had dinner and Hela has retired to her room for the evening, the rest of us convene to worship and debrief.  Again, no one has ever been late. Two of our students take turns playing the guitar and leading worship.  Others have volunteered to pray or read Scripture.  After some announcements and singing, we break into groups of ten — the same groups every night — where we share about the experiences of the day, ask questions, and encourage one another.  This all happens at 8pm, twelve hours after they boarded the bus!  And they are still engaged and invested, sharing their hearts and listening to one another.

I know, I know, I sound like I am gushing.  And, yes, I know, I always am bragging about my students; it’s like I think I have better students than anyone else in the world. And, you know, I think I do!!

This morning, when John and I walked down to the beach to float in the Dead Sea, we passed two young men who were working out together, one coaching the other.  We found another girl, sitting alone, practicing the Hebrew alphabet.  In the water, we met up with three students who hadn’t met before this trip, who were floating, laughing, and taking pictures of one another.  While we were in the water, others joined, then Dan walked down to the beach to take our picture for the video he is publishing online most evenings.  Because the water was very cold, John and I left the beach and walked inside the hotel where there is a pool full of filtered, heated Dead Sea water.  In the pool, we joined Dan, some other students, and the last member of our tour, our driver, Elan.

Let me talk about Elan for a minute.  He is a Jewish native of Israel in his fifties. His first language is, of course, Hebrew, but he speaks English rather well, too.  The guy can drive that bus, a fifty-five passenger Mercedes,  in places I wouldn’t drive my car. Today he wound us through hairpin curves from 700+ feet below sea level to 2500 feet above sea level and back again.  He fits that bus through gates, into parking spots, and past busses and truck with inches to spare — I promise I am not exaggerating.  He joins us at dinner and in the pool, cracks jokes, and is quick with a witty response.  Two times he has missed a turn and said, dead pan, “I went a different way to show you the cows.”

If I had to interview and hand-select traveling companions, I couldn’t have compiled a group this magnificent.   They are becoming members of my extended family — people who will matter to me for the rest of my life.  I wasn’t anticipating that; it is a bonus blessing. I am so thankful for these traveling companions.

“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility, bearing with one another in love,

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:1-3

 

Turn, Turn, Turn

In the midst of The Great Sunglasses Search, I may have lost my sense of humor.  Now, you could probably guess that it wasn’t just the sunglasses, or the way a friend called me out for being inconsiderate, or the way I reacted to someone else being inconsiderate, or the many errands I have run over the past couple of days, or even my obsession with the Minimalist Challenge (I’ve completed 15 days in 2 days — that’s 120 items so far, but who’s counting?).

No, it wasn’t any one of those things that made me lose my sense of humor — it was a cumulative effect. I was chugging along with tons of energy, feeling very positive about this trip to Israel, when I suddenly noticed that the space between my eyebrows was wrinkled, my jaw was set, and little things were starting to bug me.  Eh, whatever, I thought, so I’m a little irked.  I’ve still got to mail two packages, stop by the library, pick up a few things at Target, print out two documents, and doggone it, did I look in those other suitcases?  Maybe my sunglasses are in there!

Yes, yes, I know, I need to pace myself.  How many times have we been over this.  Fortunately, my body hasn’t revolted and flung me on the couch.  That is probably due to the fact that although I accomplished all of the above, I also sat at the puzzle table for a few hours last night and had the satisfaction of completing a 1000-piecer, tossing it back in the box, and adding it to the donation pile. (Yes, I’m a little out of control.) Also, I know myself well enough that I made sure to do yoga twice last week and twice this week already, following each 75-minute session with a soak in the jacuzzi.

Nevertheless, I’ve got to calm down a little.  I mean, we are leaving TOMORROW  with THIRTY STUDENTS for TWELVE DAYS! The one thing I can’t leave at home is my sense of humor!!

So, you know, in the spirit of my commitment to Return to the Lord, I came home after yoga this morning, did three more things on my to-do list, then grouchily opened my Bible Reading plan. If you have read this blog more than three times, you know what happened.  I was convicted right in the middle of my reading, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: …enmity, strife,…fits of anger, …dissensions, divisions,…and things like these.” Darn flesh.

Keep reading, Rathje, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Well, of course not, silly. Who would outlaw kindness or gentleness? patience? peace? Nah, we don’t have to outlaw those things — those are the things we forget to do, the things we turn away from.  The things that need to be outlawed are the ones we are bent on doing — like getting irritated and ticked off!

So, what’s a girl to do?   Ahem, keep reading, “…those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Really? Because my flesh seems to be alive and kicking, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

There it is.  My flesh is alive and kicking; it’s true.  It’s got to be crucified moment by moment.  It’s a continual act of turning away from the flesh and toward the Spirit.  That’ll probably be easier to do in the Holy Land, right? Ha-ha.  That’s funny.

Alright, guys, I’m headed out one more time this afternoon.  I’m not coming home tonight until I have located one pair of sunglasses, two travel umbrellas, a pile of cash in small denominations, and a well-fortified sense of humor.

Because tomorrow, my friends, we go to Israel.

“…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ,

will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.

(I Peter 5:10)

 

Resolving to Return

My daughter and I spent yesterday morning together at a “Breathe out 2016, Breathe in 2017” yoga class and afterward talked briefly about resolutions — the positive thrust toward change and the set-up for unrealistic expectations and imminent failure.  The yoga instructor, intentionally or not, seemed to suggest that we could will good things to come to us by just opening our arms and our spirits to them.

Oh, that it were so.

Last night, at a New Year’s Eve worship service where my husband was filling in for local pastors away for the holidays, we sang the words, “Christ has done away with sadness,” and my daughter turned to me and cheekily said, “has He really done away with sadness?”

Oh, that it were so.

Truly, we don’t need to look far to see sadness. Every day we witness hatred, violence, murder, poverty, chaos, and, yes, sadness.  Just last night in Turkey, thirty-nine people were senselessly murdered as they attempted to ring in the new year.  The past year has had more than its share of sadness.  Indeed, the coming year will not be immune.

So what are we to do? Wear sackcloth and ashes? Walk around wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth? Shall we shake our fists at God in anger, demanding that He do something?

Nah.

We should do the same thing He’s been telling us to do since the Creation of the world — return to the Lord our God.  That’s all.  Our salvation is not in losing our holiday weight, in getting our finances in order, or in building a better portfolio.  It’s in recognizing that God is still God even when He hasn’t done away with sadness.

When my husband asked the congregation last night to write down one way to connect with God in the coming year, I wrote down the same thing I wrote down last year: return to daily Bible study, return to daily prayer, return to regular writing.  I had to write it down again this year because, as we have established, I am bent on turning away and am in constant need of returning.

The world, which is full of sadness, needs Jesus followers to immerse themselves in the Word and in prayer, because when we do this, we can’t help but reflect His mercy and His grace.  We become beacons when we allow His light to take residence within us.  We point to our Source of Hope and spread love rather than fear.

Will you commit with me to return to the Lord and allow Him to use us to shine His love into the lives of those around us?   Imagine a 2017 that is filled with hopefulness that comes from Christ’s light shining in the darkness.

Isaiah 43:19

Behold I am doing a new thing…

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

 

 

It is Written

My blog has been silent for a few weeks.  It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say; I just haven’t had anything I wanted to put in print.

Think of the flood of stimuli my brain has been processing — in addition to the madness that we will call the election of 2016, my husband and I traveled to South Africa for a week, came back for a week, and then went to Austin, TX for four days.  Oh, and we’ve also been holding down our day jobs — he’s the dean of students at a small university and I am an adjunct professor of English and a private tutor.

I’ve really wanted to write more about what we observed in South Africa and how that has informed the ways in which we see our community, but when we got back, we saw things in our community that were very unsettling — so much posturing and name-calling, blaming and shaming. We, or perhaps I should switch now to I, I reeled.

While in South Africa, we were in a unique position to just observe.  For as long as I can remember, my husband and I have been in positions of leadership, so being free to observe with no responsibility for others was very unusual.  We met people, heard their stories, were inspired by their dreams, saw their struggles, and shared their joys.  We didn’t really do anything other than bear witness to their lives.  And then, about a week later, we were put in a similar position.  In Austin, although my husband had minimal responsibilities, for the most part, we were again observers.  Seeing.  Listening. 

Is it too egotistical of me to imagine that God crafted these experiences so that we could come back and observe what has been happening in our very own community, in our very own country?  Because I really think that is what happened.  For the last two weeks, we have been watching and listening.  We  debrief with one another in the evenings, of course, and I’ll admit, I’ve shared a bit on social media, but for the most part, we have tried to position ourselves in conversations in which we can hear what people are saying.  We want to understand how a country can be so divided.  We want to be able to speak peace into the hostility.  But how?  People are positioned.  They are sunk in.  Nobody seems to want to move.  Where do we start?

So, yesterday, when I walked into church and saw who would be our pastor for the day, I hugged him and said, “Yay, we’re going to get a good word!”  I was joking around with him a little, because he’s a dear friend, but I think I was really speaking my hope that God would speak a good word through him.

And guys, He did.

Now, let me just give my standard disclaimer.  I am very distractible in church.  My husband often asks me about his sermon — did his main point come through?  What did I think about a particular illustration.  I want to be generous to myself and say that 50% of the time I can give him a meaningful response.  My mind often takes tangential journeys away from the sermon.  So, I won’t mention the pastor’s name or try to claim what he actually said.  I will tell you what I heard.

Jesus reigns. Over everything. Period.

No political candidate reigns. No political party reigns. No particular country reigns.  No particular church body reigns.  I don’t reign.

Jesus reigns.

It has been rather tempting over the past days, weeks, months to become aligned with a particular ‘side’, hasn’t it? I have heard Christ-followers on both sides (myself included) claim that certainly Christians “should” feel this way or that.  And we’ve been making these claims waving our fists in the air at each other.  We are passionate, are we not? We are passionate about politics, but are we just as passionate about our True Leader?

I gotta admit, I’ve been misdirected.

My friends in South Africa showed me what it looks like to be passionate about the One who reigns.  They worshipped — I mean singing, dancing, clapping, marching worship — for almost three hours!  They breathe thankfulness and reverence as they walk through their days.

Me? I’ve been grumbly and judgmental. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten that Jesus reigns over everything.   Will he stop reigning if we turn and go our own way? Nope.  We’ve seen story after story written in His Word about generations who have turned away to idols and godlessness.  Yet, He reigns.

We’ve heard stories about how God has worked among peoples who are oppressed and disadvantaged.  We know that He is a God who steps into difficult places and makes a way for His people.  Will He stop now?  No.  He will continue to reign.

So, should I stand idly by?  No. However, I want to be careful that what I speak gives honor to the One who reigns.  I want to, as someone recently said, “speak Truth to crazy.”  The only way I know to speak Truth, is to look at what is written.  I can’t rely on myself right now.  Not in this emotionally-charged environment.  I need to turn, once again.

So what has been written?

“Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Yes, even that neighbor.

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Ouch.

“Be devoted to one another.  Honor one another above yourselves.”

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”

How about if we start there? What if Jesus-followers across the country and around the world just saw and loved the people in front of us? What if we stopped shaking our fists and really cared about individuals in ways that showed we were devoted to them?  What if we cared about the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner?  What impact would that have?

I’d like to find out.  Wouldn’t you?

“It is written; Christ is risen. Jesus, you are Lord of all.”

Stronger, Hillsong Worship

 

 

 

A Study in Contrasts

We’re back in the states.  After seven days in South Africa, we spent about twenty-four hours traveling to Michigan.  We got home, unpacked our suitcases, started laundry, and tried to re-acclimate ourselves to our former lives before reality struck this morning.

Several hours later, I’ve already taught three sections of students and interacted with a number of people who wondered, “Well, how was your trip?”  I’m really glad they asked, because as I answered people, I began to learn what impact this trip to South Africa has had on me.

It became rather clear early in the journey that our purpose, or at least my purpose, was to be an observer.  This was a new role for me.  Often I am a leader, presenter, director, and planner.  This past week, I was a follower, listener, observer, and receiver. In this role, I was free to take in South African culture, to hear the stories of a variety of people, to let go of responsibility, and to bear witness to the contrast between my life in the United States and the lives of the people I met in South Africa.

First of all, although I often think I need more, I recognize now how much I have in contrast with many of the people I saw.  For example, I complained at the beginning of my semester because the classroom where I teach didn’t come equipped with dry erase markers or an eraser, even though it did come equipped with a computer, projection, and wifi.  I easily purchased a pack of markers and an eraser for less than $5, a textbook was provided to me, and I am paid a fair salary to teach under 25 students in each of my three classes.  In contrast, my colleagues in South Africa have no internet in their classrooms at all — not even dial-up.  They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class!  And guys, despite the fact that they earn very little, they aren’t complaining.  They are teaching and learning.  The instructors are engaging their students.  The students take pride in their work.

Yes, the contrast was palpable.

It was also evident in the ways that I noticed people interacting with one another. Each time people see each other during the day, they greet one another, “Good morning!  How are you?” Even if they have seen each other several times, they still  formally greet one another before they move on in conversation.  This was a challenge for me!  I am known to jump right in with “Hey, did you get my email?” For a week, I practiced acknowledging the person in front of me instead of the task that he or she could perform for me.  The simple practice of speaking a greeting shifted my perspective.  That, plus the fact that I had no real responsibilities, allowed me to see people and listen more carefully than I am typically apt to do.

In fact, I noticed today, here in Michigan, that I was looking at people in the eyes a bit more, listening a little more intently, worrying a little less about getting to the next task on my list.  I hope it lasts.

The third difference I will note today is the energetic spirit I saw in the people of South Africa — particularly the black South Africans.  Apartheid ended a number of years ago, but the differences and division between whites and blacks could not be more obvious. In one week’s time I noticed that black South Africans have less — less status, less power, less money, and less opportunity than the white South Africans.  Yet they do not seem defeated.  Their spirit propels them to walk great distances along red clay paths — rain or shine — to work and to school.  They sit up tall in their classrooms, raise their hands high, and open their mouths to sing as they work, whether their tasks are menial or meaningful. Rather than seeming angry or sad, they exude joy!  Their worship was filled with dancing, clapping, and even marching! They smiled, laughed, and played with one another — despite their seeming disadvantage.  I was struck by this.  I have not experienced the kind of disadvantage that all of them have experienced.  I have led a life of plenty.  I have not gone one day without food, clothing, or shelter in my fifty years of life.  I have had every opportunity for education, employment, and entertainment that I have ever desired.  Yet I am often discouraged, stressed, and even angry about what I don’t have.

So, you know what’s coming, don’t you?  I opened my Bible study today and turned to the reading in Psalm 37.  (I really can’t make this stuff up.) When I read the words, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I pictured my new South African  friends smiling, clapping, and dancing — delighting themselves in the Lord.  They are happy and celebrating the fact that they have Him, regardless of the things that they don’t have.

I can learn a lot from these people.  I think I have begun to.

Psalm 37: 23-24

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way;

though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong.