Re-member

I was sitting in a church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with a community I’ve visited several times before. It’s a group of mismatched broken people who gather each week to hear the message that they are beloved of God — every one of them.

They come in dresses and jeans, sweatpants and suits, walking unassisted or rolling in wheelchairs, all ages, various races, and every socio-economic background.

Their journeys are varied, but all have found their way to a humble basement gathering — and the love is palpable. Smiles and hugs for all who enter — whether they arrive early, on time, or halfway through the service. Strangers and friends slide over to make room.

Songs are sung in English and Spanish simultaneously. Prayers are written in traditional and modern forms, side by side. I am invited to “pray and sing using language that is meaningful” for me. The voices join in a beautiful cacophony.

A children’s message is delivered to the two children present, and since they are timid to come forward, two grown men make the first move, and sit at the feet of the woman giving the message, and everyone participates. “Does anyone know how to say ‘I love you’ in a different language,” she asks. And the adults in the room respond in Spanish and French, in German and Basque, and sign language.

The pastor’s message reminds those present that the community as a whole experienced trauma not too many years ago when its main sanctuary was destroyed by fire. And, in this season of Easter, she tells the story of the traumatized disciples who had witnessed their friend, their mentor, their leader be killed in front of their eyes. She reminds us that though we, like the disciples, have been traumatized, we have been loved.

Each broken person in the basement of the yet un-repaired building has been loved — held, watched, and supported through the healing.

She recalls Peter and the disciples shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, who, seeing that their lives of walking with Jesus in the flesh were over, resorted to muscle memory — throwing out nets and pulling in nothing.

And after a long night of futility, Jesus meets them on the beach, and tells these professional fishermen to throw their nets out on the other side of the boat — not the side that they’d been trained to throw out on, not the one they knew to be most fruitful, but a different side.

He was telling them, the pastor said, to try a different way. Don’t go back to what you were doing before; you’ve been changed. Do things a different way.

Don’t go back to what was; move forward into what is.

And the broken in the basement room — me among them — leaned in. Our scars are still visible. We are rebuilding strength, but the images of trauma remain. We long to be whole, to have our weak and jangling limbs strengthened. We long to walk, even run.

The pastor cast her vision of restoration, of finishing the repairs of the sanctuary, of creating a space of healing for the community, of opening doors where others who are mismatched and broken can find love. She painted a picture of not going back to what was, but moving forward into what is.

And the broken in the room could see the image of doors flung open, of throngs flowing in, of scarred hands put to good use.

When the disciples tried the different way– throwing their nets on the unfamiliar side –they pulled in so many fish that the nets could barely hold them. They dragged their haul to where Jesus was waiting with a fire, ready to cook them breakfast after their long night. And while they were there, Jesus asked Peter, “do you love me?” Peter was offended — “you know that I love you!” And Jesus answered, and I’m paraphrasing here, “then don’t go back to your old life, man, you’ve been transformed. Spread the love that has been lavished upon you. Feed my sheep.”

The pastor held a loaf of bread in her hands and broke it in two saying, “Jesus said, this is my body, broken for you. Do this to remember me. Re-member me.”

We are not simply remembering that Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. We are not only nostalgic for the time that he walked on the earth. We are not just focusing on His work on the Cross. We are also joining in His work of putting His body back together, of restoring, of healing, of re-membering.

That’s the work of Jesus. He re-members the broken who he calls to re-member his broken body — to pull it back together — to open the doors to the broken, offer them something to eat and invite them to join in the work of re-membering the broken.

It’s pretty simple, actually.

If you have been broken, and haven’t we all, remember that you have also been loved — even in that brokenness. You have been carried, and seen, and possibly even restored.

If you have or if you are on the journey, lift your gaze. Don’t go back to what you were doing before, but look around. You are likely walking beside the wounded — those who are limping and gasping and longing to be seen and restored. They yearn to be re-membered. Open your arms to them, welcome them in. Feed His sheep.

We won’t all do this work in a building in Jamaica Plain — although I can imagine a thriving ministry growing out of those ashes. Some of us will use our broken bodies in our work places, in our cities, in our churches, and among our friends. The broken are all around us. Let’s do our best to feed His sheep and re-member His body.

You are a Savior
And You take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful”

All Sons and Daughters, “Brokenness Aside”
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Can I ask you a question?

An adult student with some cognitive challenges works with us two hours every morning. She has been learning how to read for as long as I’ve known her; the process moves very slowly. Each word is a labor, and ‘Kelly’ is on her own time table. She will work hard for a few minutes and then take a singing or “knock, knock” joke break. When she wanders off topic, it can be challenging to recapture her attention, but I’ve found a pretty reliable way to call her back to work. I sit quietly with my hand raised, student style. She soon sees my hand and then points at me and says, “Yes, Kristin?”

I’ll say, “Can I ask you a question,” and she’ll say, “What’s your question,” and just like that we’re back in business.

My husband and I have been challenging each other to ask questions. We started this dialogue shortly after we admitted that we didn’t know all the answers. My personal recovery started something like this:

“Hi, my name is Kristin. I’m a know-it-all.”

My journey as a know-it-all started early. I was a straight A student my whole educational career in every class that I cared about, which was all of them with just a few exceptions:

US Government my senior year of high school because 1) it was right after lunch and I’d been up since 5:30am, and 2) our teacher, bless his heart, didn’t really sell his content in a way that sparked my interest;

Anthropology my freshman year of college because 1) a cute ROTC guy (in uniform!) sat on the other side of the auditorium, and 2) the instructor, bless her heart, stood at the podium in the front of the lecture hall droning on and on about slide after slide;

Principles of Fitness in college because 1) I was anorexic, and on day one I was shown how to use calipers to measure my body fat, and 2) the instructor, a soon-to-retire coach, bless his heart, seemed less than thrilled to be stuck teaching a required course.

See a pattern? If I had a reason not to learn it and the instructor didn’t engage me, I had better things to do with my time and energy.

And besides, as I said, I’m a know-it-all. I’m basically right about everything — education, parenting, marriage, writing. Just ask me. And if you don’t ask me, don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I think anyway, either by telling you, by showing you, or by wearing an all-knowing expression on my face.

Yeah, my know-it-all attitude has never really fostered communication, let alone transformation. Unchallenged for much of my life, I forged onward, knowing what I knew and operating from that core until — whoops! — I realized that I didn’t actually know everything.

Over the past few years, my husband and I have been faced with very difficult questions, and we haven’t had all of the answers. To complicate matters, we keep finding ourselves in conversations with people who don’t agree with. In the past, as a confirmed know-it-all, I would’ve used my position, power, or sheer force of will to press my opinions and beliefs on others, using words or actions to convince them that I was right — about ministry, about marriage, about parenting, or about politics. But guess what — force-feeding doesn’t convince people to eat what you are serving. People don’t actually like to be told what to think, feel, or believe. They like to be challenged to find their own answers. They like to be invited into conversations. They don’t want to be lectured or tolerated or pacified.

I know — it’s mind-blowing!

So, as a recovering know-it-all, I have, with my husband, been considering an alternate strategy — asking questions. What if, instead of telling everyone I know the best way to teach writing, I ask other teachers what strategies they have found to be effective? What if instead of promoting one particular type of school, I ask parents what factors guided their educational choices? What if instead of insisting that the best way to deal with chronic illness is to find a homeopathic doctor, I ask a friend what she has found to be most useful in dealing with her illness?

Do you see what happens? Telling keeps people at a distance. Asking brings them into your space! Telling keeps me isolated. Asking gives me community! Telling sets my feet firmly in the ground. Asking creates space for me to move!

Now, I will admit, that this new stance — asking — feels more vulnerable than my previous one — telling. When you bring people into your space, they have much more opportunity to hurt you, but I’m learning that they also have much more opportunity to love you and to be loved by you. 

I will also admit that because the former way was so well practiced, it has been difficult to re-train the muscle memory. Our quest to transition away from telling started in the theoreticalWhat if we asked people questions rather than debating the correct answers? It then moved to the pedagogicalCertainly asking questions invites others to join in conversation. But it has taken us a while to move from the theoretical and pedagogical to the practical — actually asking people questions.

Coincidentally — hah — at the same time that we’ve been exploring questions as a means of making conversation and building community, we have had opportunity to witness a member of our small group community, who, in every discussion we have, starts each thought with, “Could I ask you a question?” It is quite evident that he has trained himself in this practice. He is very intentional. He asks questions and he waits for answers. (You know what he does for his job? He guides organizations through change! I can’t make this stuff up.)

So, we had the theoretical discussion. We determined an appropriate action. A model was provided, and then the occasion appeared — the moment in which we met a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living that produced personal transformation*.

It happened last weekend at the prayer conference we attended. One of the presenters, Chris Paalova, of All Nations Church in St. Louis, MO, spent his forty-five minutes asking us if we would be willing to change the way we pray from telling God what we want him to do to asking Him.

He built his case for this method by citing numerous passages where the big players of Scripture — David, Abraham, Paul, and even Jesus — prayed in questions — from David in the Psalms asking, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) to Jesus on the cross asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

And as he gave example after example it dawned on me that even with God, I have been a know-it-all. I don’t ask, “What are you showing me through this illness?” Rather, I say, “Lord, give me the strength to make it through today.” Instead of asking, “Lord, will you please encourage my kids and show them who you are?” I say, “Lord, encourage my kids and provide for their needs.” Instead of asking, “Lord, what am I missing here?” I say, “Lord, lead me through this circumstance.” It’s subtle, but in my prayers, I am still calling the shots. I am not being vulnerable with God. I am telling Him what I want when I could be asking Him what I need.

Like ‘Kelly’, I’ve been working on this lesson for as long as I can remember. I’ve been trying to learn that God is God and I am not. He is the only one who knows everything. My stint as a know-it-all was all smoke and mirrors. He knew that. And because He wants to engage me, to draw me closer to Him and be in relationship with me, He keeps varying his instructional methods and providing models for me.

So, at last, I’m sitting here raising my hand, and I can almost hear Him say, “Kristin, what’s your question?” I think we’re back in business.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

*Kirkegaard, again.

Choosing 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 a whole afternoon away 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

The Sweet Battalion Strikes Again

So, yesterday I was sitting around the table with the other members of the battalion (To meet the battalion, check out https://kristinsnextchapter.com/2015/01/14/my-sweet-battalion/).  We are one week short of finishing our study on The Sermon on the Mount.  In discussing the section on Ask, Seek, Knock (Matthew 7:7-8) the question arose, “If God does not need to be encouraged, convinced, or coerced, why might He not answer a request made only once?”

Right?  I mean, seriously, why can’t it be like a work-order system.  I log-on and enter all my requests in the system and God just answers them ‘in the order they were received’ or even ‘the order of most importance’.  I told Him about our financial issues.  I told Him about my health.  I told Him about my desire to work just a little bit more. So, He knows. He’ll get to it when He gets to it.

When I was teaching in St. Louis that was the system for getting things done.  Our building supervisor wanted everything submitted through the system.  He would clear it from the system when the issue was ‘resolved’.  Why can’t God work like that?  Why can’t I just wait for the email that says the problem has been ‘resolved’?

Well, let me tell you.  I really appreciated our building supervisor.  He did take care of issues that were entered into the system.  He was also gracious enough to come ’emergency style’ when there was a spill or some other urgent matter. He did not complain. He came, he saw, he fixed.  But I’ve got to be honest and tell you, that unless I had an issue, I didn’t really spend a lot of time talking to him.  Sorry, Bob.  I mean sometimes we ate lunch at the same table.  His kids were in my classes.  We went to the same staff functions.  But I think Bob would agree that he and I were not best friends.  I went to him when I had a specific need; he did his part to meet that need.

Is that the kind of relationship I want with God? Do I just want Him to respond to my needs?

One member of our battalion is Chinese.  We were having this discussion yesterday and she said that our conversation reminded her of a Chinese tale.  I will try my best to repeat what I heard.  She said there were three brothers who were all doctors.   The youngest of the brothers was the most famous doctor because he was known to cure patients who were near death.  Many patients who had no other options came to this youngest brother doctor and were healed.  His fame grew and grew.  So one time he was taken (to the emperor?  to the news station?  I can’t remember.) Anyway, someone asked him who of the three brothers was the best?  Certainly he was, right?  The youngest brother doctor said, “No.”  Certainly he had healed many people who were near death.  And the second oldest brother had also cured many illnesses.  But his oldest brother, he said, was the best because people came to him when they were still healthy, before they had a need, and he could tell them how to live in ways that would prevent illness and premature death.  He, the youngest brother said, was certainly the best doctor.

My sweet Chinese friend said, “When we follow God’s Word, we avoid the consequences.”

I really wasn’t going to go to Bible study yesterday.  I have been having a bad week.  I am emotionally drained, physically struggling, and not up to interacting with others.  But, it was my day to bring the fruit.  Sigh. So, I stopped at the store to buy fruit and grudgingly carried it into the little classroom where we meet.  We watched our video and discussed prayer, then as we closed, a woman across the table, who really doesn’t know the details of the internal storm that is raging in my head, offered prayer on my behalf.  A melting occurred inside of me and my body began to sob.

I hadn’t put in that work order.  But I have been going through my routine of Bible study and prayer for what I hope will one day amount to ten weeks (and then some).  And in this position of need — in this posture of dependence on the One who knows what I need before I ask, I received peace in the midst of this ugly storm.

That, I think, is why God doesn’t always answer a request made only once.  He knows that when we take this posture of dependence and need, He can meet us and heal us.  He can lead us around situations that may otherwise lead to dire consequences.

I want to take that posture. I want to be dependent in a way that requires moment by moment acknowledgement of the One who cares for me so much that He is carrying me around in the palm of His hand.

Isaiah 65:24

Before they call, I will answer;

while they are yet speaking I will hear.

“Trouble Talks”

I was sharing some of my troubles with a friend the other day, and when I realized what I was doing I apologized.  “I am so sorry I used our time to complain about my life.”  She replied as most of us would, “Not at all.”  But then she followed that up with, “It actually makes me feel a little better in a weird way.”  We talked more and came to the conclusion that it is comforting to know that you are not the only one who has a complicated life.

Years ago I heard a speaker at some women’s event (I’ve been to dozens over the years.) who said that for centuries women have gotten together to cook, or sew, or do laundry, or drink coffee, or go for walks.  The speaker (I wish I could remember who it was) said that regardless of time or place, these women almost always have engaged in conversation that she called “trouble talks”.  They have shared their burdens about marriage, children, work, finances, housing, etc.  In these “trouble talks” women have found support, camaraderie, connection, community.

I am a verbal processor, so this is no shock to me.  I talk through everything — with my husband, a coworker, a sister, my mother, a friend.  But I think I have been missing the communal piece of this — the banding together of women.

Somewhere along the line I got the memo that in public gatherings with other women, I needed to present myself as flawless, above reproach, intentional, skilled — perfect.  I’m certain my own insecurities fed into this lie that I believed, but it was also likely bolstered by my beliefs about being a leader, a teacher, a pastor’s wife.  And it was probably fueled by our culture that seems to promote competition among women rather than community.

But over the last six months, as I have tasted sisterhood in a new way — through my Bible study battalion, through new friendships, through regular sharing, I am learning the blessings of being vulnerable and “bearing one another’s burdens.”

A couple weeks ago, in my Wednesday Bible study, one of the women shared a concern about her adult children.  She painted a picture of the “trouble” she was experiencing.  The women around our table listened, nodded in understanding, shared the woman’s sadness, offered suggestions, and prayed.  I didn’t feel a shred of judgment in the room — just pure care.

I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that each of us in the group (each of us in any group) have our own “stuff”, our own “troubles”.  Her sharing, her vulnerability, allows another in the group to share her “troubles” in an environment that is free of judgment.

Now, of course, I am not advocating that we each run to our respective groups and share every little detail of our lives.  Many things are private, and should be.  But it is healthy to foster the creation of safe spaces where we can come alongside people we trust, share our burdens, and have our load (at least temporarily) lightened.  It’s not a sign of weakness to need others.  It’s a sign of strength to recognize the need and to ask for support.

It’s all part of the turning that is resulting from what I am learning in this next chapter. 

Galatians 6:2

Bear each other’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.