Coronavirus Diary #6: Touching

When the sun came out this weekend and warmed the earth, we stepped outside, donned brand new gardening gloves, pulled each weed from our garden plot, trimmed last year’s death away from our irises, washed grime off our outdoor chairs, and began to see signs of promise.

We began to look forward to the next phase where we’ll push seeds into the ground — carrots and peas and beets and radishes– and when we’ll spread fresh mulch on our flower beds. Maybe this year we’ll actually find some time to plant some annuals.

Signs of new life are all over campus. Tiny green leaves have sprouted on the wild blackberries at the edge of the woods behind our yard. Peonies and tulips have broken through the soil just as the daffodils have begun to take their final bow. The rose behind our house, pruned a few weeks ago, is thick with leaves and hinting at buds.

Do I dare to walk out to check the lilac? Could he be waking up, too?

Is it possible that we’ll soon be able to move some of our hours outside? to emerge from our four-walled isolation? To touch the earth? To smell the flowers? To feel the breeze on our skin?

Soon. The weatherman says it’ll be cool with scattered showers for the next week or two. This flash of 70s and sunny was a glimpse of what’s coming — a glimmer of hope.

So we leaned in. We played 80s jams — Doobie Brothers, America, Steely Dan — and sang along as we sat loosening the weeds from the soil. We smiled as we chatted, not rushing, just happy to have our hands in the dirt, to smell the earth, to feel the sun on our faces.

And as we were working there, on our knees in our garden, an unfamiliar Buick rolled right up next to us. An elderly man opened the passenger door and stepped out — no mask, no gloves, just a Laborers for Christ baseball cap. He told us his name and said, “Twenty-five years ago I stayed in these dorms for six weeks while we remodeled them.” My husband put down his tools, stood up, and stepped closer. He reached out his now ungloved hand, saying “Thank you so much! What a difference you made! Your work is still making a difference!” He shook the man’s gnarled hand, looked him in the eye, and smiled.

The man continued on, stringing memories together, a little confused, wondering if the dining hall was open or if he could go into a residence hall. Well no, my husband said, not with the pandemic. “Oh, right, right,…” the man said, as he got back in the car that his son was driving. They turned the car around and drove away.

I guess it was a sunny day and they just needed to get outside, to go for a drive, to remember a different time, and to make sure that the work of a long time ago still mattered.

It does. Even though the residence halls are all but empty. Even though some of them are due for another round of sprucing up. Even though he couldn’t peek inside. His work still matters.

I’m glad my husband instinctively knew what this man was looking for. After weeks shut in at home, with little outside interaction, knowing that he’ll likely not walk this earth too much longer, he wanted to see if the work of his life mattered.

My instinct when my husband reached out his hand, I have to admit, was fear. I almost said, “Stop! Wait! Don’t shake hands! We’re not shaking hands right now!” Wasn’t my husband the one who just yesterday took great pains at the park to walk off the path and to wait patiently for others to pass so that we could maintain our six feet of distance? Isn’t he the one, with me, who opens each piece of mail at the door, refusing to let the outer packaging come in the house, the one who washes each purchased item, each piece of produce, before it’s allowed to sit inside our fridge?

Did he suddenly forget all the precautions we are taking?


Maybe he forgot.

Or maybe his heart noticed a greater need. One that — ever so occasionally — trumps the precautions we’ve been taking for weeks.

For weeks we’ve touched no one except our spouses and possibly our children. For weeks we’ve seen no one in physical form other than those living inside our homes and the people we strategically avoid in public spaces, delicately shifting to the other side of the path, the street, the aisle to keep our distance. We’ve had all of our interactions over the phone, Zoom, and FaceTime. We’ve stayed within our private spaces in order to slow the spread of disease, flatten the curve, and protect ourselves and others.

But sometimes after you’ve seen no one in the flesh since sometime in March, an elderly gentleman steps into your garden, wondering if in his life he made an impact, and it suddenly becomes exactly the right thing to do to reach out, shake his hand, and say, “You made a difference.”

Touching can make a difference.

We won’t be making this a practice any time soon — touching friends, family, or complete strangers who step into our garden — but for this gentleman, who needed some reassurance on a day that offered the hope of Spring, touch seemed more than appropriate. It seemed like the human and loving thing to do.

This afternoon, my husband asked if I’d seen the lilac bush near our house. I told him I hadn’t, so we walked, plucked a small sprig of blossoms, and I held them to my nose and breathed in.

They smelled like Spring; they smell like hope.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Transformational Spaces

On an average day in the middle of last summer a soon-to-be fifth grader walked into our learning center. As is common among first day students, his eyes were down, his defenses were up, and he was palpably not happy to find himself in this situation. His parent said, “See you in a little while,” and left him in our care. We did our standard welcome activities — tour of the center including our prize area where students choose what they will earn for all their hard work, presentation of gifts including a t-shirt and a personalized water cup, and introductions to staff and students. Then, we took him to his instruction area to begin, and he bolted — took off running. He was getting out of there.

We don’t know why. We don’t know what this guy had faced in school settings over the past five or more years. We don’t know what kind of comments he’d heard from instructors — you’re not trying hard enough, this is an easy one, just look at the letters — or what teasing he’d received from other students — why can’t you read, everybody can read, I just read Harry Potter for the third time — or what pressure he was under at home. We just know that his experiences up until we met him had made him leery of entering into proximity with one more group of people who would likely have opinions about him, want him to try stuff, and eventually be disappointed in him.

Not too long ago I was stuck on my couch believing that I would be grieving forever. I didn’t have the strength to venture into new spaces where I might face judgment, misunderstanding, or possibly more pain. If people invited me to do things, I often found excuses — I was busy, tired, or not feeling well. I didn’t have the wherewithal to try — to have conversations, to meet new people, to share my story. If I did happen to agree to go to an event, I often grumbled my whole way there. Why did we agree to come here? It’s going to be terrible. I’m not talking to anyone. How soon can we leave?

It’s not easy to shift from that posture.

When you are convinced that all attempts will lead to failure, you can make failure happen. When you believe that everyone will disappoint you, you can ensure that they will. And when you experience what you expect, your beliefs about how broken, how stuck, how hurt you truly are become more and more etched on the fabric of your soul.

I think that a person needs support to shift away from a posture like that.

When I was feeling that I’d lost all hope, friends showed up. They knew I was on that damn couch, and they persisted. They invited. They texted. They picked me up. They dropped me off. They prayed with me. They cried with me. They cheered every win. They carried me into situations that I was afraid of, and they didn’t leave me alone.

When my student was bent on bolting, his parent sat in our lobby — he needed a partner in his investment, a cheerleader. We were, of course, ready to cheer him every step of the way, but he didn’t yet trust us. We worked hard to build that trust — we celebrated every win, and we were patient in his silences. Eventually, he didn’t need a parent to stay, but he was still reluctant to fully commit. What if it really wouldn’t work and these people, “the experts at teaching reading,” couldn’t help him? What would that mean? If we couldn’t teach him, certainly he was without hope.

A little over two years ago, my husband suggested that we join a small group of people — members of our church — and meet with them once every other week to share journeys, study the Bible, and pray. We’ve been part of many groups like this during our marriage, so I complied. We’ve often found good friendships and community in such groups.

But a couple months later, our lives fell into chaos. If we’d known we were broken before, we suddenly found ourselves face down among all the shattered pieces, grieving uncontrollably. I no longer felt safe going to our small group. I was grumpy and resistant. I went, doing my best to hold it together, but sometimes my snarling gave me away. If our group noticed, I don’t remember them calling me out; they just kept showing up.

Things got tough for my student, too. It wasn’t easy to work our program, hour after hour, day after day. Sometimes his snarling gave him away, too. He refused to work, hurled insults, and often — feeling frustrated — gave up. My staff hung in there, encouraging him, believing for him — You’re going to get this! — when he couldn’t believe for himself.

This past week, I was working with him on his goal of adding the 1000 most common English words to his sight word base when he looked at me with exasperation. “I’m never going to finish this list,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “You’re so close! You’re gonna finish it, trust me!”

Two days later, he took a break from instruction to come find me, “Kristin, I have something to show you.” He handed me the sight word list so that I could see that he was finished. The whole room — students and teachers — stopped what we were doing to applaud him. His face, which for the past six months had often been fixed in a scowl, was beaming. It continued to beam as he read his fifth grade level stories while I stood watching in awe.

Later that day, he took another student aside — a student who was coincidentally experiencing his first day at our learning center — “I know it seems a little hard today,” he said, “but you’re going to do great, just like I did.”

On that same night, exhausted from my day, I came home, swallowed food, and reluctantly got in our car to go to our community group. I literally said “grumble, grumble” as we drove through the freezing February night, but guess what I found when I got there?

I found people who had been consistently showing up, grumbling or not, for over two years. I found them sharing snacks, laughing, listening, asking questions, and leaning in to hear one another’s stories.

We heard about hurts from the past, challenges of the present, and stories of answered prayer.

I saw tears, I heard joy, I found love.

Sometimes, just when we believe that all hope is lost — we’ll never learn to read, we’ll never be finished grieving — we find ourselves in a community that is committed to showing up, waiting us out, cheering us on, and believing for us that hope is not gone. When we find ourselves in these spaces, we should expect transformation because this is where it happens.

Find yourself a way to be part of these transformational spaces.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

Hope, re-visit

After writing Monday’s post (found here), I stumbled across this one from March 2016, that uses some of the exact same language. This happens quite often — I find that I return to the same topics over and over again. I keep returning to the same lessons, the same messages, the same truths. So, here’s a message from 2016, brought forward to 2019…and I imagine, I’ll return again in the years to come.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been tempted to feel a little pessimistic lately. The presidential campaigns, acts of violence, international events, and their portrayal by the media could make a girl pretty cynical. Add to that the postings on Facebook and Twitter, and I might just walk around grumbling about the ‘terrible state of the world’.  I might even be heard muttering things like, “this country is a mess,” “it’s only going to get worse,” etc.

I start, actually, to sound like someone who has no hope.

But I do! I do have hope. I have hope for our country in the midst of the current political climate. I have hope amidst senseless acts of violence. I have hope regardless of how afraid and desperate the media would like to encourage me to be.

Why? Why do I have hope? Because our God — the God who created the world out of nothing, the God who designed the intricacies of the human body and mind, the God who provided His own Son to suffer the consequences of our sin, the God who has provided for me every day of my life, the God who has blessed me and my family beyond what we ever could ask or imagine — is still on the throne.

And he is not aloof. No. He is actively involved in the lives of His creation. He has seen every political speech, and He can discern every lie from every truth. He knows already who will be elected, and He has the power to make any result work together for good. He has watched every mass shooting; He has stood amidst the chaos as lives were cut short. He sees the motives of the assailants and the fear of the victims. He alone can comfort those who mourn and intervene to prevent future devastation. He knows how much money each of us has in our savings account and in our pocket; He knows our needs even before we ask. Not one of us is forgotten by God.

We have hope. God’s people have faced worse — 400 years of slavery in Egypt, 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, persecution, division, war, famine — and God has been able to step into these circumstances and work miracles.

He is still able.  He acts in spite of man’s foolishness, selfishness, and sinfulness. He acts because He loves us; He created us and calls us to His purposes.

I believe that one of those purposes is to be flag-bearers of hope in a world that is tempted to lose hope. I have been falling down on the job lately. I have not been communicating the hope that I have inside of me.  So, today I turn.

Hope with me, will you?

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

Yay, Team!

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Just ten hours from now I will have completed my training to be a clinician at Lindamood-Bell.  Eighty hours of training. I am tired, a bit bleary-eyed, and yet I feel energized.

Not only have I joined a very positive team of young people who are totally committed to student success, but I have already gained some tools to join them in that quest — teaching reading and comprehension to students who may have begun to believe that they will never be successful in school.

I know I’ve already gushed about this place and its positivity but, guys, it is so positive that I just can’t help but feel good about going to work — even on Friday — even when I know I won’t be getting home until after 7:00pm — even when I’m exhausted.

Here are some reasons why:

  • as I was walking into work yesterday a little 6-year-old boy I had met the day before saw me, smiled, waved, and said, “hi!”
  • when I entered the office my trainer announced, “I brought us some doughnuts!”
  • two minutes later my teammate arrived carrying a jug of Starbucks mocha to share.
  • right about then, a former employee who is rejoining the summer force walked in to hugs and smiles.
  • in the middle of our training, a staff member knocked on our door so that a shy, beaming student could say hello to the returning staff member.
  • throughout the day our supervisor peeked into our training to cheer us on.
  • When I forgot to punch out for lunch, my teammate texted me before I even got to the stairs to remind me
  • In the last fifteen minutes of our day, during role-playing, my ‘student’ made an error — if you have read my earlier posts, you know that I am supposed to praise the parts she got right and help her discover her own mistake.  Well, it was 6:20pm (well past my typical pajama time).  She spelled a word in the air with her finger and added an extra letter.  I put my hand up, “erased” what she had written saying “No, no, no, no, no!” (My former students are shaking their heads.) But here’s the part that I love.  My fellow trainees burst out in laughter.  They didn’t judge me for using the forbidden “n” word.  They didn’t shake their fingers and say, “Kristin, you know you are supposed to praise these students.”  They just laughed and laughed.  So I laughed. And then choked.  And then struggled, while choking, to correct myself.  That’s the spirit of this place — it is pure positivity.
  • As we were packing up our supplies and grabbing our coats, one of my co-workers suggested we go out for lunch during our break today, just like we did last Friday.  You know, just us girls who have been training together for two weeks.
  • Then I discovered, along with my fellow newbie, that one of our coworkers had nominated us for an award. It’s just common practice to point out the positive things you see your coworkers doing.  You write it down on a card, the card goes in a box, and once a month a card gets drawn for a prize.  In the two weeks we have been on the job, we have had our names put in the box about a half dozen times!

I guess I am mostly surprised by the simplicity of it all.  The company stresses positivity  — insists on it.  And, as far as I can tell, they have 100% buy-in.  All day long the staff cheer on each other — “great job!” “I like the way you handled that!” “Thanks for helping out with the dishes!” “You brought me candy? You’re sweet!” — and these cheers spill over onto the kids — “Wow! You spelled ten words correctly!” “You read that whole book? You’re amazing!” “Let’s go show the others how fast you can read these sight words!”

It’s critical. It’s non-negotiable.  These kids, the same ones who have failed over and over in school, are coming to do hard work — some of them for four hours a day, five days a week!  They need some cheering.  You know, the kind of cheering that lines the streets, yelling at the top of its lungs, throwing confetti, and shooting off fireworks.

And that’s what I get to do — cheer, yell, throw confetti, watch fireworks, and see kids succeed. Bam.

Psalm 96:11

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound and all that is in it.

The Power of Words

This morning I am a little overwhelmed by the power of words.  Simple arrangements of consonants and vowels that together form sound and meaning.  You would think I would love words; I am an English teacher.  I have spent countless hours of my life reading and writing words.  I do love them.  They not only help me communicate with others, express my inner self, and earn a living — they are so much fun!  You may be aware of my embarrassing Words With Friends habit, or the fact that I love to complete a crossword in one sitting, or that I am abnormally amused by wordplay such as puns, innuendo, and hyperbole. One of my greatest joys as a teacher is playing with words to teach students about their own language and how they use it — how do you think I learned how to code switch?

However, even though I love words — they overwhelm me.  How can these simple clusters of sounds have such power?

I watched a video on Friday during my training that interviewed a young boy who was painfully aware of the power of words.  Because of his learning difficulties, he was placed in a special education classroom.  In that room he got the resources he needed; outside of that classroom he was assailed with damaging words: “Hey, retard!” “You’re so weird!”  “You’re dumb!”

On Saturday I learned about a young man who was verbally attacked in his graduate program.  His classmates quietly uttered sexual taunts.  They never touched him — but their words forced him out of the program.

We’ve all heard these stories.  Persecutors attacking victims with their words.

But, guys, my words are powerful, too!  If you’ve met me in person you know that I use a lot of words.  A quick google search will tell you that the average woman uses 13,000-20,000 words per day.  I am sure I do. I love to talk. Over the years I have tried to learn a little restraint and give others an opportunity to share the air space.  I may have made a little progress, but I doubt it.  I can talk.

Quantity is not really the problem though, is it? No. It’s word choice.  It’s what we say. That’s part one.  Part two is the meaning that others attach to what we say.  That means that before I speak I should consider what mean and then consider my audience — what will they hear. That’s a lot of pressure.  I mean, how am I supposed to fit in my 13,000-20,000 words each day if I pause each time I think about opening my mouth. Exactly.

On Saturday evening, after we met with dear friends for dinner, I was lying in bed thinking about some of the words I used.  One phrase stuck out in my mind.  I was thinking to myself, “I know what I meant by that, but I should have added one more sentence to clarify. They may have totally misunderstood my meaning.” Been there?

If I had a dollar for every time I had to rewind the tape of my words to insert an explanation…

It’s no coincidence that at this time in my life I have taken a job where my words are so important.  I, at 49 years of age, still need to learn this lesson — my words are powerful.  The students I will meet, starting this Wednesday, have been beaten and bruised by words.  I may never know how much.  They have been mocked at school, questioned by their teachers, evaluated by their parents, and berated by themselves.  They are bloody. My words must be salve.

When a student reads “bind” for “kind”, I will say, “Great job with that “d” sound at the end of the word! When you say ‘bind’ what do you picture for the first letter?”  When she says “b”, I will say, “awesome!” I will celebrate each correct consonant and each correct vowel.  I will applaud every remembered detail. I will try to help my students recover from the trauma of being assailed by and excluded from the world of words.

And, boys and girls, how do you picture that God would want me to carry this lesson — that my words must be salve — into the rest of my life? Do you picture me telling my husband that I appreciate him going to work every day? Do you picture me thanking my daughter for running the dishwasher or for cooking a fabulous dinner? Can you imagine me reassuring a friend or comforting a loved one — all with my words? That is what I picture.  I picture my words as a healing balm that can cover a stinging wound.  I picture them as gauze that will stop the bleeding and allow some time for healing.

And really, the only way I know to make that happen — to make sure that kindness comes out of mouth — is to do a heart check — a continual, day-by-day heart check.  I know that if I am angry, angry words are going to come out of my mouth.  If I am hurt, defensive jabs are going to burst forth. “…for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)  In fact, if we are hurting on the inside and we try to say things that are nice, or calming, or comforting, our listeners can often sense that our words are not genuine.  They may hear us and think to themselves, “what a fake!”

Do you see why I am so overwhelmed? How can I take all this into account?  How can I continually check my heart, consider my listeners, and evaluate my message?

I only have one answer — by the grace of God.  And that is how I am going to step into today.  I am going to ask God to purify my heart, filter my message, and when all else fails, cover the ears of my listeners.  Forty-nine years have taught me I can’t do this on my own.

Proverbs 16:24

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to soul and healing to the bones.

My Sweet Battalion

Today is Wednesday, and one of the blessings of not taking a regular job is that I get to stay in my Bible study.  I can’t believe that I didn’t even know these ladies just five months ago; they are becoming some of my dearest friends.

In the fall we had around sixteen women every week; now, because many of our gals flew south for the winter or have chosen not to brave the wintry roads, we are down to about nine or ten.  The size of our group is different, and so is our study.  We spent the fall studying 1 and 2 Thessalonians; now we are getting up close and personal with the Sermon on the Mount.

What hasn’t changed is the sense of belonging and community that I felt from the first moment.  These gals look forward to seeing one another.  We pray together, study the Bible together, laugh together, and sometimes even cry together.  When one shares a burden, others offer encouragement.  When one celebrates, all celebrate.  And all kinds of partnerships have formed within the group.  Some have partnered to collect funds for missionaries, or toiletries for the homeless, or to gather books for inner city children.  Others meet for coffee, or lunch, or to go walking.  One calls on another who is lonely.  Another stops by to check on one who has difficulty getting out.  True community.

Today in our study we discussed our failures in life — how we regret them, how we have learned from them, and how God has used them to draw us closer to him.  One woman, reflecting on her life, expressed wonder at the fact that God has shown her mercy — he didn’t give her what she deserved.  The teacher in our study shared that when we do wrong, we pray for mercy, but when others do us wrong, we pray for justice.  Ouch, that hurt.  How powerful would it be, if each of us who had been shown mercy would pay it forward and show mercy, overwhelming mercy, to those who have wronged us?

As the teacher shared those thoughts, the nods and knowing glances, the conviction and the desire to change were shared among the women.  These women, not one of them younger than I am, acknowledged their need to grow, to change, to repent, to draw closer to God.

The power in that is phenomenal.  The encouragement is undeniable.  What if nine women in a small town in Michigan decided to go about showing mercy to those in their lives — their spouses, their children, their neighbors, their pastors, their leaders, their coworkers?

I left Bible study, ran a couple of errands, and found myself at my desk in my house by the river.  I picked up my personal devotion book, which today, using the metaphorical language of battle, encouraged me to Arm myself for battle (with the Word of God), Stay on course (with God’s purpose as my goal), Stick close to my battalion (my girls, of course), and to Stay alert (for opportunities and for hindrances).  When I got to the part about ‘sticking close to my battalion’, I smiled.  My sweet ladies are quite the battalion — I wouldn’t want to oppose them.  They are strong in number, united in purpose, and fully armed for battle.  I am proud, and blessed, to join their ranks.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Take a deep breath

Yesterday I met a young man who needed some help on his Master’s thesis.  He’s studying minute differences in language structure between the group of languages that English falls into and the group of languages that Arabic and its various dialects fall into.  Before I could help him, he had to give me a tutorial on the linguistic principles that he has been studying. I will claim basic understanding — that is all.

We met at a Dunkin’ Donuts and sat side by side on stools with our laptops open discussing complementizers, noun phrases, and the grammaticality of each sentence.

We drew a couple of glances from other customers.  A middle aged white woman leaning in to look at the laptop of a young Saudi Arabian man, squinting and thinking, then typing and laughing, might not be the normal clientele for a Dunkin’ Donuts on the south side of Ypsilanti.

We were united in purpose for two and a half hours.  His adviser had made suggestions on his latest draft and he had to submit his changes by the end of last night.  He had done his work.  For each of the professor’s suggestions, he had already drafted his solution, but he wanted to check with a native speaker of English to be sure that what he meant was clearly conveyed through what he wrote.

The kid is brilliant.  He is employed by the Saudi Arabian government who, he said, gave him two choices, 1) go to the United States and get your master’s degree in linguistics and we will foot the bill, or 2) no longer be employed by us.

His choice was not as simple as it might seem.  His mother has diabetes and he is her only child.  He has been separated from her for three years. Each night we stays awake until 4:00am so that he can Skype with her.  He said it was a condition of his coming here.  He smiles and doesn’t seem to mind; he clearly loves his mother.

If he can just finish this thesis, get an acceptable score on the GRE, and get accepted into an American PhD program, he can go home next month to visit his mother. Wow.  That’s a lot to do in your native country, in your native language, in your native culture.

The stress he is under was palpable.  Several times during those two and half hours I said, “We’re fine, we’re fine.  We have plenty of time.  Take a deep breath.”  He follows directions well. We got through every last section, every last comment.  I left him at the Dunkin’ Donuts knowing that he would pour over that thesis from beginning to end for several more hours before he would be willing to submit it to his professor, before he would Skype with his mother and then take a much-needed rest.

He’ll rest for just a bit, though, because the GRE is on Thursday and he hasn’t really started to prepare.  And then there is the business of being accepted into a PhD program — no small task.

So much weight on him. So much weight on all of us — the graduate student, the young mother, the executive, the pastor, the teacher, the soldier. If we could just ___________________ then we would be able to ______________________.

“We’re fine, we’re fine.  We have plenty of time.  Take a deep breath.”  We’re not alone.  We have each other for encouragement, for coaching, for laughing.  And we are all sitting in the palm of His hand.

I Peter 5:7

Cast all your anxiety on him for he cares for you.


A video is circulating on Facebook that shows a young man sitting quietly at  baseball game when Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” begins to blast from the speakers.  The music pulls him out of his seat and he is transformed into an exuberant happiness machine — moving among those seated around him, touching them and hugging them.  The people are not troubled by this, as you might expect.  The music has transformed them, too — they are touched by the young man’s happiness and willing to be part of his experience.

Music transforms us. 

I’ve always loved riding in the car with my daughter.  Something about moving along the highway, windows down and radio blaring, frees her from her stresses.  She sings loudly and passionately with everything from  Queen to Billy Joel to Young the Giant to David Crowder to The Black Keys.  For a while, she kept a cowboy hat in the back seat so that she could pop it on her head when she drove to signify this freedom from life’s troubles and pure abandonment to the music.

Music frees us. 

This morning at Bible study, one of our ladies came in weeping as she announced that a close friend has just a short time to live.  Many shared their condolences.  Later, as we closed our time together, we had a corporate prayer as we always do.  Women took turns lifting their praises, thanks, concerns, and requests.  The time was winding to a close when the woman whose friend is dying said, “forgive me, a song just came to me.”  She began to sing and several around the table hummed along, joining her in worship.

Music consoles us. 

Also at Bible study this morning was a woman whose husband left his life with Alzheimer’s last week to start his life in Heaven.  She was beaming when she entered the room.  She had labored with him for five hard years and was so relieved that his battle was over. She pulled a folded paper from her purse that she had found this morning in her husband’s Bible — it noted the date and time when he had accepted Jesus as his Savior.  She said, “Isn’t that wonderful?!”  She asked us if we would join her tomorrow at her husband’s funeral.  “Won’t it be fun?!”  she exclaimed.

I knew what she was talking about because she attended the funeral for my dear friend just a few weeks ago.  I happened to catch her out of the corner of my eye as the praise music played.  I knew that at the time her husband was at home with hospice workers, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that from looking at her.  As she sang the songs, her hands were raised and her smile was wide.  I know she is looking forward to experiencing that again tomorrow.

Music transports us. 

Yesterday morning I attended a chapel service commemorating Veteran’s Day.  A few dozen veterans, some from World War II, some from Korea and Vietnam, some from the Gulf Wars, and some just starting their service, were seated near the front of the huge sanctuary.  The choir sang “O, Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…”  As they sang verse after verse, I began to hear the voices of those seated around me –men and women in uniforms, jackets, and vests, denoting their service — began to sing along.  At first it was quiet, but it built, unashamedly — that song of unity.

Music unites us. 

It’s a gift, isn’t it.  We don’t need it, surely.  It’s an unnecessary blessing that breathes life into us, refreshes us, and inspires us.  Thank you, God, for music.

Psalm 96:1

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.

Burden bearing

“I don’t want to bother you with my issues.”

Ever said that?

I mean, who wants to share their troubles with the people around them?  Do you really want to hear about my health issues, or my financial difficulty, or my stress at work?  I am sure you have enough problems of your own.  You don’t need me dragging you further into the gutter.

Haven’t you said these things inside your head?  Or even out loud?

Surely we’ve been taught from our childhood, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  We are supposed to smile, say nice things, and put the best construction on everything.  Right?

Yes, and…then there’s the Bible.

Galatians 6:2

Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Here’s the thing, I don’t mind carrying your burdens, but I really don’t want you carrying mine.  Right? I mean we all want to rush to the rescue when a friend is in the hospital, or lost a parent, or needs help moving, but we really don’t want to invite anyone in to help us when the basement floods, or our kids are sick, or (gasp) we can’t do everything that we used to be able to do.

But Paul, in Galatians, says, to bear one another’s burdens.  That implies reciprocity.

I think I have established through this blog that I have most of my life been pretty self-sufficient.  I can do it myself, thank you very much.  I don’t need anyone’s help.  I kick butts and take names and God help you if you get in my way.  Notice I said ‘most’ of my life.  For the past couple of years I have been learning a new way.

Last May, at the very end of our school year, as a result of medications I had been taking, I contracted ocular herpes.  Yes, herpes. In my eyes.  (My teenaged daughter who drove me to the eye doctor got a kick out of that.)  Let me just say here that it is miserable.  Other than the itching, burning, and aching of my eyes, they were extremely sensitive to light, so I could not drive for a few days.   During that time, we were having end of year faculty meetings and a faculty luncheon at a restaurant a bit of a distance from the school and from my house.  My daughter dropped me off at school in the morning, but I needed a ride to the restaurant and then from the restaurant to my eye doctor and from the eye doctor to my house, which happened to be in the opposite direction of anyone I worked with.

So, self-sufficient me decided to ask my friend, who lives with severe rheumatoid arthritis, if I could ride with her to the luncheon and then if she would drop me at my eye doctor which was not terribly far out of her way.  She said that would be fine.  I then figured out how I could take public transportation from the eye doctor to my house.  I had done this before, it was no big deal, and it allowed me to be self-sufficient.

But, after the luncheon, my friend took me to the eye doctor and insisted on staying with me and driving me home afterward.  I didn’t want to burden her.  By that time in the day, I knew that we both needed some rest and this would add an hour or more to her day, and to her driving.  But she said to me, “this is something I can do.”  And although it was admitting that I couldn’t do everything by myself, I knew at that moment that I was allowing her into my need.

After the decision to ‘allow her’ to help me, I was so thankful that she was there.  She sat and had coffee with me before my appointment time, and even helped me select the glasses that I now wear.  She drove me to my front door and then headed home.

It was a small thing, driving me home, wasn’t it?  Not really.  It was a big thing for me.  It was a symbol.  It was my admission that I need others, and in that need, I am blessed.  And, you know, I think she was blessed, too.

I know that I am blessed when others allow me into their mess, allow me to walk with them for a minute or a mile, allow me to shoulder part of the burden.  Why would I deprive someone else of joining me in mine?  Mostly because I’m a proud butt-kickin’, name-takin’ soldier.  Or, I was.  Anybody can change.

John 15:13

Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.