Narrative threads

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina.  It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray.  I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope.  I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too.  I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot is unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant.  In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time.  I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving.  My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope.  So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

 

Corn chips, anyone?

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

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

I chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 16:33

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

How hard can it be?

It sounds pretty easy.  I mean, it’s really just one independent clause. I’ve read it, or had it read in my hearing, certainly dozens of times in my life.  I have an image of Jesus peacefully walking along a dirt path, probably next to the Sea of Galilee, wind blowing through his hair, gazing lovingly toward his hearers.  His voice is gentle, and he’s giving the simplest of invitations, “repent and believe the gospel.”

How hard can it be to do two simple things: 1) repent, and 2) believe in the gospel.

Pretty darn hard it turns out.

If you have been with me since the beginning of this blog you are aware that I have spent a fair amount of time writing about repentance.  It’s such an archaic sounding word, isn’t it?  Kind of King James-ish, if you ask me.  Why in the world would I want to utter a word like repent in 2018?  It conjures another image, one of a wild-eyed, locust-eating John the Baptist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Repent and be baptized!”

Can’t we just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

We could.  We could all gather together, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. It might be soothing for a moment,  but it wouldn’t provide the healing and restoration that true repentance gives.

Perhaps way back in confirmation class was the first time I heard repentance described as “a turning”.  I have imagined myself walking down a street of my own making headed toward a future that only seems bright, and then, realizing that the path is truly headed toward my certain demise, I turn on a dime to head in the opposite direction toward a future hand-crafted for me — one that I don’t have to manipulate myself into.

Doesn’t that sound blissful and so “one and done”-ish? Yeah, true repentance isn’t like that.  True repentance is realizing that I keep ending up on that same darn street and I have to keep turning around and heading in the other direction.  I am bent on turning.  I keep figuring out a better plan, a more exciting path, a way that seems right to me.

The road I typically end up on is one that promises to make me happy.  In my younger years, it promised make me thinner.  Over the years it has offered financial security, family peace, work satisfaction, physical healing, or some other sort of relief from some other sort of stress.  It promises an escape from the troubles of this world.  But guess what  — it has not once delivered.  Oh, sure, I walked a path for a while that certainly made me thinner, but it also left me empty.  I have patched together short-term fixes for all kinds of messes, but none have lasted.  All of my efforts lead me to the same conclusion — I do not have the answers.

So, I turn.  I walk away from my own path, and I promise myself, and God, that I’ve learned my lesson.  I’m done trying to soldier through. I’m done coming up with my own solutions.

About two seconds pass, and, whether I realize it or not,  I’m back on my own path.

Why?  Because I forget the second half of the clause — “believe in the gospel”.   I know, I know, more John the Baptist, but guys, the dude was running around shouting because he understood the good news!  He knew what has taken me a lifetime to learn — all my answers are crap.  They set up me to be my own rescuer and they inevitably fail.  Good ol’ JTB understood that Jesus was the answer, and not just in the Sunday school answer kind of way.  He was the solution. The remedy.  The Way.

But ya know, even though I believe that, I don’t always believe that.  Instead I believe that I need to solve my own problems, pay for my own mistakes, and forge my own path.  I get confused and think that repentance means guilt and punishment.

It doesn’t.

Let’s picture the scene a little differently.  Let’s have Jesus walk right up beside us wherever we are today.  Let’s have him walk with us on our path for a little while; let’s hear his voice and begin to trust him.  I see him walking as quickly or as slowly as we want to go.  I imagine him making a lot of eye contact, so much so that I stop looking at whatever it is that I’ve been chasing at the end of the path of my own making.  Before long I  want to go wherever He is going, just so that I can continue to see those eyes and hear that voice.  I imagine hearing him say things like “don’t worry about tomorrow, I gave the birds their clothing, I’ll make sure you have things to wear,” “follow me,” “I love you,”  “I forgive you,” and “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”

Turning isn’t so hard when you know that you are turning toward love, when you recognize where you belong, and when you understand, finally, that he’s had you all the time in the palm of his hand.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.

 

 

 

Fallow [fal-oh] adj.

I remember as a little girl trying to wrap my mind around the concept of letting a field go fallow — the practice of letting a field rest for a season or more so that its fertility — its ability to be productive — could be restored.

The idea that we would let a field — a piece of dirt — “rest” seemed weird to me.  I mean, why wouldn’t a farmer want to keep planting that field every opportunity he had so that he could reap the highest yield?

It’s a concept I have a hard time applying to farming and to my own life.  I struggle to give myself a break from productivity — just imagine what I could be accomplishing in the time that I might be resting!

For the past three months or so I’ve allowed this blog to sit fallow.  I taught three classes this past semester — three different classes which means three different preparations. It took a lot of my mental energy and my time to process and package all the content that my students consumed (or didn’t consume as the case may be). I thought about my blog from time to time, but I reasoned, this just isn’t the time.  You’ll get back to it.  I wouldn’t say it was an intentional choice to let my blog go fallow, but I am reaping the benefits just the same. Over the past week or so while I was finalizing grades, finishing my Christmas shopping, and tying up other loose ends, I kept thinking, pretty soon, pretty soon you are going to be able to blog! 

In my excitement to begin my personal writing again, I’ve been considering some unusual ideas for what to write about and how to write about it. Maybe I could change the blog’s layout.  Maybe I’d like to play around with a series — a participatory series in which I use another platform to allow readers to dabble with my topics and try their own hands at blogging. Where were these ideas coming from? Why hadn’t I considered them before? Perhaps taking a break from production had allowed my mind a chance to restore.

The practice of letting fields go fallow is not too different from giving ourselves a rest through the practice of sabbath.  Sabbath, by design, is a scheduled break from our labor.  A pause in productivity.  An opportunity for our lives to have a chance at restoration.

[I’m not very good at observing a sabbath.]

Historically, sabbath has been observed one day a week — maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday.  Perhaps it originates from creation wherein God rested on the sabbath day.  It is echoed in the story of the Israelites who gathered manna six days a week, but not on the seventh.  The Ten Commandments also mention the sabbath with the admonition to “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.”  It’s a model and a mandate intended for our benefit.  It’s a reminder, “Guys, take a break. Remember that it’s God who created you, who provides for your needs, and who will sustain you. Sit down.  Take a break.  Let your body have a chance for restoration.”

And here I am folding a load of laundry, running to get my groceries, wrapping my Christmas presents, and even disinfecting the bathroom floor.  Why wouldn’t I want to keep busy so that I can reap the highest yield?

I’m missing the point.

Again.

On Sunday afternoon, after a morning of (gosh, I hate to admit this) grocery shopping and worship, I came home and entered my students’ final grades into the online portal.  Then, I crocheted while I got caught up on old episodes of Call the Midwife.  That’s my idea of a sabbath, guys.  I’m often willing to give myself a pause, but a whole day?  Come on.

And two weeks ago, when my husband and I were discussing the fact that I did not have a teaching contract for this semester, we agreed that perhaps I should keep my semester open so that I can catch my breath and allow some space for restoration.  I posted my grades on Sunday, and today — Tuesday — I went on an interview.  Sigh.

I am telling you: I push back against this concept of letting myself “go fallow” — of letting myself practice the sabbath.  Why? Perhaps I’m afraid.  Perhaps I don’t fully trust that God created me, sustains me, and will provide for every eventuality.  Perhaps I think of myself more highly than I ought — that I’m the only one who can meet that student’s need or answer that email or edit that paper.  Or perhaps I don’t want to be confronted with the thoughts and feelings that might surface if I take some time to be still.

Perhaps all of those possibilities are true.

Over the years, I have found one way to embrace the stillness — writing.  So, after this season of letting my blog go fallow, I am re-engaging.  I am going to turn over some soil, plant some seeds, and see what grows.  I might explore some of my fears and some of my feelings.  I might also invite you to have some fun.

Join me?

 

Leviticus 25:3-4

For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.

 

Controlling and Carrying

Since we are on the topic….let’s talk a little bit more about control.  I mean, if I’m gonna scratch the surface, I might as well pry off the scab and take a look at the festering sore underneath, right?

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school!  As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life.  My college years brought more maturity.  I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled myself down to a mere shadow of a human through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and recovery would’ve exposed the truth that I am not in charge of my own life either, but I am either a slow learner or a control savant. I have devised many ways to create an illusion of control.  In fact, once I had children of my own, I was sure to create a rigid daily schedule to ensure that their lives were under control. I was going to make sure that they were safe and secure. No harm would come to them under my watch. We prayed together.  We memorized scripture verses. I only let them watch PBS.  We ate dinner together every evening. They went to church every Sunday and often several times during the week. I was going to do this parenting thing right. My kids would be perfect, you know?

I couldn’t control everything, though, as I’m sure you can imagine. They didn’t stay safe and secure.  Harm did come to them.  Heart-breaking harm.

Many sleepless nights I have cried over my failed attempts at controlling my life, many more I have cried over my realization that I could not prevent my children from being hurt. And where has it led me?  Literally to my knees.

For many years now, when I have found myself facing the stark realization of my own powerlessness in the lives of my children, I call to mind an image that gives me great peace.  I picture a cupped hand with my child nestled safely inside.  I imagine that cupped hand held close to an all-powerful chest much like I might hold a newborn chick or kitten.  The hand is strong and able to lift my child out of harm’s way, and sometimes, when harm determinedly finds its way inside of that hand, two compassionate eyes are bearing witness — they are seeing and knowing and caring in ways that I am unable to see, to know, to care.  This image of the One who does have control gives me peace in those moments when I am able to acknowledge that I have none.

But there are many moments when I am not able to acknowledge that.  Most of the moments, actually.  Most of my moments I am filling with doing — I know, I know, if you have followed this blog from the beginning, you may be face-palming about right now. Doing, as I implied yesterday, gives me an illusion of control.  It calms my anxiety.  It makes me feel like everything is going to be ok if I just get my house clean, if I just meet one more student, if I complete one more task.

But that is a lie. Everything is not going to be ok.

Last night, when I finally admitted that I had done enough for the day and I finally lay down in my bed, I picked up Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. As usual, God spoke directly to me through it; I think reading is the only time I slow down long enough to truly listen.  This is what I heard:

Suffering asks us to bear under that which is ultimately not under our control, which proves to us we have no control.  And maybe that’s too much for us in our autonomous, do-it-yourself culture to bear.  Maybe more than we can’t stand physical suffering, we can’t stand not feeling in control (171). 

It’s silly when she puts it like that, isn’t it? And if I admit that trying to be in control is silly, then I have to admit that much of my life has been one big silly futile exercise. That’s embarrassing. And humiliating. And heartbreaking.

But it’s true.

However, it is also true that regardless of my foolish attempts, I, too, have been sitting in that all-powerful hand.  I have been kept out of harm’s way many, many times.  And, when harm has found me, One has born witness with compassion, forgiveness, and love. I am His child, after all.  He has ordered my world.  He has hemmed me in on all sides. And He will continue to carry me.

Psalm 139:5

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Sorbet before Lunch

So much is jangling around inside my head this morning.  Over three weeks ago my husband and I left on a two-week vacation — we slipped away to an undisclosed location where no one recognizes us and we could begin to recognize one another again.  We spent hours together, just the two of us.  It was quiet; it was restful; it was lovely.  At the end of the two weeks, I jetted off, instead of coming straight home, to a week of AP English Literature Exam scoring with hundreds of strangers.  Inside of those three weeks, I read a couple of books and several articles, I listened to podcasts, I watched meaningless television, I had long, and short, conversations in person and over the phone, and I read thousands of words written by high school students.

Now I’m home.

I’m back at my desk in my little house by the river.  My dog is under my desk at my feet. I’m halfway through the first cup of tea, and I am trying to get the jangling to coalesce into some kind of meaning.

What do you learn from three weeks outside of your routine?  If you sort all the pieces into piles, what do you have?

First, I have the realization that the things that I planned — the ones that we just had to do– weren’t the ones that I valued the most. In fact, the sandwich that I just had to eat from that particular restaurant did taste delicious, but its gluten- and dairy-rich delicious-ness left me feeling miserable for the next twenty-four hours.  The things that I thought would make the experience ‘perfect’ weren’t really the highlights.  No, the unexpecteds, the ad libs, were the nuggets I will cherish — a last minute detour, a lunch time phone call, impromptu sorbet right before lunch.

This plan-happy girl needs to be reminded from time to time that her plans aren’t always the best and that she can’t plan for everything.  In fact, often the best parts of life are the ones I didn’t, or couldn’t anticipate.

In the weeks leading up to the AP Reading, I was feeling a bit apprehensive because I had been assigned a random hotel roommate.  Although, you might not expect it, I tend a little to introversion.  While my career has involved standing up in front of students, cracking jokes and calling out bad behavior, I truly love my end-of-day quiet alone time. What if my roommate loved to chat until all hours of the night? What if she was a slob? What if her personality got on my nerves.  It’s not like we would just have to get through a weekend.  We would be co-existing for eight days!!  I had a plan, though — if she was super creepy, I told myself, I would request a single room and just pay the difference. Phew!  Glad I solved that dilemma.

Since I arrived at the hotel before she did, I situated my stuff, got myself registered, went for a swim, showered, and then waited…..She arrived on a different schedule, so we didn’t actually meet until almost 8pm on the first day.  I quelled my anxiety by staying busy, of course, but my worries evaporated when she finally arrived. The Southern twang in her greeting —  a virtual “Hi honey, I ho-ome!” — put me at ease even though I was already in pajamas, reading in bed.

Not for one minute did I feel that awkward let-me-ask-questions-to-get-to-know-you feeling. From the start we chatted like old friends, laughing over ridiculousness and tearfully sharing our hearts.  We were ok being quiet together, too.  I didn’t feel like I was imposing when I felt poorly and had to cash-in early.  I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself or justify my actions.  I felt like I was living with a sister.  Probably my favorite moment of the week was the last night when our conversation went something like this:

“Hey, thanks for not being a creepy roommate.”

“Hey, thanks for not snoring.”

“And thanks for not being a slob or watching tv until 4 in the morning.”

“And thanks for not judging me for going to bed before 9.”

I couldn’t have hand-picked a better roommate.

So what’s the take-away here?  Do I suddenly turn from my planner-ly ways and go forth in a life of abandon? (She says as she glances over at the to-do list she made for today and the one she made for this week.) Every teacher-fiber of my being loves to plan.  In fact, two items on my to-do list involve planning — for the summer class that starts next week and for the new course I’m teaching in the fall.  Writing lists and anticipating alternatives is in my DNA. I won’t ever not be a planner, but is there a way for me to plan for spontaneity? for margin that allows for ad lib?  Of course! Many books have been written on the topic — I’ve read several!

Something about filling my days with plans reduces my anxiety.  If I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for the big scary unknown, but, also, if I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for surprise, for serendipity, for spontaneity.

Leaving space is taking a risk.

Do I dare? Do I dare let myself sit quietly in the chair on my patio, watching nothing, anticipating nothing, expecting nothing? Do I dare have a day that’s not planned wall-to-wall with activity? What could happen?

I might eat sorbet before lunch. I might take a last-minute detour.  I might make a new friend.

Psalm 130:5

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.

Still my Soul

Time change.  Spring Forward. I did not want to wake up this morning.  I stayed up to watch the end of a basketball game last night. You know, March Madness.  It’s the first weekend of our Spring Break and I guess I was feeling a little like celebrating.  I made popcorn and baked muffins.  I wanted to snack, sip wine, and watch collegiate basketball. It wasn’t terribly late, mind you, but when my husband gently woke me this morning at 7, I grumbled.  Ugh.  “Five more minutes.”

I’m not great at morning.  It seems I used to be.  I think I used to bound out of bed ready to face my day, but this has changed.  I’m a morning grumbler.  My husband is good in the mornings.  He is cheerful, kind, thoughtful, and ready to face his day.  Poor guy.  He unsuspectingly tries to engage with me, and I snarkily reply.  Before he knows it, my snark has inspired a response from him.  That’s when I notice that I’ve been less than kind.

So, yes, this all happened this morning.  By the time we were in the car making our way to church, the banter was a little testy.  I feel bad because he’s on his way to church to preach, and I am going to sit in our church’s coffee house for about two hours doing whatever I choose to do.  I can read, grade papers, blog. I have time to shed the snark before I go to the second service; he is going to walk right into serving.  He has to quickly use whatever skills he has acquired from twenty-six years of living with me to shed the snark and return to his normal cheerful self. I know he is able to do it, but still feel badly.

While he’s doing whatever he does to prepare to greet people and deliver the message that he’s been working with all week, I shuffle down the stairs to my corner seat, unpack my bag, open my computer, and begin to review an essay that I’ve been helping one of my students with.  I’m reading through her claims, her analysis, and her evidence when I find myself singing with the coffee house’s piped in music,

Be still my soul, Lord make me whole

Lord make me whole*

I pause.  Hm. Yes, that’s why I am snarky this morning.  My soul is restless. I’m tossing around complaints and worries. I’m holding them in my hands and examining them over and over.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.  I’ve gathered items all week — the health issues of family and friends, the knowledge that people in my life make choices that I don’t agree with or approve of, the constant barrage of the ‘news’ feed, my own persistent health issues, and countless other gems.  I’ve been caressing them all week, and I haven’t changed their reality one bit.  I involuntarily join the plea of the song, “Be still my soul, Lord make me whole, Lord make me whole…”

The song ends, and I go back to the essay.  I give the feedback I promised then order a pot of extra strong tea.  I can feel the snark hanging heavily on me, so I know I can’t turn right to my blog.  Come on, Kristin, you know the drill.  Turn to the Scripture, first.  That’s where you’ll find your truth.

If you aren’t convinced yet of the power of a regular reading plan, let me share with you what I found today. It was waiting for me — Day 132, Psalm 66.

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.  You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; 

As I’m reading, I’m shaking my head.  I’m embarrassed. It’s not like my worries and troubles are a crushing burden.  Yes, I do have concerns that are real. However, in the grand scheme, I have been very gently ‘tried’.  In just this past week I have heard stories of others who have had true ‘crushing burdens’ on their backs, who have actually felt like ‘men [were riding] over their heads’.  Comparatively, my troubles are small.  I read on.

yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.  

I just have to sit here for a minute.  Indeed, I have been brought to a place abundance. Even if I didn’t have a church I loved to come to every Sunday, even if I didn’t have a committed husband who wakes up happy each day, even if I didn’t get to live in a community that energizes me, even if I didn’t have my dream job, even if I didn’t have four children that make me very proud, I would still have much abundance to write about.

I’m convicted, obviously.  I examine the gems in my hands and realize that they are mere pebbles. I exhale and continue to read.

I will come into your house with burnt offerings; 

I mean, I’m already here.  In just a little while, I will ascend the stairs and enter the sanctuary.  I will carry my pebbles up with me and leave them there for You.  I think You’ll probably be more effective with them.

Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.  

Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. 

Guys, I can’t make this stuff up.  Mere words transform my snark into confession, humility, and gratefulness.  It’s a miracle –one that I don’t want to overlook today.  He cares enough about me and my ‘burdens’ to speak directly to me. He has stilled my soul again.  May He still yours, too.

*The Brilliance. “Dust We Are and Shall Return.” Brother. 

Best Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah 31:3

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

 

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

 

First glimpse of Israel

My eyes are bleary.  I’ve got a headache.  I could really use a shower and about eight hours of sleep, but I’m smiling.  In the past twenty-four hours I have travelled via a fifteen-passenger van, an Amtrak train, the Chicago L, a train at O’Hare International Airport, and two jets.  Within the hour, thirty-two of my travel partners and I will land in Tel Aviv Israel.

When the group from Ann Arbor met up with the group from Mequon last night, we all grabbed something to eat then broke into three smaller groups of ten students and one leader each.  I don’t know what the other groups talked about, but my group and I did some round robin discussions, one of which was, “What are you most looking forward to?” The responses included:

Ride in a first century boat on the Sea of Galilee;

Float in the Dead Sea;

Ride on a Camel;

Visit Calvary;

Go to the old city of Jerusalem.

As we shared, we were practically giddy.   Some of these students have travelled much more than I have; some have travelled very little.   Some are excited to try new foods and meet new people; some are uneasy with all the newness surrounding us.  Yet all of them have chosen to invest a great deal of time and money and set any insecurities behind in order to walk where Jesus walked and see what Jesus saw.

It’s now almost four hours later.  I have had an extremely satisfying dinner (I am sure one post this week will be all about the food.); I’ve finally satisfied my thirst with many glasses of water, so my headache is gone; I’ve showered; and I’m resting in clean sheets and jotting down a few things before I nod off. We’ve got a 6am wakeup call so that we can get up, shower, dress, and have our packed suitcases outside our doors by 7am.  Porters will move them to the bus while we eat more delicious food and then board for our first day of touring.

Get this:  We are going to Caesarea where we will gather shells on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Then, we will see a Roman Aqueduct, Megiddo, and Mt. Arbel before we hike the Jesus Trail and spend the night in Galilee.  That’s all tomorrow.

Because we flew in to Tel Aviv after dark, and probably because I’m so exhausted, Israel feels like many other places I have been.  For Heaven’s sake, we saw McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Toys R Us, and even an Ikea on our drive to the hotel.  However, I can hear the waves of the Mediterranean hitting the beach below my window, and I’m promised an amazing view when I awake in the morning.  I’m going to fall asleep now to the rhythm of the tide and try to imagine what tomorrow has in store.

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”