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.

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


Coronavirus Diary #5: Stating the Obvious (and the not so obvious)

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced on Friday morning that we would continue our stay-at-home order until May 15. This makes sense to me. While our numbers in Michigan are leveling out and we haven’t had quite as many new cases every day, that seems to me to be the result of us all staying away from each other — slowing the spread, flattening the curve. Since the virus still exists, and many are still carrying it, it would seem foolish to all of a sudden drop restrictions and start interacting with one another face-to-face.

And no one is suggesting that we do that. Not for a while.

In fact, it seems that for a while we’ll be experimenting with tightening and loosening restrictions and seeing what happens. Some states are being criticized for ‘opening up’ too soon, putting financial stability ahead of public health. Other states are being criticized for keeping the restrictions too strict for too long.

I’m not in any position to have an opinion about the best way to proceed, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m told — sheltering in place, going out for necessity only and with an abundance of caution, washing my hands, and covering my face.

I can do these things with little difficulty because my husband and I can work from home, we have everything we need, and we have not been infected. We eat well, have access to all kinds of television shows, read good books, and sleep comfortably each night. Our loved ones are all safe and well, and we are able to communicate with them regularly.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

So, so many have lost their jobs and are suffering from the financial impact. Over 20% of our country is unemployed at the moment (26 million as of April 24, 2020). I can’t imagine the stress they must be feeling. While stimulus checks have been promised and unemployment payments have been subsidized, no one can really be sure when those dollars will arrive or if they will be enough. While more than half of qualifying Americans have received their stimulus checks, most of those who have filed for unemployment will be waiting a while to get financial assistance.

Many do not have what they need. Many families and individuals do not have enough food. Grocery stores are short on certain items due to shifting demands and the reorganizing of supply chains. Medical facilities continue to struggle to obtain necessary supplies and equipment.

Many, many are sick. As of this writing, over 2.8 million cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed around the world; over 200,000 have died. In the US, over 965,000 cases have been confirmed; over 54,000 have died. In Michigan alone, there are over 37,000 confirmed cases and over 3,300 deaths. And this is far from over.

Many have no time to rest. Parents of school-aged children are juggling their own work responsibilities while managing the educational, physical, social, and emotional needs of their children. Governmental leaders are doing their best to make decisions that impact all of us while facing criticism, protests, growing death tolls, and and a devastated economy. Essential workers have been burning the candle at both ends to provide medical care, necessary supplies, and food to the rest of us. They’ve been going steady for weeks on end, and they’ve got to be exhausted.

Some are unable to communicate with those that they love. We all have heard stories of people who have loved ones in the hospital who are sick or dying alone. Because of the danger of contagion, no one can visit. Often, it’s challenging to make contact of any kind — even a phone call. Some have been separated from loved ones who live in nursing homes — a generation that is unfamiliar with Smart phones, FaceTime and Zoom rooms.

So why am I writing all this? Am I just stating the obvious?

Probably.

But I think right now the obvious needs to be stated.

Because the obvious is heavy, and it’s a burden we can’t put down — now or anytime soon.

We’re lugging this load down a long dusty road, whipped by the wind, parched and tired, and we can’t see our destination — the place where we can set it all down.

We don’t know when it will be safe to hug our aging parents, when we’ll be able to play with our grandchildren, when we can sit across the table from our friends, or when we can simply get a haircut.

We don’t know when our finances will recover, when we’ll go back to work, when we’ll reschedule our vacations, or when we’ll worship together in church, gathering at the altar for the bread and the wine, joining our voices in song, hearing one another in prayer.

And what is not obvious is that walking around every day with this very heavy burden is exhausting. We’re tired, and tender, and emotional.

We feel weepy, then angry, then giddy, then hopeless, then resolute, then determined, then disappointed, then devastated, then weepy….

So, we think to ourselves, “let’s do something fun — go see some friends, have a party, go to the beach, have dinner out,” but then we realize the obvious:

we are under quarantine,

Covid 19 is a killer,

the only weapon we have to defend ourselves at the moment is social distancing,

supplies are tight,

people are suffering,

there’s not much we can do but to keep doing our part.

The obvious is heavy, so if you’re tired, it makes sense. Have a seat. Take a break. Call a friend. Laugh. Cry. Yell.

If you can, extend a hand. Connect with someone else.

Consider sharing — some time, some money, some food, some resources, some hope.

It’s a long dusty road, and the burden is heavy.

Let’s help one another along.

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

Galatians 6:2

Honor One Another

Right now, people you know and people I know — people we see every day — are feeling a bit desperate. They’ve been scrolling through social media, and they’ve seen picture-perfect families, lit-up Christmas trees, and December graduations that have shown them how far they are from measuring up. They’ve seen group poses and party pics that have reminded them of their own disconnectedness.

They feel defeated, deflated, and discouraged.

Many in our culture — the one that promotes wealth, success, status, and achievement — have compared themselves to a curated social media standard or to the people they see at school or at work — the polished public facade of put-togetherness — and have found themselves lacking.

And this sense of inferiority has implications.

The National Institute of Health reports that 19 percent of the US population suffers from anxiety and over seven percent have suffered from a major depressive episode in the last year.

On an average day in the United States, 129 people commit suicide.

This year alone, 409 Americans have committed mass shootings, injuring 1,466 and killing 441.

Why? Why are people picking up weapons and intentionally seeking to hurt others? Why do so many try and succeed in ending their own lives? Why are such high numbers depressed and anxious?

Of course the answers to these questions are complex, but could it be, at least in part, that people simply don’t know their own worth? Their own inherent value?

With all of our emphasis on achievement, success, and wealth, have we lost the ability to see the inherent value of each person — the implicit value that is separate from our accomplishments, our status, and our ability to present a flawless front to the world? Are we unable to find that value in one another and in ourselves?

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, in his recent series on the Culture of Christmas spent an entire Sunday on how we, as a community, can create a culture of honor in which we recognize, value, and honor each person — where we see the implicit value in each individual.

Is this possible? Can we create (or re-create) such a culture in a community that is made up of people like me? I struggle to get my focus off my self and my to-do list for long enough to even see the people around me, let alone honor them!

I was in the mall the other day, and I was on a mission. Bent on hitting my step goal while finding two specific Christmas gifts, I put in my earbuds and got to it. I stepped my steps and found my gifts. Mission accomplished. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that other than the salesperson who helped me, I didn’t remember one single face from that trip to the mall. Although it’s mid-December and the mall was crowded with people, I was so totally focused on finding my gifts and getting in my steps that I didn’t notice one other person. I didn’t give honor to anyone.

Honor, Pastor Gabe said, is the recognition of the value, contribution, and importance of others; it recognizes their implicit value.

What does that look like?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like me, fully engrossed in the podcast playing in my ears, motoring through the masses on my seek-and-find mission.

No. When I picture honoring someone — truly seeing their inherent value — I imagine myself figuratively cupping their face in my hands, looking straight in their eyes, and seeing, with wonder, what their parents saw in them on the day they were born. In honoring them, I acknowledge the miracle that despite all odds — despite illness, dysfunction, calamity, neglect, and abuse; despite chance and hazards and accidents and trauma– a human being has been created cell by cell, has grown to its current state, and has survived. Whether or not the being whose face I am beholding has accomplished anything in life beyond that survival, he or she is a miracle — a child of God, someone’s hope and dream, and a life worth acknowledging, an existence worth honoring.

And honoring the inherent value of all people means I’m holding the faces of a lot of people who don’t look like me, don’t agree with me, don’t want to listen to me, and might even annoy me.

Over the last couple of weeks, perhaps nudged along by Pastor Gabe’s message, I’ve attempted honoring others by taking one small action — yielding the right of way. Instead of speeding up to get in front of others, I’m trying to remember to let them go in front of me. (It’s a baby step; I know.) I’m driving into parking lots slowly, allowing others plenty of space to find their spot as I’m staying out of their way. I’m walking through stores (other than my recent journey to the mall) with the intention of not cutting anyone off, of anticipating where others are going, and of allowing them to step in front of me. I’m trying to show that I recognize that people have inherent value.

It’s a very small action. To be fair, I can’t actually walk up to people, take their faces in my hands and say, “Wow! You are quite a miracle!” I’m pretty sure that would be counterproductive. However, I can look the sales clerk in the eye, smile, and thank her for bagging my items. I can turn to my coworker when she speaks to me and listen to her instead of continuing to fill out the document I’m working on. I can acknowledge that my student is ticked off because he has to do two hours of instruction with me after he’s already been in school all day and honor the legitimacy of that feeling. I can walk through the mall a little less intensely, seeing the other people in my path, smiling, nodding, allowing them to step in front of me, and noticing their humanity, their worth, their inherent value.

It might mean I might have to slow my roll, overlook some grinchiness, and give up my right to have everything in life go exactly according to plan, and it might mean I get to a few places a little late, but what difference will it make?

Will my small changes stop gun violence? Will they put an end to depression, anxiety, and suicide? Will my small attempts to make eye contact, to listen, and to acknowledge the worth of others cause significant cultural change?

I hardly think the actions of one middle-aged woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan can shift a whole culture, but they might cause an ever-so-minute shift. If I notice one person’s value and they then notice another person’s value, perhaps together, we might create enough space in which a few more people can live and breathe, where they might begin to have hope, where they might discover a reason to keep living.

I’ve been accused of being too hopeful, too idealistic, too pie-in-the-sky. But guys, I’ve been changed by people who noticed me, who looked in my eyes, and who acknowledged my inherent worth.

Small actions can yield huge results.

Is it possible that as we pause to acknowledge the value in the lives around us that we might become like mirrors in which people begin to see their own inherent worth and that we might, in turn, more fully understand the value of ourselves?

Is it worth a try?

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10

Tempted by Despair; Choosing Hope

And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.

It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.

After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.

I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.

I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.

These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.

All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?

We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?

What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?

I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.

I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.

We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.

Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.

And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.

We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.

I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.

Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.

I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.

Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.

And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.

I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.

We’re all broken — every last one of us.

We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.

And He. Is. Coming.

In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.

We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.

We will see every broken piece put back into place.

And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.

And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.

Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.

I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.

And He is coming again.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:20

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

A return to the story, a re-visit

Our congregation published an Advent Devotion Book that you can find here. In it, you’ll find a short excerpt from this post. I wasn’t thinking Advent when I wrote this in September, but it makes sense to reshape our worry into longing for Christ’s return when we will see the end of the story play out.

Walking through the grocery store, I heard a ping, then another. I looked toward the sound and saw a woman grabbing her phone, looking at the screen, then smiling. She put the phone down and continued pushing her cart down the aisle. I saw her several more times as I made my way through the store. Each time, it was because I heard the ping first. Her phone was calling her attention; it caught mine, too.

As I pulled into campus the other day, I drove past a half a dozen teenagers who had just finished rowing practice on the river that flows behind our house. Waiting for their rides, they sat in a silent clump, all hunched over their phones.

I get lost in my phone, too. In fact, as I sat next to my mom yesterday, watching a football game, I was scrolling mindlessly — looking at social media, checking email, Googling to fact-check.

We’re on our phones all the time. We’re always taking in information– seeing what’s going on in the world– trying not to miss anything. We read, we post, we comment. Much of our daily life revolves around our phones.

I’ve been thinking about our phone culture over the last few days as I’ve noticed a pulsing chorus in the background of my days. From a collection of very diverse voices I am hearing a resounding cacophony: The world we live in today..so much violence… fires… racism… sexism…crime… poverty… corruption…. what can we do? It’s terrible…

Terrible…

Terrible…

And you know, the fact that we are continuously scrolling through our cell phones (or sitting in front of our televisions), is related to this narrative –this growing societal anxiety. If we are frantic — about the environment, crime, money, scandal — then we continue to scroll. When we scroll, our anxiety increases. What can be done? It’s terrible! Terrible! Terrible!

The cycle is self-perpetuating.

And we’re becoming a culture of reeling, hand-wringing, panicking worriers, chanting with the masses, “It’s no use! We’re doomed! This is surely the end of the world!”

And, to be fair, the issues we face are real. and significant. and scary.

I’ve found myself reeling and worrying, too.

Friday morning, as I was writing out three pages of mind-dump, I cried out, “Lord, help! Lord, lead! Lord, please!”

Not long after, I was listening to a sermon centered on the text in Exodus 1-2 where Pharaoh orders that the Israelite slaves be beaten and that their babies be murdered, a time when certainly the people were reeling and panicking. As I pictured the slaughter of innocents, I heard our pastor share these words:

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.”

NT Wright

I got kinda choked up, and I leaned in.

As I listened to the rest of the sermon, I remembered how God had shown up for the Israelites, how He had miraculously delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, how he had saved even little baby Moses as he bobbed down the stream in a basket made of reeds. I felt a peace wash over me as I remembered that the God who rescued Moses and the Israelites is the same God who hears me as I “cry out” on the pages of my notebook.

The same God who heard David and Hannah and Mary and Peter.

I am part of a bigger story — a story that was written before the beginning of time, a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An end! Guys, we already know the end!

Last weekend, my granddaughter wanted me to watch a “scary movie”. When I told her that I don’t like scary movies, she said, “It’s ok, Oma, I will sit next to you and cover your eyes if you get really scared.” So, figuring that I’d probably be ok if a four year old was coaching me into bravery, I agreed. Throughout the movie, whenever a scary part came up, she put her little hand on my glasses so that I wouldn’t get too frightened. Toward the end of the movie, the scariest part of all, she narrated for me ahead of time exactly what was going to happen so that I would know in advance that everything was going to turn out ok.

And guys, we already know that even if it gets pretty darn scary, it is all going to be ok in the end.

“See, Oma, I told you!”

Sometimes we need to return to the story, remind ourselves how it all turns out, where the story has come from, where it is going, and what our part within it ought to be.

So I listened to that sermon. Twice. (Click here if you’d like to hear it.)

Then, I turned on Pandora and heard these lyrics:

The weapon may be formed, but it won’t prosper.
When the darkness falls, it won’t prevail.
Cause the God I serve knows only how to triumph;
My God will never fail.”

“See a Victory” Elevation Worship

Hundreds of times during the day, I check my phone — for texts, for calls, for updated news, for weather reports. Just once every morning, I return to scripture as I drive into work. And I wonder why I feel a bit unsettled and somewhat frantic. My dosage is off. I’m taking in too much frenzy and not enough fact. And when I do that, I can forget.

I can forget that:

I was lost, ’til You called me out by name
And I was down, ’til You picked me up again
And I was wrong, ’til Your love it made me right
I was dead, ’til You sang me back to life.”

“Garments” Cory Asbury

When I return to the story — not only the story of scripture, but the story of God’s faithfulness in my own life — when I see where it has come from and where it is going, I start to wonder what my role within this grand story might be. I wonder if my role is to join the masses in frantic scrolling, hand-wringing, and worrying, or if it is to continue to return to the story, to remember that I already know the ending, and to live a life a hopefulness — a life that knows that times get dark and scary, but it’s going to be ok in the end.

Because guys, we live within a story that has been crafted by the Author and Creator of life. He has designed for each of us a life of hope and significance. Each of us matters before Him, and we have the great privilege to live into that truth and to share that truth with all of our fellow scrolling, hand-wringing sojourners.

We are not a people without hope.

We are a people who know the story of how God has been kind and merciful to His people over and over again — in the direst of circumstances: famine, flood, subjugation, tyranny. We have seen Him provide for us, connect to us, and lead us.

We know how the story ends.

Death is all around us
We are not afraid
Written is the story
Empty is the grave.”

“This Dust” Kip Fox

Let’s keep returning to the story; let’s remind ourselves that we’re gonna be ok.

From Mourning to Hope, a re-visit

After posting on Monday about choosing hope over despair, I thought I’d revisit one of the first pieces I wrote this year, to remember how far we’ve come.

2018 was the year that I stopped rucking. I finally had to set down my pack.

According to my son, who served in the 82nd Airborne, “rucking” is a long march, 15-20 miles or more, with a heavy pack of gear strapped on your back.

Image result for ruck march
Ruck March

The soldier carries necessities — provisions, weapons, extra socks, and the like — and moves forward. The more he does this, the better he gets at it — the longer he can go, the more he can carry. Soldiers practice rucking, of course, so that when they have to go on a mission, they have the strength and endurance they need to endure.

I had gotten pretty good at rucking in my former life of soldiering — when I survived a season of high demand by butt-kicking and name-taking. That old lifestyle was built on the premise that I had the strength within myself to accomplish whatever task was put in front of me. It depended on bravado; I believed that by the force of my will I could solve all the problems and complete all the tasks. I could ruck.

I’ve learned a lot since then.

Over the last four and a half years, I’ve chronicled in this blog the retraining I’ve undergone to stop living the soldiering lifestyle. I’ve changed physical things like my diet, exercise, healthcare providers, and job, and emotional things like the taking time for therapy and daily writing and rest. Yet, while I have been very intentional about stepping away from soldiering, I am still prone to strapping on that backpack when the going gets tough.

And it does get tough, doesn’t it?

This past year was one of the toughest yet. And I might’ve gone back to soldiering, if it would’ve done any good. But even I couldn’t muster the strength to carry the kind of heavy that 2018 brought. The inner mantra I used to live by that said I could handle anything was silenced. The heaviness of 2018 was more than I could carry. I could no longer ruck.

I sat down, let my pack fall to the ground, and I cried. Over and over this year, I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

I grieved most of 2018. I grieved for many who are dear to me whose losses are great, and I grieved for myself — for all the losses I have failed to grieve over the years. Likely the biggest grief of all was realizing that — that I hadn’t felt all the feelings when I should have been feeling them; instead, I had been rucking. I’d been carrying a load of hurt shoved down deep in a bag, when I should have been spreading all the griefs out on a blanket, examining them one by one and recognizing the weight of each loss.

So, that’s where I started — I opened the bag, dug deep inside, and brought out all the hurts that lay crumpled deep inside. I spread them all out, sorted through them and described each piece in writing. I took stock of the damage, and I prayed and prayed and prayed. I invited others to pray with me. I spent hours and days and whole weeks talking with my husband — rehearsing forgiveness and grace. And, finally, I think it’s time: I think I’m ready to take a break from grief.

At the very beginning of our season of grief, as though to provide for me a literary symbol, the necklace I wear every day was broken. It’s a gold chain that carries a small heart charm– a baptism gift from my godparents that I wear to remember whose I am — and a butterfly charm that my mother gave me when I earned my master’s degree that I wear to remember that I have been transformed. I’m not big on jewelry. In fact, my skin rejects all but the finest of gold, so when the chain broke about a year and half ago, I didn’t find the wherewithal or the resources to deal with it.

But on Christmas morning, just a few weeks ago, as we started to believe that the gray fog of grief was lifting, my husband gave me my repaired gold chain. I’ve put it back on, because I need a physical sign that the season of mourning is over. I need a daily reminder that I am a child of God who has been transformed and that the times of refreshing have come.

Certainly 2019 will not be free of trouble. We may be devastated again today or next week or next month, but for now, I am going to acknowledge that we were carried through 2018 not by our own might, but by the Hands of God who saw every tear, heard every prayer, and who, right now, is turning our mourning into hope.

You have turned my mourning into dancing for me;

You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”

Psalm 30:11-12

I am trusting…

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.”

First John 4:16

That’s all.  That’s all we can rely on.  It is the only thing that will not fail.  We will let ourselves down.  Our finances will falter.  Our friends will betray us.  Our leaders will disappoint us.  The world will hurl all kinds of venom full in our faces, but the love of God will not fail.

 I am clinging to that truth today.  I’m grasping it in a sweaty fist that I’m waving in the air as I say,  jaw-clenched, “I am trusting you, Lord.”

Trusting you as I stare in disbelief at my television screen showing live tape of atrocities I thought had died out decades ago.

Trusting you as yet another individual has amassed an arsenal and opened fire on unsuspecting people he didn’t even know.

Trusting you in the face of politicians hurling insults and accusations at one another.

Trusting you as the citizenry follows their lead.

Trusting you as brother fights against sister.

Trusting you as illness grabs at our throats.

Trusting you as uncertainty threatens to dash our hopes.

Why? Why am I trusting You? Because You have proven yourself faithful to thousands of generations. You have calmed storms, fed the hungry, healed the sick, dethroned rulers, measured out justice against oppressors, and still found time to speak in a still small voice to “the least of these”.

The Creator of everything, the Redeemer of the world, the Sustainer of all life, knows my name. He has numbered the hairs on my head.  He knows my coming and my going.  He knows my yesterday, my today, and my tomorrow.

He will never leave me nor forsake me. So I breathe in the truth, open my fist, and unclench my jaw.

Lord, replace my anger with purpose.  Replace my despair with diligence.  Let me bear witness to your unfailing love in a world that very afraid.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

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

Creativity

Just under two years ago, as I said goodbye to teaching in St. Louis so that I could move to Michigan with my husband, I imagined that I would take four to six months to rest and recover and then I would find a job and get back to some kind of ‘normal’ life.  My limited view couldn’t see what God had planned for me.  I couldn’t imagine how He would allow me to experiment with different types and levels of employment so that I could see for myself what would be fulfilling, draining, energizing, depleting… I couldn’t envision a life where I would have so much freedom to learn and grow.  I couldn’t see how He could provide for us financially, so He had to show me.

In the past two years I have worked for Reuters as an election agent, tutored students in English, writing, reading, study skills and test preparation, participated in intensive reading and writing instruction, edited everything from a young adult novel to a Master’s thesis on cancer-treating drugs, scored standardized math assessments, and taught college-level writing and literature courses.

And though that sounds like a lot, I’ve had the luxury of making new friends, participating in a regular Bible study, joining a new church family, working out consistently at a local gym, reading dozens of books, visiting family across the state, exploring Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti with my husband, and providing a refuge for my daughters as they navigated some difficult life situations.  Not only that, I’ve had time to experiment with medical strategies — discarding some, embracing others — to find ways to feel better both physically and emotionally.

Much of that journey has been chronicled in this blog. I think I started writing imagining that I would arrive at a destination — that I would someday get to “The Next Chapter.” However, I think the theme of this chapter is learning to live in the process, to trust that God knows what is coming next and He is preparing me for it. I’m learning to not look too far ahead, but to enjoy each moment.

This morning, I was supposed to be doing some online scoring, but ETS contacted me and said that due to reduced volume, I was not needed and would still receive half of my pay for the morning.  So, I stayed in bed reading a great book a little longer than usual.  I got up, straightened the kitchen, made my tea, and picked up my old faithful devotional, Whispers of Hope by Beth Moore.  After having set it down for a while to study Hosea and Breathe, I turned to the first page to start my third journey through this book.

Was I surprised that the message applied directly to my life? Not really.  I’m starting to expect it.  I no longer get stunned when I see a message like this: “What God is doing in your life right now may not make sense to you, but it’s not because He’s nonsensical.  It’s because He’s creative…In His wisdom God knew [His creation] was good because He knew what was coming next.  He knows what’s coming next for you…Give God room to be completely creative.”

Two years ago, I had no idea what was coming next.  It was pure obedience (plus exhaustion and a touch of desperation) to move here with no plan. Granted, He had made it quite obvious that we should take this leap of faith by providing a position that was custom-crafted for my husband in Michigan, which we both call home, but still, for a chronic planner and do-er, it was a totally new experience.

What God was doing in our lives did not make sense to me, but it wasn’t because He was nonsensical.  It was because He had a creative response to my self-destructive soldiering ways. He had information that was beyond my scope.  He knew what was coming next. And in my exhaustion, I was willing to allow him the room to be completely creative.

Guess how creative He is — He’s giving me the opportunity to teach high school students from across the country and around the world this summer at the University of Michigan. I’ll get to speak into their writing process and, hopefully, into their lives.  He’s allowing me to lead three sections of writing at Concordia in the fall — a three-minute walk from my kitchen to my classroom. And – gasp – He’s orchestrated an opportunity for my husband and me to chaperone a group of students to Israel for two weeks in January!

Could I have imagined all of that two short years ago? Not in a million years.  I was picturing myself shelving books at the public library. Not that that would’ve been a bad gig; perhaps that’ll be the next Next Chapter.  For now, I’m pretty content in this chapter and grateful to its Author.

Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord

“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,

plans to give you a hope and a future.”