Bag Ladies

I know a lot of really strong women. For example, I know a woman who, right now, is caring for her husband who earlier this week had a tumor removed from his brain and was sent home from the hospital less than 48 hours post-op.  And it’s not like she was just sitting around eating bonbons and resting up for this very taxing time in her life.  No, this comes on the heels of more than a couple decades of married life, raising children, working full time, and navigating the everyday stressors that all of us face.

Another woman I know is married to a high-level professional.  She gracefully carries the responsibilities that come with being the wife of someone in his position while also being mindful of the needs of her aging mother, her married daughter, and her young adult son.  For as long as I’ve known her, she has been ‘on-call’ for one crisis or another, yet she still thinks to make me gluten-free snacks, to collaborate on planning a women’s retreat that she won’t even be able to attend, to volunteer at a family business every week, and to listen to and encourage those around her.

This whole blog could be example after example of the women I’ve been blessed to know over the years.  I picture them smartly dressed, sitting in the drivers’ seats of their cars, hands at 10 and 2, looking from side to side and straight ahead, driving toward their destinations ever mindful of oncoming traffic. They see a familiar person standing on the edge of the road, so they stop to offer a ride. They notice a friend’s mailbox overflowing, and they stop and carry its contents to the door with a smile before heading back on their way. They fit in a full day of work, a quick stop at the grocery, a phone call to a child or a parent, and a workout before heading home to start a load of laundry and transport something edible from the fridge to the table. They are on the move, and they are happy to be.  They enjoy their lives. They want to be available to the people they love.  They enjoy feeling connected.

Each of these women looks so swift and efficient that you might not notice the bag on her back, strapped on tightly so that she can keep moving. What’s in the bag? Information, mostly.  The knowledge that her husband is really stressed about a situation at work.  The thought that her daughter is trying to navigate school and work and finances as a young adult.  The nagging feeling that she hasn’t seen her parents in a few months. The grocery list.  Her son’s recent injury and his need for a medical consult. The name of the plumber who has to be called. The way the cashier looked at her. The situation her friend told her about last Tuesday. Her retirement fund. The shoes that need to be polished. The need to make a dentist appointment. A work deadline.

The bag has been pretty full for a while, but she still seems to be able to heft it around. She hasn’t missed a day of work. The fridge has been well-stocked.  Every kid has been picked up and dropped off at the appropriate place and time.

But then something gives.  A diagnosis.  An accident.  An argument.  A crisis.

It doesn’t quite fit in the bag, but she jostles some things around, does some squishing, and keeps stepping, because this is the moment she’s been training for. Her people need her, so she doubles down and powers through. She manages even more than she ever thought possible. For months. Yeah, her face might look a little more drawn. Her words might be a little clipped, but people understand. Look at the stress that she’s under.  She’s a rock, isn’t she? Look at all she’s managing.

But in a subtle moment, when she isn’t even aware that the crisis has begun to subside, comes the need to shift the weight. She’s exhausted, finally. She has been carrying too much for too long. She’s got to sit down, loosen the straps, and look inside the bag.

It’s a time for inventory really.  At a time when she doesn’t really have the time for an inventory. No matter. It’s mandatory.  So, she looks.  She places her hands on each item. She sets them out around the room. As she surveys the array, she determines that a few things can go in the trash. She can’t even remember putting them in the bag.  Some items can be filed under nostalgia, some under forgiven, some under to be discussed, and others under been there, done that.   

But some items need to be held for a little while. They need to be wept over. They need to be introduced to a few trusted friends who will appreciate their significance and meaning. They need to be processed, repackaged, and perhaps finally put on a shelf– maybe a shelf of remembrance, maybe a shelf for trophies.

And way at the bottom of the bag, she might find one or two very heavy items that need to simply be placed on an altar — offered up to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than she could ever imagine doing or asking someone else to do.

Just a few items make it back into the bag, and as she straps it back on, she feels so much lighter. But before she rushes back out the door, back into the driver seat, back onto the highway that was her life, she pauses. She gives thanks for the moment to pause, for the opportunity to turn, for the offer of support. Then, she walks on.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11

Repent. Refresh. Reset.

So, as usual, my writing has sharpened my thinking.  I always tell my students this.  You don’t always know what you think until you start writing — so just write something.  You, my dear reader, may think that I write this blog to share my life with you, and indeed that is a nice bonus. But actually, I write this blog to figure out what I am thinking.  Knowing I have you as an audience is an additional check on my honesty.

Yesterday I shared that I will be speaking next weekend on the topic — ‘confidence in Christ’, specifically, how have I kept my confidence in Christ through the seasons of ministry.  Writing what I did yesterday got me to the place of acknowledging that it’s ok if I haven’t consistently had confidence in Christ, or more specifically, haven’t behaved as though I had confidence in Christ.  After all, it’s probably safe to say that all people falter in their faith.  In fact, women who come to a Saturday conference on having confidence in Christ have most assuredly had their moments of doubt.

And, from the comments I received from you, I think that at least some of these women will find it refreshing to hear that others have had a similar struggle.  One of you said that I should be ‘brutally honest’. Another said ‘bring the noise’!  Thanks guys, because you know me well enough to know that that is likely going to happen, whether I plan for it or not.  I am who I am.

One friend reminded me of a conversation that a few of us had last winter.  She simply said ‘Repent. Refresh. Reset.’ And I heard the song of my heart.  I love that those words don’t focus on the sin, as I am wont to do.  Rather, these three words focus on the remedy.  They remind me that in His story, God knew in advance that I would falter.  He knew that I could not remain consistently confident in Christ.  So, he provided a plan.  He said, Come to me all of you who are tired of soldiering, tired of kicking butts and taking names. He said, I will provide rest for your souls. He said, I don’t desire for you to die fighting; I desire for you turn to me, to try my pattern of living, and to realize that my way is much easier (Rathje Revised Version, all). 

So perhaps that is what will fill fifty-five minutes, stories of repentance, refreshing, and resetting.

That’s what this blog is, really. It’s the tale of me repenting of my self-sufficiency, of realizing in my weakness that He provides me with strength, of recognizing that a new way is needed, and beneficial, and blessed.

So, I share a few of my stories, and allow the ladies to share a few of theirs? We devise a way to keep sharing the stories of God’s faithfulness in our faithlessness? We commit to being brutally honest with one another?

Can you imagine the strength and encouragement that could come from such sharing? So many of you shared with me yesterday that you will be praying for me as I prepare for this Saturday.  Thank you!  Would you also pray for the ladies who will join me?  And pray for our time together? Please pray that our confidence in Christ would be renewed.

Acts 3:19

 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,

Just Fifteen Minutes

It was just fifteen minutes of my afternoon. I sat inches away from a woman I had never met before as she brushed tears away from her eyes. Just fifteen minutes.

In those fifteen minutes I learned that she has a PhD in China, but is studying for a PhD here.  She is forty-five years old.  She moved here, leaving career and family, so that her daughter can go to high school here in the United States and subsequently meet the criteria to attend an American university.  Why is she crying? Because her own mother is fighting cancer back in China and she can not be there to help.  Because it is difficult to do PhD work in your second (or third) language.  Because it is extra difficult when you are 45 and raising your daughter alone in a country that is not your own.  Because that difficulty is compounded when you see your daughter struggling to fit in and find success in her American school — your daughter who is studying in her second language.

She doesn’t know me, but she found me on a website — a website that shows my photo, some of my credentials, and some student testimonials.  She contacted me yesterday and wondered if I would read some of her daughter’s writing — would I help her get published?

I read her request and thought to myself, “Oh, boy, another child prodigy.” I judged her.  She was one more parent who believes her child is amazing. (I am one of those parents, too, by the way.)  I told her I would be happy to meet her, but it is the policy of Wyzant  (the tutoring site I use) that she has to enter payment information before I can meet her.  I stick to this policy because it makes my record keeping simple; I never have to collect my own payment, and no one ever owes me any money.  It is clean.

She countered, “Wyzant won’t accept my Chinese credit card. I would be happy to pay you in cash or check.”

I replied, “I only accept payment through Wyzant, but I am happy to meet you tomorrow to see if we are a good match for each other.”  We set up a time and a place. Period.

Well, Wyzant didn’t like that.  They disabled my account about an hour before I was to meet her.  They sent me a notification saying that “based on some recent email correspondence, it appears that you have violated the terms of use.  We have deactivated your account.”

Gasp!

So I can’t access any of my student contacts?  Yikes!  I called them to inquire and the operator said she would “create a ticket” and that they would contact me within 24-48 hours to let me know if I can be re-activated or not.

Or not!?!?!?!?!?

Guys!  I have a dozen or more students that I see fairly regularly.  Yes, this has been a slow week, but I have six appointments scheduled for next week and no way of contacting these people if my account is not reactivated.

Now, I am guessing that they are just going to give me a stern warning with finger shaking, “Do not under any circumstances meet with clients who do not have payment information on file.”  Right, right, I know.  I have told almost half of my clients that I will not allow them to pay me cash because I have signed an agreement.  I really want everything kept within the boundaries of the website — it’s clean and safe and organized.

I had no intention of circumventing that policy.  I had no intention of charging this woman for a  fifteen minute meeting. In fact, when I met with her today, I helped her understand that she could open a PayPal account with her debit card and link it to Wyzant.  Because of the language barrier, that might have been difficult to convey through email correspondence.  We needed the face-to-face.

But not just to set up the payment information. We needed the face-to-face so that I could get off my high horse, stop judging her based on a couple of sentences in an email, and have some compassion on a mom who is feeling overwhelmed and all alone.

I’d do it again.  Ok, I might be a little more crafty in how I communicate time and place now that I know that Big Brother is reading my emails (or that he at least has some kind of algorithm to identify rebellious rule-breaking tutors).  Sometimes we have to be a little flexible. I don’t typically break the rules, but I do find ways to bend them a bit when needed.  I didn’t know this mom’s situation last night.  I wasn’t really trying to bend any rules.

But today, for fifteen minutes, two women connected without the blessing of Wyzant, and I’m not sorry for it.

I John 4:11

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

“Trouble Talks”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galatians 6:2

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

Inhale. Exhale.

I feel like I keep writing the same thing over and over — how I am amazed at all the friendships and connections I have in this next chapter.  Some of these connections are new — my husband’s coworkers, my Bible study battalion, and my new students.

But some of the characters that show up in this next chapter were players in earlier chapters — some a long, long time ago.

My Thursday morning walking buddy was my college suite-mate.  Back in the 1980s we shared bathroom space and late-night snacks. Today we share our journey through chronic illness, marriage, and parenting while walking laps at the mall.

Before Thanksgiving I reconnected with another friend. She was a member at the congregation we served in the 1990s, where all of our children were born.  We became close through our home Bible study group, Marriage Encounter, and the church’s worship team.  She was the director of worship; we’ll say I was support staff and cheerleader — I wrote song lyrics, prayed with the team, and led them in Bible study before practice.  Her children attended my high school Bible study on Sunday mornings.  We were friends.

Another friend from the past is actually responsible for us being here in Ann Arbor.  She is on staff here as Director of Worship Arts and alerted us to the posting for a Dean of Students.  Back in the 1980s she and I worked side by side as work study employees for this university’s Office of Development.  Computers were new and we were hired to enter thousands of donor names into a database. We also wrote thank you letters and gave campus tours.  Through that connection, I began attending her father’s congregation, ate dinners at their family table, and felt like I belonged.

These three women from my past want to join me for a Bible study.  I already have my Bible study on Wednesday mornings — you know, my batallion.  But these gals are my friends, they know parts of my story, they belong in my story.

So today a few of us met to discuss what we should study.  I was running late — the only one without a job and was late.  I sank onto a sofa with them and just breathed.  Familiarity.  Love.  Acceptance. Inhale, exhale.

We talked for over an hour without touching on Bible study.  We just swapped stories of life.  And as we were preparing to part, I think I asked, “so what do we want to study?”

It seemed like we were going to go with Ephesians when one of the others said, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Acts 3:19.”  We turned to find it. “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you.” Repent.  Turn. So that times of refreshing may come. Ahhhhhh. Inhale. Exhale.

One of the others said, “It reminds me of Isaiah 30:15: In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.”Ahhhhh.  Inhale.  Exhale.

The first woman said, “It sounds like we could all really use this.  A turning away from the way that we are going so that we can experience refreshing.”

I said, “Maybe we could just think about those verses for a little bit and see where that leads us.”

The other woman said, “Maybe we could write a devotional book for women like us who could also use some refreshing.”

Could we? Really? You would want to do that with me? We could spend the time together? We could commit to that project together?  And through it we could grow closer and we could all be changed together?

I hugged them tightly saying, “Is this real?  Are we really here together? Is God really this good?”

I pinched myself, and guys, I think it’s real. Inhale. Exhale.

Psalm 34:8

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.

My Sweet Battalion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Thessalonians 5:11

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

Some real gems

I just looked back over my posts from this week and realized that I have written about women for the last four days!  I wasn’t planning to do that; it just worked out that way.  And since it’s Friday, I think I will hang in there for one more.  I want to write about another group of women that I know.  I don’t belong to their group; I don’t have what they have.

One of these women was my colleague for the past nine years.  She not only taught six, yes six, sections of English, but she coached cheerleading, coordinated the senior all night party, headed the accreditation process, and did anything, I mean anything, that I asked her to do.  She went to conferences, researched teaching strategies, met with students, covered my classes when I was out of the building, and encouraged me at every turn.  Outside of school, she trains and completes half-marathons, shares her karaoke skills every Tuesday night, and sets a high bar as aunt-of-the-century to her niece and nephews.  The girl doesn’t quit. Oh, yeah, did I mention she sings in the church choir, teaches Sunday school, helps out at VBS, and runs the summer reading program.   And she does all this with laughter, integrity, and Christian love.

Another woman I have known for decades.  She has been a minister to youth for as long as I have known her.  She is a bit crazy, as all youth staff need to be, and so passionate about the souls of her charges.  She takes these kids on trips, teaches their confirmation classes, and looks for new ways to deliver the gospel, even after thirty years in the ‘business’.  She challenges their thinking, asks the hard questions, and isn’t afraid to tell the truth.

Still another is a woman who has raised I think seven adopted children — three still live with her.  The three that I know all have very special needs.  They are all adults, over twenty-one, but none of them can live completely alone.  I have been amazed by her willingness to do what each one needs. She relocated from Texas to Missouri so that one could get better programming.  She encourages another to be involved in a local church, by himself, so that he can have a sense of independence — walking to church, having his own friends, and serving in his own way.  She knows their stories of abuse, neglect, and challenge, and she opens up avenues to let them grow in their own way, at their own pace.

And another dear lady runs a dance studio after her long days as an engineer building things like highways and bridges and baseball stadiums — you know, basic stuff. She teaches people to dance, to stay fit, to have fun.  She runs a national event that brings dancers from across the country together.  And, you know, in her spare time she does benefits for those trapped in the sex trafficking industry, takes missions trips, and oozes the love of God on everyone around her.  Yes, oozes.

What do these women have in common?  They are all doing this as singles.  They don’t go home to the support of a partner.  They rely on family, friends, and colleagues for encouragement and support.  And, folks, they are getting God’s work done. Period.

They are soldiers.  I don’t have what they have.  Tireless energy.  Infectious passion. Unbelievable selflessness.   Their desire to serve God and others is inspiring.  I lift my glass in admiration of these women.  I thank God for them.

Proverbs 31:10, 30

she is worth far more than rubies

…a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Not just for women, but about women

When did the shift happen?  When did it become ok to portray women as competitors and even enemies of one another?  Do you know what I am talking about?  The images are everywhere — magazines, television, movies, books.  The idea that I need to be better than other women — thinner, smarter, more powerful, sexier, better dressed — permeates our culture in such a way that potential allies are turned into suspects.

I believed the lie for quite a while.  Very few women passed enough tests and criteria to be allowed into my inner circle of trust.  Once in, they were placed on an extremely high pedestal from which they will surely never fall.  But getting there took a pretty special combination of traits — honesty, humor, authenticity, strength, and the resilience to let my crap bounce off of them.  Few were chosen.

Many were kept at arm’s length for whatever reason — I could fabricate a reason in a heartbeat.  I missed out on the blessing of many female friendships because of my insecurities and the belief that I needed to be suspicious of the enemy.

That belief is a lie of the one and only enemy.

Women need one another.  

I knew I needed my inner circle  — I had a best friend all through elementary school who remains so high on the pedestal that the mention of her name brings me pause. I had a partner in crime through middle and high school whose name can still bring out the mischievous teenager in me.  I bonded with a dear friend in my freshman year of college who was so steadfast that though our time together was short, she remains on the pedestal today.  My dear friend from the rest of undergrad has earned the title of aunt to my children and godmother to my baby because of the way our hearts are knit together.   These women…they had a hand in shaping me.  I didn’t suspect their loyalty.  I didn’t question their motives.  They unconditionally supported me.

But I believed they were rare and that real women didn’t act that way.  Real women wanted to judge me and outdo me.  They were suspect and not to be trusted.

I was wrong.

We all need each other.  We need encouragement.  We need eye contact.  We need to be heard and understood.  We need affirmation and acceptance.  Unconditionally.  When we don’t get it, sometimes our claws come out.  We start thinking that others are the competition. We even behave as though we are trying to outdo one another.

I have been noticing a lot of women lately.  I have been noticing they aren’t out to get me.  They are reaching out to me: inviting me to lunch, or to go on a walk, or to visit their church.  They are encouraging me: through email, text, Facebook, and in person. They are befriending me.

I am beginning to believe that most women really want to be in relationship with one another, not in competition with one another. Is it possible, that our media is (gasp) giving us an inaccurate portrayal of reality? (It’s just a question, folks, not a political statement.)

I’m going to go out on a limb here.  Instead of trusting my long held and faulty beliefs, I am going to trust God and take a few chances on some women. I think they can be trusted.  I mean, they are taking a chance on me. 

Romans 12: 10…16

…be devoted to one another in love.  Honor one another above yourselves…

live in harmony with one another…