Today I sat in on a high school assembly. This may be an obvious point, but can we take a moment to thank God we're not in high school any more? Unless, of course, you are in high school. Then, hey--don't worry, it'll be over soon. But this is not my point. Tomorrow evening is the homecoming football game and this was part of the week-long festivities. A thousand awkward teenagers (with a dozen or so freakishly attractive adolescents mixed in just to make everyone else feel the weight of their inferiority) were jammed onto the gym bleachers. There was a drum line, perky cheerleaders, a balloon arch and the necessary grunting football players standing off to the side. They would have their time, but event began with the speeches from the homecoming king and queen candidates.
Which is why I was sitting in this hormone laboratory in the first place. Our son, Cade, is one of these candidates. Yep. I'm a proud mom. This kid, who moved from Arizona in the middle of his freshman year has done the difficult work of acclimating to a new culture while remaining true to who he is through arguably, some of the most confusing years of life. This is no small feat and I'm taking this moment to soak in the reality that as his childhood and adolescence winds down, he's entering adulthood having already weathered some character building seasons.
I remember my counselor telling me how hard it is to develop faith in our kids because it requires that we allow them to be in situations that build faith. It's much easier to rescue and protect our kids than to entrust them to God or allow them to fall and fail. I'm not talking about negligence or laziness (although I probably over-spiritualized my refusal to assist on science fair projects). I mean the disciplined, soul-wrenching work of learning when to intervene and when to let them fall. And then trusting something good can come out of your mistakes.
That's what I saw today. A man who is growing in character and faith. A man who is learning to be gracious in adversity and affirmation. The young man (and I use that term loosely) who gave his speech before Cade apparently mistook the assignment as a roast of all the other candidates and, I have to admit, my mama feathers were riled when he took a verbal jab at my son. When I asked Cade about it after school he just laughed. He hadn't been offended at all. Which is the problem with kids growing up--sometimes they're better at being adults than we are.
This afternoon, the votes are being counted and tomorrow night the announcement will be made and the 2014 Homecoming King and Queen will be crowned. Cade may or may not win, but both of us will be fine no matter the outcome. I have so much respect for him and I couldn't be prouder. Of course, I have an advantage over him. I know that in the scheme of life, homecoming court successes fade quickly. But Cade is teaching me that perseverance in the ups and downs of the daily grind will always be rewarded. Maybe not in being king for a day, but in the kind of life that matters.
Season of Delight
I love to run. Well, at least, I used to love to run. It was the kind of activity I truly delighted in. From my running app's verbal signal "Beginning run," to my post-run stretching routine, I loved it all. In my adult life I only participated in a single organized race. Nine months after my first open heart surgery I ran the Phoenix Rock 'n Roll half marathon as a celebration of my renewed energy and life. Other than that, I hated to spoil the pure joy of running with the duty of a training regimen.
Season of Discipline
But now it's different. The shiny new heart valve from seven years ago is wearing out. It's tired and getting less and less elastic; hardening itself against the constant blood flow through my heart and narrowing the passageway that supplies oxygenated blood to the rest of my body.
I'm still running--my cardiologist insists upon it--but now its strictly out of duty. I'm tired and I'm sensitive to every tiny irregularity in my body or my process. As my pace continues to slow and my breath gets shorter, I worry. Should I stop? Am I pushing it too hard?
Regular exercise is the most accurate indicator of my heart's condition and a daily run is now "doctors orders." What a drag. And a gift.
Desire: Discipline: Delight: Repeat
In retreats I lead, I walk people through the cycle of connecting with their desires, then creating disciplined action that helps them lean into those desires, which, if followed, ultimately lead to a season of delight. In our 'instant' culture, we often believe we can move straight from desiring something to possessing it. That works for goods and services, but not for relationships or movement toward God or, really, anything of lasting significance.
For change to occur in these 'things that matter', we must usually spend time intentionally engaging in new patterns of behavior and thought that slowly, often imperceptibly, create space for God to do his transforming work in us. The good news is that, in time, these new patterns become established and we are able to enjoy the fruit of God's spirit-- increased capacity for love, joy, peace, patience, etc.
But in this season of my life I'm being reminded of some truths I've forgotten. Mainly, that sometimes, even after a long season of delight, I might be required to move back into a season of discipline.
Over ten years ago I began a journey that has led to the most dramatic internal transformation in my life. Against all odds, I have become more loving, more compassionate, more joyful and quite comfortable in the disciplines that have created space for the Holy Spirit to work.
And then, I started grad school. I naively (or, pridefully) assumed I would simply be able to continue my current spiritual experience of delight. But Jesus invited me to step out of the boat in the middle of the lake. What I found was I hadn't quite mastered it all and there is a renewed focus on spiritual disciplines in my life. Like my new running regimen, it requires more work to engage in, but I know it may save my life. As I read this week from Eugene Peterson, "...ours is a pedestrian way, literally pedestrian: we put one foot in front of the other as we follow Jesus." And that is what I am doing. It's not pretty or fast, but I'm putting one foot in front of the other.
I love how God is weaving together my spiritual and physical health. He knows I need practical pictures of his movement in my life and he is faithful to provide. When it is time for my physical open heart surgery, I'll praise God again for the new life he gives me physically--which everyone can witness--while also enjoying the continued new life he provides in my spiritual heart.
I'm a small town girl. Growing up in a rural community in Iowa, life seemed pretty simple. In my little world there were bad people and good people and wise people and foolish people and the good, wise people usually rose to the top of society Unfortunately, life experience did not match that presupposition and my naivety didn't last very far into my adult life. For the last few decades my world has continued to expand, and with it, my ideas and experiences around how life plays out.
But my week in Guatemala has stretched my social, cultural and religious assumptions to some pretty freaky places. I have never much enjoyed spending time in arenas where I don't feel skilled or competent. Combine that with my go-to response of shutting down when I feel overwhelmed and you've got a recipe for denial. Essentially, the equivalent of putting my fingers in my ears and yelling, "La la la la la la"! when certain issues are being discussed.
But God is showing me that this will not do if I am going to call myself a follower of Jesus. The God of the Bible is a lover of justice and his call for the church involves the implementation of justice. "To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God." To uphold the cause of the widow, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, to care for the fatherless, to bind up wounds and ensure justice for the poor and oppressed. Not just to pray for the poor or marginalized (although prayer is vital). Not just send money to others who can deal with the messy, complicated webs of injustice and suffering. But to engage in the pursuit of justice personally, even if it's imperfect.
Last week, one of our excursions was to an organization in Guatemala City dedicated to exhuming the remains of the thousands upon thousands of casualties of the civil war that waged from 1960-1996. These victims were branded 'guerrillas' and were captured, raped, tortured and killed, then thrown into mass graves. But most were not guerrillas. They were innocent mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. The truth is beginning to come to light and the healing process begun as a team of scientists undertake the painstaking work of finding these graves, carefully removing the bones and other personal items, returning the remains to the lab and reconstructing them. In this process they note trauma, gunshot wounds, shrapnel, etc., test for DNA, interview family members or other community members who may have known them and work to connect survivors to the dead. They do this so that families and communities can heal and truth be told and forgiveness be given as injustices are exposed. And, they do this in the hope it might not happen again.
Making it Personal
What I observed as we entered the facility, was a hallway stacked floor to ceiling with boxes. Each box held the remains and personal items of one person (two, if it was a mother and her dead infant).
It was hard to believe it was real. After an introduction of their work by one of the scientists we were ushered into the lab. On the tables in front of us were the meticulously laid out skeletons of perhaps six bodies. Two were tiny--toddlers at best.
How does one process the horror and sadness contained in that one room? I do not know.
We were then shown a large storeroom where the remains of hundreds of victims in newly uncovered graves were stored. As our guide shared what they knew about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these children, women and men our group stared blankly at the rows of boxes. We asked questions, not really wanting to know the answers. "Did they have to dig their own graves?" "Certainly." "Were they dead when they were buried?" "Not always."
One classmate asked our guide how she dealt with all the death and sadness and injustice and apathy from the general public. She seemed so calm as she stated, "Well, with the passing of time..."and then the tears began to stream down her face as the rest of her sentence was swallowed up in the sorrow.
As my black and white world continues to grow smaller in the distance, I am left moving toward an uncertain future. The heroes and villains are beginning to look a lot alike and I sometimes recognize my own face among the perpetrators. I feel damned if I move too quickly or too slowly. But I know I must do something. Not everything. Not regarding every injustice. So what is God inviting me to?
I don't know.
But I can start with telling the story.
Twenty seven summers ago I boarded an airplane to Guatemala with a group of college students from my church. I was twenty years old and had never been out of the country. Which, in retrospect, seems a rather obvious oversight for a woman claiming she wanted to be an overseas missionary. Nonetheless, I joined the trip at the last minute thanks to a full scholarship provided by an anonymous donor. Someone believed I needed to experience this trip.
As I began the last leg of the journey from Houston to Guatemala City it finally dawned on me I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I was spiritually, emotionally and mentally unprepared for what lay ahead and I knew it. Unbeknownst to most others in the group, this trip was not just the beginning of the summer for me, it was the last thing I would do before entering in-patient treatment for my eating disorder. As I gazed out the plane window into the expanding night, I felt my emotions slowly turn off like the programs on my desktop and I dozed off to sleep.
When I awoke we were landing in a foreign land. I was disoriented and exhausted. We met our hosts, loaded our things and headed to our hotel. There was too much to take in. Too many smells, too many cars moving in too chaotic a path, too many people staring at my blond hair. That first night I dreamed about food and throwing up and I awoke more exhausted than when I'd gone to bed. This had all been a terrible mistake.
But as the week wore on my emotional shield sometimes lowered without me noticing and I felt more alive than I could remember. I'm not sure what this trip was supposed to be, but what it turned out to be was our little group being billed as a small choir and we toured city churches, village churches, a military chapel service and even the presidential palace --singing.
I had never known someone who didn't speak English as a first language or at all so I didn't know that it was possible to love someone you couldn't even talk to. But, wow, did I love--in the messy, broken way I was capable of at the time--but it was more than I knew was in me.
And then, long before I was ready, it was time to leave and I realized I had let down my guard and I had experienced happiness in the midst of pain and mess and I had experienced God ministering to my soul through people who couldn't speak my language, many of whom were uneducated and poor, and I knew I would never be the same.
And here I am again.
After that first trip, I returned four more times within a ten year period. Our hosts became like family and this country became part of my emotional healing, ultimately helping to nurture the love of different cultures and people that I have today. It has now been eighteen summers since I was last on Guatemalan soil. From my arrival at the airport is has seemed almost a different country, but the love I have for this place and these people came quickly rushing back. Thankfully, Guatemala isn't the only one who's changed. I, too, am different. Two decades ago I came as an arrogant outsider; an expert. But today I come knowing less than before and saddened by my complete lack of understanding about God's heart for justice--not just charity. I can do charity. I can give money. I've gone so far as to personally visit people who are suffering injustice, but doing something about the injustice hasn't seemed a natural outflow of my Christian faith. Why? I don't exactly know. But I'm learning. Slowly.
And yet, I have to admit I'm afraid. I'm afraid I won't know what to do. Or worse, that I won't feel great compassion for others. That I'll remained detached and overwhelmed by the need. What if I remain unchanged? Lord, may it never be!
I have a confession. I'm on my way to Guatemala City for a class on Spiritual Formation and Social Justice. The pre-class reading has already convicted me. Not like a shame-filled, guilt motivated burden, but like a love-expanding, eye-opening invitation.
So, here is where the confession comes in. I'm currently sitting in the United Club in the Houston airport. In a moment of self-protecting rationalization I upgraded the next leg of my journey to first class. That's right. Just as I open my heart to the injustices that most of the world experiences, I make a move that only highlights the separation between the haves and the have-nots.
My excuse? My heart isn't working as well as it should and long flights cause my ankles to swell up like a pregnant elephant. More leg room in business class with the ability to lift my feet and help my poor, ailing heart get blood to my extremities must be what God wants for me. Right? Plus, it was an absolute STEAL!
Don't worry, I'm not demonizing first class. On the contrary, so far it has been the best decision I've made all day and I haven't even boarded the plane yet. My flight is delayed and instead of the impersonal, glaring fluorescent lights of the general boarding area I'm enjoying a comfortable leather chair with a personal outlet for my waning computer battery. There may or may not be free drinks available (I haven't made it that far yet) and the wifi is much faster than what I was getting outside these doors. I'm pretty sure the bathrooms are much cleaner in here as well. This is good. Very good.
But it does highlight the fact that I'm an insider. True, in my 47 years I've never been in an airline 'club' or flown first class on my own dollar , but I fit in here. I'm in insider. I have power. And that means I have a responsibility to use that power for the good of those who don't.
I don't know what that looks like yet, but I'm more keenly aware of that than ever before. So this week I'll be updating you on the journey God is leading me on. And, my guess is, it won't involve a lifetime of first class. Then again, you never know.
Today I watched the Holy Spirit weave his way through the hearts of the women I'm leading and it frightened me.
This week I have the privilege of serving a group of women who use television to share hope with women around the world. We're in the idyllic setting of the Princess Islands--a short ferry ride from Istanbul, Turkey.
So, what's the problem?
I've written about this reality before, but tonight when I returned to my hotel room, I collapsed on the bed in exhaustion and trepidation. I wanted to ask with the disciples on the boat when Jesus calmed the storm, "Who is this man that the wind and water obey him?"
In an ironic twist, I had led a discussion on I Kings 19 earlier in the day. In that passage, God has just defeated the prophets of Baal and Elijah has seen God rain down fire from heaven and ignite soaking wet wood. The people recognize the presence and power of God and a lengthy drought ends in a downpour. It was a big ministry day.
But instead of riding on a spiritual high, Elijah finds himself afraid of a woman--Jezebel. She was a scary woman, but after what he'd just experienced you'd think he might have some faith that God would protect him. His weariness quickly turns to whining and he collapses under a tree and begs God to die.
As I read it today I was struck again with the usual response to a powerful experience of God. Contrary to what we think, it is often not peace and joy, but fear.
At least that's what Elijah experienced and its what I'm experiencing tonight. During one of his whining sessions Elijah confesses "I am no better than my ancestors". What an interesting thing to say after standing up to the prophets of Baal, much of Israel and the very frightening, Jezebel.
But I get it. After experiencing first hand God's powerful love and redemptive presence, I feel more unworthy than when I started. And it makes sense. To come in contact with the Holy Spirit in this way is unsettling in a beautiful way. It is so 'other' as to be enticingly disorienting. I am suddenly aware of my smallness. My complete inability to accomplish anything resembling a real work of God. And my unfitness to be a representative of this message.
This is not false humility or an feeble attempt to garner some affirmation. I believe it is the only response that makes sense. I feel appropriately uncomfortable and undone. I pray he will touch my lips with coal as he commissions me for tomorrow's work. It is the only hope I have.
But it is a well-placed hope.
I know it's impossible to add more hours into a day, but I really thought I'd figured out a way to beat the system earlier this week.
In fact, it seemed so simple I felt embarrassed for not having thought of it sooner. My no-fail solution?
Get up earlier. Like, way earlier.
I'm currently experiencing a season of unusual busyness. Crazy busyness. So busy that my mother has told me she will not be visiting me in the mental hospital because I've done this to myself. She's right, of course. But I know that if I can make it through May, I'll be okay. And I was up for the task. I'm more disciplined, focused and productive than I've ever been and many of the tasks I'm engaged in are life-giving. The ones that aren't I get done early in the day and I've added more time for exercise, prayer and Sabbath to help me survive.
And then my carefully crafted Jenga pile collapsed. On Tuesday we received a notice to vacate our rental property by the end of May. Nothing we did, its just that the Catholic Church needs it back so a priest can move in. It's their house. They can do what they want with it. But that little letter put me over the edge.
That's the thing with seasons of high activity and low margin--it doesn't take much to throw you over the edge.
I was in shock for the first couple of hours, reminding myself that God was in control and I would be okay. I had lots of very spiritual thoughts and believed I was handling it quite nicely.
Until night came. What is it about evening that makes everything seem worse?
It took me a while to get to sleep. My mind was racing. And then I was up at 4:30 a.m. The worst time of morning. I knew it would take me at least 30 minutes to get back to sleep and then I'd have under an hour before I had to get up for the day.
And then it hit me...I should just get up now. In fact--this will be my new start time for the day. Brilliant! I add an hour and a half to my day. That's nearly eight hours in my week! I'll use it to look for houses and pack and organize stuff. See. I'm a problem solver.
I was so productive in that pre-dawn period that I had a hard time reigning it in when it was time to get started with my actual day. By 7:30 a.m. I was out the door with Madison and already three hours into my work day. After dropping her off, I headed to a breakfast meeting--fueled with caffeine--and then off to Oakland for another meeting. Also fueled with caffeine. By this time it was lunch and I'd been up for eight hours. I usually fast on Wednesdays, but today I needed food. I inhaled a quesadilla from Chipotle and stopped at Starbucks for another shot. My brother was in San Francisco for business so I headed across the bridge to see him for a few minutes. I noticed I was feeling shaky and tired and emotionally exhausted.
After spending a few minutes with my brother I headed back home via Highway 1. This section of Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful and it takes me almost directly to my front door. And, in spite of this awe-inspiring scenery and gorgeous weather my mood continued to plummet. By the time I got home I was in the tank. Tired, nauseous and weepy.
I was beginning to think this new wake-up time would not be sustainable.
I tried doing some homework but it was no use. I headed to bed and immediately fell asleep for 2 hours. So much for the hours I added to my day. And when I awoke I was even more depressed. And hungry. I ate junk and became more and more irritable. My family gave me a wide berth. It was really ugly.
The world seemed to be collapsing. Maybe not today, but I could feel it coming. I wasn't sure how long I'd be able to keep up this pace. And to stop now would be to drop a lot of very fragile plates. Loud and messy.
I did get on the elliptical machine in our garage for a quick workout and that helped keep me from sinking further, but after stretching I went directly back to bed. Beside myself with panic but a little wiser about what I truly needed.
And, it isn't more hours in the day. It is continuing to trust God as I keep moving forward. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. One breath prayer at a time.
I may still get up a bit earlier in the coming weeks. But in the end, I don't want to be more productive--I want to be more God-honoring. More loving. More responsive to God's movement in my life and a more vibrant part of the community of faith.
So, I will faithfully walk and wait on God. Of course, it may involve dropping a plate or two. But it's not really about me. Its about the God who loves me and whom I desire to honor with my life.
It has always fascinated me (read-- frustrated me) that Abraham was actually living in the Promise Land when God established his covenant with him. Abraham was prosperous, righteous, chosen, obedient and willing. And, BONUS--he already lived in the place God promised to give to him and his descendants. It seems a lot of time, trauma and trekking could have been saved if God had simply established their residency early on. I'm just saying...
And now, a little about me...
A little over five years ago I attended a silent retreat at a beautiful Mission on the west coast. I remember it well because I was coming off a four year journey of deepening my relationship with God through the contemplative disciplines. It had been a season of healing from addiction to busyness, compulsive codependency and activity-based Christianity. I longed to help other Christian leaders find the sanity and soul nourishment I experienced and I assumed God's next step for me would be into the field of spiritual direction or coaching Christian leaders. I wanted to spend more time 'being'. I was afraid of 'doing'. It felt like death.
So, of course, that's where God sent me. Not because he's a masochist, but because he conquers death.
A New Direction
As I sat on the cool grass in the center of the Mission courtyard I began a collage that I thought would depict 'being'. Somehow I found myself gluing the word 'DO' to my paper. Then...ACT. In the midst of all my being words, God was clearly directing me to action of some kind. But what?
I left the retreat confused. I thought I'd misunderstood. I pursued a job coaching leaders but some wise people around me shared they felt it wasn't a good fit and that door slammed shut.
God waited a week, then showed me his plan as I drove to Home Depot. I don't know why he chose Home Depot as my burning bush moment, but it has forever changed my experience of home improvement. Anyway...as I drove to Home Depot, God suggested I call Apartment Life and see if they were still looking to fill the regional leadership position. They were. Through a serious of miscommunications with my husband I ended up putting my name in the hat and in January of 2009 I was fully immersed in a world of doing and performing and activity.
The next three years I spent trying to integrate what I knew about formation into my life as a leader. I felt propelled for a purpose--creative, energetic and resilient. Then, just as quickly as the energy appeared, it was gone. I knew it was time to move on.
Then, two more years of wandering.
Back Where I Started
And here I sit. In the same place I thought I would be five years ago. Pursuing a master's degree in spiritual formation. More and more drawn to silence and solitude. Repentance and rest. Waiting and watching. Loving and listening.
There are days I wonder if it wouldn't have been simpler if God had led me here in the first place. I was already sitting on the edge of this new land. Did we really have to walk away, only to return a few years later?
Yes. So clearly, YES. I don't claim to understand all of what God was doing, but I honestly wouldn't have done it any other way. And, although I'm sitting in the same place, I come as a different woman. A woman with more depth, more pain, more healing, more dependency, less certainty, more beauty.
Today I see how God took my desires from that day at the Mission and grew them. How he lovingly held them with me, then took my hand and led me where I needed to go in order to fully enter into his plan. I have a feeling there'll be more of this in the future. Glimpses of the future, abrupt changes in direction, wandering and then...home.
Until we're finally face to face.
Well, it happened. All the people who were concerned about my involvement in Christian Yoga and contemplative practices were right. They clearly saw the danger ahead of me and the perilous path on which I was embarking. They must have known that yoga and silence were just gateway drugs. If I was open to such questionable activity, my judgement couldn't be trusted and certainly I would end up abandoning my faith or, worse, becoming a...gasp...liberal.
This week I found myself so deeply impacted by the love of God that I had no words. I found myself loving others so deeply I felt like an idiot. I found myself ready to abandon everything for Love.
Who am I?
While this was no sentimental, sappy, Hallmark card experience of love, it was an emotion. Or, perhaps more of a physical presence. How weird is that?
I don't want to write too much because words seem to diminish the sacredness of this transformation, but my foundation has been rocked and I'm amazed at a God who would so lovingly disassemble my prickly, protective coping mechanisms so I could fully live and love and be loved.
Today I find I'm not hiding behind my life experience or my emotional health or my spiritual resume or my well-crafted sentences. I'm a beginner again. Sitting at the feet of Jesus while he introduces me to so many I've dismissed and overlooked who may have much less external success or platform but have love in great measure.
For the first time in my life I'm beginning to understand what Paul means when he says,
" But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
Do you see what's happened? I started a journey some years ago and I was adequately warned that it would lead to something radical. Something unsafe. Something that would change me.
I insisted it wouldn't affect me.
I was wrong. Praise God.
As my first accomplishment in 2014, I completed a small home improvement project. No applause necessary. Really. I painted my coffee table to match the rest of my room and the furniture. That's right. I've lived here two years and I finally got off my butt and took care of that little project.
After spending four days in Arizona painting, cleaning and improving a house I'll never live in again, I decided to do something about the home in which I currently reside.
And it was tough! I first had to walk across the street to buy a can of paint (because I forgot I'd purchased the paint for this project two years ago). It took a good ten minutes to complete the process. And then there was the waiting for the paint to dry. Insufferable. But I made the best of it and used the time to get a pedicure.
Now both my coffee table and toes are painted (different colors) and thus begins a new era in taking small steps toward improvement.
And now to overanalyze...
I really can't help myself. How can I not spend some time reflecting on what would keep me from doing such a simple task? I saw this coffee table every day. Every day I noticed how it didn't really match. And, every day I chose to do nothing about it. Eventually I stopped thinking about it. I became numb to the discomfort of my avoidance. But the longer I avoided, the larger the task seemed.
And then I picked up a paint brush again and I remembered how easy it is and how much I love transforming something with a fresh coat of color. How the color of a room or an object can impact our emotions and the 'feel' of a space. And I remembered the joy of making something beautiful.
Some thoughts to ponder...
As I begin this new year I think some more reflection is in order. Are there areas in my life where I've grown numb to the nagging pain of avoidance? Have I grown too comfortable with ugliness in my midst? Is there more beauty to be experienced with a simple step of obedience? Where could I be experiencing the joy of creativity and fresh color in my life?
I'll have to sit with those for a bit, but first for something more practical. Time to dust the mounds of dust from my fan blades.