Between songs

When a beautiful woman in her sixties, with a serene face and an artistic hand, sits beside you at the craft table and asks to hear your story, you do not refuse. Nor do you refuse when a fun-loving stranger offers to do a coconut-oil-honey-and-cocoa-powder facial with you, and all the supplies are laid out. Nor when another cute and sassy stranger says “Hey, want to take a selfie with me? It’s my Sneaky Card assignment.”

I did not say no.

But this story starts long before that.

1.

This summer my left foot was stepped on by a six-foot-something stranger, who apologized profusely and said “I’m sorry, it was only a matter of time. I’m no good at dancing.” I am so happy it did not occur to him that it might have been my fault, the little Mennonite lady standing beside him in the front row at a Christian concert.

Well. When my eighteen-year-old brother told me that his guy friend had a last-minute change of plans and couldn’t make it, and would I be interested in joining him at an open-air summer concert, I did not say no. I said, “Will I like it?” And then I looked up the band online and said, “Well, they sound pretty mild.” He just grinned at me.

The night of the concert, he showed up holding an iced coffee he’d bought for me. It turned out there were three bands playing that night, none of which I’d ever heard before, and I do not think mild was necessarily the word I would choose in retrospect – they were handing out ear plugs in the front row and my, did we need them. But the confetti and smoke were fun. And what I could hear of the music I liked just fine.

My little brother was very sweet, he kept asking me if I needed anything and when I spilled my coffee on the dirt he got napkins for me, and when I cried he gave me a hug.

Yes, I did cry.

I did not go to the concert expecting to hear from God. I went to have an adventure with my brother, to eat funnel cake and to spend an evening happy and free. The songs made me loosened and peaceful – but it was between songs, when a new artist began to speak of his wife’s loss of an unborn baby, and of the wise words of an old woman in their congregation, that I suddenly melted and began to cry. I cried a hard and healing rain on that clear summer night, because I know about loss, and because in that story and in the golden shower of confetti I heard God say Shari, I see you.

2.

And then came a venue even stranger.

I watched a silly and fanciful movie, The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s book about a Big Friendly Giant who concocts dreams to blow gently into the minds of sleeping children. I say the movie was silly because although I really like the BFG himself, there were too many scenes of drama for my liking, too many children in danger from the bad giants. But at one place there is a scene where the BFG tells Sophie that he hears everything in the world, and he will always be listening. He says, “I is hearing all the wonderous and all the terrible, terrible things. All the secret whisperings of the world.”

At the end of the movie, I closed the computer and went up to bed. I was scheduled to meet with my mentor the following afternoon. I planned to tell her about the stressors, the questions, the guilt. But we had to cancel at the very last minute, and my husband said, “Why don’t you take some private time anyway?” I drove to my favorite green-grassed graveyard, a quiet place of rhododendrons and old trees, and sat against a gravestone in the warm sun. I sat there, thinking and whispering to God, falling in and out of sleep, and while my mind was quiet I heard him say I hear you. I am right here. I am always right here, waiting for you to talk to me.

That was so good of him. I’d been pretty sure he wasn’t listening anymore, but now I had a picture of his face lighting up when I open my mouth, when I even whisper to him. Right there. He doesn’t miss a sound.

I see you. I hear you.

3.

Then then I told my friend Joanna that in October I’d go with her to a foster moms’ retreat, Rejuvenate PA. I wanted to go with her and she made the offer irresistible, but in the weeks leading up to the event I worried I wouldn’t belong. We don’t have a placement right now.

We don’t have a placement because we said goodbye to some small and precious children we could not keep, and took a break to care for the ones who were born to us, and the guilt and fear from that decision slowly rose to choke me this past year, a woolen shawl drawn ever more tightly around my chest and neck, prickling, constricting, choking. What had I done? What if I’d ruined everything? How did I ever think I could survive this?

I didn’t need a vacation at the fostering retreat. I needed healing. I needed hope.

That is how I found myself laughing and crying with strangers, doing crazy things like high-speed hayrides and board games past midnight, fake Italian accents, impromptu selfies, chocolate facials. We shared every activity: creating decoupage and planting fairy gardens, enjoying long massages donated by professional therapists, hearing the word of God, singing, painting, eating food we didn’t prepare, getting up early to worship and pray, soaking in the beautiful weather, listening to each other’s stories, talking, talking, talking.

We had creative generosity dumped on us, all weekend long.

When I arose for prayer one morning (after having decided to sleep in, and then wakening early after all, too excited to sleep), I found that the leaders had set up prayer stations all around the edges of our main room. Each station had printed instructions waiting for us. One station had a poster board with a cross drawn on it, where we were invited to write our troubles and let Christ carry them. On the cross were newly-written words like fear and control and guilt. There were many stations. I walked across the room to one and sat down. On a table were hand mirrors, and the instructions said, Look into a mirror. What do you see when you look at yourself? What do you think God sees? What is keeping you from accepting God’s version of who you are?

I looked into the mirror began to cry silently, hopelessly, without words. “I have not liked myself for months. I see shame, I see pain, I see worthlessness. I see a woman who is not enough.”

I let my Father look at me, there in the mirror. In his eyes there was nothing but love.

I see you. I hear you. I love you.

I cannot explain the works of God. I cannot say the darkness will not return. Sometimes I don’t talk to my Father about what I feel; sometimes I don’t hear him when he talks to me. But I know I experienced his healing in that place by hearing his voice, by letting his daughters care for me, and by worshipping his son Jesus.

By the end of the weekend I could look around the room and think “I know the name of that woman’s son, and what his needs are. I know this lady’s court date, and what she worries about. That woman gave me painting tips. This one sat by a campfire with me and reminded me of what the truth was. That one prayed for me. And she, and she, and she, will carry my story home with her.”

And now I am ready to go on.

Monday’s confession of faith

I probably look like I always love him and I never doubt

And for many months this can be true

 

For many months the thought of him is sweet and I believe his words and am

So happy to be part of his family

The Bible is alive and the Lord’s Supper full of meaning

And when I sit in church on a Sunday morning, the sound of my own people singing hymns

Is the feeling of slipping into a warm and fragrant bath

 

But I will tell you honestly

Sometimes

I cannot stand us

Sometimes our meetings are endless and our trivialities a millstone

And our pastors insufferable

(Yes, I married one of them)

(His wife is even worse)

Sometimes God’s people are not that good

I said sometimes God’s people are not that good

Sometimes God’s people are not that good, folks

And the Lord’s Supper tastes like breadcrumbs and nothing more and

The magic does not descend

 

Sometimes it is a small discrepancy in Scripture that I stumble over

Calling into question the whole book and everything I’ve swallowed

 

Sometimes it is just life, when so many bad things happen at once that I wonder

How can it be that someone out there is taking care of us?

Would life look any different if he were nothing but a figment of my imagination?

 

And

What if he is there, but not who I always thought?

And

Can anyone really be that good?

 

Sometimes I drop into darkness and know that the world is empty of a Messiah

And that hanging all my heart on this one man to be true

Is folly

 

So I cry

 

And then

I blow my nose and think

Well

Here I am

If I can imagine a God better than the one there is, what kind of contradiction is that?

Wiser people than I have hung their hope here and found grace to live and die by it

(Some of them attend church with that pastor’s wife

And love her anyway)

 

I have not found another philosophy on earth

That makes anywhere near as much sense as the one that says

The Master suffers

And pain heals the world

 

And

Discrepancies aside, the fresh-air truth blowing out of those pages gives me reason to go on

There is more right about this amazing, historic, eerily accurate book than wrong

 

And

If he is not

There is nothing to explain the beauty

And how buds form every spring and seeds grow and the earth is renewed and people are sometimes kind

 

And I pray please, please be real. I need you to be real.

Who will I turn to instead?

 

I probably look like I always love him and I never doubt

But I believe in doubt

As the birthing stool

Of faith

 

The rest of the story

Confession: I told you I miscarried a tiny baby last January. I didn’t tell you the rest of the story. Of necessity, this post contains personal details I would not normally share publicly. There are not many; I have been as discreet as I could. But I ask, especially if you are male, that you read respectfully.

The Rest of the Story

The problem with backing up to the beginning of the story is that it’s hard to know when to stop backing. You pass through months and years of events-that-led-to, and land not only in the hospital where you were born, but somewhere just before the book of Genesis, when all these things were developing in the heart of God. So I can’t tell all the rest of the story.

The piece I am going to tell you now started the month before my miscarriage, in December of 2014, when we said yes to a dream opportunity. A newborn foster girl was coming into care. Her older siblings had all been removed from the home, one was being adopted right now, and there was no kin. Would we be willing to take her? Continue reading

The Lord’s Prayer – My turn

Confession: I have a tall glass of iced coffee in hand, and if I am not very careful I will pick up The Count of Monte Cristo and be lost to the world for the night as a reader instead of a writer. This too would be good. Dantes is an airhead at this point in the story, but the Abbe is nearing his fatal attack and Mercedes is growing paler and more interesting every day.

What did I learn when I prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day for a month?

(I’m still learning.)

Some days the phrases played over and over in my mind. Some days the words pierced me, and I cried as I spoke them. Some days I could hardly speak them at all, and instead let the celestial voice of Andrea Bocelli sing them into reality.

I learned things about myself, and prayer, and God.

First, I learned that I pray some really dumb prayers, ordinarily. Not only on the tip of my tongue, but also in the depths of my heart lie some truly ridiculous requests. They bloop out of my mouth when I’m least expecting them, and they embarrass me.

Like—

Please help me not to say anything silly…

??

I can only imagine the look on God’s face.

Please help me to hold it together…

????!

Sorry, darling. Not on My list of goals for your life.

It was a relief to pray the Real prayers, for the Kingdom and God’s will and His glory and my daily needs, without falling into such catastrophically selfish and ungrantable petitions.

I’m not trying to say that ad-libbing in prayer is a bad thing. I know God cherishes the words we shape to Him, the words that come from the depths of our hearts or the tips of our tongues, however silly they occasionally are. But are they really what we want to say?

I loved the gentle alignment of my words with His, my requests with His, my will with His. I loved skipping “I know you want me to be okay with this but I’m really not, but I’m trying to be. You know I struggle sometimes, Lord. Are you sure you really know what you’re doing? I’m trying to trust you, and so I pray (I think I pray) that your will be done (except not if it hurts too much)…” and instead moving simply, so sweetly, to His heart. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Second, I learned that I am terrible at forgiving. I’m not sure if it was the Prayer itself that brought my grievances to the surface, like scum atop a cooking vat, or if I am always this vengeful. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” seemed like an impossible mouthful for the first week or two, especially on the days when I was really steamed about something that happened months ago.

Then I started thinking about the real mouthful.

“Forgive us our debts.”

Honestly? Such a light and simple request.

I don’t pretend to know more about forgiving than I did a month ago, except for this piece: I cannot claim the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus for my own sins if I am unwilling to release those who have sinned against me.

I know we say His grace is free, with no strings attached, and I told you I don’t pretend to understand these things. But I know from the parable of the two servants who owed the lord money, and I know from experience in my own life, that it just doesn’t work to claim the one and refuse the other. And oh, I have been forgiven so much! The two parts of forgiveness must go forth hand-in-hand into the world—or neither.

“Forgive us our debts while we forgive our debtors…”

My acceptance of His bountiful, generous release, His wiping away of the debts I owe Him and cannot pay, not only inspires me or prepares me or enables me—but truly impels me to offer that same free release to others, at the risk of losing it myself.

Third, I learned something about the nature of prayer itself: that it is a way of holding two opposite things simultaneously and in the same space—the brokenness of the world, and the loving provision of the Father. (This idea came straight from N. T. Wright’s book The Lord and His Prayer.)

The prayer of Jesus stands as a powerful bridge between two realities. On the one hand, you have hunger, debts, temptation, evil. On the other, you have forgiveness, deliverance, power, glory. Mr. Wright says this is a crucial function of our prayers—bringing the brokenness of the world into the light of God’s presence, and holding the two together in our hearts.

There is more to this world than meets the eye. We are surrounded by brokenness without and within, but the kingdom is come! and coming! and coming more! Aslan is on the move.

Now that is a prayer I will be clinging to for months.

*****

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Tips for surviving winter

Confession: For the first month or two of winter, I revel in the coziness, the hot drinks, the layers of hoodies and afghans. And then at some point (December 26th, maybe) I switch strategies, and begin ignoring the weather out of existence… because I simply can’t hang in there that long without becoming claustrophobic.

Here’s what I do. {Which is why I’m so healthy and happy and never, ever whine about winter. As I’m sure you’ve noticed. And if you haven’t, that’s why I’m pointing it out. Never. Ever.}

  • Look for color.

pegs

  • Grow something.

greens 1

  • Be with people. Especially little people.

child

  • Drink tea.

Homemade tea from a friend? Even better.

tea

paint

  • Buy tropical scents and flavors whenever possible.

air freshener

  • Eat a different salad every day for lunch.

salad 1

Mixed greens, deli turkey, tomatoes, avocado, pecans and feta.

salad 2

Romaine, tomatoes, green peppers, shredded carrots, Parmesan, hummus and crackers.

salad 3

Greens, taco meat and beans, peppers, olives, cheddar, salsa.

salad 4

Lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, apples, oranges, craisins, hazelnuts.

I never want to forget what a rich girl I am, to eat so much freshness that’s not in season. If I don’t have a lot of variety on hand, I just cut the veggies differently–skinny strips one day and big square chunks the next. Isn’t that silly?

And finally, if other mood boosters take too much energy and work, I do just one:

  • Light an {Everything Is Going to be Alright} candle.

candle 2

It’s just a plain candle in the middle of my kitchen workspace, but it’s a special one, in a special place and time; and when it burns out I always find another to replace it. It’s a prayer, a confession, a mustard seed of faith. When I light it, I choose to believe in what’s true: Everything Is Going to be Alright.

*****

Come over for salad?