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blessing in suffering.

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

–Matt Redman

We have an aversion to pain in this country.

A fear, really, of it. So deeply rooted in our myths about how money and power and wins can save and protect us, that we refuse to even consider the possibility of vulnerability–to the point of denying our own mortality.

Meanwhile, R.E.M. was actually right–everybody hurts. And not just sometimes. Many times. Right now most of the time.

What we’re really afraid of is, at the absolute least, feeling anything difficult; at the absolute most, truly suffering.

And so we numb. With whatever drug we have available: substances, sure, but processes, too–internet surfing (some of it mentionable, some of it not), over-working, sarcasm, shopping, identity politics, blame casting, attacking those we don’t agree with. Whatever gives us the (however false) impression that we’re “okay,” that “we aren’t the problem, they are,” that whatever is broken inside of us doesn’t really need attention or mending.

If there were ever a time when we needed to admit our pain, give voice to our decidedly not okay-ness, this, right now, would be the time. The collective trauma of 2020 could, if we were healthy as a society, be a rallying point for change and healing. Instead we’ve all retreated further into our corners, pronounced those in the opposite corner as enemy, and rallied our tribes like a Scottish clan war gone horribly awry.

I’m not even sure we know what we’re fighting against anymore, so much havoc social media and true fake news have wrought. We just scream. Blindly and forcefully and without ceasing. Or we seek control–of everything and everyone, as if somehow that will make it all easier to manage.

Maybe it is easier, I suppose, than admitting that deep within each of us are gaping wounds longing for the healing wells of real belonging, real joy, real fulfillment.

I read a great deal of World War I and II historical fiction–it’s kind of my jam, especially if it involves “based on real people” stories of the women who served as couriers or spies or undercover pilots for the Allies. Badasses. Every one of them.

Two things always stand out to me about these books–selfless heroism, often in such quiet ways, and sacrifice. Real, life-changing sacrifice.

Both of these things–the heroism and the sacrifice–require facing pain, really reckoning with how awful things are, digging deep into the muck and then making a decision to act or behave or live in such a way that seeks to heal the pain and awfulness and muck.

And it is stunning to me that we voice our great thanks to the men and women who rose to such heroism, who lived such sacrifice, on our behalf, and yet we refuse to rise to such heroism and sacrifice ourselves. We refuse to face full-on the pain of this world–in our own lives and in the lives of those around us–and then adjust our own feeling or thinking or behavior accordingly.

We refuse the grief. Avoid the pain. Wall off anything that might remind us that this beautiful life we’ve been given can hurt so very much.

I would not, for one moment, wish real, fall to your knees, life-altering, heart-wrenching, wonder how you’ll make it through the night suffering on anyone. Not even those that I just have let God love because I sure as hell can’t.

I also know that deep hurt and real fear and overwhelming grief have been my greatest teachers. And I know that I am a far better version of myself than I would otherwise be, or than I once was, for having learned from them.

This is what I mean when I say that I don’t believe God causes our pain; but I also don’t believe God wastes it. Why I believe that somehow, somewhere, in our darkest moments, God is at work. Even if we are entirely unaware.

If we could find a way, together, past the fear of hurting, and then walk straight through all that is tearing us apart, hands locked fast and hearts pointed in the same direction, I cannot help but feel certain that we’d learn something. And in the learning grow. Change. Become something more like what God intended upon breathing life into us.

There’s gratitude and hope to found in these days we are living. In the absolute trash heap of it all. But we don’t find those things by any other way than risking naming how terrible it all feels.

There’s blessing in this dumpster fire of a year. Not the dumpster fire itself…but somewhere in it. But if we’re going to find that blessing, claim it as ours, we cannot look away from the flames.

Because it’s entirely possible that in them is our salvation.

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Carrying hope.

Y’all, it’s the kind of fall day here in Kentucky that’ll make you feel anything at all is possible.

Warm sun. Cool, dry air. The bluest of Bluegrass skies. Leaves beginning to turn gold and crimson, just at the edges, sweet promises of the autumn glory to come. A pearly moon early this morning graciously giving way to it all. It defies accurate description, and after all that has been these last several months, it almost takes my breath away.

I’ve watched squirrels and chipmunks both scatter about while I work outside, and a couple of cardinals keep dashing in and out of a neighbor’s tree. A hawk is screaming shrilly every once in a while, like we don’t he’s there, circling for some poor unfortunate creature who doesn’t see him coming. There’s a blue jay, too, who struts around my yard like it’s his personal kingdom. Obnoxious as hell but of course gorgeous.

It’s all so beautifully alive! And that I am here, drawing deep, real breaths, seems nothing short of a grace I don’t deserve.

A friend I’m doing some writing work for asked me how I was the other day–in body and spirit both. It’s so bittersweet, y’all. So much is so awful. But I have to be honest about this pure joy and gratitude I have for being, right now, relatively healthy after biopsies and chemo and scans. I’m just about as good as I can be at this moment. And I write about it as a reminder that I cannot, for one moment, take it for granted. Not ever again. Not when just a few months ago I spent most mornings on this same back deck in tears, praying desperately for the cancer to be kept at bay as much as possible. At the core of that deep grief was fear for my daughter, who is already growing up without her father. I could not fathom her having to lose me, too.

I cannot take it for granted when, all over the world and certainly in my own city, the lives of so many others are at stake.

I cannot give you some rational explanation, some transactional analysis, for how prayer works. I once had a very difficult conversation with a little boy at church who thought prayer was magic, you know, get a wand as cool as Harry’s and you’re good.

How I wish it were so.

And while I don’t know who else to thank but the God I believe in, stake my life on, for this space I am in, I know, too, that there are righteous and real and desperate prayers rising all over this city, all over this world, all over this country…and in the very lives of people I love fiercely…that seem to go unanswered.

As you’ve maybe heard me say before, I do not believe God leads us to suffering. But I sure as anything believe God gets to work for our good in the midst of it. Even if with painful steps and slow. And even if we cannot see it for ourselves.

Our world is on fire, y’all. At least my corner of it is, and I cannot believe yours isn’t either. And in the midst of the communal flames lie our own personal heartaches, too.

And I know that for so many people hope seems at absolute best, the most Pollyanna of pipe dreams.

My dear friend Russ and I have, at various difficult or scary points in our lives and ministry, promised this to one another, “I’m going to believe that for you, until you can believe it yourself.”

And I wonder if, right now, the responsibility of those of us who are able to carry even the tiniest sliver of hope, is to offer to carry a little for someone else. I wonder if right now, those of us who have survived the things it seemed we could not, might need to shoulder hope for others.

“I’m going to hope for you, until you are able to hope for yourself.”

I guarantee there is someone in your life who needs to hear this from you. I guarantee you will need to hear it yourself at some point along the way. If today happens to be that day, then know this, “I’m going to carry that hope for you, until you are able to carry it yourself.”

The pain all around us is real, y’all. Palpable. Tearing us apart in all sorts of ways. “What’s going to become of us?” I have seen people write and heard people say. We’re in a tight spot. And it doesn’t some days, look good at all.

But I cannot believe that the Creator of this utterly beautiful and alive day has done any of that creating out of anything but love. Pure, unending, all-encompassing love.

And if that’s true…then this cannot possibly be the end.

Hope.

Even if I have to carry it for you.

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Resurrection

I caught up with a dear friend this week. It’s been almost two years since we’ve really dug into conversation together, which seems crazy because he is one of my favorite people. He has the truest heart, and the deepest faith, and, like me, is a frequent public weeper–so…solidarity!

He also knows what it is like to live with chronic illness–a kidney transplant from decades ago still needs regular monitoring. Truthfully, back then, no one thought he would live as long as he has. And one of the gifts of our time together was a real and honest conversation about what it’s like to grapple with your own mortality, and, in doing so, find yourself grateful for the opportunity.

Yes.

We talked about being grateful for having stared at the reality of death.

****

There are things that happen to all of us in this life that are very difficult to be sure. But there are also things that happen to us that leave us wondering if we will survive. You will, at some point in your life, face something that you truly believe might be the end of you. It might be loss–of a dream or a relationship or a person. It might be betrayal–your own or someone else’s. It might be illness–chronic or terminal. It might be addiction–to a harmful substance or a process. It might be the pain of your child. It might be mental illness.

It might simply be feeling completely bereft of any hope that things will get better–in your own life, or perhaps even in the world.

And in the darkest and scariest moments of whatever has happened, you may be so certain you won’t survive that you pray for the end to go ahead and come quickly. Pain and grief can literally take our breath away, leaving us feeling as if there’s a concrete block placed just so on our hearts.

Staring into the abyss of that which seems it will destroy us is nothing short of the deepest agony. And whether you are rich or poor, or a Democrat or a Republican or neither one, or black or brown or white, or a Christian or Jew or Muslim or agnostic–none of these things will protect you from the kind of pain that I’m talking about here.

To be fully alive is to know deep love, and, as a result, deep pain. Not even Captain America’s shield can deflect it.

My own life is centered on loving God and following Jesus as best I can. Sometimes I do this better than other times–but I never get it entirely right. Still, the faith I have been taught hinges on tremendous, life-altering, grief and pain and betrayal. It is built on having lost all hope, on believing that nothing will ever be okay again.

And then into the void of everything lost — life. And with that life, hope.

Not a Pollyanna, rainbows and unicorns hope. Not, “I hope Target is still open.” or “I hope we win the game Friday night.” Not even, “I hope ________ becomes President.”

No. It’s bigger than All. That.

I mean hope that literally reaches down its hand to pull you from the sadness and fear of all that surrounds you, such that you are lifted to a place where grace has space to rain down its restorative and gentle mercy into the very center of our hurt, softening the pain just enough, that something beyond it becomes possible.

I mean the hope born of resurrection. Of Good Friday having swallowed us whole, and then Sunday coming, offering of a way out of the darkness.

****

I am often asked how I am able to be a person of hope. And I am never quite sure what to say to that in the moment. The obvious answer is that I just am. My whole life has led me to believe that all is not, and never will be, lost.

But also? This: Once you have survived what you think you cannot anything becomes possible. And once you understand this, you become grateful.

Even for the pain.

And all around us right now is pain–in our own lives, perhaps, but certainly in our communities, and most definitely our world. And there are days when it can seem that hope is, at best, futile.

But in the words of a colleague of mine who has stared down the death of addiction and lived to witness to the miracle of his own life made whole, “I have seen too much.”

And y’all, I have seen too much that seemed beyond repair, that somehow, in ways I don’t even understand, found a path to healing.

****

And so I will continue to cling to whatever hope is available to me…to us…because I cannot believe that the God that loved us into being will leave us without a way forward.

My prayer these days is that we have hearts humble and open enough to seek that way.

I suspect it will take some dying to what has been.

This is, after all, how resurrection begins.

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What sets your heart on fire?

My Curly Girl has a teacher who, among other things, is a cancer survivor. We love this teacher–he’s helped us navigate some tough middle school moments with creativity and grace, and he’s brought out the very best in M when it comes to her fierce love for all things theatrical.

When I was diagnosed with lymphoma, he was one of my first emails, because I knew that he would be a support for M. And in his response to my email he told me about his own journey with cancer, and he said, “I’ll tell you, it’ll teach you things for sure. You’ll learn.”

It’s been six months, many very scary days, many very tearful moments, 4 very successful two-day chemotherapy treatments, and some moments of feeling flat-out awful since he wrote those words to me. And for the last few days, they’ve been stuck in my head like an earworm of your most guilty-pleasure 80’s rock anthem. Because what I learned for sure these last six months is this: there is nothing like truly coming face-to-face with your own mortality to set your heart on fire for everything that matters most to you.

Nothing matters more to me than that my daughter carries with her into adulthood an unshakeable sense that she is and always will be loved beyond measure; that she believes in the depths of her heart that, no matter what, she will never be alone; that there is nothing she could ever do that could ever change how fully and completely God knows her and loves her.

Nothing. Matters. More.

But y’all? What sets my heart on fire is wanting that for everyone else, too. Every. One. (Albeit, full confession, there are those I struggle to want it for as much as others….)

I am, at this point in my life, convinced that the vast majority of what’s wrong with the world is rooted in unresolved grief, both individually and collectively. Whatever it is we’ve ever lost — namely any sense at all that we are worthy or loved or held fast –has wrecked us. Whatever dream has died — be it of a relationship or an idea or a desired way of being–has devastated us. And our inability to deal with the pain that comes with loss of any kind, whether it is physical or spiritual or mental or emotional, leaves us fearful. Anxious. Unable to trust any sort of inherent goodness in the world or how much our place in it matters.

And the fear roots, deep in the places of our souls where we hurt the most. And hate and anger flourish. And the schisms born of different ways of being or believing, of different life experiences, become vast chasms of rage and misunderstanding that lead us nowhere but further apart.

And, as a result, we build our lives and our communities on the lie that we are so different from one another that there simply is no other way.

If what I want for my precious girl, and for all of us, is to ever be fully true, we must find another way.

We do not have time, y’all, for the nonsense of hot takes and snarky identity memes. We do not have time for the arrogance of “virtue signals,” like “if you believe (insert supposed belief), then you are (assumption about a person’s ideology or theology or any other “ology.”) We do not have time to destroy one another. Life is too short. And we are, each of us, too sacred.

In your soul and mine, God dwells, and this alone should draw us to one another.

This alone should help us see past skin color or ethnicity or socioeconomic status and into hearts that look far more like ours than we ever want to admit. This alone should help us draw lines in the sand over things that truly matter, as opposed to things like wearing a cloth mask during a global pandemic. This alone should cause us to stop judging a person by what uniform they wear or what school they attend or what house of worship they belong to or what the bottom line of their bank account equals.

Good lord, people. We just do not have time.

Stop. Step way from your screen. And listen. For the love of all that is holy, listen. Search for what’s real and true and engage your mind and heart with someone who isn’t like you. Check your own assumptions. Your own biases. Your own world view. And seek to understand someone else’s.

We will not be able to fully love ourselves, to truly see our own worth, until we’re able to set aside the narratives of “either/or” and engage in the very messy work of where most of what’s best in life dwells–the “and.”

Because it is exactly in this grey area where we learn how complicated we all are, and how beautiful it can be to embrace the complication with our full hearts, such that your pain and mine somehow mend one another whole.

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Waving flashlights in the dark.

My Netflix binging over the last couple months has included Criminal Minds — I somehow missed it all these years. I love-with-a-capital-L a good law enforcement/crime show with a serious human interest bend. And my go-to’s, SVU, and the whole Chicago franchise, are delayed until November (thanks, COVID), so here I am, obsessed with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI as portrayed in this show. And I mean OB. SESSED.

Look, I don’t even care about the crimes they follow–I mean, they’re awful, and sometimes over-the-top, and often I have to look away, but they aren’t what grabs me. What intrigues me is how well the characters are developed, how deeply the writers dig into the truth that we all have a dark side, how transparent the failings and weaknesses of these heroes are, even as they contend with the absolute worst of humanity.

I got caught up in a three-episode arc last night involving one of the agents and her somewhat sketchy past with the CIA and Interpol. Long story short, a terrorist loosely affiliated with the IRA, whose inner circle she once infiltrated during her spy days, is released from an international prison, and makes his way to the United States to exact revenge. Agent Prentiss’ first concern is keeping her BAU family safe, and so she attempts to keep her past secreted, and goes after the bad guy herself.

This doesn’t work. At all.

(Does it ever really work when we attempt to do difficult or scary things on our own, leaving out, even if with good intention, those who love and know us best?)

And so Prentiss finds herself alone. Her life in imminent danger. Nowhere to turn.

And she hears this message, left on her old spy Blackberry by the BAU’s genius-hacker-IT-gal:

(They) asked me to try all your numbers, and I have this as an old listing, and you probably don’t even use it any more, but if it is you and you’re out there, come home, please. God, Emily, what did you think, that we would just let you walk out of our lives? I am so furious at you right now! Then I think about how scared you must be, how you’re in some dark place all alone, but you’re not alone, okay? You are not alone. We are in that dark place with you. We are waving flashlights and calling your name. So if you can see us, come home. But if you can’t, then, then you stay alive, because we’re coming.

We are in that dark place with you. We are waving flashlights. And calling your name. We’re coming.

***

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a psalm every morning. I started with Psalm 1. I’m up to about 16 of the 150 of them, and y’all, there’s a theme: Of a people afraid, scared, and feeling alone. Of a people lost, looking for the way home. Of a people seeking protection from their enemies. Of a people assailed at every turn by chaos and hate.

And I’ll tell you, these psalms? We could be writing them now.

And also I’ll tell you, these psalms? They are flashlights waving in the dark, reminding us that we are not alone in our pain and grief and confusion and fear. Reminding us that God’s people–and we are all God’s people–have been in dire straits before, and not once, not yet, has God failed to be present in the awfulness, offering a lamp to guide our feet to the other side of what threatens to undo us.

***

A favorite story in my family is about the time I went sleep-walking one summer at church camp. I was 10 years old, and my cabin counselor woke up in the dead of night to find me missing from my top bunk. I cannot imagine how fearful she was. Nor can I imagine how hard it was for her to go wake up the camp director, who happened to be my dad, and tell him she’d lost his daughter somewhere in the swampy woods of South Texas.

I don’t remember sleep-walking. What I do remember is waking up, cold and alone, in an empty cabin, and, just before fear could swallow me whole, seeing light bobbing up and down–waving, you might say–outside.

Next thing I knew, my dad, and his waving flashlight, were carrying me out of that empty cabin and back to safety.

***

Y’all, so many of us are lost and alone and angry and scared. White-hot hatred and profound grief are all around us, creating space where violence riots and any attempt at reconciliation falls flat. Isolation is weaving its dangerous web in light of COVID concerns. Anxiety and depression are rampant. Darkness is all around us, pushing against our souls in ways that are changing the landscape of our lives. The collective awfulness of 2020 is a very real thing.

And still we face the every day heartaches of our individual lives, too. It’s no wonder I hear us saying over and over, “It’s too much.”

Or, as my man Pat Conroy once said to his wife, “I never expected life to be so tragic, did you? I mean, I knew it’d be hard, but sad? I don’t know how any of us do it.”

I promise you two things. One, there is someone in the world right now who needs you to be a waving flashlight in the dark. Two, there is someone in the world right now willing to be a waving flashlight for you.

Darkness is no match for even one tiny light. And I believe with all I’ve got that if we’d all just pick up our damn flashlights, and wave them fiercely, calling out the names of those the darkness is swallowing, and promise, “We’re coming for you, you are not alone….”

Well…if we did that…we’d all find ourselves with enough light to find our way home.

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A prayer for this day, this year, these times….

“But I trusted in your steadfast love….” (Psalm 13:5)

I have no idea what to do but offer this all to you, God, because these are the honest words and struggles of my spirit. These are the things breaking my heart, at every new morning, even as I praise you, at every evening, for the places you’ve shown up and reminded me all is not lost. Even as I trust you, God, my heart aches.

My heart aches…

At the anxiety I see in the face of my own child, and other children we know and love. It mirrors our own grown-up anxiety, and while it is a right response to such uncertain times, it tears at the fabric of what makes us whole. Grant us all resilience, God, to see these days through. Grant us a desire for what these difficult days might teach us, God.

At the pain and fear I see in the faces of black and brown folks who have known hate for so long, and at the pain and fear I see in the faces of law enforcement trying so hard to do the right thing, and for the chasm of pain between. Grant us all a bridge, God, somehow, that there might be a way forward without more loss of life, without more destruction of communities, without more anger heaped upon what already rages. Grant us a desire for real justice and true peace, God.

At the political turmoil ripping our nation apart, leaving severed relationships in its wake, escalating with every instance of weaponized snark and rumor, driving wedges into our lives together with such deadly force, and leading us to demonize one another, and assume worst intent. Grant us new eyes and new hearts and new ears, God. The ones we’ve got we aren’t using to any avail. Grant us a desire to see you in the faces of those around us, God.

At the blatant cruelty we are capable of, especially when it comes to social media…this particular landscape is evil’s favorite playground it seems, God, and we do nothing to stop its rioting. Grant us the ability to see each other as human beings again, God, to know that on the other end of our iPhones are men, women and children who bleed red, too, God, and who want, just like us, nothing more than to belong and to be loved. Grant us a desire for kindness, God.

At the realities of a virus that has altered our lives in irrevocable ways, bringing out what is both awful and beautiful in us. Grant us compassion, God. Your compassion. And hear our prayers for those for whom this virus has brought devastated health and lost loved ones. For those who’ve lost jobs, for those who’ve lost family businesses, for those deemed “essential,” and so, at risk to themselves, have made life work for the rest of us. Grant a desire to protect each other, God.

At a God-breathed world that is burning, drowning, imploding, at the weight of our desire to get more, have more, be more, take more. Over and over and over. Grant us generosity of spirit, God, that we might see past our own selfish wants and into common good. Grant us a desire for selflessness, God.

My heart aches at fractured communities and hurting families and empty churches and the incessant yelling and finger-pointing and dehumanizing we have adopted as status quo in this country. My heart aches at violence, at evil let loose, at greed and power defining our life together.

It seems more than is survivable. More than is fixable. More than we can ever make right. How long, God, until we finally get it? How long, God, until we remember we were made and meant for more?

Some days, God, the mountain seems too high and the terrain too treacherous. The journey too long and the way forward too uncertain.

But there is too much at stake. And so I pray that we might have the strength to trust in your steadfast love.

Your steadfast love.

That called us into being and that you want, more than anything, for each of us. Those we disagree with. Those we hate. Those that have hurt us beyond forgiveness. Each of us.

Your steadfast love.

That we might love as you love. That we might live as Jesus lived.

I have trusted your steadfast love, God.

May that love be what we let guide us out of heartbreak and into wholeness. Out of where we are and into where we could be. Out of what makes us sick deep in our souls, and into healing.

Out of hate. And into love.

Amen.

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Time.

If you’ve ever spent a few hours or a few days or a few weeks in a hospital, either as patient or as a patient’s waiting-room-loved-one, you know that time does a funny thing inside hospital walls. It doesn’t stop, exactly, but it also doesn’t feel quite like it matches whatever our wristwatch or smart phone indicates the hour to be.

I had a medical test this last Monday that required a roughly 5-hour hospital stay. I’ve seen the inside of more hospital rooms and doctors’ offices than I’d like in 2020, and every time, if I’m there for more than a couple of hours, the experience is the same–I walk out not exactly sure what time it is, much less the day. I walked out of there Monday just sure it was close to evening…it was barely time for elevensies.

Today, I put my finger on it…well, perhaps at least in “its” general vicinity.

When you are undergoing a medical test, or receiving a treatment (like chemotherapy), or having surgery, or are sick enough to warrant a hospital stay, generally the most important thing you’ve got going is that very thing. It’s what’s right in front you, having to be done, gotten through, that dominates your being and thinking. We are finally able to set aside the million things that distract us from most every moment of our lives because the here and now becomes what matters most. The very present situation we find ourselves in.

How fully have we bought into the rat race narrative the United States seems to hold so dear, that we can’t even escape it until we absolutely must–because our blood sugar or blood pressure is dangerously high, or we have a stroke, or a gall bladder emergency, or, perhaps, a diagnosis of a life-changing disease.

Our bodies have a way of telling us, “Hold up, Julie. All is not well with you.”

And in that instant, ironically, mindfulness, the act of being fully present in any given moment, becomes a lifeline instead of something we read about “how to achieve,” on the cover of a grocery store mag.

Mindfulness does not match a day defined by your Google calendar or your productivity chart.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to renegotiate our understanding of time. For many of us (not all of us–h/t medical frontliners and Amazon delivery folks), a sense of schedule, marked by time, has been thrown out the window since about mid-March. Work-from-home days and online school days, despite our best efforts, do not feel the same as at-the-office or in-class days, not to mention that many of the things filling our digital calendars have been cancelled in the last few months.

And while, of course, there are blessings to be found in what has happened, it’s also messed with our heads in ways that eventually affect our hearts. Anxiety and depression are very real things, perhaps for the first time for people, during these coronavirus days, and I am convinced that at least some of it has to do with what a quick pivot we had to do with life–quite literally overnight in some cases, we had to reorient ourselves to a completely different way of being.

A way of being for which we had no map. Because no one knows how to do this, y’all. No one. And because we don’t know, we stress. We try to control. We stuff back grief and fear like our lives depend on it because we have no idea how to navigate the feelings that come with your entire life having been upended.

We have no idea how to simply be in the midst of what’s happening.

Author Madeleine L’ Engle often wrote about two different kinds of time: chronos v. kairos. Chronos is what she described as “ordinary wristwatch time.” Kairos is altogether different. It is not fully measurable. It might not even fully be of this world. But it is space in which we are invited to just be.

I know, I know–just be.

Riigghht.

Chemotherapy (and all the accompanying drugs used to mitigate its effects) has really jacked with my internal senses. And one of the ways it’s done this is that I wake up ridiculously early for no apparent reason. This is annoying, on the one hand. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent on my back deck since March–sometimes with coffee, sometimes with a Diet Dr Pepper. Sometimes texting with my best friend from high school, who has long been an early riser. Sometimes crying so hard I could barely breathe. And other times letting every breath be a prayer. Sometimes reading. Sometimes watching the cardinal couple flit from branch to branch. Sometimes just being quiet and still.

I recognize already that this has been a gift. Of presence. Of mindfulness. Of kairos

Here’s the thing–trauma, whatever form it takes, leverages a total reckoning with your life. A whole bunch of stuff falls apart and away when what you wanted for your life gets torn to shreds. But if you are very, very lucky, still intact, at the center of all that has shattered, are the things that mattered most to begin with–which tends to be the truth of who you are, and have always been.

So much is falling apart and away right now, y’all. So much. Very little looks at all like it did on January 1, 2020. All around us globally, all around us nationally, all around us personally, things are breaking.

What would happen, I wonder, if we embraced it. If we set aside the comfort of ordinary wristwatch time and leaned into this odd and painful space we find ourselves in. What if we said, “Ok. Everything is different. But this moment matters. And all is not lost.”

When I heard my doctor’s voice, over the phone, right at the beginning of March, tell me that there were enlarged and angry lymph nodes in my system, I knew, by the tone of his voice, that everything was about to change.

I was right.

Everything is different. But this moment matters. And all is not lost. 

Everything is different, y’all.

But this moment? It matters.

And all is not lost.

 

 

 

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The pain we carry.

It was April, and I was headed to a retreat center in the Virginia mountains, where I’d be leading a women’s retreat centered around my book, Available Hope. Spring was already showing off, the weather was perfect, and it felt good to be travelling, to be out, breathing fresh air and engaging with new people.

It had been a helluva year, to say the least.

I arrived just in time for dinner, so I was able to meet a few of the women I’d be working with the next 48 hours. They were welcoming, eager to hear what I had to say and very gracious.

As I left the dining hall, two women I had not met yet stopped to introduce themselves, and we spoke for a few minutes. I noticed one of them watching me closely. Her gaze didn’t feel invasive, but it was definitely obvious, and as our conversation came to a close, she slowly held up one of her hands, and placed it on my cheek. And then, gently, without malice or judgment, and with great compassion, she held my face and looked straight into my eyes as she said, “You, my dear, have known pain. And it’s still inside you. Your face tells me.”

I do not remember my response to her very accurate and unexpected words.

What I do remember is feeling seen. So seen it was almost uncomfortable. And yet somehow also merciful relief.

We all carry pain inside us–or, at the very least, we one day will. Sometimes we call it grief. Sometimes we call it anxiety. If we’re lucky enough to have a good therapist, or at least a good friend, we can name it as trauma. Regardless, we don’t get a choice of whether we will experience pain or not–it is part and parcel of living.

Sometimes it is obvious–a broken relationship or a lost love or an evident physical injury or disease. Sometimes it is less so–a grief long unresolved; a loss never fully processed; a mental illness that makes every single moment a battle. The struggle to belong carries a pain all its own. So does having been bullied or betrayed or abused.

Whatever that pain’s source, and no matter how long ago the pain began, we carry it. And despite our constant efforts to numb, hide and disguise the pain, what we really want is for it to be seen. Acknowledged. Affirmed as real. Because this is the only way healing can begin.

And how we long for healing…so much so that we sometimes become afraid to hope for it, and so resign ourselves to never feeling okay again. And the pain inside us digs deeper, latches on more firmly to our very beings, and twists any sense of belief that wholeness is possible.

This is why I believe, and have written before, that one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

Because somewhere, I assure you, it does.

So, my friends, where does it hurt?

These days, I suspect the answer is probably, “Everywhere.”

In addition to our personal heartaches and fears, any one of which can level a person, we’re watching a world on fire, fueled by half-truths and tribalism and the bully pulpit that social media allows to any person who wants it. We’re cut off from one another by a pandemic, and so missing far too many of the every day gatherings that keep us grounded, connected, able to remember that we are not alone. We are fiercely divided along ideological and sociological and political lines and we treat this as a sport, or as intellectual exercise, none of which addresses the very real needs of very real people. And hate, especially as it makes itself known in racism, is running rampant, leaving violence and chaos in its wake.

Pain.

Upon pain.

Upon pain.

Where does it hurt, y’all?

Everywhere. 

You can try to numb it, I suppose. Push it back. Because honestly, it feels like an awful lot and like maybe it might be our undoing. But pain will sneak up on you, or perhaps come in a tidal wave, and either way, it leaves you gasping for air.

Last week, I read some words translated from the Sufi poet Hafiz, and they went like this:

It happens all the time in heaven, and someday it will begin to happen again on earth–that humans who are married, and humans who are lovers, and humans who give each other beautiful light, will often get down on their knees, and while so tenderly holding their beloved’s hand…with tears in their eyes will so sincerely speak, saying, “My dear, how can I be more loving to you? Darling, how can I be more kind?”

I’ve read these words every day since I stumbled on them, and they are still giving rise to a lump in my throat.

Y’all, what if, in addition to asking where it hurts, we also asked, “What can I do to make that hurt easier to bear?”

Not what I can do to fix it. Not how I can stop it. Not what bandage can I offer. But, “What can I do for you to make the hurt easier to bear?”

We are very, very good at “I-can-do-whatever-I-want-hearts” in this country. And it’s pretty obvious how that’s (not) working out.

What we need are servant hearts, ones that ask “How can I love you better? How can I be more kind? How can I ease your pain?”

Where does it hurt? And how can I make that hurt easier for you to bear?

May it be so.

 

 

 

 

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Restoring the deficit (and no, this isn’t an economics lesson).

I had a conversation earlier this week with a clergy colleague and friend re: our heartache over the ever-widening and angry tribalism in our communities and our nation.

(First up and real quick, let me be real clear I am not talking about things rooted in the darkness of real hate here–there are not two sides to real racism. Or genocide. Or the like. That I even have to clarify this is indication of what sport we’ve made of polarization. Ok, read on….)

And my colleague said so well something I’ve been rolling around for months–and that is, we’re operating with a trust deficit. And operating with a deficit–be it financial or otherwise, is not a formula for either a solid foundation, effective cooperation, or real relationship.

I have been fortunate enough to know some local and state politicians here in Kentucky personally. I say fortunate, because it means I see those men and women as human beings–I know them first by name, or how we first met, not by their job or political affiliation. And because of this I’ve learned at a deeper level what it means to vehemently disagree with someone, but also trust that he or she really does also have the wider community’s best interest at heart, even if the path there is not the same one I would take.

I have been fortunate enough, also, to serve congregations and organizations where I had beloved congregants, or respected coworkers, who saw differently than me about how we lived and moved and had being together. And because our life or work together was rooted in mutual trust of good intent, of best interest, of acting and speaking with love and respect first, we were able to work through disagreement with relationship intact.

Y’all know how this plays out in personal relationships–once trust among friends or lovers or family is broken (and certainly if it was never present at all), it’s profoundly difficult to repair. Not impossible, but difficult. And full communal confession here: we’re almost all guilty of contributing to broken trust–if we’re lucky, we also know the redemptive grace of the very hard work of rebuilding it.

And if this is true for us personally, it follows it would be true for us corporately (as in everyone together) as well. Mutual trust means a capacity to engage in real conversation about differing ideologies, because we’re able to truly envision and desire an outcome that finds the most common good possible, and then settles there. Mutual distrust means we just retreat further into our own tribe.

And this retreating–it is nothing short of our undoing.

Y’all also know I believe with every fiber of my being that social media, really any media, is a double-edged sword. It can encourage, truthfully inform, lift up, feel good and foster relationship. It can also discourage, lie, push down, feel awful and destroy relationship. It can be Harry Potter or it can be Voldemort. It can be Iron Man or it can be Thanos. It can be Darth Sidious or it can be Rey Skywalker. It can be the White Witch or it can be Aslan.

It can be good. Or it can be evil. And this depends entirely on how we use it.

When we do the retreating further into our own tribes, social media is, these days, the first thing we weaponize–it’s so easy to twist a fact, edit a video, exact a few words, such that everything becomes leveraged precisely to our own viewpoint or will. So easy to speak without accountability or face-to-face repercussion. And this further propagates distrust, further destroys any sense of community, further divides us against ourselves.

Still– when our better angels lead us to trust one another, social media can be immense blessing, because it means efforts and relationship are able to be much more widespread, sometimes even calling us back to what’s universally common about human beings–our deep desire to be known and to be loved.

I don’t have the answer, or even the beginnings of one, for how we restore the deficit. But I have some ideas about things we have to address if we even want to attempt it.

  1. Restoring a sense of trust requires listening. Not listening to respond. Not listening so you can better formulate your own argument. Real, active, set-yourself-aside listening. This is the only way we can begin to honor another person’s experience simply for what it is, not how we might interpret it, or how we would even respond to that experience ourselves.
  2. Restoring a sense of trust requires empathy. Shew, y’all, we struggle with this. It’s hard to make someone actually care about another person’s story, if they don’t already. Real hard. But acknowledging each other’s pain, and then maybe even adjusting our behavior so as not to add to it…man, if we could get this right, everything would shift. Every. Thing.
  3. Restoring a sense of trust requires a desire for truth. Lord have mercy, we’ve got to learn to verify, research, dig deep and discover what’s really going on around us. I fear sometimes that we’re actually just too lazy for democracy–something so much of the world would give their lives for; something so many of our ancestors did in fact give their lives for. We dishonor so many brave men and women the world over with our refusal to do the work that needs doing. And maybe this is just apathy–which I can understand to an extent. It’s hard to find honesty when it comes to democracy and the government these days. Money talks loudest and corrupt behavior is everywhere, and in every party. But to completely throw in the towel? Can we really do that and live with ourselves?
  4. Restoring a sense of trust requires humility. Not a single one of us has all the right answers. Not a single one of us sees the whole picture. Not a single one of us is without fault, or sin, even. Stepping down off our own arrogant pillars of supposed certainty would be a good first step towards the sort of humility I’m talking about here–but even more, it requires self-critique before critique of others. You know, that whole idea of cleaning up your own house first.

None of this is easy. 

None of this will heal us overnight. 

There is no silver bullet.

There is only the earnest, difficult, ongoing work of being human. Of admitting we do not, any of us, live in a vacuum. Of summoning enough compassion to see that your well-being and mine are inextricably linked. Even if we see the world entirely differently.

Even. Then.

Any business can only go so far operating in the red, and it stands to reason that we’ll only so far if we cannot move out of “the red” ourselves.

May we find the heart to do so. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lemon square prayers.

If you have been to my house for a social occasion at just about any point in my adult life, there were probably lemon squares as a dessert option. Specifically Ms. Sandra’s lemon squares–the signature pot luck offering of the most quintessential Southern church lady you can imagine.

My family moved to Winder, Georgia, in between Christmas and New Year’s of my 8th grade year of school. It took me years to forgive my parents for uprooting me at that point in life; still, as it happens, it brought a whole lot of goodness to my life. Including Ms. Sandra. She has been, whether in person or via prayer, present at almost every significant occasion in my life–quite simply one of the most giving and gracious spirits I’ve known. To be in her presence during my adolescence was to know love.

Over 20 years ago, Ms. Sandra was part of a group of women who prayed every single day of my mom’s journey through breast cancer. And when I was diagnosed with lymphoma in March, you can bet Ms. Sandra was one of the first people I heard from. And the next thing I knew, she had a group of folks in my hometown praying for me. The full circle moment of it has stayed with me every day thus far of my own journey, and has meant everything.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of the stroke patient I worked with as a 24 year-old hospital chaplaincy intern. Nathaniel was dearly loved man, and his family was almost always gathered at his bedside or in the waiting room in the days after his massive cerebral hemorrhage. They told me he’d been a song leader at his church, that he loved to sing. Nathaniel was not conscious during the times I visited him, and so for a few minutes every day of his hospitalization, in lieu of conversation, I’d sing. Every church hymn I could think of. And one day, halfway through “Amazing Grace,” Nathaniel’s neurologist came in for rounds. I immediately stopped and backed away from his bed, knowing his doctor had important work to do. But his doctor stopped me and said, “No, no. Please finish. Your work is important, too.”

In that moment, my understanding of the work between faith and science shifted completely and permanently, such that today I am confident that it is both a very gifted medical team and a very committed faith community contributing to my healing.

Neither thing guarantees anything. But both things mean I live with a great deal of hope. And when my primary GI doctor, who first found the lymph nodes that led to my diagnosis emailed me to say he was praying for me and hoping for the best, I added my thankfulness for his faith to my gratitude for his medical expertise.

But let me be clear that this isn’t just about me. This same dynamic leads me to believe that the great wounds in our country these days cannot fully be healed by tweaked laws or policy shifts. Certainly those things have a crucial place, and certainly there is a great deal about our nation that unequally favors one human life over another, and how we deal with those things in our communities matters. Lives are at stake. But at heart, we are in need of much more than any politician or SCOTUS ruling can truly heal. Certainly more than any social media post can heal–no matter how snarkily we put it, or what bright colors and ALL CAPS we might use.

At the core of our brokenness is our fear of real, authentic, transforming relationship. I have never yet seen hate reversed by anything but that, never seen gaping spiritual and emotional and community wounds healed by anything but a willingness to enter into sacred vulnerability and ask, “What has hurt or frightened or threatened you so much that you can act with such disregard towards another human being?” And, perhaps most of all, be willing to answer that question ourselves. When we have been hurt or threatened, it’s very hard not to hurt those around us in return. Because pain begets pain.

And so you bet I believe in science and policy. But I also believe those things will not save us. Because I believe something bigger is at work. I believe in the mysterious ways and timing of a God who first and only creates and acts in Love. And I believe that in a world brought into being by such goodness, there is always light–even if it seems but a glimmer some days.  (I also believe in our collective ability to ignore that Love, and so dig ourselves deeper into the muck we’re currently living.)

***

Ms. Sandra died last Saturday morning. And I swear, when I heard that news, it felt like the world got dimmer. Also I immediately ordered the makings of lemon squares with my grocery delivery for the day.

And then…Monday morning…I checked the mail. And in my mailbox, was, I kid you not, a card from Ms. Sandra. “I think of you often and my prayers continue with you. Much love, Sandra.” It was postmarked June 19, the day before she died.

And suddenly, y’all, the world got brighter again. Just like a batch of her lemon squares, fresh and warm and morning sunlight yellow, straight from the oven.

There is so much we do not know, even in our human brilliance. What I know today, is that at work all around us is the mystery and mercy of a grace that, even when we shun it, holds us close and promises to never leave us.

And somewhere between our human brilliance and that unexplainable and unearned grace, God dwells.