The Pomegranate and The Bell

I believe these two objects embody what I want my writing to be – rich and clear . Pomegranates are brimming with crimson seeds that literally errupt with flavor on your tongue. In autumn when their luscious seeds peek out of their auburn skins, they are eagerly devoured. Their ruby juices stain expectant fingers and happy lips. Bells are rung to mark announcements and celebrations — it’s time to wake up, the guests have arrived, let us begin! Bells, like good writing, can signal invitations, warnings, or celebrations. My desire is to write in a way that is both bursting with abundant fullness and ringing with crystalline clarity.

Pine Cones

I hold tightly to my preschooler’s hand as we dismount the jostle of the crowded city bus. I gingerly step on the icy sidewalk trying desperately to be steady enough for both of us. He gleefully crunches his feet in a pile of muddy snow. We begin to trudge together down the pavement lined with a hodge-podge fancy skyscrapers and dilapidated old shacks.

My little boy chats incessantly about the trees and the cars and the birds flying overhead. I occasionally interject a sound of affirmation so that he knows I’m still listening. But as I listen I’m glancing around a bit nervously. Due to some road construction the bus took a detour today, and I’m not precisely sure where we are.

I know the general neighborhood we are in, and I know the general direction that I think we need to walk to reach our destination. But my lack of precision has made me a little unsettled. I glance at my phone and realize that the detour has also made us late, and I don’t have a lot of time for wrong turns or missteps.

I walk with some measure of confidence down the first two blocks. But then I see a tall blue building with an intricate tile design along the top. I recognize it immediately. I know I’ve passed it a hundred times on the bus. The problem is that I’m not quite sure if this is a confirmation that we are going the right way, or a signal that we have gone too far. Do I usually pass the building before the park? Does it come after the flower shop? I can’t remember. It is so familiar, and yet I can’t place it in relation to any of the other landmarks that come to mind.

My son stops to collect some fallen pine cones, and I gaze longingly up and down the street. I keep hoping for something that will jog my memory and put everything back in perspective. Nothing. Just this tall blue tiled reminder that familiarity does not ensure a clear path forward. I have been here before, but I still don’t know which way to go.

We reach the next intersection and I make a rash decision to turn right. I’m fairly confident that right is actually not the direction that we need to go. But, I am also convinced that if I go right I will eventually come upon something I recognize.

My son continues to collect pine cones. I don’t argue with him as he gleeful presents me with each one to safeguard in my purse. I dutifully pack them away. Each new pine cone sighting propels him down the sidewalk towards his next acquisition happily unaware of our predicament.

We continue down the road to the right, and sure enough we hit the park. Suddenly everything snaps into place. My brain conjures up a map that carefully connects the bus stop, the park, the blue building, and our destination. I am reoriented instantly. All is clear. All is familiar and safe. I know exactly where we are. I take a deep breath, and my lungs fill up with confidence.

We cross the street, and I direct my toddler down the sidewalk on the opposite side. We march back in the same direction that we came. Of course, he doesn’t notice or care that we are back tracking. He is elated that this side of the street has a whole new treasure trove of pine cones to collect. Somehow I don’t mind either. Everything feels different now. What was hurried confusion, is now calm and purposeful progress. Sure enough. We reach our destination in good time just beyond the shiny blue tiles that perplexed me before.

I catch myself mumbling aloud, “Sometimes you have to go off course just to find your bearings.”

I sit with this a while. It seems true to me. Sometimes the truth is counter intuitive. Sometimes we need to be still and quiet in order to be more productive. Sometimes we need to step out of our work in order to engage it in deeper ways. Sometimes we need an evening away from our kids in order to appreciate them fully.

If we push ourselves to grit our teeth and push ahead when we feel lost, we risk getting further from our destination.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when endurance and perseverance are important. There is a place for gritting your teeth and soldiering on. But there is also a time for pausing to gain perspective.

A time to push in and a time to pull back.

Life seems to me to be always about knowing precisely what time it is. But maybe it is also about enjoying the pine cones along the way.

The Young Woman & the Sea

This week I sat down to a blank page and let my fingers fly across the keyboard without much thought. I looked down amused to find that this is what I wrote:

How do you find your way?

Be able to remember.

Dwell here in the beauty.

I don’t know what that means, but it seemed that my fingers had stumbled across a length of rope in the darkness that I might just be able to hold on to. Maybe I can cling to these words and grope my way out of this dark tunnel.

Remember. Beauty. Could it be both that simple and that complex?

***

It’s February. For the life of me I cannot fathom that December and January have already slipped through my desperate fingers. There is a daze that settled in November and is finally beginning to clear. The holiday festivities like plumes of fog expanded to fill the days and weeks — every hour swollen with glitter and sugar and all things merry-making. And then just as softly and smoothly, the fog drains from the days … the decorations come down, the tins of cookies are emptied, and the calendar begins to have empty boxes again.

It’s February. The glorious sun feels sweet and familiar on my face, like a comfy hoody that had been abandoned and forgotten in the back of my closet for far too long. It is snug and cozy and roomy and soft and safe all at once. I can’t help but smile in the warmth. There you are, I think. There you are. You are here again to shine down on me.

It’s February and patches of snow still huddle in the shadows and corners, but the sky is blue and clear and gorgeous.

It is early Saturday morning, and I sit on the edge of the Caspian Sea. We sit there together — the sun and I. We sit in silence like old friends do.

We smile at each other, and my eyes are transfixed by the beauty of the water. It strikes me that blue is such a pitiful word to describe the hundreds of brilliant, shimmering, shades that twinkle and dance on the waves. Topaz. Sapphire. Turquoise. Indigo. Cerulean.

I am comforted by the sun, but I am infatuated with the Sea.She is an enigma. Enchanting. Mysterious. Always beckoning. Always wild and free.

I can’t take my eyes off of her today. Her splendor almost seems too much for my dull and tedious world. So much beauty cannot possibly co-exist with laundry and toddler runny noses and a backlog of unanswered emails. This must be another realm, another life.

I cannot make sense of it. How is it that I am allowed to witness so much beauty? I feel honored and unworthy all at once. How is it that the sea is always here. It’s beauty is this overwhelming gift, and it is always free to me — to all of us fortunate enough to be alive.

She offers her beauty freely day and night and asks nothing in return.

She fills my eyes and my soul with so much intense joy. I can’t break her spell, but I can hardly stand to keep looking. I feel greedy as my eyes try to take it all in. I feel so relieved to know that her generosity is inexhaustible. She will always be there. I can visit her on a hundred different days, and each day her beauty will be new and different but just as mesmerizing as ever. I can savor her, but I cannot horde her. I can only enjoy but never over-indulge.

Somehow this truth seeps into my bones with the warmth of the sun. Beauty is always other-wordly but also very much present in this ugly, dirty, difficult world.

Everyday when I sweep my kitchen floor, I marvel at the contents of my dust pan. There is all manner of lint and dust and and crumbs bits of dried play-dough and other unidentifiable and disgusting fragments of life with three kids and a cat. And then there is always treasure — the missing Lego piece that is absolutely necessary for completing our tower, the lost sparkly bouncy ball over which tears were shed, the favorite heart-shaped sticker that we simply cannot live without.

It occurs to me that life is like the dust bin. It is disgusting and exhausting and yet littered with priceless treasures. We just have to take the time to look past all the dust balls and cookie crumbs. Beauty is always waiting patiently to be enjoyed.

Perhaps that is what I need most to remember — that there is always beauty.

The beauty of the sea is a gift to me today. It is too exquisite a gift to simply ignore. It is the lavish and generous gift from the Giver of all good things. That is what I must remember. That in the struggle, beauty is the confirmation that the Giver has never for one second forgotten us. He keeps on giving us each day. Perhaps that is what mercy is. Anther day to soak up the beauty. Another chance to bask in love.

6 Beatitudes from 2016

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So, in the quiet of this first day of 2017, I decided to make a list of my own beatitudes from the year that has passed.

  1. Blessed are those in stressful circumstances, because they will appreciate companions of grace. In our work here we have had a hard year, and yet I have learned to appreciate my husband more this year than ever before. He is not perfect, and neither am I. We have had moments of frustration and tears and harsh voices. But we have also come together in moments of grace and respect and understanding. I am so beyond grateful for him — for his life and his faith and his patience. My respect for him has widened and deepened and grown this year in a million little moments of grace.
  2. Blessed are those who fail, because they will learn humility. My daughter’s learning disabilities have forced me to confront and surrender my own pride as an academically-minded (sometimes too competitive) person and as a parent.
  3. Blessed are those who cannot keep step, because they will find a gentler rhythm. Through my son’s struggles this year I have learned that he needs margins in his time. He needs “down time” and “alone time” and “free time” in order to cope with the demands of life. Perhaps he needs more than most people, but now I know that about him. We can try to structure our family life to accommodate that need, and we can try to help him cope when life simply doesn’t allow for much margin because sometimes life is just not gentle.
  4. Blessed are those in the thick of parenting, because in seeking to understand their children they will learn to better understand themselves. In the process of learning #3 I found that *I* need margins. I need big wide empty spaces in order to help me process the demands of a day in a healthy way. I need quiet sometimes. Go figure. And I need to be in my own home sometimes without rushing out the door. The thing is, as an adult, I just plowed right on through without the rest and space that I needed. I just pushed and pushed and pushed myself. Which meant that I found other ways to cope that aren’t healthy … like eating too much sugary crap and staying up to late. And guess what? Those things are really bad for me. Yeah. So, pace and space are my new mantra: a reasonable pace to the day and some space (mental and physical)  to unwind. It’s a good lesson, but a hard one.
  5. Blessed are those who give up on perfection, because they will find freedom. I have learned the need to be kind to myself when I don’t perform perfectly. I have learned the need but I can’t say I’ve really learned to do it yet. But, I have realized that I cannot go on with this evil troll version of myself jumping up and down inside my brain and berating me every time I make a mistake. It’s exhausting. And I don’t like that troll-in-my-brain-me, and I don’t like the panicked and weary outside me that she creates. I am not the woman I want to become, but I am more like her than I used to be. And sometimes dinner is cheese sandwiches and apple slices. And sometimes a pile of laundry adorns the couch for a few days. And that is okay because I know I’m doing the best I can. Practicing kindness to myself has proved to be much harder than being kind to anyone else.
  6. Blessed are those who find themselves deeply weary in a foreign land. May it always point us to our ultimate rest and our eternal home. May we enter this year with eyes wide open to see the blessings in our brokenness! And may he carry on the work he has begun in each of us as he fashions us for eternity. Happy New Year!

Still and Small

The stench of burning reaches my nose, and in exasperation I bolt for the oven. I fumble to open the door, already certain of what I will find waiting for me on the wire rack. I pull out my pie pan eyeing it’s contents — blackened irrevocably. With a sigh of defeat I set down the charred remains and collapse on the floor disgusted with myself.

Angry plumes of black smoke quickly swell to fill my little kitchen. The air is heavy and the odor is unbearable now. I hoist myself up to open the window in desperation.

I slouch there in the windowsill for a moment taking in the cool evening air. Deep breaths. I close my eyes trying to escape the world of ruined pastries and torched hopes.

I open my eyes as the black billows of smoke dissolve. I look from the blackened pie to the sink piled high with dirty dishes to the crumbs and play dough bits stuck to the floor.I feel tears pressing on the backs of my eyes, but I can’t manage to release them. They just collect there threatening to expose me for the fraud that I am. The heaviness of their presence clouds my vision even as the smoke clears.

I look over at my children sitting around the kitchen table. Homework folders, spelling lists, library books, crayons, and drawing paper are strewn about haphazardly. The half-finished tasks of the afternoon taunt me with the promise of my own inadequacy. The chaos spreads from one end of the room to the other. The children are seemly unconcerned about our dessert, but they pick up on my frustration and respond by being generally agitated with each other and everything.They chatter and argue and struggle to be heard over the hum of activity of an ordinary weeknight.

I feel trapped in the heat of this moment – the flames of unmet expectations sizzle against my skin. I understand now that this will consume me if I let it. It will forever brand my heart and soul just like the blue flames of the gas oven have destroyed my pie.

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The same warmth that softens apples and deepens the flavor of butter and sugar can also reduce it all to ashes.

It’s all in the timing.

The minutes of life flicker by, and it is difficult in the shuffle of each day to know if we are exposing ourselves to too much heat. This situation. That relationship. These expectations. When are the fires of life forging strength and beauty in us … and when are they breaking us down to smoldering dust? Too little heat and we become creatures of weakness consumed by self-interest. After all, it is the struggles of life that push us to be strong and to focus on things bigger than ourselves. And yet, too much heat burns us up leaving behind blackened wreckage of pain.

It seems to me that we are all just learning to dance while teetering on the edge of the flames. Allowing enough of life’s heat to transform us, and not enough to destroy us. Learning to gauge the temperature of my own life is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of adulthood.

Honestly, as I look back on this year I realize that I resemble that charred apple pie. It was like there was too much noise and busyness, and I couldn’t hear the alarm going off in my head telling me it was time. Well, that’s not totally true. If I’m honest I have to admit that I knew it was too much. I knew it was too much. I knew it. I just didn’t listen. I felt a stirring and yearning from deep inside to do less and be less. And yet, as the year gained momentum, I felt like the expectations and demands were relentless.

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I baked another apple pie yesterday in celebration of this week of rest between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The experience was so different in a quiet kitchen without so many other demands on my time and attention. This end of the year holiday break is such blessing. It offers time to think and reflect and prepare for the year to come. I went back and reread my journal from a year ago. I approached 2016 with so much hope and enthusiasm. And yet here I am crawling across the finish line dazed and weary. I started to enumerate the trials of this year for you: my daughter’s learning disabilities, my son’s difficult transition to a new school, job pressures, financial pressures, health issues. But some of them are just too tender to write about yet. I think some wounds are best not dissected on a public forum. Trust me, dear friends, when I say this year was branded with struggle. Have you ever had a year like that? Have you felt your heart seared like I do at the end of this year?

There were bright moments to be sure, and I will treasure those. They stand out for me like beacons of hope of what is possible. But much of this year has been singed with pain for me, and that is a truth that I need to say aloud.

My hopes for 2017 are not lofty. I’m hoping to be kinder to myself by making more space for stillness. I know that my scorched heart can heal again, but it will need time. I need to relearn to listen for the voice that tells me to back away from the flames — the still small voice. That voice is not found in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. But…

“After the fire, comes the still small voice.”

I want this year to be about stillness and smallness and listening for that voice.

What do you want 2017 to be about for you?

Remembering in the Stillness

302502_282554368429947_1944567031_nDuring Advent we savor the mystery of anticipation. He is coming. Every year as I make out shopping lists and frost gingerbread men, I imagine Mary is making her way to Bethlehem with swollen feet and simple faith.

But this year is different. This year I’m not just waiting for a birth, but I’m also remembering a loss. My grandfather went to be with Jesus last Christmas.

This year, and every year from now on, Christmastide will be tinged with the bittersweet of an empty seat at the table. There will still be a celebration of the birth. There will be baking and wrapping and decoration and laughing and loving. But all the while there will be the shadow of what isn’t.

My Umpa made the best fudge at Christmas. It was so sticky and sweet you could only take one mousy nibble at a time. He kept it in round Christmas tins with waxed paper separating the layers. These magical green and red tins were always in the refrigerator this time of year. He would go to get a Pepsi (his drink of choice), and return with an open tin to pass around.

So, tonight I made a batch of Umpa’s fudge. Then I turned off the lights and sat in the mesmerizing glow of the Christmas tree. I just sat there with my sorrow for a while. I let myself remember him. I let the images of years passed flow from Christmas to Christmas.

Eventually my thoughts turned again to Mary trudging down the dirt road. I thought about the political turmoil and unrest that is the backdrop of her story — poverty, tyrants, uprisings, wars. I thought about my Umpa growing up on a farm in the Great Depression and landing in Europe as a young soldier ready to face World War II. I thought about the horrible images coming out of Aleppo this week. The scenes change but the story is the same. War. Pain. Suffering.

The world is too much. The cacophony of anguish around the globe and throughout history is more than I can manage today.

Today I just sit and remember. I remember a man who loved God and served others. I remember a man who worked hard. I remember a man who was gentle and strong and wise and kind. He didn’t solve the great problems of the world political or social or economic. But he loved Jesus, and he loved others.

My Umpa lived out the kingdom of God. This kingdom is here, and it is coming. Just like the unborn Jesus is bulging from Mary’s waistline as she prepares for his arrival. He is here, and he is coming. The pulsing violence of this world is not unlike the throbbing contractions of a mother giving birth. The Bible says that the world is groaning. Can’t you hear it? The violence, the racism, the hatred, the greed. It’s deafening.

And yet we live out the kingdom, right here in the waiting. We pray for peace. We strive for peace. We hope for peace — for the restoration of all things.  We remember his coming, and we wait for his coming. Because we believe the words of the angels are true. Unto us a child is born. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to men.

***

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:22-26

Chill

Lately the world is dark and cold, and everything feels harsh and cruel. The bare tree branches expose their naked bark to the frost morning after morning. I wince a little remembering their autumn glory. I turn away from them – undressed and vulnerable.

I pull my scarf tighter around my neck. Somehow, despite my layer of winter clothing, I feel naked too. The chill creeps in the gaps, and I feel weak and weary.

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It’s as if my soul feels heavy in this season of life. I drag it along through the tasks of the day unable to unload the weight of it. I vacillate between a frenzy of business and an empty stare. Both are attempts to escape. I distract myself with a barrage of tasks only to retreat into the solace of a blank mind. I can’t actually let any real awareness seep in. Awareness feels like the chill of winter that squeezes it’s way in at your wrists and ankles. The realities of life are always swirling around me just waiting for an opening.

The other day I sat on a bench at the playground while my toddler excitedly pumped his legs in the swing. A flash of light. The earth trembled. The cold winter air was pierced by the collapse of a nearby roof. At first I assumed it was a gun shot. I looked to see who would fall to the ground. My toddler wriggled down from the swing and came to me. I was surprised by his calm demeanor. He was confused, but not hysterical. He pulled his little body into mine and sunk his questioning little eyes into my chest. I lashed his body to tightly to me as if he were precious cargo on a raft. We bobbed there in the ocean of cold chaos around us. He smiled up at me. The explanations didn’t matter to him as much as my presence in that moment.

I sat there with a pile of precious blonde curls in my lap and wondered — who will hold me? Maybe it isn’t answers that I am really seeking in this difficult season of life. Maybe I’m just looking for the warmth of someone to buoy me up in this sea of winter chill.

How to Face the Darkness

This is from an article I wrote some time ago, but the words ring true today.

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In the space of just a few weeks, there has been a deluge of tragedy in our world. We dread what the next day will hold. Which city will be next? Orlando? Istanbul? St. Paul? Dallas? Nice? How many lives will be taken? How much pain will be caused? We scroll through our newsfeeds and feel sick. We feel helpless and angry and confused. We all ask the same questions. Why is there so much hatred and evil in the world? How can people commit these acts of violence?

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If we look back at human history, we can see that hatred and war and tragedy are our birthright and legacy. Consider for a moment that selfishness is perhaps the signature of humanity. It crosses cultures and religions and political boundaries. Selfishness is embedded in our very DNA. I don’t mean eating the last piece of cake selfishness. I mean ruthless, violent, callous selfishness that dulls our empathy for others and blinds us to our own cruelty. Think of all the wars that sculpted the trajectory of human society . Think of all the places where people have been mistreated because of their race, religion, or gender. Given our bloody and miserable past, perhaps the question we should be asking is, “How is there any good at all left in this world?” For centuries there has been so much that is evil and vile and ruthless. How can there be any shred of compassion and decency left in the human race?

And yet, there is. There is so much that is broken and warped and miserable, and yet there is beauty too. There is a surprising kindness in people’s souls. The outpouring of sadness and love and prayers after a tragedy is what should surprise us. The very fact that we react to injustice — that we are so infuriated by it — means that we are embedded with a sense that this is not how it should be. We all know, deep in our souls, that innocent people should not be shot while going about their business no matter what race or religion they belong to. We react with shock and rage because something inside us is offended and repulsed. Despite centuries of war and violence — we have not been able to accept that this is business as usual. Perhaps that is because we were not made for this. The facebook posts by my friends — Muslims, Christians, and atheists of all races — confirm that humanity finds this unacceptable.

There is a goodness in people — a desire for justice, a grief for those suffering, a longing for restoration.There is a light in us that centuries and millennia of darkness has not snuffed out of us completely. It is the spark of God — the thumbprint of our Maker. It is that light that flares up hot with indignation when we hear about tragedy and injustice. It is that light that urges us to denounce acts of evil — to push the darkness away. If we look closely, we can see the light around us even in the face of tragedy. We see it in the outpouring of love and support that follows such misery. We see it in the hope we carry that someday things will be made right. We see the image of our Maker — as pale and faded as it may be — when we see people choose love and courage and generosity.

Summer should be a time of sunshine and warmth, but this summer the darkness is creeping in all around us. The shadows gather and the world feels dim and cold. We ache for the sunshine. We long for the Light because it means the restoration of all things.

We face the darkness by choosing to live in the reality of the Light:

We choose to weep for the suffering around us.

We choose to cry out for justice and mercy.

We choose each day to live in hope.

We choose each day to live out compassion.

We choose each day to love our neighbors.

We choose each day to affirm that the darkness will be defeated.

We declare each day that all that is wrong and wicked in this world will be made right.

We remember the words of the prophet…

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

How does the light still shine in the darkness?

Through us.

This little light of mine … I’m gonna let it shine.”