Safe

It’s been a year now.

My youngest sister Hannah was pregnant, and we were so excited! She and her husband Yann were on their way to Uganda with the goal of fostering and adopting children there, and then they sent us a scan of the tiny baby going with them, and it was so exciting.

When she was 21 weeks along, I was at work when Yann messaged the family: “We’re at the hospital. Please pray for the early labor to stop.” This was her fifth pregnancy and none of the other babies survived and this was the longest gestation of any, so we were hopeful.  I asked for a quick prayer meeting with two of the women in my office, and we cried and begged God to keep this baby safe and stop the contractions.

That was noon on Wednesday and I heard nothing for the rest of the day. Thursday morning, I lay still in bed a long time before I had the courage to pick up my phone to see what had happened during the night.

I found that after a long labor, (the drugs had slowed it to 24 hours but couldn’t make it stop) their baby boy had been born just 30 minutes before I woke up. He was alive, but they were planning a funeral service for him.

I cried, exchanged messages with my family, got pictures of Yann and Hannah holding the baby, loving on him, crying over him. They said he responded to their voices. I wiped my face, made coffee, stumbled to work, told my co-workers who had prayed with me, and tried to enter the duty of the day. I could stay focused, but sometimes tears leaked out.

They named him after my brother and Yann’s dad: Nathanael Pierre. He was perfect, but too little to live and after three hours, he faded away.

When she had time and space to talk, I called Hannah. We cried and I heard how God’s people banded together, looked after details, thought about things they couldn’t, asked good questions, gave comfort and food and blankets to wrap the little body.

My friends stood around me those days, gave gentle hugs and words, helped me feel not so alone. My pastor and his wife took me out for supper and helped me talk it out then relax with chit chat. The loss highlighted how scattered our family is. We were all stunned with grief, and scattered across five countries and seven time zones. We had to bumble our way through caring for each other across thousands of miles, and it was hard. There’s no script for this. How do you know how your sisters are when you can’t see them? How do you weep with your brother for his namesake when he lives seven time zones away?

The Ugandan church family organized the funeral and sent us a live-stream link. My family’s church in Ireland met an hour earlier than their normal meeting time on Sunday morning to join the church in Uganda and watch the funeral together. I saw a picture of the group in Ireland watching, joining the Ugandan service in real time, and it seemed like sweet solidarity and fellowship of suffering.

I didn’t watch it in real time (those pesky, miserable time zones) but later in the day, I asked two friends if they’d come to watch with me. They were gracious and generous with their time. We cried and watched the children and heard the songs. I wished Yann and Hannah had family with them—a parent or sibling to hold them, but no one could come so far so quickly. Their church family was everything they should have been, but they’d only had three months with them and didn’t know them like family does.

I gasped when the pallbearers accidentally tipped the casket on its side as they carried it to the grave, and my friend instinctively grabbed my hand because it shocked her too. (The men felt very badly about the mishap, but the ground was uneven and easy to stumble on.) Everyone helped fill the grave, then Yann got down on all fours and patted the earth down all over the little mound, as if putting his little boy to sleep. The red dirt reminded me of missionary stories where babies and children died and were left behind in foreign graves and now it wasn’t a story, but it was happening to my sister and it felt so wrong and unfair and mistaken.

A month or so later, it was staff prayer circle at work and each had a chance to give short updates or prayer requests. I passed my turn, because I didn’t know what to say, but right afterwards I thought I could’ve mentioned our family’s grief. I could have. I should have. But it was hard to talk about it so I didn’t.

I don’t know why God sat on His hands and did nothing to save their little baby. I don’t know how to reckon with the real-but-intangible loss of someone I never knew. It’s been a year now. The body knows how the air smelled and and the sun felt those days, and these days the grief comes washing over us again. We will always claim little Nathanael and miss him.

Hannah is pregnant again now, 30 weeks along, and doing as well as can be expected. We have a lot of hope for this baby to make it, but it’s not a naive hope. And we often think about little Nathanael, and how he’d probably be nearly walking by now. How will we know him in heaven? Will he be little, or matured to the fullness of his intended life?

We found out last month that the five-year-old girl Yann and Hannah have fostered for the last year has needed to move to a Ugandan home. The girl’s dad put a stop to their fostering, and the adoption system is broken beyond hope for them to adopt her. This has shattered us. Two children gone in a year. There are no good answers for our losses and questions.

I know that love is never wasted. I know that we and all the little children of the world are safe in Jesus’ care. This is all I know. Tonight, a year later, that’s enough to know.

Smiley Faces & Emojis

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Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

When I want to send a text these days, I look at my most-used emojis and feel astounded at how they reflect the essence of much of my communication. It’s a long way from the hundreds of smiles I wrote by hand—like this, but vertical: =). Dashes for the eyes, not dots, are important to me. I don’t know why.

Twenty-five years ago when we moved to Ireland, someone chartered a bus for our friends and relatives to go with us to Dulles Airport, a three-hour trip. After a helpful agent checked in our mountain of luggage, all the dozens of friends and relations trooped through the airport, onto a shuttle, and waved us off at the door of the plane. That’s how long ago it was.

In the first years, we relied on letters and faxes to stay connected with people across the ocean, five time zones away. I spent a big chunk of my stipend on stamps and stationery. I remember the wonder of watching a fax come squeaking off the machine. Never mind that it was thermal paper and could easily fade. It meant someone was feeding the message at this exact moment, and it was magic to feel that connected in real time. I wrote dozens and dozens of letters, and Michelle and I wrote each other every week for the first two years. I often wish I could read them again. Or maybe not.

One friend saw how much Michelle missed me and gave her money to call me once. We arranged by letter what day and time we’d call, so we had to schedule it way ahead. The rate was something like $20 for an hour, and the call was such a treat!

Then a friend in PA told me that I could write her via her family’s email, and I said, “What’s email?” Eventually we got a modem for our family computer and every morning it would do its whirring, chirping, burbling noise to send and receive emails. That was when we got all the silly chain emails that said if you don’t forward this, your billy goat will do something bad. Our family shared one address, and our friends would write our names in the subject lines so it would go directly to our individual folders, but even so it wasn’t a super confidential system.

When I got my own gmail address, I loved the versatility of logging in at any computer in any state or country and connecting with my people. I spent hours and hours emailing friends who lived far away. My isolation and loneliness in Ireland and Poland pushed me to learn what it takes to sustain long-distance friendships. I was willing to put in that time and effort because it was a large part of how I was supported and connected with people with whom I shared history. I had dear friends and mentors who had a lot of patience with me and with email in those days, and I’m deeply grateful. It helped that I could express myself well with words, but communicating via email was a skill I prioritized. I didn’t buy as many stamps anymore, though they were still important. I started typing and printing my letters instead of writing them long-hand like I’d always done. Also, I laughed and laughed when I first learned about the chat option. You could message back and forth in real time! And send animated emojis! There was a new kind of culture in chats I had to learn. You didn’t have to do formal hellos and goodbyes. You could just show up, message something, and disappear as you wanted. Kinda novel. Kinda fun.

In 2004 a friend told me about Xanga. She said it was like online journaling and I thought that’s the oddest thing I’d ever heard, and I would never put my journal online. Then for some reason I got an account, and moved around in that world a little bit but it was always a little noisy and scary and overwhelming to me. I liked it and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the pressure of creating a persona for myself. But I made some good, life-giving connections that I still treasure.

Then came Skype, which avoided the cost of a phone bill, though I still had to pay something to call internationally from Poland. It was a good system in its time, and I feel a little melancholy about its iconic beep-beep-swoosh ring tone. When I had major surgery in Poland, it was worth a lot to use the Skype video option to call my mom the next day, show her my incision, and let her see my surroundings. The tables were turned several years later when she was on chemo and I was five time zones away. Then I used WhatsApp video, and it helped me feel not so far away to be able to see how she looked when she lost her hair, and how she closed her eyes when she was tired.

There are lots of voices out there that decry technology but I’m so grateful for the ways that it has helped me feel not so far away from so many people I love. I’m particularly fond of voice messages. I sent a voice message to RSVP to a bride, and she messaged back: “I’m so glad you sent me a voice message. I can hear your soul that way.” Or another friend who was recently in such a remote place in West Africa that she didn’t get messages for three weeks: “When I got your message, it made me feel so loved and a little weepy because I just want to have an evening together.”

These days, I get tired of staring at chins and necks in Zoom calls and “You’re muted.” BUT WE CAN SEE EACH OTHER AND HEAR EACH OTHER! (At least, we can when the weather is clear and my wifi works.) Bumpy, scratchy Zoom calls are still better than thermal fax paper. Most times, anyway.

I’m super choosy about the podcasts I listen to. I want substance, not chitchat, so I mostly listen to counselling episodes and journalists with the BBC. This week I listened to this one about naming unspoken griefs. They talked about ambiguous loss and how it shapes our relationships. One line hit me hard: “Sustaining long-term long-distance relationships requires you to live in ambiguous loss.” It’s true. I’ve learned ways that work well to communicate but my soul never gets used to the distance, never is reconciled to the dissonance of being psychologically present but physically distant from my people. It’s good to have a name for it now.

These days, my task bar shows two—sometimes three— messaging apps I use every day. Please please please don’t send me an invitation to another messaging platform. Can we please just use what we have, which already works great?

After all the words and voices and sound bites, sometimes there are no words. My most-used emojis tell the story of what I say when I don’t have words. They span the spectrum of my current experience: a (tan) thumbs-up, a face with floods of tears, a broken heart, a dancing lady in a red dress, a laughing scholar, puzzled, wrinkled eyes with a grimacing mouth, a grinning face with sunglasses, hearts floating all over a happy face, a wink, a wink and a kiss, a party hat face, a shocked face with wide open eyes and mouth, hands holding a blue face, cheering, waving hands.

The smiley face with the dashes for the eyes and the (tan) praying hands all do the same job. They give a way, a mechanism, a system for hearing and being heard which is mostly about loving, and I’m very grateful for all of it.

You Prepare a Table Before Me

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More than 15 years ago, in a dark season, I made myself start a Thanks Journal. At the end of every day, I’d list at least one thing that I was thankful for, or one way in which I’d felt God’s presence. Sometimes I’d have to sit for awhile before I could think of what to write, which of course says more about me than about God, but other days the list was long.

That daily discipline shaped me profoundly. It was a way to name the goodness that surrounded me. It was a way to fight darkness with light. It was a way to defy the voices that said everything’s wrong and bad and terrible and futile. Some seasons were darker than others, but I could always find goodness and joy and reminders of God’s presence when I looked for it.

Over a year ago, I stopped the nightly list making. I think I thought it’s kinda become second nature to me, and looking for the good is now the shape of my life, and I don’t have to write it down.

That might have been true, but then high summer came and in two nightmare weeks, a torrent of bad sad terrible heavy things hit—bam bam bam bam. Death and cancer and fostering/adoption gone awry and wicked men victimizing children and more cancer and more sudden death. One friend’s suicide was terrible but two suicides in two weeks made me start wondering if everyone is at risk, and are my people ok, and am I ok?

I cried and ranted and wrestled this summer more than I have for a long, long time. The heaviness sometimes kept me from eating or sleeping well. Sometimes I’d breathe deep and think, oh, that felt good—I’ve not breathed deep all day. I had good people to lean on, and lots of tissues, and I wrote awful poems of lament and listened to “Jesus Strong and Kind” on repeat because that was all the light I could hold: Jesus said. Jesus said. Jesus said.

Then I heard wizened teacher Jonas say that God’s favorite word is “Come.” And Jonas described Psalm 23, and how there are enemies all around, but God invites us to a table in the middle of those enemies where we can feast.

In my mind’s eye, I saw werewolves and swords and dark, snarling, evil forms circling a clearing in the forest, and in the middle of the clearing was a table heaped with goodness and a line of lit candles down its center. And me and my people were laughing and talking and singing and eating around it. And I knew that going back to my Thanks Journal habit was a way I could eat at that table.

Remember when Edmund was on the sledge with the White Witch and they came upon the Christmas party, and she saw the party as treason? She hated the feasting because it made a statement about who was really in charge, and that the thaw was coming, and it would soon be Christmas.

Intentional gratitude—feasting in the presence of enemies—never says there are no enemies, never avoids the awfulness that staggers me. It never denies the tears that simmer just under the surface, but it declares that light is stronger than darkness and Jesus says “Come.”

I don’t know how or why God sits on His big beautiful hands and lets people do atrocious, despicable things to children. I don’t understand the fragile hair’s breadth between health and illness and death. I know He weeps too, and our sorrow matters to Him.

I don’t know much more. I just know I need to sit quietly every night and list the good things heaped on the table.

Let’s Move the Conversation

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Photo by Natasha P. on Unsplash

When our family hosted guests for Sunday dinner, my favorite times happened when we stayed at the table for hours after we ate, and it wasn’t because of the food. If we moved from the table to sit in the living room or go outside on the grass, the conversation always took a hit. We could never pick up talking where we left off. Even if the chairs were harder and we had to sit straighter, I didn’t mind staying for hours to talk and laugh and sometimes sing.

I don’t know what the psychological term is for this phenomena of how the conversation changes when the location changes but it seems like a thing and it should have a name.

These days, I wish the conversations on-line would move to the dining room.

I keep a carefully curated social media feed because I don’t have time/energy/space for shouting matches. Even so, many voices have disappointed me, scared me, kept me from engaging because it seems everyone is winging caustic words, and if I say anything I’ll be shot down because it was somehow the wrong words or ignorant ideas and don’t I know better? At the very least, don’t I know that THIS ISSUE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD?

I’m grateful for a few gentle, rational voices, but they are very, very few, and to all the others I just want to say “Can we move the conversation to the dining room?”

In the real world, neighbors talk to each other over porch railings, across the street, shout HEY to a pal. It’s ok to raise a voice there but real connection and change doesn’t happen on the street. When the conversation moves inside, however, it changes. Especially when there’s ice cream involved.

We speak differently depending what room we’re in. It’s about boundaries, respect, self-awareness, intimacy. Words, tone of voice, volume all change depending on whether we’re on the street, porch, dining room, living room, or bedroom.

The shrill comments and shouted judgement online have no nuance, no shared history, no awareness of the other. (I exaggerate here to make a point.) The shouting is happening on the streets of the cyber world but we should move the discussion to the kitchen table. What if no one shouted at each other? What if they sat down, talked quietly over Coke and chicken curry, and asked clarifying questions at a civil volume level?

I listened to a lunch conversation where men gave strong, insightful comments about racism and current buzzwords and their connotations. Had the men put their comments on Facebook, they would have been shot down and villainized in 30 seconds. But I trusted their character, I heard the inflection in their voices, I knew some of their back story, and I agreed with what they said.

Those men’s wise, solid voices don’t have a chance on the noisy street or the shouting match on the porch. They matter, and they make a difference, but they’re not noisy and the crowds don’t hear them.

Words spoken at the table are the words the world is starving for, but who facilitates those conversations? Kitchen table conversations are where real change takes place, not comments fired at each other on Facebook. Where are the voices who seek to understand and offer compassion instead of opinions? Where will the shaming stop? It might stop when we eat together.

They’ll know we’re Christians by our love, not by our allegiance to the right or left or our adamant statements.

Let’s move the discussion to the kitchen table. I make a good chicken curry. Come on over!

The Freedom of Both/And

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I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a beautiful big toe. Unless they belong to a tall, slender woman, all big toes seem lumpy, gnarled, irregular, with dirt embedded under the nail.

Big toes are also super important for walking well, staying balanced, and keeping grip on flipflops. Toes are both ugly and important.

So maybe it’s a lame metaphor, but give me a chance here!

By nature, I’m an all-or-nothing person. If I can’t have everything, I don’t want anything. Don’t compromise. Don’t give me compensations. Just give me what I want, or forget it.

How similar is this to a two-year-old near you?

This is why I’m trying hard to learn how to live well in ways that don’t mirror a two-year-old.

Maybe it’s personality. Maybe it’s the brain trying to sort its data and get rid of dissonance. Maybe it’s from growing up in structure and strict morality where things were black and white. If one thing is true, an apparent contradiction can’t also be true.

It’s too messy to make sense, it’s too complex to be tidy, so get rid of gray. A toe can’t be both ugly and useful.

Except. Maybe it is.

Actually, it IS both.

In the current season of global collective grief, I’ve seen myself going to the binary way of thinking. It’s all or nothing. Suffering isn’t suffering unless it’s job loss or illness or death. Therefore, my pain/disappointment/discomfort doesn’t count. Yours doesn’t either, unless you’re an Indian rickshaw driver who lost his job in the shut-down, or your loved one died alone in a hospital.

But I’m discovering that something wholesome happens in me when I hold two apparent contradictions and hold them both as true, recognizing each, not discrediting either.

I learned this in another season and I keep bumping into it.

I loved the elegance of European fashion AND it drove me crazy and made me feel like an ugly country mouse.

I loved teaching English AND I hated not being able to be able to communicate fluently in Polish.

I love my job and my people AND I dislike Pennsylvania.

I’m really sad to cancel my summer trip to Jordan and Uganda AND I’m happy to have Plan B come together.

I’m sad about my canceled summer trip AND I’m sad for India and Minneapolis and all the college graduates who couldn’t walk across the stage.

When I was getting ready to leave Poland for good, a co-teacher asked if I’m ready to go. “Yes and no,” I said. “I’m ready to go, and I don’t want to go.” He said that makes sense because I’m too complex a person to have it all one way. (He also grew up with only sisters, so he knew how to be patient/understanding with complexity.)

Every time I answer a question with “Yes and no,” I reiterate that life is too complex to have one clean response, and it’s ok. It’s even mature and wholesome to hold many disparate emotions because it makes us larger, more empathetic, more understanding of others. When I find myself lashing out, quick to set someone straight, I’m missing a chance to hold their truth, validate their story, listen to their words as they try to make sense of their world and their experience. Validating their experience helps heal them and helps to stretch my soul bigger.

Maybe we come up with our binary statements and use our all-or-nothing lenses because it’s easier than doing the hard work of entering tension and staying there for awhile.

Also, this is very important to me:

Holding apparent contradictions never excludes truth, beauty, and goodness.

I can cry my eyes out about a deep loss AND the sun always comes up again and the hummingbirds swoop to the feeder and my people somehow love me. A big part of wholeness is opening my eyes to the beauty that still surrounds me and always will.

This often stumbles me. I tend to focus on one or the other, and dismiss one or the other: the sun is still shining, the hummingbirds are still beautiful, so I should stop crying and enjoy the beauty.

Well, maybe. Possibly.

Beauty is healing, and it can stand a good lot of focus these days but it doesn’t negate the ugly. Maturity (moving beyond the two-year-old stage) and knowing Jesus enables us to acknowledge but not stay focused on the ugly-but-true. Because there are many beautiful things that still are true and real.

I think Christians should be the first citizens to recognize beauty for what it is and call each other to pursue it, but we don’t have to do that at the exclusion of acknowledging what is hard and ugly and broken. Wholeness and healing is not so much a matter of balance (focusing on one side of the scale as much as the other side) as it is about living well with tension, which never feels super comfy.

Our brains don’t do this naturally. Like using a stiff muscle, we need gentle stretches, gradual strengthening, increased rigor to build our gratitude focus.

In the middle of crisis, none of us has good perspective. With time and listening to others’ stories, we gain new definitions of suffering and pain. Like the two-year-old who begins to be aware of another’s feelings, we start seeing our story in light of other’s stories, and we gain equilibrium, gentleness, patience, with both ourselves and others.

Embracing nuance and not denying reality, however disparate and confusing it is, I hope we can come to flourish in both/and instead of either/or.

On Tweaking

This is another post in a brief line of art posts I started doing around the first of the year.  I don’t know how many more I’ll do. There are still pieces of art with stories around my house, but, well, not everything has to make it to the interwebs.

I don’t know if it’s my Hochstetler genes, but whenever I eat new food or see a simple decoration, I think, “I could do that at home. I could even tweak it and make it better.” I grew up hearing my mom say it, who heard her mom and sisters say it. It’s a way of looking at the world with awareness and creativity. Having DIY hands also helps.

My hands don’t know how to fix much around the house, but my hand-eye coordination is pretty sound and my fine motor skills are well developed.

Also, I usually know my mind when I’m shopping. Most times, I know what I want or don’t want, and I’m scared enough of buyer’s remorse that I usually really like something before I buy it.

There are, however, exceptions, where I’ll put something in the cart, put it back on the shelf, then circle back to get it again. I did that a couple months ago with wireless earphones, and have been so glad that I bought them after dithering too long about them.

Then there was this mug. In our town in Poland, there was a store that we called “The Kitchen Store.” I think its real name was “Galeria” but we never called it that. It had everything Polish housekeepers would ever need, including the jars and gizmos for distilling vodka. When I bought cleaning supplies there, I’d always breeze past the china and mugs and glassware to see what new irresistible thing had arrived.

That was when I found this big mug, perfect in shape and size, both elegant and flamboyant. I put it in the basket, walked around a little, decided it’s too expensive, put it back. Picked it up again, knew how I’d improve it at home, decided I don’t really need it.

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Then I remembered how much a cup of coffee cost at Ekler, my favorite café, and did simple math and found I could have coffee in this mug several times at home for less than coffee several times at Ekler, and even though that reasoning has holes, I got the mug.

At home, I got out my collection of bright Sharpie markers and colored in some of the shapes with my favorite bright colors. It stayed mostly black and white, but got a touch of exotic flair. Then I baked the mug at 350 for awhile, I forget how long, probably about 20-30 minutes. When it was cool, I varnished the colored places with clear fingernail polish. This is not as simple as it sounds because it’s hard to track where you’ve painted if your paint is transparent. (Baking the color is essential, because if you try to cover the marker with polish before it’s baked, the polish makes the color smudge and smear.)

When that  dried overnight, I got to use the mug!

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That was about 8 years ago, and the mug is chipped in a few places, and the color is slowly disappearing, but I still love it so much! And I’m glad I defied my hesitance to buy it. Tweaking it and making it my own has given me many, many mornings of pleasure!

 

It’s All Good

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For two weeks, I’ve been able to be a conversation partner with English students in Krakow, Poland. Since Graceland is doing everything online now, they’ve collected a group of native speakers on this side of the Atlantic to partner with their students.

A couple minutes before class starts, the ten of us chat and ask questions of each other, then the students start appearing. They’re shy or friendly, waving or quiet, and then the teacher starts talking about origins and faith.

The text is from Genesis 1-4. The administrator breaks us out into discussion groups at least every fifteen minutes. We read, talk about questions, work on quizzes. It’s so much fun, and when I leave the Zoom meeting 90 minutes later, I feel like a new person. It’s been one of the brightest spots of this stay at home era.

In the first lesson, my conversation partner observed the order and pattern of created things–light, water, seeds, animals. “He thought of everything!”

In that moment, I felt newly-made. Her off-hand, casual comment reminded me of what I miss so much about teaching English as a second language. I miss profound things said in simple, beautiful ways. I miss the laughter and honesty that comes from stumbling for words.

Today I spoke briefly with a mom who was picking up her family’s school work for the next week. Masks muffling some of our words, we compared notes. We’ve both worked extensively overseas and stumbled through re-entry. We’ve both done a version of this stay-at-home order in our previous life, so this hasn’t been so bad. Back then, my bubble of casual socializing was limited, and I stayed connected with friends/family via email because they lived a million miles away. I had students every day, though, so this isn’t an exact parallel.

“Do you still miss your old life?” she asked me.

“Yes. Terribly. I live with grief. It’s not gone away these nearly-five years. I have a lot of joy too. It’s both-and, not either-or.”

I think about the process of re-entry, losses, hard beginnings. There is groaning and sorrow, discovery and delight, memories and budding joy. When I’m sure of nothing, I trace the path of a gentle Shepherd, wise beyond my knowing, loving beyond any love, surer than my plans, and more magnanimous than my dreams. Everything is ok.

He thought of everything.

 

Always A Bridesmaid and Never a Bride

12698453_805008379644694_4219333476885333484_o (1)Last week, my good friend Shari posted a guest post I’d written for her blog. I wrote 500 words  about something I don’t hear a lot of conversation about. I wasn’t planning to post it on my blog, but here we are, in a more-or-less quarantine, on-line more than normal, with more free time than normal. I don’t usually ask for  interaction from readers, but there again, we’re breathing different air right now.

So let’s talk.

“My church doesn’t know what to do with me.”

I’ve heard this line from singles many times. Maybe it’s the default setting in a sub-culture that greatly values marriage and family, but it always makes me sad. However, I’m deeply grateful for a church that gives me a place and lets us singles feel welcome, equal, and human.

Some things they do to give us a place:

  1. The ladies look for ways for us to be together—ladies’ evenings when the men have brother’s meeting, women’s retreats, extra ladies’ nights when we relax and laugh and tell stories.
  2. The men meet my eyes and shake my hand after church. They regularly publicly honor and praise single and married women’s contributions to the families, school, and church.
  3. Families invite me for meals and tuck leftover food into my bag as I leave because they know I don’t have all day to cook.
  4. They treat me like an individual with a life: they remember my birthday and ask about my family. They care about my dreams.
  5. The men generously give advice and assistance in their area of expertise: purchasing and maintaining a car, phone, house, or garden, which can include pest control, yard work, or a mechanic’s number.
  6. They send us reports of their brother’s meetings.
  7. Church treats us like people who have something valuable to contribute, and so we’re on the hostess list and the church cleaning list and the list of people for jobs on reorganization night. And no, I don’t like the job they gave me but it means they believe in me.
  8. They compliment my clothes. They remember I was gone last week and ask about the trip. They remember to ask about things we’ve talked about before.
  9. They don’t ask us singles to serve the Valentine’s banquet.
  10. They invite me to join their family in the fellowship dinner line.

Some time ago, in another place, I was helping to host an event and several men acted as if I wasn’t there. Were they wanting to prove their loyalty to their wives? Was I intimidating or dangerous? I got a taste of my friends’ lines: “They don’t know what to do with me,” and I felt newly thankful for the conversations, camaraderie, and support the men in our church give to me and other single women.

A key part of this is that healthy relationships are two-way streets. I aim to give more than I take. I need to contribute, not just consume. I must plug in, make effort, invest, because the good life is not about me and my comfort. I often don’t feel like going to cell group or bringing food for an event or doing my assigned job, but who does? And who will have the richest life—those who stay home and curl into a ball when they feel like it, or those who push themselves to do hard things and love their people?

It goes both ways, but if you know a single in your church, think about how you could love her well and let her feel like she matters and belongs.

Now back to you:

What would you add to this list of 10? Which ones do you feel aren’t important?

What keeps you from engaging with someone with a different marital status than you?

What do we singles do that makes us seem threatening or dangerous to marriages?

To be clear: extended singleness isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. It’s not a crisis situation, and there are much, much worse, harder scenarios to live in. But singleness IS a disenfranchised grief. There are no sympathy or thinking-of-you cards that address it, and singleness doesn’t keep getting better every year like a good marriage apparently does. So it’s a lonely place for most of us, and one where good role models are scarce, and it’s hard to talk well about it without sounding bitter or desperate.

So.

Let’s hear each other, ask questions, and walk toward wholeness and mutual understanding. This isn’t a platform for bitterness or accusation. We all need each other and we’re all far more alike than we are different.

We all want to matter, to make a difference.

We all want to know we’re beautiful and loveable and not obnoxious.

We all are hungry for more connection and less isolation.

What would you add to the lists of commonalities and ways to integrate?

Nested and Ready

Some years ago, in the days between Christmas and New Years Day, a handful of us took the train from Warsaw, Poland to Berlin, Germany. In addition to taking in charming Christmas markets and glorious coffee, we took a walking tour based on Berlin in World War II. We met our tour group at the gates of the world-famous Berlin Zoo (but didn’t go in, so I want to go back) and walked around the city for the next three hours.

Our guide was a passionate college history student. Among many  things, he showed us the Reichstag building, the enormous Hauptbahnhof, remnants of the old Berlin Wall, and ended at a parking lot under which Hitler had his last bunker and killed himself.

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Reichstag building

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Hauptbahnhof: Berlin central station

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a playful bear between remains of the Berlin Wall

I often think about part of the tour where the tour guide had us stand on a sidewalk and look at the shops lining the street and apartments stacked above us. He told us to imagine how it was for a housewife who lived four stories high during the war when the Allies’ planes dropped bombs on the city. The housewife would cook and take care of children and do the grocery shopping with ration cards, but every minute, she had one ear open for planes and the air raid sirens.

When she heard the sirens scream, she’d turn off the burners on her stove, bundle up her children, trundle them down the steps, and head down the block to the nearest bomb shelter. She would wait there in the dark with strangers and sick, terrified children until they heard the all-clear sirens. Then she could go back home but never knew what time of day or night the sirens would go off again.

The level of stress, fear, and traumatic memories had to scar that generation beyond what we will ever know from history books.

These days, another era of devastation is happening in Syria, Turkey, and Greece, with traumatized men, women, and children running away from fire and bombs and being refused a safe place to stay. They’ve left everything they love and own, but people shoot at their boats to keep them from landing safely.

When I see those pictures and hear those stories, it makes me cry and feel like the richest girl in the world. Our current distress of endless disrupted plans and shelter-in-place restrictions is nothing like the trauma of being homeless and escaping bombs.

There’s a valid sense of loss and grief, but let’s keep some perspective. I don’t want to be glib because this IS real hardship for a lot of people, but we have food (not rations), soft and warm beds, electricity, and WiFi to connect us to our loved ones. This is hardly trauma–not the kind that rearranges our neural pathways and transfers to the next generation. It’ll be in the next history books, and it’s taking awhile to find our way, but MOST of us aren’t fragmented and devastated like a country in war.

A couple weeks ago, before the social distancing restrictions, a sweet friend hosted a painting tutorial party. It was the best way to spend an evening, and our teacher said she enjoyed it more than anyone, which was hard to imagine because we had so much fun.

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While we painted, we talked about words we could put with it. Everyone had different ideas for words they could use. Several days after painting it, I cautiously wrote some light, feathery words on mine then took it to my office.

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He will cover you with His feathers.

 

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Now with the COVID-19 upheaval, I keep thinking about how we’re in a nest. It’s a little dark and prickly in spots and confining, but we’re utterly safe. We’re fragile and clueless, but the enduring nurture, tenderness, and gentleness of God’s feathers cover and carry us. We have access to healing and rest and comfort beyond words.

We’re not going to do this crazy era perfectly. We’ll get impatient and frustrated and feel odd compulsions, and it’s ok. Crisis brings out the worst and best in us, and we can give each other space to fail.

But what I love about this is that, unlike World War II, this is not one nationality pitted against another. The pandemic is global and it’s unifying humanity like we were created to be.

Christians should be leading the way to model what Kingdom citizens do in crisis: respect, serve, love generously, sacrifice, create, work in tandem with God to make His power and glory visible.

Like a great stage master behind the scenes, He has already been working to put the broken world to rights. We are covered with His feathers, and He had this wild idea that we could partner with Him in that enormous work. (Ok, the metaphors are getting muddled here, but think about it!)

I don’t know everything that partnering with the Almighty means but I’m in! It will probably not include heroics. It will probably mostly involve little, hidden decisions to do the next right thing and push against comfort and toward love for others.

Join us?

A Lifescape

I work at Faith Builders, where we provide learning experiences that nurture love for God and neighbors. Part of the program for Christian Ministry and Teacher Apprentice students is their internship, a five-week stint in an established school or ministry. Whenever students ask me for advice as to where to go for internships, I tell them to go, go, go. Outside their zip code. Outside what’s instinctive and comfortable. Outside the country.

I have this theory that we don’t change or grow if we’re always comfortable. But that’s another post for another time.

This week students gave short reports about their internships. One had been in Greece, and another in Ireland. Both made me cry. I felt this deep, wordless connection with their stories that condensed into tears. They weren’t just reporting. They were taking me back. I’ve been to those places, breathed that air, ate that food, loved those people. The girls’ experiences tugged at my heart strings that stretch taut to those places.

Several years ago, I saw this painting at my friend Dervin’s house.

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I thought it was striking even if I don’t like gray, and he said Susanna, a mutual friend, had painted it for him in preparation for an art lesson, and it shows the places he’s lived in.

Cha-ching! I knew my next project.

It would be a way of illustrating the places I’ve lived in and loved. It would help organize my story and help me make sense of it. I pinned the picture to my To Paint board on Pinterest and looked around for similar designs. Susanna shared her art lesson plan here. About a year later, I toyed around with design and color, and came up with this.

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Oddly enough, it sits on the floor behind my office door. It’s the story of my life, and it sits on the floor. There might be a subliminal message there, but I don’t dwell on that. I love the cool, lively colors peaking out from behind the door when I’m working.

Childhood

This is the tree swing of my childhood and the mountains in VA where I was born.

Ireland

This is Ireland, a round tower that became a rich symbol to me of God’s protection, a rambling castle, and the cove where we’d swim.

Poland

This is Poland and my favorite old church in our town.

The water stands for all the water I’ve been in, at least the Irish Sea, the Baltic, Lake Erie, the Aegean, the Mediterranean.

Greece is on the far, misty horizon.

More than a fun art lesson of shades and tints, perspective and silhouettes, I love how this briefly tells the story of my life. In another 20 years, I hope the painting will look different, but this my current story.

I also like that it shows how each element is a part of the whole, and can’t be isolated without loss to the whole. I live in Pennsylvania but part of me is still far away and it’s rare when my worlds overlap. Which I guess is why I cried during the intern reports.