I don’t know why, but I usually have more words than one person needs. However, the supply comes and goes. At both tips of the deep lows and soaring highs that my personality tends toward, I have no words. Only tears or gasps, like last night on my walk when I saw the enormous orange moon slipping up from the horizon. Or in times of confusion and anger and sorrow. Or when I don’t know how to pray.
My culture came away from rote prayers, prayer books, and liturgy, ostensibly because we valued direct connection with the Holy Spirit, and I’m glad for that. I don’t like to be tied to a form that becomes hollow.
But in the cascading sorrows of this season, as well as the shimmering beauty that lingers, I found a place that has words when I have none. I don’t use the book every day, but I go again and again to the first volume of Every Moment Holy, and I sit with the words that remind me of simple truth, enduring safety, and the anchor of God’s sovereignty. You too? You forget too that something bigger is going on here, and God is still in charge of the world? Yeah, me too. That’s why I love this prayer book so much.
Sometimes I call it a prayer book for millennials, because it has a prayer for drinking coffee, a prayer when reading too much news, a prayer when seeing someone beautiful, a prayer when camping, a prayer before going on stage. One of my favorites alludes to a Narnian story: it’s a prayer when feasting with friends, and reminds us that eating together is an act of war. Yes! Count me in to fight the dark side by feasting together!
Jesus countered the proud, public prayers of His day by telling us to pray secretly, and He modeled that in His solitary nights of prayer. For all of us individually, secret times of connection with the Father shape our character and anchor our public service. If we crowd out these secret moments, we lose way more than we can know.
Other places in the New Testament show God’s people praying together and collectively pushing back the dark powers around them. Humans are finite and limited and near-sighted enough that we forget the spiritual reality that shimmers beyond our sight. If we would see and hear what happens in the spiritual world around us, it would take our breath away.
I hold enormous comfort knowing the Spirit prays for me when I have no words. I also love using this prayer book, but I dream of these prayers printed and handed around small groups and church benches and Sunday schools all over the globe. The second volume is prayers about death, grief, and hope, which I don’t have yet, but seems appropriate and necessary these days.
In collective prayer, we hear each other say the words we can’t string together, reminding ourselves of what is enduring, verbally expressing hope and joy and sorrow, and audibly saying words we know to be true even though we don’t feel their reality. We often do this
unconsciously in songs. What if we would intentionally speak words together in prayer—words and phrases and silences we don’t have but someone else wrote for times like this?
These two volumes make lovely gifts. Here’s a short list of PDFs from volume two, but you probably should buy copies of both volumes for yourself and your friends.
Instead of God’s people being known for their suspicion and outrage, I long for God’s people to be known for their love and worship. To have child-like faith. To keep our faces turned toward the God who will one day right all the wrongs that rain around us. To instinctively reach for someone’s hand and pray for them or with them when we don’t know what to say.
Imagine if neighbors would say “Have you heard about their prayer meetings? Do you see how crazily they love those who disagree with them? They look like they have a shining secret! I wonder what makes them so gentle and beautiful?”
Imagine if prayers would be the words we’re remembered for.
Last week I was in front of a group of razor-sharp students in Ethics class. I had been asked to share stories from my life that shaped me, ordered my loves, showed me a direction to walk toward. Telling stories is fun and easy. In the Q&A afterward, though, I found it hard to think on my feet and respond well.
What gives you joy? I love this question, but I wasn’t ready for it, and stumbled around it in ways that make me wish for a replay. The question and my initial response still lingers in my head, so here’s how I wish I’d have answered.
People give me joy. They are unpredictable, colorful, zany. Interacting with people, talking, laughing, hearing their stories refreshes and relaxes me. Silence, closed faces, refusal to interact makes me angry–not a response I’m proud of. I want to live so that anyone feels safe and free to put anything on the table to talk about. I’m not great with conversation and conflict resolution and asking questions to understand but it’s my goal, the direction I want to walk toward.
Simplicity gives me joy. I don’t like details. I don’t like STUFF (pronounced in a repulsed tone of voice), as in things that collect dust or peel or get grubby. They weigh me down and clog my brain. I’m impractical that way, and I’m not proud of it either. I need to learn how to live well in the tension of living in the real world where we need to maintain houses and cars and food. If Jesus’ life showed us the definition of the good life, I see simplicity in His lifestyle. He didn’t even own a pillow. I see Him caring about people, prioritizing them over stuff. I love
- salt and lemon on avocado
- sunshine, sunshine, sunshine
- toddler’s giggles
- gradients of colors like brush strokes on a cherry or apple
- the shape of eyes and sweep of cheekbones
- raindrops on petals
Creating gives me joy. I care deeply that God’s people create more than they consume. I love the process of creating something that didn’t exist before:
- A pot of soup.
- A poem.
- A conversation.
- A doodle in the margin.
- A change of attitude.
In creating, I feel more whole, less fragmented, because the process aligns all the parts of me, and lets me embrace, for a fleeting moment, something of what it means to carry God’s image as Creator. I wonder what kind of woodwork Jesus made, and how His fingers handled a piece of wood. I wonder how He engaged people in conversations.
There’s limited value in putting my joys and dislikes on the world wide web unless it nudges someone else to order their loves, define their joys, and weigh them against what Jesus loves.
What gives you joy?
It was a year, as everyone has already noted.
I don’t have words yet to talk well about it, and there are still clouds and questions with no answers. I am hopeful but not glib about 2021. Not chirpy, as my personality tends to be.
This not the place to list last year’s losses. That would take too long and be too depressing. But one immense loss has been choir, choir concerts, and formal and informal singing groups. I feel incredulous that last January, just before the year started unravelling, I went with friends to a packed auditorium in Cleveland to hear the St. Olaf Choir conducted by Dr. Anton Armstrong. I still listen to some of the songs I heard that night. I’m not a gifted singer, but listening to songs and singing with people feeds me like nothing else does and I miss it terribly.
In the darkest, hardest parts of the year, when I couldn’t sing, I listened to others sing. Often it was “Jesus Strong and Kind.” Or “Sure on This Shining Night.”
When everything inside me feels scrambled, I listen to choral music. When I want to rest my soul, I turn on my favorites, this curated list of chorale gems. The voices, harmonies, and chord progressions soothe something deep in me. I start breathing deeper and my focus shifts from troubles around me to the shimmering melodies or words. This list has multiple arrangements and languages of the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 23. Wonder how that happened.
This list are all my favorites depending on the moment, but indulge me while I share my exceptional choices:
- Pieces from Stellenbosch Choir. From South Africa, they have a rare, winning blend of Dutch harmonies and African rhythms. I dream of hearing this group in person some day.
- The first time I heard the stunning soprano lines in Arvo Part’s “And I Heard a Voice,” it took my breath away. Then I read the backstory to the song, and how he composed it in his native Estonian, and now I like it even more.
- Sometimes I wake up with lines from Forrest’s “Come to Me” or Mealor’s “The Beautitudes” in my head, and it makes the whole day better.
- Whenever I hear “Indodana,” I see the silhouettes of the women at Jesus’ cross, weeping with no words. I can’t listen to the song without some emotional fortitude because it’s so sad. But it gives voice to what was the most wrecked night of their lives.
I often think CCM has more honest lament than classical and sacred music does, so I find some CCM lyrics cathartic and healing, but I don’t find most CCM beautiful aesthetically. And beauty is what I need when I’m fragile or sad. Beauty (very loud or very soft) or silence.
Toward the end of last year, I got to sit in on the dress rehearsal for this recorded Christmas concert. The only thing that’s better than singing in choir is listening to your friends sing. While they practiced, I sat on the floor in the back of the gym in the dark and cried because it was so beautiful. Earlier in the year, some of them were also in on this virtual choir and I’m so proud of them.
Clearly, this is the era of virtual choirs. Even though it goes against most of what is true and enjoyable about choir, virtual choirs offer something better than silence and isolation. Last summer, I heard about Eric Whitaker’s “Sing Gently” virtual choir about two days before the tracks were due in. I downloaded the sheet music and the practice tracks, but didn’t have time to finish. That close, I would’ve joined over 17,000 singers to debut that sweet song, and it would’ve been a nice way to remember the year. Maybe another song, another time.
Hope wears thin these days, but in brighter moments, I believe that some day we’ll pack into auditoriums and sing again. I dream of attending a concert like this of Brahm’s “Requiem.” The European elegance, red and black formal wear, the singers surrounding the audience–I would be be in raptures.
Singing aligns all the parts of a person with beauty and goodness, which is one reason it’s so healing for me. In this fragmented, splintered, fraught era, we need more singing. We need songs everywhere. We need truth and beauty and goodness flung around in music and voices and community. We could never have too much.
I’ve loved words for as long as I can remember. Our family parsed words to death, arguing whether a word meant one thing or another. When I taught ESL in Poland, I made the bag pictured above with words from a favorite hymn because I thought an English teacher should have a bag with words. And Wordles were so much fun! They’ve kinda gone out of style by now, but I loved their eloquence and simplicity.
Sometimes I buy a thing just because of its fun name. Like a car air freshener called “High Maintenance” or a mini orchid because it’s named “Espresso Orchid.” It was white, not espresso colored, but it fit in an espresso-sized cup, and I found it irresistible, and am thrilled that it’s finally shooting out a bud stalk.
Words. Names. We fling them around. Label things. Describe ourselves, describe feelings, describe situations. And what a humdinger of a situation this year has been. What a stupendous opportunity to use words well, to let them sparkle, fly, heal.
I’ve seen healing words, heard them, received them. They infuse me with new energy and light. Words carry light, you know. Or darkness. Which is sobering. In mysterious, staggering power, words create our reality. We can name a thing wonderful or terrible, and it becomes that. Is this power part of carrying God’s image–the part of Him that named creation into existence? Is it akin to how Adam named the animals?
I’ve heard wise moms calm their distraught, screaming children by saying, “Use your words.” Then the child says, “I’m cold.” Or “He hit me.” Or “I want to go hoooooome.” Then the mom knows what’s happening, and the screaming stops. She worked ahead of time by teaching her child words to use.
I think we could teach each other words that are useful and clarifying. I think this weird year gives us a fantastic chance to try to name what’s happening.We’ve heard lots of yelling, words flung around like daggers, weighted with hate and anger. We’ve complained, and tried to be strong, and given up lots of dreams, and readjusted our plans a hundred times, and cried buckets of tears of deep loss and sorrow. We’ve worn out tired words like
Anger and grief are real and valid and we should name them. Name them, own the tsunami emotions, and care deeply for those in hardship. Death, a serious health diagnosis, loss of home or loved ones, mental illness, front-line medical work, violence, and abuse deserve words like
God’s people should be leading the way in holding the broken hearted, comforting, helping, and offering quiet presence. If they speak, they should give gentle, luminous words, not judging or giving quick fixes.
In contrast, when a storm comes through and takes away electricity for more than 30 hours, or a vacation got cancelled, or masks are mandated for specific situations, we can use words like
When I hear anger about masking or changes in holiday plans, I want to say, “Use your words!” And choose them appropriately. We can be sad and disappointed about many things, but if we’re not in a flapping tent in a refugee camp, and we have contact with our loved ones, and we didn’t bury a family member, are we suffering? I suggest not. We should use our words instead of screaming.
The stark pictures of boots and crocs upside down outside a UNHCR tent in Greece (upside down so the rain doesn’t get in them, and outside so they don’t dirty the living quarters in the tent) calls me to be utterly careful how and where I use the “suffering” word. When I hear people yelling about masks, and being worried about the effect of COVID on our nation, I think they don’t get out much. Am I being judgy? There are much worse, much harder situations across the globe that deserve our anger and our prayer. We can be honest about how we feel because anger or sadness doesn’t disappear by ignoring it, but we also need perspective and higher goals than keeping ourselves comfortable.
What if we’d use our words to name our situation with truth and grace like Jesus did? What if we channel our deep emotion toward gentleness, compassion, and caring for what is truly devastating? Could we create a new reality by naming things accurately?
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- They treat me like an individual with a life: they remember my birthday and ask about my family. They care about my dreams.
- 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.
- They send us reports of their brother’s meetings.
- 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.
- 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.
- They don’t ask us singles to serve the Valentine’s banquet.
- 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.
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?
I felt offended the first time I went to a McDonald’s and couldn’t place an order with a person but had to order at the digital screen. I felt it was an affront to our humanity to have a screen mediate our transaction, and I’ll probably never be ok with it.
When I think about how to spend my limited resources of time, money, and technology, I want to live out of an abundance mentality, rather than scarcity. What good and beautiful thing can I throw my energy into? When God dreamed me up, what did He intend for me to be? I know He didn’t intend me to be a dour, nay-saying person.
What’s my biggest YES?
God and His purposes are the the non-negotiable part of my life. Beyond that, my biggest YES is connected to people and words.
Being sure of my main YES is wonderfully clarifying. I’m convinced that He intended me for:
- Action rather than passivity
- Creativity rather than consumerism
- Interaction rather than spectating
These convictions help me sort out what to say YES and NO to regarding technology and devices. It even shapes my policy not to use the self-check-out machines at Walmart, because they cut out one person that I could interact with.
Passivity, consumerism, and spectating tend to shrivel and diminish a person—not what God had in mind when He dreamed up humans.
In contrast, action, creativity, and interaction make us fuller, better, healthier people.
Flourishing would describe it, and is surely what God designed us for.
Below are some practical ways that demonstrate my ideals and my main YES. When I know what to say YES to, it filters out clutter. I have more time for what I really love. I get to live in abundance, not scarcity.
But first a qualification: I really enjoy social media. I love Instagram. Also, I know loneliness and the magnetic pull for more, more, more faces and profiles and witty exchanges. Dopamine is a chemical we all like to feel, but the soul translates its absence as loneliness, and I feel it too. I’m not speaking out of a distant, Luddite attitude. Not at all.
I mostly watch videos only if they’re classical music, choral music, painting, or lettering because they speak to my creativity. Who has time for cat videos? How are cats connected to anyone’s big YES? Oh yes, the people who work in catteries. But I’m not a kill joy, honestly. I love a good laugh. Oh yes, and I love, love, love Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet because he makes me laugh every single day.
I’m very Marie Kondo about my feeds. If something doesn’t spark joy, I unfollow it. Simple. I followed a very talented artist, and learned from her, and liked what she did, but she complained all the time, and I decided I don’t need that negativity. Same way for someone who consistently rants about their pet grievance or enthusiasm. If it’s about politics or multilevel marketing, it’s out. It’s nothing personal but it’s a boundary that gives me space to interact with the people I really want to hear from.
Friends or strangers
I accept most friend requests because I’m an author and welcome interaction that extends beyond the book. But with little or no exception, I don’t follow people I don’t know in real life, unless it’s a public page relating to creativity or people. Nobody is keeping track of how many friends or likes I have, and if they do, they must not get out much.
Real people vs virtual connections
People are colorful and unpredictable and quirky. They have all these stories and insights covered up in their souls, and I refuse to miss out on that by burying my face in my phone. Are some people boring? Yes. But they stay boring if I don’t engage with them.
And yes, interacting with real humans can be awkward and risky on all kinds of levels.
But how can people live their hours behind a device and then be vibrant, wholesome, contributing, flourishing husbands and wives and church members and mentors and artists and teachers and committee members?
Passivity and consumerism bleed into crippled, selfish relationships where I must feel good and cozy all the time, or I’ll escape into a device. Saying YES to interacting with real humans now exercises the muscles necessary later to love the difficult son or daughter, the awkward small group member, the selfish committee member. Refusing to interact in real life results in shriveled, diminished humans, which is an ugly alternative to what God dreamed for us. Is interaction with real people easy? Nope, not always.
If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Be all here
My phone shows only my Whatsapp, Messenger, and email notifications on the lock screen. I don’t need anything else when I’m working or socializing. I don’t have to know what’s going on on Facebook or Instagram until I’m alone and have time to open the app. If I leave for an evening and I’m not the driver, the phone usually stays home. Others have heavier responsibilities than I, and don’t have the luxury of being as untethered as I am. But if they’re not a Person of Pressing Responsibility, I wonder why the phone can’t stay on their table a few hours until they get back.
This extends to taking pictures. We’ve all seen the circle of friends who are looking down into their phones at the pictures they’ve just taken instead of out into each other’s eyes. Or they’re contorting themselves to take a Instagram-worthy picture instead of internalizing the moment.
It makes my heart hurt to see that, but I feel the rub. Last Monday evening I was in a choir rehearsal. I’m so excited to be in an 80+ voice choir for Larry Nickel’s “A Cappella Christmas Cantata.” Part of my job is to publicize the event, and pictures do that best, right? But I felt so conflicted because I could either be a good choir member and stay engaged with the singing. Or I could take action shots. But I couldn’t do both, and when I tried, I failed on both fronts. sigh
Then yesterday I spent the day with a small group of pals critiquing writing projects. It was a lovely atmosphere, and I kept thinking about how I could capture part of it in a picture. After several hours of being all there, I tried surreptitiously to take a picture, but it wasn’t a good one and it still derailed the conversation toward styling a picture and talking about #vscobasics. Some conversations can afford to be interrupted with a camera, and some can’t. I’ve decided that my best moments don’t make it to the internet because they’re so sweet and precious, not for public consumption, and too valuable to interrupt with a camera.
There are people in my life who have shaped me enormously, and they do it by being completely present with me. When they talk to me, they make me feel like I’m the most important person in their world. They ask thoughtful questions that show me they remember our last conversation even if it was a long time ago. They’re not grabbing at a pocket, or glancing at a screen when it dings. They have a million other things to do, but in that moment, they’re with me, and my soul is soothed in a way that no screen can mimic. The tilt of the head, the squint of the eye, the wink, or touching my arm tell me that they are all there, and I find it deeply restorative. We don’t have a selfie to document the moment but something real and lasting happened inside me.
This is the kind of presence and intention that will shift a person, a community, a world, and I want to be part of that.
Last week, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about practical ways to approach life and technology. This is the expanded version of what I shared there. I’m also indebted to my co-writers yesterday who helped shape this into better coherence. It was a case in point: presence over electronics!
Some years ago, I was one in a quartet of English teachers in Poland. We’d taught and traveled and joked and experienced lots of things together for two years. We knew it was an exceptional season of our lives and things wouldn’t always be this fun.
So the day a team member left to go back to the US was a very sad day.
We waved him off at the airport, then joined other friends in downtown Warsaw. I put on sunglasses to hide my red eyes, tramping around being tourists. They were a big, jolly group, and I loved the chance to share our capital city with them.
On the hour ride home, we caught an old train without AC, and it was hot. Often Polish passengers don’t like any moving breeze, even in high summer, but since our group filled the whole train car, we slid open all the windows.
While the others sang and laughed and made up fun games, I stood by a window. It was open at shoulder-height, so I folded my arms on the rim and rested my chin on my hands. I watched the birch trees and poppies flit past, soaked up the blue sky, and let the hot breeze wash over me and dry my cheeks because tears kept dripping onto them.
Soon Manu, the group’s photographer, came to stand at the window next to mine. We stood elbow to elbow, leaning on our window rims, watching the countryside, while he took pictures of this and that. He turned to me to say something about the sky, and I couldn’t turn away quickly enough to keep him from seeing my tears.
A man who stays steady when a woman cries is a strong, good man. Manu turned back to his camera as if he’d not seen anything amiss. After a minute, still watching the trees, he said, “I guess you had a pretty hard day today.”
I don’t know what I said, but yes.
“It’s really hard to say good-bye,” he said.
Suddenly, I realized who I was talking with. This was a young man who’d grown up in an orphanage in Romania and had loved scores of people who eventually walked out of his life. He’d known more goodbyes than I did.
“It used to hurt so much when someone left. Finally, I decided not to care or get attached, so that their goodbye wouldn’t be so terrible.” His voice was calm, matter-of-fact. “But cutting my heart off still hurt me, so that wasn’t a good choice.”
We talked a little more, about how love and friendship enriches more than it depletes, even if it breaks our heart. Then we lapsed into silence, watching poppies and birch trees flash past. Soon I felt calmed enough to turn away from the window and join the rest of the group and laugh at their games. I was fragile for the rest of the day, but that short exchange at the train window helped me turn a corner.
It wasn’t so much what Manu said, though that was good and gentle and thoughtful. It was more what he did: his calmness and understanding that helped steady me and not feel alone.
Several years later, Manu married my good friend, and now they have two active little boys. I always feel calmed and loved when I’m with them. In my days and dreams for life, I care a lot about wholeness and healing for myself and others. These late summer days of clear skies and warm sun remind me of that season back then and how Manu helped me that day. It was an important step in my growth as a person. He showed me that helping someone is mostly about listening and staying present in their distress.
I hope I never forget it.
Five years ago, my friend Janelle and I flew to San Diego for a Storyline Conference that Donald Miller was hosting. I learned and observed things there that I still think about and refer to, it was that powerful and significant.
The strength of the weekend was how Don shared the stage with many other people who have learned to live well and impact their world. People like Bob Goff, Shauna Niequist, Mike Foster, Tricia Lott Williford, and others.
One of the speakers was Jia Jiang, who told us about his experience with Rejection Therapy. His motto was “Just Ask. “ He got into about 100 adventures, like getting a ride in a police car and playing soccer in a stranger’s yard. (Listen to his TEDx talk here.) The ask that put him on the map was his request at Krispy Kreme for five donuts in the shape of the Olympic symbol.
Just ask, he says. Asking for what you want can open up possibilities where you expect to be rejected. Also, there are ways to ask that help to disarm the person you’re asking and equalize the space between you.
The last day of the conference in San Diego, our hotel shuttled us to the venue, Point Loma Nazarene University (a gorgeous destination in itself). But we didn’t know when the evening session would be finished and couldn’t book the shuttle for the evening.
In the cracks of that day, I kept thinking about the dilemma of getting back to the hotel that was over two miles away. In the evening, it was dark and raining, so walking wasn’t an option. I wasn’t worried, but very curious about how we were going to get back.
After the last session, in the line waiting for the restroom, I happened to stand beside a girl I’d talked with in the morning. She’d told me then that she had driven there, and was staying with an aunt. In a crowd of 1,600, what are the odds that I’d bump into the same person twice? I remembered the “Just ask” speech and asked if she could take Janelle and me to the hotel.
Of course! she said. She was glad to help us out, refused payment, wished us the best, and we never saw her again.
I’ve learned “just ask” is a useful motto in many scenarios. Asking is usually something I want to avoid, because it puts me in a needy place. It reveals my dependence. It’s risky because being refused means I was too much or too something else. But if it’s not unreasonable or demanding, asking appeals to the human, soft part of a person who is happy to help.
Does it mean I always get what I ask for?
But I’m collecting adventures too, when I just ask.
Recently I wanted to book an Airbnb in a little town that I’d fallen in love with. I wanted to spend Labor Day weekend there by myself, exploring, reading, and resting. But I waited too long, so the place I really wanted wasn’t available.
I debated about changing my plans, but then felt strongly that I could at least message the owners to ask if they could refer me to someone in their town.
In a couple hours, they responded, saying they’d blocked those days because they’ll be gone, and they prefer not to have first-time guests then. But they’d like to accommodate me because I seem like a sweet person and a fan of their charming village, and what dates do I need the apartment?
We messaged back and forth in a flurry, and in a few hours, they unblocked the dates and I made the booking. They’re going to be gone, and I’ll have the place to myself the whole blessed weekend. I’m excited beyond words.