Stretched Out Spaces

It was not a good day. I’d woken up in a cloud of sorrow for myself and my loved ones. My heart stayed heavy from hard conversations and many things that should not happen.n

Then I sent an embarrassing typo in a letter to 65 people and couldn’t just shake it off. I felt stupid and inept.

Then, mid afternoon, a dead battery at work kept me from doing my job. It was a special size–half the length of an AAA battery–and there were none on campus. I didn’t have time to run to town to get one, but I needed to take time.

On the way to town, I said no to ice cream and no to chocolate. I couldn’t afford a sugar rush when I was already so stressed. Instead, I turned on brass band music. Loud. I love trumpets because they’re so powerful and delicate at the same time. They can blast you away, then caress your soul in the next second. They can be playful and exuberant and serious in the same phrase. (Recommending: “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah Chorus” by Canadian Brass.)

On the drive to town, surrounded with trumpets and a soulful tuba, I looked for colorful leaves, sunshine, and perspective for my woes.

I thought of the gentle, buoyant man I met recently. He’s a retired nurse, a photographer, and jazz enthusiast. He told me he was on his way to pick up a new camera that day because his old one broke and his friends tell him he’s not dressed without his camera. What he didn’t tell me was that he was also going to see the doctor. At that visit, the doctor told him his stage 4 stomach cancer is in remission, but the man knows it could go into metastasizing rage anytime.

“You didn’t tell me you had stage 4 cancer when you introduced yourself to me,” I said later.

“I can’t let a disease define me,” he said.

I also remembered an interview I’d listened to of a young woman whose dura mater is damaged from a lumbar puncture gone wrong. The connective tissue of the dura can take months and months to heal. When the hole recurs, her cerebral spinal fluid leaks from the hole, forcing her to complete bed rest. She has traveled the world and climbed mountains in the last year, and then bent over wrong, and busted the hole open again. She remembers the agony of being horizontal for seven months, and she fears that will happen again. She’s been flat for a week now, waiting to go to patch the hole, which is a dangerous, unpredictable ordeal in itself.

And I think I’m stressed and troubled?

On the drive from town, I kept looking at the sunshine (a rarity in these parts) and kept groping for perspective.  “I don’t have stage 4 stomach cancer. I don’t have a cerebral spinal fluid leak. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.”

Those people’s positivity in the face of crushing pain and fear shames me for my complaining, and tells me to be quiet and observe.

Sorrow expands the soul. If I let it.

Joy does the same.

And beauty. That’s why I sometimes listen to trumpets. Loud.

To be unmoved by sorrow, joy, or beauty means our souls can’t become larger, fuller, more developed. Pain and sorrow don’t diminish a soul by default. It is selfishness and bitterness that make the soul wrinkly and withered, small and ugly.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
– Edwin Markham

Kings Bring Their Glory

I was sitting in a crowd, cross-legged on the floor in a big room called The Oasis. The day before, I’d flown into and trundled around Athens before flying further to Lesvos. Sunday morning, I joined my sister and brother-in-law and the rest of the crowd on the floor for church. The message on faith was great, but I couldn’t stop watching the adorable coffee and cream colored children tumbling around me.

I loved the pockets of languages scattered around the room. Translation into French was happening in that corner. Farsi in the other. Arabic up front beside the preacher, translating for everyone.

As the service came to a close, we were told that our Congolese brothers would sing for us. A quartet of French-speaking African men walked forward and the one with the guitar put on his shiny gold rock star sunglasses. The other three stood by the mic and started singing.

I didn’t know what the words were (I was told later it was a psalm) but they sang with utter gentleness, adoration, and surety.  The harmonies were simple and beautiful, and their faces shone.

Scattered voices in the crowd joined at the refrain. In the men’s peaceful smiles and voices, it seemed I saw the teeniest piece of heaven, where the kings of the earth will bring their glory and worship the Lamb like these men and their audience were doing. It was glorious beyond words, and the way things should be. I was overwhelmed with the wonder and beauty and the tears kept dripping off my cheeks.

I feel most alive when I’m surrounded with colors and textures and cultures. I feel twitchy when everyone looks and talks the same. The variety of cultures and the singular focus of worship that morning in Greece is akin to what I expect to be part of in eternity, and I was enormously gifted with a sneak preview.

 

Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an aged man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in this wonder:

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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The Wine of Paradox

July 1 marked three years since I left my Poland home. Anniversaries like this always give me a space to reflect, compare, and contrast. They help give a measure of perspective that I don’t have in the middle of the thing.

It’s a mercy that I didn’t know how hard re-entry and transition would be. It’s another mercy that it happened and I didn’t detour it.

Arched over the last three years is the word belong. I was comfortable in different places on the globe but when I came back to my birth country, I found I didn’t belong anywhere. I found this disorienting beyond words. The disorientation happened mostly subconsciously but it was the undercurrent in every new relationship and every new situation. I was a loose ion looking for an atom to fit into. I was the spiraling whirlpool of an identity that had evaporated. If I wasn’t the English teacher eating Polish bread and pickles and walking on Polish sidewalks anymore, who was I? I had no idea.

As if bread and pickles gives you an identity. But when your world tips you upside down and nothing is the same anymore, you get sentimental about bizarre things.

Home

When I first came to the US, I said I was homeless. I hated when anyone asked where I was from, because I didn’t know what to say. I’d get shaky and unreasonably worked up and exhausted from explaining my homelessness. Slowly, I’ve come to coin the word “home-full:” I belong in many places. Many people claim me, and I claim them. They press me to spend weekends and holidays with them, and I know they’re not just being polite, and when I’m with them, my soul is utterly at rest. In three years, I moved from a dorm room to a tiny apartment then across the road to a trailer. It’s like living in a tin box, but I live with a dear co-worker, and we have everything we need, and it’s home. For now. I don’t expect to be here long term because I don’t love marshes and mosquitoes and six months of winter. But for now, I love where I live, and I’m home-full.

Church

The church search has been hard, hard, hard. A husband and family would make this decision more complex, but this single woman has found it hard, uncomfortable, and bewildering to navigate all the questions, implications, and dynamics regarding a new church. I have good people walking with me and giving advice. But still. It’s no picnic.

I’m grateful to be attending a church that feels increasingly right and comfortable. When I’m not there, I miss it. When I’m there, I think, “Yes, I agree. I like how they said that. And I really like the singing.” It’s not home. It’s not my church. But they’re good to singles, and it feels like maybe someday I could belong.

Work

Last month, I was on a Greek island and went swimming in the Aegean Sea nearly every day. The water was unbelievably clear, and when my ears were right at the surface, it sang its tinkling, golden song, and I thought I was in heaven. Then came this fleeting shadow: “Next week this time, you’ll be in the office.” But the shadow lasted only for a second, and it didn’t fill me with sadness or dread because I looked forward to whatever I needed to do in the office. I wasn’t going to rush there because no sane person would leave Greece before necessary, but I have no words to say how grateful I am for a job that I really, really love. I walk up the hill to work every morning and I think, “I’m living in a dream. How did this happen? How did I get here?”

I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve lived in many dreams in other places. It’s the life I’ve been given combined with a million decisions to see goodness in the present moment.

I still miss Poland terribly. I miss teaching ESL. My friends and students there and my people in Ireland have no idea how often I think about them and ache to hear them talk and laugh. But I’m learning that embracing the details that comprise my present life no longer feels disloyal to my former life. Maybe these three years have expanded my heart to hold the paradox of both loving and grieving, both gaining and losing, both embracing and releasing.

Robert Capon said, “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency.”

I choose not to dilute my life. Its wine is piercing and sweet.

Directions, Please

Last weekend, I went to a gathering in a place that was new to me. I was told that GPS wouldn’t work after a certain point, and was given a sheet of directions to follow after I got off the main road. The directions seemed simple enough, but I found them confusing.  Driving in the mountains, my phone hadn’t had service for the last hour or so. I was on my own, with a confusing sheet of paper.

After I turned around a few times, I got onto a winding, steep, narrow, gravel mountain road. It was so narrow, I hoped I wouldn’t meet anyone coming the opposite way. One place was so steep, I was afraid I would spin out. I was glad it wasn’t dark. Then the road opened up to a crossroad that led to a correctional facility, and I knew that wasn’t in the script.

I was whimpering and panicking. Where do I go now? I can’t do this. I’m alone and lost. Why do I think I can travel alone anywhere? Whimper, whimper. Blood pressure sky high.

The sheet of directions had a phone number, and the phone had service at that moment. Thank you, Jesus. I called the number and said in a rush that I’m lost and need directions and can you help me, please? The man asked who I was and asked me to repeat my question. He was calm, spoke clearly, and asked clarifying questions. I don’t know who he was, but I’m pretty sure his voice was like Jesus.

Yes, I know exactly where you are now.

I know the point where you turned off wrong.

When you get to that next road, be careful because it’s gravel and curvy and they just graded it.

I asked him several times about the directions on the sheet that were confusing me, and apologized for making him repeat himself, but he told me to start driving while I was on the phone, took all the time I needed, and explained the landmarks carefully.

Twenty minutes later, I was at my destination, and fell into my friends’ hugs, and had a most wonderful weekend. Two days later, I felt newly-made and refreshed beyond words.

As I drove home, I Voxed a friend about the good weekend, the traumatic time in getting there, and my ensuing questions. Why did I panic? God took care of me. I was never actually alone. Had it been a lesson to teach me the futility of panicking?

No, she said. I shouldn’t kick myself for that, or think I must never panic again. That emotion is an arrow to direct me to God. If I don’t know the depth of my need, I don’t know how able He is to meet my need, and I stay self-sufficient.

I know she’s right. When I feel panicked and alone, I can use that desperation to run to Him. He never scolds me for needing Him.

I hope I’ll remember in the darkness what I learned in the light that day: I’m never really and truly alone even if it feels like it.

Also, if I’m ever giving directions to a frantic girl on the phone, I might never know that I’m speaking Jesus’ words to her.

Enough Light

A long time ago, in another life, more than 15 years ago, I was a shop keeper. On Saturdays, I’d work 12 hours. After closing shop, I’d not-always-but-very,very-often drive over to my friend Jenny’s stone cottage. Her little girls were in bed, and her husband was working the night shift, and we would curl up in big overstuffed chairs in front of her wood stove. From a compartment in the stove, she’d whisk out a plate of nachos, toasty and gooey with cheese. We’d eat them messily with salsa, bites interspersed with tales of the week. Sometimes there was another kind of simple food, but usually the nachos prevailed because we loved them so much.

There was incense wafting from a wand in its holder, and the smell always lingered on my clothes even after I was home. At some point, she’d always bring me a tub of hot water, plant a kettle of boiling water beside it to replenish with, and say, “Now stick your hooves in there.” I would soak my feet until all the water got cold, then she’d rub my feet, and the hours and hours of stories and quandaries and dreams and hopes that would come tumbling out of both of us those nights are some of my dearest and most shaping memories.

We were both pilgrims on a journey, just like Christian and Faithful, and we knew very little about our path except that it led to the Celestial City.

That’s why I was ecstatic to go to a Greek island this month to be with my sister and her husband AND Jenny and her family! We had a most idyllic time, replete with all the food and swims and laughs and heart connections. And because we’re still kindred spirits and pilgrims on the way who need good footwear, we bought the same make of Greek sandals! (We like this picture because it looks like we were wearing baggy Turkish pants even though we weren’t, and even though we went to Turkey for a day.)

But I digress. Going back to the story of sitting at my friend’s wood stove in their stone cottage–

Eventually the clock would warn me that I would soon turn into a pumpkin, so I’d pull on my shoes and socks. Jenny would take the lantern that had been glowing in the window (these friends were off the grid when we first got to know them) and close the heavy wooden door behind us.

She’d take my arm and hold the lantern so we could find our way out the lane that had grass in the middle and a bend and a gate at the end. There was a little circle of light that showed us enough for the next step and kept us from crashing into shrubbery or the well or Mr. Austin, the antique car.

Just enough light for each step.

 

She’d open the gate, hug me goodbye and say, “Now be good, and God bless,” and then I was across the road and in my car, warm and smelling the incense that wrapped around me.

When I’m angsting about my present journey, and the impossible questions–how do I know? What should I prepare for whatever’s ahead? What is all this leading to? Jenny is one of my stable people who talks sense into me again. (Voxer and Whatsapp help enormously to close up the miles between us.) “Remember that lantern? It gave us enough light for the next step. We couldn’t see the end of the lane, but it got us there safely. All you have to do now is take the next step because you have enough light for that.”

In my current shadowy lanes, in my loved ones’ scary dark lanes, when I’m sure of nothing else, and I’m terrified of my imaginations of what’s around the bend, all I know and see is the circle of light beside me.

And it’s enough.

For this moment, for this step, that small pool of light is enough.

Prayer Day and a Paraphrase

Something I love about where I work is that twice a year, we have Prayer Day. The institute empties for most of a day, and people scatter throughout the surrounding area to find solitude and fellowship with God.

As part of my Prayer Day last Wednesday, I paraphrased parts of Lamentations 3. I thought it would be a nice exercise. I didn’t realize how accurately it would reflect my story.

My paraphrase of parts of Lamentations 3: 15-33:

He made me eat distasteful, disgusting things. He filled me with bitterness. When people bumped me, I spilled over with acid and scorn.

He filled my mouth with grit. I lay lower than the curb and sidewalks. I had no rest in my soul, no quietness, nothing to soothe me–not even a padded savings account.

I can easily recall the awfulness. It’s always just under the surface of my thoughts. It’s easy to say “I’m desolate, bereft, devastated, ugly. What I thought was lovely about me or my life is gone. God has broken my heart.”

The memories haunt me. I remember the depression, the acid, the hardships and injustice. I can feel the old darkness and and heaviness and suffocation again.

BUT

I remember something else, and this keeps me from despair.

I was low, but God’s immense, endless love kept me from death. His care and deep concern for me never stopped, even when I forgot Him and gave in to darkness.

The signs of His care surround me. Every morning’s light reveals new love notes from Him.

Every morning.

Every morning.

His mercy always shows up again.

So I remind myself of what is true: “My God is my life. I will die without Him. He has proved Himself, and when I can’t see or feel Him I will wait. I will rest quietly, confident that He’ll show up again. When my eyes are cleaned from their cloudiness, I see He was with me all the time.”

On those whose gaze is fixed upward and outward, He pours His goodness. To the one who craves His presence, He presses in close.

It’s good to be quiet and rest instead of strive. It’s good to watch, hand over mouth, at how He saves the day again. It’s good to work hard before I’m old because it develops the muscles of faith and teaches me how utterly and completely dependable He is.

Though He allows hardship, His care never stops. He weeps with me, and covers me with endless love. He doesn’t enjoy seeing His children struggling in loss and grief. He knows tears too. And He knows that pain isn’t the end of the story.