A Dream of a Feast

Some years back, a friend took me to Gallery Row in Lancaster and I was delighted to find the galleries of Liz Hess and Freiman Stoltzfus next door to each other. Fun, fun!

Liz Hess is an artist who incorporates a red umbrella in many of her paintings. Her style is whimsical, fanciful, and worshipful and I like it a lot.

Frieman Stoltfus tends toward abstractions based on classical music, European architecture, Lancaster landscapes, and his Amish heritage. I love the emotions in his abstract paintings and the grounded, thoughtful, pointed ideas in his realistic work.

In that first visit, I saw a small print of his The Last Supper and I told myself that someday I want that in my house. I started following the gallery on Facebook, and loved all I saw, but never forgot The Last Supper. Several years later, it was August 2020 and somehow I knew that now is the time. I perused the website but couldn’t find the painting, so I contacted the gallery’s Facebook page to ask about it.

Bethanie, the gallery manager, answered quickly and said she can get it printed for me. Which size would I like? Plus, all the prints were 20% off that month!  It came soon in the mail, and I carried it around campus to show people what I was so happy about. I love it so much.

It would seem that its title is an allusion to Leonardo da Vinci’s i but I always want to call it the Wedding Feast or The Marriage Supper of the Lamb because that’s what it is to me.

It’s framed now, and in our kitchen. I love to have people look at it and I ask what they see. They always mention the diversity of skin colors, ages, and cultures. They see the cathedral effect in the background, the record player, and the abstract yellows. There’s both definition and mystery.

I love the Japanese lanterns in the trees, the way the people are leaning toward each other in open body language, the groom’s hands are inviting someone outside the picture, and the empty chairs say there’s room for more. And it’s a party! There’s music and cake, wine and candles, and the night is still young. The celebration is going to go on for a long time.

                   

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get a little peek at this in real life, where there’s laughter, conversation, lights at dusk, diversity, music, and food. I have a palette of memories like this to treasure, a painting in my kitchen, and a great hope to live in.

White Space

In an intense season when I didn’t have the emotional elastic to flex or be gracious, my mentor told me to think about margins. “Think of the white space around a notebook page. Margin makes the writing legible, lets the eye rest instead of cramming the page full. How much white space is in your life right now?”

Oh. White space? The days were crazy full because I was learning the ropes at a new job, evenings and weekends were full of people around me, and what was margin?

Her words marked a pivot point for when I learned the value of claiming white space to live well.

Last month, July, marked a year that began a fast slide into a dark, oppressive tunnel for me. In the space of two weeks, I heard multiple pieces of devastating news that affected me and people close to me, and sadness closed in on me like heavy, noxious air that doesn’t lift. It smeared and blurred my days. I didn’t despair, but felt so, so sad. I heard about cancer, suicides, child prostitution, more cancer, refugees, and the dark didn’t go away.

It sounds melodramatic now to say it this way, but I felt blind to sunshine and deaf to laughter. I asked my journal When will the madness end, and how is it pity that stays His hand? Tears simmered just under the surface every day for months. I went through the motions of working, talking, living, but felt robotic and dutiful, operating out of scarcity, not abundance. 

Light broke through now and then, thin golden hair lines that kept me from despair and told me that darkness isn’t the only reality:

  • Writing poetry
  • A friend’s confidence that heartache matters to Jesus
  • Deep, restful sleep
  • Vitamin D and mid-day walks even in driving snow
  • Life-giving connections with people, unpredicted and surprising
  • Golden moons and pink sunrises that took my breath away

In that age-long year, with its time warps of non-routine and aching social distancing, I found a cushion of comfort in white spaces.

Last summer, some evenings the madness lifted when I sat in the hammock on the porch and read or listened to the night sounds and ate round salted tortilla chips from Aldi. It wasn’t a balanced diet, but I didn’t know what to cook, and now and then eating a bowl of tortilla chips gave me space to breathe.

In the fall, my housemate and I painted our shared living spaces, the kitchen and living room, a pearly light grey trimmed with white. Before we painted, most of the walls were covered with stuff–my stuff, let’s be honest. But now the biggest walls are empty and we love it. I always liked our space, and now I love it even more. It’s white-on-white space. Welcoming. Rest. Calm. 

I drive mostly in silence. It gives me a chance to close the whirring, jangling open tabs in my brain one by one. When I need music to feed me, I click “shuffle play” for my choral gems playlist, and I don’t have words for how those voices and harmonies calm me. Recently a counselor friend told me that in the weeks after the horrific shooting at Nickel Mines, the Amish community would gather to sing and sing for hours. I haven’t suffered the trauma they did, but I can see how the mind-soul-body layers of a person are aligned when we sing or listen to singing. Singing soothes and calms and heals me and gives me a buffer from the madness.

This past May and June, the heavy, dark air in my soul slowly lifted. The sun came up earlier. I heard myself laughing and singing more. A trans-Atlantic margin of white space to see siblings gave me a break and a re-set on multiple levels. I rode a bus between major cities in Jordan and watched new landscape and architecture slide past the windows and I felt more alive than I’d been for a long, long time. The sun pressed hard on my face in Greece, telling my body firmly that this is summer, summer, summer, and winter is far away. White space. Rest. And did I mention sunshine?

Now I’ve discovered the lightness of social media fasting. For a week in June, I took Facebook and Instagram off my phone. I was tired of the mindless scrolling and the numbing dopamine and I wanted to read more books and sleep more. It was a very nice week. Then I went to a five-day retreat with no internet access. For the first 24 hours, I felt fidgety because what if I was missing out on something important? Then the fidgets went away and I almost got high on the freedom of being disconnected from the outside world. It was looooovely! Now I access Facebook during the day because it’s part of my job, but when I’m home, I don’t need it except for the rare times I post something. I found an app that limits my Instagram screen time to 15 minutes a day, and I love it. Sometimes on weekends, I extend the time limit, but I love the white space this app helps me reclaim from the day.

My days and pages are still crammed and scribbled full of more than I can do well, and I still tend toward panic and anxiety and feeling snappy. I don’t enjoy talking about this part of my life and I can do it here only because I’ve first talked these things over with strong, safe people I lean on. Dumping all of my (most presentable) guts out on the interwebs like this has limited value unless it can spark a resolution in all of us to work hard at reclaiming space to breathe, rest, give margin around the madness.

Join me?

 

What Gives You Joy?

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?

Toward Light

To follow up on from the last blog post: here are steps I’m taking toward light. They’re not connected to Lent or Resurrection like I idealize, but they help keep me from spiraling down and crumpling.

  • I’m writing a poem every week. It’s kinda fun and a little healing.
  • I made a royal pavlova to celebrate a friend’s birthday. And biscotti another weekend. Different kinds, all irresistible.
  • I use Sara Hagerty’s adoration list to focus and settle me every morning. She has a new list every month, and I love them so much for their simplicity and truth.
  • I take great joy in my miniature orchid that’s blooming its heart out (photo up top) and my other normal-size orchid that blooms stunning berry colors every year and is popping buds again. Both take minimal effort to nurture, and their colors give me so much. The mini orchid is called an “espresso orchid” and its cheery flowers are just slightly bigger than a quarter. Exquisite.
  • For whatever reason these days, I wake up 30-90 minutes before the alarm goes. Now I effortlessly have extra time in my day, so I wrap up in a blanket at my desk and study to teach Sunday school or do some other project and look out at the eastern waking sky and feel so, so peaceful. I always think of Emily Dickenson’s lines, I’ll tell you how the Sun rose – /A Ribbon at a time –
  • After lunch, I take a 10-20 minute walk outside so as to get all the sunshine at its optimal time. Sometimes I invite or compel a co-worker to come along. This noon walk decision is the absolutely best thing that I’ve done all winter.
  • I listen to choral music–my play list or a new find. Loud. As loud as is socially acceptable.
  • I do housework or drive or walk in silence, letting the sounds and ideas and sights of the moment wash over me without needing to solve or conclude.
  • I went with friends to a greenhouse and fell in love with these strings of dolphins. Who can be uncheered with a string of leaping dolphins? I’m not so great with succulents, but I hope I can keep them leaping.
  • I try hard to eat more protein and fewer carbs. It’s a constant fight.
  • I spend as little money as possible. But when I find books I know I’ll read, or make food for someone, or join friends at a restaurant, I spend with no guilt.
  • I visualize rolling my burdens onto Jesus’ shoulders. It’s something like the way I shrug off a heavy backpack onto the shoulder of a friend who offers to carry it for me. The exercise forces me to deliberately focus on Him instead of only at the injustice and hardship that takes me down.

The brighter evenings, the brave crocus blossoms, the chirpy Baltimore orioles tell me that “no winter is forever, and no spring skips its turn.”

Snow Globe

This morning marks seven years that I woke up in the hospital after the worst day of my life. This morning, I saw the same light, the same cold, but everything is different. My brokenness then was physical and emotional and He is still healing me and I can never say how grateful I am. Today’s shaken globe reveals other kinds of brokenness in all of us. Different ways, different places, different aches. But I believe with all my heart that He walks with us, weeps with us, and leads us to wholeness and this keeps me from despair when the world shakes and breaks.

This is the light

And this is the ice

And this is the years

He heals me.

*

That morning,

She came in from the ice

And held me soft and

Snow glittered on her black wool.

*

Inside, looking out,

The snow globe, steady,

Turned and turned,

These seven seasoned years.

*

This morning,

I see light and ice,

Feel cheeks wet with stupendous

Overwhelm.

The gentle healer shakes the snow globe

Again

But never drops it.

*

This is the light and

This is the life

His wondrous hands

Poured into mine.

Use Your Words

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

unprecedented

anti-maskers

fraudsters

systemic

mitigation.

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

suffering

devastated

crushed

agony.

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

uncomfortable

disruptive

disappointing

inconvenient

sad.

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?

I wonder.

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.

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.

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?