Morning Comes

I was teaching English in Poland in 2013, the year my health spiraled and I needed major surgery. That year was a saga in itself, and not one to tell here except to say that God and His people took care of me in ways that still choke me up.

The day of the surgery, December 4, was easily the worst day of my life. They’d planned for the surgery to be one hour, but it lasted three hours, and my body went into shock in the recovery room where I stopped breathing twice. I was so annoyed at the nurse who shook my shoulder roughly each time and said, “Breathe, breathe!” because I’d finally been comfortable and resting, and I didn’t want to breathe because it took too much effort.

Later, they trundled me into the room closest to the nurses’ station so they could keep a close eye on me, and they clunked a brick of ice onto my stomach, over the incision, and I was out of my mind with pain and freezing cold and anesthesia. Lolita hovered above me and asked what I wanted, and I said, “Music.” She opened my computer and found a few choral hymns that I always loved, but when she turned them on, they were terrible. Tinny and chintzy and awful. I forgot about music in the long, terrible evening as the nurses and doctor tried to get me warm and the pain under control.

My sister came too, with chocolate, and called my family several times to keep them updated. Before she left, she helped me think about what I’d need for the night, and put the stuff in a little tray within arm’s reach. I was confused, and didn’t know what I needed, but she was patient. Swabs. Call button. MP3 player and earbuds.

The next morning, I already felt better. Still lots of pain and achy and awful, but better, and the sun was shining, and it was snowing! I went to this song on my player and listened to it with one earbud on the quietest setting because two earbuds made it too loud. It was exactly right.

In the next days, the cloud of pain and anesthesia cleared and the only music that connected with me was that song, “Morning Comes When You Call,” and an album by Voices of Praise. I forget the title of that album, but I especially loved “I’m in His Care-Oh” and I always skipped “America the Beautiful.”

Two years later, I saw this picture in a little booklet,

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and I knew what to do with the latent memories of that worst day of my life. On a wintry Sunday evening, I took my chalk pastels and card stock to a well-lit table, and made this:

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My favorite feature is the yellow of the sunshine edging into the scene and bouncing off some trees. I asked a friend to do the lettering because I wasn’t confident enough to do that, and she said it was an honor.

The picture shows the crisp, snowy sunlight the day Ria came to see me in the hospital. She didn’t want to hurt me so she hugged me gingerly, after walking in from the bus, and her black wool coat was still cold, with drops of melted snowflakes.

The picture shows the contrast of light and shadow, the night and morning, the clouds and stunning light I experienced in that terrible, wonderful week. The day after the surgery, the surgeon checked in on me, and as she left, she said, “You were a very sick girl. Now work on getting better!”

I didn’t get all better that day. Recovery took a long time, and mild PTSD has stayed with me, but it’s improving. I keep thinking that, on every level, I feel healthier now than I ever was in the last ten years. I don’t have enough words to say how wondrous the on-going gift of healing has been.

To be accurate to my experience, the shadows in the picture should be darker, the night more visible on the horizon. But I like that that’s how it is with healed memory—it mostly sifts out the terrible, and the predominant memory, arching over everything, is light and joy and deep peace.

Fingerpaints of Venice

For something different, I’m starting a little series about the artwork I have in my house and the stories that go with each piece.

Four years ago, I was a student at Faith Builders and figuring out how to live in the US again. I flew here with just enough belongings to settle into a small dorm room and be a student. I didn’t have an envelope when I wanted to send off an application and I didn’t have a jar or rubber band to make kefir in my dorm room. (I’d brought the grains though: priorities.)

Apparently customs officials had riffled through my suitcases and found what seemed to be a large nut, and threw it away, but it was actually a dear little carved nativity scene that had been gifted to me, and I still miss it. I’m not that attached to stuff, but it still felt like a loss. The biggest loss was my rich connections with people who now lived an ocean away.

It was a topsy-turvy season, shattering and bewildering. Many, many good things happened, but mostly it was hard.  Beautiful, loving people surrounded me but I felt like my heart was mostly vacuum, hollowed out, shivering. There were weeks when I cried every day.

About eight months into re-entry, we had a group activity where we divided into teams of four. Using poster paints and our fingers, each team replicated their choice of painting from the Impressionist masters. Our team chose Monet’s Sunset in Venice:

Monet

Claude Monet [Public domain]

We started dabbing colors onto the margin of the big poster paper.

“I’m not an artist.”

“I don’t know how to do this.”

This is what some of my team mates said, but they went to it as if they’d done it all their lives. They studied the original, dipped their finger tips in paint, and dabbed it carefully. I flitted around, sketching briefly, maybe mixing some colors.

I don’t remember which part I did, but my predominate memory is that I cheered and cheered for how their success surprised them, and my fingers and palms were smeared with great colors, and I started breathing deeper and easier than I had for a long, long time.

We ended up with this:

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My favorite feature is the rippling reflection of the spire:

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We left it to dry overnight, and I felt like a new person.

All the teams displayed their paintings in the hall for several months, then threw them away, but I couldn’t part with ours. I found a frame for it, and I don’t have wall space for it, so it’s propped against the wall in my hall. Maybe sometime it’ll find its way to the dumpster, but not yet.

I wonder if I’m more attached to stuff than I thought.

Practical Principles about Virtual Reality

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.

Housecleaning

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.

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The disrupting shot

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.

Join me?

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!

Autumn Epiphanies

I had an epiphany recently. Actually, two.

Every fall, I hear women making endless happy sounds because it’s PSL weather, and time for cozy sweaters and boots, and happy fall ya’ll, and my favorite season is pumpkin spice latte season, and pumpkins/candles/fuzzy socks/coffee, and fall shows us how beautiful it is to let things go, ad nauseum.

It makes me want to curl up in a corner and whimper.

I don’t care about any of the hype. I don’t care about the positive spin. The leaves are brilliant, and I love, love, love all their colors, but I can’t cheer because it’s fall.

Fall means things are dying and we’ll have more night than day, and we have to put on  eight to ten layers to go outside and I see nothing to be glad about any of that. Even the word FALL is negative. The British have something over us because they call it autumn.

The first epiphany was this:

Only the privileged get to chortle about their favorite season.

Most people in the world don’t have the luxury of choosing a favorite season and changing their wardrobe and décor accordingly. Most people are just trying to survive, find enough food for the next meal, and have enough shelter from the elements to stay alive.

If I complain about the season, it shows how privileged I am, how entitled I am to feel comfortable all time, how I deserve to reject or praise whatever season I want to.

It’s ok to have an opinion. I have lots of them.

But it’s not ok to be grumpy or complaining because something about the season doesn’t suit me. This epiphany has the potential to change my life because I’ve done more than my share of complaining about mice moving into the house when it gets cold and snow keeping me from driving where I want to and six-month long winters.

I still don’t like orange, and I still wince at inconvenient cold and I still get super stressed driving in snowy weather. I will probably never stop fantasizing about living in Italy or Greece. But I’m rich beyond belief, and have more than I deserve, and I should never complain.

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Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed. –Mary Oliver.

My friend Hannah did this calligraphy on a chalkboard and I cried when I saw it because it’s so beautiful and true.

Then, the 2nd epiphany:

I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes because spice doesn’t belong in coffee.

Coffee belongs in coffee (and maybe cream) but spices belong in tea. So bring on the spicy chai! I dream of pots and pots of creamy, spicy chai every week for the next six months. Take that, winter.

This was the first one, in a tall mug, with friends at a darling coffee shop in Manheim, PA.

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I discovered I can make a mean batch of chai. It wants to be made in a batch, not just a single serving. In case someone else out there shares my sentiment for un-spiced coffee, you might like this alternative.

This is not a recipe, but a guide:

Count on 3 tea bags per cup you want to serve.
Put them in water that comes to half the amount you want to serve. (The other half will be milk. The idea is that you’re making super strong tea.)
Turn on high to bring to a boil.
While the water and tea bags warm up, add:
Cinnamon (about 1 tsp. per 3 servings)
A very small sprinkle of cloves
A knob of grated fresh ginger (or 1 tsp. dried ginger–you must have ginger, or it’s not worth drinking, as I discovered recently when I served mediocre ginger-less chai to friends)
About 1.5 cardomom pod per serving, or a generous dash of ground cardomom (this is where the magic comes: the wispy, ethereal aftertaste that’s almost there, then gone)
A good sprinkle of black pepper

Simmer all of this for 20-25 min. Taste to check the spices, taking in account that it’s going to be bitter and strong. But does it have the right spice balance? This is the question.

Remove the tea bags, leaving in the cardomom pods for maximum effect. This is your chai base, to use now, or refrigerate for later.

To serve, warm the chai base, add approx. 1/4 cup brown sugar, and enough milk to nearly double the volume. If it’s too milky, it’ll cover the spice, so be conservative with the milk to start with. The point is to have it spicy enough to be almost peppery, but sweet and milky to be warm and comforting. Heat until steaming (if you let it boil over on the stove, you’ll be sorry, as I was many times), use a whip to stir and froth a bit, and serve. You might want to strain the spices out or you can just let them settle.

You can take it to the next level by squirting whipped cream on top and drizzling caramel sauce over it.

Probably no Indian or African would claim this as their chai. It’s pretty blatantly American, but ever so warming and comforting.

To Be an Ear

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.

Just Ask

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.

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PC: Jia Jiang

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?

Nope.

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.

Just ask.

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.

Just ask.

 

 

The Only Way Forward


So the news last week was that Josh Harris divorced and says he’s not a Christian anymore. I felt heavy hearted about it on several levels.

I want to weep at the vitriol, sarcasm, disdain, harshness toward him that rippled through social media. Sin is sin, yes, and divorce is a travesty. But is public contempt and expecting the worst of someone ever, ever, redemptive or bring the healing and repentance that Jesus asks for?

The Josh Harris news hit me hard because he’s my age. Which isn’t old, but it’s old enough to have done some good or some hurt. I love being my age but I often wish I’d done things differently. I’d like to retract the heavy-handed, glib things I said when I was in my 20’s. I cringe when I remember my inept ways of being dean and teaching at Calvary Bible School. I made stupid, thoughtless decisions that had to have hurt people who trusted me. I wish I could redo my first ESL lessons, because they were pathetic.

James is absolutely right when he writes that teachers will be judged more severely, and sometimes I wonder why anyone would choose to be an influencer.

And then I remember that everyone influences someone.

Some people have a louder voice or a bigger platform or more attractive words than others, but every time we open our mouths, we make some kind of impact on the ears around us.

Or on the eyes reading our blog. Or Facebook comment. Or the scorn in a conversation.

If we could see the knock-on effect our words have, I wonder if we would say less or more.

“I’m hungry for ice cream–let’s go to McDonalds!”

“That picture of the refugees made me cry.”

“How are things going for you?”

“He thinks he’s so cool.”

Words of passion and zeal and knowledge without wisdom are lethal. Truth without grace is a sledgehammer swung around without direction, volatile, harsh, dangerous. If we always have to be right, and always decry the latest scandal, and constantly shout truisms, we destroy the trust necessary to win an audience and make the difference we’re wanting.

That doesn’t mean we compromise truth. Jesus is full of truth and grace, and His people should reflect those qualities. If we don’t, something is seriously broken.

God’s Kingdom needs bold, winsome, confident, inviting words flung like confetti around the world. No one needs more hate, doubt, or hostility thrown at them.

One of my friends says that her husband prays every day to be humble and confident. I think that’s a posture that God would honor. We don’t have to be slinking around, doubting ourselves, making every disclaimer before we say something. The Holy Spirit said He would help us say the right thing at the right time. The problem isn’t that He doesn’t have the right words for us. The problem is that we aren’t always quiet enough to hear Him.

Josh Harris made some grave mistakes in his 40+ years.

I have too.

We all have.

Repenting and depending on Jesus with humility and confidence is the only way forward.