Lessons from the winter that would not end

The winter has been rough on many levels. The weather is the most tangible and obvious brutality this season. Temperatures in below zero degrees Fahrenheit on multiple occasions. I’m a southern girl, and I am not used to that. After one good snow, I’m good, so the multiple accosting of several inches of snow has been oppressive. Not to mention the days the children have missed in school, which is hard on them and their families who are trying to maintain routine. It throws everything off when there are cancellations of what was expected. This winter has also seen two funerals in our congregation, as well as the deaths and health concerns of friends of friends, and beloved celebrities. Not to mention the flu!

Now, before you think I’m just complaining, please know, I’m describing this experience so you can understand the ethos out of which this post is written. This kind of stress, for some is no big deal, just roll with the punches, right? But for all the similar tweets and Facebook posts that have echoed this sentiment all season, I have a sense that many are sharing the feeling of being under attack this season. (And that’s not even from the people who have lost power or been without enough resources.) It feels like a prolonged crisis.

At one point I related it to pregnancy. There is a moment in most healthy pregnancies where mommy-to-be begins to need to be done being the incubator. Everything begins to get really uncomfortable and yet there are still a few weeks to go. And mommy’s mind/hormones begin to play tricks on her so that she begins to wonder if this will ever end, really, ever!?! The logical part of the brain understands that new life is just on the other side of those few weeks, but the emotional brain says this is never going to change, you are going to have to get used to living this way. That’s been this winter.

In light of that sense of dread; parenting, partnering in relationship with my spouse, even leading in ministry has been less than the best. (This brings up another conversation about what our goals are: to be the best? But I’ll leave that for another blog…maybe.) The heavy weight of, “what else could go wrong?” has shadowed the message we just celebrated a few weeks ago of “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” It’s exhausting living with that kind of constant change and inability to get back to some healthy routine. It’s like a stubborn elephant has plopped itself down in your way and there is nothing to do but wait.

Here is what I’ve learned from this winter:
1) It WILL end. The last two days have brought temperatures high enough to melt the snow off of the concrete and asphalt, twice. That is promising. Routine will return, thus we need to be ready when it comes, otherwise the new routine of chaos will become the way things are done.
2) Blessing breaks are essential. On one particularly difficult morning I found myself excessively complaining. I sat down in that moment and named 10 things for which I am thankful. It changed my whole attitude. If you are going to make it through the higher stress times (particularly if they feel like crisis) you have to take time to consider your blessings, otherwise your complaints will rule you.
3) Take time to welcome the love. In the frustration of cabin fever next to a week of too many evenings away from home, next to a week with stomach sickness, tensions can run high. Wills can become stubborn. Feelings can be sensitive. And then there is what the children feel. When your children want to snuggle, say, “yes” even if they are challenging your authority, say “yes.” This connection eases your (and their) tension. The physical touch releases endorphins that calm the stress. Along that same line of thinking, when your spouse wants to be romantic, say, “yes.” Not because you are in the mood, but because the physical and emotional connection will dispel some of the feelings of being overwhelmed and it will remind you both that you are partners in this life together.
4) The mountains in front of you are just an illusion. Everything that becomes overwhelming in the midst of a crisis is a matter of perspective. Some things take time and need to sit on a shelf for awhile, but most things are not as big as they seem. If you work on them a little at a time, you can accomplish small goals to accomplish your bigger ones. Take your challenges one day at a time. And those days of failure, do not make you a failure, they make you human. Humans are not made to live in constant crisis. Give yourself room to fail, or even just fall backwards. You can try again tomorrow.
5) Find an accountability partner. If you have someone who will work with (probably not a spouse or parent or child), to set small goals, there is a sense of moving toward your goal because someone else cares if you are making progress. They can help you be realistic about your choices, and they can support you on your off days. They can also challenge you when you are not pushing hard enough.
6) Set priorities. The most important things on you list of priorities should get the most of your attention. It’s as simple as that. If it’s not a priority put it on the shelf or get rid of it all together.
7) Pray. This is your most humble and your most confident space. In God’s hands you will remember you are important to God, and you will also remember you are not God. God is good, and you are being prepared, equipped for something yet to come.

Here’s to spring, and new life resurrected from frozen winter.

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Sounds

There has been a lot of “buzz” (HA!) about the song by Ylvis called “What Does the Fox Say?” And I will admit, my family has gotten a kick out of singing it and then trying to get it out of our heads. In fact, we don’t even say the name of the song anymore, simply because it is that catchy. By the way, you’re welcome for offering you that song-in-the-head for the day.

Disclaimer: I am not someone who studies sound or the science of sound, nor am I someone who studys the human auditory system or even the social and humanities related to sounds. I am an observer of sound and of people, and at times, of animals, and these are some things I’ve been thinking about lately.

As creatures, sound is a part of our communication and if not audible sound, vibration is a part of that. It was interesting to me to consider what the fox says, in connection with the things humans and animals and the earth communicate without words, but simply sounds. We communicate joy, satisfaction, pleasure, pain, sorrow, all with primal deep vibrating sounds. Sometimes we don’t even control those sounds.

I was preaching one time during a chapel service in seminary and there was a baby in the front of the sanctuary, who was a little fussy. The moment she took her first draw off of her bottle, she released a sound that communicated satisfaction. I knew that was what it meant because I had made that sound before, just as we all have. My grandpa used to hum when he was eating something he really enjoyed. I do the same thing, except I kinda dance a little too. Joy and satisfaction expressed in sound.

When I was in labor both times, I found that there was a point at which humming helped to move the baby, and release my pain. It was a low, deep rumble kind of hum, that annoyed Don to no end, but it was quite primal and cathartic for me. That sound expressed pain and hard work.

Recently I have been reminded of the sound of heart ache and disbelief, when a church member died unexpectedly of the flu. He was not a young man, but he was healthy. And I have several friends and family members who would argue that 75 isn’t old, either. No one was prepared to lose him, particularly to something that seems so benign as the flu. He never developed pneumonia. It was just the flu. He’s been gone more than a week, and many of us are still shocked. Sitting that night with the family, the widow in her grief poured out a sound that expressed many things and one thing: pain. She was shocked, and broken-hearted, and overwhelmed, and afraid, and angry, and sad, and grieving, and probably more. She was in pain. And the desire when a creature is in pain is to ease the pain, to bind up the wound, to relieve the hurt, to make it better. But there are times when the only thing we can do is offer comfort. And sometimes that comfort is in the form of silent presence. That same week, this man’s 5-year-old grandson, who lives with his pa and grandma, mom, and sister in the same house, was the one at the visitation and at the memorial service who was able to express his pain in the same way. He wailed that he didn’t want to leave pa, and he wanted to see him again. He cried a heart breaking moan that made us all aware of how much we were hurting too.

Sound is a powerful communicator, and when I am aware of it, I become more keenly attune to the sounds that are around me. The sound of bitter wind as I type this blog, makes me aware of my need to wear a coat. And that reminds me of my gratefulness that I have a warm coat to wear, and that gratefulness reminds me of so many other blessings: a warm house and office with working electricity (knock on wood), good food that is nourishing, the love of a family who supports and cares for and shares joy and sorrow together.

Next time you are hearing a sound that is out of the ordinary, pay attention, and see what you learn about yourself and about creation.

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What I hope to teach my daughter

In my daughter’s fifth year she has seen a lot of mile stones. Turning 5 was just the first of those. Starting kindergarten was a big change, but as most young children she dealt with the transition well. We added a once a week half an hour dance class for her this year, and she LOVES it! She wants to dance all the time. Everywhere she is, everywhere she goes she wants to be dancing. In the crowded living room, she’s dancing. At Church, she is dancing. In the grocery aisle, she is dancing. And far too often she is being scolded for doing something she loves.

It’s not that we want to stifle her joy, anything but…however, she still has difficulty considering the consequences of spinning in small spaces, or how spinning will cause falling, or how jumping will cause other things to fall, etc, etc. As a parent, I find myself struggling with how to help her find an outlet for her joy and how to do it safely. Half an hour a week is not proving to be enough. The other things that bring her joy are dramatic play with dolls, or imaginary friends; and learning and then doing the things she has learned on her own. She is eager to try new things. She wants to do more grown up things. Once again I find myself as a parent trying to help her balance between what she is able to do, and letting her fail just enough to make her want to do more, and then there is the level of appropriateness of her actions and choices.

Like her mamma and her grandpa before her, my daughter is a perfectionist. She is eager to learn and to do, but she has little patience for things she cannot accomplish. And what is worse, is that she internalizes her frustration, like her mamma and her grandpa before her. Watching her deal with her frustration both amazes me and concerns me. It amazes me because when she wants to, she is able to calm down and verbalize her frustration and why she feels what she feels. She holds her emotion in check and tells me how she feels about being told “no,” or “stop.”(She is very self-aware.)  She becomes the non-anxious presence in the room. (If only I could do that better, I would definitely be a better pastor.) This is a WONDERFUL trait. Still it concerns me because she internalizes her frustration. And I worry about what that is teaching her. As a parent, I didn’t think I would be building a shame bank quite so early in her life.

As a Christian I rely on the images and lessons of scripture to teach me how to live, particularly through the things that are hard. And honestly, there are times when scripture doesn’t help. Still there are times when the wrong scripture will speak in the midst of a situation, and that is all the more difficult. One lesson that jumps out at me is the concept of fearing the Lord. As a teen and a young adult I thought that this lesson was about being afraid of God’s punishment. As I have matured, I understand that 1) consequences for our actions are not punishment from God, and  2) fear of the Lord is about wanting what God wants, not fearing what God will do.

The shame we feel as children and into adulthood is often related to our actions and their consequences in relationship to what we have been taught about what is acceptable and what is not. Another layer to feeling shame is related to control and/or lack of control and our perception of that control. Still shame has a lasting effect, because it doesn’t just hurt the first time it is felt, it hurts over and over again, no matter how many times we try to heal it. So the only way to truly heal shame is to admit our sin/mistakes, and to understand our limits to control the world around us, and finally to accept God’s grace and when appropriate, the grace of others.

What I hope to teach my sweet daughter is built into her beautiful name: Joy, Enough, and Grace. Abagail is her father’s (and my) deepest joy. She is the seed of joy that is planted deep in our hearts, and when she is her truest self that joy grows into bushels of fruit for us to share and feed the world. Her middle names are Dayenu (a Hebrew word meaning: enough/God did more) and Grace. I hope that I can teach A to find joy in enough: enough that looks like fewer toys and clothes and more sharing; enough that leaves room to grow rather than trying to fill the empty spaces with excess; enough that appreciates and is grateful for how very much she already has and how much more God does every day simply because God is God and we are God’s people; enough that appreciates the small moments of God’s presence in our lives in our journeys and in our growing. I hope that I can teach her grace: grace in mistakes and in intentional choices of sin; grace in learning something new and not shaming herself for what she didn’t know; grace in knowing that true love can only grow, it cannot die, and it cannot fade. While God is the only one who loves perfectly, love comes from God and when we give it back and give it away, it grows.

This year I look forward to sharing more moments like this one. Together she and I built her Christmas present, a wooden doll house.

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She insisted on sharing in the labor, because she is not deterred from things she can conceive of doing in her mind, and because she wanted to be a part of the creation. Being a girl didn’t figure into the equation of building a doll house. This year I want to avoid teaching her to change her body (because I’m not happy with my own) and instead teach her to love exercise (dancing and walking and running and jumping) and to love vegetables and fruits and to choose sugar only sometimes. This year, I want to teach her about the joy in working a little harder for a few minutes to avoid working really hard for a long time later (cleaning and organizing her room). And I hope in teaching I can learn to model these same behaviors.

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Sight Blindness: A Lesson in the Details

This morning I found myself wasting time searching for something that was right in front of me. I know…sounds familiar, right? It was not something that had gotten lost in a pile. It was not something that was just hidden from view, it was literally right in front of me, and I could not see it.

Sometimes these are reminders to slow down and focus.

I was leaving the church where my son attends daycare/preschool. I had started the car and was still in park checking a text on my phone when I accidentally started to bobble my phone and it ultimately fell. As I bobbled my phone it and my hand some how hit the hazard light indicator button. Now, we’ve been driving this car for about five and a half months, and gratefully we have not needed to use the hazard lights. And I could not see the button. I looked everywhere I could think. I am certain I looked directly at it several times and still could not see it.

I ended up pulling out the manuals to see if it would tell me where to find it. It didn’t, at least not in a way I could find that either. I was so frustrated. I didn’t want to drive anywhere with my hazards blinking, but I could not turn them off.

I became very intentional about looking at my surroundings, where a car company might hide such a button in plain view. After staring at the dash and not seeing it, I looked on the steering wheel, around the steering wheel, on the floor, on the gear shift console.

After 15 minutes of looking and almost giving up, (I had my phone in my hand to call Honda and ask where it was), I noticed it. I had seen it so often and it so pleasantly blended into the background, I didn’t see it. It’s was immediately under the radio screen/center console. Right where I had been looking the whole time.

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Sometimes the thing we are seeking is right under our noses and we simply can’t see it. We’ve seen it so often and not used it, that it doesn’t register as important information, so we just don’t see it. A small group in my church has been doing the book/Bible study by Rev. Adam Hamilton based on his book ‘Why?’ which explores the nature of God in a hostile world. We’ve discussed why bad things happen to good people. We’ve discussed why it seems God’s doesn’t answer our prayers. We’ve discussed miracles and whether or not they happen. It was the discussion about miracles that led me to the understanding that miracles are in the eye of the beholder…it’s all in one’s perspective.

Sometimes we expect God to do what we want, and when God doesn’t we feel God hasn’t answered our prayers. However, God does not promise to do what we want. God’s promise is to sustain us with what we need. This is a two-part conversation. Part of this conversation is about doing our part in following God’s plan, and part of this conversation is about changing our expectations and our perspective. (My next blog is going to be about our expectation that God will do miracles without human involvement. The Harry Potter complex.) If I expect God to intervene when I am too busy to listen to God, and I am too distracted to see God’s work, and I am too anxious to wait on God’s timing, how could I possibly see what God has placed right in front of me? If I am too over-exerted to engage with God in a prayer conversation on a regular basis, if that is not a priority in my faith journey, how can I expect to see and hear God when I am in the midst of crisis?

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It is not God’s nature to break into human interaction to fix our poor decisions, or to remove our suffering. On the other hand, 1. when we are open to being used by God and 2. when we are intentional about paying attention to what is happening around us, seeing the details: that is when we will see God’s work in the world.

I often wonder how much of God’s work I miss. It is helpful to be reminded then, that sometimes we miss things right in front of us, because we have forgotten how to look for them. Maybe we need a little more practice at paying attention.

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My biggest critic

I’ve been doing some work on Liz, lately. It may be why I’ve resisted writing and publishing for a few weeks. Then today I had a little breakthrough that made me think I should share.

I have a naturally analytical brain. It is my instinct to ask questions about things I don’t understand. It is also one of my favorite teaching tools. (Is that the Socratic method?) So when I’m struggling with any particular area of life, relationship, faith, etc. I start wondering why I am struggling before I try to “solve the problem.”

In my recent self-reflection I’ve been dealing on many levels with criticism. Some of this criticism is constructive. Some is helpful. Some is challenging. Some is hurtful. Some is unfounded. In considering these criticisms and why I was struggling I realized something. Now maybe this is no big surprise to you all out there, but it took me off guard (maybe because I was too busy being defensive and angry about the criticism).

I have several people in my life who keep me honest, not the least of which include my dad, my husband, my sister and my daughter. But the criticism I have the hardest time dealing with is from me. The pressure I put on myself to do things in a way that leads to success, is sometimes overwhelming.

The irony is, if a parishioner came to me and told me how hard they were being on themselves I would advise them to be gentle with themselves, be grace-filled for themselves, forgive themselves, because God is already forgiving them. When I realized I was being so hard on myself I breathed a sigh of relief and frustration at the same time. And in talking through all of this I realized I could have grace for myself, and now I know what I need to do to fix my misstep. While I was holding myself hostage for the cause of self-pity and self-criticism, I could not see to the other side of what I thought was wrong. But once I named my self-anger and released myself from the bondage of what was ultimately a small mistake, once that was named I could forgive myself and I could almost immediately see what I needed to do next.

Be gentle with yourself in your self-criticism. Give yourself room for grace. Confess your anger to God. Forgive yourself and allow God to show you a new way.

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Tree Pruning

Tree Pruning.

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Tree Pruning

Every once in a while I am reminded of a few fundamentals. Notice I didn’t say “THE” fundamentals, nor did I say a fundamental, but a few fundamentals. I guess what I mean is that when those reminders come, it is not usually all of the wisdom you need to know in order to live a fruitful life, nor is it just one lesson, but usually those reminders come as consumable fruits that are packed with nutrients and powerfully foundational to our lives. (Now I am hearing in my head, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”)

It started last week when the landscape team hired Shawnee Tree (a local arborist company who is really good at what they do), to do some pruning on the 50+ year old sugar maple in the back yard of the parsonage. It had been years since anyone had intentionally pruned it, and it looked like it was dying a slow death with several branches no longer producing leaves. However the arborist suggested it needed a good pruning and a deep fertilization. To do the pruning they brought in a crane with a bucket for the arborist to use to get up in the tree. It was truly fascinating to watch the operator move up and down and up and down to get in just the right spot to cut the large branches away from the tree so they would not fall on something below.

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At one point the man in the bucket extended the bucket to its highest extension in order to bend the elbow a different direction so that he could get to just the right spot and so he would not hit the house with the crane.

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I felt like a kid watching this machine work, and I was in awe of the man who could prune this old maple with such precision.

As I watched, I thought to myself, there is something here I need to pay attention to, because I will want to write about it later.

As I thought later about the pruning the tree experienced, I realized what it was that was striking a chord. This tree has lived for many years with heavy, dead limbs hanging on it. While many, if not most of the limbs were producing leaves and offering shade not to mention producing oxygen and beautiful colors in the fall, there were still these large, heavy, drying, dying limbs that were soaking nutrients from the rest of the tree. They were twiggy and they were trying to break off and fall, and during some good storms they would do just that (which is why it was such a concern that we take care of this pruning as there were concerns for safety of my family and the house). And when I would look at the tree, it looked like it was dying. It was sad and old and tired.

As the arborist cut those heavy, dying pieces of limbs away from the tree, the rest of the limbs would bounce back almost relieved to be rid of the weight and responsibility of carrying that which had weighed it down. Like a person after a good hair cut looks lighter, younger, bouncier, more confident, this tree stood a little taller because she was no longer weighed down by that which she carried and could not let go of on her own.

Pruning is a difficult process. There are times when we are exhausted by carrying around the load of that which no longer serves its original purpose, or any purpose at all, but that we cannot seem to let go. The boxes we’ve had in the basement for five years and yet have no idea what is in them; the clothes that remind us of what we used to look like and hope we can again; the mementoes that we don’t even really like but they were a gift and so we keep them out of politeness; they weigh us down. Then there are the hurts we carry all the time, not in the fore front of our minds, but always there as scars that remind us of literal pain, these mental and emotional traumas keep us from returning trust, and love, they keep us from being able to commit, they weigh us down and age our bodies, just as if we were carrying around actual weights.

We are not good at letting those things go, changing our routines that keep us from growing, releasing the hurts that we won’t allow to heal. We are not good at allowing ourselves to be pruned, because we cannot always let go. But something else occurred to me as I thought back on watching that arborist do his job; the tree does some self-pruning, but cannot do it all by her self. And also, the longer she is left to carry those limbs without pruning, the more they drain her of her life.

You see, we cannot do all of the pruning our lives need. We need help. We need others to help us see the things we cannot see. We need one another to help us let go, even if we must let go again and again. And most importantly we need one like our creator, who not only prunes us but lifts us up when we are healing still from our pruning. It is through grace, that God can bring healing to our pain, and growth to our lives and ministry.

Some things (sometimes it is people and sometimes it is behavior and sometimes it is hurt…) have to be cut away from us in order for us to grow. It will hurt, but we might just be relieved.

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