No Anchor But Jesus {{#backtochurch}}

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Crocosmia in my front garden

“Where do people put such things when they live by Plan? Our entire plan is simply Miscellaneous.” -Gladys Taber, Stillmeadow Seasons, 1950

Last Sunday was our first time back in a building to gather and worship for church since March of this year. I refer to that time as “2020 B.C.” as in Before Coronavirus.

Guided by our pastor and staff, we were properly spaced in family or couple groups, masked up and elbow-bumping our hellos to one another. It was….. weird. And it was somehow wonderful at the same time. Why? Because we were together again with our brothers and sisters, standing in the same room with live music. No more screens with live streaming church services…the body of Christ was re-membered–put back together again.

But yes, it was weird. Not the church part, but the whole year part.

For instance, how is it almost July?

It seems like 2020 should only have two months–January and June. Or better, just two parts–Then and Now. The plans in my Daytimer were thankfully in pencil (I’m old school like that) and erased easily enough. But instead of checking off or crossing out events and tasks, January through June just became one gaping hole.

Weeks have turned into months, days are jumbled together in no particular order. I wake up nearly every morning and wonder, “Now is it Tuesday or Friday?” Without Sundays set aside to be in fellowship and worship, weekly anchors that held my life in place disappeared almost overnight.

Yes, there has been little to plan on in these days of #coronavirus. Facts change overnight, what was for sure and for certain and familiar has vanished. I have been forced…. goaded? nudged? into facing the one fact that remains–God’s word is the only anchor I can count on. His truth centers me, His spirit fills me and His daily faithfulness in the world around me has continued to save me.

I am forever grateful that this pandemic and isolation came when Spring in our corner of the world was just waking up. Now here we are in the thick of Summer and flowers and trees are lush and vibrant, my potato vines are flourishing, the bees are busy in the lavender. Life continues in God’s creation whether there’s lockdown or not. You can’t quarantine nature, that is for sure.00100lrPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20200629121951486_COVER

The nudges I feel in this season were summed up beautifully the other morning when I read in Psalm 143 during my quiet time.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.

Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Psalm 143:8

I so wish I could actually make plans in my Planner. That I knew what was going to take place in the next month or two. But the Holy Spirit is continuing to remind me that we are only given one day at a time and our days, whether we acknowledge it or not, belong to God.

I can’t think of anyplace safer to be right now than listening and looking into the coming year one day at a time. That is God’s saving grace.

Tell me, what’s saving your life right now? I’d love to hear in the comments.

#blacklivesmatter {Let’s Talk Forgiveness}

forgiveness Aaron drawingHear me out, dear Reader. 

Something has taken a back seat to the horrendous unfolding following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th. It has been reported that Floyd had a criminal history; perhaps police were right to detain him when he proffered his counterfeit $20 bill. But officers’ actions on the scene have given us pause–the punishment was astronomically outsized compared to the crime.

Calls for justice to be served are valid points. Peaceful marches and demonstrations are also valid, as uncomfortable as they make us feel. And talking about racism in this country, facing my own fears and silence as a Christ-follower has given me pause, too.

But there is another story unfolding if we go looking. George Floyd had turned his life around before he came to Minneapolis for a new start. That message has unfortunately been pushed off the front pages and replaced by incendiary headlines about rioting, chaos and anarchy. I don’t mean to dismiss those events; they are rocking our country, I get that.

But if we aren’t careful, we will let the darkness drown out the light. The enemy of our souls wants to keep our focus on destruction when God is all about creation and new beginnings. Forgiveness and second chances. Light in the middle of the darkness.

George Floyd served time in prison in Texas and after his release turned his life around. The Minneapolis Salvation Army welcomed him; he had high hopes for a new start. Girlfriend Courteney Ross, a white woman, recently spoke out and said he dreamt of starting a restaurant where he would employ ex-cons. He’d call it Convict Kitchen.

“You know, if he was here, he would say that he’s a man of God. He would stand on that firmly,” Ross told a reporter with local Minneapolis CBS news affiliate WCCO. “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.” (from the Epoch Times, online, accessed 6.9.20)

“He would have objected to the violence, he would give grace.”

Naming our Losses {#lifeinthetimeofcorona}


IMG_20200501_080547When Washington State brought the country’s first case of novel Coronavirus to the US, we had no idea what had begun. While the sudden deaths of loved and aged family members was a shock, the nursing home tragedy was still an hour and a half away from where I live.

Things moved quickly, tho’. Suddenly the virus was way too close to home and there were deaths of a different kind, no less significant. Travel plans were curtailed and questioned everywhere. A writer’s retreat I’d been looking forward to for a year was prayerfully and tearfully cancelled. I would grieve for weeks.

Folks were elbow tapping each other the last time we were together at church. And just like that, a week later we were under #stayathome orders.

The last time I was able to get a latte at my favorite family-owned coffee shop I stood in line with folks outside (each of us on our blue-taped line), chatting about the sudden changes. Gatherings of more than 10 people were cancelled overnight and those aged 65 and over (raising my hand) were cautioned to stay safe inside.

Most significantly I was heartsick about not seeing my children and grandchildren. We were expecting a visit from my son’s out-of-town family over Spring Break; needless to say, that didn’t happen. My daughter’s newest pride and joy, Mary Becca, did some adorable thing each week and I counted down the days without seeing her in person. While I’m grateful for the daily photos my daughter has been texting, you know how fast a baby changes….

Well, we’ve pivoted, to use the latest term. Virtual visits with friends and loved ones have proliferated thanks to Marco Polo and Zoom calls. “Church” sprang up via Facebook Live and video chats now replace in-person conversations. Yes, life in the time of quarantine has had a weirdness all its own.

On May 4th, 40 days from our first #SelfQuarantine guidelines, our Governor began a return to sort of normal, definitely new. There will be phases, the end of which could take us into July. I don’t even want to think about how long away that is.

….

Quarantine is from the Latin ‘quarantina’ for 40.

Forty days in the Biblical narrative has always connoted some kind of cataclysmic change–Noah’s 40 days and nights of rain, Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, His reappearance in the 40 days after His Resurrection. Each period was marked by a definite before and a very particular after.

According to the Liturgical calendar, we are now in the season of Easter. It seems appropriate and wildly significant that we too would be changed on the other side of this sudden and drastic turn of events.

A lot has happened in forty-plus days, sometimes at warp speed. We can hardly keep up, never mind process all that we are grieving. But it would unfair for us to compare losses in a time like this. I have four friends at church that took sick with #covid19 and thankfully recovered. A dear pastor who lives out of town said she spent 10 days in bed, dreaming through the window. We have all been affected, whether we know a family who lost a loved one, had someone ill and recovered or whether we are simply heartsick in another way.

  • Children had to say goodbye overnight to classmates and playmates at school.
  • Seniors who graduate this year had activities yanked right out from under them, not the least of which is commencement for the class of 2020.
  • Small businesses have shuttered their doors and thousands may never open, including my favorite coffee shop.

To say because no one I know has died in this pandemic, that it pales in comparison to the ache to see my grandchildren would be unfair. Each loss we face is valid and matters to the heart of God. The playing field is equal for all and every lesson we remember from this time is all gift.

Forty days is hardly an eternity, but it can bring a change on the other side if we let it. May we remember the hard-won lessons from #lifeinthetimeofcorona, to take nothing for granted, rejoice in the smallest pleasures and treasure the people in our lives, those who are close and those far away.

Dear God, may it be so. Amen.

*****

These thoughts aren’t nearly as compelling on the computer screen as they were in my head, but I decided to hit ‘Publish’ nonetheless. I hope they provide a glimpse of what I meant here, that there is no scale for how deeply we feel the losses we’ve been facing–they all matter to God. And to us.

Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Is That the Right Question?

“Harbor me in the eye of the storm
I’m holding on to the love you swore.” 

-John Mark McMillan, Love You Swore

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The other day on Instagram I asked: “How come we never wonder why good things happen to good people? Or why good things happen to bad people?”

My thoughts were a version of that all-too-common question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” As if there was some chart in the sky where God is tallying checkmarks, balancing our actions with our consequences. This also begs the question–who decides what makes someone ‘bad’ or ‘good?’ 

Barbara Brown Taylor deals with a variation of this exact same question in a selection in her book, “Home by Another Way.” Taylor, an Episcopal priest, recounts a time when she sat in the hospital with a distraught mother during surgery for her 5-year-old daughter’s brain tumor. The mother lamented that she hadn’t quit smoking and therefore God was trying to punish her. “That’s why my daughter has a tumor,” the mom said. Taylor shared a bit of her theology about the way God thinks about hard times and tragedies.

“Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect, in hopes that we can stop causing it. What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than in consequences. What we crave above all is control over the chaos of our lives.”

Taylor cites Luke Chapter 13 where the Galileans are arguing with Jesus about who deserves what because of their sin. Jesus will have none of it; people who die (or have tragedy strike) don’t “deserve what they get,” He tells them.  

(This) is a tempting equation that solves a lot of problems,” Taylor explains.  

1) It answers the riddle of why bad things happen to good people: they don’t. Bad             things only happen to bad people.

2) It punishes the sinners right out in the open as a warning to everyone.

3) It gives us a God who obeys the laws of physics. For every action, there is an                   opposite and equal reaction. Any questions?

“…but Jesus won’t go there. No, Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin. Whew. There is no sense spending too much time trying to decipher this piece of good news,” she continues. “…it is not meant to aid reason but to disarm it…Jesus touches the panic (the Galileans) have inside of them… but (He) does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, (but seems) to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives.”

My daughter Leah first introduced me to the music of John Mark MacMillan, whose song lyrics open this essay. (She also took the seaside photo.) Leah has had five miscarriages. (update below.) The loss has been mind-numbing, the pain too deep to ponder and sometimes God feels very far away. As her mom, it has been a heartbreaking journey. For my daughter, well, it’s been hard to face one loss after another, to say the least.

Music is an anchor for her and she recently told me, “Mom, one song has been my anthem during this time–Love You Swore. I keep repeating the lines, Harbor me in the eye of the storm, I’m holding on to the love you swore. I know Jesus is faithful and has my best interests in mind for my life. But it’s just hard and all I can do is hang on.”

Some helpful, life-changing occurrences have taken place on this journey for my daughter and her husband. But some gut-wrenching experiences have been part of that journey. If I used the good people/bad people, blessings/hardships equation, there might be some sense in all of it. But sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Instead of looking for a reason or shifting the blame or finding an answer we need to sit with the pain and the grief and realize that Jesus is right there with us.

Taylor’s essay continues, “When panic sets in and we’re searching for answers (realize) that torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life. Depending on what you want from God, this may not sound like good news to you. But for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame, it is Gospel enough. What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.”  (from ‘Life-Giving Fear’, Home by Another Way)

We can’t stop the storms in our lives but we can rejoice that our Savior sits with us in the midst of them. And we can also lift our hands to thank Him in the good things. He’s right there in storm and the calm seas, with all people. 

**June 2019 Leah and her husband welcomed baby girl Mary Rebecca Elizabeth Johnson in August of 2019. We rejoice in God’s goodness and grace.

———

You can listen to “Love You Swore” by John Mark here

“Home by Another Way” by Barbara Brown Taylor is available here.

 

How to Save the World-Write a Letter

“Further, since being a writer involves the building of bridges between our own life experience and that of others, our job is to find the most significant points of connection between ourselves and our readers.”                                                                                                            -Luci Shaw, The Writer’s Notebook, essay in A Syllable of Water

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I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday how I felt in the days after September 11th. My daughter and I were in New York City that day and the next, staying with my nephew who had graciously hosted us in his Brooklyn apartment. After the world exploded, we set out for upstate NY, where my sister-in-law lived, with plans to camp out there until we could get on a flight back home to Seattle.
We overnighted along the way in a hotel where several pilots were staying. As shocked and traumatized as I was after the sky rained down ash and powder for 24 hours, I couldn’t imagine being a pilot and having to face the reality that my job was to get back into the cockpit of a jet and fly the next day. When we checked into our hotel, I boldly approached each one of them and thanked them for their bravery. They were being called to do one of the most unthinkable jobs on the planet. And they went anyway.

As my daughter and I traveled back to the West coast four days later through three different airports, flight attendants and pilots somberly passed us, their rolling bags trailing behind them, faces set like flint. Again I said ‘thank you’ as often as I could; some of the flight attendants also got a hug.
******
The country is reeling again from another tragedy, outraged at the carnage and loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Many have taken their outrage and channeled it to finding a cause or pointing a finger—more gun control, revamping FBI practices, engaging in more stringent oversight of those mentally ill—each a just and worthwhile issue.
I am not going to argue the wisdom of those efforts, nor am I ignoring the energy and passion of the survivors at Marjory Stoneman who are marching next month. Everyone has a right to use their voice where and how they can.
For my small part, I sat down yesterday and did what writers do: I wrote a letter to my oldest grandson’s high school teacher. In it, I suggested a practice of checking in with students every Friday for a few minutes at the end of the day to see how they are doing. Not verbally, but via paper. (Glennon Doyle Melton recounted the idea via her article at rd dot com and I borrowed it from her.)
High school staff and teachers are the people on the front lines every day from New York to California, Montana to Florida and everywhere in between, who have to go back to work in their buildings after a richly deserved day off and face their jobs again.
They will show up and keep showing up and caring for kids and pouring out their lives day after day in classrooms all over America.
If you know a kid in high school, if you HAVE a kid in high school, if you know a High School teacher, can you take 10-15 minutes to write a note to that principal or teacher? Something like,
“Thank you for facing your job each day under unthinkable circumstances, for doing the difficult job of caring for kids,” or just plain, “thank you.” You can read my letter here and adapt it for your own. 
Or heck, print out this excerpt below (from Glennon Doyle, re: her son’s 5th grade teacher) and pass it along to the teacher or principal. You never know, it might save someone’s life. Or many someone’s lives before more children are lost to loneliness, emptiness and despair.
————–
“Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who can’t think of anyone to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children, I think this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold—the gold being those children who need a little help, who need adults to step in and teach them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts. And it’s a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside her eyeshot and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But, as she said, the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper.
As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea, I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said.
Ever since Columbine, she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine. Good Lord.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. Who are our next mass shooters and how do we stop them? She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often in the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11-year-old hands is saving lives. I am convinced of it.” (read the entire essay here.)

——–

Build a bridge, be a connection, stand in the gap. Fill the gaps with love, and maybe a letter. 

The Body of Memories-September 11th

I met a friend recently for lunch at a park near my home, desperate for her company and encouragement. Nerves were frayed, emotions out of whack, reserve tanks anything but reserved.

I apologized in advance for my undone condition. As I attempted to articulate my very frail feelings, blaming my 4 am wake-up call after a night of worrying about my new book, her simple response was, “You’re exhausted, Jody. No wonder you’re on the brink of tears.”

“Plus, it’s almost September 11th.”

Until she voiced the obvious, I wasn’t aware that, too, was weighing on my mind. Our bodies have memory and you’re remembering that day.

—–

In September of 2001, my daughter and I celebrated her graduation from culinary school with a trip to New York City. We’d arranged a 10-day visit with my nephew who lived in Brooklyn and also a meeting with Ruth Reichl, then Editor of Gourmet Magazine and author of 3 of our favorite books on cooking. The first five days in and around the city were glorious. A drive to the beach and back, subway-riding to Manhattan and the New York Public Library. Strolling through Central Park and jaunts all around Brooklyn. On the evening of September 10th, we met my nephew after work for drinks at a restaurant high atop the Marriott Hotel.

 A tremendous thunderstorm came through that night. We watched in awe from our cloud-high window seats at the lightning strikes, rain storming down in buckets. When we ventured back to the street, we found the air charged with heat and pressed on through the rain. Although we got soaked, we dried out on the subway ride home. (I wrote about the kindness of the people we met that night in this poem.) 
The next morning was the day of our appointment with Ruth back in Midtown at 30 Rockefeller Center.  I remember the voicemail from her assistant,  ‘See you at 11 on the 11th.’

The morning broke with a crystal clear blue sky, scrubbed clean from the previous nights’ storm. And then the earth moved, the sky filled with ashes and paper glitter and we were forever changed.