The Joy of Clutter

The Joy of Clutter

51H8x07Fd7LEverywhere I go women are talking about “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. Apparently Kondo’s advice is to pick up items one by one and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If there is no joy, it’s cluttering up your life, and away it goes.

I haven’t read the book, and won’t, because I was born with a freakish inner compass for organization. Neatness is my true north. If I had a motto it would be – less stuff, more peace. Minimalism is my preferred aesthetic. Therefore, I need no expert help purging, shelving, tidying, or storing.

When I was young, my mother would drop off freshly folded laundry and expected me to put it away. I did so obediently, after refolding most items so they would best fit the confines of each drawer’s particular width and depth. 20+ years later and Mom still shares that anecdote, always with the same bemusement. She’s sure she was handed someone else’s baby at birth. How could a child of hers be so concerned with drawer efficiency that she would refold socks, even underwear!?

If I wasn’t my mother’s spitting image, I’m sure I’d have the same question. The woman is notorious for having stacks of paper laying around. She claims she has “a system” and that though – to the untrained eye – the piles seem like they belong in the recycle bin, in reality they are full of essential household documents. Any rifling through or dusting near her stacks brings wild exclamations and dire warnings. Trespassers have been known to wonder if IRS agents are about to plunge through the front door. Years ago, to legitimize her “system” and to save herself some grief, mom camouflaged the teetering stacks by placing them in decorative baskets.

I’m exaggerating a bit on both our parts, you understand. (Except, not about the underwear refolding. Or the decorative baskets; they’re all Longaberger.) My organizational freakishness and mom’s basketed stacks are running jokes between us. We love each other even when we look at the other like she’s a rare bird on display at the zoo. Mom concedes that she benefits from my wizardry when I reorganize her pantry every winter. It’s an odd and wonderful Christmas gift. I have the deep satisfaction of bringing order to a jungle of canned goods, dad is saved from being poisoned by expired olives, and mom has the joy of knowing she had five cans of tomato paste after all. It’s a win-win-win.

As amusing as all this is, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m sharing with such vulnerability. Well, this week I went through a box that I haven’t opened in five years. If a stranger opened this particular box, she might think she’s stumbled on an odd cache of…junk.

Ok…fine – it’s clutter. The contents are random and ajumble – but none of it is junk. Inside this box are mementos of my life, most of no monetary value. Many items are discolored, rumpled, or cracked, but all are cherished for some reason. After five years, lifting the lid and combing through the contents was like stepping into a biopic of my life. Here’s what I discovered:

  • My kindergarten tote-bag. My name is written in the lining with permanent marker.9724
  • A clutch purse my mother made with my name stitched on the front
  • My first book, “Snow White and the Seven Giants” written and hand-illustrated by yours truly, circa 1990. I should hurry to copyright. It’s a gem of a story complete with giants, a 20 story house with 5,000 sets of stairs, and the first giant-human hybrid child.
  • A small, paisley dog purchased in 1992 in London, England – a souvenir from my first overseas trip.
  • Several scripts from my years on stage.ATT_1448159471997_9737
  • A card from my father when he had to miss opening night of one of those plays. The message – “I may not see the opening, but I will close down the place next week. Break both legs you actor you. Love, Dad.”
  • My junior and senior prom photos. Those make me thank God for puberty, my orthodontist, and my seamstress mother who could make any dress I dreamed up.
  • A polaroid of me wearing a giant sombrero. (My friends knew that I hate being sung to in public, so out of their deep affection for me, they told our waiter that it was my birthday. I got the full mariachi tribute in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Ole!)9733
  • A letter from one of my college roommates. We were good friends, but horribly matched roommates. We had an epic falling out and she wrote me two years later asking for forgiveness. It’s the most healing piece of paper I own.
  • A birthday card from my parents. Mom said, “What a joy you are to me.” Dad said, “So, you are the best daughter a man could want.”
  • A set of napkins, given to me by my senior year college roommates. I threw them both bridal showers and these napkins are a symbolic promise to return the favor. Plus, they would be very humorous as shower napkins for a pastor, right?9725
  • A card from my dear friend Emily. We both attended a little Baptist church when the “women in ministry” debate was raging through the congregation. She wrote, “I don’t want you to feel that your gifts in leadership and preaching go unrecognized. God is in control – he hears the cry of the marginalized, he will bring about something wonderful to those who listen for his voice…Your worth is not by man’s standards but our Great God.” This is why I call Em my Canadian Treasure. I got to officiate her wedding a few years later.
  • A bunch of handmade cards littered with inside jokes and picture collages from my college student staff.
  • A letter from another former student. She struggled with depression for years. One night her senior year she called me when she was sitting with a large bottle of Aspirin, ready to take her life. Her letter contains the words, “You literally saved my life.” This item is a powerful reminder that simple things like listening and being available can save lives. Every human being is capable of these things, but we many need to unplug more.

There’s a bunch more we could comb through, but you’ve got the gist. This box is the sum total of clutter in my home (honestly, you can check my closets) but what joyful clutter!

I’m hanging on to stuff others might discard because this “stuff” can make me laugh, or cry, or transport me to another time and place. These items are markers of my development from child to adult, actress to pastor and writer. They tell of a life overflowing with rich friendship and the unconditional support of family. They are stones of remembrance of  loss and forgiveness, and the healing God can bring when you think the statute of limitations has long since past.

I’ve realized that this box of clutter tells my story. You’d need me to sit beside you to fill in the gaps, but my story is here in every keychain and photo, script and stuffed animal. All of the words stuffed into these letters and cards – and all the people who held those pens – shaped me into the confident, people-centered woman that I am today.

Days after sifting through this box, I discovered some sadness mixed in with my gratitude. I hate that the letter is no longer a valued and common method of communication. So I marched to my local Hallmark store, bought some stationary, came home and started writing. Three hours and 28 letters later, I felt refreshingly human. And absurdly thankful for an untidy box of stuff.

There may have even been some sparks of joy.

 

 

 

All Things New

I’m 10 months into my new job at a new church in a new state. Most days it feels like I’ve been here a few years. I feel at home both in northern California (it reminds me of my favorite home – Vancouver, BC) and at my church. I can tell these are my kind of people and that life will be good here.

But there are also days when it’s hard to get more than 4 good hours of work from my brain. I feel tired despite regular exercise and sleep, and that’s when I remember that I’m new! I’m still adjusting to a new culture and a new city. When my brain and body are tired, I coach myself to breathe deeply, to give thanks for my job and for God’s presence, and to be gentle with self-expectations. Thriving in a new place doesn’t happen quickly. And I have plenty of time.

Lantana splashes color all over my neighborhood

Lantana splashes color all over my neighborhood

I’m discovering new things to love. A friend introduced me to the delights of Korean and Burmese cuisines. Yum. Seriously, YUM. Taking evening walks in my neighborhood is one of my favorite things. Our temperate climate keeps flowers and shrubs in bloom. I’m partial to Lantana because it’s so cheerful. My neighbors are predominately Indian and Middle Eastern. During my 2-mile loop, I usually hear 4 languages spoken. Women exercise in vibrantly colored sarees and running shoes. One evening I passed a man walking a slow rhythm as he chanted from a beautifully calligraphed text. My neighborhood is alive with activity and color and diversity. It revives my energy on the draggy days.

Settling into a new place brings some loneliness. That’s a natural side effect when you go where you don’t have established relationships. Even though my job is very social, all of the people-time is building time, not resting time. I burn a lot of emotional and physical energy listening, asking questions, and filing stories in my brain as I get to know people. Many days I catch myself daydreaming about friends that are far away. Friends who know me – my history, my hangups, what makes me laugh, and what encourages me.

Earlier this month I flew to Pennsylvania and spent a few days with some of those friends. With Holly, Lauren, and Stephanie, I don’t have to share my story. I could snort or make an off-handed comment and not worry that I might be misinterpreted. I could be silent without the awkwardness. Lauren and I laughed loudly in a restaurant and drew some stares and raised eyebrows, but I didn’t care. It was so good, so freeing and playful, to be with people who know me.

Spending several days with my best friend Stephanie and her daughters was heavenly. I love kids and there were three red heads crawling all over me every waking hour. I got to read dozens of picture books and bring characters to life with accents and intonation. (The baby particularly enjoyed that.) I got to color with fat crayons. I got to wait for the school bus and take walks during breaks in the autumn rain. I sat at the kitchen table and chatted with Stephanie while she cooked us Midwestern fare. (We are native Ohioans and share a love for cheese and Crock-Pot meals.)

12065792_10153196724531033_9072941955973061272_n

12118786_10153193843116033_8008176579266249353_n

Stephanie and I, circa 2009

During time outs, and nap time, and after bedtime, we talked. We talked for hours, catching each other up about our families and our daily lives. We reminisced about meeting 9 years ago during a grueling interview day at a college; about the four years we worked together at that college; and about the notoriously horrible backpacking trip we took in the PA woods. We talked out some in-the-trenches, serious things and tried to discern the tracks they are making in our souls. We cried together. We laughed. Sometimes we just sat quietly on the same couch. There was peace. I felt loved and known even when we were doing nothing.

Stephanie and I are Anne Shirley and Diana Barry incarnate. She’s a kindred spirit, the sister of my heart. Her life is full and very different from mine, but that made my time with her so refreshing. There’s even science to prove how life-giving her friendship is to me. Check out the contrast between my typical sleep cycle and my sleep cycle the night I got home from vacation!

Screenshot_2015-10-18-16-46-14

Screenshot_2015-10-18-16-45-34

Fall is charging ahead. Three blinks from now I’ll be celebrating my first anniversary in Silicon Valley. I’m building a life here. It’s good even when it’s draining. There’s potential for rich relationships and ministry. I’m grateful to be here, witnessing new things blooming in and around me.

Brimming with Power: A Look Inside Women’s Ministry

4912

Let’s start with an exercise. Open a second tab on your browser, go to google, and type the words women’s ministry. Then click the ‘image’ tab. Welcome to the great Pink Sea, only to be rivaled by Julia Robert’s blush-and-bashful wedding in Pretty Woman.

Take a few minutes to sail down your screen. Notice the monochromatic backgrounds, headlines, and lettering. Did you catch all those hearts? What about the abundance of gerbera daisies? And the butterflies you’d find in a Disney sticker book? Oh, and the rose-shaded cross!

Dotting this sea are a few pictures of actual women. They’re usually huddled together holding mugs, holding hands along a sunset backdrop, or holding the Bible and laughing. I’m surprised to see a fair amount of racial and ethnic diversity in these pictures, but that’s where the diversity ends. All the women in these photos are clean, well-groomed, and they match in an eerie way. They’re all smiling big, happy smiles.

As a pastor, and particularly in my role as a pastor to women in a large congregation, I look at these “women’s ministry” images and scratch my head. How do these monochromatic designs represent the curious and sincere, struggling yet resolved, broken-but-being-restored disciples that I see around me each day?

I wonder too, how these images shape perceptions about ministry to women. Will a visitor to our websites see these banners, logos, and photos in all their pink smiling glory, and think — there’s the place for me!? Or will she feel (again) the need to be a certain type of woman, or to have it all together?

More importantly, how do these images shape perceptions about the ministry of women. Might these hearts and flowers water-down the vibrant gift that women are to the church? Might the Pink Sea limit our vision for the powerful impact that women have in the churches and communities across the globe?

Be honest. When you think of “women’s ministry,” do you imagine pastel fluff, or do you see something more dynamic?

As a pastor to women, these are the questions and concerns that constantly rattle around inside me. This keeps me up at night praying for wisdom. It keeps me thinking strategically and planning creatively. I take my job very seriously because women’s ministry is not fluff. In my world, women’s ministry is something substantive and strong. It’s something that brims with the power to transform.

Fundamentally, women’s ministry it’s about people who need God. Yes, the people I minister to happen to be female, but they may or may not like pink, or chocolate, or flowers. The women in our churches have lives of significance. They have demanding careers, complex relationships, and varied hobbies. They suffer loss and experience pain. They wrestle with big questions. They doubt. They accomplish great things. They fall down and crawl toward hope.

I know that God that can lift up the weary. God has the power to heal the broken. His Word is life and light to the doubting and confused. God is what women need. And my job as a pastor is to hang a neon sign above his inn and welcome every traveler.

And yes, we women might gather around a table with mugs of coffee and a pretty centerpiece, but we’re there to talk about real life — the sting of a friend’s betrayal, the excitement of love, the pain of miscarriage or divorce, the fear of failure, and the challenges and joy of leadership in its many forms. So for every picture you see on the internet of women smiling or laughing, you should also imagine them focused and serious, mopping up the tears and coffee they spilled when they shared about a new loss.

Ministry to women should unleash the power of God’s good news in a disheartening world. It should be about truth telling, authenticity, hospitality, and healing. Whether the venue is decorated or bare, women should able to come as they are, to tell their stories, to encounter God and learn from his Word.

The women I see in the church are far more complex and varied than the images and shades stereotypically assigned to them. The women I know are smart, capable, inquisitive, and intelligent. They are leaders and entrepreneurs, inventors and teachers, artists and engineers, managers and students. Some are rich and others poor. Some dress to impress, others wear only what is comfortable, and a few come to us in musty, tattered clothes because that’s what they have. All of these women come to the church looking for a place to belong. They stay because they discover that God is the source and sustainer of life.

I want women’s ministry to be so dynamic that it welcomes a CEO and a recovering addict, a stay-at-home mom and a pediatrician, an ivy-league professor and a woman with a GED. I want a ministry that makes room for mess. A place that’s a refuge from the grind of comparison that we women put ourselves through. A place where a woman wearing pink heels and red lipstick sits beside a woman with black combat boots and a bad dye-job, and sees a friend.

Bottom line? I just want women’s ministry to bring women together and point them to God. And then we get to stand back and watch God do BIG things, like forgive sin — and free women from addiction or perfectionism — and teach them to live as beloved and fully empowered disciples. Pink daisies are not the centerpiece of this ministry. God’s power is.

Some women are like cheerful, pastel blooms. Others are the rustic sequoias along the coast, beacons of strength and longevity. Women can be as regal as orchids, but also hearty and self-protective like thistles. Through struggle, women learn to be resourceful like saguaros, filling themselves with life and storing it for a coming drought. Some women are like ivy, holding up a crumbling house. Women simply cannot be confined to one color, or one landscape, or one design. Thank God for that — it makes ministry much more fun.
imagesimages-1images-4images-3

Hospitality: More Than Teacups and Tablecloths

Spain San FerminI’d rather run with the bulls in Pamplona than host a dinner party. Cooking for groups totally flusters me – an otherwise capable, confident woman – because it means I have to manage prepping and cooking multiple dishes on different surfaces at different heats for varying lengths of time. The goal of this madness is to get each dish to the table at the same time, hot and at optimal consistency. You might as well ask me to conduct the New York Philharmonic or control the air-traffic at Chicago O’Hare. I may have a Master’s Degree in Divinity but my superpowers melt in the kitchen.

My friend Sheri is the ultimate hostess. Seriously, get this woman a cape. Sheri thrives on large dinner parties. An invitation to the Cross house is like a golden ticket to food paradise: bowls of snappy mixed nuts on every side table, trays of crisp veggies with tangy dip, a selection of fine crackers with your choice of gourmet spreads that are an explosion of flavor in your mouth, the sumptuous smell of slow-roasting meat. It doesn’t matter if the house is bustling with ten or more people; Sheri has a way of making each person feel like the guest of honor.

the-goring-hotel-london-celebrating-National-Afternoon-Tea-week-on-our-terrace-with-some-tasty-treats-and-a-glass-of-BollingerSheri especially loves having women over for tea. She makes those delicate tea sandwiches the likes of which you’ve only seen in ritzy hotels or in the well-manicured hands of women wearing derby hats. Even if you are the only guest, she’ll put out a three-tiered tray and fill it with a buffet of sweet and savory goodness. She has at least twenty kinds of tea to choose from – delicate white teas from Asia, robust black teas from England, spicy teas from India, tangy teas from South America. Sheri has fine teas for the connoisseur and supermarket teas for the novice but she never judges an unrefined palate. When you have tea with Sheri you feel like a queen, even when you’re wearing jeans and running shoes.

I’ve heard mutual friends say that Sheri has the gift of hospitality. I agree, but I don’t think her ability to set a beautiful table or serve a delicious meal is proof of this gift. In fact, I think we completely miss the richness of the gift of hospitality when we equate it with the ability to dress a table or a salad.

I spent last Saturday morning teaching a group of women. I asked them to call out the first image or word that comes to mind when they hear hospitality. This is what they said:

family, friends, food, the dining table, holidays, cleaning, my mother, the good china, making up the guest bed, tablecloths, casseroles, wine, cooking, perfect presentation, washing dishes, a lot of work.

I think this is what most North Americans, and most Christians, believe hospitality to be. But if hospitality is about elaborate dinner parties with bountiful food and sophisticated presentation, then is it only the privilege of the first world and an offering of the rich? Is hospitality more the domain of women than men, and specifically women who enjoy cooking and who care about matching stemware? If so, then why did Jesus praise Mary over Martha when Mary was the one neglecting the table?inigo-montoya

I’ve been suspicious of this brand of hospitality for years. I have a deeply rooted conviction that there is more to hospitality than tea cups and tablecloths. So I followed an inner hunch and did a scriptural survey of hospitality, looking for its meaning, context and expression among the people of God.

In the New Testament, the concept of hospitality centers on the word philozenia. Philo means friend, friendly, or companion. Zenos means foreigner or stranger. So when Luke, Paul and Peter write about hospitality, it’s grounded in the idea of befriending someone new, someone different from you. Paul ups the ante on hospitality, making it critical to the life of the church. He writes that overseers and elders are to be “blameless” and “above reproach” and then lists several indicators of these. Hospitality makes both lists along with things like fidelity in marriage, self-control and gentleness (1 Tim 3:1-3; Titus 1:6-9). In these passages, hospitality takes shape as an outward expression of inner holiness.

In several other passages, the instruction to practice hospitality comes seconds after these phrases: “be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10-13), “love each other deeply” (1 Peter 4:8-9), and “love one another as brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 13:1-2). To me, the call to love strangers like siblings eclipses any brand of hospitality focused solely on feeding and entertaining friends!

woman_at_the_well2The early church’s call to hospitality flows easily out of the heart of Jesus and reflects his instruction to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We see him practice hospitality countless times, but in my opinion no example could be greater than when he spoke with a Samaritan woman at a well in the midday sun. Without condemnation for her public sin, Jesus shows her not only his compassion, but her offers her the living water of eternal life. While it might be as surprising to us as it was to his disciples, Jesus’ hospitality was nothing new. He simply embodied and enacted the hospitality that God commanded of the people of Israel in the time of Moses.

Israel had very explicit instructions about how they were to treat strangers and foreigners living among them. God told Israel that they must not mistreat or oppress the foreigners because the Israelites were once foreigners and slaves in Egypt. This bit of historical empathy was to motivate Israel to treat foreigners justly. Israel was also to be generous; gleanings from the fields and grapevines were purposefully left to feed the foreigners. Both Israel and the foreigners were subject to, and protected by, the same law. They had access to the altar of God and were even given an inheritance of the land! And just when we think hospitality can’t get any more radical, God says something completely wild and wonderful:

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

When we get our definition of hospitality from the whole of scripture, we see anew that it’s about making a stranger a friend. But it’s an expression of friendship so radical that it initiates a foreigner into your tribe. Through hospitality, the “chosen” people and the outsiders become one people, equal in God’s law and God’s love.

Biblical hospitality is a outworking of inner holiness. Every time we show hospitality to a stranger we grow more and more like our God who made space in the Kingdom of Heaven not just for Jews, but for Gentiles, Samaritans, women, children, lepers, prostitutes, adulterers, and sinners of every kind like you and me. If you think that you don’t have what it takes to be hospitable, remember that God has made a place for you in his kingdom. Do you deserve this? No! But by the grace, mercy and love of God, you are welcome.

How can you extend this welcome to others?

Hospitality is rooted in empathy. We may not know what it feels like to be slaves in Egypt, but some of us daily feel the repercussions of slavery in the American south. Others of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants and our sense of identity is shaped and reshaped by the diverse cultures we embody. Maybe it’s not race or ethnicity that makes you feel like a foreigner or outsider. Maybe it’s a disability, something about your physical appearance, an event in your life, or a way in which you live counter-culturally. All of us, at some point and in some way, have felt like an outsider or a stranger. Reconnect with those feelings for a minute – those turbulent emotions can help us cultivate empathy for the foreigners among us. As our empathy expands, so should our compassion. Hospitality is empathy and compassion put into action.

I said earlier that my friend Sheri has the gift of hospitality. Sheri is a great example of hospitality not because of how she sets her table, but because of who she invites to her table and how she treats them. It seems like every new person that enters her church ends up at Sheri’s table. And as she honors them with a beautiful tea service or an overflowing buffet, her first question is usually, “So Jane, what’s your story?” Sheri’s real gift is in making space in her world and her heart for someone else’s story.

She invites more than friends or people she likes and understands to her table. Sheri – a former nanny, a pastor’s wife, a mother of two grown children, a doting grandma, a domestic diva with a drawer full of floral aprons and tea cozies – has broken bread and swapped life stories with bikers in studded leather, heavy metal drummers, tatted sailors, undocumented immigrants, former felons, addicts and many more. Even though it’s impressive, it’s not her food or table settings that make Sheri’s guests feel like they are at home with family, it’s her spiritual posture of welcome.

This is God’s brand of hospitality. It starts with empathy for outsiders and compassion for those unlike us. It asks us to share physical provisions with them, but that is only the first course of action. The ultimate goal is not to meet someone’s physical needs, but to meet their spiritual needs. The human soul craves to be known, to connect, to belong — to others and to God. Biblical hospitality shows us how to love strangers so well that they become not just friends, but siblings, members of the same tribe. If you think about it long enough, you realize that this hospitality is excellent soil for the gospel. What a better way to gently open a soul to the good news of Jesus than through a sincere and generous welcome and the offer of true friendship?

Hospitality is a spiritual gift. It’s a gift of love that all of God’s redeemed children have the capacity to give the world. With God’s help, we will.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

(1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10)

When someone you love is grieving

As clinical chaplain, I quickly learned that most people are uncomfortable with grief, even doctors and pastors. So if you have a grieving friend and you feel totally inadequate, take a deep breath. Your response is natural. The wide and unpredictable pendulum of grief’s physical effects – from weeping and yelling to silence, from stillness to shakes – can make anyone hesitant and uncertain how to care. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of ways you can support a grieving friend.

Before you print this post and use it like a blueprint, please note – these are options, not rules or a checklist to follow. These suggestions are appropriate ways to approach someone who is grieving but not every approach will be a good fit for every relationship. Remember, you know your friend better than I. You have a history with them built across months and years of experiences and conversations. Draw from that however you can.

Grief requires us to pause, reflect deeply on another’s soul, and to act through discomfort. As difficult as that is, there are many simple things you can do that will be a powerful balm to a grieving heart.

BE PRESENT
Especially when a friend is dealing with an unexpected loss, go to their side. Even if you don’t know what to say, showing up is something they will never forget. Your physical presence says so many important things: I love you, I’ll stand with you in your darkest moments, you are not alone.

OFFER HEALING TOUCH
Physical touch is a powerful response to raw grief. It has the ability to soothe and support in ways and times when words are inadequate. So take their shaking hands between yours. Place a gentle hand on their shoulder as they cry. Offer an unhurried embrace where your arms become a safety harness wrapped securely around their back. They may not say anything in response or they may cry harder, but the warmth seeping from your skin into theirs is medicine that we cannot bottle.

ACKNOWLEDGE LOSS WITH WORDS
In the shadow of death words seem insufficient, but they are not. While “I’m sorry for your loss” is appropriate, we are all capable of saying something more meaningful, more personal. Who was this person to your friend? What role did he or she play in your friend’s life? If you knew the deceased, what about them made an impression on you? Think about this and then say something that honors them and their relationship with your friend. Keep it simple – there’s no need for a lengthy speech – perhaps two or three sentences that show you understand the significance of this loss.

One important caveatunder no circumstances are you responsible for making sense of your friend’s loss! Death and grief are never easy, even when we have time to prepare for them. There are lots of true things we can say about death and God’s will and the end to suffering, but they will never be helpful to someone saying goodbye to a person whose life and spirit shaped their own. Avoid any and all trite phrases that attempt to explain death or try to look on the bright side. Be very, very careful about quoting from the Bible. Even if your friend is a person of faith, and even though scripture speaks ultimate truths, context and timing remain crucial when comforting someone who is grieving. Stick to this famous proverb– if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.

TELL STORIES
Grief can act like a great chill that freezes our limbs and our hearts. We can get stuck in that horrible moment when we suddenly realize our loved one is gone forever. As a young chaplain I learned that getting people to share stories and memories can melt this emotional deep freeze. Storytelling can be a helpful healing tool throughout the grieving process, not just in the moments after death, but you have to discern when it might be helpful.

I recently led a graveside service for a family grieving the loss of a beloved wife, sister and mother of three young adults. With only twenty minutes permitted at the site, I invited those gathered to share a sentence or two beginning with, “I will always remember.” What followed was a poignant time of stories and tributes to her character. Tears flowed freely and loudly, but from them emerged the first smiles and laughter of the day

TANGIBLE EXPRESSIONS OF SYMPATHY
Modern friendships often stretch across states, continents and oceans. We can’t always be physically present with a grieving friend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for them well. I’m a big advocate of tangible expressions of sympathy. Think of something you can do that will engage your friend’s senses, something they can see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Even when grief puts our brains in a zombie-like state, our senses remain active. That’s why, for centuries, people have sent flowers when someone dies. Flowers are a visible and vibrant message of love; their scent is your presence subtly filling your friend’s home.

Keep in mind that not all expressions of sympathy will be equally well-received. Some people won’t want their freezers stuffed with six types of lasagna. Others might resent a Hallmark card with a canned message and your signature. So take time to consider, how can you be present in a way that will be most meaningful to your friend? Maybe, for reasons only you would understand, baseball tickets would be more meaningful than a casserole, a mix CD better able to lighten their grief than a card, a framed photo a better tribute than a bouquet whose blooms will droop and decay.

BE PRACTICAL
Grieving people are rarely able to articulate what help they need. If you know them well enough, you can name their needs for them. Look for simple ways to step into their regular routine. Take their trash to the curb, do their grocery shopping, take over carpool duties, mow their lawn, etc. Communicate well as you pitch in. How and when can you help? For how long? Make sure you leave room for them to tell you if it’s too much or if this type of help is unwanted.

BE AWARE OF SPECIAL OCCAISIONS
Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations: these are things your friend thought they would get to share with the deceased. Death stole these moments and grief will flavor these celebrations toward the bittersweet. The anniversary of their death will also be a difficult day for your friend. Be attentive to their emotional needs on these days. Talk about it ahead of time and make yourself available, both physically and emotionally, as they need.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Grief is a bit like a circus lion. We can approach focused, with caution and care. We can do all the “appropriate” things but be quickly reminded that as tame as it seems on the outside, at heart it’s still a wild animal. Despite your care and thoughtfulness, your friend may not receive your offerings well. They might lash out or seem indifferent. Don’t take this personally; your friend has a lion inside them. An unpleasant response doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. These are some of the most difficult days of your friend’s life. If your actions are thoughtful and sincere, you have done well. Trust that and keep caring.

When Someone You Love – A New Series

Advice is not my calling. Even though I’m a pastor and people often come to me for guidance, I resist the pressure to whittle down my role into what I like to call, “advicer.” Being a pastor is so much bigger! Plus, I’ve discovered that when people come to me for help in a tough situation, many of them already have a plan they want to execute. What they’re really looking for is permission from a spiritual authority to take a route that’s easier, but not necessarily better, for all involved. This is a dangerous game, one that subtly deals in manipulating a pastor’s pride and power. It’s a game I refuse to play.

Instead, when people come to me, I like to ask a lot of questions. My goal is try to uncover motivations, help articulate emotions, and generally to explore perspectives and options. As a pastor, it’s vital that I spend far more time asking questions than I do giving my opinion. That keeps me in the proper place as a caring companion and God in the proper place as Healer and Guide. It’s inescapable though – as a pastor people will always expect me to give advice.

I resist the same pressure as a blogger. I read a lot of blogs and articles. The trend these days is to write pieces that critique how Mr. X gets it wrong, tell how to do something in ___ easy steps, or list the top ___ reasons to do or be ______. (If I read one more blog title that starts with, “Five Ways To…” my fingers may fall off and my eyes start shooting jalapeno juice!) In other words, it’s all advice and opinions.

I want this blog to be more. I want more exploration, more creativity, more room to stretch, more questions, more compassion for difference and failure. I hope that by writing from my deep places with my unique voice, I’ll reach someone, somewhere in need of my spirit.

Though I’m cautious about dealing in advice, I realize that I do have some wisdom to offer, especially when it concerns caring for others. Fourteen years ago, God revealed that my calling was to care for the suffering. It’s a calling grounded in the spiritual gifts of compassion and mercy. With more than a decade of pastoral care in the trenches, after extensive training in crisis response and stumbling my way through the gauntlet of clinical chaplaincy, I have valuable skills and informed perspective to offer.

As you know from my last post, several of my friends are in crisis. I was debriefing with a friend, talking through what I was doing in response, how I’m able to help and my limitations. My friend said, “You know Corrie, not everyone knows how to do what you do. It’s a gift.” Well, yes. What I do as a pastor starts with a calling and gifting, but that I’m able to care well relies very much on the fact that I want to care. That I’ve tried to care and failed. That I’ve forgiven my failures and spring-board from them into fresh attempts.

My high school choir director Mr. Griffin used to say, “Everyone can sing, but not everyone can sing well. I can always teach someone to sing better.” I believe that everyone has the capacity care for others, they just might need some lessons. The raw materials we need are love and the desire to put love into action.

You all have people who you dearly love. Your loved ones will experience pain from time to time and you’ll want to reach out and show you care, but you may not know how. That’s where I can help.

Today I begin a new series called “When Someone You Love.” It will address situations that are common to relationships, but ones in which we may not be comfortable or well-equipped to respond. Future posts include: when someone you love loses someone they love, when someone you love is being abused, when someone you love is dying. I’m going to share what I’ve learned, tell stories of failures and successes, confront unhelpful tendencies, and chart out some ways we can show that we care.

And yes, this means I’ll give advice, but you can trust that it won’t be trite or untested and it will always be open to feedback. Feel free to email me with topics you’d like to tackle – corriegus@gmail.com.

The Day You Said “I Do”

wedding aisle

The year I graduated from college I received 17 wedding invitations. Though it was difficult to decide, I could only afford to attend a few, so I chose the weddings of my three closest friends. The first wedding was in a city church and the reception in an old bank building with 20-foot granite columns and gleaming green floors the color of dollar bills. The next was a homegrown affair in the bride’s backyard. The chickens, donkey and dogs were relocated for the day, a flower-covered arbor set in the corner with the grills far enough away so the smell of barbecue ribs and rocky mountain oysters wouldn’t be mistaken for the groom’s cologne. The bride and I spent four hours the night before baking batch after batch of rice krispy treats which we sculpted into a large castle, complete with turrets, for the many underage guests. The third wedding was a simple, elegant affair in a formal garden on an estate, followed by a dinner cruise which boasted an open bar and a DJ.

To date, I’ve probably attended around 40 weddings as well as fulfilling various roles at them: flower girl, guest book attendant, gift attendant, babysitter, cake server, song leader and soloist. I’ve been a bridesmaid four times and now, as a pastor, I’ve officiated a few weddings, one of which took place under a dripping palm tree at the wind-whipping tail end of an Arizona monsoon.

Weddings, I’ve learned, are as diverse as the couples they honor. But for all that diversity – for all the poignant walks down the aisle, the beautiful music, the first dances, the funny and sentimental toasts – nothing beats the moment when a couple takes their vows.

Vows are what make a wedding something more than a party we throw to celebrate our friends. When you stop and think about life and our culture, it’s truly an uncommon thing to stand before a public audience and before God, to pledge your life to someone else. Whether the language is formal or casual, traditional or unique, long-winded or concise, all vows say, in essence – I’m all in, forever, with you.

Even as a happy single person I am deeply affected by these moments, these vows. Pause and think of the magnitude of saying, I love you in such a way that I will put your needs before my own. The weight, both joyful and challenging, of living up to such love! Each marriage is a new creation, and vows are the moment of incarnation. My eyes are usually dry at weddings until the vows. That’s when my tears flow like cheap champagne; it’s a moment, an event, beautiful to behold.

Recently, though, I’ve been crying sad tears. It seems like every month I get a message or phone call from another friend whose marriage is in significant crisis. For the first time in my life I have a special prayer list just for couples. The list has grown to twelve names. The issues they battle are varied and complex: infidelity, loss of faith, mental health difficulties, conflict resulting from unanticipated change, stagnation, and things they can’t yet articulate. My friends are hurting and angry and afraid, and I hate that there is nothing I can do to fix it. All my prayers seem to turn out the same – God, I don’t know what they need, as individuals and as a couple, but you do. Provide what they need! Do it now.

As I’ve prayed, as my ear has grown hot against my cell phone – as I’ve pondered this creation we call marriage which seems as fine and fragile as bone china – I’ve felt moved to write a manifesto of sorts. So, if you are one of the friends I’m talking about, this part is for you.

As someone who loves you and who believes that marriage is a sacred thing, I make a public declaration and a commitment to you as you walk this valley of shadows. I do this because on the day you said, “I do,” I didn’t just show up for the wine and cake. When you said, “I’m all in,” in front of God and all of those witnesses, in my heart I said the same.

I wish I had a magic wand to erase the painful events, the misunderstandings, the words that can’t be taken back, the erupting diseases that brought you to this place, but we both know that magic wands are fairy-tale fluff. So I promise that I won’t try to diminish the giant monsters you are battling by giving you manufactured pearls of wisdom. If you’re looking for advice and I don’t know what to say, I’ll just say so. I may not have many – or any – answers, but I promise to listen long and well to your concerns.

I will doggedly remind you that you are not alone. Yes, you’ve discovered that a disintegrating marriage is one of the loneliest existences on earth, but you are not alone. Think of your wedding album, about the crowd in all those pictures. Many people love you and would consider it an honor to encircle you with support in this crisis, just as they did at your wedding. It takes courage to admit we don’t have it all together and deep faith to confess when things are falling apart. I will continue to encourage you to be faithful and courageous, which means regular reminders to care for yourself, to gather the support that you need, and to seek professional help. I will gently remind you that there is no shame in seeing a counselor; in fact, it’s a positive choice, a great, long-term investment in your personal and relational health and healing.

I promise to be a safe place for you to experience or express any emotion. You can use all kinds of colorful and “unacceptable” language and not worry that I won’t make eye contact tomorrow. You can yell or be silent. We can go kick-boxing or open the mega-pack of tissues from Costco.

And while everything is safe with me, I promise I won’t let you get away with unjust or dishonest speech about your spouse. Afterall, I hope (and deep down, under all these thorns, I believe you hope) that you will discover a way to healing and stay married until death parts you. Really loving you means that I have to be honest with you. I can’t only try to make you feel good if it leads to avoidance or denial; that isn’t the path to healing. So as difficult and risky as it might be, I will be honest with you about what I see, but I’ll do my best to infuse my honesty with compassion so it won’t sting too badly.

I promise to keep your confidence, but if I fail in this, I will confess and ask your forgiveness. And when I’m in company and free to speak, I will speak of both you and your spouse with respect.

I will pray without ceasing until these clouds pass.

And if the day comes when your marriage ends, I will never treat you like a failure.

These are my solemn vows. Hold me accountable to them. If I’ve hurt you, please tell me. If you need something more or something less from me, don’t hesitate to speak up. I may not be able to give you what you need, but I promise to be here, to listen, to remind you of God’s love and forgiveness, to be your friend in sickness and in health, in grief and gladness.

May gladness be your epilogue.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.