The Parable of the Betta Fish and the Samaritan Woman

I pulled into a local Starbucks, bought a latte and joined my friend Jessica at an outdoor table. After I sat she casually asked, “So how are you?” Her tone did not carry any sympathy — she clearly didn’t know that I got laid off earlier in the week, so I filled her in. Jessica knows my story; she’s witnessed my struggle to find full-time ministry employment over the last three years. She is also a member of the church where I serve as a part-time pastor. She listened attentively to this latest development. Her face showed clear understanding and compassion. When I stopped speaking she said, “So, we have this betta fish named Rosie…”

Rosie

I’m not kidding. That was her response to my news. I blinked a couple of times and waited, wondering how a fish was somehow relevant to my current setback. She went on without preamble.

“We all love Rosie. I know it sounds silly; she’s just a fish, but she feels like part of our family.” (Jessica is married to Dan and they have two adorable little girls.) “Last week I was cleaning out Rosie’s bowl and when I went to put her back in, I accidentally dropped Rosie on the kitchen counter. There she was flopping around on our counter and I was doing my best to get her in my hand but she was too slippery. So I picked up the bowl, put its lid along the top of the counter and tried to push Rosie in, but then she fell all the way to the ground! She flopped around weakly and I thought she only had moments to live. By then I’m yelling for Dan to come help me and my girls are standing close by yelling, “Save Rosie!” “Oh, no!” “Don’t let her die!” I’m so distressed that I’m making all kinds of strange noises and Dan comes running into the room to help rescue Rosie. He calmly gets her back into the bowl and she starts to swim around but I can tell she’s just not right.

I try to prepare the girls — I want to be realistic; she’s just a fish — so I tell them that even though Rosie is fine right now, she could be dead by morning. So we get up the next morning and Rosie is still alive. I caution the girls that she could still die. Every day this week I have come home expecting to find Rosie floating at the top of her bowl, but she’s still swimming.”

And then Jessica’s strange and humorous story became a parable that tolled something in my spirit. She suddenly said, “Corrie you are like Rosie; you’re resilient.”

Jessica spoke with assurance and a smile. I was not so confident. Am I resilient? The fact is that I have gained and lost several jobs and many more opportunities over the last three years. Extended periods of unemployment combined with the regular rejection that comes with pursuing a significant dream have been like an erosion of my soul, motivation and self-confidence. I feel like these storms have stripped me of my heartiness and joviality and I’ve been left dizzy and breathless from the whirlwind of my life.

And then there is the physical buffeting! I’ve gained and lost the same 20 pounds three times. I’ve struggled with anxiety and sleepless nights. I have a new crop of silver hairs haphazardly spiking out of my dark brown waves. When I look in the mirror I see the effects that the disappointments, rejections and set backs have had on me — the story is in the slump of my posture, the slight sagging around my eyes, the delay in my smile. I’m battle worn in ways I never anticipated I would be at this age.

No, I think when I see myself in the mirror, I’m not particularly resilient.

For me the word conjures up images of Arthur and Excalibur, of the Great Wall of China, even the Brooklyn Bridge. I think in comparison that I’m not so strong, so enduring. But Rosie’s story and Jessica’s smile stuck with me. A few days later I looked it up in the dictionary.

Re-sil-ient: adjective

: able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

: able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

Two weeks have passed since I had coffee with Jessica. Three weeks since I lost my job and Rosie flopped around on the kitchen floor. These three weeks have been something of an awakening. Friends have called wanting to check in on me and offer support, knowing from past experience that I might need some extra shoring up. I don’t know who has been more surprised, them or me, to find me coping so well.

With lots of time for introspection, I’ve realized that though buffeted and tossed around, I haven’t been broken beyond repair. As the emotional effects of this recent loss lessen, under my weariness and discouragement I sense a stronger core. I’ve been through great storms of rejection, loss and despair and survived every one. (There’s got to be something of the miraculous in that.) I’m not the same as I once was. I’ve lost my idealism and naiveté about the course of my life, which I understand as a good and necessary thing, but I’m still a positive person. I’ve walked (and sometimes crawled) across the desert of spiritual crisis that comes with the difficulty of following any big dream. Along the way I’ve thought about giving up (many times), I’ve doubted myself and I’ve had some major pity parties. From that self-perpetuating mess I’ve learned to seek the things that lead to life instead of death.

Even the unintelligent betta fish knows to flop about when it finds itself out-of-water. All that flopping is an instinctual effort to somehow find water. Whether it is a puddle, a bowl or a lake — for the fish, where there is water there is life. Picturing Rosie’s struggle on the cold, dry tiles of the kitchen floor, I realize that I’ve taken on her instinct for life. After three years of flopping about, I now spend less time doubting and pitying and more time focusing on positive, true and enduring things. I’m not denying my struggle, but I’m also not giving it more than its due time and attention. I’m trying my best to seek my water source.

Two months ago I attended a large women’s conference. Kanyere Eaton, the pastor leading one of the workshops, had us read a page of self-affirmation. I recently pulled it out again. Here are some of the gems:

I am the beloved of the Lord…Before I cried for the first time, he was intimately acquainted with the sound of my voice…God specifically picked out the spiritual gifts that he invested in me and he wants me to use them for his glory. God has plans for me. The vineyard of my life is his planting. The fruit he calls me to produce has a unique capacity to nourish and enrich the lives of those who partake of it. The vineyard God has given me is mine to tend. It will grow and develop sweet fruit when I make time to nourish it. I confess that I have not always considered my vineyard significant…I am very important to God…My spiritual, emotional and physical needs are important and they deserve to be tenderly addressed. My Holy Spirit-inspired dreams are precious and they deserve serious investment. The Holy Spirit calls me, even in this season of my life, to carefully, consciously tend the vineyard of my own life. By God’s grace, I begin today.

I confess that I have not always considered my vineyard very significant, but I now I can honestly mark my report card “shows improvement.” Like Rosie, I’m making every effort to flop toward water.

Years ago I regularly practiced examen, a spiritual discipline of daily identifying my most life-giving and life-taking moments. Over the course of time you can line up your records and begin to see patterns, to see clearly the things that lead to life or death. Two weeks ago I bought a new journal just to record my examen findings, an effort to stay near my water source.

journal

Last week I flew to Denver to spend time with my brother and nephews. My 10-year-old nephew told me that his dream is to get a college scholarship for soccer, then to be a scientist and a professional lacrosse player. His silly aunt tried to gently convince him that he probably wouldn’t be able to make a living as a professional lacrosse player; he was adamant that he would. The important thing about that conversation was the beauty on Mason’s face when he shared his dreams with me. He had such hope for the future. Staring at that beauty, I suddenly realized how long it has been since I dreamed new dreams for myself.

The next day I walked into an artisan gift shop and found these round tins with beautifully engraved wood tops. The instructions say to write down my fondest dream, greatest desire, or strongest wish on a small piece of paper, put the paper in the ‘Dreambox’ and place it beside my bed. I’m supposed to hold the box every night and every morning and think on my dream, “believing with all my heart that it is so.” I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in hope and I know I could use some more hope in my life. I bought a Dreambox with the lid design that looks like a rose window. I’m choosing to believe what Pastor Eaton taught me, that my Holy Spirit-inspired dreams are precious and they deserve serious investment, even in this season of my life.

The Rose Window at All Souls Church, Bangor

In hindsight I can see my resilience, my strengthened core. Able to is the key phrase in the definition of resilience; that’s why Jessica was right in comparing me to her betta fish. Really, I’m just a person with a penchant to throw more tantrums than I do celebrations. God, as my water source, enables me to be strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. God is the author of resilience, the one who makes all things new. This reminds me of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan women:

Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”

“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.”         (John 4:10-15, NLT)

I’ve learned that much of coping and dealing with life is a choice. I’m in control of very little in my life and circumstances. I certainly didn’t want to be unemployed again, but here I am. I’m faced with choices. Do I let myself sink back into the bad habits of wallowing and tantrums or do I reach out weak hands toward my water source?

Resilience is to be like the Samaritan woman, acknowledging my need for water I cannot supply for myself. It is turning again and again to Jesus when I face hardship and asking, “Please sir, give me this water!”

Resilience is to mimic the floppings of a betta fish, whose only instinct is to seek water, the source of its very breath.

“…For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” (Psalm 107:9)

Amen and Amen.

A Letter A Day: Reflections on Lent & Love

ImageI’ve been meaning to report on my practice of Lent this year but time has blown by lately like a desert monsoon. (I started a new job in mid-March and I reserve most of my free-time for brain recovery.)

A love letter a day. I loved the idea and for much of the season, I enjoyed the discipline. However, I bumped again into one of my weaknesses: I’ve never been good at doing what’s best for me every day.

I find time to read fiction 1-2 hours a day and it is of some value. Exercise, reading scripture, prayer — these are of higher value and yet I struggle to make them part of my daily life. Even excited to write these Lent letters, there were days I had to pull out my calendar and count boxes to know how many letters I needed to write to catch up.

The major benefit of writing to so many of my beloveds? I was constantly reminded to offer myself the grace and love that I show others. I forgave myself the skipped days and focused on enjoying the hours spent with pen, stationary and warm memories.

The picture above is my final stack of love letters before I stuck on Forever stamps and sent them across the globe. The easiest part of this whole practice was deciding to whom I should write. Composing these letters often slipped into times of praise and thankfulness for the many cherished memories and relationships I’ve formed over the years. I wrote to each of my 7 nieces and nephews, to my siblings, parents, some extended family, many former college students whom I mentored, and friends from every stage of life.

I wrote to my mentor from high school, thanking her for showering me with unconditional time and love. I credit her gentle and considerate presence in my life as one of the major reasons that I have an authentic faith in Christ today.

I wrote to my friend and former roommate Joni who is a long-term missionary. She recently moved to Madrid and despite debilitating chronic pain from scoliosis, Joni lives with such joy and purpose. Since meeting her in 1999, she has inspired me to take risks and to push against the boundaries of what I think God can accomplish through my ministry.

Secrets and trust were themes in many of the letters. I wrote to several friends about secrets shared and released. I met Karen at a time when I held many things tightly and fearfully inside me. Openly and honestly Karen shared a personal struggle with me, which enabled me to trust her with my stuff. By example, Karen ushered me trust again. Writing to Karen sparked a second letter to a friend who last year broke silence to me regarding a life-long struggle. I wrote thanking her again for trusting me with her pain. I sealed the second letter realizing that have become a safe place for others because Karen was first a safe place for me.

I sent Lent letters to more than 15 states. Three went to Canada; a few to Europe. The youngest recipient was my niece Kherington, who, at age 3, got a few silly jokes her mother will have to read to her and a terrible drawing of a cat.

Some letters remain on my bookshelf, stampless. There are 5 written to God, labeled with different names of God depending on the nature of the letter. I sent those through a prayer office rather than a post office.

There’s a letter written to a friend whom I’ve lost contact with, but for whom I pray regularly. Over the past two years I have asked for his new address via Facebook and email. He has not responded. My concern that I caused him pain is the very reason I wrote. I hope he will allow me to make amends. I’ll hang on to his letter with hope.

I never wrote the letter to my former sister-in-law. I stared at many blank notes intended for her. In the end it was too difficult to write, too charged. I chose instead to pray for her, for us, for all whose lives were forever changed by her actions.

To Corrie, July 1st, 2017 — this is the label of the letter I wrote to myself in 5 years. I’ve spent a lot of time in these tumultuous three years praying and thinking about the woman I want to become. I’m not looking for a brand new me but a Corrie who is renewing, refined, purposeful.  This letter had several lines of celebration for the real and far-reaching love I’ve experienced.

I wrote all of these letters sitting on my bed just an arm’s-length from a high school graduation gift – a friendship quilt made by my relative Augusta Cole. I always hang it close to my bed, where I do most of my praying. The quilt, like these love letters from my seventh season of Lent, reminds me that my life is not about me.

My life grows richer because I move toward others, as I share myself with others, when I love others. I thank God that I learned this lesson young.

My friendship quilt. Each cream square is signed by a friend.

My friendship quilt. Each cream square is signed by a friend.

Commanded to Love, Experts at Fixing

During a recent sermon, one of my fellow pastors asked a vital, if not the pinnacle question for all followers of Jesus: what does love require of me? 

Recently, several in our congregation shared with me their troubling circumstances.  All of them came to me hurt by the response of trusted friends and family.  They were seeking love, support or comfort but what they received instead was well-meant but overzealous advice-giving. 

Can you identify?  You know those situations where you share something personal and someone immediately says, “Well, have you tried…” or “what you need to do is…” or “what works for me is…”  When this happens, don’t you walk away feeling lonely, unheard, and frustrated?  The underlying problem here is that often our attempts to love each other turn into attempts to fix each other.

In 2010 I was unemployed for nine months.  As the months stacked up and my bank account dwindled, I became increasingly anxious and struggled with diminishing self-confidence.  I felt lonely and anonymous.  I was starkly aware of my inability to control my life.  It was painful stretching time for my faith and I couldn’t cope with it alone.  As I shared these challenges with the people I love, almost every one of them responded by asking if I proofread my resume, wrote good cover letters or needed to practice my interview skills.  Those conversations left me deflated.  I didn’t need someone to try to fix me or my problem – as if they could!  I needed people to listen to my story, to try to understand what I was feeling and to remember me in their prayers.  I wasn’t looking solutions but empathy and intercession!

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), to love others like Christ loves us (John 13:34-35), and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27).  Sometimes it is appropriate to express our love through practical actions like providing meals, fixing a leaky sink or even editing resumes.  But if that is the only love we offer, then we’ve miss the opportunity to love the core of the person – their soul. 

All of us have sincere love and concern for others.  The real challenge is to translate the love we feel into acts of caring that are a balm that soothes rather than a bandage that just covers over an ugly wound.

How can we love each other in ways that avoid treating another person like a problem to be fixed?  How can we move beyond problem/solution focused love to person/soul focused love?  Here’s a little chart I made up to flesh out my understanding of the difference.  Under which column do you think you’d fit?

Problem/Solution focused Love

Person/Soul focused love

Feels the urge to fix Feels the urge to listen and understand
Makes comments Asks questions
Responds with “Have you tried?” etc. Responds with “That sounds ______. What is this doing to your heart/faith/confidence?”
Gives advice Assumes you have some valuable perspective on your own life and asks questions like: what do you think you need, what would help/support look like to you, what do you think will bring you comfort?”
Quotes scripture one-liners like a sage Inquires whether/how God has spoken into their situation through scripture reading or prayer
Go-to response: “I’m sorry.  I’ll pray for you,” which is often followed by an awkward silence, a quick escape and zero follow up. Realizes there is no go-to response.  Acknowledges the significance of the person and the problem by either asking to spend quality time together or referring them to someone who may better equipped to care for them.  Asks the person how to pray for them and follows up.

The first important step toward person/soul focused love is self-review.  We each need to unearth the answer to the question, “Am I someone who offers problem/solution focused love or someone who offers person/soul focused love?” 

Listening is a fundamental act of love.  It should be our first response to someone’s pain.  To love well, we must learn to listen well and that means resisting our cultural instincts to hurry or to allow ourselves to superficially hop through daily human interactions.  For many of us, listening is a call to put away or turn off our cell phones and sit face to face with someone – actions which have become far too rare! 

Sunday’s sermon reminded me that when we look into God’s commands we see the heart of the commander, which is love.  Christians, like all humans, are well-known for rushing into acts of either fixing our neighbors or escaping from them.  Maturing disciples must continually ask, “What does love require of me?”  Like the needle of a compass, that question will keep us moving toward true love.  We see true love expressed in the life and death of Jesus Christ.

(To listen to the sermon that inspired this reflection go to:  http://hopechurchchandler.com/sermons. The sermon is titled “Loophole Christians”)