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.

Home

Where are you from? Where’s home? Everyone answers these questions at some point, but some of us answer more succinctly than others. The older I get and the more I move around the country, the more trouble I have telling people where I’m from.

If home was just about place, about where we are born and grow up, I could simply say that I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I grew up in a sprawling, suburban neighborhood where most of the streets are quaintly named after local trees and terrain – Circle on the Green, Oakbourne Court, Beechlake Drive. I lived on Hickory Ridge Lane. As a child, when I gave directions to our home, I always said the same thing: it’s the third house on the right, a white, two-story colonial with black shutters and a red door. I had no idea what “colonial” meant, but my parents always used that word, so I did too. Over the 18 years that I lived on Hickory Ridge, a few extra descriptors popped up – a basketball hoop, a wide-planked, white fence that ran along the path to the front door, and the red Mercury Tracer my brothers parked in the driveway after school hours. Our home was easy to find.

1328 Hickory Ridge

This is a recent picture of the Hickory house from the internet. The landscaping has changed a bit since I left for college in the 90’s. The bushes flanking the front door are different. The fence and basketball hoop are gone and so is the beautiful red maple that stood in the center of the front yard. The maple wasn’t planted deeply enough, so the roots that knotted and spread just below the grass caused many twisted ankles and made mowing the lawn into straight lines nearly impossible. For all its shade in the summer and the kaleidoscope of its leaves in the fall, the new owners were wise to remove that tree. So things have changed a bit at the Hickory house, but overall the picture is so similar to the one imprinted in my mind, that when I saw it I flushed with happy memories.

I have such nostalgia for my childhood home. I associate so many wonderful memories with that house and the life our family of five had there. To my great dismay, my parents sold the Hickory house during my freshman year of college and built a new home several towns over. Since they moved while I was away in California, I didn’t help pack or get to say goodbye to the life I had there. Maybe I was overly sentimental at 19, but I was really sad. I grieved the loss of that house like some people grieve the loss of a beloved pet. I realized that I’d never get to go home for the holidays and reminisce with my brothers when we saw our height measurements etched into the basement door. I’d never again have to wear thick socks on winter nights to protect my feet from those crazy cold hardwood floors. I’d never again earn five dollars a bucket or stain my hands black as I chucked rotting walnuts out of our backyard into the farmer’s field. I’d never again be woken by the chattering of the raccoon family that lived atop the chimney outside my bedroom window. My life on Hickory Ridge Lane was suddenly closed like the cardboard boxes my parents packed and sealed. Nevertheless, it would remain the home of my heart for many years.

For all the stability of place I’d know the first 18 years of my life, I’ve since learned that home is an adaptable concept. I’ve now lived in 5 more states and in Canada. While the idea of moving this much is foreign to baby boomers, those of us from Gen X and Gen Y see it as the way things are. Few of us expect to work 10 years for the same company in the same location, let alone 30+. If I can be my own judge, I think it’s fair to say that I’m rockin’ the modern-American-nomad thing. Some people have heard my story or looked at my resume and wondered if I’m flighty, lack commitment, or if I’m a lost soul. None of those are true. I do have an adventurous spirit. I love to explore, learn new cultures and meet new people. And I follow where God leads me. Sure, I’ve lived a lot of places, but that doesn’t mean I’m a hippie, aimless or running from something. When I land some place new, I dig in. My top priority – more important than finding the best grocery store, a reliable mechanic, or my new doctor’s office – is to cultivate relationships.

I’ve discovered in adulthood that I can’t call a place home until I there’s someone I can call and invite to a movie, someone to share rich conversation over good coffee, people who I can call friends. As I’ve moved around, I’ve learned that home is not bound by a sense of place or limited to a physical structure. It’s just too big a thing to be bound by earth, drywall and shingles. Home, for me, is a spiritual thing. It’s about planting yourself deeply in a community of souls. It’s about knowing and loving yourself and standing confident in that, but then deeply intertwining your soul with others’ and growing together.

Now when I think of home, I think of visiting my friend Karen during frigid Boston winters and laughing at ourselves as we ran out at night for pints of ice cream. I think of sharing a sunny park bench with Stephanie as we watched her daughters play. More sister than friend, Stephanie and I talked all day for four days when I visited this May. After I left, her oldest, Seraphina, observed this about her usually introverted mother, “You and Auntie Coco sure do like to talk a lot.” Home is the warm feeling that spreads from my chest to my fingertips when I snuggle with a new baby nephew or niece. It’s the joy I felt officiating Emily and Matthew’s wedding and standing up as the maid of honor for Holly and Dave. Home is realizing how much I am loved as cards and kind words piled up after my recent ordination. It’s the few days every year when I get together with my college roommates Elizabeth, Monica and Brooke. We laugh (or giggle in Liz’s case), eat really good pub food, and share totally real conversation about what’s happing in our lives and souls.

For this nomad, home is a spiritual thing. It’s about knowing and being known, loving and being loved. It’s got everything to do with my ability to see and acknowledge God’s presence in my life and very little to do with where I live. It’s more about gardening than using a GPS.

This is exactly why I feel settled and at home no matter where I live. It’s why I feel no fear, only excitement, knowing that I will be moving from Hawaii to California and starting all over again in January. But it’s also why I have such a hard time answering questions like, “Where are you from?” No one expects me to wax poetic about things like trees and friendship and God, but that is the best, most real answer I have. Don’t worry though. I usually have mercy on unsuspecting victims and simply say, “Columbus, Ohio.”

And then, maybe, I add a few sentences about life on Hickory Ridge Lane.

To my mom-friends

By the time a woman reaches my age, most of her friends are moms. I’ve been thinking of my mom-friends a lot lately, probably because it was Christmas which is about the birth of a baby to a family and you were posting a billion pictures of your family and snow and your family in snow. It makes me miss you because, let’s face it, we live way too far apart. I wish I lived closer so I could cuddle with your baby or help the older ones with those crafts that always make your kitchen table look like a Kandinsky painting. I even miss risking permanent pain and dislocation on those days when I’ve not had enough coffee and agree to wrestle with your boys. But as much as I love and miss your children, I dearly miss you.

Your kids have changed the fabric of our friendship, but let me say loud and clear that I don’t wish things were different. These little people you’ve made give me a lot of joy. Though I sometimes miss our spontaneous meetings for coffee or one-on-one time with unbridled and uninterrupted conversations where I don’t have to spell words like C-O-O-K-I-E and S-T-U-P-I-D, or window shopping sans stroller, backpack, sippy cups and multiple potty breaks – I promise – it’s only an occasional pang of sadness. I realize that all change, even good change, comes with some loss.

These people named Sera, Chase, Landon, Willa and Seth, they burst into your lives and our friendship with all of the boom and sparkle of fourth of July fireworks. I knew then that everything would be different and it is, but what we have now is so, so good.

Because you are a mom, I have learned to love you in new ways. I get to watch you discover new depths of yourself as you figure out how to survive years of sleep deprivation and how to pick up the pieces after the great stomach flu of 2010 that knocked you all down like a wave rushing over a sand castle. With grit and wisdom you circle, plot and conquer the complex problems that are your daily life. Sure, you make mistakes as a parent but I admire you even more because you reflect and learn from them. I observe this like a fan at a sporting event. I’ve set my fraying vinyl lawn chair along the green field of your life and I’m whooping and fist-pumping the air, yelling, “You go girl!”

Do you remember that blog post or article that bounced around Facebook a few years ago – it was a mom’s response to a single, childless friend who didn’t understand what the mom did all day? The non-mom clearly resented the time the children took away from her friendships. I believe that non-mom’s perspective is either a result of blindness or she is using cluelessness to cover over her pain. I think the subtext of that whole exchange is the non-mom missing her mom-friend. And it seems to me that the sparking point of her pain is her love.

Let me be a non-mom who puts it out there – sometimes I’m jealous. Mostly, I’m jealous of your time. Because you are a mom and that affects our friendship, there is a selfish part of me that wants to hoard your time, love and attention like I do gourmet caramel. Those months you spent nesting and setting up a nursery, when I helped you paint and shop and organize all the pastel and polka dot loot from your showers, I was also grieving the great impending change in our relationship. But don’t worry, this jealously is usually fleeting and it is always outweighed by happiness for you. The mature me knows that you are so precious that I would be a fool not to share you with others. No one should miss out on a love like yours.

While I’m being open I’ll also admit that I envy you. Not all women love kids and want to be mothers, but I do. Those precious weeks you spent nesting and then cradling and nurturing your infants were times I was doing my best to swallow past the super-sized golf ball in my throat. Even though you let me cradle your babies and you call me Aunt Coco and have me over for family movie night and show me in a hundred ways that you love me as much as ever, being a part of your motherhood is a reminder that I may not experience my own.

Our lives are constantly being shaped and reshaped, sometimes by circumstances beyond our control and sometimes by our own choices. We will never stop adapting and changing to new realities. I may have children one day and I’ll be bemoaning the teenage years while most of my mom-friends will be glorying in the freedom of an empty nest. We may never again be in the same place as women or as moms, but we will always have the opportunity to nurture each other. And when I think of my friendships fifteen years from now, I realize I have a significant choice right now.

This friendship between us is a beautiful thing and I am thankful to God that I have you in my life. Despite my moments of jealousy, envy and grief, because of you I also have profound joy and appreciation. And because you are a mom our friendship is stronger. We’ve had to figure out how to carry on this important relationship amid all of the necessities that make up your life as a mom and my life as a non-mom. When it comes down to it, maintaining our relationship is a choice for both of us. I deeply value your presence in my life. I can never say that loud or often enough. I understand that you have these little people who literally need you to sleep, eat, dress and learn about the basics of life like how and why we wash our hands and why love is the most powerful force on earth. Your motherhood is a significant thing and I hope that I can find ways to build you up. I want the friendship that I offer you to be one of the essential nutrients that makes you a better you, and a better mom.

It’s a new year and you are already well on your way to learning a hundred new things about life because you are a mom. I won’t presume that I have much to teach you about motherhood, but I do have something to say that as a friend I hope you can hear and absorb.

It seems that everywhere I go – no matter what state or restaurant, blog or Facebook page I visit – moms everywhere are being critical of themselves. You have a baby growing in your womb pushing out the wall of your stomach because there is nowhere else to grow and you call yourself fat. Your body is a different shape after bearing, birthing and feeding three children and you are constantly berating yourself for not fitting into you pre-pregnancy jeans. Your house is full of toys to stimulate fun and imagination and learning but what you see is a shameful mess you have to hide from visitors. Your child misbehaves in the nursery or at school and somehow it is a cosmic judgment on your skill as a parent rather than a symptom of the emotional and spiritual journey of your child. You are balancing motherhood and marriage and work outside the home and you reflect on all of the ways you feel like you are failing without building a list of all the ways you are flourishing. I am mystified and very sad that you cannot see and dwell on all the good that you are and all of the good that you offer your children, spouse, workplace and relationships.

I don’t know the cause of all of this self-judgment and even if I knew the cause it’s probably too big for me to dismantle alone. But I have a significant gift to offer that I think could help battle this terrible beast you face every day.

Picture me standing right in front of you close enough to pull you in for a hug. I can easily see the shadows you’ve tried to hide under concealer and the hints of gray shining in your roots. I see your tiredness, your sense of failure, your splintering last nerve, your fear of losing yourself, your desire for a break, your secrets and your pain. I see all that and you know what I think?

This woman is my friend and I’m so lucky. I love her. She’s brave and funny and tough. She makes me happy even when we just sit together in silence. She is such a part of me that all she has to do is twitch an eyebrow or quirk the right side of her mouth and she’s read me a chapter of her thoughts. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without baking a thousand cookies with her or sharing a bottle of red in a Roman piazza with her or without her shoulder to sop up my tears. And I probably wouldn’t like the person I am today without her affirmation, her laughter and her courage to call me on my crap.

To me, dear friend you are lovely. Your motherhood, as difficult and tiring as you may find it, expands my ability to love you. Are you perfect? Are you a ‘cool’ mom, the best mom on the block? When was the last time you washed your kitchen floor? How often do you give in and give them one more C-O-O-K-I-E just to stop the whining? Did you remember my birthday? I don’t care about the answer to any of these questions. I care about you seeing yourself and loving yourself…like I see and love you – and let’s kick it up ten million notches to the Nth degree – like God sees and loves you.

The complexity of your life is stretching and transforming you into a beauty that no pageant or plastic surgery, no Disney cartoonist, Insanity workout or one hundred-dollar dye job could ever produce! I like you because of who you are, not because of what you or your house look like or could look like. I wish that you felt the same.

This is my prayer for my mom-friends, that you would see yourself as you are and be deeply satisfied.

I think if you do this, then the answers to those questions I asked above would fade into oblivion and the questions themselves would cease to have power over you, because love is the most powerful force on earth.

I hope you realize that the word friend is as significant as the word mom. Our lives are very different, but that just gives us more ways and opportunities to love. We have so much to offer each other – laughter and listening and accountability – and hundreds of memories yet to frame and hang on our walls, even if we live thousands of miles apart. I hope that we continue making room in our lives and choosing to nurture each other for decades to come.

You are awesome and I love you. I’m blessed to be your friend.

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”)