The Break

This spring I was working very part-time at a church while I continued a multi-year search for a full-time, permanent position. I was strapped for cash and hope. As I marked my 250th job application, I felt overlooked and frustrated.

The waiting was the hardest part of those years. For all of the hours I spent searching the internet, applying for jobs, and praying, I spent hundreds more waiting. I learned then that waiting can deplete energy faster than any other activity.

As the waiting stretched on, I began to feel diminished. I joked more than once that I was experiencing brain atrophy, but I wasn’t laughing. I was so emotionally exhausted that sometimes I lost my train of thought and stopped in the middle of a sentence. The worst thing in all of this was feeling like I’d lost touch with the vibrant person I am.

Last winter, during the miserable waiting, I went on a spiritual retreat and spent an hour slowly walking a labyrinth. The path was shaped by mismatched rocks on top of sparse Arizona earth. I was so focused on the rhythm of my steps and my prayers, that I missed most of my surroundings. But then, there was a moment when I looked ahead, saw, and stopped. On the ground along a particularly sharp corner of the labyrinth, was a sprig of pale green topped with a single flower. The petals were an apricot color kissed with sunshine. It was a desert poppy, its presence so cheerful and carefree in the middle of so much dust, that I started to cry.

desert poppy

This is the color of my spirit, I thought. This is the joy I’ve lost touch with.

A couple of weeks after that, I applied for the job in Hawaii and few weeks later the principal called to offer me the job. I’d told God that couldn’t face another month of idling, so even though the job was temporary, I accepted it as a gift straight from Heaven. Working with children had never been on my professional bucket list, but I’ve always loved kids, so I thought — why not? At the very least, it would be a break from financial stress and job searching. I was sure to learn something new. To stimulate and engage my mind again. The change might revive my energy and maybe the youthfulness of the students would slough away some of my calluses.

Now it’s December and my last week in Hawaii. It’s been seven months packed with rich experiences, far too many to recount here. The students did revive me. Everywhere I went on campus I’d hear, “Hello Chaplain Gustafson!” Sometimes it was Gusterson, Guftasin, or Gustussin, but it was always endearing. The children just saw me. They accepted me and loved me. I never felt like I had to prove myself to them or perform for them. I could just be me, offer whatever was in my spirit that day, and that was enough. This is the kind of hospitality that extended job searching had sucked out of my life.

One of the most beautiful things about Hawaiian culture is the tradition of giving a flower lei. Most visitors think this is a cute, touristy thing that only happens at the airport or in the lobbies of fancy hotels. For those who live here, giving a lei is a sign of affection and respect. You give one to mark a special achievement or occasion, but more importantly, to honor the recipient.

For almost every chapel I led this fall, the class helping me would present me with a lei. This ring of flowers always came with words of thanks and a hug that I would have to kneel to receive. Their variety and colors dazzled. Their sweet fragrance circled me all day, everywhere I went. With a lei around my neck, I couldn’t go unnoticed; their scent drew people to me.

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Because of my story before Hawaii, lei have spiritual significance to me. Each time someone placed one around my neck, a piece of my exhaustion fell away. As flowers piled up, frustrations lost their weight. Just a few months ago I felt invisible and diminished, but now I feel strong and happy. Receiving these lei was like being hugged by God — there was no chance of staying small. Thanks to God, thanks to this job and a promise of a future job, and thanks to these beautiful, giving children, joy is a regular experience again. I’m in full bloom.

A few weeks ago I walked to work in a downpour. I waded through ankle-deep puddles, got splashed by passing cars and sighed as my umbrella leaked drops of cold rain on my head. I am not a morning person, so walking through a storm at 7am put me in a terrible mood. But as I passed the pool on my way to the chapel, there was a break in the gray clouds above the trees. Behind them I could see clear blue sky threaded with brilliant rays of sunlight.

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There I was, waterlogged and grumpy, but God was winking. Welcoming me to a new day. Reminding me that there are good things to come.

Seeing the break in the clouds, I smiled, and hoped.

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 – 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.

Better Than an Ice Bucket

The ALS ice bucket challenge has flooded my Facebook newsfeed. At first it was just a friend of a friend, so I didn’t pay much attention. Within three days about fifty of my friends accepted the challenge, so I finally figured out what is going on across the country.

(AP photo/Elise Amendola)

(AP photo/Elise Amendola)

Every week something new is trending on social media – a video of cats doing something “extraordinary” or a baby doing something ordinary, a poignant or provocative blog post, links to breaking news and scandals. Some of the trends are funny and uplifting, some controversial, and others downright deplorable. The phenomena of all these people dumping an ice bucket over their heads to raise awareness and/or money for ALS is one of the better trends. According to The Huffington Post, they’ve raised over $160,000 in a 10 day period. It’s amusing to watch my friends and celebrities douse themselves, but whenever I see the letters ALS, I think of images and challenges that make a bucket of ice seem as intimidating as tossing a grain of sand into the sea. I think of the day I met Hank.

Many years ago I did a chaplaincy internship at a large suburban hospital. Our staff of chaplains worked hard to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of thousands of patients each week. One day while on call, I was paged to spend time with a patient whose family was out of town. The RN told me her patient’s name was Hank, that he had advanced ALS and he was having “a rough day.” I’d heard of ALS, of course, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but at that point I knew more about the baseball player than I did the disease, and that is saying something. I had no idea what to expect.

I heard Hank moaning before I reached the door of his room. When I entered, I saw a man slumped in the raised hospital bed, the side of his face smashed against the plastic side rail. His eyes were open but they didn’t move. I approached the bed slowly, greeting Hank by name and introducing myself. With a frozen jaw and his lips and tongue only twitching, Hank groaned out a short sound. It wasn’t what I would normally call a word, but it had enough force of breath to let me know that Hank was trying to communicate with me. He repeated himself many times. I asked myself over and over: what did Hank need? What could I do? Unable to understand him but sensing his distress, I felt helpless and uncomfortable and wanted to run out of the room.

Eventually, I figured out that Hank was saying. “Head, hurt.” – and no wonder, smashed up against the railing like he was, unable to move. I wanted to kick myself for missing the obvious. It took me ten minutes and four requests to get a nurse to help me get Hank in a comfortable position. He groaned loudly the entire time but stopped as soon as we got him better situated. By that point, I was sweating and holding back tears. I pulled up a chair and sat down where Hank could see me, not knowing what else I could do.

Hank was so fragile. He wasn’t much older than my father but he looked decades older. He couldn’t move his limbs or his head and when I held his hand, his fingers were stiff and still in mine. I imagined that he must be a shadow of his former self, a fact confirmed when a woman stepped in the room.

Marge introduced herself as a friend of Hank’s from high school. She told me that she wanted to come visit even though she hadn’t seen Hank in years. She gave a smile that was more like a grimace and she stood in the doorway, nervously wringing the cardigan sweater she held in her hands. Her eyes darted to Hank lying in the bed cocooned by six pillows and a blanket. I invited Marge to take my seat so she could visit with Hank. She quickly declined, mumbled about coming back on a better day, and left. She was there maybe two minutes max. Her friend’s appearance so startled and distressed Marge that she fled.

I spent a few more minutes with Hank. I didn’t say much because I didn’t know what to say. I prayed for his comfort. I briefly held his hand and when I left I made sure one of the many CDs stacked by his bed was playing. I was shaken. As a chaplain it was one of those defining moments when I felt utterly inadequate to my task. As a human I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Ashamed that I was uncomfortable in Hank’s presence, that I was tongue-tied, that I spent more time worrying about my feelings than Hank’s. I was embarrassed for Marge, Hank’s friend, who couldn’t bring herself to spend more than two minutes with him. Later that week I grew angry – angry with the unit nurses who were too busy to help Hank, and angry with hospital standards that kept too few nurses busy with too many patients and too many protocols.

This is a portrait of ALS and it exposes our real challenge. There are thousands of Hanks in our country, in our hospitals, nursing homes and neighborhoods, hoping we will hear them cry out and come help. Certainly giving money to ALS research and other charitable health care organizations is a tangible way to help. And if you dumped an ice bucket on your head and raised awareness or you followed a link and educated yourself about the disease, I’m sincerely glad. But ten minutes of reading and a fifty dollar donation don’t meet the real challenge of ALS.

You may never know or meet someone with ALS, but chances are in your lifetime that you will know and love someone who will be diagnosed with a debilitating and/or degenerative disease. Whether it is ALS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or dementia, your challenge, if you choose to accept it, will be to offer your steadfast love.

Steadfast love is love that goes beyond sentiment and beyond the doorway. It’s love that moves forward through your fear and discomfort, knowing that your fears and discomforts are nothing compared to the one whose hand you hold. This love makes you pull up a chair, stay a while and come back tomorrow. It prompts you to bring his favorite book and read the best chapter aloud and then talk about what moved you. It inspires you to sing her favorite song through your tears or gently massage lotion on stiff fingers and cracked skin.

Love never treats a person like they are someone else’s problem, like they are a disease, a financial burden, or just a body in a bed. To love is to greet them by name and always treat them as a beloved. Even when they can no longer speak. Or when they’ve forgotten your name. And especially when they no longer sound, smell or feel like the person we once knew.

And when we run away, steadfast love asks us to forgive ourselves, to go back and try again.

This is what ALS asks of us. This is also what God wants of us. It’s a big, scary ask. But don’t forget, we have everything we need to meet it.

Love is the most beautiful expression of our humanity. Treating people as people, being involved in their care, showing them they are loved – until the day they die – this carries the scent of heaven. If we do this, then we offer the best help and meet life’s greatest challenge.

Holding-hands-comforting-an-elderly-lady

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.

May you be given, not only a sharp pen, but above everything else more and more of a burning and loving heart. Write with red ink oftener than with black. Encourage more than criticize. (David Nyvall, December 1893)

Unvarnished: Healing our Images of God

The following is an adaptation of a sermon title “Healing our Images of God” which you can listen to at http://hopechurchchandler.com/sermons/sermon/2012-12-30/healing-our-images-of-god.

All of us have experienced pain, whether past or present. A bomb may have dropped in your life 10 years, 10 months or 10 days ago. Have you dealt with the pain? Have you explored how the shrapnel from that bomb may have damaged your relationships with God? It’s likely that circumstances in your life have affected how you see God. Having a whole and healthy relationship with God is essential for health in all other areas of life.

I want 2013 to be a year of healing for all of us – healing in many ways, but most of all, healing in our relationship with God. I want all of us to be people who wear crowns of beauty, who are anointed with the oil of joy and wrapped in garments of praise, just like the word pictures painted by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-3). Doesn’t that sound great? But to live that way in 2013, we need to pause, take a close look at our lives and see how circumstances have damaged or distorted our image of God.

Let me illustrate with a bit of art history.

Rembrandt's 'THe Night Watch'

The image above is Rembrandt’s most famous work. It’s popularly called “The Night Watch” because its actual title is long and descriptive. Painted in 1642, The Night Watch is a scene of a militia gathered in the center of town surrounded by supporters. What few people know about The Night Watch is that it was covered with varnish sometime after Rembrandt’s death – as was the custom. Cleaned in 1940, the varnish came away and restorers discovered The Night Watch was actually a day scene! When they saw the lightened image (below) they realized that the popular title for the painting was all wrong.

The Nigh Watch (unvarnished)

Another little known fact – when The Night Watch was removed from its original location in the 1700s, the painting had to be trimmed to fit its new location. This process cut off two characters on the left side of the painting (seen below).

Night Watch trimmed

Now we know that for hundreds of years when people viewed The Night Watch, they did not see what the artist created. I believe that the same thing happens to our image of God. Our painful experiences are like dark varnish that shade and distort the way God meant for us to see him. 

How many of you have witnessed or experienced something so terrible that your concept of God no longer fits into your experience of the world? Maybe the recent school shooting in Connecticut or another world disaster or something closer to home has you wondering how God can really be good.

When something bad happens, how many of us trim God down so he can fit in our new understanding of reality? Unfortunately, when we do this, we cut off part of the story that God originally revealed to us. 

Rather than acknowledging and holding the tension between who God is and who the world portrays God to be, we allow life circumstances to distort the truth of God’s character.

Let me offer my life as an example. In the past six years I’ve experienced significant pain in circumstances both professional and personal. The past three years have been particularly difficult. What caused this pain is best kept in the confidence of my counselor and my mentors, so I’ll ask you to suspend your curiosity. Let me simply say that pain has varnished my life from sunshine to mud. Pain has distorted my image of God.The best way to illustrate this is to share a story from my days as a hospital chaplain. It’s a very difficult story to hear, but please bear with me.

One day I was working as the chaplain on call and was paged to the emergency department. There I met a young, single mother. Our staff was frantically trying to revive her four-year-old son.  During an hour of terrified waiting she told me what happened.

She and her son had been swimming in the family pool, he securely clipped in to a life jacket, she floating on a raft nearby. The grandfather came outside and the little boy said he wanted to go inside. They unhooked his life jacket and when he turned to go inside with grandpa, mom pushed off on her raft to continue relaxing. Several minutes later she decided to go check on her son and see if he had everything he needed. Only, she could not find him inside and grandpa hadn’t seen him. She raced outside and looked in the pool but didn’t see anything. (Later she told me the pool pump was broken and the water was very murky.) Thinking her son might have gone to the playground beyond their back gate, she raced there and ran around calling his name. She searched nearby and then ran back to their yard.  When she looked into the pool again, she saw a foot in the murky water of the deep end. She dove in, pulled out her son, yelled for the grandfather to call 9-1-1 and began CPR. None of the efforts of that mother or our staff saved that beautiful little boy. I lay on the floor with this devastated young mother as she wept that her child must never have gone inside, must have slipped back in the pool with her and drowned without her seeing or hearing him.

I worked many drownings when I was a chaplain. Unfortunately, few of them had happy endings. It sounds strange, but when tragedies like these are a part of your daily work, you learn methods to cope and move on to the next case. However, this drowning knocked me down. I could hardly function the next day, couldn’t bring myself to see patients, couldn’t stop the tears. I asked myself why this drowning was affecting me so personally and profoundly.

Through prayer and reflection I realized that I identified with that boy in the pool. The pool scene was my image of God. My circumstances made me feel like I was a child without a life-jacket, drowning in the murky waters of my life. Oh, I knew that God was with me like that mother was with her son in the pool, and I believed that God loved me as much as that weeping mother loved her child, but I felt like God had taken his eyes off of me and I was slipping under the water, unnoticed. Inside, my soul was crying out, “Don’t let me drown!”

Six years of painful experiences and events changed the way I saw and related to God. My image of God morphed from a loving parent to a neglectful parent who overlooked me. I had known what it was to bask in the love of my heavenly Father, but I could no longer feel the warmth of his gaze on my face.

Pain is not the end of my story. I’m walking a healing path. If you want a fuller picture of the healing in my relationship with God, listen to the sermon.  Here, I’ll simply list for you significant healing points. This is not my advice to you. It is not a step-by-step process or a self-help strategy. None of this was very intentional but was the result of a desperate desire to have my image of God and my relationship with God restored.

Lament – I embraced the biblical practice of lament and cried out to God. I took the Psalms and made their words my own when I had no words.

Prayer – I realized that my inner thoughts and prayers were sliding into a kind of un-holy and depressing complaint. I got sick of wallowing. I needed something constructive so I changed my prayer life. Prayer became an intentional time of silence where I simply acknowledged that I was in God’s presence. The only thing I ask of God is to be given consolation as I wait for things beyond my control to change.

Self-Exhortation – Sounds strange, but I reached a place where I had to confront myself. I had to ask myself the questions, “Corrie, is God negligent? Is that the truth of God’s character?” and then struggled toward the answer. It was a process of shoveling through the manure pile that was my pain and scraping through questions until I got to the bedrock of truth. I understood that I was the one who allowed my life circumstances to varnish and distort God’s image. Here is the most important question I unearthed: who is the artist of God’s image – me or God?  Put simply – who holds the paintbrush?

Sorting through Shadows and Light – Rembrandt was famous for a technique called chiaroscuro, using bold contrasts between darkness and light in a painting’s composition. Regrounding myself in the belief that God is the artist of his image and the Bible is his canvas, I’ve schooled myself to check the things the world says are true about God against what God has revealed as true. Having faith means that even when circumstances and feelings paint a bleak or dark picture in my understanding of God, I seek out the light. I find the light in the narratives of scripture.

I felt that God was a negligent parent who overlooked me in my pain, but as early as Genesis 16, the story of a downcast woman named Hagar reminds me that God is “the God who sees me.” So I focus on the light in this story, the truth of God’s character. The God I worship is one who sees the downcast, the abused, the runaways.  He is the God who finds them and who blesses them abundantly.

Waiting – I can’t tie this post up in a nice little bow for you. I have not reached ‘the other side’ of these tribulations, if there even is one. I realize that I am in control of very little that can change my circumstances, but I can shape my response to these things. I’m learning all kinds of difficult lessons about waiting, endurance and trust. I’m sure there are many blog posts to come about these.

I want to encourage you to think about ways in which painful life circumstances have varnished your image of God. Have you struggled for so long that you can no longer hold the tension between your life and your understanding of God?  Have you trimmed God down so he can fit into your understanding of the world?

If we believe scripture is the truth, then we need to see it as the canvas on which God painted his image for our viewing pleasure. If we want to be shaped by the Word and not the world, then we need to surrender the paintbrush. We need to give it back to the Master Artist. We need to gaze long and deep into God’s canvas, the Bible. We need to submit our feelings and our experiences to his story, to his revelation. Oh, what an image he creates!

If that message does not connect to your soul, then maybe it is time for you seek healing in your relationship with God. Maybe you need to look deep into your own story for the place where things went wrong and see how your image of God got stained and distorted.  Maybe it’s time to surrender the paintbrush and let the Master Artist restore his greatest work, the image of his love for you.

Return of the Prodigal Son, (detail) by Rembrandt Van Rijn

(The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail) by Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1669)