New Year’s Reclamations – 2015

In the past two weeks I’ve moved away from Hawaii, celebrated Christmas in Phoenix, bought a car and moved to California. It’s been 11 days of constant motion, packing and unpacking, traffic, goodbyes and hellos. So yesterday I took my Sabbath and went out exploring with no particular agenda. I ended up at the largest Starbucks I’ve ever seen and bought a latte. As I waited for my coffee, I noticed that every single person filling the twenty-odd tables had some kind of screen in front of them. People were sharing tables but no one was talking, making eye-contact, or smiling. It struck me as odd, for a room to be so full but so devoid of life.

I grabbed my latte and went to sit outside in the sunshine. For thirty minutes I watched the parking lot bustle with activity. Drivers zoomed in and out of parking spaces with the nonchalance of stuntmen. They took corners like NASCAR drivers and I feared for the lives of pedestrians weaving toward their cars. Between bouts of fear, I finally had time to think about the new year and all the opportunities ahead.

I’ve never been into New Year’s resolutions. I’m naturally suspicious of trends and resist doing things just because scads of other people do them. I think it’s healthy to do some inner housekeeping and improve habits, I just wish resolutions didn’t come with a side of shame. I want to do things because I truly want to do them, not because someone or something has made me feel bad about myself. So instead of resolutions I likely won’t keep, I’m making a list of reclamations – practices I believe in, things that I can lean into in any way, and at any pace, I choose. With reclamations there’s no pressure of quick mastery, no measuring stick for success and no quotas. It’s just me inviting myself to pursue positive, meaningful things with a spirit of curiosity, hope and freedom. So here are my reclamations for 2015…

FACE TO FACE TIME – Screens are everywhere: tablets, smartphones, video games, and e-readers fill our hands. TVs have taken the place of art in waiting rooms, restaurants, and church lobbies. I’ve even seen TVs at the gas pump, in elevators and some public restrooms! While these devices can offer important information, entertainment and even some quality educational programs, they also snatch away my attention from living, breathing, human beings.

girls on their phone

When was the last time you had a conversation with a friend or loved one without distraction? A meal or date night without texts read and answered? Family time that excludes scrolling through your Facebook feed? Actual words with friends rather than a scrabble game online? These are distractions that we choose over building and maintaining emotional intimacy with our loved ones. We choose screens over souls.

I choose screens over souls.

The more we look at screens rather than faces, I fear we will lose our ability to inspire each other to change and grow, to notice when we’ve hurt someone and seek forgiveness, to mourn together and to celebrate well, to get each other through the hard times and the doldrums. I want real connections with real people rather than sitcom characters. I want to read a friend’s facial expressions, to notice if they look tired or anxious, to offer them encouragement with my eyes as well as my words. If I want to reclaim connections with people, I have to rethink screen time.

Realistically, I know that screens are here to stay. I’m not starting a screen rebellion or going cold turkey with my electronics, but I do want to bring the wisdom of self-control to my screen time. I hope to thoughtfully create screen boundaries that will promote and preserve my relational and emotional health.

LIFE AT SANDALS PACE – Being back in California after living in Hawaii is a shock to the system. I went to college here, but I’d forgotten the hurried pace at which Californians move. Highway driving here can be downright scary – honking horns, wild lane changes, people intentionally cutting people off. Yesterday’s Starbucks parking lot was over-stimulating. Even as I sat drinking my coffee with nowhere to go, I couldn’t completely relax with everyone clipping along.

In contrast, Hawaiians seem to move with the gentle flow of the wind. Everything seems to meander in the tropics: traffic, work, people, turtles. Drivers are extremely courteous and always wait for pedestrians. Meetings start on “Hawaii time” – that’s like saying Africa time, or late – because you’re expected to pause and greet and maybe even catch up with the people you see on your way to the meeting.

No one seems to rush in Hawaii except paramedics. No one runs between 16 different activities. (To run in sandals is to risk your life, as every adult knows.) There’s always time to take the long way because it’s scenic, to point out a rainbow, to go to the beach, bury your feet in the sand and watch the sunset. Not all islanders live this way, but this sandals pace is a choice just like any other.


As I settle back into life in California, I want to live at a Hawaiian pace. I’ll try to keep my schedule from getting too full so the time I spend with people is unhurried. So I can be attentive. So Sabbath won’t be an adrenaline crash.

DO A WHAT-WHAT – Once a week as a school chaplain I served lunch to the 1st graders. One day, three of the girls were randomly touching their fingertips together above their heads like ballerinas in fifth position. They caught me looking at them, so I winked and mimicked them. They giggled and suddenly it became a game. They’d put up their arms and I’d improvise a little dance in the food line.fifth position

One of the girls asked me what I was doing. I responded, “What does it look like I’m doing?” She said, “Being silly!” Another girl piped in, “You’re doing a what-what!” Clearly that was new to me, so she added, “A what-what is something fun and new you make up. It’s something you’ve never done before and maybe no one will ever do again.” (How cute are six-year-olds?!)

During my seven months in Hawaii we had two hurricanes blow through. Both were downgraded to tropical storms before they hit Oahu, but we still had to stay inside for a few days. Before the rains came, I went shopping for supplies. When I discovered there wasn’t a flashlight left on the island, I wandered into Barnes & Noble. I bought two jigsaw puzzles, a sketchbook, and a hug set of colored pencils.

I’ve never taken a drawing class in my life. I can’t even remember the last time I tried to draw something with any serious concentration, but I surprised myself by spending hours attempting to draw a turkey. (Thanksgiving was coming.) I looked up some pictures on the internet and then did a what-what on paper. It was an experiment in shape and color and blending. I had no idea what I was doing or how it would turn out, but that didn’t matter. It was new, intuitive, playful, and full of freedom. I shocked myself to discover that I can draw something that looks real.  My what-what turkey may not be gallery worthy, but I’d say it’s pretty good for a newbie.


I want to reclaim creativity in 2015. I want to feel again the pleasure of surprising myself with a skill I didn’t know I had, to fold new experiences into the every-day and expected.

So here I am, four days into a new year, ready to live more free, to be more attentive, more playful. I’m hoping to take the long way, to meander and make time for creativity on my way to some really great discoveries.

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.

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.


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.

This Battleground: A Holy Week Reflection

On recent Sunday mornings we’ve been singing “Never Once” by Matt Redman. Take a minute to review the lyrics…

Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step You were with us

Kneeling on this battleground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Now pause and look back at the two lines that are bold. How many of you could easily make two columns and file your life experiences under either the header “Mountaintop” or “Battleground?”  Both are common metaphors we use to speak about our spiritual journey.

The mountaintop is a prevalent faith metaphor for those sublime times in which we acknowledge that life with God is good. A mountaintop vista means we can clearly see what we have climbed over. Here we can fill our lungs to tingling, release clenched fists and to stand tall. The end of an uphill trudge is certainly to be celebrated!

The slowly-fading pain of the battleground is perhaps less euphoric than a mountaintop, but no less significant to our faith. Whether or not they are outwardly visible, many of us bear scars which remind us of earthly wars we wish we could have avoided — abuse, betrayal, deceit, broken relationships, [fill in the blank]. It’s fitting that Redman used the word kneeling with the battleground image. Truly victorious people are often weak-kneed with the knowledge that they were a hairs-breadth from death. Gratitude makes us kneel as we acknowledge that something (or someone) beyond our individual (or our battalion’s) capabilities stood in the infinitesimal gap between our necks and the edge of the sword.

Why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with Holy Week? This week is an opportune time to reflect on these metaphors, perhaps in a new way.

The longer I sit at the feet of Jesus, the more uncomfortable I grow with the dichotomy we draw between the mountaintop and battleground. Too often I’ve heard fellow believers judge the faith of another who is in the midst of a battle.

She’s always saying how hard her life is. Why has it been so long since she’s been happy like me? What is wrong with her? Where is her faith?

It’s as though the mountaintop is the only trustworthy thermometer of a vital spiritual life. But what if we learned to see the mountaintop and the battleground not as contrasting but interchangeable spiritual planes?

What would happen in our spirits if we understood the battleground as the mountaintop?

Jesus has a lot to say about spiritual warfare. As a Holy Week spiritual discipline, I encourage you to read John 15:18-16:33 each day. Listen deeply to Jesus teaching in the days and hours before his arrest. Notice how frankly he speaks to his disciples about the battles ahead. Grief, suffering, shunning, ridicule, hatred, persecution, death – these are the coming realities for his followers. (Just as they were for Jesus himself.) Jesus is not harsh or indelicate; he pulls away the film of naïveté from his disciples’ vision so they could understand that a God-honoring life is lived on the treacherous planes of a spiritual battlefield.

Despite these chilling facts, Jesus is still the good news bearer we met in earlier chapters. He didn’t leave his followers low in depression or despair. Hear both his motivation and encouragement in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”  

This is not a trite response given to trembling followers. “Have overcome” is literally “conquered” or “carried off the victory”. Jesus is using battle imagery! He’s foreshadowing events that will come soon, events that will culminate in the ultimate spiritual battle – the fight for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Where was this battle fought? On a cross – a place of humiliation and torture.

A torture device as a battlefield? Yes.

Suffering and death as a battle strategy? Yes.

And this leads to a victory? Yes!

Through his sacrificial death and his miraculous resurrection, Jesus defeated the power of sin and death. His actions may not have been logical, but they were victorious. This is why we should see our battles as mountaintop experiences – because God can accomplish the greatest victories even when we are at our weakest. Tribulations can be times of praise because victory is owned by the power of God.

Jesus told his followers to rejoice and be glad when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It’s a crazy request…unless you understand that the battleground is the mountaintop. We can rejoice despite the battle because Jesus did not leave his disciples defenseless. He armed us with supernatural weaponry –

·         Jesus’ continual presence through the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15)

·         Protection by the power of God’s name (17:11)

·         Jesus’ joy (17:13)

·         God’s word (17:14)

·         God’s glory which enables unity (17:22-23)

The first point is the battle cry of the Christian life. God sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Advocate” on the battlefields of life (16:7). The title Advocate is a legal term. It describes one who pleads a case before a judge, acting as an intercessor for the accused. (Forgive the shift in metaphor, but the battlefield and the courtroom do complement each other.)

Our lives will have tribulation.We will often feel like defendants being falsely accused by people we once thought friends. Rather than feel defeated, fearful or inadequate by a spiritual battle, we can see our trouble as a sign of spiritual vitality. Our confidence is in the Holy Spirit, in whom we have the best legal counsel possible. The Spirit defends the truth of our testimony and, like the savviest lawyer, turns the tables on our accusers. Our Advocate has the power to get our charges thrown out, saving us from both sure conviction and the death penalty!

Think about the many spiritual metaphors we use to describe the spiritual life – the battlefield, the storm, desert wanderings, and famine. Each of these experiences is also a mountaintop because we are infused with the presence and almighty power of Holy Spirit. This is the hope we cling to in shadow of the cross.

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

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

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)