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.

sandals

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.

Turkey

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.

Why I’m Getting Ordained

ordination 1

Next Saturday I will be Ordained to Word and Sacrament by the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is an event for which I’ve hoped, worked, prayed and prepared for years. As I’ve shared my news with family and friends, a few have asked why a pastor needs to be ordained and why I am choosing to do so. These are good questions and I want to write my answers here so that you may understand why this is so important to me.

While many pastors talk about ordination as the natural result of spiritual gifting and call, I think that identity – one’s personal story and its intersection with God’s story – is fundamental to the journey toward ordination. So here are some snapshots of my story.

I was raised by two parents who had such genuine love of God that it naturally flowed into our family life. God’s love was clearly explained to me. I was taught about the love and sacrifice of Jesus each week – and I cherished those lessons – but there was a sense in which I didn’t need to be taught. I already knew. As my friend Meg likes to say, I knew in my knower. I knew that God was real, that God loved me and that my life was, and would always be, full of meaning and purpose. At a very young age I felt what I can only call the joy of the Lord. I wouldn’t have said that exactly at age five, but I knew it deep within. I always felt like my joy would someday burst through my chest like rays of sunshine break through clouds.

Things were not always so light for me. From sixth through eighth grade, I was abused by a group of boys at school. I don’t share the details of those experiences with many because some have minimized what happened to me and that is almost as painful as the abuse itself. I’ll simply say that what I experienced those three years had a profound impact on my soul. I constantly received mixed messages about my worth. Filtering for the truth and battling the lies left me emotionally exhausted. Loneliness became a physical force leeching much of the joy out of me. I withdrew socially, read a ton of books and hid my pain from everyone, even my family. But late at night in the quiet of my bedroom I would pour out my fear, my pain and my desperation to God.

God was there with me. He met me in the pages of the Psalms where ancient people cried out against things that should not be. God sat with me in the dirt at the foot of the cross. God heard me and saw me when I felt like no one else did. God was with me every day doling out love and compassion and strength and by this grace, I got through and gradually healed.

A few years ago I worked with a counselor who asked if I had an image that would represent my life for those years. Quickly, I pictured myself surrounded by huge piles of manure taller than any man and so stinky it would make you retch. But here’s the thing I’ve learned about manure – it’s the best fertilizer around. During my years of pain and loneliness, a tremendous root system of compassion was developing in me and God would use that for good.

Flash forward to my junior year of college when I served as a resident assistant, or RA, in my dorm. Being a RA is like being a peer mentor. You plan events and build relationships and try to set a good example for others. There were 24 women on my floor. They were fun, creative, talented women but within two months I discovered profound suffering among them. They smiled through their days and pushed themselves toward academic excellence but behind closed doors they were falling apart. One woman attempted suicide and was hospitalized several times, only to check herself out and return to campus and class as though nothing was wrong. Another woman collapsed in the shower and was too exhausted to get up. Three others had to carry her to her bed but she refused to seek help. I found out that she was starving herself but running many miles every morning. Clinical depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive relationships, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity – these women were suffocating from brokenness. Standing in the middle of this cloud of emotional debris, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, God said to me –

Corrie, this is what I have for you. Care for them.

God’s call on my life was like a lightning bolt at midnight. It was suddenly clear; I knew it in my knower. And I panicked. At that point I was still mostly in denial of my past pain, so I thought I was inadequate to the task. Who was I to step in? What did I know about suffering? But God’s call was clear and I knew it would be scariest but best to obey, so I jumped in the muck with both feet. I sat with woman after woman and listened to her story. I offered the simplest of things – a silent, (outwardly) calm presence and words of support. There was no judgment, no trite sayings stretched from scripture, no platitudes, no easy answers. I was very clear about not having many, if any, answers, but I did have a ton of love to offer. That year I tapped into that deep root system of compassion God had grown in me. I also understood that this call to care for the suffering was not temporary; it was God’s call for my entire life, as well as my call to professional ministry.

So I went on to pursue a Master of Divinity, gained mentored ministry experience and have expanded my skills and knowledge on a wide range of pastoral care topics. Over the past 14 years I’ve seen God do some pretty incredible stuff. God brought me to several people at just the right time so I could intervene and prevent suicide. God brings to me despairing people, desperate people, and those who are in so much pain they can’t even think straight. I don’t heal them – I can’t – but for many I am the first person who takes the time to listen well, to see them, to hear their pain, and to help them find a way back from the darkest places. It doesn’t seem to matter what my title or job description is; this is always the substance of my ministry.

So how does this story lead to ordination? Certainly I don’t need to be ordained or even have the title pastor to live out this calling. But here’s what clinches it for me. Here’s why I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the past four years and why I’m flying thousands of miles from Hawaii to Chicago next week to speak the ordination vows – the church is a pain machine.

Churches cause pain in their communities and across the globe through action and inaction. Pastors disappoint their parishioners and parishioners lash out at their pastors. Zealousness for truth or “right” theology has made us rigid and callous and we ostracize the people who so desperately need the good news that Jesus called us to proclaim. Sure, we Christians do a lot of important work in the world – we plant urban gardens, rescue women and children from sexual slavery, develop clean water projects, run soup kitchens and thrift stores – but even as we dig into these good works we aren’t loving or caring for each other well.

The church is busy denying abuse and protecting abusers. Christians are in pain but we aren’t mature or courageous enough to lovingly confront the person or persons who hurt us. We’re fighting theology and worship wars and our main opponents are people within the church, our spiritual sisters and brothers! We’re letting bitterness cement walls between us. And even as we are embroiled in all of this terrible infighting, we scratch our heads and wonder why the church is shrinking in North America, why most denominations are splitting or dying, and why we’re accused of being hypocrites by those outside our walls. When I look around, I see a church that has sacrificed the greatest commandment for the great commission.

The church has a wellness problem. Our attempts at loving neighbor and self are diseased and dysfunctional at best. This is where I hope to intervene as both a person and a pastor. Because of my experiences of pain, because I experienced God’s love and healing through the church and because, though imperfect, the church still expands my love for God, I won’t give up on the church. Instead, I’m choosing to take vows to lead and serve it well.

The church needs all kinds of pastors. I want to be the kind of pastor who tries to right the balance between our expression of the greatest commandment and the great commission. I absolutely want churches and Christians to be biblically literate and intentionally missional in their communities, but first I really, really want them to know God’s love intimately – a love that shatters abuse, overcomes shame, and brings joy to the frayed human spirit. I want churches and Christians to feed and hydrate themselves with this love until it heals and matures us to the point that we can wisely and widely extend love and shalom to our neighbors. I want the church to be known as a healing machine rather than a pain machine. I want the church to be praised as a place for grace seekers and grace givers, a safe place for the suffering to gather and find rest and renewal. I want the church to be a place that values emotional maturity as much as (but preferably more than) it does attendance numbers, small groups programming and pleasing music.

This is what I’m about as a person and it is what I hope for the church as a pastor. Next Saturday, along with 66 other women and men, I will take a series of vows and commit my life to the service and leadership of the church. I don’t know how most pastors feel as they approach their ordination day. I am humbled by the honor and responsibility it is to be called and gifted to lead the church. I feel both inadequate and empowered. After all, I’m just me, a woman with a story. A woman who loves God and cares for the church and thinks the world desperately needs the hope we can give. A woman who knows that I can only be a pastor through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I’m also a woman who knows that the support of family, friends, churches and even a denomination will be vital to my health and longevity as a pastor. So I ask you to pray for me this week just as you would for a loved one approaching her wedding day. In the days and years to come I will need your affirmation and accountability like I need food and water.

My sincere thanks to each of you who have shepherded me to this day – to El Roi, the God who sees, to my parents and extended family, my mentors, professors, pastors, counselors, confidantes, elders, and especially my soul-sisters – you know who you are.

Life without a Bow

Every life is a story. In the weeks since I announced my new job and my rapidly approaching move to Hawaii countless people have dreamed up epilogues for the next chapter of my life. Many believe this temporary position will somehow become permanent. Others predict that I won’t come back, that another job on the island will line itself up as this one concludes. One man thinks God may be calling me to plant a church on the islands. But the most common epilogue is a romance with a Hawaiian man which will be followed by marriage and cute Hawaiian babies. As I listen to person after person predict what will happen next, I fill with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’ve got a lot of grace; clearly I am well loved and people are excited for me. Meanwhile, the jaded side of me thinks – get real people, this is my life, not a novel!

bow box

Maxine, my creative writing professor in grad school, encouraged us students to resist tying up our pieces in a bow. Using countless examples, she showed us that often the most compelling stories don’t have anything close to fairy tale endings. Yes, great stories always have conflicts that need resolution, but often the conclusions of these stories are messy. Not every tale gets straightened out and wrapped up by the final page. And not every story needs a fairy tale ending – the unexpected return of a hero, rags to riches, marriage and babies – to be great. Sometimes a few tangles and lingering questions make the best ending because real life is messy.

After four years of relentless job searching, the stress of underemployment and an income too small to warrant a budget, the certainty of six months of full-time employment is epilogue enough for me. I’m luxuriating in the freedom from having to look for work for a few months. I get time to reconnect with some dear friends and to make new ones. And let’s be real, the fact that I get to live in Hawaii is a big, shiny bow. God has provided respite. I’m relieved and elated and ready to play in the ocean. I feel satisfied and more whole and hopeful than I have felt in years. So why does everyone else feel compelled to write an epilogue and turn my life into a fairy tale? People are speaking over my life like Simeon prophesied over baby Jesus. But if six months in Hawaii is enough for me, why is it not enough for others? And when I sit back and reflect on this epilogue phenomenon there is one, overarching theme – more. Everyone wants to know more and for me to get more. It’s like there has to be something even better than this.

I’ve learned many valuable lessons over the last four years. To me, the difference between need and want is now as glaring as a glass of water sitting next to a peanut butter milkshake. I know how to stretch money through lean times. Thanks to some early system failures, I’m better able to pace myself emotionally and spiritually in the midst of trial. As I shed some nasty layers off my sense of entitlement, I bulked up with perseverance. Simple nourishment, slowing down, shedding excess: these are the survival skills I learned in the spiritual desert. God wanted me to know that discipleship is about holding on to essentials.

It’s about less, not more.

Trust over certainty.

Waiting rather than self-indulgence.

These are the complexities that make up the Christian life. They are, in and of themselves, both conflict and resolution enough for any story, any life. And here is the most important lesson I’ve learned – the grandest exchange between a human being and God is love expressed through faithfulness.

The most compelling story my life can tell is one of daily faithfulness to God. I’m not talking about big gestures but simple things – apologizing when I speak unkindly to someone I love, extending warmth and welcome to strangers, nurturing friendships, keeping an eye out for others who are struggling, and offering help where I am able.

There has never been a time in my life when God was not faithful to me but his faithfulness has not always meant the provision of things I thought I needed. As days of struggle stretched into weeks, months and years, God’s faithfulness was to abide with me, to console and comfort me, and to give me hope that I could live today and today and today with purpose.

I’ve told many people that my job these last four years has not been to get a job. I discovered that my job is to be faithful. If I can wake up today and invite God in to the rain or shine of my day and make it to evening having loved God, others and myself with any sincerity, then this is a good day, a great story, and a true comedy. This is life without a fairy tale ending or a big crimson bow and it is enough.

 

Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love. John 15:9

GrapeVines-72Res

Barrenness and the Birth of Hope

The third gospel begins with the story of a barren woman. When you take a moment to think about that, it’s pretty shocking.

Two thousand years ago a man named Luke wrote down an eyewitness account about a man named Jesus and then gave it to a man named Theophilus. A story about a man, from a man, to a man – It’s surprising that such a narrative would begin with the story of a woman, and a barren one at that!

Luke determined to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write “an orderly account” for his friend Theo (Luke 1:3). He knew Jesus was the greatest man to ever live, and not just a man, the Son of Man, which meant GOD. So why didn’t Luke start his gospel with a dramatic Jesus-as-God moment like Jesus’ baptism or one of his miracles? Why begin with a woman? And what exactly are we supposed to learn about Jesus from a barren woman?

In those days, I’m sure a woman’s reproductive status was something everyone knew about (since pregnancy is a three-dimensional experience and you can’t hide resulting children), everyone thought about (because children, especially male children, meant an apprentice for your trade, security in your old age and continued heritage for your family name), but few spoke of. Talk of reproduction was probably reserved for the company of women. But Luke wanted an orderly account of Jesus’ life and that orderly account, in his opinion, had to start with a barren woman named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her husband were not people to sneeze at. They were both descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and a great leader of Israel in his own right. Zechariah was a priest, a highly esteemed position among their people which came with a stable, life-long income. Though born into privilege, Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t just coast on their good fortune, they lived with integrity. They were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (1:5). Everything sounds great for Elizabeth and Zechariah until Luke begins a sentence with the word but.

“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v 7)

Three bald clauses equal one devastating reality that shredded the couple’s contentment. Elizabeth was barren. So they had no children. And their happiness was incomplete.

woman alone in the desert

Who can translate “well along in years” to an age? Was Elizabeth 35, the maternal age at which, today, we consider pregnancies high risk? Was she 45 and skirting close menopause? And Zechariah, who may have been a decade or more older than his wife, was he concerned about decreasing virility? Our curiosity about numbers and conditions doesn’t really matter. Luke simply indicates that the couple was old enough to know that their chances of conceiving were as miniscule as a mustard seed.

It is a beautiful and profound privilege to be life-bearers. But then, how utterly painful to have the womb and the cycle and the spouse – and the yearning – only to have your body wash away all that potential life each month. For years, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, and Elizabeth embodied, this tension. Like discordant notes buzzing, knowing they needed only a slight tweak to create a beautiful harmony, Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted and waited.

But here is the thing about this couple, which to me seems both wild and wonderful: despite all the years of riding the reproductive seesaw, despite the pain, disappointment and exhaustion they must have felt, Elizabeth and Zechariah kept asking God for a child. This is hope, and in my opinion a rather robust version of it – despite overwhelmingly improbable odds, they looked to God and continued believing that life could come to them.

Where do people get such inner resources? Surely Elizabeth’s faith was a deep well, drained by disappointments, but always having enough water to scoop up and drink. Maybe she was able to temporarily quench her soul-thirst for a baby by pondering the story of her ancestor Sarah, another barren women who, in her old age, became both the mother of Isaac and the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).

If this hope for life was about righteousness then Sarah, who deceived kings and doubted God, should have remained childless and Elizabeth, who stood tall and blameless before God, should have had a pack of little priests following after her by the time Luke writes. Reading the story closely, I see no indications that Elizabeth felt entitled to a baby because of her lineage, her advantageous marriage or her blameless life. She didn’t do any bargaining with God or rage at him in her long disappointment. The way Luke tells the story, Elizabeth simply waits, quietly buzzing with hope, believing life can begin in her.

This kind of hope is marvelous to me, and by that I mean, I marvel. I read about Elizabeth and admire her but I struggle to identify with her deep yearning for a baby. If you know me, you know that I love children, but I seem to be missing the female gene that makes you want to get pregnant and birth a child. If I were like Elizabeth and faced the same challenges, would I be strong enough or faithful enough to live like Elizabeth, to embody and abide with such an improbable hope?

As a hospital chaplain, I once worked in antepartum, the unit that is home for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most of our patients spent weeks, if not months, nesting on their plastic-covered hospital mattresses, slowly transforming the bland walls of their rooms into bright collages of family photos, crayon drawings from expectant cousins, amateur but heartfelt poetry and handwritten prayers. It seemed that our patients all followed an unspoken ritual passed down from the mothers who had come before them – if they surrounded themselves with a still-life of smiling faces, loving words and colorful doodles, they would somehow knit their wombs into plush receiving blankets and their babies would arrive safely. The place was equal parts wishes and fear, friendly yet hushed, scented with Elmer’s glue and tears.

That’s where I met Kelly. She and I were the same age but she married young. For the past eleven years Kelly and her husband had been trying to have a baby. By the time I met her, she was in the very early days of her ninth pregnancy. She’d had something like five miscarriages and three stillbirths. They’d done every fertility test, procedure and drug available. IVF failed. Donor eggs failed. Though there were no diagnosable issues, Kelly was told her womb was a hostile environment. The most recent squeeze of fate? The couple who contracted to be their surrogates accidentally got pregnant with their fifth child a month before the scheduled implantation.

For over an hour Kelly told me about the breathless babies she got to hold, only to carry to the cemetery. She chronicled her grief by making a full chapter of each miscarriage and lost opportunity. It was a stunning story, so painful that it almost felt exaggerated, like a made-for-TV movie that is “based on a true story” but you know the producers made everything more dramatic than it really was. But Kelly’s story was real.

I expected a woman who knew such loss to be woeful. I looked for the desperation that haunts the women in antepartum. I listened for secret pains to leak out in common phrases like I wish and my fault. No matter how well I listened or how closely I looked, Kelly’s story was bound with smooth skin, dry eyes and frank talk. I’d been a chaplain and pastor long enough to identify denial. Kelly sat before me somehow very healthy. Her serenity was palpable; it was so clear and bright that I had trouble maintaining eye contact (a difficulty I seldom have). Kelly’s story sent me inward; I had a hundred questions and a jumble of feelings. At the end of my visit, I asked Kelly the one question that burned in me the entire hour:

“What is it in you that keeps you from giving up?”

Without pausing, she said simply, “I’ve always known that God created me to be a mother.”

People might argue with Kelly’s words but the lesson here is not in our opinions, but in Kelly’s spirit. What I initially identified as serenity, I suddenly knew as a living, pulsing, Spirit-breathed hope. A hope like Elizabeth’s. Hope that said a baby may be improbable, but with God it is possible. Hope that stood tall through the second-guessing and disapproval of friends and neighbors, that endured big things like disappointment and grief, and that sneezed at little things like advancing years and hostile wombs. For both of these barren women, the hope for life didn’t hinge on personal qualifications, track records or wishful thinking; their hope rested solely on God, the Creator of all life.

So I come back to one of my original questions, why did Luke begin his orderly account of Jesus’ life with the story of a barren woman? Barrenness, this no life within the place of potential life, is the soil of hope. The absence of life, the yearning for life, like a womb or a fallow field – they whisper and shout, I was made for more than this; I was made for life!

It doesn’t take a long look around to know there has to be more than this. Just as Elizabeth and Kelly and millions of other barren women have cried out for life to begin in them, our souls cry out for life to come and set the empty caverns of our hearts pumping. We were made for life, for abundant life, but this world is a hostile womb.

Elizabeth is just one person in the midst of a centuries-long story; people might assume that her part is insignificant. Well, take notice, world! Elizabeth’s barrenness shows us just how wide and long and high and deep was our need for God to come and fill us with new life, a hope which Jesus would fulfill.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah]…and said…“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…And he will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

Soil-Fertilizer

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.

Mercy Misunderstood

Parole board rejects clemency for killer
Columbus, Ohio — A condemned Cleveland killer moved one step closer to execution Tuesday despite a rare plea for mercy from the prosecutor overseeing his case and support from nearly half of a board that previously voted unanimously against him. The Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 to turn down a request for clemency for death row inmate Billy Slagle, sentenced to die for stabbing a neighbor 17 times almost three decades ago.  (The Arizona Republic, Wed. July 17, 2013, pg. A2, emphasis mine)

Mercy is a short word, widely misunderstood and sometimes wildly misused. Exodus 34:6-7 says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Mercy is one of the fundamental expressions of God’s character. As such, it is critical that we know what mercy is and what it is not.

The clip from The Arizona Republic is just one of many recent media examples of how we in the 21st century mistake clemency for mercy. Clemency is a power of certain public officials, like the governor, president or a judge, to lessen the punishment of a prisoner. On July 9th of this year a Florida man named Marshall Gore was 25 hours from death by lethal injection when a judge stopped his execution. Though a jury had found Gore guilty of murder, the judge felt his sentence did not take into account certain facts, so Gore remains alive. That’s clemency and it’s a pretty big deal, but it is NOT the same as the mercy we have received from God.

Imagine yourself a criminal. You are tried and found guilty of breaking the ultimate law, God’s law. Your sentence is death and now you live on death row waiting for your execution. Mercy is not just God lessening your penalty from death to life in prison. Mercy is God sending his only son to die the criminal’s death in your place. Mercy is God smashing the chains that bind your hands and feet, shattering your cell door from it’s hinges and crumbling the prison to ash. Mercy is God setting you free forever and then welcoming you to live eternally in his kingdom.

God is merciful, gracious and abounding in love, so never mistake mercy for clemency. Mercy is so much more!

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 2:9-10

Don’t Just Pray – Part 2

“Just pray about it.”

We’ve all probably been on the giving or receiving end of this bit of advice. Usually we hear it after we pour out a steaming hot mess of things like doubt, fear, confusion or anger. We take the risk of being vulnerable with a trusted friend or mentor, we expose the mess of our lives to someone we hope will listen, who may have some new, wise guidance, and then their response is, “just pray about it.”

On the one hand, this is fantastic advice. The evidence of the power of prayer in the Bible is as bright as thousands of bulbs that light the Rockefeller Square Christmas tree each year. Open, honest and bold communication of the faithful to their heavenly Father often leads to divine intervention. Do you recall the story of a woman named Hannah in the Old Testament? Her anguished prayers caused God to act.

Samuel 1:13 says, “Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard.” Her prayers were so fervent that when the priest Eli saw her, he assumed she was drunk and rebuked her. Hannah faces Eli and corrects him saying,

“I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (vv. 15-16, NIV)

So corrected, Eli speaks this blessing over her, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” Hannah prayed and God “remembered” her (v. 19) by opening the womb he had previously closed (v. 5).

Because of prayer a barren woman conceived and birthed a son.

God Answers Hannah's Prayer for a Son

This is not an isolated incident. In the Bible, prayer regularly prompts change; it brings resolve, stops plagues and leads to miraculous acts of remembrance. Prayer, literally and metaphorically, leads to life.

Prayer is a direct line of communication with the Creator and Sustainer who out of compassion and love, continuously pours out blessing on his people. As such, prayer is something we should do regularly, eagerly, expectantly and most of all, reverently. But too often we approach prayer the same way we do an ATM.

When I need cash, I go to the ATM, insert my card, make a few simple demands at the push of a button and, voilà – out pops my money! We all know better than to liken God to an ATM, so why do so many of us use prayer like a debit card? Don’t we often speak words of prayer hoping we ‘push the right buttons’ and then wait to receive the ‘cash’ to which we are entitled?

Don’t misunderstand me – there’s nothing wrong with expecting great things from prayer! But spiritual things are seldom as simple as taking money from an ATM.

What I didn’t mention earlier about Hannah is that she prayed for a child for years. Hannah was overcome with grief. Like many grieving people, she lost her appetite and probably that healthy glow people call a luster. Hannah wept and she prayed. She prayed and she wept. The Bible says this went on “year after year” (v. 5). While Hannah grieved, her husband’s other wife  (who had many healthy children) taunted Hannah cruelly for her barrenness.

Prayer is powerful. It prompts God to compassionate and merciful action on behalf of his people, but in Hannah’s story we learn that the effects of prayer are not always prompt. That is why it can be so disheartening and insensitive to tell an aching soul, “Just pray about it.” If this is all we say before we walk away from a friend, he or she may feel that we’ve minimized their grief or been deaf and blind to their desperation.

For those who haven’t been utterly ravaged by time and circumstance, for those who still have enough hope to cling to the promises of prayer, the expectation of prompt results carried by the phrase “just pray about it” may be the nick that severs their connection to hope or even to God.

If you have a desperate need or desire and have been waiting and praying for days or months for fulfillment, how strong is your hope? Can it bear the weight of silence or the terrible agitation that grows as time beats through your veins and nothing happens?

What if your season of need stretches into months like Hannah’s? What will your faith be like then? What will you need from your friends? Just prayer, or prayer and…something?

Prayer is an awesome thing but when we are caring for aching people, there are things that complement prayer and bring consolation. Don’t just pray and walk away; your friend does not have that luxury – they are in a sense held captive (think slavery) by their need. They cannot conceptualize life or their future without that thing for which you may casually pray. Instead of just praying, consider these:

  1. Pray and pour out your soul – Too often prayer is an exercise of suppression rather than passion. There’s no need to hide or hold back our feelings from God because he sees everything in our souls. The good news is that it’s safe to confess it all to him. Let yourself be emotional as you pray. Hannah let even the nasty stuff like bitterness and anguish pour out of her soul. It’s only when we pour out the nasty stuff that we make room for God to fill our souls with consolation.
  2. Pray and listen – Don’t think prayer ends when you stop speaking. Make time and space to listen into the silence and stillness for the voice of God. Don’t rush off; stay rooted in your seats, be still and know that God is in this with you.
  3. Pray and wait and pray again – Hannah prayed the same prayer for years. Years! She’s one to emulate. If someone shares with you their requests, keep praying. Go back to them next week, next month or next year and get an update. Pray again. Listen with them. Wait with them. Pray again. In this way you bear one another’s burdens.
  4. Pray and lament – Lament is not just emotional prayer. To lament is to cry out to God against the things that should not be – against injustice, cruelty and abandonment, hunger and despair – against anything that falls short of God’s character and provision. The Israelites lamented throughout their history and God remembered them, which means he acted for them.

Out of respect to people like Hannah, I must acknowledge a very difficult truth before I close: prayer will not always lead to the things we so desperately seek or expect. God may not give us what we want, even if we are faithful and in a sense ‘deserving.’ And there will be times when it seems that God gives no response to our prayers. (This is one of the mysterious things about God that makes everything in me go quiet.)

But these things do not mean that our prayers are empty or pointless, nor are they signs that God does not love or bless us.

I have many friends who are haunted by infertility. Unlike Hannah, some of these faithful women will never conceive or welcome a healthy child into the world. I hate that this is their reality. I don’t know what their desire or loss feels like but I certainly do pray with and for them. But I don’t just pray.

I pour out my soul with them. I listen into the silence with them. I lament their empty wombs and their grief. I wait for God to move. I expect God to move. I call upon God to do something that matches his wonderful character. I pray and wait and pray hoping that somehow, and in some way, God will make all things new.