Someone Else’s Memories

It’s a bit of a departure for me to write on a topic that isn’t meant for spiritual formation. But I find this fascinating and hope to get some of your stories and insights in response.

The area of NC where I grew up is full of homes built in the 20th century – some even older. It’s also a place where parents of children who long ago moved away live their final years, leaving homes unoccupied but not unloved. Many of these family properties, full of memories of special gatherings and holidays together, are being sold by adult children with very full lives in other places to happy buyers from all over the place who feel like they’re getting a great deal. In fact, they are, in terms of real estate and investment.

But, how does it feel to move into homes so very full of previous lives lived there? I can’t help but imagine some of these places welcome new owners less easily than others. I only know how it feels to see other people living in a place that holds my special memories of life gone by.

Families who move frequently may not experience attachment to lands and houses of their own. But most of us have at least one property owned for many years by a relative that seems to us to be more or less sacred.

How does it feel to buy a property that holds so many of someone else’s memories? Share with someone you know who might have a story to tell on this subject.

Re-entry: facing the world again

As the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter in what we hope is a post-pandemic world, my eyes are squinting at the glare. My appearance reflects an undeniably exhausted and weary soul. I want to feel energized and excited, but it eludes me.

And, apparently, I’m not alone.

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Countless articles and reports are highlighting our various forms of fatigue: mental, emotional, Zoom, etc. It’s important for us to understand that we aren’t alone if we’re feeling any or all of these things. It’s also important to differentiate between ways we can help ourselves and issues that need professional/clinical assistance.

Sleepiness has been a real bugger for me. I am typically good with 7-8 hours of overnight sleep. But I find myself pushing those limits with late-night social media surfing or shopping or news reading. If you question me about why I’m online so late, I’ll justify it with a claim that it helps me go to sleep. Problem is, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour of surfing before my eyes start to cross. And, by then, I’ve already ruined my sleep goal.

Experts recommend that we put an end to late-night screen surfing (TV or other devices,) ending those sessions an hour before we should go to sleep; maintain a consistent bedtime; eat a well balanced diet; and minimize naps. Of course, the nap thing is a vicious cycle. Naps have both saved me during this pandemic and simultaneously ruined me. Yet, I remain quite fond of them.

If your exhaustion seems out of the ordinary and you are concerned about underlying health issues, make an appointment with your primary care physician. It’s better to know as early as possible if you’ve got something treatable happening.

Emotional health has to be factored in as we attempt to navigate exhaustion, frustration, outrage, fear and disappointment. We want to rely on good advice, but the advice keeps changing. We want our fellow citizens to play by the rules, whatever they are for as long as needed, but some of our neighbors are hard-heads. We want to believe we are in a post-pandemic phase, but we know that variants exist, fall is coming, and we still don’t know anything for certain.

For someone who can experience an emotion, name it, and allow it to pass, this has been a roller coaster. We might have even learned a few new emotions. For someone whose default is to suppress, ignore, and deny feelings or emotions, this pandemic has been a recipe for explosive misfiring and unintended destruction of relationships. In either case, if you’ve been caught off-guard by an onslaught of feelings and emotions that you can’t handle, talk with a trusted friend or mentor or make an appointment with a trained and unbiased professional. I can’t promote the value of talk therapy enough. And, higher level therapy (prescription level, behavioral modification level) has never been more needed. Do not resist getting help at whichever level you need it.

Work instability, changes in hours, temporary sabbaticals, and moves to/from remote locations can be mind numbing. Nearly everyone has felt the sensation of having the rug pulled out from under us over the course of the past year+. And, if we’ve been fortunate enough to maintain a job, we’ve soldiered through all of these things with little down time. For those who lost jobs, everything is on hold. You might be looking at ways to change careers. You might be weighing between working a low-wage job and the high cost of daycare. Sometimes, that just doesn’t add up. For you, down time or vacation isn’t a real “thing” anyway. I know because I’ve been there.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to book any beach time for this coming summer, but it’s nearly impossible to do. Last year, it was impossible because of stay-at-home orders and potential losses due to sudden lockdowns. This year, it’s impossible because folks are FLOCKING to the beach for much-needed time away – and the resource is limited. We are competing for vacation and recreation accommodations. We have to become intentional and even creative in finding ways to rest, relax and have fun again. As one article put it, we have been robbed of our ability to be spontaneous. (I agree, except it happened to me from previous trauma. This just added to it.)

Walking has been helpful to me in several ways. It offers a certain reset in my brain, allowing me to experience endorphins and a pleasant alternative to screens. When I face those moments after work when I wonder if I want a nap or a walk, I always try to opt for the walk. And I thank myself later.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to cope with crawling out of this pandemic and all of the collateral effects? Do you need more recommendations? Drop a note in the comments. Let’s try to help each other with this re-entry and pray for a world that is healthier and kinder on the other side.

Speculation and anxiety

I’m an anxious person. It’s odd that my demeanor is typically that of a calming presence because underneath that smooth facade is some serious duck-paddling.

I struggle with what you’d call high functioning anxiety. It isn’t debilitating – it is, however, exhausting. At my worst, I avoid thought-provoking down time by busying myself to heroic levels. At my best, I exercise or take naps. In all cases, my anxiety feeds on the aloneness I find myself in during this single/COVID time in life. When I’m alone, my thoughts lead me to unanswerable questions.

It seems to me, as I listen to every American anchorperson on TV tonight discuss the outcome of today’s election in speculative terms, that speculation is the root of worry and anxiety. When we can’t know something, we fill in the gaps with speculation. We tell ourselves stories based on speculation – many of which are absolutely untrue – and we believe those lies we’ve developed.

If you’ve practiced this form of self-torture for any length of time, then you know how hard it is to undo. At the same time, once you learn to recognize the destructive pattern, you begin to see it more and more, making it possible to undo.

Anxiety has been and continues to be fed during this season of elections-wrapped-in-a-pandemic. Folks who aren’t typically bothered by anxiety are affected. Folks who suffer with it are manifesting some of their worst symptoms. So, how do we manage?

For me, it begins with making peace with the unknowable. Do I still imagine the worst case scenario? Absolutely – it’s how I’m wired. Rather than holding my scenarios as prophetic truth, though, I look at them as manifestations of my anxious worrying. I can set them aside. (I actually imagine the quantum theory range of possibilities and realize how arrogant it is to believe in my ability to accurately predict future outcomes. Please.)

Even more broadly, I believe in a loving and faithful God. I have questioned how to reconcile that love with some of the dreadful ways I’ve suffered in this life. But, when I remember the darkest times, I also remember being most certain of God’s love and presence when life was most uncertain. Awareness of the presence of God in Christ has been the hallmark of the most un-anxious times in my life.

As events unfold, I encourage you to see speculation for what it is and not to seize any of it as truth or fully predictive of outcomes. Feed what is good; talk about what is hopeful; live in a way that enacts love. Love wins while speculation predicts loss.

Reinvention or Evolution?

The notion of reinventing oneself has always had a glamorous association for me. I’m not sure why, though. In practical terms, it seems more courageous than glamorous.

Looking back through the last few decades, I see and remember moments when I did things that felt like reinventing myself. When I quit my studies at Carolina to play music, it felt like a risk but never like a mistake. I experienced life at a very young age that I might never have experienced had I not done that.

Keyboardist for The Amateurs

At 26, I started my own business in sales and became a “Mary Kay lady.” It surely was a different persona for me, but as I often say, it was “the right thing at the right time” for my little family.

Mary Kay Sales Director, official portrait

Answering the call to enter seminary in 2009 was yet another moment of reinventing; although, what it really was, was a moment of full commitment. It began a season of carving away things that did not serve my identity in Christ well. My submission to a call from Jesus to serve His Church requires ongoing submission to a process of transformation.

Rev. Sandy Stillman-Alvin

And, as I enter yet another turn in life, taking on a new iteration of my career and dreaming up new ways to serve communities in my sphere of influence, I see these changes less as my own reinventions and more as the evolution of my self as I was created by God to be. These are merely the tangible expressions of God’s transformation process in our lives.

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, NRSV

What is Necessary

We can prove our resilience without testing one another’s vulnerability.

I think and look back during our current pandemic, rising to its heights in the US during this Holy Week, to previous seasons of Lent. I really only started paying attention to Lent over the past 16-ish years. We didn’t observe Lent when and where I was raised, so, I don’t have that many seasons to remember.

As I learned to practice Lenten disciplines, I started simply. Of course, I’ve given up the standards over the years: soda, sweets, etc. During one of the earliest years, I gave up pork and beef; honestly, I haven’t eaten either since. I’ve also tried the add-on approach, adding a spiritual discipline during the 40-day season. Those are also meant to become lifestyle changes.

This year’s Lent has been unusual to say the least. Our congregation shared practices for each day that offer ways to give and receive love. Beyond paying attention to our in-house schedule of loving deeds, I haven’t been very intentional about my Lenten focus. Maybe because being under a “shelter in place” order feels a lot like working through spiritual disciplines.

For now, my most pressing focus is the daily process of deciding how to answer the question, “what is necessary?” as a guide to what I must do in order to support my household while being a good citizen. I’m a very conscientious soul, so you won’t find me walking around any of the places that do remain open. I try to order everything we need for our time at home to be delivered. If it can’t be delivered, I order for curbside, zero-contact pickup. Then, I obsessively wipe off items with alcohol or bleach wipes, quarantine pantry items to a certain section before folding them into use, bring no boxes or plastic bags inside, wash all produce, and, of course, wash my hands many multiple times throughout the day.

From The Jungle Book; “The Bare Necessities”

But there remains that question of what is necessary. It’s clear from this experience that I have not lived as simply as I thought I did. I’m used to getting whatever I want, whenever I want it, frankly. And not everything I want is necessary. Granted, I have done lots of internal work over the years, taming what I refer to as my “wanter.” Still, I’ve had to catch myself, every single day, and redirect my own thoughts and behaviors away from what I want towards what is necessary. And this is coming from a person who lives quite simply in comparison to our cultural standards. I can imagine how challenging it might be for someone who has never considered a simple life as any sort of goal or standard.

Answering the question of what is necessary has implications during this time of global pandemic far beyond a typical Lenten fast. When we choose what is necessary, we face potentially deadly consequences – not just for ourselves but for those we love most. We don’t know how we might be affected if we are infected … it’s a gamble. The odds are good that we’ll be ok but the risk is steep. If I blow my Lenten fast and eat chocolate, no one gets hurt. If I blow the shelter in place order and get sick, the potential for my own hurt as well as posing a danger to others, including my own child, is too great a risk.

So, I look forward to Resurrection Sunday and all that it signifies for those of us who love and follow Jesus: victory over death, an assurance of eternal life, promises of Christ’s reign and our co-inheritance in His kingdom … We have nothing to fear and everything to celebrate! And I will celebrate with my congregation by conference call this week. Because, while Jesus has already ushered in the kingdom of God on earth through his own ministry, death and resurrection, we, the Church, remain in this in-between time, waiting for the full restoration of creation.

So, how do we honor God best during this global crisis coinciding with our Christian celebration of the defeat of death AND the defeat of the FEAR of death? I think this is precisely where we are … Jesus rose from the dead and our day is coming. For now, though, we see our loved ones die. At this moment, we are seeing way too many beloveds dying at an alarming rate. We hear folks saying “faith over fear” as a motto. This doesn’t imply that we should test God by behaving in ways that risk lives during a known, deadly pandemic. It means that we know that death is not the end and we don’t live in fear of it. Life is precious. We humans are a peculiar mixture of resilience and vulnerability.

We can prove our resilience without testing one another’s vulnerability. Faith and grace and hope and love are our soul’s champions in this time in-between. We must employ them in all of our thoughts and prayers and behaviors each day for as long as this trial lasts – and beyond. These godly characteristics are as necessary as anything that might draw us away from home or that we might have waiting in our online shopping carts. But faith, grace, hope and love are necessities with something none of the items we scramble to buy will ever have: eternal value.

Deadly Denial

Watching a pandemic unfold was never on my list of things I expected to experience in my lifetime. As this global Covid-19 tragedy has unfolded, we all have witnessed the best and worst of human responses and reflexes.

The best responses have been thoughtful, based on true and identifiable patterns, and inevitably include a heavy dose of firm but kind guidelines. These are the first responders, enlightened leaders and caregivers who have learned that faith and fear coexist in tragic times but they know how to feed faith while facing fear.

The worst responses have been reflexive, impulsive and resistant to guidance by experts or authorities. These represent our most egoistic selves, wanting to distance ourselves from anything that might ask us to change, to say no to our wants, or to put others ahead of ourselves.

At the heart of our reflexive and impulsive responses is a fear of losing control or other personal/perceived losses. More pointedly, our most negative responses are based in denial, which in other circumstances, might serve us well by buying time for us.

But in the context of global pandemic, our tendency toward denial is, very literally, deadly.

I understand denial. I was trained in it, groomed in it, conditioned for it, and have lived in it and fought my way out of it for much of my adult life. It’s insidious once it becomes a default operating mode.

Denial has a breaking point, though. In relationships, it becomes unsustainable when something happens that reveals the truth in a way no one can deny any longer. There is a very fine line between holding out hope for the best outcomes and resisting the truth when it makes itself known. Denial – resisting the truth – is, at best, a ticking time bomb.

Horses for Sources website image

In our current crisis, we do not have the luxury of time. Denial – whether from elected officials or from spiritual leaders or from each and every one of us just trying to live our lives – is deadly in this context.

In the days ahead in this 2020 Lenten season, as those of us living in the United States witness staggering losses and grief that none of us were prepared to face, I challenge those among us who are predisposed toward denial to snap out of it. If you practice giving things up for Lent, add denial to your list of things to give up. Face the grim truth of our circumstances and make the commitment to make the difficult decisions that will force you to change your plans. Allow this time of massive disruption to CHANGE YOUR MIND. Be transformed into a lover of truth, even when the truth is HARD. Be responsible to your neighbors and people you don’t know, even when it means your life is made less comfortable.

As people of faith would anticipate, God is at work in this global pandemic. God is at work through people and in ways we cannot predict. Our responsibility to love our neighbor as ourself has never been more evident than during this time of ordered stillness. Choose to be a life giver, not a ticking time bomb, as you make choices that acknowledge our reliance on the best of human responses as a matter of life and death.

Blessed are the peacemakers

I am asked to preach more often these days and I appreciate the opportunity. Not for the opportunity to “tell folks something” (as my was-band accuses me of liking to do so much,) but for the opportunity to study and grow. I approach sermon-writing like research … I do lots of studying and comparing and observing and praying and listening to the text first before I try to write anything.

The Lectionary text for this weekend comes from the opening verses of Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” in the Gospel of Matthew. Preaching from a sermon preached by Jesus is an exercise in unpacking … and an exercise in packing-in as much as possible within a 20-minute sermon.

There is much to unpack in these 12 verses of “blessings” pronounced by Jesus. These pronouncements give us perspective on living well in the kingdom of heaven – a life that is beginning for us even as we live here on earth. How are we to reconcile the traits – poor in spirit, meekness, pure in heart, merciful – with what we are told are necessary to “make it” in the world into which we are born?

Image result for symbols of peace

For instance, “blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God:” how does peacemaking square in our culture today? Here is a paragraph from my sermon on this particular subject:

Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, for they will be called children of God.  Peacemaking is a different thing from avoiding conflict, by the way. Peacemaking is an intentional and ongoing decision to work toward peace and then maintain it. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it as “showing people how to cooperate instead of competing and fighting.” Peacemaking involves actively confronting thoughts and actions that would destroy lasting peace. Peacemaking is a work of justice – recognizing the sources of conflict and making things right. In a world that lusts for power and wealth, blessed are the peacemakers, for in the kingdom of heaven, they will be called children of God, known this way because they express the character of God.”

What is the American Christian ethos when it comes to peace-making? Are we seekers and builders of peace? Or are we eager to fight and compete? Do we support unjust systems that breed ongoing conflict, or do we seek to shine a light on corruption and land in places where true peace can develop and grow? Peacemaking is HARD WORK and too few of us are following Jesus in earnest in this regard. Dare we call ourselves “children of God” when we rush toward conflict, war or violence against our neighbors in any of its many manifestations? Does this express the character of God as modeled through Jesus, the Christ?

Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, for they will be called children of God. May we all, prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit, seek to enact PEACE in our corner of the world, today and every day, as a testament to our commitment to Kingdom principles above any principles taught and promoted in this world. And may we be given wisdom to see and know the difference!

 

 

Can I Stop Now?

This is for all of us “weary ones” who do far more than we should because to stop “doing” would mean to start “being.”

Can I stop working multiple jobs in order to have a supposedly comfortable living? When I started this pace over twenty years ago, no one told me the toll it would take on my ability to rest. No one warned me that I might forget how to relax and have fun. Surely there are better ways to ration your days.

Can I stop doing things for my child that he is perfectly capable of doing for himself? Can I stop that now that he is entering young manhood? I haven’t seen that it leads him into any reciprocated acts of service. It merely trains him to expect me to do everything. What would happen if I just stopped? I’d lose some aspect of my sense of purpose, that’s what. I need to lose it, though, and find better aspects of purpose. His own senses of adequacy and purpose require me to stop.

Can I stop feeling guilty for the ways I might have chosen poorly in my past or acted without any thought at all towards consequence? I have adopted a hyper-responsible persona to cover up that side of myself … my history … but I don’t want to always be the responsible one. I don’t seek or endorse recklessness. But I do seek freedom for myself and for those in my sphere of influence. Can I stop being repressively responsible now?

Can I stop fearing loss now and start using all of my resources fearlessly? I’ve lost things I can never get back. I cannot remake my firstborn son, though I wish with my whole heart that I could. I cannot return to my youth and fix any of the things I broke. While I sit, empty, feeling the weight of my losses, slowly but surely I forget all the treasures I’ve hoarded or hidden away, the gifts I’ve been given that are surely meant to be of great value to me in this life. Can I stop fearing loss now and boldly put all of my gifts to full use?

Better yet, can I stop chasing “improvement” or “success” and find contentment in merely being, whether I accomplish any more accolades in life or not? Can I let go of dreams of how life was supposed to be and embrace every day enthusiastically for what it offers?

Jesus not only gives us permission to stop these behaviors. Jesus invites us into the way of rest and contentment:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11:28-29 (NRSV)

Can I stop?” is the wrong question. Rather, the question is, “Will I go in the way Jesus invites and teaches?”

Weary friends, we can’t afford not to.

Terra Incognita

In the world of cartography, terra incognita refers to lands or territories that have not yet been explored or charted. For any adventurous spirit, the concept extends itself in every direction imaginable. It intoxicates the scientific explorer like nothing else.

I love science shows (like Nova) and am fascinated by current explorations and theories about matter, dark matter, energy and dark energy. In it, I always see first the story of God and try to piece together hints of Christology. What a massive, elusive, wild, unfathomable and divine universe we exist within!

We all have “lands” we’ve heard of that, for us, remain uncharted territory. What new territories and adventures are in your heart to explore this year? Leave a comment and turn a dream into a goal by writing it down!