Sweet Communion

Nature walks always take my mind away from the insanity of life’s daily grind. I welcome the distraction and the retreat! Hiking is probably my favorite, although I rarely (read: “never”) go hiking alone. I am able, however, to take a stroll around a local lake or in a wooded park fairly routinely for some time to myself. As a documented introvert, I enjoy a very lively “inner life” with all sorts of ideas and creations dancing inside my head. But during these walks, the mental move away from the busy-ness of the world is not a move into my head. It is a real sense of connection with God and a time to listen and to pour out my heart to him.

I feel certain that all of my recent decisions and major upsets were reconciled on walks. (Those that were not most assuredly should have been.) I can tell when a walk is going to become more than just a way to burn some stress or calories. If there is some soul-cleansing to be done, I am always first overwhelmed by an awareness of beauty and a strong sense of gratitude. It doesn’t take much of anything to trigger it. It could be a particularly comforting breeze, an unusually shaped tree trunk or branch, a singing bird, or a colorful and random mushroom. Then comes the awareness that God is there – an overwhelming sense that he has not only been there, but that he IS there . . . and that we should talk. I usually try to listen first, because that is pretty much all you can do when you sense God.

It’s tricky, of course, to discern what God is speaking from what you might manufacture in your own thoughts and desires, projecting those things on him. There aren’t “12 steps” to figuring that out, but it develops over time and with lots of practice. Plus, I don’t think every quiet time with God has to produce something instructional or life-changing for us. We can’t manufacture the time, place, or setting for God to speak. Sometimes, we need to just be content with an intimate, quiet walk together. Everything we could ever need, after all, is in his presence.

Is there a special place where you sense God most? Would you be willing to share your story as a comment to this post? Speaking for myself and probably many others, I would love to hear all about it!

Making the most of Week 52

The last week of the year is awkward. It’s hard to plan anything since so many people are still traveling. For working folks, it’s often a “wish-I-was-anywhere-else” week since little can be accomplished due to the absence of so many others. Should be a great week for thinking back on a good year, right? Maybe.

For someone who claims to love to reflect, I risk conveying a sense of contradiction or else the after-Christmas blues with the picture I’ve painted of this week. Perhaps it seems awkward precisely because it is only one week. With all the focus on Christmas festivities through December 25th, we really only leave ourselves that one week-between-the-big-holidays to think about the year – and surely we need more time than that to process where we have been over the past 365 days and where we would like to go from here.

Perhaps it isn’t the week itself that is awkward, but is instead the things we Americans tend to hold in focus. Inevitably, the media will spend the week rehashing the best songs, the best movies, top videos, and best gadgets of 2011. We will also assuredly be reminded of those beloved stars and otherwise-famous people who died this past year. I suppose all of those things are suitable ways to reflect on a passing year. I, however, (predictably) would prefer to focus on other things in assessing the year.

The first obstacle in any act of remembering for me is the most obvious: my memory. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast this morning, so how could I possibly remember the year without some reliable support? Perhaps the new Facebook Timeline could serve as a way to track the year. Of course, I would have to read between the lines and somehow remember the things that were not published – you know, the things that were not happy enough, witty enough, or interesting enough to use as status updates. Helpful, but not entirely sufficient.

There are a few reliable gauges in determining how well I have spent the past year, which is how I prefer to spend this week. In using the metaphor of time being “spent”, I suppose I would first want to look closely at my bank statements and checking account register. Those lines will tell a tale in great detail (been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss lately) of where my particular treasures lie. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [Luke 12:34]

The next gauge would probably be one of quality time spent with family and friends. How many memories (hopefully documented in pictures or other keepsakes) were made this year? More than ever, I am beginning to value pictures that capture special days or moments. While it is not possible to document every special moment with digital photography, every special time deserves some sort of keepsake or marker. To add interest to your measuring efforts, try asking your family and friends what they remember the most. You may discover that what they remember and value the most is not what you remember or value!

The next thing that I would want to consider is how well I spent my creative energy. Have I made steps toward God’s calling in my life? Have I produced anything to benefit others beyond my self or my immediate family? Have I even worked at all toward some specific mission or goal that is Kingdom-focused and altogether bigger than me?

Of course, it couldn’t hurt to consider these things more often than once each year – particularly the goals/creative energy aspect. We would do well to keep that one on a daily prayer cycle and quarterly assessment! Can you imagine how effective we could be with that kind of focus?!?

With this process in mind, I challenge you to create your own “best of” lists for 2011 and make a supporting list of goals for 2012. Let’s all set aside extra time to pray and write down what we hear God saying about this new year, then turn those leading words into our personal gameplan for 2012!

This could be the most important week of 2011.

Tears that bind us

I must confess that I embarrass myself. Any time I attend an event that precipitates applause and I am part of the audience, I cannot contain my tears. I mean, my throat lumps up, my facial muscles contract, and the tears start rolling. If the performance is in a darkened auditorium, I fare better than if I am in a well-lit stadium. If my children are with me, they are always the ones to ask if I’m ok – God bless them – but I’d rather not have to explain why I’m crying.

Tears unrelated to pain or sadness are more difficult to explain anyway, aren’t they? Why do I cry when something strikes my “happy chords” just as easily or as much as when I feel hurt or just plain sad? Of course, curious minds turn to Google. As I researched this question I learned another tid-bit that I could link to my most recent embarrassing cry. This week as I attended (and cried at) Raleigh’s special version of “A Christmas Carol”, I noticed that my right eye cried first. I have since read that when the first tear comes from one’s right eye, it allegedly signals happiness while a first drop from the left eye signals sadness.

For reader-friends who share in my curiosity, it seems that we don’t really know the answers, but we can comfortably relate to some of the facts about tears. Tears are, in general, in three distinct categories: basal, reflex, or emotional. Basal tears simply keep our eyes moist. Reflex tears respond to environmental stimuli such as onions. Emotional tears are the most peculiarly human type – although there is some debate about whether chimps cry emotional tears or not.

Apparently, there has been some “research” (I only add quotes because I did not read the study but only a brief description of the results and do not know how scientific it actually was) to determine if there is a chemical difference between sad tears and happy tears. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that happy tears consist of brine and not much else, while sad tears contain hormones and chemicals that are toxic in the body and thereby can be understood as a physical mechanism for protecting the body from negative emotions and their nasty chemical by-products! Others argue that all tears are the same and that so-called “happy tears” are in truth a stress-relief response from built-up negative emotions such as fear or worry.

So, my Googling expedition didn’t really satisfy all of my curiosity, as is typically the case. We can know some of the things that define our humanity, but so much is still speculative. There is a piece of this puzzle, though, that seems to be a pretty solid observation: our tears communicate. They communicate the content of our hearts – what we acknowledge and what we hide. Tears bind us in compassion for one another as we are made vulnerable by their revelation. Tears are a spectacular part of our design!

Tears not only bind us together as people in community, but they serve to bind us in the sense of binding a wound to promote healing. I remember during the years when reaching the milestone age of 100 was just becoming commonplace, centenarians were asked for their secret to longevity. I don’t remember any of them ever attributing their long life to lots of good cries, but I’m betting they shed their share of tears.

I suspect we all have times when we feel embarrassed by our tears. Even my very-young son has sensed the cultural pressure that boys should not cry. I say that notion is hogwash, by the way, and I urge my sons to cry when they feel the need to drain their eyes. Jesus cried, after all: “Jesus wept.” John 11:35. Perhaps we should all just embrace our very human tears and keep the tissues handy at all times, because you never know when you’ll need one, or when you’ll have an opportunity to offer one to a neighbor!
*“Jesus Wept” is a life-size, original clay sculpture by Mike Scovel.

Over the hill and still climbing!

Perhaps the “hill” has a new summit age now that 50 is the “new 40”, 40 is the “new 30”, etc. Either way, I’m pretty sure I’m considered over it these days, at least by folks younger than I.

The thing I’m noticing, though, is that life doesn’t feel like a downhill slope – and for that, I am grateful and utterly encouraged! As a matter of fact, life still feels very much like an ongoing upward climb. At the moment, it feels like one of those climbs that goes from shelf to shelf. You know, you climb for a while, then take a short, level rest to catch your breath, then start climbing some more.

The most curious thing about climbing is that most of the time, you can’t see the top. You may see glimpses of the top – just enough to stay encouraged – but you never know precisely how the top is going to look or feel once you get there.

If I think too long or too hard about the climbing metaphor, I remember my first experience at rappelling. I attended a “summer enrichment” camp. Rock climbing and rappelling was one of our excursions. I don’t remember the climb, but I remember that after I reached the top and was asked to begin the descent, my knees were shaking uncontrollably – so much so that it took me a while to get myself back together well enough to be able to make the trip back down.

That’s what trauma does. It robs you of your memory of the beautiful climb. I’m sure the climb was exhilarating! I’m also sure that, if I had been aware that I would be gripped by fear and amnesia-by-trauma, I would have processed the trip up in some intentional way that would have allowed me to retain my good memories.

Since those days of youth, long ago and mostly forgotten, I have climbed many mountains, up and down. (Not real ones, mind you. Metaphoric ones. I do like to hike, but I believe my rappelling experience cured me of any notion that I might one day grow up to be a rock climber.) I must confess that I remember the more traumatic times more vividly than I remember the beautiful and peaceful times.

Now that I’m “over the hill”, or at least close to it, I think God is giving me a new gift: the gift of remembering the good. For this next phase of my life, I will remember what was traumatic only to the point of reflecting on what I’ve learned from it and seeing the love that brought me down to safer ground. I will be intentional about recognizing and remembering the beauty of each person and each day. Oh, what memories I will have!

My wish for you this Christmas Season is this gift of recognizing and remembering the beauty in your own life. Oh, what beautiful scenery we will see as we climb, each to our unseen mountain-tops!

The Art of Choosing

We are all faced with choices every day. Some are more critical than others: black suit or brown suit, salad or combo #5, answer “yes” or “no” to a new job offer, get up early for exercise and devotion or sleep in for those few extra minutes . . .

As a very young woman, I decided that I wanted to move away from North Carolina and everything I knew here to pursue my musical interests. I gave myself three choices: LA, Boston, or Minneapolis. Each of those three had its own special attractiveness. My method of choosing was a bit reckless for the implications, but I remember throwing a dart at a map to see which city would be my destination and my new home. I had no idea the day I made that choice how much my life would change based on that particular decision.

I suppose we never really know how life-changing our decisions can be. We do know, however, when life begins to feel out of control. Sometimes that happens through no fault of our own, but other times we feel that way after we’ve made some bad choices. I don’t think we ever set out to make a bad choice, but if that happens too often, we lose confidence in ourselves as competent agents for our own life decisions. We may lose hope for a good life regardless of what we do because we’ve created such a difficult “bed to lie in.” And then we decide to stop making importance choices. We might decide to just keep things exactly the way they are, hoping that this approach might make it possible that, at the very least, things will not get any worse.

The thing about the no-choice approach is that it really is a choice . . . but, once again, it isn’t a very good one. I have made several very good choices in my life that turned out to be of critical importance. I have plenty of experience with difficult outcomes from risky choices, too. I found it necessary after those times to spend some time regrouping, whatever that might mean in the situation. But soon the day always comes when I know I must make another big decision.

While I understand now how important it is to choose well, I also understand that some of the decisions I have made that may seem to be the most unwise are the choices that have brought me through trials that taught me the most about God, about myself, and about others. When we place our faith in God and then make our choices with confidence that God will redeem our perceived failures, then we have the advantage of choosing based on faith instead of basing our choices on fear. And after we carve away our fear and make our choices based on God’s redeeming love for us, then the sculpture of our life becomes more and more unique, more and more beautiful. Even the scars that might have defined us take on an intentional, artistic quality in the light of God’s faithfulness.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” (Proverbs 3:5, NRSV)

Yom What?: A Lesson in Fasting, Prayer and Repentance

It was four years ago that I stumbled upon Yom Kippur. As a Christian growing up in the rural American South, I didn’t have Jewish friends or neighbors and never was exposed to any Jewish holidays or practices. Granted, my family name is largely a Jewish name. Several family members have a strong affinity for all things Jewish – I call it our cellular connection – but we have been estranged from that part of our heritage. Nevertheless, for reasons totally outside of myself, I was led to this annual practice of fasting, prayer and repentance.

The first time I did it, I was led to the decision to fast without even knowing that it was coinciding with Yom Kippur. While I was googling proper ways to fast, since I had never done it before, I literally stumbled upon the description of Yom Kippur and used it as my model for what I believed God was leading me to do.

Have you ever needed to hear from God so desperately that you physically ached to find His presence and hear a word from Him? That was my frame of mind when the Holy Spirit led me to this initiation into fasting. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I had to seek Him with everything I had and to do something I had never done before . . . because what I had been doing simply was not enough any more. The experience was life-changing for me. I learned that God is just as eager to meet us where we are – and His desire is to give us the hope, strength, courage, comfort , or whatever else we so desperately need.

I may feel led to fast at various times throughout the year during times of seeking or despair or thanksgiving, but Yom Kippur holds a very special place in my heart. It isn’t because it’s a Jewish holiday. It is because God himself led me into that time of communion, prayer and repentance and I consider it to be an annual date! It is a bonus in my mind that He used a Jewish holy day to speak to me in such a powerful way.

Yom Kippur is known as the Day of Atonement. We think of atonement as it applies to what Jesus accomplished once and for all for humanity: at-one-ment with God. Being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ is our gift. This year, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday night. Perhaps you have been seeking God’s answers to your most puzzling problems. Perhaps you have a need to spend time confessing and repenting for your personal sins, or maybe the collective sins of your family, your church, or our nation. Maybe the Holy Spirit has nudged you toward the spiritual discipline of fasting but you have felt uncertain about how or why to even do it. I encourage you try it. You may be led into the most wonderful experience of your life!

Giving up on getting back

Don't get mad, get even
The year was 1985 and my boyfriend broke up with me because he was seeing another girl. I was so heartbroken. It was not the first time in life I had been hurt, but it was an unexpected hurt. So, I tucked it away as anger with the rest of my hurts and thought of ways to get him back. I had become fairly good at revenge, even at that young age. Within the mindset of revenge, one of my favorite memories was a telegram I sent to him on April 1st: “On this day made for fools, I think of you.” Perhaps that is the only memory I am willing to publish. Truth is, the statement pointed more to my foolishness, but I didn’t see it that way. (If I remember correctly, the telegram cost me $20!) I was deeply hurt and the only way I could find to feel better was to hurt him back.

Those feelings are really easy to find within our human nature. I suppose most of us have experienced hurt at the hands of another person that leads to our one wish for them becoming a wish for punishment and pain. If you haven’t yet experienced that, then you probably will before it’s all over.

Your ability to believe what I’m getting ready to say really depends on where you are on your life journey, but here it is: there is a better way to handle that pain. Granted, it is not the most natural response as a human being. It is however, what we are called to when we enter God’s kingdom where Jesus is Lord. The call is this: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

At first-glance and on face value, that sounds pretty ridiculous. Actually, the way most Christians have handled it as a teaching is to . . . well . . . avoid it. It’s too extreme! It’s a calling far too high for our human frailties to handle. Or is it?

Put in context with the larger Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t saying to us that we are to never make mistakes. He is keenly aware of our condition. The perfection he is speaking of is the way that God the Father operates in a wholeness of relationship. We are called to behave toward others the same way God behaves toward us. Several concrete examples are given to illustrate how this Kingdom ethic plays out in human life. Those include things like resisting retaliation, praying for enemies, honoring our marriage relationships, and making amends when we need to make amends. We are not called to execute the wrath of God in the world. We are called to love and to be perfect, in this sense of wholeness.

Remember the old t-shirt that says, “I don’t get mad, I get even”? Well, we will still get mad. But we don’t have to get even. We can get better. Instead, we can always seek peace and reconciliation. We seek forgiveness. We seek first the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t change the way the world operates, but it changes us.

Just what we need: another “ism”

I typically read local and national news online everyday, but seldom go to international sites for news. Last week, I searched for a news source related to the death of Amy Winehouse that would have a more vested interest in her story, so I went to the BBC online news page. While there, I did find pages and pages of articles not only on her life, but also on British ideas on the topic of addiction and treatment options for addicts and their families. Unexpectedly, I also found an article series that piqued my interests in another direction.

The series was a viewpoint debate between two journalists: A British journalist named Matthew Engel and American journalist, Grant Barrett. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/14130942?print=true The argument specifically was about the prevalence of American English words and phrases – referred to as “Americanisms” – becoming more and more commonly used in everyday British life. The editors published a list of 50 most-detested Americanisms based on responses. Just for fun, here are a few that made me giggle a bit, mostly because I do use them often: 24/7, touch base, “Can I get a . . .”, and heads-up.

Now for me and for other Americans, this might seem a bit ridiculous. It is especially so when the complainers suggest the use of words like shopping “trolley” and not shopping cart or “expiry” in place of expiration. Engel argues that we Americans “forged [English] to meet [our] own needs, then exported our own words back across the Atlantic to be incorporated into the way [British] speak . . .” Apparently for the British, these “imported” English words are quite maddening! Engel is quoted as lamenting that British English is being allowed to wither due to “sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.”

Barrett, the American journalist in this linguistic banter, argues that there is no parent English but that “English is, in truth, a family. American English and British English are siblings from the same parentage.” One of the commentors within the series states that language is “a living thing that adapts and changes for the society . . .”

I do agree fully with Barrett’s viewpoint in this debate. Similar to the awkward purity debate regarding races that we have witnessed for centuries, there is no eternally pure human language. Language is continually tweaked and edited through years of use by successive generations. (Did you ever have to read Chaucer in high school or college?!) Beyond language itself, I see a parallel with the Christian debate surrounding worship styles. Just as language itself is our method of communicating – of expressing ourselves – to each other, worship is our method of communicating and expressing ourselves to God. To prefer one’s own dialect of worship over someone else’s dialect to the point of believing that other expressions are wrong or otherwise offensive is what I call “worshipism” – an “ism” along the same lines of racism or sexism.

Now just because the English language as developed in America uses its own phraseology and terms that are particular to Americans, it doesn’t mean that British phrases and terms became obsolete. It also doesn’t mean that American phrases and terms are wrong or inherently obscene. Having grown up as an American Southerner, I know all too well how it feels to be on the receiving end of condescending American attitudes about proper use or preferred dialects of American English. Having served as a contemporary worship leader for the past ten years, I also know all too well how it feels to be on the receiving end of condescending Christian attitudes about proper worship styles within the larger Christian tradition.

It is my simple opinion that worship styles use different “dialects” in expressing worship. It doesn’t mean either style is inherently better or proper or obscene or obsolete. Differing dialects in worship are a natural progression within the larger language of worship! Whether you worship by expressing “Thanks be to God” in concert with other worshippers at the appropriate moment, or “Hallelujah” or “Amen” as you feel led, or in your own special prayer language as someone sings to God, you are expressing the authentic language of worship.

Music has its own special place in discussions of English language. Our shared love of music transcends the originating sources, whether British or American. When we sing, our dialects, phrases, and “isms” seem to disappear into thick, beautiful, melodious air. It is also my belief as a worship leader that music styles matter little in authentic worship. Whether we choose to sing songs penned centuries ago or written by contemporary worship artists of today accompanied by organs, orchestras, pianos, guitars, drums or else altogether unaccompanied, I am convinced that our God – our audience of one – is pleased when our hearts are connected to His through our varied expressions of genuine worship.

Enjoy the ride

You would think I grew up in a litter competing with eight or nine other kids for food or something. I am often accused of wolfing down my food. My husband is the exact opposite. When we lived together, by the time he had fixed his plate to his own idea of perfection, I was finished with mine. Then I was up and ready to go do something else. I have to admit that it is a legitimate complaint. Not only do I wolf it down, but I often eat on the run — either standing at the kitchen counter or driving down the road. You might ask why, and if you did, I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. I don’t know why I do that. I work the same way. As soon as I’m given some sort of assignment, I attack it and wipe it out just like a five-bite sandwich. Wound up tight, I am. Wound up tight.

As is true with most bad habits, my ways tend to rub off on the people I spend the most time around. Rather than their wish to slow down and enjoy a meal rubbing off on me, it usually turns out that my bad habits of eating too fast or else on the run turns into their norm, too. Trust me, I recognize that it is not a good trait, and I would really like to change it. Problem is, I don’t know how. The way I eat and the way I work is symptomatic of something deeper than either of those things.

Just today, I had to remind my 5-year-old to try not to focus so much on our destination but rather to enjoy the time spent on the way there. “Enjoy the journey” was a bit too slogan-ish for him to get, I thought. Instead, I advised him to enjoy the music in the car and the things that we see on the way. “Try to enjoy the ride there,” I said. It is advice that I should take for myself.

Along with other healthy choices I’ve made for myself over the course of the last few years, I am willing to take the challenge to “enjoy the ride.” In doing so, I see the necessity of also opening myself up to the ideas and suggestions from my friends of ways to adjust the thoughts and beliefs that lead to persistent hurried behaviors. What are some things that you do in your own life to reel yourself in and “enjoy the ride?”

“Caller 1, you’re on the air. . .”

Father’s Day Status: It’s Complicated

I think Father’s Day is becoming increasingly more difficult to handle. Not just for me, either.

As I scroll through my mental list of close friends, I haven’t yet come to anyone with an untarnished experience this Father’s Day. (Ok, I just remembered one.) As I think of my friends, family, and self, either our dad has passed away, or the relationship was bad, or in some cases it’s both. Whatever the reason that brought us to this point, it hurts when Dad is not around — especially on Father’s Day. For the people I know and love who have experienced a living-yet-absent father, that pain is part of everyday life.

For those of us who miss our dad on Father’s Day because he died, we can find some refreshment and peace in our good memories. Particularly for those of us who profess faith in Jesus, the comfort and support that we felt from our dad can easily translate into that notion of God, the Father. But, the move from an uncomfortable relationship with our earthly father to a comforting relationship with our Heavenly Father can be a little more tricky. In that case, we have to let go of some beliefs we may carry with us that are contrary to the way God, our Heavenly Father, operates. If you wouldn’t want to be accused of being just like your dad, then maybe God deserves that same benefit from you: don’t assume that God is like anybody else you know. If you were blessed with a dad who modeled godly principles and lifestyle, then appreciate and recognize that as a blessing. But please understand that you could also have a faulty perspective of God’s ways and motivations, based even on that good-but-limited model.

In other words, all I’m saying is . . . God is much bigger than your daddy! He’s bigger than your mama, too! (Not necessarily saying “yo mama’s so big …) God’s love for us is entirely real. It’s so super-big. It doesn’t have the consequences of sin attached to it that we experience in our human relationships. God’s love surpasses all of that! God loves us so much that He chose to become like us in order to be with us, to teach us, to suffer like us, and to do the one thing that none of us could do just so we could be with him forever.

If your own Father’s Day status reads, “It’s Complicated,” then I want to wrap this concept of God’s love around you like a big bear hug. May the warmth, the comfort and the peace of God’s great big love put a mega-watt smile on your face this Father’s Day!

Now, who’s your daddy?! (I apologize, but I could NOT resist that!)