The one gift I can give this year

We’re in a terrible rush these days.

Have you noticed?

It seems no matter where I am, someone is honking or speeding by or cutting someone off or ignoring the people around them. We’re so busy, looking for the shortest lane at the store, the fastest way from here to there.

So hurried.

Waiting is an obstacle to accomplishing tasks, patience no longer a virtue.

Life is just flying by, and what do we have to show for it?

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

I am not ready for Christmas. I am never ready for Christmas. I still have family photo cards from last year that never made it to the mail. (Confession: I’m tempted to send them out again this year. Do you think anyone would notice?)

I have a hard time planning ahead to send Christmas cards and shop for gifts. It’s not like Christmas comes as a surprise every year. I just fail to plan for it. Sometime after Thanksgiving (and after our son’s birthday), I start thinking about Christmas, but frankly, it stresses me out a little to add all these other things to my already cluttered life: decorating a tree, sending cards, buying presents, making cookies. I enjoy all of those things; I just don’t appreciate the pressure I feel to get it all done in this short amount of time.

What’s the point of Advent?

A friend asked this on Facebook recently. My answer was less than theological or educated, and her question is not at all surprising. Until a few years ago, I didn’t think much of Advent, that season of the year preceding Christmas. Maybe we opened a calendar with candy in it as kids. Maybe we tried to mark down the days somehow. Even now, with kids, making time for Advent activities seems like one more thing to add to the already busy time of year.

This year we’re using some Advent readings from Thriving Family magazine and twice already, we’ve gotten behind and had to catch up on the days we missed. Sometimes I want to just forget the whole thing. Is it really worth it?

And then it happens.

We find a cute tree. We make room for it in the house and decorate it. We drag out the kids’ nativity set and they begin to tell stories about “the time when Jesus came to be born.” nativity

And even though these acts are small and ordinary, they remind me that this is no ordinary time. It is a time to remember, yes. But also to pause.

A time to wait and expect.

The kids practically bounce off the walls with excitement now that the tree is up and there are presents under it. Christmas is special and they know it.

Do I know it?

I am obsessed with the idea of light breaking into darkness.

Light equals hope. Aren’t we all a bit happier when the sun shines after days of rain? Doesn’t something in us brighten also?

And this is what happens during Advent. We who bear the Light of God proclaim to those walking in darkness (we were once those people, too) that Light has come and Light is coming. Light is breaking through. The world will no longer be dark. There is hope. Hold on just a bit longer. Come with us and we’ll show you the Way to the Light.

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

 —

It is easier, sometimes, to pierce the darkness with light at Christmas. Sometimes we are kinder, more patience, more peaceful, more generous. Sometimes not.

I never quite understood the phrase “the Christmas spirit,” as if our mood during this time was limited to only a few weeks or a month out of the year.

Come January do we all turn back into misers? Is there something magical about this time that brings out the best in us? Or is it just easier to hide the worst in us when all around us is seemingly jolly?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Sometimes when I look at the world I see only hate, sadness, war, hurry, meanness, evil, harshness and greed. (I don’t have to look far. All those things are inside of me.)

So I find it interesting that the fruit of the Spirit is all the things lacking in our world, in my world, today: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These are small battles, for sure, in a war that rages across humanity.

But they are satisfying victories that allow a pinprick of light to shine in the darkness.

This is Advent.

Not a loud proclamation that life as we know it is over.

Not a terrifying battle cry that we’re about to be taken prisoner.

Not a forced servitude.

No.

It is little bits of light in the dark.

It is the hope that comes with a newborn baby.

It is a promise that life goes on.

It is expectation that the world will not always be dark.

It is an invitation to join a revolution whose core value is love.

It is a hand extended in friendship and brotherhood, a voice that says, “Follow me. There’s another way to live.”

It starts with Advent and continues through Christmas, but heaven help us if it ends there.

If I could give the world a gift this year, it would be my own commitment to be Light and Love and Hope all year long.

Of course I’ll fail at that, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Do you celebrate Advent? What does it mean to you?

How does the Christmas season affect you?

The weird thing about grief

My cell phone rang while I was making a special lunch for my son’s birthday on Tuesday. I almost never get calls and almost never in the middle of the day, and when I saw that it was my mom, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

And it wasn’t. My uncle Bill had died sometime in the night. We’d known it was coming. His lungs were failing and his health was deteriorating quickly in the last few weeks. But it doesn’t make the sadness any less sad.

We talked briefly, my mom and I, and just as we were ending the call, her voice cracked, and I almost did, too. I wandered the kitchen, waiting for my husband to come back with our son from preschool (and the final ingredient I needed to finish lunch) when my phone rang again with a number I didn’t know or hadn’t saved since I switched phones. It was my cousin, whose father was the uncle who just died.

We’ve rarely talked on the phone, he and I, but that day, I was glad to hear his voice. (He lives in Colorado; I live in Pennsylvania.) We didn’t talk about much, but his voice, too, cracked as we ended the call. While we were talking, my husband came home and I must have had a distressed look on my face because he seemed to know, too. I ended that call, having not shed a tear yet and just sobbed into my husband’s chest while he wrapped his arms around me.

I cried for the loss and the pain that my family members were experiencing and the separation that kept me from being with them in their grief. My mom, my other uncle, my grandparents are at least all in the same state and have each other to grieve with. My cousin has his mom and my uncle’s friends and co-workers. I’m feeling a bit lost in the process out here in Pennsylvania.

And did I mention that it was my son’s birthday and I still had a cake to decorate? How is a person supposed to decorate a birthday cake and celebrate the passage of another year of life when death has just visited your family?

grief_cake

I don’t know.

When my tears subsided, I finished making lunch. We talked to our son about why mommy was crying. And then my husband played Legos with the birthday boy while I decorated the cake in the kitchen. grief_dad_boy legos

It was surprisingly therapeutic to create something fun and beautiful with my hands while sadness made its home inside of me.

We continued our birthday celebration. We told our daughter the news when she got home from school. We ended the day as normally as possible, though we did stay up late putting Legos together. Whenever there’s a tragic loss of life, especially if it is close to home, I always want to spend more time together with the people I love. It’s like grief and loss remind me that nothing is guaranteed and every moment matters.

I haven’t experienced a lot of grief for deaths in the family. At 36 years old, I still have both of my parents in good health, and three out of four grandparents. Our losses have been few in my lifetime, though I realize that somewhere in the not-so-distant future, the losses could accumulate more rapidly than I’d like.

I know almost nothing about the grieving process except that it’s different for everyone and takes varying amounts of time and really, there are no rules when it comes to how people process loss.

My uncle and I weren’t terribly close. He lived in Colorado for most of my life. But his son, my cousin, is like another brother. We are nearly the same age and my brother and I spent many summers with him at our grandparents’ house in Illinois. I have many memories of our escapades together. A few years ago, my husband and I got to fly to Colorado for my cousin’s wedding, and there I had the chance to get to know my uncle again and spend time with him as a grown-up. I’m so grateful we took that trip even though our basement had just flooded in a freakish rainstorm.

So, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to process this loss. How much do I grieve the loss of a man who is important to me because he is important to people I love?

The day after his death, my emotions were raw and I was feeling everything. Grief felt like a heavy blanket over my head and I couldn’t get enough air. grief_legosI played Legos with my son and again found a measure of relief. I don’t know if it’s the creating or the focusing on a task or doing something childlike but whatever it was, it lifted the fog a bit.

grief_birthday candlesThat night we helped decorate the church for Christmas, something I haven’t done yet at our house, and the joy and light of Christmas decorations reminded me that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (That’s in the Bible. Don’t ask me to cite it right now.) That hope descends to the hopeless. That love has the last word. (That’s a line from Jason Gray.)

I desperately want to spend time with my family right now, and I may get my wish over Christmas. Until then, though, this grief thing is weird. Yesterday and today life has been almost normal. But I can’t say whether that will last.

I am not sticking to a healthy eating plan right now because sometimes grief says, “Eat a cupcake.” But it also says, “Take a walk. Slow down. Be present. Notice what’s around you.”

I am trying to do those things.

Maybe I’ll be able to write a post soon telling you about my uncle and the things I appreciated and loved about him. But that’s not for today.

Today, I just want to say that grief is weird. And that’s okay.

No words of wisdom from me.

But maybe you have some to share?

Shake up your holiday shopping by making a difference in the world

I know it’s Thanksgiving and we’re not supposed to be online hanging with our virtual friends when we’re supposed to be spending time with family and loved ones (and don’t worry, I wrote this post yesterday!) BUT on the off chance you’re headed out to do some Thursday/Black Friday/I don’t know what to call it anymore shopping tonight or tomorrow or this weekend, I wanted to once again ask you to consider changing the way you shop this holiday season.

Because to hear the advertisers tell it, I’m not really thankful or happy this year unless I put in new carpeting or redecorate my house or buy the latest gadget or spoil my children with every.single.toy in the store.

You know that’s not true, right?

You know you have the power to change that story, right? For you and for others?

The holidays, Christmas, in particular, don’t have to be about accumulating more stuff or buying in a frenzy or going into debt. You can choose meaningful gifts, ones that even make a life-saving difference in someone else’s life. Really.

I think we can all agree that we have a lot of choices in our lives. Confession: I nearly had a meltdown in the bread aisle the other night because we had a dozen different choices about what kind of hamburger buns we could buy. (Kaiser. Potato. Wheat. Slider size. Regular size. On and on.) And somewhere on the other side of the world, a mama doesn’t have enough money to buy any bread. Period.

Let that sink in but don’t let it paralyze you.

You can do some good. Right here. Right now. For someone else who truly needs it.

There are hundreds of companies doing good with their goods, and that can be overwhelming, I know. So, here are a few ideas to help you shake up your holiday shopping, if you don’t know where to start.

1. Imagine Goods. This company is one you will hear/read about from me all.the.time. The co-owner is a friend who lives in the same town, but even if I didn’t know her personally, I would want you to shop here. They sell beautiful home goods like tablecloths, cloth napkins and aprons, as well as fashionable clothing for women, children and men. And the clothing is all made in Cambodia by women who have been sexually exploited or are at-risk of exploitation because of financial or family situations. Imagine Goods offers them decent working conditions and a livable wage. As a bonus, the company partners with other organizations doing good, such as Love146, making clothing and products for them, as well. (They’re running a 20 percent off sale through Sunday with the code “Thankful Hearts.”)

2. Ornaments4Orphans. I just learned about this organization last weekend at a Christmas open house another friend hosted. They sell handcrafted ornaments made in East Africa through fair trade practices, and the proceeds benefit programs that help orphaned and vulnerable children, particularly in Uganda. If you’re looking for unique Christmas tree decorations, look here.

3. Ten Thousand Villages. I had never heard of this until we moved to Pennsylvania six years ago (because it’s based here), but this is one of my favorite places to shop/browse. Everything sold in stores and online is made by artisans in countries all over the globe. These artisans are paid fairly for their work. You can find jewelry and home decor and wall art and more. If you don’t have a store near you, browse online. Unique gifts made with care.

4. Imana Kids. If you decide that you and your loved ones really do have enough stuff, you can still spend money and make a difference in the world. Another friend is involved with this great ministry in Rwanda, caring for orphans through safe homes, basic needs and education. They’re currently trying to furnish a home that can serve as a safe haven and meeting place for the kids until permanent homes are found. They are aiming to raise $30,000 and you can help by buying plates and bowls, blankets, sheets, furniture and one month of clean water. Check out their gift catalog for the full list of gift options. These are basic needs, not above-and-beyond needs.

Truly, you (and I) have no reason not to support organizations such as these. And not only at Christmas but year-round. Will it mean sacrifice? Yep. Will it mean discomfort? Yep. (Will it mean a meltdown in the bread aisle because you have so.many.choices? Maybe!) But I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Count the cost this Christmas. The cost of whatever it is you think you need compared to the cost of basic needs a fellow human being needs.

You don’t have to overhaul your whole shopping list today (or even this year). Start small if you have to. Make one better choice this year. And then maybe next time you need a gift, you make another choice like this. And then maybe next year you’ll be ready to make even more changes to your shopping list.

I know it’s not easy. Trust me, I do. We do not have loads of money to spend on things, but we have more than enough of what we need. And I can’t in good conscience live my life only and always for myself. I just can’t. (Though sometimes I try really hard to do just that.)

Maybe you have some other organizations to add to this list. Feel free!

Whatever you do, don’t ignore this post. I can personally vouch for Imagine Goods and Imana Kids, if you’re worried about accountability. They are good friends doing good work that is also very hard.

Any excuse you are thinking of right now, I’ve said it to myself.

This is not about guilt. (I’m sorry if it sounds that way. I’m a mom! I think it’s ingrained!)

And it’s not about charity.

It’s about justice. About making things right. About doing for someone what you would want them to do for you. In an honorable and dignified way.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to fall into a turkey induced coma.

Just think about it, okay?

That’s the last I’ll say about it. Today.

When the falling was easy and the getting up is hard

In the late ’90s, a British band called Chumbawamba filled the radio waves with these words:

I get knocked down

But I get up again

You’re never gonna keep me down

It was a drinking song, mostly, with a festive beat perfect for party atmospheres. (I was present at a few of those back in the day and now I’m old.)

Such confidence in the words: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”

But they’re such a lie. Not that I expected to find truth from a band whose name sounds like a bubble gum brand or gibberish.

The truth is getting knocked down hurts.

And getting back up again is hard. 

And sometimes, it’s tempting to want to stay down. Because what if I get back up and then get knocked down again? Won’t that hurt more?

To say our family experienced a fall seems an understatement. Like saying Humpty Dumpty tripped. I’m not sure I realized at the time, now four-and-a-half years ago, just how far we’d fallen. Or how hard it would be to get up again.

And I certainly didn’t consider that falling, which seemed to happen so fast, meant we’d somehow have to make up the distance between where we landed and where the fall happened.

Staying down never seemed like an option. But that was before we started climbing.

climb

For the inexperienced and untrained, climbing requires strength, muscles we might rediscover along the way. And it might take time. We’re not going to climb a mountain or crawl out of a pit in an hour.

It might be days, weeks, years.

There will be pain. Fatigue. Disappointment. Discouragement. Bitterness. Despair. Blame.

But no matter how the fall happened, the circumstances that led to it, the final step over the edge, the reality is it happened. And time can’t be reversed so it was otherwise.

When you find yourself at the bottom of a pit, for whatever the reason, the only way to go is up.

Staying down is admitting defeat. It might as well be a death sentence.

When we’re down, all we want is a way out. Rescue. I want someone to throw me a rope and lift me out of my trouble.

But even then, I don’t want to be the one to do all the work required to get out. I still might have to hold on and climb. I still have to believe it’s possible.summer

I want to think that getting back up after falling down is glamorous. That restoration is immediate.

What I’m learning is that it’s less like a dramatic movie rescue and more like clawing your way up out of the dirt. It’s a slow crawl into light. It’s squinting at the brightness when all you’ve known is darkness. It’s finding your feet again and re-learning how to walk. It’s pressing on, even when you slide back and feel like you’re losing ground. It’s inner strength and internal drive. It’s heart, mind and body working together to get to the place you were before.

And beyond.

When I think about our situation, I don’t want to go back to where we were before the fall. I don’t want to fight for what was but to strive for what could be. I want to climb out of the pit, rest on the plateau and then tackle the mountain.

Still, it takes work.

And for some reason, I didn’t expect that part of it. Or I wanted it to happen at a quicker pace. Or on my terms.

But all significant change takes time.

Seeds take root and become plants, but it doesn’t happen overnight. The tallest trees were once seeds and now stand as living testaments to the beauty of growth over time.

Buildings begin with a solid foundation, then walls and support beams and a roof. Who would decorate a house on the inside before the roof was finished?

Even Jesus’ resurrection from the dead required a whole day in between. (Couldn’t He have risen immediately? I’m not debating theology here, just curious.) And the Kingdom He started with that revolutionary act is still being built.

Why should my own resurrection be any different?

So maybe Chumbawumba had it right after all.

No one will get through life without falling.

It’s what we do after the fall that matters. <Tweet that>

Will we stay down and curse the ground on which we lie? Will we search the skies for rescue, praying and hoping for help to come, for someone else to do the hard work of getting us out? Or will we choose to start climbing? To determine to NOT stay down. To dig our hands into the rocks and dirt and pull with everything we’ve got. Will we struggle to the top, weary and with shaking arms and legs, having spent every ounce of strength, with bloodied and dirtied hands, covered in sweat?

Will we hang on just a little longer when everything in us wants to let go? (There is a time to let go, but make sure it’s the right time.)

hang on

Because while it’s true that restoration makes us new, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It is grueling work to get back up and not stay down.

So whether you’ve fallen or grown discouraged or are on the verge of giving up on something or someone, consider how far you’ve already come.

Measure the distance between the ground where you fell and your proximity to the light. Choose to keep going toward the light, whatever that might be. A dream. A goal. Healing. Wholeness.

Get back up again.

Don’t let anything keep you down.

When the kingdom of God is like this

The news published early in the day, that our part of the country could possibly see a rocket launch into space. I saw the report at 7 a.m., thinking I had missed the event, not realizing until later that we’d actually have the chance at 6:45 p.m. Details go unnoticed before the coffee hits my system.

That night, after we picked my husband up from work and did the various dinner and homework routines, we dragged our porch chairs to the middle of the front yard and set our sights on the southeastern sky. Traffic rolled by as the evening darkened, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of us, sitting in our yard, staring at the sky.

rocket launchI called us “weirdos” because, let’s be honest, it is not normal to set up chairs on your lawn, at night, in the fall, to search the sky. To be aware that something out of the ordinary is happening when you could just go about your day.

We sat and we watched and we checked Twitter because that is where we found updates on the rocket’s launch. That night, it was canceled because of a boat nearby. Disappointed that the launch was postponed, we continued to watch the sky for the International Space Station to cross over our little piece of earth.

The minutes ticked by and I began to wonder if we’d missed it. If maybe we should head inside and get the kids to bed because it was a school night, after all, and what in the world were we still doing in the front yard after dark staring at the sky? Lunatics, I tell you.

We craned our necks to the north, hoping for a glimpse, and then suddenly, there it was! A bright light streaking across the night sky, so obviously not a star.

And in an instant the universe became both small and huge. Small because we were connected, in a way, to the people aboard the station, watching their path across our part of the earth. Huge because they and it were way up there and we were way down here and the wonder is hard to contain inside myself.

To think, we could have missed it.

The next night, we did it again, setting our chairs up in the yard, waiting for a streak of light to pass across the southeastern sky. Checking and rechecking Twitter for updates until we finally got the word that the rocket exploded not long after launching. I’m not sure who was more disappointed, the grownups or the kids.

We never saw the rocket launch but I’m not sorry we stopped what we were doing those two nights to gaze at the heavens.

Because I think this is what the kingdom of God is like.

Jesus stepped into our ordinary world. His coming was witnessed by stargazers who had studied the skies, and later announced by a man who could read the times and herald his coming. The kingdom of God is here, he said. It’s closer than you could imagine!

I wonder if anyone could feel it, that sense of the world being small and big all at the same time. If God coming close to us in the form of a man made Him all the more connected to us and all the more vast. Certainly, there was a sense of wonder.

And it’s not just that the kingdom of God came with Jesus. It’s that it’s still here now. It’s moving and building and shaping and restoring, and we can’t always see it.

But every now and then, we find people who help us see it. They’re looking beyond the ordinary day to something extraordinary. They’re in an unusual position at an unusual time to get a better glimpse of this spectacular happening. And those of us who don’t know, haven’t heard, think maybe they’re just crazy or dreamers or idealists. Why can’t they just be like everyone else and stick to what’s normal?

Still, they stand and they watch and they point and say, “Look! Can you see it? Amazing!”

And sometimes we join them and sometimes we miss it. And sometimes we see something extraordinary and sometimes we’re disappointed.

No matter what, though, we’ve opened ourselves up to the possibility of the extraordinary.

Though we didn’t see anyone else sitting in their yard looking at the sky, thanks to social media, we discovered we weren’t the only weirdos we knew.

This, too, is what the kingdom of God is like.

It is extraordinary. It is happening now. And even when we can’t see it, we can talk about it and find others who are looking for it, too.

 

3 words I never thought I’d hear in church

On any given Sunday, I can expect to hear certain things during a church gathering. Songs of praise. Prayers. Announcements about activities. Bible verses.

But a couple of Sundays ago, I heard three words I never, ever, ever, expected to hear in church.

They weren’t swear words or anything like that, but they were a bit shocking.

Are you ready for them?

Here they are: washable feminine pads.

Sorry if I lost a few male readers with that revelation, but if you’re not too squeamish, stick around and hear why these words were part of our service.

Every once in a while, members of our church volunteer at a GAIN (Global Aid Network) distribution center in our county. Recently, a group took a Wednesday night to help out at the center, and the following Sunday, our pastor reported on their activities. Sometimes, the groups work with boxes or blankets. This time, though, they helped in a completely different way.

They traced a pattern and cut material to make washable feminine pads for women in developing countries.

Now, ladies, I don’t know about you, but I can hardly even talk about my monthly “gift” without squirming and getting embarrassed. My husband is completely comfortable making a run to Target or CVS for supplies when I’m desperate, but I feel like I might as well be wearing a blinking sign when I purchase the same products. So, I could hardly believe my ears when this topic was talked about at length at the start of our service by our pastor.

And there were pictures! Pictures of our church people doing this work. I wanted to crawl away or laugh nervously.

But then I got over it. Or I tried. Because the reality is this: I have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Women in developing countries face real shame about their femininity. You can read more here. Shunned. Degraded. Ostracized. Imagine if you had to miss 20 percent of your school year? If you couldn’t go out in public for the duration of your period?

The simple solution is this topic we talked about in church: washable feminine pads.

Shame on me for being embarrassed to talk about it. And for thinking only of myself.

How easy it is for me to go to a local store and pick up what I need and carry on with my day (mostly) during that time of the month. How easy it is for me to not even think that someone else doesn’t have it that way.

And this is my main problem as privileged American: selfish, narrow-minded thinking.

Slowly, I’m gaining knowledge, becoming aware of the needs of people worldwide, convicted of how my selfishness negatively affects people I don’t even know.

I won’t ask if you’ve ever thought about the menstrual cycles of women in developing countries because until that Sunday, I hadn’t.

But what about the source of your luxuries?

We’re entering a season of the year where sweets and food and gifts take front and center. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. This is an important question all year long, but at least during this end-of-the-year stretch, we need to talk about it and remember.

When you eat chocolate, do you think about how it got to you? Do you know about children enslaved to harvest cocoa beans so you can have a sweet treat?

What about when you drink tea or coffee? Do you wonder if the farmers who grow it get paid fairly?

How about that quinoa you eat because it’s a health food fad and is a good source of non-meat protein? Do you wonder if your consumption of it, our demand for it, impacts the Andean people where it’s grown?

What about your chocolate hazelnut spread that uses palm oil thus destroying the habitat of orangutans? (I learned this while visiting a zoo.)

I could keep going talking about our technology and the minerals used in our phones and computers, about the diamonds we covet and the corruption bred in the countries where such things flourish.

It’s overwhelming. Really. There’s almost no part of our lives untouched by the corruption and exploitation of others. That’s the bad news.

The good news is we have choices. Lots and lots of choices. And we have knowledge.

And even if we can’t change everything, we can change some things. Now. Even if it’s just one thing.

Not long ago, I switched to fair trade coffee in my house. This is not a huge sacrifice because Costco sells it in bulk and it’s not terribly expensive. It hasn’t really affected the amount of coffee I consume. It’s not as easy when I’m drinking coffee away from home, but it’s possible. More companies are using direct-trade, fair trade or other sustainably sourced beans in some of their coffees.

Then I started buying fair trade tea. I don’t drink as much tea as coffee, and this one is much more obvious in its impact on my finances. Fair trade teas are not cheap. But neither is justice.

Our next move is chocolate, and I will confess that this one is hard because chocolate is everywhere and it’s cheap. The fair trade kind is expensive (and delicious!) and not in every candy aisle. It’s a special trip or an online order. But, it’s not impossible.

October is fair trade month, and through the website Klout, which tracks online influence, I received a box of fair trade products as a gift. Snacks made with fair trade chocolate, a quinoa/rice blend in a box made with fair trade quinoa. Tea, both hot and cold. All of it delicious and all of it fair.

So. What’s my point? I started off talking about washable feminine pads and now I’m on to fair trade food.

I think my point is this: it’s easy to look away or think only of ourselves, of the cost to us, which is really only monetary. It’s easy to want to be comfortable and not talk about things like child slavery or women being shunned for having a period.

But we need to know. And we need to talk about it. And we need to act.

It’s good to get a little squeamish. It’s good to talk about things that make us uncomfortable. Because then we’re better able to identify. To say, what if it was me?

My challenge to you (and to me) this season is to make one small change you can carry through beyond the first of the year. Swap out your favorite tea with a fair trade brand. Buy a bag of fair trade coffee. Check the source of your favorite chocolate treat. Ask more questions about where your food comes from. Buy your next new outfit from a company whose clothes are ethically sourced and fairly made. Read a book about human trafficking or corruption in governments whose resources are valuable.

There are a lot of companies to choose from, a lot of lists on other blogs out there to help you with these decisions. If you need specific direction, leave a comment about the change you’d like to make and I’ll see if I can point you in the right direction.

Or just leave a comment about the change you plan to make so we can encourage each other to stick with it.

Things I cannot change| #hardestpeace {a link up}

I don’t know much about Kara Tippetts except that she’s fighting cancer and fighting for life every day. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She recently wrote a public letter to a woman who has scheduled her death. And she’s written a book called The Hardest Peace. I haven’t read the book, but in promoting her book, she’s asking for stories. Stories of others’ hardest peace–where we’ve learned to expect grace in the midst of life’s hard (the subtitle of her book).

I’m not fighting her battle, but we all fight our own battles, and grace is for all of the battles, for all of the fighters in all the arenas.

And the battle I fight is against the things I cannot change.

Namely, the past.

Sure, it’s the past, but I blame it for my present and worry that my future will be radically different because of things that happened then. Things I cannot change.

So peace for today eludes me because I haven’t made peace with the past.

I’m not sure what that looks like anymore.

I used to think it meant surviving it. And survive it, I did.

Surviving the hard times used to seem impossible. There were days I was certain I wouldn’t come through it alive or anything looking like human.

But it’s four years later. And I’m still alive.

I wonder, though: Am I living?

We got through a hard time in our marriage, and we’re so much better for it. But now that life has settled back down, now that the crisis has passed and urgency worn off, I find myself drifting into seas of bitterness, oceans of regret. If I’m not careful, I’ll drown in them.

Peace, then, is what could keep me afloat.

And peace, in part, comes from letting go.

I learned this to a point last year when I released some things, big and small.

But I don’t think I really let the past go.

And that doesn’t mean that I have to forget it, exactly, or pretend it never happened.

Maybe it has more to do with this thought Tippetts shares in her book:

hardest peace

Finding peace means recognizing that I don’t get to control all the things that happen to me. That maybe–certainly–there’s a larger story being written. One that doesn’t include a perfectly planned out (by my standards) life. As a writer, I can relate to these words. There are scenes in my stories that are hard to write because they wreck someone’s world, but it’s for the greater good.

I need to trust that the same is true in the story of my life.

The hardest peace. What a challenging thought. That peace doesn’t always come easy. But that it still comes.

Do you a have a story about finding the hardest peace? Share yours, too, and link to it here. Then head over to the contest for the book release here and enter to win prizes, including copies of the book.

 

One thing you can do to change your perspective

“Look up.”

I felt the words rather than heard them. Still, I resisted.

I was standing in line at the grocery store while the cashier was waving my WIC check around yelling across the store to a manager on duty asking if she could sign it. I know this is the store’s policy and yet I come here because it is close to my house and sometimes I just need a quick(ish) trip to the store.

But, frankly, I’m embarrassed every time I load my milk, bread, cereal, juice, eggs and peanut butter onto the belt, knowing that whether I like it or not, I’ll be causing a pileup behind me. (The good thing about grocery checkout lanes is that they’re designed so you don’t have to look at the people behind you. You don’t have to see their impatience or looks of disgust. Instead, you can imagine them and feel your face getting hot because you are standing in the way of someone else’s quick trip to the store.)

I try to be invisible on these days. To do everything right. To keep the children quiet. To bag up my groceries quickly and make as little conversation as possible.

But this day, the store was busy, and my cashier was flustered and while she was gone to find the person who could verify that she’d processed my order correctly, I stood at the end of the lane facing the people behind me. I wanted to keep looking at the floor, studying my toes, or search the lanes for my cashier, hoping she’d come back quickly.

Instead, I felt the urge to look up.

To hold up my head instead of hide.

In half a decade of WIC participation, I have never felt unashamed of my plight. I have always thought that people are assuming things about me and my family. That we have no jobs. That I have no husband. That I’m somehow abusing the system meant to help people like us.

But I’m tired of hiding my head. Of feeling ashamed. Less than.

So, I did it. I looked up.

A few years ago, Phil and I attended a one-day marriage conference put on by the seminary he was attending. Phil had helped organize the event, which was funny to me at the time because our marriage was still in recovery from massive hurt. But a lot of good came from that day, including our connection with a counselor who helped us get to a point of healing I didn’t think was possible.

But one other thing stands out to me from that day: a story one of the presenters told about a scene she and her daughter witnessed at a local pool. A man was verbally abusing his girlfriend. Like most people, her daughter wanted to look away. I would have, too. Scenes like that embarrass me. So do ones where kids are throwing fits. If it was me, I’d want to hide. But this woman told her daughter to look. Look. Don’t stare, but look. She wanted her to see what it looked like for a man to abuse a woman. It was an educating act. So that her daughter would remember that moment and be able to guard against it in the future.

Look. Don’t stare. See.

I find myself looking at instead of away from more often these days.

Kids throwing fits in the grocery store — sometimes I ignore the scene but other times I try to catch the mom’s eye so she knows I see. On really brave days, I say something like “keep up the good work. We’ve all been there. You’re doing fine.”

Even if they don’t believe me, they will know they are not alone. That there is no shame or embarrassment.

It is an act of love toward myself, a reminder when I’m in the same situation that even if no one else says a word, I am seen and known and loved, right in the middle of the mess.

The most embarrassing, shameful moments of our lives–the ones where we want to hide or disappear–are often the very ones that bring us closer to the heart of God.

If I had to pick a favorite story in the Bible, it would probably be the one in John 8. You know the one, right? A woman is caught in the act of adultery and a bunch of religious leaders bring her to Jesus, hoping he’ll condemn her to a death by stoning. They were testing him and she was the bait.

I can’t get over this story. Jesus, the only one who could condemn, the only one left standing after everyone else leaves and drops their stones because they are not without sin, forgives her. He sees her in her sin and he sets her free. He is not embarrassed or ashamed, nor does he cause her further embarrassment or shame. He deals tenderly with her. I love him for this (and so much more).

It’s a peculiar passage, though, because while the religious leaders are awaiting his answer, Jesus is writing in the dust with his finger. It’s not recorded what he wrote. There are tons of theories. Because we aren’t told, it’s fun to imagine what it could have been. Some say it was a list of the accusers’ sins. Possible.

But what if it was a message to the woman? She probably wasn’t looking anyone in the eye. I doubt she had an air of pride or haughtiness. Sometimes she’s portrayed as groveling on her face in the middle of the crowd. Whether she stood or was in a heap, it’s not hard to imagine that her eyes were focused on the ground. Jesus stooped to write in the dust.

Maybe he was telling her to “look up.”

I’m not good with eye contact, even though I have a degree in communication. Eye contact, or lack of it, is an important nonverbal cue, but my own insecurities haven’t let me master it yet. If I look you in the eye, count yourself among my most trustworthy friends.

So this urge to “look up” at the grocery store was not something I thought up on my own. I was ready to slink out of the store as fast as possible. But I stood with my head up for what seemed like an hour, although it was maybe less than a minute. I looked at the people behind me in line. And none of them were looking at me.

Maybe they were embarrassed for me. Maybe they didn’t want to see. Maybe they wanted to pretend this wasn’t a reality. Maybe they just don’t like to look people in the eye, either.

I’m sure they saw my circumstances. We were hard to miss. WIC checks are not subtle even when the cashier doesn’t have to shout across the store about them.

It’s easy to do: see circumstances instead of people. To pass by without thinking or seeing or caring.

Sadly, I do it all the time.

Because I don’t want to make someone uncomfortable, as if I could do that. I still believe it’s impolite to stare, but it’s another thing altogether to notice.

I want you to see me, not my circumstances. To look me in the eye and know that a real life, living, breathing person is in front of you in line. That even if you don’t agree with my circumstances (whatever that means), you see me as a fellow human being. There is no shame in acknowledging our fellow man wherever they may be.

When we pretend not to see, when we choose to ignore, that’s where the trouble starts. That’s when we care less about those people we don’t really know. That’s when we decide to make choices that benefit only us and no one else. That’s when we start ourselves down a path that leads to destruction. Of self. Of others. Of humanity. And earth.

It’s a simple thing, really, to look up. To look around. Okay, not so simple, I know. Because once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee. At least not without guilt.

It doesn’t solve anything, I know. But if it softens your heart or changes your perspective, even slightly, then maybe it’s worthwhile.

Whether you’re among those who look away because you don’t want to see or those who look down because you’re ashamed (and aren’t we all a bit of both?), I urge you to try it. Look up. Just once this week. When you find yourself tempted to look away, turn toward whatever you’re avoiding and see. When all you can see is the floor, force yourself to look up and around.

It’s hard. I’m with you on this one, in need of the reminder as much as anyone.

Let me know how it goes?

No ordinary memoir: Review of Tables in the Wilderness by Preston Yancey

Generally, when I read a book, I want it make me feel better. To escape or offer a solution to a problem. But lately, the books I’ve been reading haven’t lived up to that need.

They haven’t made me feel better but they have made me feel.

tables in wildernessAnd that’s where I am with Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost and Found Again by Preston Yancey. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the Booklook Bloggers program.)

I love Yancey’s writing. His blog is one that I read whenever he posts something new. And it’s always challenging, often poetic, and downright refreshing. The book is all of that, too, in its own way. I will admit to stumbling a little in the beginning because Yancey’s writing is different than most. It’s good, just not easy. As he talks about his spiritual journey from a know-it-all Southern Baptist entering college to a questioning Anglican on the other side of college, the stories and observations roll out, sometimes chronologically, sometimes not. The first time I read Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott, I felt this sort of disconnectedness in the flow but realized as I was reading that it was all connected and related after all. This book has a similar feel.

But it’s a journey worth taking, and I found myself silently screaming “yes” to passages that reflected my own journey.

I’m telling you to notice, because at a certain point I stopped. At a certain point, I stopped  noticing that God was moving all around me, and I believe it was this lack of attention on my part, this willingness to treat common the awe of the Almighty, that would eventually arrive me to a place where God withdrew. (39)

For me, reading this book was like drinking a glass of wine. On first taste, I am startled by the taste and I almost forget that I like it. Then I drink a little more and taste the flavors buried in the glass. And by the time I finish a glass, I am satisfied by the experience and not at all sorry.

Tables in the Wilderness is a book for pilgrims and seekers, for those who don’t have faith figured out, who wonder if anyone else feels the same way. For those who question the tradition in which they were raised, who have more questions than answers. It’s one man’s spiritual journey but it contains valuable truths for those of us on our own journeys. You might not like everything he has to say, but his story is worth the telling.

 

When beauty breaks through

On the days I remember and make myself sit down to read the Bible, I use the Book of  Common Prayer as my guide, typically reading a Psalm, an Old Testament passage and a Gospel passage. For the past couple of weeks, the Old Testament reading was from Job.

I’m guessing that even if you don’t read the Old Testament and don’t believe a word of the Bible you might still know Job–the guy who had it all and then lost it all in what seems like a cruel wager between God and the devil. It’s a dramatic story. I think we forget sometimes how dramatic. This guy was living not just the good life but the best life. He had everything he ever wanted and more. And then God let it all be taken away so Job could discover the true source of his security and faith.

I love the book of Job because it is full of colorful characters and deep questions and proclamations of faith. But whenever I read it, I wonder if I could do what Job did. Could I lose it all and still praise God?

How would I respond to the kind of deep tragedy Job experiences? Loss of children, home, vocation, health, reputation. About the only things he has left are a bitter wife and unhelpful friends. (Those people I can relate to, unfortunately.)

I read Job with interest but also with a silent plea to never, ever be in that position. I don’t think I could handle it.

People amaze me, especially the ones whose lives have been altered by tragedy. I don’t know if I would even get out of bed if I faced what they’ve faced. And sometimes I find myself staring, not because I want to make them uncomfortable but because I want to sear on my mind a picture of survival. This, I tell myself, this is what strength looks like. Some days, I’m brave enough to say it out loud. Other days, I just sit back and watch.

There’s this quote by Ernest Hemingway I wasn’t aware of until recently. (Although I’m a book lover, my retention of classic works of literature is embarrassing.)

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

The context of the paragraph is not particularly hopeful, but I’m drawn to this idea that the places where we break, where we’re broken, can be strong.

And have you seen the pictures and descriptions of the Japanese art form of fixing broken pottery with gold? If you look it up on Pinterest, you’ll find these words attached to the photos of this art: “understanding the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.”

I confess: I seldom think something broken is beautiful nor do I see my own brokenness as beautiful. I’m more like, “Ew, Lisa. That’s ugly.”

But thanks be to God who sees beauty in the broken and who is even now making all things new.

There’s a killer on the loose in the Pocono Mountains, a man who waited in the bushes for a shift change at a state police barracks and shot two troopers, killing one of them. His picture gives me that creepy feeling and two nights ago, I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking: What would I do? What if he somehow made his way here, to our town? Would I be aware enough to notice? And would I be able to do the courageous thing and make a call?

I’m living in a state of fear these days, imagining all sorts of horrible things happening to our family. I’m overwhelmed and stressed and I think some past experiences are finally catching up with me emotionally. It’s hard to see good when you’re thinking like this. Everything becomes scary or a potential disaster and the words I speak have little encouragement. And a scan through my Facebook “news” feed doesn’t help. There’s fear multiplied. Bad news all around.

And I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before some kind of tragedy touches a little closer to home.

For the past year, I’ve called life “good.” Surely it’s time for that to end, right? Surely there’s a limit to the good times, the feelings of security and fullness.

Everything has a season. We’re rushing on toward fall, the season when the visible signs of life begin their descent and decay. When green turns brilliant red and orange and yellow before ending on brown. When the harvest is brought in and the fields are barren once again.

There is life on the other side, we know. Fall, winter, they don’t last forever, just their allotted time. Still, the shift from long days of light to long nights of darkness takes some getting used to.

Most transitions do.

“How did those get there?” flower surprise closeup

We noticed the flowers growing in front of our house from under our porch. We didn’t plant flowers this year. We didn’t plant anything this year. Still getting used to our new surroundings, we focused more on pruning and cleaning the land we’d been given as part of our rental property.

These flowers were a surprise. They’re still a mystery.

They make me think of the adage “you reap what you sow.” We did not sow flowers this year and yet we are reaping their beauty.

These tiny yellow blooms are a delight in a season when few things are blooming. This is why I love spring, everything pops with color, though I’m learning that it doesn’t have to end with spring.

Still, I look at these flowers and I see a message of hope.

Beauty shows up in the unlikeliest places, sometimes, at the unlikeliest times. There is no time limit, no boundary on joy or beauty or love or hope, no matter what the circumstances might try to tell us.

In Job, I read that God who began the world is keeping it together, that our very lives are a gift and we don’t have to fear loss. In other books of the Old Testament I read that God makes living water flow where only deserts persist. He feeds and fills and pursues and protects, all in the name of love.

And when I can’t see what He’s up to, He gives me just a hint.

See that, there. I’m breaking through. Don’t give up. Don’t despair.

So, I look for it, the glimpses of God breaking through. The beauty in the broken. The hope hanging on when fear is all around.

Are you looking for it, too?