Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Garden Hose Living

Today I told the story I teach that both haunts and refreshes me. In Andre Dubus' short story, The Doctor, we read the tale of a doctor who comes upon a boy who has fallen off a stone bridge into a shallow creek. 

As he falls, a stone slab from the bridge's guardrail falls on top of the boy and pins him down under just a few inches of water.

The doctor runs to him to try and lift the stone, but he cannot. He races up to the house beside the bridge and seeks the help of a woman who calls the fire department. It eventually takes four firemen, the doctor, and the woman to lift the stone.

But it's too late. The boys drowns in only a few inches of water. 

The doctor can't believe what has happened. Only later does he remember that by the house sat a garden hose. He cuts a few inches off the hose and holds it to his mouth. He can breathe through it. Had he offered it to the drowning boy, he would have lived.

I teach the story because it's about asking the wrong question and misinterpreting our circumstances. The boy's problem wasn't the stone slab; his problem was that he couldn't breathe. The best question wasn't, "How can I get the weight off of this boy?" The right question was, "How can this boy breathe?"

We look at our lives, and we ask the wrong question. Instead of working so hard to get out from under our circumstances, our first question should be, "How can I connect with Jesus here? How can I breathe in what I need of His power and presence, even if this weight of suffering remains?"

Our circumstances aren't the ultimate problem. It's that we need Jesus here. 

Here's the full text of the original story published in 1969:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Training the Heart for 2015

This morning I reread something I need to remember every day. It's from a September 2012 post that has helped shape the last three years of my life. 


I read this morning a quote from Hannah Whitall Smith. She argues that "the soul who gives thanks can find comfort in everything; the soul who complains can find comfort in nothing."

I realize the truth of it, especially when she later writes this bold statement:

"There can be nothing in our lives that lacks in it somewhere a cause for thanksgiving, and no matter who or what may be the channel to convey it, everything contains for us a hidden blessing from God." 

How different my days could be if I only believed that every moment has within it a cause for thanksgiving and a hidden blessing from God! 

Training the heart towards such truth--remembering it each and every day--changes everything.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Oh, Do Tell

This morning I notice all the verbs in Psalm 145 that encourage talking. Hallelujah! You know me: I have "high articulation needs." I love to talk and write all day long.

In just 5 verses in the middle of the Psalm, we read about commending God to others. We're encouraged to tell, speak, proclaim, celebrate, and joyfully sing about God. 

In case we don't get the point, the psalmist performs a seriously redundant refrain. He ends by saying again, "My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord."

It's almost comical. It's like David says, "Y'all! Talk about God! With your mouth! I mean it! Open your mouth and say something!"

Open your mouth and declare. But what? David reiterates this too: recount God's awesome works, mighty acts, abundant goodness, and righteousness. 

So if you're wondering what to tell us about, you know.

Do tell! Open your mouth and say it. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Willing to Do Little Things

D. L. Moody said this: "There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us are willing to do little things."

I want to be willing to do small, unseen things. God is just as powerful and present in the little, ordinary act of obedience. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Still the Same God

Today I remember the great words spoken by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego when Nebuchadnezzar was about to throw them into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow down to the image of the golden god.

In Daniel 3:16-18, we read the famous lines: "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, 'King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up'.”

But even if he does not. . .  

I've been thinking so much about proclaiming the goodness of God and His immutable character traits that cannot be defined or explained in light of our circumstances. Immutable, if you remember, means unchanging and unable to be changed. When I evaluate God's character by whether or not He behaves in the ways I'm hoping or expect, I fall into dangerous ways of thinking. God is good and right at all times, so far above my understanding of what's happening around me. 

Sometimes life offers great opportunities to practice this truth. God is still the God we worship and serve at all times, whether He does what we want or not. 

Finally, I love how the three friends say, "We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter." I like that we don't have to make a defense of our circumstances to anyone. We don't need to interpret them or explain them. God is able to do this or that, but even if He does not, He's still the same God. I will trust Him and bow down to Him alone.

Friday, December 26, 2014

With Your Face to the Enemy

Today I recall the letter that Isaac E. Avery wrote to his father when Avery lost his life in the Battle of Gettysburg. As Avery lay dying, he wrote--in his own blood--a letter to his father that said, "Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy."

Tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.

In fact, I learn that Avery was the closest man to enemy lines that afternoon in Gettysburg. People often quote this letter to illustrate courage and strength and a willingness to sacrifice. Avery didn't turn away from the enemy, and he didn't run. He died with his face to the enemy, and that's what he needed his father to know. That was the most important thing.

As I think about the close of the Christmas season and the beginning of a New Year, I think about courage. I think about facing every battle, both internal and external, with a new resolve. God strengthens and empowers, so we do not fear. God has overcome, so we do not fear. God has ordained our circumstances, so we do no fear.

We can advance with our face to the enemy and no longer retreat into a lesser kind of living. We move forward without fear.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas (and a Prayer)

I love receiving my daily email from "Prayers Over Our Children."  You can add yourself to the mailing list and enrich your own prayer life. I love how the site encourages us to prayer these biblical prayers for children all over the world, I often prayer these prayers for myself.

Today's prayer for children involves their creativity, empowerment, and connections to the right people. Click here to enjoy today's prayer.

My personal prayer for our family today is from Psalm 51:10-13

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 
Do not cast me from your presence 
or take your Holy Spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you. 

I pray that family members enjoy a clean heart, a steadfast spirit, the joy of salvation, a willing spirit, and a teacher's heart that leads others to truth.

Have a very merry Christmas day!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in Thee tonight."

For the past few days, I've thought about the Christmas carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," written by Phillips Brooks and set to music by Lewis Redner. I love the line, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."

All of our hopes--everything we've ever longed for or will long for--appears in Christ, the Everlasting Light. I think of C.S. Lewis' often quoted line that in Christ, the "door we've been knocking on all our lives will open at last."

It's not just what we have hoped for; our fears come together and find resolution and peace in the Incarnation. We have nothing more to hope for; we have nothing more to fear.

It all comes about on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

All the Christmas Joys

I go back and reread my blogs from this very day for the last few years. In 2010, I wrote about giving yourself the gift of novelty. In 2011, it was about the wonder of pop-up books. In 2012? All about sledding. The next year, I thought about my favorite traditions on Christmas. 

Today, I think about how thankful I am just to relax with family without needing to impress anyone. When you know you are deeply loved and deeply secure, you stop trying to impress. You get in your pajamas, take a bubble bath, and plan out the Christmas movies for the evening. The family never wanted picture-perfect; they wanted you, in your pajamas, relaxing.

Sure, everything happened that was supposed to happen, but it happened without the motivation of impressing. I can't explain the change other than to say I finally learned that nobody really cares if your peppermint bark layers detach en route to the teachers, if your Christmas Tree Rice Krispie Treats ooze butter and marshmallows because you added the wrong amounts, or if you forget to vacuum before the neighbors pop in.

Nobody cares if your present-wrapping absolutely stinks. People want what's inside anyway.

People want you, relaxing, without needing to impress.

Then, you find you really can experience all the Christmas joys.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rude, Rude Drivers

With all this holiday shopping traffic, I find myself annoyed and impatient. I'm in a parking lot, trying to exit, and all lanes contain lines of crammed cars with their brake lights flashing and their horns blaring.

I feel like I'm in the clogged arteries of the city rather than in this small town.

Picture this: It's my turn to turn onto the main road (after waiting 15 minutes at a stand-still), but another line of traffic from another parking lot keeps merging in front of me. I feel helpless and angry. It's my turn! I've been waiting!

Then, out of the blue, a fancy little black car jets up around me, steals my place in line, and forces itself out into traffic ahead of me, taking my spot! The nerve! The audacity! The sheer presumption!

Inside the car, a smartly dressed couple smugly stares ahead, so satisfied with their line-cutting. I'm sure they have a fabulous party to attend. I'm sure they must think they are so special. I shake my head and frown. How dare they?

As I fume, I find that something so strange happens. The other cars, equally shocked at the audacity of the little car, stop. It's like the Red Sea has parted. Nobody moves. People remember their manners and let our line of cars through.

Taking advantage of this momentary stall, I smoothly drive into the rude drivers'  spacious wake. In fact, I follow them out of traffic into the quiet of my neighborhood. When they turn, I turn. When they push ahead, I follow.

Their ill-mannered and impolite treatment of me actually paves the way for me. Besides, maybe I was too cautious. Maybe someone had to teach me how to assert myself a bit.

I smile and find myself admiring this brave little couple.

I remember that in every inconvenient thing, and even in every rude treatment, a special blessing hides. There's something to learn and some path to follow, even when we lose our turn.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Half Made Whole

I love cutting snowflakes from paper, making doll chains, or any kind of paper cutting crafts. Ever since I was a little girl, I loved the concept of these half-shapes that turned into something glorious once unfolded. I'd cut half-stars, half-hearts, half-diamonds, and even half-swans. I'd cut jagged icicles, triangles, and squares, but only in part. The laws of symmetry took over after that.

No matter how much I tried to build the finished product in my mind, nothing could prepare me for that unfolding. It was always true: what I cut featured exact correspondences on the other side of the fold. Reflectional symmetry captivated me ever since.

I often remember a grade-school art project when we painted half the page, right up to a crisp fold. The teacher folded the other half on top of our paint, and we had a mirror image of our work when she unfolded it.

Something about this activity tapped into something important--some law--that made me so happy. I couldn't explain it, but I knew that God designed the world with symmetry in all things. Most everything I saw could be folded in half with one side matching the other.

Even then, I knew that every half could be made whole.

As I cut my snowflakes, I think of how one half-action here echoes fully into eternity. I think of how confusing cuts into my life will open up into something full and beautiful at the unfolding of time. I live in halves.

I know it part, but one day I will know in full. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that we know in part; we prophesy in part; we see only a reflection. But one day, we shall really see. One day, we shall fully know. It will all unfold in a glorious display.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Nothing But Yes

My nearly teenager announces that she wants to redesign her room. (She merely wants all the furniture in a different location, so this costs me nothing.) As she's broadcasting her plans to destroy my carefully balanced layout of her beautiful room (there's even an accent wall of dark green), I remember a wise comment by a great mother that the secret of parenting teens is to "say yes as much as possible." She advised me that "saying yes as much as possible" builds a great rapport between mothers and daughters.

I think that the "no" really matters and means something when it's not overused.

I say, "Yes! Of course!" I hide all my interior warnings of accent walls, poor lighting, and symmetry.

So I stand there in the bedroom as the tornado of furniture, clothing, and bedding flies about. I'm there to help; I offer no commentary except supportive statements. I give her full artistic control.

This nearly does me in.

To contain my controlling tendencies, I vacuum three years worth of dust under her bedside tables that I never thought to move. Maybe I don't have everything in order, after all. The dust stares me down, mocking.

Meanwhile, she's taking over. She's dominating her space as she should. She's got full artistic control, as she should. As she should.

It's a breakthrough. This is her space; this is her life. When it's all over, she calls the whole family in to see her work. She feels so good in her new space, and I feel so good that I didn't disempower her.

Maybe she'll remember the day her otherwise controlling mother (who's changing by God's power) stood in the center of her teenage tornado and said nothing but Yes!

Friday, December 19, 2014

What She Wants to Be When She Grows Up: More Wisdom From Children

A new young 4th grader comes to visit us yesterday, and as I'm getting to know her, I ask all the usual questions. We talk about hobbies she enjoys and music she loves, but then we start talking about talents and dreams. I ask, "So what do you want to be when you grow up?"

I'm remembering all the standard answers that have everything to do with importance, money, or fame. I think about the other categories of dreams I hear about that always launch the child into a life of excitement and adventure.

But this little one tilts her head up, closes her eyes in thought, and finally says, "A great friend." She slips off the counter stool and goes on her merry way.

When she grows up, she knows she'll really be something if she's a great friend. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Bizarre Spiritual Analogy

I'm cutting a red onion for a Greek salad, and my eyes burn like never before. I'm experiencing the sulfuric gas that creates a mild acid in my eyes. Chopping onions offers this unfortunate side effect that cooks do unusual things to avoid.

I've heard everything from chopping onions underwater to whistling so you direct the airflow away from your face. Some people freeze the onions first. Others chop onions near a steaming pot of hot water. Still others wear goggles.

If you want those onion slices, you need to deal with what comes with their use.

I know it's probably the strangest comparison I've made in years, but I stood by my sink and thought of the unfortunate side effects that come when I'm used in some way.

When publishers call (Which they have!) or book sales keep on the rise (Which they are! Thank you!), I immediately feel the old temptations of self-importance and the allure of influence. I'm chopping that onion, and what rises up from its use burns. It doesn't bless.

It's not pleasing. It's not good.

I think of the pleasing aroma that rises up to God with every sacrifice in scripture. I want my life and work to rise up like a pleasing aroma to God. As the onion's gasses rise, I think about what it takes to transform them and manage them. Most experts use water to subdue those gases. They drench the onion in it. They submerge the onion it. They intercept every rising gas with it with.

Oh, the Living Water that takes whatever I offer and subdues the negative side effects that come, aided by the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are onions to be drenched in God's word, submerged deeply into a life of confession and repentance, and intercepted with every use by God's glory and not our own.

Otherwise, what we offer the world--what rises up from our life's work--burns more than it blesses.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Strange Way to Refresh Yourself

We've been talking about generosity around here lately. The word generous means to give more than what is expected or required.

I repeat: More than what is expected or required. 

I tend to give what's necessary or expected--not what's lavish or excessive. But so many times in scripture, we're counseled to give generously.

This kind of teaching exhausts me on days when I already feel like I have nothing left to give anyone.

Yet, I'm reminded of this gem of a Bible verse that reorients me (and brings joy!) during this last week before Christmas. It's in Proverbs 12:25:

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will himself be refreshed. 

I think about refreshing others through whatever God has given me to give--whether time, money, talents, or material goods. Then, I find I'm even more refreshed.

Can it be true? How amazing! This upside-down, counter-intuitive principle tells me to give more when I need refreshment.

But I want to rest! I want to hide away! I want to keep my time for me! I want a spa day!

I know the truth today; whoever refreshes others will himself be refreshed.

I'm putting it to the test, and I find it's true. Praise God that it's true.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sadness in the World

As I read about the school children killed in Pakistan, I don't know how to handle it. It's a reality too horrific to understand.

I go about my ordinary day and feel the cold rain on my face as I walk children to school. I return to clean the bathroom and think of the people in the world who wish for just one ordinary day when nothing terrible happens, when nobody dies and nobody is hurt. I shop at the grocery store and choose crisp apples for my cart. I greet excited children after school who gather about me and organize play dates. I wipe down a counter. I brush my hair. I listen to a daughter play piano.

This is an ordinary day.

Everything suddenly seems so precious, too precious to really understand: this peaceful neighborhood, these school children, this warm home with lazy cats beside me.

The apple I eat seems too good to be true--too privileged--in light of the horrors all over the world.

So many people are suffering today. Oh, Lord, help us. Help us now. We need you. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Expressing Love Through Food Isn't Always the Best

This week, I've been reminding myself that I don't need to express my love to people through food all the time.

But I do! I always do! What do you need? Buttery cookies, rich peppermint bark, buttermilk fried chicken, elaborate mugs of hot cocoa, yeast rolls carefully risen, or a thick oniony roast? What might bless you? Dumplings, lemon bars, Irish cheese, a flaky pot pie?

I wake up thinking of ways to love my family and neighbors through food.

My great friend and walking partner tells me recently that she's noticed that I prefer to express love through food. I hadn't thought of it like this. And I know that's not always the best expression of love, especially as we try to gain health in my family. Moms can do so many other things to express love that have nothing to do with food.

As I gain fitness and shed extra weight, I'm thinking about food and love differently.

Did my children feel less loved when the after school treat was a game or a snowflake cutting craft? Did they feel less loved by a long conversation on the couch? Did they notice that the once decadent after-school snack platter was oranges and red pepper? I can find some healthier alternatives to sugar and butter. Will they care?

No. Nobody complained. I want to break the symbolic connection that food means love.

Love doesn't always have to be food.

But when there's a need, and someone's hungry, I'll bring it. In the meantime, I can love you in a million other ways.

(Once I asked my daughters what communicated the most love to them from me. Was it chocolate cake? Presents? Clothing? No. My youngest said she loved it when I talked to her while she was in the bubble bath.)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fan It

Today I encounter the great verse from 2 Timothy 1:6 where Paul advises Timothy to "fan into flame" his spiritual gifts. Some translations say "kindle afresh" or "stir up" those gifts.

As I think about this idea of fanning your special gifts into flame, I recall what it takes to get a fire really going and why one must "fan" a fire.

The system needs oxygen--lots of it--from the air until the fire is strong enough to take the oxygen from the air itself. When you fan a flame, you're helping this process. It's an intentional action designed to help a flame survive. Then, nothing can stop it. At some point, it's been fed enough; it takes off in a great, sustained blaze.

I wonder how Timothy might have intentionally fanned into flame his gifting. I think about ways we might enlarge and sustain our own gifting, whether by practice, study, prayer, more exposure, or more intentional use. It's convicting and challenging to ask whether we're intentionally fanning into flame the gifts God has given us.

I don't want to waste my gifting. I don't want to flicker and fade, snuffed out by discouragement, apathy, or fear.

But then I think about myself as someone who might help fan into flame the gifts of other people who have a flickering flame. I think about naming spiritual gifts in others, encouraging their use, providing public opportunities for them, and praying for their full development. Let me kindle something afresh in someone else.

You keep feeding the tiny flame. You fan and fan until, one day, the whole thing blazes up in an unstoppable display of God's glory.

I'm walking about this life, fanning into flame what I see of God in you and me.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Decompression Times

I'm reading a student essay on deep sea diving, and I'm fascinated by the dangers of this activity. In particular, I read about the dangers of a fast ascent from certain depths. I've heard about decompression sickness, or "the bends," before, but I didn't realize how carefully managed a diver's ascent must be to prevent gas bubbles forming in the body.

One simply can't rise that quickly; the body can't handle it.

Instead, skilled and safe divers learn how to make decompression stops. They literally stay in place at certain depths until the body fully acclimates there. Then, they move upward at a very slow pace. There's a science to it all, an algorithm, that tells a diver when to stop and for how long.

It protects and saves. It's absolutely vital.

I imagine that diver on his way up. I imagine how annoying it must be to stop and wait when the destination looms just ahead.

When I think about my lofty dreams that seem to come about at a very slow pace, I feel the gentle reminder that certain seasons of holding patterns, of strange pauses, of paralysis, and of stagnation, might just be those essential decompression stops. God knows that quick rises to any kind of fruitful destination aren't always good for the soul. Instead, I'm in a carefully managed decompression plan.

A slow and steady life, full of pauses and gentle rises, offers the kind of decompression we need.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Holiday Assignment: Go Nurture the Nurturer!

I have a new favorite verb: nurture. It derives from the Latin words meaning to cherish and feed. 

Last night, I see my great friend at a concert, and she looks absolutely radiant. She's a completely different woman from the one I experienced earlier in the week. Just two days ago, she was stressed out, exhausted, and so overwhelmed that her whole being showed it.

But not this night.

She tells me that something happened that changed everything. It was a small thing, really.

Just this: Her husband packed her lunch, brought her coffee, and delivered Christmas donuts to her office.

This few minutes of nurturing her--cherishing her and feeding her--soothed everything. She found renewed energy and encouragement.

All night, I think about how, during the holidays, caregivers spend all day long nurturing everyone else around them. They experience stress, fatigue, and discouragement. But when someone nurtures them, even in small ways, the load lightens.

Someone needs to nurture the nurturer. I'm thinking about this as I walk around town. Is there a way I can nurture a nurturer I know, especially during this special season?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Never Like This Again

I say good-bye to another class of freshmen today. I'm always overwhelmed with the thought that never again will we all be together like this, in this way. But for this year, in this time of their lives, we were.

Oh, we were!

I ask each one what they'll take from the class, and it's two things most of all: friendship and vivid verbs. Some have rediscovered a love of writing and analysis. Others have learned the power of the gentle semicolon.

I have learned how much I love people. Writing just connects me to them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Second Guessing

I've been thinking about confidence lately. A student hands me a paper and says, "You are going to love this. This is an A paper." 

He's beaming. He's standing tall. He's not coming off as arrogant or presumptuous either; he speaks like he's stating a simple fact. 

And I get the strangest feeling that he's so proud of himself that the grade I give the work wouldn't diminish his joy. 

Oh, that we all had that confidence! In my nearly 15 years of teaching, I rarely see this kind of confidence. Instead, I see much second-guessing. Students ask what I think, but they often can't tell me what they think about their own work. 

I want to help students (and my children) grow in confidence and joy in their work--on their own terms. Part of growing up means we don't always need to ask someone else if this thing we've created is good, beautiful, or worthy. We know it is, and that's part of the process. 

I suppose this means providing students with an accurate way to evaluate their work. I suppose this means educators somehow help students internalize the means to self-evaluate. 

I'm hoping that more and more I might ask students, "Do you think it's good?", and they'll have an answer. And this answer will hold tight with joy no matter what another person says. 

And yes, I still dislike grading (as you might have guessed). 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Would He Give Him a Stone?

I read in Matthew 7:7-11 something so beautiful to remember:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!" 

I think of the "good gifts" of the Father, and I'm struck by the realization that I often interpret His good gifts as stones or snakes.

God brings something to me, but I only feel the heavy weight of a stone.

But what comes into my life, because of the sovereign love of God--His ultimate goodness--represents a good gift. I think of the times I've prayed when God seems to send something so far from a good gift. He often sends what I feel like are the snakes and stones of difficulty or disappointment.

But God gives good gifts, not snakes and stones.

So I ask Him to give me that eye of faith to see what's in my hand as a gift, not a heavy stone.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Rare and Beautiful Treasure

In Proverbs 24: 3-4, we read that "through wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures."

We host a big Christmas party for all the graduate students last night. So many of them come to find me in the kitchen. They say, "Thank you for opening your home to us!" I remember how, years ago, I worried about my old carpets, my outdated and damaged furniture, and my mismatched plates. I wanted a beautiful home, filled with all kinds of beautiful things. I wanted treasures.

But last night, with all the people filling my living room and caroling, I remember that the "rare and beautiful treasures" are people. People filled every room, and they were more precious than all the gold in the world.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Never Once Moved

I go out for a walk alone, and I notice the bright winter sun. It's so strange how I strain for that sunshine on my face as if the sun is the one who moved away. It never moved; it stays there, fixed, and I obit around it. My perception of its warmth changes each season, but it has never once moved.

In these changing seasons, I remember that God's love is a fixed reality. It never moves, even if it feels like it's moving far away from me. God never moves away; His love never dims. In some seasons, I must strain more, turn my face more sharply to it, and chase it down because I'm the one who has moved.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

They Remember It Differently

Today, we start making Christmas cookies. I've written in years past all about the explosion of sprinkles and various motherhood lessons along the way. I've written about how I can measure my daughter's growth and maturity based on how well the baking and decorating goes.

So it all begins again today: the butter, the sugar, the icing, and the flour. This time, I have eager helpers who last exactly three minutes before they get into some other activity. At the kitchen table, one draws while the other crochets. They play dolls for a bit and then watch a Christmas show.

We're all singing along to music.

Behind the counter, I'm covered in sprinkles. Frosting drips from my hair.

"I love making Christmas cookies," they say. But they aren't making the cookies; I am. For the first time, they aren't with me in the same way. They are with me, but not with me.

Oh, they grow. They grow up and away, and this is right and good.

Christmas Cookie Day, I realize, is no longer about cookies. It's a symbol, a nostalgic representation for them.

"I love making Christmas cookies," they say again. I'm looking at these no-longer-little girls and understanding my new parenting roll. I will roll out a thousand more cookies each year, and they will be with me but not with me.

They'll remember this day and all the fun we had together making cookies. They loved this day, and I did, too. I'll just remember it a little differently.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Little Crack of Light

With all those student stories thick in my mind, I leave my house for a doctor's appointment. I want to interact with nobody. It's that kind of morning, and as an extrovert, you know it means something if I don't want to talk. I give off all the signals: glasses on, sweatpants, hair in a ponytail, no makeup. I'm serious; I'm in no mood to converse. Besides, I find there's a People Magazine in the waiting room, and I can't resist celebrity gossip.

An office assistant asks me how my Thanksgiving was. I say, "Fine." I cross my legs and bury my face into pictures of Taylor Swift and Katie Holmes. To be polite, I say, "How was your holiday?" But I'm not looking at her. I'm not paying any attention.

"Well. . ." she begins. But I know she can read the signals. She doesn't continue. She turns back to her desk work, and I read an entire article about how Katie Holmes has rebuilt her life. I'm really into her story, but the whole time, I'm nagged by the thought of that office assistant wanting to tell me something. I ignore the prompt and read about more celebrities. Finally, I obey.

"I finished reading all my celebrity gossip," I laugh as she looks up. "Now I can talk! Tell me all about your holiday."

And so she begins, slowly at first. Something terrible has happened to her family, and it wasn't a holiday at all. She tells her story, and I acknowledge every single searing sentence.

I'm called back for my appointment. The whole time, I'm thinking about what words I might say and how I might comfort her. When I finally return to the waiting area, I tell her again how sorry I am about what's happening in her life. And then I remember what my friend said helped her when she was in the pit of grieving and anger. A wise mentor said to look for "holy moments" throughout the day--little signs of God's grace and presence. That's all you can do. You sit there in your pain and all you can do is look up and see a tiny little crack into something holy. 

Before I can utter the words, the assistant says, "I'm haunted by pain every single day."

So I say, "I don't know anything to say except that a friend of mine said something about holy moments." I mumble and stumble and feel awkward. I talk about God's love and say all the wrong things. It's ridiculous. I should have just. . . I don't know. Why do people like me feel like they need to give advice? Hurting people don't want advice.

But she smiles and nods an eager Yes! "Yes!" she says. "Yes! That's exactly right." Her eyes are shining. Some darkness has lightened inside of her.

And me.

We stand there, looking at each other, and I realize I'm in a holy moment right now. There's a little crack of light.

And in that space, I remember again to listen to the stories of people--even strangers--around me. It's a holy place.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Once You Know Their Story

They arrive with their stories--at least the beginnings of them. They can write anything at all for this memoir assignment, any single event from their lives. We talk about all the technicalities: vivid verbs and adjectives to set a mood, precise characterization, sensory detail, and dialogue. We talk about pace. We talk about offering that delayed revelation that provides insight to the reader. And, as always, we talk about creating mystery and tension to keep the reader engaged.

I write on the board how mystery forms from life's unanswered questions, objects that hold symbolic meaning yet revealed, confusion, or a problem that needs resolution.

I write those words like they are simple and easy, like they are as pure as the white chalk that forms them. In reality, words relating to our stories hold entire murky systems of pain and loss and joy and beauty and sorrow.

As I teach students to juggle all of these strategies to tell a good story, I feel like a detached surgeon instructing students to cut into their own hearts. I stand there with the chalk, but when I pull back, I see their own precious stories. I look at their faces and their hesitant fingers that begin to write. I look at the smiles or the trembling chins.

The story they hold inside is no small, easy thing.

Each soul is so infinitely precious. Each one. It doesn't matter where they've been, who never loved them, what kind of money their parents make, the color of their skin, the grades they made in high school, or what kind of covering they wear on their heads. If you sit someone down across from you--that "other person"--and hear that story, you'll love that person so much your heart will hurt.

And then you'll want to tell, and listen to, all the stories you can.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Giving Folks Honest Feedback

It's that time of the semester when students come to me in tears about their grades. They realize it's too late; no amount of begging or remorse changes the reality of the grade. 

I loathe grading. It's my least favorite part of my job. Yes, it's time consuming, tedious, and repetitive, but that's not the reason why I dislike it so much. I dislike it because I love the students so much that I'm rooting for them to succeed. I want them all to shine. I want God's mercy and grace to flow through me, but those terrible grades seem like some kind of punishment. I know this isn't true, but still, it feels this way. I cry out to them, "Don't worry about this grade! You are great! You are loved! You can do it!" Handing back papers exhausts me.

One time, I handed a student her C paper with tears forming in my eyes. She tried so hard, but she missed the mark. She slowly said, "I think you are more upset about this grade than I am." It was true.

Over the years, however, I've realized the importance of giving honest, clear feedback--even if it's painful and uncomfortable. It's not harmful to students to know the truth; sometimes I'm just too worried about protecting students' emotions. This is ridiculous. Saving people from honest feedback, even if it's difficult for them, doesn't help them at all. I'm learning this.

Saving people from their mistakes, even if it means they lose scholarships, doesn't serve them. It's not always loving to save people from their mistakes.

I'm learning to let people cry and experience all sorts of distress because of my feedback. It's the only way to grow. It's the only way to learn that their inherent beauty and value have nothing to do with performance anyway. If I didn't tell them the truth, I'd rob them of experiencing what only a bad grade can teach them.

I'm glad I gave myself this little grading pep talk before I hand back the next set of papers.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Go Forth!

This morning I remember Isaiah 55:12:

"You will go out in joy 
and be led forth in peace; 
the mountains and the hills 
will burst into song before you
and all the trees of the fields 
will clap their hands." 

Some days I feel like this; the whole world bursts into song. I see signs and symbols--in the mountains and the trees, the icy winter sky and the snowflakes-- that a great God has touched this creation, leaving traces of His nature. I go out with joy in my heart and feel led forth in peace on these kinds of days.

On these days, I remember my status as a child of God, seated securely. I remember that God pronounces peace and joy over me. I begin with the truth of it and let it burst over me, clapping till I'm giving it my full attention.

I go forth into it.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Special Delivery

My daughter badly fractured her big toe! A plate fell on it. It's so painful! It will heal in time, but no walking to school or any kind of fun winter activity. 

When my Wise Big Sister hears the news, she places an order with Insomnia Cookies for an immediate delivery of fresh-baked cookies (delivered right to the door in a box--warm and gooey).

My sister lives so far away, but whenever she hears that one of her nieces needs anything, she sets up some kind of special delivery.

When your holiday feels ruined by a fractured toe, a delivery of homemade cookies soothes the soul. You feel special and chosen and loved and seen. 

I'm thankful for doctors, sisters, cookies, and daughters who feel loved by them all. My daughter says through her tears, "God really does care about my toe."

And if the evidence of that care comes in the form of warm white chocolate cranberry cookies, we'll take it.