an odd both/and: gratitude/grief

It started Thanksgiving 2012. My parents-in-law’s best friend was dying; he died, too soon, shortly thereafter. My father was diagnosed with cancer on my birthday. My daughter had a mysterious hand infection that puffed her hand way out no matter what medication we gave her, and we wound up in the E.R. for overnight antibiotics, while one of my dear friends was in the hospital next door struggling for breath. She died a month later, way, way, way too soon. And that was only early January.

There were 3 more E.R. visits for my daughter. Two back surgeries and resulting recovery times before my father could get treatment for his cancer. Both are doing well now, but there was persistent worry in a corner of my mind all year.

There was complete lack of movement in getting my David and Saul novel closer to being published: no requests for a full manuscript from any agent I queried. None. No professional interest in the picture book project I’m working on with a friend. I was turned down for a job I would’ve been really good at. I didn’t get enough volunteers for a church thing, so had to scrap some plans that would’ve been good for the kids. I’ve never been rejected so many times for so many things in my life.

My children each had struggles where they haven’t before, some of which are ongoing. My husband’s heavy work schedule continues to wear us down. I’ve read maybe half the number of books I normally do; after my friend died, I just didn’t have the urge. Insomnia. Anxiety. As the year went on, my hermit tendencies have become even more entrenched.

But this has also been a great year.

When you’ve cried with people, and you’ve shared grief, you’re closer to them, so I’m closer to a lot more people than I was a year ago, even some I’ve known for a long time. We made some real friends at the new church. I’ve given some good encouragement to dear friends. I got through the Old Testament in my devotional reading (finally!) and done some good struggling with and resting in God’s promises. My faith is deeper than it was a year ago.

My children have had also triumphed, and I’ve gotten to stand up and cheer for them. My husband is doing really good work, both for pay and for fun — and he’s writing songs again! I’m taking a dance class again. A class for which I will get to perform in a recital (a phrase that makes me giggle).

The fine folks at One Faith Many Faces gave me paid work and thought enough of my writing here to want to rerun it on their site. I went to a small writer’s retreat, where I met some fine writers, reconnected with an old friend, and got some much-needed encouragement. There has been some other paid work, some guest posts on other blogs (on prayer and dance), and some wonderful conversations here. I am grateful for every person who’s read my writing — that means you. Thank you.

I’m grateful, but also deeply frustrated and sad, often about the same things. So I wrote something about Thanksgiving for my friends at One Faith Many Faces (they’re the ones who gave the post it’s awesome title) that I needed to hear — something all of us who are feeling both gratitude and grief this year.

Some years, you’re so full of gratitude that it seeps out of your pores and suffuses everything you do.

Other years, the idea of spouting words of gratitude seems so wrong as to almost feel offensive.

Sometimes, those are the same year.

A tough year can bring out your gratitude to God for being with you through it all – but lurking behind every item of thanksgiving is a great big but. The Psalmist knows what that’s like:

Please continue here to read the rest of Thanksgiving is a great big but.



an unexpected overcoming

On Monday, I saw a friend in the parking lot at Meijer and in the course of chatting, I started crying. There in the parking lot, with all the people doing their errands streaming past me, I couldn’t pretend I was handling it all anymore.

Now, nobody I love is dying (although people I love have cancer). My husband is still employed. I’ve even got work for which I’ll get paid. Eventually. I won’t even say the thing I was going to say, something about not missing the E.R., but that would be tempting fate, so I won’t.

But in every area of my life that is important to me — kids, marriage, writing, finances, church work — I’m overwhelmed by failure and fear. And fear of failure. Things that I thought would be manageable, became huge, looming problems that won’t untangle themselves quickly or easily. Things I thought were positive have taken their pound of flesh instead, but not surgically, more like the flesh-eating bacteria kind of thing where the wound must remain open for a long time. Issues I thought we were past…. You get the idea.

My throat on fire barely registered, because at least it was understandable.

I’ve been waking in the middle of the night, heart pounding and unable to fall back asleep, which certainly doesn’t help me deal with any of this more rationally. I’ve spent my days trying to convince myself, “These symptoms of stress are helping me. Body, thank you for preparing me to deal with these challenges,” after hearing this great TED talk on how to make stress my friend. But that never helped for long.

And I’ve prayed. Oh, how I’ve prayed. Mostly that most basic of prayers: Help. No specifics. Just, Help. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have the imagination to see how this will get any better. Help.

On top of that I’m in the thick of the prophets in my Bible reading. All that doom and gloom and punishment and exile and “you brought this on yourselves.” Even though most books are tempered by a little bit of “on that day when the Lord thinks you’ve had enough punishment and he restores you, everything will be perfect and amazing,” it’s not exactly the most uplifting reading I could be doing.

Yesterday morning, I read this from Hezekiah 3:16-17 (NLT):

“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God has arrived to live among you. He is a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with great gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will exult over you by singing a happy song.”

Did I sigh with relief? Did I hand over all my fears to God? Nope.

I liked the bit about rejoicing and exulting over us. How great is it that we can made God so happy that he can’t help singing?

But God’s love calming all my fears? All my fears? Even those ones that have nothing to do with my behavior but with other peoples’? How does that work? I may have even added a tweenish, “I don’t think so.” And a curmudgeonly, “Hmph.”

That same day, I had a kid home sick, which I responded to the night before (when I saw the writing on the wall) by yelling at her. Classy.

This school year has my head spinning, trying to keep track of two kids in two different schools with entirely different academic calendars. In the 7 weeks I’ve had one or both kids in school, I’ve only had one 5-day stretch with both of them gone. Truth time: I love it when my kids go back to school. After a summer of togetherness and putting aside my plans so their plans can happen, I relish the fall. We always do better when we have a little time apart. But this year, I’m still scrambling, still trying to find purchase and focus.

Instead of resenting her, I embraced the kid at home. After all, we have the same symptoms, so I knew exactly how she felt.

(My selfish “somebody give me a medal for that” side wants me to add that I managed to make breakfast and lunches and pick up kids from school and sit and cheer at a soccer game and do the dishes and give some lectures about my expectations regarding making up missing work on that same “first day of illness” that she sat on the couch and had a bath.)

I was warm and sympathetic. I scrubbed the tub for her.

Then the other child came home from school and practice. We had a good dinner all together, and then that child buckled down and got the missing work completed.

And I was flooded with love for my children. My husband was gone for bedtime, so I got to pray with both of them. By the end, I was overwhelmed with love and tenderness. To the point of tears. I’m still a little weepy about it.

This is not normal for me. I love them, yes, but I’m rarely swamped by it. They are, after all, 12 and 14. And I’m not a super-gushy mother.

Right before I went to bed, I remembered: “With his love, he will calm all your fears.”

Not one single issue was solved. But doggone it if love didn’t calm my fears. God wins again. And despite my skepticism, too.

All I’ve got to say to that is, Thank you.


Resistance is not a sign of Failure

I’m going to be a great artist here (as in Picasso’s, “Good artists copy, great artists steal). I’m going to steal from Steven Pressfield:

“Resistance is the shadow cast by [the Dream].

Resistance is the equal-and-opposite-reaction of nature to the New Thing that you and I are called to bring forth out of nothing.

There would be no Resistance without the Dream. The Dream comes first. Resistance follows.”


In particular, “Resistance is the shadow cast by the Dream.”

In Jungian theory (which I’m mostly familiar with through the novels of Robertson Davies), we all have a shadow-side; it’s part of being human. My shadow is all those aspects of my personality that I prefer not to consciously acknowledge, either because they’re negative, or they frighten me, or they conflict with ideas I have about how I should be. For Jung, your shadow can be negative and/or positive, all mixed-up. The goal is not to push down or deny the shadow, but to acknowledge it, and even to assimilate it. This means facing the negative aspects of yourself, and accepting that you have negative aspects, without allowing them to take over. You embrace all sides of yourself, thereby giving the negative less power to overtake you, and enabling you to better relate to the people around you (because you’re not denying or threatened by their shadows, either).

So having a shadow isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean you’re bad. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re human.

Resistance as the shadow of the Dream is revolutionary to me. On his Writing Wednesdays, Pressfield often writes about Resistance (that something inside us that will fight us when we pursue our creative dreams, taking the form of fear, insecurity, distraction, perfectionism, despair, whatever it takes to block us), and I’ve certainly felt it and succumbed to it and fought it.

That should be in present tense: I feel it, I succumb to it, I fight it.

Even though Pressfield and other writers about creativity, such as Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way), write about the omnipresence of Resistance, in a little corner of my mind, I thought that Resistance meant that I was a failure as a writer. That if I was only a better writer or had more of a professional attitude or a deeper vision for my work or more discipline or more creative freedom or a higher self-image, I wouldn’t be so plagued by Resistance at times.

But if Resistance is the Jungian-style shadow of the Dream, I cannot be rid of it and I shouldn’t want to be rid of it. It is part of having a Dream, of pursuing a vision. Instead of seeing the shadow as a sign of my failure, I can investigate the shadow, converse with it, see whether it has anything of value to tell me about myself or my Dream.

Even if I think of the Dream-shadow as being like a physical shadow, then it’s always there — except maybe during those high noon moments of the Dream, when I’m flush with inspiration and fully in the flow. Otherwise, as long as there’s sun (i.e. the Dream), I will cast a shadow.

Maybe acknowledging this will give Resistance less power over me. Over you, too.

Resistance doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It means that we have a Dream and that we’re pursuing it.

That makes me grin. And look forward to greeting my shadow with a, “Good morning. Nice to see you. I’m going to work now.”

How are you beating Resistance? Or succumbing to it?




My Minor “McKayla Maroney Is Not Impressed” Moment

I admit it. I enjoy the current meme of putting this image of McKayla Maroney on other photos. I wasn’t all that impressed with George Michael last night, either.

But I also have sympathy for her. Here she is, at the moment she expected to triumph, and that everyone else expected her to triumph, to cement herself as the best vaulter in women’s gymnastics, accepting second best. Of course, second best is pretty darn good. But still, it wasn’t how her story was supposed to end (words that always get us into trouble). And the only one she could be upset with was herself. She was the one who messed up. She’s only 16. It’s the rare teenager who could put a genuine smile on his or her face in that situation.

I was not a rare teenager, either. I was 14. It was at the end of my session at Circle Square Ranch, a Christian horse riding camp in Ontario. I’d spent most of the week in the mildest of romances with a boy — we sat next to each other whenever possible, maneuvered ourselves to be in the same groups, held sweaty little hands now and then. The only thing I remember about him, other than straight brown hair (think early Justin Bieber), was that at one of the evening chapels he sang the theme song of “M*A*S*H,” but changed to lyrics to be Christian in some way. My young heart pounded with love and admiration (now, it’d get an eye-roll).

Mild though the romance may have been, it was recognized and acknowledged by our fellow campers. It was a similar relationship to that of my 3rd grade boyfriend, who I broke up with when he kissed me on the stairs in front of everybody. This camp boy never tried to kiss me, although I may not have minded so much by then.

Circle Square Ranch had what I’m sure they thought of as a charming tradition, an end of the week “formal” dinner. It was required that boys and girls went as dates to this dinner. It was required that boys ask the girls and the girl must say “yes” to the first boy who requested her hand. You may sense where this is going. The right boy got to me five minutes too late. Other kids gasped when they heard about it, so I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a massive disappointment, a violation of how things should’ve gone.

Am I sounding too dramatic? Think back to when you were 14.

But it gets worse. The camp was shooting a promotional video of the dinner. I must’ve stayed for two weeks, because the next week, as a great treat, we got to watch the video. Seeing myself on film has always been galvanizing — the following August, on a family camping trip, my dad brought his newest gadget. He filmed me walking on the beach, from the side, with those grew-tall-too-early rounded shoulders, which I was able to see made me look heavier and depressed. You can thank this experience for my excellent posture.

Lessons learned from the camp video:

1. Do not hunch over my food.
2. Pouting like that only looks good on kids 3 and under.
3. Do not put so much mashed potato in my mouth at one time.
4. To be on the safe side, never allow a photo or video to be taken of me while eating.
5. I was choosing to be miserable — I could easily have chosen to have a fine time with the people at my table.

For the most part, I’ve managed to live by those lessons. This experience may even have been the beginning of my feminist leanings, because, really, the whole only-boys-may-ask-girls-who-must-say-yes was patriarchal and ridiculous, not to mention unnecessary at camp.

So thank you, Circle Square Ranch, for teaching me so many important things, although it was none of the things you intended. Also, just so they feel better, I still remember the memory verse: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.” Which I would now change to “in favor with God and with people.” Forget about making them feel better.


Anybody Else Need a Hand Slap?

No, I don’t mean a “you’ve been naughty” slap. Or a “stop that” slap. I’m talking about the practice of volleyball teams to slap hands with each other when a point doesn’t go their way. (Of course, nobody else finds it interesting, so I have no photo to go along with this.)

I have a hard time tearing myself away from Olympics coverage, which means I wind up seeing sports I’d never watched for any length of time before. I’ve been struck by how supportive volleyball teams are. After every point that goes their way, they huddle and clap each other on the back or shoulder. After points they lose, they make a point of going around to almost every player and slapping palms with them, as if saying, “alright, next one,” “we’re still good.” No matter what, they affirm that they are in it together.

It’s part of the rhythm of every point, with every team that I’ve seen.

Which makes me think about failure and disappointment in my life. I tend to make a big deal out of them. I stew about them for a while before I say anything, and when I do say something, I’m rather emotional (this may be an understatement). And then I mull it over afterwards. This takes a lot of time and way too much energy. Maybe that’s why the matter-of-fact hand slap looks so appealing: no emotion, no recrimination. Just an understanding that failure happens, it’ll happen to all of us, we have another chance to not fail in 30 seconds, meanwhile, I’m here for you.

I’m focusing here on those hundreds of little failures: anger and irritation flaming out, saying something that unintentionally hurts someone you care for, not doing something you say you’re going to do. I need to work on being more matter-of-fact about these. On giving myself or my loved ones the equivalent of a simple clap of palms together to acknowledge that this whatever didn’t work out the way we’d hoped, but we’re in it together, let’s get ready for the next thing.

There have been times I’ve done this well with the kids, when I’d send us all to our rooms without a big fuss when it was clear we weren’t working well together. But I didn’t do so well yesterday, when both my kids sprung sudden school activities on me that required outlays of money and time and which they’d never done before, so I let my irritation and anxiety get the better of me. Not horribly, and things will work out fine with both things, but I don’t like how I handled it. I need to give myself and the kids the hand slap and move on.

I might try to cultivate this for bigger things, too. As regular readers know, my family left our longtime church two months ago. It still makes me very emotional; I still cry during every church service we aren’t at our old church. It’s not a crime to cry in church, of course, but I’d like to stop being so actively sad so I can better get ready for the next thing. Because the next thing is upon me. We start at a new church soon, my husband in an official capacity, and I don’t want to give the new people the impression that I’m not happy to be there — because I am glad to be there, I’m still just sad about the other.

Do I need to work on the volleyball hand slap approach? Or is that impossible while I’m still grieving the place I left?

Let me throw in another analogy, just to keep things interesting. In my favorite summer TV show (other than the Olympics), So You Think You Can Dance, dancers are put in partnerships that last about half the season (unless one of them leaves the show and partnerships get shuffled). Some of those pairings have amazing chemistry from the beginning, some pairs have to work up to it. But then, when they reach the top 10, partnerships get switched every week, and every week they have to do their best with someone new. The winners are those who can make any partnership, any style of dance look good.

I had great and immediate chemistry with my prior church partner, but I can’t be with them anymore. I have a new partner. It isn’t the same as the old one, but it’s got its own style. It’ll do some things better, other things not as well. I need to give myself fully to this partnership, learn its strengths, and do everything I can to make this successful, which, in my terms, means that I serve God’s people and bring glory to God’s kingdom.

We’ll see on Sunday whether I managed to analogize myself out of crying.




Hearing Their Story

According to this great TED talk by Andrew Stanton (of Toy Story and WALL-E fame), Mr. Rogers carried this quote around in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love, once you’ve heard they story.”

In the last twenty years, readers have definitely grown to love all kinds of characters who’ve traditionally been villains: vampires, thieves, werewolves, etc. I certainly found this to be true while writing the first David and Saul book: writing Saul, the “villain,” the “failure” of the piece, made me more sympathetic to him. In the first book, anyway, I find him a more interesting character than the upright David. (David gets more interesting in the 2nd book, when he has to compromise his very high principles in order to survive.)

Saul “fought against his enemies in every direction — against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. And wherever he turned, he was victorious. He did great deeds and conquered the Amalekites, saving Israel from all those who had plundered them” (1 Sam. 14:47-48). Yet he’s remembered as a failure. The book of Chronicles (the point of which is to detail the reign of the kings of Israel) contains only the story of his death, nothing about the 42 years of his kingship.

The more I wrote in his point of view, the more compassion I felt for him. His main qualification for being king, other than God choosing him, was that he was tall, head and shoulders taller than everyone else. He seems to have been a good son and a hard-working farmer, but when he and his servant went out looking for some lost donkeys, the servant was the one who thought of seeking out a seer and who had silver to offer Samuel. After Samuel privately anointed Saul and told him the Lord was appointing him leader of all Israel, God had to change Saul’s heart (1 Sam. 10:9) to get him with the program.

Even after this and after all the signs Samuel predicted came true, after prophesying (and being made fun of for prophesying) and having the Spirit of God fill him, he didn’t tell his family what had really happened. The next time he’s anointed, it’s going to be at an official ceremony, but Saul hides in the baggage. And I don’t blame him. Who else gets to start his coronation by hearing how upset God is that the Israelites wanted a king, how God felt it was them rejecting him? Not exactly a rah-rah endorsement.

At first, Saul does the smart thing. “When Saul returned home to Gibeah, a band of men whose hearts God had touched became hi constant companions” (1 Sam. 10:29). There were some haters, but Saul ignored them. When there’s a threat to an Israelite town, he answers in dramatic fashion: cuts up the oxen he’s plowing his father’s field with and sends it around Israel as an incentive to get people to come and fight. They do. There’s a tremendous victory and another public ceremony to crown him king.

Depending on what the “then” in 1 Samuel 12:1 means, it could be that right after Samuel re-re-re-anoints Saul, Samuel gives a long speech detailing precisely what is wrong with the Israelites for the extreme offense of asking for a king. (Or it could take place at some unknown time later in Saul’s reign. Storytelling in the Old Testament is not necessarily linear.) Samuel gets the Lord to send thunder and rain and the people are terrified and cry out, “Pray to the Lord your God for us, or we will die!…For now we have added to our sins by asking for a king.”

No matter when the above scene happens, Saul is most likely standing right there. No matter what kind of character you bring to the situation, that’s a lousy position to be put in.

So I feel for the guy. He was given a job that he didn’t want, that he was unprepared for and that the people were unprepared for. No wonder he so often responded to situations out of fear and insecurity.

At the beginning of this post, I put quotes around “villain,” because I don’t think of Saul as a villain. I write him more as a foil for David because I have pity for him.

So the quote Mr. Rogers carried with him is true from the positive side, but also from the negative side. A couple of years ago, my book club read Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. It takes place in post-WWII Mississippi, telling the story of a landowning white family and an African-American sharecropping family who each have a son who comes home from the war. There are a half-dozen points of view, half white, half black. It is a deep and gripping story. But there is a villain. The father of the landowner is evil. He isn’t given any redeeming characteristics that I can recall. He makes everyone’s lives miserable and sets into motion horrifying events. As we were discussing the book, one of us noted that the author had originally included some passages in that man’s point of view. My reaction was immediate and visceral: I was glad she took them out. I didn’t want his point of view, because that would make him human. I didn’t want to know his motivations or how his upbringing and experiences brought him to where he was at the time of the story. I just wanted to be free to hate him.

Are there stories you can think of that got you to feel sympathy for the villain? How about villains you’re happy to be free to hate?




Humbling: Being the Problem

In the summer of 2007, I was freelance editing this book: A Practical Guide for Life and Ministry: Overcoming 7 Challenges Pastors Face, by David Horner. It was a good project, pretty well-written and well-organized, with engaging stories about church life and what seemed like good advice. I was well into Section Five: Learning to Grow Through Your Troubles. I was shaking my head at all the terrible congregants who make life difficult for their pastor. At least I wasn’t one of “those.”

Until, of course, I was.

Right smack dab in the middle of editing that section, I lost it at church. I’m not saying I raised my voice or snapped at someone. I went ballistic: high-pitched, barely intelligible screaming and crying to one person on the phone in front of someone else. I wrote an impassioned email to my pastor. Because I was right. And because I’d worked so hard at the church for so long, I had no doubt that he’d see my rightness, too.

Thank God he didn’t.

A little background. One year earlier, our church administrative assistant and my partner in the dance ministry was arrested for and charged  (later convicted) with embezzling money from the church and from our pastor. This was a serious sucker punch for me. I’d thought she was my friend. We not only danced together, but I also trusted her guidance when she told me God wanted us to “flow” in a given dance, which means we don’t choreograph it, we go where the Spirit leads us to. This was not in my tradition, but I prayerfully did it, and it was a tremendous and intense experience. We’d prayed and cried for and with each other. And we’d laughed so much.

The church didn’t handle it particularly well. As often happens in multiracial churches, everyone “went to their corner” and most of the white people voted with their feet, including almost all of the other children’s ministry leaders. We talked about leaving, too, but after a discussion with the pastor, decided to stay. The correct phrase for my attitude would be soldiering on. I went back to leading the children’s worship program (which I’d been about to hand off to someone else who left). Being one of what were now only two teachers, I was downstairs with the kids half of the time, two weeks on, two weeks off. We were also back to having all the kids together, age 3 through second grade, which leads to less worship and more crowd control.

I also wound up taking over the administration and leadership of our church’s Calvin Institutes of Worship grant. I went to the opening retreat/conference mostly because I was available during the day. The language on our grant application (done by the embezzler) was so garbled and jargony that I couldn’t understand what the grant was about, and I had to talk about it repeatedly. I was in tears or on the verge of tears almost the whole few days. But as the conference went on, God inspired me to really take charge of our group.

It was a tough year. We were all hurting, but gritted our teeth and pushed ahead. It was also a good year. Through studying multiracial worship and church life, we were drawn together and encouraged that what we were doing was worth it.

However, I know now that I kept a little part of my heart hard. I nursed grievances. I expected problems. And when my calculations for the grant disbursement didn’t match those of the money team, I lost it, utterly and completely, to one of our financial managers over the phone, screaming and getting nasty and personal in a way I will be ashamed of forever.

The pastors let things calm down for several days and then called a meeting. Nobody was treating me like I was right, so I wasn’t hearing anything until the woman I’d screamed at faced me and said, so simply and quietly, “I feel like you’re accusing me of doing what embezzler did.”

That’s exactly what I was doing. I’d never gotten the chance to confront my old friend, never gotten the chance to be upset with her, never dealt with the betrayal at all, so I took it out on this other woman. Everyone knows what it’s like to be blamed for something you didn’t do. It’s a horrible feeling. And I’d just done that to her at my highest possible decibel. I was the problem.

I cried and apologized profusely on the spot. I apologized to the man who’d witnessed my end of the phone call. And then a few months later, I confessed this story and asked forgiveness of the woman in front of our Women’s Fellowship group. She gave me her forgiveness, something I’ll always be grateful to her about.

And all the while, I had to edit these chapters about what it’s like for the pastor when there’s a problem person. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the defining moments in my church life. I am a better congregant, a better leader, a better Christian for having failed so spectacularly, for being forced into the humble position of asking for forgiveness and being granted it.

This experience also informed my recent decision to leave the church that had taken such good care of me in that low time of my life. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision done in a blaze of emotion. It was the culmination of a six-month period of prayer and conversation with my husband and with others. Even so, it’s breaking  my heart. This is the week of “lasts”: last praise team practice for my husband, and for me, the last time dancing with one of the kids, last time giving the second grade “graduates” their Bibles, last time leading children’s worship. It might be the last time I’ll worship with some people I love. I’ve been cleaning up my office and straightening up the story materials, finding old photos of now-big kids back when they were little, wallowing in nostalgia. I’m just plain sad. Grateful for how important this place has been to me, but sad.

No pithy ending for this longish post. It just isn’t in me today.