Coffee with a Stranger

Photo by L.D.I.A on Unsplash

I hate coffee. Not in the sense of, “I don’t prefer it, and I’ll only drink it if there isn’t any other caffeine available. No, I hate coffee—the taste, smell, and existence on this planet of the whole bean thing. That one thing, you must remember.

You know those selfies people take where they they’re standing with their heels having over the edge of a cliff? That’s how I’ve felt for a while, only the cliff is burnout, and I don’t really want a photo of the experience. I’ve always thought those people were fools, and yet, here I am, waving at the camera. 

Add to that loneliness more overwhelming than it’s been since I was a young bride in a strange town and a body that seems to be deconstructing faster than I can find doctors to cobble it back together, and you’ve got my general state of mind lately. 

And so, in the midst of this, I asked God to work. I asked God to help me halt the prevailing winds of scarcity mindset that have plagued me since—since I took my first step one day and thought, there is so much out there I will never get to explore. I asked God, maybe begged God, to teach me, this late in life, how to breach the gates of fear that have kept in far more than they’ve protected against.

Which is how I found myself saying “yes” to the shy word “cafe?” asked by the woman getting out of my car. 

I’d driven Faizah (name changed) and her daughter to the doctor twice in two weeks. Considering our first visit ended up with me being pushed around in a wheelchair to her child’s appointment, I was surprised she asked for me again.

I’m used to silent car rides when I shepherd refugees around the city. With the Congolese I can get through a few sentences together in a smattering of French. With the South and Central Americans, my Spanish is sufficient to both communicate basics and embarrass myself. But with most, including Faizah, their language skills far exceed mine. She knows only a few English words. I know zero Arabic ones. 

I knew, though, she was inviting me into her home, and I had a choice in that driveway to choose the automatic scarcity “no” or the expansive “yes.” Surprising myself, I chose yes. And prayed I wouldn’t vomit coffee on her living room carpet. 

She offered me a choice—American instant coffee or something in a quart ball jar. I guessed the latter was coffee from her home country, which I knew would be strong stuff, but I figured, in for a penny, right? A few minutes later, she brought out two tiny cups and saucers, along with two plates filled with two slices of cake. Each. A concentrated caffeine shot and a sugar rush. My stomach would pay dearly for the next half hour.  

I smiled, sipped, sat upright on her couch, because slouching back into the soft cushions is strictly for people you’ve allowed into the intimacy of your life. She did the same. I knew I had to break the awkward quiet, something this introvert never does.

Photo by Stephanie Harvey on Unsplash

I grabbed my phone. Typed into iTranslate, “Where are you from?” A sure first question. What I hoped was correct Arabic appeared.

“Syria.” I nodded. Most Middle Eastern refugees I’ve met have been Syrian, sometimes Iraqi.  

“We live in Turkey, nine years. Turkey, not good.” She shook her head and faltered for words, for more reasons than the language gap.

I understood. Most refugees I’ve talked to don’t say much about their experiences in resettlement camps. I suppose it’s a lot like my dad never once speaking a word about his time on the USS Iowa in the South Pacific. There are things we hide even from ourselves when we can’t process their reality. 

“Here, eight months. Here, good.”

I knew from the sign on the specialty clinic door I was taking her daughter to that here, now, was not all good. Still, in her eyes, it was immeasurably better. 

While drinking that coffee and fervently praying I wouldn’t be offered a second, we managed a technology-assisted conversation. I learned she, like me, had three children. She learned I was, bewilderingly, fine that none of my three had managed to be sons. We shared pictures on our phones. 

She told me she wanted to learn to drive. She had no friends in the neighborhood, no car, and no means of socializing beyond her walls. But if she could drive? “Markets, parks, Walmart!” Her face sparkled with anticipatory joy.

I avoid Walmart at all costs for the same reason Faizah desperately wanted to go—the massive amounts of humanity present in a small-ish space. I thanked her, said goodbye, left to visit one of my not-sons, and considered the perspective.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It was a week where I felt especially sad for myself. Mind you, I still do. Grief isn’t a sport where we’re awarded more points the more “justified” our tears. The horrors of her past and the loneliness of her present don’t detract from whatever my pain might be. To opt for the common Christian camouflage of, “I could have it so much worse” insults not only my pain but hers, too. “Praise God for giving me a poor refugee to make me feel better about my life!” isn’t the direction I want to go in honoring either of us. To leave with that moral of the story strips Faizah of her agency and me of my honesty.  

When I asked God to help me—to help me be more generous with my time, my heart, my fears—I hadn’t anticipated it in the form of a Syrian refugee woman who wanted a coffee buddy. She probably didn’t expect an answer to her prayers to look like a white woman with a knee brace and questionable skills navigating hospital corridors. I don’t know yet how this budding iPhone-aided friendship with turn out.

I don’t know yet what I’m learning, except, perhaps, the power of the expansive “yes.”

Also, that strong coffee will, indeed, make me sick all day, jazz me like a blues harmonica, and drop me like a flaming rocket by 8pm. All in a tiny china cup.

Our Stories Matter

I’ll let you in on the sweet old truths,
Stories we heard from our fathers,
counsel we learned at our mother’s knee.
We’re not keeping this to ourselves,
we’re passing it along to the next generation—
God’s fame and fortune,
the marvelous things God has done.

Psalm 78:2-4 MSG

It will soon be May, the month in which my husband and I annually remember the day we said “I do.” Thirty-seven years, plus the four we knew one another before marriage, seems both an epic reel of memories and a brief snapshot of time.

May tags along after the annual reminder of losing our parents—both our mothers in April and dad just a year ago in March. Those reminders force the recognition that, though we’re not exactly old, there is more in the rear view mirror for us than the windshield. We think of our own mortality far more often than we used to.

We are born of ashes, dust, and the breath of God, and to them we will all one day return.

Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash

Our daughter is an archivist. She deals daily in the metaphorical ashes that are left when people are gone. She identifies, sorts, and catalogues what we leave behind. She’s occasionally been prodded by her occupation to ask for an oral history of the Hutchinson-Richardson family shenanigans. Though I love public speaking, I hate having a microphone shoved in my face. Somewhere in that act I forget every story I ever knew. Yet I know stories matter. I know because I wish I had them.

My parents left me with far more questions than answers. Their history is mostly blank, and I have little more than unidentified black and white photographs to sleuth out whatever I can piece together. I committed to scrapbooking my kids’ lives with us so that they would never have that taped over line banning entry into their past. Though they never met my parents, I want to gift them with that link, however fragile it might be.They think I’ve overdone it a bit, and they’re likely correct. I hope one day they’ll have the years of experience to know why.

Stories matter. I remember elementary-school-me bicycling to my library to check out a thick blue book called A Biography of Helen Keller. I read it over and over—I’m sure my name was inscribed on that yellow card the most. Helen inspired me, a small, youngest child, to think I could learn anything and help others with what I learned.

Stories matter. What is our Scripture but God’s compilation of stories to guide, comfort, and inspire us, but more than all those, to connect us? If not for the story of Hagar, would we comprehend the awe of being seen? Without all the Marys, would we have the courage to resolutely do what frightens us? Absent Abigail, might some have missed out on the comfort of knowing other women have married abusive men and survived?

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Many of us have been molded more than we know by the stories of these women and others. They forge a connection between people long ago whom we might write off as unattainably heroic and make them human, like us. A single strong cord extends from Genesis to us, made up of stories of other fallible human beings and God’s love for them. For those of us without a past, maybe those stories can be a lifeline to a family we can claim. It’s made up of quite a crew, but then, so are most of our clans.

Our stories matter, too. Someone in the future might need to hear about our worst moments, our thriving (or surviving) after a health scare, or our joy at welcoming them into our world. They might be inspired by us facing our fears or planting our seeds of hope. I know I’ve believed I had all the time in the world to pass my stories on and not leave my kids without that anchor of identity, but reality says otherwise when I look in the mirror.

Maybe the idea of writing down stories exhausts you. I’m a writer, and I get that. Maybe the ghosts of English teachers past have crushed you into believing you can’t write a grocery list, let alone a story. (I used to be an English teacher, and I get that, too.) Might I suggest that if you don’t think you’re good at stories, think in photos.

Think about moments in time, and take a picture in your mind. Tell that story. If you’re crafty, scrapbook it, draw or paint a picture of it, make a paper collage—whatever. Write a few sentences that evoke the feelings—how did that moment smell, sound, feel? What were you thinking or hoping or grieving? Dictate your stories as audio files. Write them in a journal. Scrapbook them digitally or on paper. It’s the stories that matter—not the medium.*

Jesus said to a healed man—“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:38 NIV). Our stories matter because they tell of God’s eternal story intermingled with our finite one. They continue the cycle that the Psalmist writes about when he says that “generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts” (Ps 145:4 MSG). Keep the story going.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

*That archivist, however has a few suggestions:

  • Make sure you save writing in a pdf and have them stored at least twice in two separate areas (computer, flash drive, etc)
  • If audio, save in a WAV or AVI file
  • If artwork, make acid-free copies and keep them somewhere safe from fire and water

It’s Going To Stink

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9.24

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

There is an ongoing struggle in our house. My husband sincerely believes that the garbage needs to go out on Thursday night, the night before the garbage truck comes. This is logical to him, and he likes logic and, more than logic, he likes to know when things are going to happen. He is a total creature of habit. (Also a flaming enneagram 6)

I, on the other hand, have a different viewpoint on when the garbage needs to head outside. When it’s full. Or, worse, when it stinks.

During the summer especially, it can really stink.

I like my schedules, but if something stinks, it needs to go, regardless of whether the city has scheduled its demise that day or not. 

He has habits; I have reactions.

In this month of resurrection celebration, I often return to the beautiful story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and Jesus’ love for them, especially in the sisters’ time of devastating loss. Beautiful? Yes. But first, it’s really stinky.

Jesus hears that his dear friend Lazarus is sick, and the man’s sisters beg him to come. He waits a couple days, then tells his disciples he’s going to “wake Lazarus up.” His disciples protest, and since euphemisms are clearly lost on them, Jesus explains that Lazarus is, in fact, dead by this time. He’s not making this dangerous trip to raise his friend from an afternoon nap.

“When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house.Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”

John 11.17-27
Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

Martha has already lost her parents, we presume, since this home belongs to the three siblings and she is its mistress. Now she has also lost her brother, and with him, all the security these sisters have in the world. Two women alone in her culture did not have the options women have now. Lazarus wasn’t only a dear brother—he was their source of income and protection. This loss strikes the core of everything she fears most in life, and justifiably so. She looks at her future with eyes filled with fear, and Jesus comes down the road asking her a different question than the ones preying on her heart and mind.

I am resurrection and life. Do you believe this?

Notice Jesus’ timing—he’s not asking Martha if she believes in something she’s already seen. Lazarus is still in the grave. Her brother is still dead. She has zero evidence that this circumstance will change. 

Jesus’ question cuts to the hardest thing she will ever be asked—Has she known him enough, followed him deeply enough, understood his heart and his identity enough, to believe he is what he says he is, regardless of the evidence in her life and in her family’s tomb?

In a display of faith perhaps greater than any in Scripture, both she and her sister affirm that they do. “Yes, Lord. Even now I believe.”

Even now. Even when we can’t see through Good Friday to Easter for all the tears and grief and fear, we believe. Then Jesus takes her even one step farther and tells her to have the stone taken from in front of the grave. This time, Martha protests. It will stink something awful. The man’s been dead and behind that rock for four days. In an Israeli climate, that body’s going to reek.

I wonder at times if this is our sticking point as well. We agree that Jesus can resurrect our pain and grief. We know he can bring life from death. We’ve seen it. But we falter when it comes to letting him bring out what we’ve buried. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

We’ve carefully hidden away that childhood abuse, not wanting to revisit it. We know he can transform it, but we don’t want to smell the stench beforehand.

We’ve put the resentment on a cold stone shelf, smothered it in grave clothes, and we don’t want Jesus to examine it too closely and remind us of the stink.

We’ve set those unmet dreams and goals way up in the tomb, out of reach of prying resurrection artists who will remind us of them and the decay we’re allowing to set in.

Letting Jesus roll the stones out from in front of our messy marriage will stink, and we know it. What if we open up something that vomits all over us and never, ever goes back into its safe can?

Learning to live with physical limitations stinks. Learning to make changes to mitigate those limits stinks, too. Rolling a stone in front of them allows me to pretend one more day.

We know He’s calling us to something more, higher, deeper—in faith, in work, in calling, in hope. But taking the steps toward that means burying what is for the dream of what might be. 

It takes courage to let Jesus roll away the stones we’ve carefully placed in front of the smelly messes of our lives.

Oh, but look what can come walking out of the tomb if we let him.

Resurrection. Life. Renewal. Restoration.

If Jesus is going to resurrect it, it’s probably going to get smelly and messy before it gets good. If he’s going to create new life out of our old hidden things, we’ll have to listen and obey as he calls us out of that dark place, unwinding our grave clothes of sorrow, denial, and neglect, telling us to blink hard in the sunshine of completeness. 

Martha looks him in the eye. She knows it’s going to stink. She’s never experienced an actual resurrection before. It’s got to be frightening. She buckles in, nods her head, and says, “Yes, Lord. I believe.”

Blessed is she who has not seen and yet believes.

One Link To Rule them All–April










AirBnb Experiences:

Baguette Baking class here

Jesus and the Grey Whales

I’ve been baptized with whale snot. You don’t imagine that’s the sort of thing you’d feel jealous over, but when others in the front of the boat had a whale spout on them and I didn’t, I felt the sting of cetacean exclusion. I needn’t have worried. The spouts came with amply-distributed inclusivity later on.

We spent a bit of February in Baja California Sur—a place where I was assured I could see a personal holy grail—blue whales. As a child, I devoured a book my brother gave me about endangered animals. I had those pages memorized, along with all the stats on all the animals. Blue whales, the largest animal ever created, were on the list.

After the blue whales, we flew to a remote camp at San Ignacio Lagoon to visit with another species—grey whales. This experience proved far different.

Not long ago, whale hunters dubbed grey whales “devil fish.” Whaling boats found them highly unwilling victims of the harpoon. The whales would put up a mammoth fight, intentionally swimming under and overturning boats. They proved so dangerous they were among the last to be hunted, but they were finally driven near extinction, like most other whales. Their survival reaction to danger made them a feared species n the shallow coasts where they traveled.

So these San Ignacio whales we visited are a bit of a miracle. Not only are they not dangerous, they’re considered the most friendly whales on earth. They swim to tourist boats, bringing their babies in tow, seemingly begging for a scratch and back rub. The huge mammals appear as curious about humans as the humans are about them. They rise our of the water alongside the boat, and we were privileged to interact with God’s creatures in a way I imagine God always intended. The bruises on my knees as I scrambled to kneel first on one side of the boat then the other, rocking and reaching out to touch their rubbery skin, testify to the wonder.

Yes, my husband is petting whales

And believe it or not, it reminds me of church. Most things can, when you’re a pastor. Occupational hazard. San Ignacio is the only place in the world you can touch grey whales. It’s safe there, and the whales know it. They come to the boats only there because they know they’re protected. How do they know? I have no idea. Neither do conservationists. They say we just don’t know why the San Ignacio whales are friendly, but I think it’s this. They know this is a place they don’t need to fear human nearness.

It’s also a place where they have agency to choose their level of interaction. Boat drivers at the preserve don’t chase them. They motor safely and slowly toward a group or individual, letting them know they’re there for an interaction, then they sit and wait for a whale to come to them.  

And I am petting a whale

Is your church a lagoon? Is it a place where those who have felt the harpoon of abuse pierce their skin can come for safe human touch? Can those who have been hunted by gaslighting and harmful counsel in church find a place of healing there? Can women and BIPOC come and be respected for their strength rather than called shrill, angry, and dangerous? What if my church came to be known as the one place hurt people don’t have to fear being close? What if, no matter what happened out in the wide world where they had to survive in other seasons, our small lagoon proved a shelter where fear dissipated into curiosity, play, and mutual delight?

I desperately want there to be places where hurt people can swim and trust they will never feel a harpoon in their back. Where they know the people there with them in that place want their best and want to see their joy. Where they can choose their level of freedom, intimacy, and privacy, with no one determining for them where they go and with whom they stay. 

Grey whales didn’t act like devil fish out of their nature—they behaved like devil fish in response to the way they were treated. In a place where they’re granted both agency and safety, they’re miraculous.  

Miracles along the Way

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

It’s been a week. I know we say that a lot, but I honestly challenge most people to have a wilder and more stressful one. Let’s just say, it started with getting kicked out of our house due to remodeling and followed that up with a dead body. Where does one go from there if that’s just the beginning? You can fill in the blanks. 

Sunday, at the end of that week, I taught the story of the ten lepers in church. (The story in Luke is written below.) The one where ten are healed and one comes back to Jesus to say thank you? I started to think about what it took for those ten to come to Jesus.

They had to leave their safe group of fellow “unclean” denizens outside the city gates. They walked toward the entrance to their village, a place they’d once been welcome but were no more. To approach the entrance as an unclean person took a lot of chutzpah. These men showed courage as they called to Jesus for mercy. They also showed that, despite likely knowing little about him, they knew Jesus was approachable, merciful, and powerful. Note they asked for mercy, not specific healing—I love that. They knew Jesus would consider both intertwined. 

Mercy offers healing. They can’t be separated. 

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

It took courage to leave their safe haven. It took courage to come near the gates. It took courage to call to Jesus. It took amazing courage not to be healed, yet turn to go see the priest as Jesus commanded. Somewhere on the road they were healed—but not right away. Mercy arrived immediately, but healing came along the way. And they had the courage to wait for and believe in its appearance.

What does this have to do with my week? Well, this week I watched as someone I love more than I love creme brûlée and key lime pie (and also to infinity and beyond) found that courage. She’d been traumatized, and horror can paralyze us easily. Trauma can make us forget to eat, terrorize our sleep, and put stress fractures in our relationships. It can make us crawl deep inside ourselves, closing off people and reality, and then worst of all, it can make that self unsafe, so we have nowhere to hide. 

Calling out for help feels frightening. Approaching the gates, calling to be allowed in to health and companionship, is daunting. So to watch someone take those steps inspires awe in me. I know how hard that slog can be. It’s beautiful every single time.

It takes courage to ask for healing. 

For some people that’s the work of making an appointment for an annual physical that you haven’t had in, well, not annually. (I highly recommend, by the way—that’s how my PCP found my cancer quite early.) But you’re scared, and it’s hard, and you don’t know where to start. It takes courage.

For some it’s finding a therapist, but that takes time and trial and error, and that in itself is a painful trek. It takes courage. 

For some, it’s finding a new church, but you’ve been wounded so badly you’re afraid you’ll trail bloodstains on the altar, and you know that place might break you again beyond what you think is repair. It takes so much courage. 

For others, it’s confronting family for the ways they’ve hurt you, or asking for forgiveness for the ways you’ve hurt them, and that takes courage. 

Healing is usually a process that happens along the way, not a miracle of a moment. To start the journey is scary. We’re not sure how it will end. We don’t know how long it will take. We fear we’ll find it ineffective or, worse, we’ll find we’re not worthy of being healed.

That’s why I love that they call first for mercy. Jesus sees them, he hears them, and he grants mercy immediately. When we have the courage to ask, the mercy of Christ is what first reaches our souls. The healing comes—but the mercy prepares us for the journey. 

Courage, dear heart. There is light on the other side, but there is also mercy on the way through. 

Luke 17.11-19, CEB

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”

When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

Defining a Successful Career

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

I went on an adventure in early December. Let’s begin the tale at the beginning: a few years ago I learned that a professor at Marquette University had a collection of Tolkien manuscripts that he periodically allowed individuals to tour. It took me approximately 5 seconds to arrange a date and time for the next private exhibition. 

Unfortunately, the date and time were in 2020. Two polite reschedules later, he stopped sending emails of new dates. No one knew when the collection would be viewed again—why continue pretending we did?

All this led me to check the status in November, and what do you know? The collection was out for a big exhibition at the university until Christmastime, and tickets were available. I chose to make it a whole day of adventure by also booking an Amtrak to Milwaukee. Train rides, Tolkien manuscripts, and no driving headaches on I94 between two cities? I was IN. 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Tolkien rocked my world in 2001 when I first met his work. He did it again in 2022 last month, when I can say that after 21 years of devoted passion, I’m pretty well acquainted with that work.

I don’t know your lifelong struggles, but I have some typical ones for an enneagram 5. The zeal to be seen as competent. The deeply ingrained scarcity mindset. These two join forces to haunt me with my greatest fears. What if I never “make my mark”? What if I never live up to that “promising future” people talked about so long ago? What if, after all, I’m only mediocre at everything I’ve done, personally and professionally?

At my age, these things should be past tense, after all, and still searching the horizon for promise seems a fool’s errand. 

The thoughts have haunted my last couple years, especially. Other people wept at Hamilton when his son died. (OK, I wept then too—I’m not heartless.) The part that had me sobbing? When Burr bows his head and recognizes in the despair of the too late—“I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” Scarcity mindset, with tragic results, right there for all of us caught in it to see. The world is wide, but some of us have more Aaron Burr in us than we can comfortably handle.

Back to Tolkien. A man so enamored with the world of Middle-earth he was building that he created languages for it. Detailed, logically-cohesive languages. So in love with his hobbits be calculated the stride of a hobbit and the ground one could reasonably cover so that the distances in his writing were manageable in “real” life. So committed he created maps and diaries that he singed, tore, dyed, and dampened in order to make the antiquity of them real. He charted the moon phases and years and days of events in his created world so that his prophesies would coincide, again, in “real” life. No created world in literature has this level of detail and accuracy, which contributes enormously to making his work feel “right” to his readers. 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

His contemporaries thought his time could have been spent on more scholarly publications. His publisher tapped impatient toes for 17 years from request for a Hobbit sequel to publication. The Lord of the Rings didn’t disappoint waiting readers. Hobbit readers had grown up, and they recognized its genius. Yet most people who surrounded Tolkien thought his quirky obsession a huge waste of time. He never even finished what he considered his master work, decades in the making.

Something exploded on my mind in that exhibit, as it had twenty-one years before. Then, it was the beauty of the heroic quest to do the right thing with the time we’re given. Now, it was the recognition of a life profoundly successful, but not because of best seller lists or blockbuster movies.

JRR Tolkien devoted himself to something he loved. He put every piece of his heart into creating a world and creating it well. What others may have called obsessive he called devotion to a call. In fulfilling that call, he crafted a hope that shone through his world, and the world of his readers.

He devoted himself to doing something he loved well, and he offered hope in the doing. 

What else is there? When we look for our life’s promise, what would we want other than Paul’s holy trinity of faith, hope, and love? (For as we know, Tolkien did nothing without faith, too.) Whether we’re mediocre in the end or not, what could we choose but the honest working out of faith, hope, and love? When we look to find the success of our lives, that legacy Hamilton searched for, what more could we ask than that we were found to do what we loved, do it well, and do it in a way that infused it with hope? 

He did it again. Tolkien took something that’s bedeviled me for a while and he laid it out plain in front of me, in those edit-filled cursive loops, scribbled calculations, detailed datelines, and fake-blood stained pages. Waste twelve years writing Lord of the Rings? Hardly. He was building a world and inviting us along into it. Hope and love take time. Faith informs them both. Nothing done in service to the three of them is wasted.


Photo by Brianna Tucker on Unsplash

I have a dear friend who was widowed a few years ago. Since then, she’s stretched herself to live her life’s goal, which is to be a writer. There’s nothing like death to teach us how to live, is there? She’s worked hard. And she’s grieved hard. 

This year, she entered a play writing contest and garnered one of the ten winning spots, out of thousands of entries. Did I mention I’m darned stinking proud of her? She wrote about the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death and visiting her mother with dementia and how those things didn’t always mesh well together. In one quick scene, a nurse at the assisted living comforts her with some theology and philosophy regarding death. 

Watching the video, I felt a jolt of recognition. Those were my words. Those were sentences I had said to help my friend. We’d sat at the local Corner Bakery as she talked and cried about the blows to her faith and her guilt and anger about God, the universe, and everything. I’d answered with what I believe about God and death. 

The words had meant enough to her to find their way into this award-winning play, now seen and heard by I don’t know how many people. They’d found their way into her heart. 

I cried watching that video. I cried for her pain. I cried for her children. I cried for the privilege of having God use my simple, tentative words to begin healing a broken heart. There is nothing, nothing that brings more joy to a pastor, or a writer, than this. We know that James warns we ought to watch our words and our truth carefully, because teaching others is a holy, sacred trust. We know we get it wrong too often.

The trust of God and humans cannot be taken lightly. Hearts and souls long to be healed.

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect.

(James 3.1-2)
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

We’re talking about what it means to be incarnate this month in church. For Advent, I wanted to discuss the meaning of incarnation (embodied in flesh). I want us to consider how we, too, are incarnate in the lives of others, not in the sense that we are deity but in another definition of the word—“A person showing a trait or typical character to a marked degree.” 

As believers in the Christ who became flesh and blood, breath and body, how do we show his character to a marked degree? Are we being incarnate in our communities, our families, our churches, our world?

Are we being incarnate in our random conversations that we don’t know will have an impact down the road? Is Christ’s character there at the table in our Corner Bakery? 

To “invite Jesus into my heart” isn’t a prayer for a ticket to heaven. It’s an invitation to Christ to be incarnate in my life, body, tongue, and mind. It’s an invitation for me to be incarnate, albeit in my own flawed ways, in my world.

I can’t get past that. I don’t want to get past that. I shouldn’t get past that. Words matter. Words heal or break. Words construct or deconstruct faith and hope. The Word gives me embodiment in others’ lives. What comes from my mouth, or keyboard, should show his character to a marked degree.It’s a sacred trust. 

Sightings of Home

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

In The Last Battle, Jewel the unicorn finds that world’s version of heaven baffling yet familiar. Regardless of the confusing feelings, he knows it’s home, and he must discover more and more of it.

I think we, too, will be surprised by heaven. Most of all, I think we’ll be surprised that we will not “go to heaven” in the end. The Bible never uses that phrase—not once in 66 books. Instead, both Isaiah and Revelation describe the union of heaven and earth, a new creation where humans will find ultimate joy and God will forever be present. John describes kind of an Eden 2.0—people engaged in their best employment in a perfect new world that restores heaven and earth to their rightful lack of division. 

With respect to the hymn writer, we will not “fly away.”

Even the imagery echoes Eden.

“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”

Rev. 22:1-2, NLT
Photo by Mario Álvarez on Unsplash

The abundant flowing water and conspicuously important trees remind us of that place where humans were first offered a tree of life. As we read these words in a time of unrest that hasn’t happened in our generations, don’t these promises sound like a place we’ve been “looking for all {our} lives”? 

Do the nations frighten you right now? My own nation scares the life out of me, without even mentioning those at war in other parts of the world. A pandemic has retrained our social instincts to make us fear and avoid one another, destroying mental health and the community necessary for human flourishing. Political division has divided family. People look for exits when they do go out, spooked at the specter of gun violence anywhere and everywhere. Whole segments of the population fear the loss of basic human rights—rights people of color maintain they have never had and see slipping farther away. All the while, we’re bracing for weather extremes as we do little to stop the warming of our world. Then, there’s actual war, waged against innocent underdogs.

All in all, it seems the nations need some of those leaves from the tree of life, stat. The patient is in critical condition. 

So are a lot of us. I know I yearn for the day I no longer hurt 24/7. One day, I’ll be swing dancing and clambering up waterfalls again, a day when I won’t need healing trees because a resurrection body will never know pain. 

The promise is so much greater than flying away to some cloudy space with random harps. The Lord has planned a merging of God’s space and ours, perfecting ours beyond our current imagination and inviting us to enjoy it forever as perfected humans. 

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

So what about now? Jesus also promised that the kingdom of God was here, now. In a way, he had broken through and begun the unification. When Jesus commissioned his followers, he told them they would do even greater thing than he had done, to the ends of the earth (John 14:12, Matt. 28:19). Jesus meant that every time one of his people did something as he would, we were planting little pockets of the kingdom in this world. 

Every time we offer kindness, healing, restoration, justice, comfort, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, hope—that’s all seeds of the kingdom planted. They’re all small places where heaven meets earth. For people who are hopeless or fearful now, these liminal spaces where they can see and feel the presence of God mean more than all the words we can spill. 

If we, like Jewel, are longing for our real home, working to bring the kingdom to our surroundings is a good way to at least set down some carpets and wash the windows of where we are now. We’ll never create heaven—humans can never eradicate evil because it’s part of us. We can, though, offer sightings of home to those who need it. 

This article first appeared here at The Glorious Table.


Photo by Leyre on Unsplash

This song ran though my head the entire month of August. That was one persistent earworm, though as earworms go, they could be far worse. I finally began to wonder if God wasn’t trying to say something to me. Throughout the music, the singer talks to a “crazy child,” and if that isn’t how God sees me at times, I’d be very surprised. God has spoken to me in far wilder ways than through Billy Joel.

I listened to Billy Joel a lot as a young person. A lot. I hadn’t listened to this song in decades, so how did it get into my head suddenly? And why? 

I didn’t know the meaning behind the song when I was a teenager lounging by the turntable loving how a fellow pianist put words together. I’m sure I wouldn’t have understood if I had. However, as I approach a big birthday this month (tomorrow, in fact), I’ve learned more of the story.

Listen to Vienna.

According to Google, “Vienna” is Joel’s stand in for old age. The Old World setting. The accordion solo. (Yes, when you’re talented enough, you can pull off an accordion solo in a top 40 hit.) The lilt that feels like a waltz but isn’t. He doesn’t, however, intend it as we might presume. The most obvious interpretation of “Vienna waits for you” seems to be “Old age is coming, youngster. It gets us all. Why work so hard? It’s all meaningless!” Shades of Ecclesiastes.

Photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash

No, he means something entirely different. Age, in this song, is beautiful. It’s a time when purpose, productivity, and depth can blossom in ways we cannot imagine when we’re young. 

“You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.”

I spent so many years trying to be everything I wanted to be. I wanted not to make the mistakes my parents did. I wanted to walk in a faith that was new to anyone in my family and do it right. I wanted those perfect Christian children, and that, of course, is often what finally undoes us in our ultimately unholy pursuit of perfection. 

I wanted to prove I could be everything because that was the only way I’d ever known to be anything.

Joel was right. There are things I couldn’t be, and patience would have been a better virtue than pursuit. A life of integrity is created like good cheese—time and careful nurture. When we try to rush it, we get a veneer of being everything that only reinforces our need to protect the surface at all costs. In my profession, we get pastoral abuse. 

We get the Colosseum of Las Vegas, not Rome. I’ve seen both. One could never mistake the former for the latter. 

“Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while. It’s alright—you can afford to lose a day or two.”

Not because the days ultimately don’t matter but because, with good fortune, we will have enough of them to find out what makes us come alive and who we want to be. That can’t be rushed. We’ve done a bit of a disservice to our younger generations with our endless “follow your passion” rhetoric not because passions are’t good to follow but because we’re demanding people know them out of the gate. Anyone who has’t figured it out and gotten 3/4 of the way there by 30 is slacking.

Before 30 I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and if you asked me still I’d probably tell you the same today. I won’t be grown up until my soul is restored to the perfection its Maker intended, so maybe that’s OK.

Photo by Francesco Luca Labianca on Unsplash

If we don’t have the days ahead of us? All the more reason to invest in disappearing. I’ve written and will continue to write a lot about sabbath. God invented this whole concept of disappearing and called it good. It was the way God gave us to reacquaint ourselves with God and also with ourselves. Going “off the hook” puts us back in relationship balance.

We remember our place in the economy of history—big enough to be beloved by the Creator, small enough to be a grain of sand in relative time. Losing a day might gain us a soul. 

Please take the phone off the hook (whatever that mean anymore). Take social media off the hook. Take work off the hook. If you don’t lose a day or two, you’ll lose yourself. If we reach Vienna and that person really is a stranger (no coincidence this is the album title, I’m sure), we’ve lost too much.

So happy birthday to me. I’m entering what a viral Facebook post calls the most productive decade of human life. Sadly, Snopes has shown that post to be based on a false claim about a nonexistent study (and you so trusted in Facebook reliability, right?). To be honest, productivity may not be what I’m valuing most anyway. Still, David Galenson in Old Masters and Young Geniuses opines—there are different kinds of productivity and genius. One includes the “experimental innovators, those whose work was exploratory and filled with trial and error and decades of accumulated wisdom and feeling. Those who fit the experimental pattern did their best work later in life.” 

I’m going with that. Vienna isn’t here yet—but it waits, and that’s not a negative.