Chasing Waterfalls

Well yes, I do chase waterfalls. Scrambling over wet rocks, climbing higher in spray, jumping down them to solid ground below—that was my perfect road trip afternoon for most of my life.

These days, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome exacts a painful price if I try that. Every step on uneven terrain has potential for a turned ankle or a fall. I climb and descend—but slowly, carefully, watching every single foot placement and evaluating the next one for security. Recovery for a mistake takes far longer now than it did when I could jump up and dust off the skid marks from my backside.

It’s slow. It’s not the joyful abandon of earlier days. I sometimes can’t appreciate the vista around me for the attention to detail below me. But it’s reality, and ignoring reality isn’t wise for anyone, regardless of natural ability.

On our September trip to five national parks out west, I learned this again and again. Watch where you’re going. Calculate where your steps will lead. Be ready if the footing shifts.

I don’t like it. It’s not my personality. I think, though, it’s a good lesson.

It’s Not Just Hiking

This process describes most of my life as a church leader, too. I used to have no worries about scurrying down the hill, quickly sidestepping roadblocks, creating plans B and C on the way. 

“Throw is at the wall and see what sticks.”

“Don’t be afraid to fail.”

“Just do it.”

I’m not suggesting these outlooks are wrong. They served me well. One of the things I wish young people believed more was that failing is not fatal. Having the courage to let go of control would benefit more church leaders and their people.

It’s just that perhaps, some of us are in a different time now as leaders—whether of churches, families, organizations, or volunteer brigades. Maybe those of us who have been up and down the waterfall a few times have a different job. Maybe it’s our calling now to proceed with more caution.

Experience Teaches Something about Jumping

A jump is a commitment. I tended to make those commitments before. Now, I’m more cautious, knowing there are perils I can’t see until I’m balancing on the rock. Perhaps in lieu of jumping higher right now, It’s my call to look down. 

I have the experience to yell back to others—

“Hey, that rock has some solid spots, but don’t put both feet there. Stay aware of its weaknesses. Be ready for when it lets you down.” 

“You can choose that route, but you won’t recover from a fall from that path. You’ll wash out at the bottom. Stronger than you have tried.”

“You’re in the weeds. I know it looks like there isn’t a path because pain or confusion has covered what you thought you knew. But there are footholds there that will hold you. I know this. I’ve been held.”

“You can do this. The reward is worth it. Keep going!”

The trail has been blazed for those coming behind me with leaps and skids, with triumphant sprays of joy and frightening slides. Now could be my time to create a different path. One that makes clear where the footing is solid and won’t fail beneath. A path that shows where and wh

A call from my place of experience that says, yes, there are dozens of ways to get up and down these rocks, but don’t put all your faith in one outcropping, and don’t forget there is solid footing to which you can always return.

Now I’m looking ahead enough before every step to instinctively know when recovery will be too difficult if I choose one direction, when one path will get me to the goal albeit slower, and what my limits are either way.

It’s my turn to travel slowly, deliberately, and wisely, knowing the leapers and jumpers behind me may choose other routes, but they will know, from what I’ve laid out, where sure footing lies. They can return to it. It will hold.

New Normal

For a while those first few days of vacation, I didn’t know what to do with my phone or hands. 

I couldn’t check twitter. Couldn’t google that question that came to mind. Couldn’t color a picture first thing in the morning. Couldn’t snapchat my kids. Couldn’t mindlessly scroll instagram.

I couldn’t use my phone for anything at all but taking pictures. Slowly, my hands found they were relaxing their grip. So did my soul.

Burned

Truth is, I’ve been feeling on the cusp of burnout for a while. Pastoring through a pandemic is not the casual stroll some people seemed to think. (Oh, you don’t have to do anything but record a sermon. How great is that? You must have so much free time!)

Yep. Learning new technology, and having to change it every time we had a new iteration of church, was easy peasy. So was dealing with mental health crises in the community. Helping our little church cope in their own loneliness and fear. Working with people who couldn’t pay their rent. Purchasing our first church building and planning a major reno project on it. Not taking a Sunday off in over a year because you can zoom from anywhere and people needed me. 

The stuff of idle leisure, right?

And doing all this while never getting to hug my kids or even my husband, a man who spends all day in peoples’ respiratory systems, so not a good bet during COVID for immunocompromised me.

It was a lot. It was a lot for you, too. I know without asking that you went through and did a LOT. 

I don’t list those things for pity. I list them to explain why I, like a lot of you, teetered on the edge of wanting to chuck it all and move to New Zealand to become a hobbit village guide. (Still not a bad option. I’d consider it.) 

I was tired, cranky, physically weak, and weary to the bone of doing One. More. Thing.

So I went on our overdue, twice canceled trip of a lifetime last month with high hopes of rest and renewal.

I got those. It was the most glorious time of my life. Yet reentry created other problems I hadn’t anticipated. I’d planned for rest—but I’d put all my expectation on those two weeks. I’d assumed they would be a magical step away from reality that brought me back to earth somehow changed into a new me ready to take on anything in my path.

Pro tip: You cannot undo 14 months of overtime with two weeks of vacation. It does not correlate.

Sabbathing Well

I’d begun a sabbath with all the wrong beliefs about what it was for. Even though, given I’ve written and taught about sabbath as one of my favorite topics, I knew better. 

Sabbath isn’t meant to give us a rest from work or to bring us back to work ready to break new records.

Sabbath is intended to refresh us by rekindling our relationship with the One who knit together our souls. It’s meant to remind us that we done’t run the universe, and the world will turn on its axis without us giving it a nudge. 

I love Eugene Peterson’s work on this.

I hadn’t treated it like that.

Because I’m me, I crammed the time before and after our trip with ALL the things.

  • Of course I could send out an important, long email for a new group I was chairing.
  • Of course I could write the sermon for the day after we got back and deliver it even though we got into the airport AT 1AM Saturday.
  • Obviously, I could prep the June newsletter so it could go right out two days after we returned. (You know it didn’t.)
  • Clearly, I could run 25 errands, prep for a cat sitter, pack, and still do a normal week’s work. Also take the computer in for a complete wipe and reset.
  • Of course I could, given that computer wipe, start right up Monday morning after we got back with a full week of meetings, agendas, sermon writing, social media handling, and 3 doctor appointments.

Of course.

I set myself up for returning to the exact state I’d left rather than taking what I’d learned on the trip and putting it into practice. Fortunately, God stopped me in this nonsense before I could undo all the good.

I find myself asking the same questions post-vacation that I’ve pleaded with my congregation to ask themselves all year about life post-pandemic.

What kind of “normal” do you want to return to?

What are the best things you want to keep from this time?


How are you going to go about intentionally making sure you reboot life 2.0—the version you really want as an operating system?

New Normal

I want a normal that remembers—I matter, but I’m not indispensable.

The world can do without me for two weeks. Or longer.

Not that I don’t matter to my congregation and to others I interact with. However, I matter more to them whole and healthy, recognizing my role as facilitator and friend rather than savior or enabler. We’re partners—and that means free communal give and take, not one-sided offerings. 

It’s going back to relying on and respecting their God-given gifts. That’s taken a backseat during pandemic when stress was everyone’s worst passive aggressive friend. It’s time for a resurgence of trusting people and letting go the reins. If you, like me, have been grasping them a tad too tightly, slack up. Let people surprise you again with what God is giving them to share. 

I want to make available, not necessary, part of my new normal.

I want a normal that makes time for quiet wonder.

Snorkeling right in the face of penguins, sea lions, iguanas, and turtles does something to you. I’ve loved all of God’s wild creation since the day someone first put a book of ABC animals in my hands. That wonder tends to fade in our every day though, when we’re not close enough to a pelican to see its feathers ruffling in the moonlight.

Pandemic allowed my inner over-achiever to amp up the work level and ignore the rest of the world outside my home. I couldn’t leave the house anyway. Why not be more productive? 

Hiking and snorkeling every day required me to see with grateful eyes all the wonder of the world. Going face to face with a penguin or struggling up a volcano’s side reminded me that I’m part of a stunning creation. The author who set it in motion surely can give me what I need to do my work without me going at it 24/7. A grateful me surely will produce better work. 

I want to make awe, not achievement, part of my new normal.

In the future, I plan not to hyper-schedule the time around my full-on breaks. I’ll prepare with joyful anticipation rather than cramming all I can in the last few days. I’ll ease back in. I will refuse to feel guilty about that. It’s in the easing that we remember lessons learned and slowly apply them to a refreshed and possibly reoriented life. That takes time, and it’s equally as important as the vacation/sabbath itself. 

So no, I haven’t done all the things on the list in June. I’m going to enjoy the birds a little longer. Take a few more walks in my garden. Ease back into life so that maybe that easier way will become the pattern. Because you know what? Work isn’t life. All of life is life. I’d just forgotten. 

I want, plan, to make a whole, shalom life, not a piece by piece one, my new normal.

What I Learned about Church from an Ecuadorian Chef

I didn’t even see a name on the restaurant front. Its virtue was that it was steps from our tiny hotel’s door, and we were exhausted after a 36-hour ordeal/flight from hell designed by an airline which shall remain nameless. 

The chef/owner slid open a window and informed us the place was reservation only, but he would take us if we wanted to sit outside. It was a tasting menu–whatever he wanted to cook that day, we would eat. We sat, intrigued (and tired). We took in the modest patio, with dogs barking low and nearby car horns hitting the high notes. Near the door hung strings of drying corn. We finally figured out these weren’t decor–they were on the menu. Our sturdy table sat in the equatorial moonlight, and we closed our eyes, with no idea what we were in for.

A Surprising Conversation

We conversed with the owner through the meal, as his window was five feet away. He detailed what he was cooking, where he got his ingredients, and he asked about our travel plans. Through the courses, we started discussing deeper things. 

Chef Sebastian explained that, pre-covid, he had owned several places in higher rent districts—wine bars, restaurants, etc. He was forced to shutter them. It looked like defeat. Then he ended up opening this one small place, Quitu, in a much different kind of neighborhood.

He spoke of using fresh local ingredients, becoming much more affordable to people because of much lower rents, and how he loved his new life. Then he told us something that stuck with me.

“I decided to become a restaurant for the neighborhood instead of a restaurant for the world.”

A Church Like Quitu

My mind jumped to church and leadership and why we do what we do. Yes, I want us to speak about national issues, world justice, the responsibility of the privileged of this globe. That is part of living with both feet in the Kingdom of God. 

Yet it’s so easy to lose our way when our focus points toward that large stage. Any large stage, really. The popular allure is more mesmerizing than the neighborhood grit. It’s easy for “winning” to become the idol and affirmation to morph into the goal. I think our Quiteño chef understood that. He’d had the success. Covid forced a choice he now embraced. He wanted to return to a life where the community felt welcome and his food wholesome and accessible. 

Church leaders, how do we embrace that value? How should we be redefining “normal” to make the places we lead accessible, inviting, and healthy? How ought our yearning for justice to roll down and integrity to be great again affect not only our twitter feed but our presence with the real life people on our block?

How do we become a church for the community rather than a church that happens to be in a community?

Downsizing. Decentering human leaders. Sourcing our nourishment from the wells of goodness and grace. Looking around and asking ourselves–what do the people here need, and why am I in this place and time?

I like chef Sebastian’s approach. His food was pretty great, too.

Dad’s Nose, Mom’s Smile

Dad

I have my dad’s nose. Every bit of my face, dirty blonde hair to crooked smile, belongs uncontestedly to my mother, but the nose. That broad Hutchinson nose defies my mother’s narrow ski slope one, as if my dad had to lay claim to at least one feature to prove his paternity.

Honestly, the rest of it is Mom’s too, from blue eyes to bad kidney to oddly long, skinny toes. I’ve always called the awkward smile in photos the Hutchinson smile, but it’s clearly the Swanson smile, because my brother has it too, and he is not a Hutchinson.

My dad runs deeper in me than facial features, though. Though he couldn’t prove it by my face, much of me is his, more than I ever realized as a child, staring into the mirror assuming I must be my mother through and through.

Not so.

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Skye

I look up at the white stone arch, September-red leaves twining around it like tendrils of a Scottish lass’ hair framing her alabaster face. At least, that’s what one imagines, gazing at castle ruins and thinking of lairds and ladies descending that now-crumbling staircase to waiting fawners and flatterers.

It appears this Isle of Skye, my potential homeland, wasn’t the kindest place to run a castle. They tended to fight over them on the regular, exchanging land between the clans like I exchange paint colors on the walls. Every several years, but much more violently. Seriously, if you want a change of scenery, paint is a simpler call.

Coming to Skye has been a dream of mine since I can remember. Before I knew my maiden name likely hailed from Scotland more than England. Before I knew its possible origin lay right on this island, nestled in the Clan Donald castle in whose ruins we now stand. Some part of me has always longed to stand here.

Also, I’ve always known a castle by the sea should rightfully be my home. It’s obvious some ancient lady who had my nose once walked along this shore. I know it.

The other castle we tour has far more visitors, but this one calls me. It’s a period novel cover, and I love every last falling, moss-covered stone.

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Leaving

We make our way to the museum on the grounds, and the displays on emigration fascinate me.  There is a replica of a ship’s quarters, pieces of memorabilia, and a room filled with the history of those who left the island when persecution mixed with hunger grew too insistent.

The wooden trays pull out smoothly. Either the museum workmanship was stellar, or ages of people like me have pulled them out, searching for signs of who knows what, more interested in some hazy genealogical quest than the history of Skye and its clans.

The tiny bunk area, a scarce few feet wide and long, housed families leaving the persecution of the Scots and hoping for a new start, after weeks on a rough sea in their miniature quarters.

Do I have ancestors who made that sail? My father’s family hails from Kentucky, somewhere. That’s about all I’m sure of. Kentucky is a quick jump over the mountains form North Carolina, the settling place of some of these ships. Were distant grandparents on one of them, and were their names recored somewhere within these wide pull drawers?

I don’t know. I want to believe so.

Why do I need to know?

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Our exchange student years ago asked that question. “Americans—you say you’re Swedish, or German, or Irish. But you’re not—you’re American! I’m German. Why are you all so obsessed with being something else?”

She had a point.

Perhaps it’s America’s youth, its rootlessness, its diversity. Its rough and rumble beginning that makes it question its parentage like a child who doesn’t know who his daddy is.

But why is it personal? Why do I not simply want to know about the MacDonald clan of Skye but I desperately want to be one of them? Information isn’t enough. I want membership.

We wander the gardens after, looking skyward at the massive trees. Apparently, the laird loved his trees, and he brought them back form all corners of the world. There is a love of growing things in my heritage—more proof I belong.

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Gardens

Another garden, another time, two other people. One eats a ripe, irresistible fruit. The other stands beside her, neither encouraging nor preventing, complicit in the act. Nearly as soon as the act is complete, the questions come.

Who am I?

Who is my father?

Why am I hiding?

Will I ever know those answers again?

And ever since, God their father has been trying to give them back their identity. To tell them who they are. Whose they are.

Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “Identity. It’s always God’s first move.”

It’s what we all seek. It’s what we all want.

A name. A Place. A past. A future.

My identity may begin in Varmland, Sweden, and Skye, Scotland. It might not. I only know the former for sure, and I still deeply want to know the latter. Or maybe I don’t, because if it isn’t true, I’ll have to give up my dreams of lairds and ladies and castles by the sea and being Scottish which is, I think we all agree, better than just plain English. Certainly the accent is.

I have my dad’s nose. I have my Father’s image. Who I am doesn’t depend on those sliding trays of names and history. It doesn’t. But still, I want to know.

What Would I Choose?

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The Walk

A volunteer at their church dropped off copies of last Sunday’s sermon with my father-in-law, asking him to bring a few to their neighbors in the assisted living apartments, neighbors who were also church members.

Because he couldn’t leave mom alone, I volunteered to bring around the stapled stacks of paper.

I don’t write out sermons. No one could ever bring my notes to the people who couldn’t come to church. Our generation has turned to the podcast and the Facebook live, and it, too, is good. But different, and not offered hand to hand by someone whose hands you know.

The walk down the hallway should have been simple. Efficient. Quick. Until I started noticing the peoples’ doors.

The Things

Each apartment came with a small table next to the door in the hallway. Some tables had the generic items. Flowers. Easter decorations. The predictable duel of Vikings-versus-Packers memorabilia common in certain parts of the upper Midwest.

But some stood out.

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I lingered near a corner table covered with an antique globe and some clearly foreign pieces of memory. A bronze elephant. A sliver of driftwood. An embossed puzzle piece, and others. Who lived here? Where had they obtained their treasures? What stories could they tell?

A lover of travel, I wanted to knock on the door. What would they tell me of their life before this small apartment and limited mobility? What corners of the earth had they seen? What had they learned? What did I need to know before I, too, came to live in a place where my globe-circling days were likely complete?

I can’t imagine them ever being complete, yet here sits the concrete evidence that this occurs.

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I stopped at a wall that held photos of sailing ships. This table held a rusted item I couldn’t identify but which was clearly part of life on a boat. Above them hung a title that simply claimed—Captain Ron.

Captain Ron lived behind this door, and of what was he still captain? I wanted to know.

I wanted to know Captain Ron. Wanted to hear his stories. I wanted to see the photos of the places he’d been,  feel the spray of salt water and cool wind as I listened to his tales. I knew I’d like Captain Ron. How could I not, with my addiction to salt water places? He knew them, so many more than I did, and I wanted to see them through his memory.

I noted the music enthusiast with the sense of humor. (“Bach later. Offenbach before.”) My sons-in-law would love an hour with him, trading bad music puns and laughing in cadence.

I stood at the lighthouse painting, wondering if the person had, like me, an ambition to see ALL the lighthouses, and how far that ambition had been fulfilled.

Walking between doors, I began to take photos. These things on the tables and walls had been chosen. When all of their long lives had to be reduced to a small apartment and a few trinkets on a table, it seemed to me that what they chose had to be immensely important.

What would I choose?

If I had to define my entire life to strangers in a hallway, what would I choose?

One of my stained glass crosses? A garden trowel? Certainly a photo of our family, and probably one of us somewhere exploring the world, learning about other people and learning about ourselves, and almost certainly a goofy one. A stack of Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, and Pride and Prejudice, all together, as if they’re inviting another read? I’m not sure how many reads are left in the copies I have. Perhaps by then I will have found out. Maybe a beautiful pen to signify writing, because really, who’s going to look at an old laptop and feel as if it’s life art?

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I don’t know. I know it’s good to think about it now, though. To think about the race’s end and what I want to leave as the mark of who I was. If I don’t think now, I might not become that person I want to downsize to a nightstand-size table and a few square feet on a wall.

I can see, from the walls, that the stories of those people mattered. They still matter. It probably wasn’t great the heroic deeds that mattered, though. It was the rolling waves and the spray in the faces of Captain Ron’s family and friends. It was the tossing lures into the water for walleye together. It was the 369 steps up the lighthouse with your kids, urging one another on and proving that together you were better than standing alone.

Those are the stories. The stories, as Sam Gamgee says, that mean something.