2017 gift list

Christ child 2017 giftsStill and reverent, I lay in bed Christmas morning before the sun reappeared. I listened to heart-stopping versions of my favorite carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and enjoyed hot coffee, wrapping my extremities tightly in blankets. The piano keys and cello sang out with my spirit.

Nietzsche once said, “Everything matters. Nothing’s important.”

Each year I make a list of gifts received. This morning I reflected on the year’s gifts, Nietzsche’s words, and another key phrase.

Either Christ is everything, or He is nothing.

Charles Spurgeon and Hudson Taylor both echoed this sentiment—and both lived as if He were everything.

The entire year bore gifts.

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I held my mother’s shaking frame, soaked in tears, while she struggled to let my grandma go Home. I talked to my mentors for hours via video conferencing, on the phone, and face-to-face over the best hash browns I’ve consumed. I meditated on Truth while sipping fresh coffee every single morning, fueling my spirit and becoming better. I cradled countless kittens. I watched, panic-stricken, as my daughter barreled through a riding barn on an agitated racing horse at full speed. I rejoiced when I realized she and her little friend were holding one another in the saddle, God going before them and planning in love. I wiped away Maggie’s snot while she told me she wanted to keep riding, the bravest soul I know. I nearly skipped out of the breast specialist’s office, celebrating benign results. I applauded my tiny angel, proudly parading up the church aisle during the Christmas pageant. I walked away from my daughter’s preschool classroom for the first time and returned to find her too happy to leave. I led clients to greater joy. I shed tears. I shared silence. I waited for justice. I listened. I caressed my husband’s weathered crow’s feet, solidly at home. I stroked my cowgirl baby’s smooth forehead as she slept, whispering comfort and love in her ear, the most important part of my day.

Each night, as I tiptoed out and stumbled for my glasses atop piles of bedtime stories, I marinated in Light.

Christ shone beside me all year and carried me through.

Let me perceive You in every matter.

Real miracles

I am sick.

I am plagued by a disease which alters the way I view the world—the disease of perception.

God has provided me countless opportunities to feel better, to become whole, to heal. And yet the disease still rears its ugly head from time to time.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

One of the symptoms of my disease is self-pity. I’m not talking about going through five minutes of feeling sorry for yourself because the restaurant screws up your order, or even the healthy sort of grieving you do when feeling sorry for yourself after a legitimate loss of a dream, a person, an animal, or an opportunity.

Since I have the disease of perception, when I get into self-pity, I get INTO self-pity. I have vivid memories of wallowing on my ex-boyfriend’s deck in a quilt and bawling my eyes out because he admitted that he didn’t have the same overwhelming feelings for me that I had for him. A little over the top, eh? I remember writing sad poetry for hours while listening to “My Friends” on repeat by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I recall lying on my green couch during a tumultuous time in my first marriage, with a small knife and a bottle of painkillers hidden beneath the pillow, planning a route to end my own inner turmoil.

Do you get the picture? I didn’t just FEEL self-pity. I LIVED it.

Behaving this way today isn’t an option for me, but at the time, it was the only way I knew to soothe my sick soul. I did the best I could at the time with what I had.

Since I began working to take actions against my feelings, my perception has gradually changed. Most days, I don’t feel sorry for myself, reflect on my worst moments in life, or relive sad memories like a sick Siren. When I do slip into self-pity, the fastest way out is to get into gratitude. One way I do this is by recalling miracles.

I’ve heard that a miracle is simply a change in perception.

This morning during reading and reflection time with God, self-pity crept in. I found myself feeling guilty about poor choices I’d made, remembering losses I’ve endured, and missing people who are no longer in touch.

The difference between how I cope with moments like this now versus a decade ago is my response to self-pity. I’m more likely to recognize it when it hits, and I quickly do something different.

I began reflecting on instances in my past when I’ve experienced a change in perception.

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Hamming it up with my little red car

There was a time when I was filing bankruptcy while working two jobs. I was actually earning more than I’d ever earned in my life, but the debt I’d accrued from living above my means for so long smothered me. I was driving a flashy red car with three year-old tires. When I had my oil changed, the technician asked me to sign a document admitting that he’d advised me to change the tires because he didn’t want to be held accountable if I wrecked due to their poor condition. I signed the document because I just didn’t have the funds to replace the tires, so I kept driving to and from work (a 45-minute commute each way), squealing and sliding all the way.

My spiritual mentor encouraged me to pray and ask God to provide new tires. I did, but my prayers were flimsy.

One July afternoon, the owner of my company asked to borrow my car. I felt immediately ashamed because I knew my tires were about to shrivel or explode. I warned him about the tires, but I handed over the keys. His car was in the shop for the day, and he needed to run errands.

A few hours later, he handed me my keys and went upstairs to his office. A coworker asked if I’d seen my car. I felt a moment of panic, wondering if the owner had a fender bender and failed to tell me about it. I walked out to the parking lot and found my little red car atop four brand new tires, the best tires available for that make and model.

Tears.

I rushed back inside, up the stairs, and thanked the owner profusely while attempting to avoid wearing emotions on my face.

“There’s no way you could know this, but you have just been part of a miracle for me. Thank you.”

I’m not sure what he thought of my words, but his facial expression looked a little puzzled (and amused).

“Consider it a bonus. You’ve been working really hard.”

But I considered it a miracle, and I still do. God has repeatedly used people in my life (some of whom never know they’re being used) to reveal truth to me and to change my perception. And a miracle is just a change in perception.

Once in high school, while driving around late at night with a boy I loved, we diverted our course and decided to turn off the truck for an hour or so while talking, musing, and kissing—just two teenagers innocently loving each other in hands-free fashion. When my curfew neared, he turned the key to start the truck. Crickets. We both panicked.

But he stopped panicking, took my hands, and said, “Let’s pray about it.”

So we did. He tried to start it again. Still nothing.

We prayed again, and he said, “If it doesn’t start this time, I’ll have to find help.” It was cold and rainy, and walking to the nearest house didn’t sound enjoyable to me. We prayed again.

When he turned the key, it started. Magic. We ecstatically kissed.

This morning I remembered this moment. To me, it felt victorious. It felt genuine. And it felt beautiful to see someone I loved demonstrating faith in a crisis, stronger faith than I possessed. It changed my perception.

Remembering miracles—and expressing gratitude for them–IS a miracle for me; it changes my perception. When I see reality, I open my eyes anew, see my darling little girl wrapped up in a blanket watching Reading Rainbow, and hug my husband while we drink early morning coffee.

Embracing reality is the greatest miracle I’ve lived.

Word of the year 2016

I have a confession to make, and as a graduate of a liberal arts university (with a minor in religion and philosophy), this is truly crawl-under-a-rock worthy. I made a classic Christian mistake. I interpreted a passage of Scripture (Nehemiah 8:10) a) entirely out of context and b) in light of—wait for it—a contemporary Christian worship song rather than the context of the passage itself, the Jewish culture, or anything else reasonable or helpful.

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At OneDay 2000 (and yes, those are scrubs I’m wearing)

The embarrassing fact is this happened some time in college, and I’ve been running on the fumes of my lazy interpretation ever since. Has it caused me any major harm? Has it harmed others? Not necessarily.

At least one good thing came this Scriptural interpretation error for about 18 years. It opened my eyes to the truth that I’ve probably made similar errors numerous other times in my walk of faith over the years (incredibly humbling). Yikes—gotta keep my mental antennae up now every time I read the Bible for sure. What the heck was wrong with me? Were my emotions leading my brain or what? Who knows.

Here’s the problem.

I missed so much goodness by failing to see the big picture.

Each year since 2011, thanks to the prompting of my friend Denise Felton, I select a word as my focus or theme rather than making resolutions or setting specific goals. This helps me to stay centered and gives me something positive to meditate on; the appeal of choosing a word of the year also appeals to me since I’m a writer and have degrees in English—word nerd to the max, for sure.

This year, I felt compelled to focus on the word joy. If you read my previous blog post, you probably understand why. 2015 presented many challenges, and if I had to select a word in retrospect to represent my emotional state of being in 2015, it would likely be grief.

Who wouldn’t like a little relief from THAT? Joy hot fudge cake sundae with a little extra joy on top, please. And joyful cherry, too.002

I began researching joy and its word origins, reading articles online about the differences between happiness and joy, searching for quotes online and famous folks defining “joy,” and reading Scriptural passages about joy. All of this reading and research was helpful, but what stunned me—and quite frankly moved me to tears—was Nehemiah chapter 8. I knew I’d love verse 10 because, as I mentioned, I already felt attached to this verse because I’d belted out Matt Redman’s “Trading My Sorrows (Yes Lord)” more times than I can recall.

And I meant it—well, I meant that I WANTED the joy of the Lord to be my strength. Until the past few years, I didn’t even know how to allow God to be God in my life—I was my own god, managing and controlling and answering all my own questions and only turning to the real God as a last resort. So the whole “Trading My Sorrows” song and saying “Yes, yes Lord” thing was, at best, me paying desperate lip service to a noble concept I wanted to apply but simply couldn’t.

I recently purchased Sara Groves’ new album. The title track is Floodplain. I understand the song so well; the first time I listened to it, I gasped. She was describing the former Bethany.

Some hearts are built on a floodplain
Keeping one eye on the sky for rain
You work for the ground that gets washed away
When you live closer

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to that’s the way it goes
Some hearts are built on a floodplain

And it’s easy to sigh on a high bluff
Look down and ask when you’ve had enough
Will you have the sense to come on up
Or will you stay closer

Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees
Some hearts live here

Oh the river it rushes to madness
And the water it spreads like sadness
And there’s no high ground
And there’s no high ground
Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to Lord please send a boat
Some hearts are built here

What happened to move me off the Floodplain is similar to what happened for God’s people, the Israelites, in Nehemiah chapter 8–God ultimately comes in for the win and fills them with more joy than they’d ever imagined. If I had taken time to read this chapter for myself slooowwwllyyy rather than rushing through it, latching on to the portion of the verse mentioned in the catchy Christian worship song all the cool kids were singing at the time, maybe I would have taken note of this as an 18 year-old kid… But maybe not. As Sara Groves states, “Some hearts are built here.” Mine certainly was.

Nehemiah, a servant of God who was serving as governor on behalf of King Xerxes, felt led to lead the Israelites who’d returned to Jerusalem out of exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He appealed to Xerxes, who granted him permission to oversee this task, and over a period of several months, Nehemiah worked tirelessly to make it happen but not without encountering numerous naysayers, some of whom threatened his life and tried to attack Jerusalem. While reading Nehemiah today, I felt exhausted at times—so I’m pretty sure he must have felt this way, too. There were times when the men did not even disrobe and disarm while sleeping for fear of being attacked at night. All this occurred while the people worked non-stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

When the Jewish people finally finished rebuilding the walls, Ezra, the priest, gathered the people together to read the Book of the Law. The people listened attentively, and Nehemiah and the priests said to the people, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law… “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated like this. And their joy was very great.  (Nehemiah 8:9-10, 17)

I never knew the back story—that the priests commanded the people to stop grieving and to find strength in the Lord via the avenue of joy that day.

And the back story goes WAAAYY back. These people returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to other nations, enslaved to nations and forced into God-knows-what kind of bondage. Many of their babies died from starvation before having a chance at life. I could go on and on. I’m not making this stuff up—read the books of the prophets in the Old Testament—it’s all there, and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people are horrific.

These people—the ones having difficulty holding back tears while the Book of the Law is being read for the first time after the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt—these people are the survivors. But the priests see the big picture, and while they empathize with the mourning of the survivors, they also want to help the survivors thrive and move forward. They don’t want the people’s spiritual feet to remain stuck in the muck of grief. They want them to move into the clear, clean dry land of joy.021

This story—the story of the completion of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah chapter 8—occurred in the seventh month on the Jewish calendar during the Feast of Trumpets. This is the Jewish New Year.

It’s my New Year now.

This story resonates with me because it’s a beautiful depiction of what God has done for me, and it’s what I’m asking Him to do for me again.

After a long, hard year in 2015, I certainly relate to the overwhelming feelings expressed by the Israelites in Nehemiah. Like the people of Jerusalem, I am ready to celebrate like I have never celebrated before in 2016. I want to say at the end of this year, “And my joy was very great.”

As the wise king Solomon once said, there certainly is a season and time for everything. And there has been enough grief.

Excuse me, please. I must go heed the words of Nehemiah 8:12.

“Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”

I know, I know… I’m taking the words out of context again… but for the love of chocolate…

 

Snow, pianissimo

581291_556787911262_2008318683_nThe past few mornings the weather has deceived us. Jack Frost has made it impossible for me to leave the house without preheating my car for at least five minutes, deglazing the windshield while begging for three more hugs from my daughter while she watches Wallykazam wave words into existence with a magical stick. This morning I listened to JJ Heller’s new CD (which is her best yet, by the way) while making my way through the chilly countryside. As I approached the long, winding hill connecting our part of the world to what resembles a city, I snapped out of my piano-tuned trance-like state as I noticed what looked like huge, puffy, white snowflakes fluttering by.

Was it really cold enough to be snowing? I felt confused, but I tried not to think too long or too hard about the facts. It was breathtaking. I nearly gasped and appreciated the view. The feather-like snowflakes silently passed by my car.

Suddenly my gaze moved ahead to a large, ugly, black truck. Oh. A chicken truck.

The feather-like snowflakes were not snowflakes. They were feathers—chicken feathers.

I initially laughed out loud at my own mistaken perception.

Two seconds later I felt devastated by reality. Hundreds of helpless, frigid birds boxed inside the ugly truck blinked at me.

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With one of our chicks last spring

 

My mind immediately recalled a poem by Lola Haskins, “Playing Hiroshima.”

Playing Hiroshima

There are no finer audiences in the world
Andre Pogorelich, in 
Pianists Speak

Did you know the ones with colds wear surgical masks
so as to disturb no one?
They do.

Did you know their small hands lie folded in their laps
like boats?
They do.

Did you know they kneel kimonoed for etudes, as tea
cooled by a mother’s breath?
They do.

Did you know that skin can fall like snow?
Softly . . .  pianissimo?
They do.

–Lola Haskins, Forty-Four Ambitions for the Piano

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Why my brain made this connection this morning—15 or 16 years after studying as a college student at age 19 or 20 under the tutelage of poet Andrea Hollander–I do not know.

But I do know this: what happened to me this morning when Lola Haskins’ poem came to mind is my lifetime goal as a writer–to create such significant impressions through writing–to lend my readers experiences, nearly, while reading–that they might make connections to my words through their own experiences years later.

There is no higher compliment. So here’s to you, Lola Haskins. And to you, Andrea Hollander, for being my conduit to a world of beautiful words.