a season of sharing the work

I spent this rainy afternoon with women gathered around a table.

We watched and listened as our hostess demonstrated chopping and cooking techniques to create a soup meant to feed a crowd.

What is it about sitting in the presence of someone cooking a fresh meal that soothes? The steady rhythm of chopping, the steam from the pot, the aroma of onions and spices sauteed in butter? Is it that the cook does not skip a beat as she makes the meal just for you? While you watch. While you wait and listen. Comfort. This is comfort.

Thou preparest a table before me . . .

A hot bowl of red savory soup in the grayness of a stormy day, in a weekend of sadness. The world around is chaos. But here, in the corner of a dim sanctuary, we are breaking bread.

A scattered hum of words is spoken.

Just the sorts of conversations women who are grandmothers, great aunties, daughters, mothers of grown children have when they sit separated only by a full bowl, a full cup, a full plate. The stuff of life that fills novels and movies. Only real. Real people. Real tears. Real joys. Real life.

When the meal has ended and we prepare to go to our homes, we work together: washing dishes, collapsing and hauling away tables, setting the church to rights, loading the car with all the preparations and leftover food.

The motions are second nature. Each of us does exactly what we would alone, only there in harmony, in God’s house, working side by side.

We have been bonding over the work since time began.

Gathered at wells drawing water, gathered in fields harvesting grain, gathered at wine presses trampling grapes, gathered around rivers washing clothes.

In the common work of living and surviving we have always leaned on each other even as we do in this hour: Carrying heavy pots, folded tables, boxes of kitchen tools side by side by side. Wiping counter tops. Covering leftover food.

We are comforted, refreshed, encouraged. Ready to face the storm again.

Because of a simple bowl of soup, shared work, and living this season together.

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hope from a season of despair

I’ve been a writer at a marketing agency raising money for nonprofit organizations for the past six years. I’ve written for prison ministries, for family ministries for humanitarian aid, justice ministries, rescue missions. The stories entrusted to me help spread the word about what our clients do and raise money so they can keep doing what they’re doing.

Several years ago, on my first interview trip, it struck me that even though my life had been Sunday school, Church, mission field, Christian family, and I had had zero exposure to illegal drugs, when these men and women talked about coming to the end of themselves, I got it. Though our lives couldn’t be more opposite, the end result was the same.

The devastation that drugs and addiction bring to a person and a home are universal. Neither Dave nor I went to prison, we didn’t get a divorce, our kids weren’t taken away, and yet we came to the same breaking point as an addict on the street: God, I need help now.

As wonderfully fitting as my work is, I confess that I get discouraged. I feel like I’m writing everyone’s words but my own. My name doesn’t go on anything I pour myself into. The fruits of my creative labors are for somebody else’s benefit.

But on Thursday night I sat at a round table with co-workers and friends in an enormous room, dining on filet mignon and jumbo prawns, and witnessed contagious, hilarious generosity.  Just the sort of evening to breathe new life into a tired writer.

Items up for bid at this included float plane excursions, U.S. Open tickets, and time doing various things with people like the Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor, the Sounders soccer team, and Macklemore.

And they didn’t go cheap. The minimum bid for anything in the live auction, hosted and called by local television personalities was $1,000. A night on the Mission’s Search & Rescue Van with Macklemore sold for $25,000. A donor called in from his hospital bed to pledge $100,000.

I don’t know who these people are, but I know they believe strongly enough that broken people can be renewed to open up their wallets and give $1.5 Million to help heal them.

A man named Richard told his story. He’d been homeless and a meth addict for years, and he laid on a park bench for five days and asked God to take his life. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission’s Search and Rescue Van found him there and when they asked if he’d like to spend the night in the mission instead of on the streets, he said yes.

A year later he’s standing up on stage at this event telling 500 people that God did take away his life. He took away the life of addiction and drugs and hopelessness and gave him a new life in Christ.

I also witnessed the very thing I wrote about two days ago. That thing about monks and how we defeat discouragement and depression and acedia with serving and working with our hands.

The keynote speaker, with a net worth of $100 Million, famous for his role on a successful TV series surprises us, “Tonight, I’m going to tell you my story.”

And his voice breaks and he says, “I’m not afraid of anything, I’m known for being a shark, I don’t have weaknesses. Except . . .” And he weeps out words of devastation, of losing his kids in a divorce.

And he says all the money and fame and prestige could not heal the most painful hurt in his life. He was in such deep despair he went to the balcony and contemplated ending his life.

Afraid of himself, he called a friend and said, “I need to help someone else right now, or I’m going to die.”

That friend sent him to Seattle where he labored at the Men’s Shelter, alongside men like Richard. Through choking tears, he tells about going out on the Search and Rescue Van with Richard and how they found a man who was crying in a park and the two of them prayed over him and served him, millionaire on one side, homeless meth addict on the other.

And in the end of his story, this broken mega millionaire says: simple acts of service fixed me.

Stories of hope and revival lead to other stories of hope and revival.

No way in my life did I ever dream that our worst season of despair would turn into a season of philanthropy. Impossible that I would heal while writing words that help raise millions of dollars to help hurting people. I suppose about as impossible as a grateful meth addict reviving a billionaire.

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because people do change

Spring is trying hard this year to be my friend . . . but it’s failing miserably.

From hermetically-sealed enclosed spaces, I stare out at blue sky and sunshine. We’ve had a lovely Northwest spring tease. But so very, very polleny.

Someday, I will remember I get allergies every spring when the trees begin to blossom and start taking allergy meds the moment I see the tiniest bit of green.

Which reminds me . . . I forgot to plant sweet peas. Again. Actually, I’ve forgotten to plant anything. Because one day it’s winter and the next day it’s spring and there really is no difference between the two because below 40 might as well be 40 below to me.

So here I sit, head full of allergies, exhausted from binge catching up on to-do lists of things that must be done NOW. I always wait till the last minute, and then I bury myself until its done.

Oh, and I also forgot I have a bookshelf style greenhouse. I got it for my birthday last year, and I forgot about it — of course — because it sits on the back porch and is entirely visible through my kitchen window. I think I even told the kids to set it there because otherwise, I’d forget.

Once upon a time, I had gardens. We even planted seeds — in the ground in California, indoors in little soil pods in Washington.

34-year-old me, frustrated with trying to grow tomatoes in Tacoma, is jealous of 44 year-old me in Poulsbo. And she’s slightly mad because she would have had all sorts of seedlings in that green house right now, ready to put in the dirt.

Well, she has one more night to be jealous of 44 year old me. Then she gets to be jealous of 45. And she is desperately jealous. Believe me, I know. She wrote her life in journals. And I’ve been reading them again, writing our story.

If 34 year old me had known it would be ten years before she was flooded and amazed with the realization of how much her life had changed, she wouldn’t have been able to put one foot in front of the other. Ten years is terribly long, long time went you’re waiting for things to be better.

Twelve years ago, we moved to Washington for Dave to go to seminary to become a pastor . . . which happened this year, on January 1.

Two devastating job losses, two stints in rehab, six major relapses, food stamps, homelessness and six years of painstakingly rebuilding life from messy ruins is what 34 year old me has to look forward to.

Best to let her have her garden . . . a tiny piece of serenity in a world spinning violently out of control. 44 year old me does not envy her.

* * * * *

44-year-old-for-one-more-day me has been waking up this week full of gratitude for a husband who takes such good care of me, even when I’m a miserable chore of a hacking crone . . . which sums up how I sound and look today.

Most mornings now, I wake up to fresh coffee and the rattle of keys  . . . Dave, going to drive our oldest boy into town for zero hour. When he returns, we talk about the day and he makes himself eggs for breakfast, makes himself lunch, irons his own clothes (he’s always done that), and prays over me and for all our life and loves before he walks out the door, early — as usual — for work.

After work, he does more driving kids when I can’t — and sometimes even when I can, but he’s just very kind — and an hour at the Y (his only “me” time as far as I can tell). His reward in all this is a great relationship with his daughter and three sons, 45 pounds lost, and the love and trust of his wife.

None of this happened overnight. For six years and five months, he’s taken one step at a time in the right direction — rebuilding our home brick by brick. Faithful in little to faithful in much. And he loves people and often says and does things that are hard but right to say and do, and I am startled at how he is the man 34 year old me wanted so, so badly for him to be.

Oh, and he leaves the boys chore lists.

So I don’t have to think about cleaning today. So I can write.

* * * * *

And so I write hope today instead of being mad at myself for who I was supposed to be when I woke up tomorrow: 20 pounds lighter and at least last year’s “Do it all in 2012 2013″ to-do list-of-things-that-should-have-been-done-a-decade-ago done.

I write this hope for 45 year old me who can take a step each day in the right direction, too.

 

 

pride, part two . . . or, a sampler of thoughts on arrogance

I’ve written this post no less than six ways. By now it is a chapter for a book, the beginnings of a dissertation.

And since no one wants to read all of that, I’ve settled on a bit of a sampler instead.

* * * * *

Love is not proud.

The word pride in 1 Corinthians 13:4 is also translated puffed up or arrogant. I can readily see how a bloated sense of self leaves no room in a relationship for love. It is entirely consumed by self-image and self-importance and superiority of mind and position.

But arrogance in real-life relationships rarely looks like Gaston stomping around in boots singing his own praises. It’s more subtle, I think . . . and without a chorus. Well, at least not one others can hear.

Consider . . .

I.

There were times when I saw myself as so very superior to my husband: I was not an addict. I was responsible with money. I could get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t tell him lies.

Oh, I knew I had flaws, but they were nothing compared to his.

In earthly terms, I was right. He was wrong.

He didn’t deserve forgiveness, and I was not in need of it.

But that’s the very thing Jesus kept hammering home to the teachers who knew all the things and kept all the rules. None of us is perfect. Not one. And though it was hard, so hard, for me to imagine how it could possibly be, I came to understand that my sin of superiority and pride was every bit as bad as Dave’s addiction. Every bit. And, dare I say this? Even more so. He knew he was wrong. Confessed it regularly to God. I didn’t.

I’ve seen the grace that overflows from someone who has been forgiven much. And the tight-fistedness of one who has been forgiven little. Verses like Luke 15:7 are hard to grasp: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” God loves a repentant sinner, whether we like it or not.

Tight-fisted grace is arrogance, thinly disguised.

II.

Arrogance comes from knowing things. From the top of our column of study, we look down on those who have not yet arrived at our level, or our view.

We fling about superiority of mind, painting opposing viewpoints with broad brush strokes, ceremoniously shaking the dust of a community off our sandals. Claiming to speak the truth in love. Clamoring for seats at a table. Arguing among ourselves over who is the betrayer of grace . . . while Jesus kneels and gently washes our feet asking, Who is greater? The one at the table or the one who serves?*

Knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1), eclipses love and devolves into decisive division. Like bickering brothers in a family. If you like this, then I will hate it. If you call this good, then I will call it bad. If you criticize it, I will praise it.

We are wise in our own eyes. So reactionary.

Our truth-in-love-speak resembles nothing of the gentle, humble kindness of our Lord.

 

III.

Sometimes, arrogance is a cover.

Sometimes, my better than comes from wounds. Maybe yours does, too.

Wounds made by comment, culture, criticism . . . making us self-conscious of appearance, ability, size, personality . . . leaving us with feelings of less than.

Wounds made by trusted friends that were not accompanied by love but rejection. You have done this and therefore we are done.

Wounds made by grown-ups, even now, putting on a face of friendship but gossiping and stirring up trouble behind your back.

Some wounds are so deep they take longer to heal than anyone would dream. Heal to the point of walking again, let alone loving . . .

. . . sometimes, I still cling to the thing that makes me feel better than. I reach for it when I’m hurt or afraid of being hurt. I use it as a weapon.

How is it that we so easily slip into treating others the way we’ve been treated?

IV.

I believe this: there is grace for even the worst offender.

And after years of having the truth ground into my soul, arrogant thoughts of better than quickly dissipate from my mind the moment I recall my own weakness.

But sometimes, knowing my weakness too well is part of the problem . . .

I don’t know when I became such a perfectionist.

Paralyzing perfectionism: the urge to rip it all up and start over and never let it see the light of day: my living room, my writing, my body, my personality, my words, my gifts.

Somewhere, deep in the recesses, my perfectionism becomes a barrier to love.

Can there be an arrogance toward self? Is an arrogance toward self a fear of being seen as less than who we think we are or should be? Is it really, in the end, an insidious sort of pride masquerading as not good enough?

I don’t know.

But I believe God is painting his love over the wounds of my life. The better thans, the less thans, the know-it-alls, and the places where I just can’t yet. Even my procrastinating perfectionism.*

And I believe He does that for you, too.

It’s sort of the point of grace, isn’t it? Arrogance is just another reason we need Jesus.

* * * *

But God is so rich in mercy loved us so much
that even though we were spiritually dead and doomed by our sins,
He gave us back our lives again when he raised Christ from the dead . . .
And now God can always point to us as examples of how very, very rich his kindness is,
as shown in all he has done for us through Jesus Christ.
Because of his kindness, you have been saved through trusting Christ.
And even trusting is not of yourselves; it too is a gift from God.
Salvation is not a reward for the good we have done, so none of us can take any credit for it.
It is God himself who has made us what we are and given us new lives from Christ Jesus . . .
St. Paul, Ephesians 2:4-10

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* Luke 22:20-27 and John 13:14

* Procrastinating perfectionist — a term borrowed from Jon Acuff, Quitter