All Your Waves and Breakers

It used to be that when the psalm writer said, all your waves and breakers crash over me, I felt I was in the depths with him. I felt not necessarily low emotionally but that I was in over my head with God.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls. This was a drawing under, quite like the pull of ocean waves around my calves. I could steady myself and take a step back, or I could not. I could let the power pull me in. Watching from the outside, it may seem like a nonevent. But within, I was locked into focus with the voice and presence of the Almighty.

A trip to the seaside leaves you sun-drenched and so sandy you take the beach with you for days. Next spring, when you pull out the flattened beach ball, some of last summer’s sand sprinkles your toes, who fondly remember the salty grit and how easily they were buried when the waves rolled around them.

That tangible, textured memory is how I remember worshiping you, God, and listening to you. I remember how it felt to be swept into communion with you. To know you had spoken and were present, to dwell in waters both dangerous and splendid. With you, it’s radiance and life. With you, it is constant change.

Do I long for that now? These days, I am at the spiritual equivalent of a resort swimming pool. There is no running, no sand, no real danger for an adult who knows how to swim. On the plus side, there are bathrooms, lounge chairs, clean water, and no jellyfish. This pool has straight lines, careful steps and ladders, and tan teenagers with whistles to keep everybody in order.

Do I miss the sound of waves, the smell of wet salt, the hot walk over desert sand to reach the shore? Do I miss the unknown, stronger-than-all depths?

I would have to travel from where I am now to experience you as an ocean again. I suspect that if I ventured out like an hiker in search of a waterfall, I would find you. Can I not now seek you out?

You have said, "Seek my face."  
My heart says to you,  
"Your face, Lord, do I seek."  
Hide not your face from me.  

You spoke first. If I answer, it’s because you called. I think you’re calling me again, but it’s distant, like the sound of ocean waves from a roadway.

When I was a missionary, many ocean moments were built into my life, even weekly. Our church and ministry sought to bring to the forefront that connectedness and sense of power and mystery.

Now that I’m in a different church culture and no longer in ministry, those moments are farther out of reach. My new church reveres God, thinks of him deeply, and serves him wholeheartedly. The potency of God’s goodness permeates our regular interactions.

There are times when people respond to God emotionally, but it’s very controlled, like an English funeral. One dabs one’s eyes with a tissue and and neatens one’s makeup before making eye contact with others. It’s far removed from the wailing of a deep South black church funeral, where emotions are honored and their weight is shared.

I was a bridesmaid in my sister-in-law’s wedding. She is a white midwestern intellectual and she married an upper class Zimbabwean. During the wedding, from my precarious place on the steps, I watched the groom’s mother break into a joy-dance. Aptly, she is named Joy. She let out a little whoop and jigged around the front, even though the music was not very vigorous. A few black hands clapped along in encouragement.

It was evident to me that she chose her moment to dance. She was not so overcome with happiness that she could not constrain herself. She stood out—literally and culturally—because she brought her own ways into the ceremony. She was slightly and charmingly defiant of the order and posh that pervades a white American wedding.

So it is with people in my new church who raise their hands or pray in the corner for longer than the allotted time. There is love and acceptance for those exceptions to the norm, but they must make their own way.

This new church culture has a different sense of the costliness of worship. The church life I’m used to is marked by all-night prayer meetings, a sense of anguish and languish in worship, and sometimes sweaty, jubilant dancing. It’s often enjoyable, but it is rarely comfortable. Other expressions of costliness in worship might be going to a weekend event to seek God or potentially embarrassing oneself by leading out in spontaneous prayer. There, the expense was in risk and fervor.

My new church knows costly worship, but they use different currency. They spend actual cash on beauty and excellence in worship. They also give to the needy and take care of each other. Still another costliness is in giving things up for Lent. These are measured, well-thought-out sacrifices of comfort, pleasure, and normalcy.

I’ve always struggled with Lent. We’ve tried to participate for a few years as my husband has become more “liturgical.” To me, Lent feels like Old Testament sacrifice. A prescribed ritual to make a statement; an untested trust that the mystery is real; a quietness of expectation—a sowing of seed.

There are Old Testament stories of costly worship that resonate more with me. Hannah weeping at the altar for a baby; Jacob wrestling with God and walking away with a broken hip; and Moses’ face aglow with holy bush fire.

The Old Testament is replete with both ritual and drama. Ritual sustains and reminds and keeps things in order. Drama directs and surprises and fuels the engine of faith. In a similar way, swimming laps in the pool at the YMCA means I can jump in the waves when I make it to the ocean.

Five years of singing

On March 9, I looked in the mirror and saw his eyes looking back at me.  I’d never noticed before how much my eyes are like his. It hurt me to see his eyes looking back at me and know they’re only mine.  His eyes won’t see me anymore. A girl loves for her dad to see her. He saw each of my children. But not two of my nephews.  

Why does the pressure still rise from my throat to my ears and spill out these strange eyes that sometimes feel more his than mine?  It’s been five years. But these five years, he could’ve been part of my life. I needed him when our house caught fire and we had to rebuild the whole thing.  I needed him to know that I would do what was best. It wasn’t that he had all these important words of advice all the time. It was that he really did think we were going to make the best choices.  And when we made bad choices as teenagers, the look of surprised betrayal clouded his sky-colored eyes and he furrowed his brow.  

I need him to trust me with the choices we’ve recently made to change our career.  It’s a risky move, full of sacrifice and emotional turmoil, but also I know he would understand, and he wouldn’t question it.  Being dead, he can’t trust me anymore. Too many times I earned his distrust but he gave it away. He turned in his proof of being right all the time.  He walked away empty-handed, again expecting the best from me.  

I really don’t think he expected anything unreasonable.  But I have so wanted to surprise him with good. Possibly I want to deserve his expectations.  

The way I’m describing him, it sounds like he was an idealist.  And I guess he was an idealist in the sense that he was driven by ideals.  But he was painstakingly pragmatic. He believed in eternity, and he staked all his pains on practically influencing that reality.  He believed in eternity like he believed in old age. Though we can’t see it yet, it’s coming. He believed in eternity like he believed in a lake we were visiting for the first time.  Having mapped it out and planned our trip with airtight detail, there was no doubt that the mass of blue on the map was going to equate to a peaceful body of water in real life. My childhood was charted with the confidence that he wouldn’t mess up something important like that.

For a man so set on eternity, watching him die was impossible.  It seemed not possible. Eyes that had looked into mine for my entire existence now had no seeing behind them.  Where is he? How could he not be in there? Can he see me now, from somewhere else? 

He was awake on Saturday afternoon, March 7.  My sister and I sang to him – I don’t even remember what we sang.  Maybe “How Great Thou Art.” Why, God, did we not sing longer? Because we both had small children who couldn’t visit the Cardiac ICU, and they were too rowdy to hang out in the waiting room for long.  Anyway, as we sang, he turned his eyes to look at mine. A few silent millimeters of movement and my heart filled with the communication of his love. He saw me for the last time that day.  

The next morning was Sunday—both actually and symbolically it was a Sunday—March 8.  I came to see him again on my own. I had another song that I wanted to share with him.  Why is singing such a natural part of sending someone into the next life? I think it might be because there’s singing in heaven.  It helps people get ready.  

I killed a fish once because I dumped it into water that was too warm.  I thought he would like it, since he was a tropical fish, a beta. And for a moment, he seemed to enjoy it, swimming around fast, very fast, so very fast until he shivered and stopped and floated to the surface, tail first.  So far, I haven’t shaken the feeling that I am a terrible pet owner and will probably kill anything we get. I have also killed a lot of house plants. The point about the fish is that I learned—too late—that you have to change the temperature of their water very gradually.  You’re supposed to somehow get them to swim into a little bag that you seal very tight and then you sit the bag in the water you want them to get used to. I haven’t yet tried this method for myself. But I sang to my dad when he was dying and it felt like getting him used to something new.  

While I sang that song, my father’s eyes were closed, but it was a song he knew and a few tears rolled down the creases of where he laughed the most.  My God, how I long to hear him laugh. I used to be really sassy at the dinner table. He would come home from work quiet and sometimes a little sullen. But I wanted to hear him laugh, so as everyone was chatting, I would throw in these punchy lines.  He would laugh with surprise that I was using grown-up humor. Certainly not vulgar humor. That would’ve brought on the furrowed brow of disapproval (my siblings and I called it the “badger look.”) I wish I could think now of an example of things that would make him laugh.  It never came to me ahead of time. It was the surprise and slight daring that caught him off-guard and made him laugh, sometimes loud, sometimes with relief at all the pent up seriousness of his world.  

That last morning, I sang to him, “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” and I focused on getting the words right.  I had memorized it by singing it to my infant daughter. That sounds really sweet, but it was when she was fussing and wouldn’t go to sleep that I ended up singing that hymn.  If she went to sleep easily, I would only sing “Jesus Loves Me” and maybe “There’s Just Something About That Name.” But if she was really giving me a hard time, we’d get to “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” which has four verses, and by the time my dad was dying, she was two months old.  We’d gotten to “My Jesus, I Love Thee” lots of times by then. So I knew the words, but I wanted to get it right. And I was really focusing on that, until the tears came out of his eyes. I looked up at the nurse attending him—she was always doing something with the machines or tubes or blankets.  I looked up at her to share the joy that my dad could hear me singing, even though he appeared to be unconscious. And she, the nurse, was dripping with tears all down her face while she worked on the machines.  

By then I’d gotten to the third verse, which I sang with a wobbly voice and my own eyes crying, blinking to see my dad this last time.  “I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death, and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath, and sing when the death dew lies cold on my brow, if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.” 

I don’t care that it’s a pitiful scene, I hold onto it.  That moment was a gift to me, and I hope to him too. I hope it helped him get ready to sing.  His singing is the other thing that I need him for. He and I sang together in church once. In front of everybody, just him and me.  We sang, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” And I would rather have Jesus. I truly would. But I would also like to have my dad. 

Practicing

A friend gave me a writing book called The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth. I imagined it’d be about as fun as reading a thesaurus. But it turns out that Forsyth knows how to have a good time, even with what could be a mundane subject. He winsomely teaches the figures of rhetoric, which I didn’t know were a thing. And he gives examples regularly from the Bible and Shakespeare. Thus I’ve found poetry the most natural form for these practicing these ideas.

I hesitate to share these poems here, because they are so different from what I would expect from me. But if we wait till I have another standard blog post to share, we may be waiting for quite a while. Also, I’m terrible with titles, so if anyone wants to give suggestions for numbers 1, 2, or 3, I’m all ears! Here we go:

1.
Little girls are beauty of unmade making;
Grown-up girls are beauty painted over;
And women...women can go either way.
2.
This boy is a forest; his brother is a garden.
I will not still the forest.
I will not toughen the garden.
I will not farm over these boys.
3. 
From back of me, I see you 
Raiding the bin of towels
To make an indoor beach party

From downstairs, I see you
Deep in concentration
Playing at your desk with Legos

From the side yard, I see you
Slipping through the front gate
To scooter down the sidewalk

From the garden, I seem to see you
Grinning with pride
To be out in the glad world

Now my ears see you—you've gone too far
My eyes find you and listen
There's your form on the grass far away
Folded over one knee, frowning over broken skin
You're wishing for me to come 
Waiting for me to come see you

Snapshot

She leaves in her wake a flutter of construction paper fragments, like a flower girl. Mangled tape sticks to her shoe as she holds up a glue bottle for me to unclog. A paper crown pushes stray hair into her eyes. With a leap, she declares she’s going to make a crown for Daddy and give it to him when he comes home. For her, sequins are everyday wear and light-up shoes go with everything. Though she insatiably delights in all things princess, she is no prim and priss, better-than-thou member of the royal class. Her crown is of her own making, and if you come here often, you’ll get one too.

Hungry Hope

The walk through the gardens was too short for our conversation, so we sat down on a bench. A couple days prior, she had received the diagnosis. “You’re experiencing a medical scare, Katie” I stated, with ignorant confidence. “It’s frightening to be told that the doctors don’t know what to do. But you know that God knows what to do.” And then I gave her some obnoxious line about eating the asparagus if they told her to, so she wouldn’t have any regrets. If the cancer did get worse, at least it wouldn’t be from a lack of asparagus.

Quietly, she stared at the trees, and said, “This is a medical scare…I like that.” And she went on with her life. For months and months, she simultaneously received cancer treatment, worked part-time in our college ministry and part-time in an eating disorder residential program.

She refused to despair, even as the “medical scare” became a terminal diagnosis. She had a form of blood cancer that only about 400 people have ever had. How is that possible? Surely the treatment from some other type of cancer would work?

Fear was there, but she gave the best of herself to those around her. She loved to make little gifts out of paper, usually involving encouraging words and drawings of flowers. She was one whom our students would call when they were low or they’d drank too much to drive home. She lived onsite in the residential program, and talked of opening her own center one day. We often forgot she had cancer.

She did feel well most of the time, but there was once when she called me to come and bring over-the-counter medicine for an embarassing problem. She was crying in pain, and I had no idea what to say. She obviously needed her mom.

Not long after that, she moved home, and I didn’t get to see her much. Her parents became what everyone else wanted to be for her. We wanted to soften the blows and shield her from the storm. Her parents became the blankets she lay on and the tarp to cover her. And she clung to Christ to keep from despairing.

To live well through a time like that is to have your heart turned inside out, so the raw, vulnerable parts are exposed. Some may take sleeping pills and watch daytime TV to make it through. I’m sure Katie watched her fair share of The Price is Right, but she remained very clear-eyed and honest. When hope is present, it’s a strange sort of pain, not at all like bleeding from a wound. Her physical life was rapidly wasting away, but inwardly, it was different.

Athanasius, in the fourth century, reported as proof of the resurrection of Christ that fathers, mothers, children, and youth would more readily die for Christ than deny him. How could they face death with actual hope if there were not a living, resurrected Jesus at work in their lives? Some may say that hope is a flimsy thing. Maybe they’ve only seen a shadow or a replica. Real hope is an animal, fierce and growing.

The doctors started a last-ditch effort which entailed a long hospital stay. Chemotherapy can turn a young woman old in a matter of weeks. When I went to see her, her hair was patchy, her face skeletal, and she rolled her head in my direction rather than lifting herself in the bed. I breathed in and tried to hide my shock.

She asked with chapped lips and a paltry voice, “How is Judah enjoying Kindergarten? I bet he’s charming them all.” And she asked after my other kids and my husband. 

I had brought her a gift that I’d just made that afternoon. A stack of notecards on a small photo easel. On each notecard, written as large and pretty as I could manage, were phrases from Colossians 1. My idea was that she could put one up each day to encourage her while she recovered.

Instead, she hungrily grabbed the whole stack and began to read them out loud. “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” After each one she would close her eyes and breathe, drinking in the words. “In him all things were created.” “He is before all things.” “He holds all things together.” After this one, she began to weep and wail with longing.

I watched as the truth on those cards fed the hope within her. She seemed to consume the message like a field laborer eats a hearty meal after a long harvest day.

I won’t say that she wasn’t grieved about leaving this life. She mourned the loss of time with her nieces especially, and her parents and siblings and fiancé. But the thought of being with Christ was too precious to her to really regret leaving so soon.

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. -Luke 6:21

Approaching Habit Change as a Whole Person

Unrelated photo that made me smile. Thanks to Lex Aliviado on Unsplash.

The things that ought to be done seem the hardest to do. More or less, this is a perennial human problem. The things that don’t need to be done are so much more appealing.

Some of us are perpetual procrastinators. We look at the important things on our to-do list and, almost by instinct, our eyes bounce to the shorter, simpler tasks.

Some of us walk a darker path. Our motivations are trained on the forbidden, and our we find ourselves frighteningly boxed in by destructive habits. But still, we don’t “feel like” changing our ways.

We can say with David, “my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12). Many have cried out for God’s deliverance and have experienced his help. But often we slip back into our old ways. Or, we have implemented a practical plan for change, but have been unable to sustain the habits.

The new year – and in this case, the new decade — gets us thinking about how we’d like to improve our lives. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and start the new lifestyle we’ve been eyeing from a distance. What is holding you back? What makes it so difficult?

Two worlds at work

The truth is, we live in two worlds, and any succesful approach to change will acknowledge that. We live in the obvious, tangible world around us. But another, less defined but more powerful world influences us as well. It’s the realm of the unseen, the spiritual, the emotional; it’s the person that you are even if your body changes completely. It’s hard to define, although many seek to clarify it.

Solutions for lifestyle changes often emphasize one reality over the other. “Change your environment to make habit change easier” – this seeks to fix the physical world, but ignores the spiritual. “Be set free from the bonds of sin, and your life will reflect your heart change” – this acknowledges the power of the spiritual but minimizes the practical reality.

We tend to feel more comfortable boiling the issue down to one area, especially one area we have not tried to address before. We seek the missing element that has made positive change so elusive.

In truth, our lives are an interweaving of the two realms. They are inseparable and interdependent.

Our thoughts are the intersection

Perhaps the place where the two worlds interconnect most directly is in our conscious thoughts. For this reason, psychology and self-help methods seek to influence our manner of thinking, to access both the unseen condition within us as well as our day-to-day actions.

If you have bounced from one method of lifestyle change to another, trying to find the plan that will work for you, consider a more integrated approach.

You are a whole being: body, soul, mind, and spirit. Your past experiences, your future hopes, and your present environment all infuence your choices.

The chief command in both Judaism and Christianity is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4). We must bring all of ourselves to the table in order to fully love God, love those around us, and live the way we’re designed to live.

How to integrate both worlds

So here are some practical ideas for integrating both the unseen and the seen in your life, whether you’re trying to start a new habit or get unstuck from an old way of living.

  1. Say “thank you” to God for 5 things outside of you and 5 things inside of you. (For example, thank him for providing a home for you, and thank him being with you always.)
  2. Consider the various attempts you’ve made to change in the past. What has worked, even if it was temporary? What has helped you to improve even slightly? Think about how the internal and external world have played a role in those attempts.
  3. Visualize yourself on a journey toward the lifestyle you want. Every tiny attempt you make is a step in the right direction. As you journey, you are growing stronger as a person – this is the unseen realm. You also are learning to use tools to help you – this is the physical realm. Express gratitude for the ways your journey has shaped you and for the tools you’ve gained. Ask God for the strength and the tools you’ll need going forward.
  4. Ask someone to pray for the practical stuff. Often, we keep our prayer requests really vague and make them sound holy. We might say, “I want to honor God with my finances,” but what we really mean is, “I plan to give and save more this year, but I’m a habitual overspender. I need God’s help.” Be specific and honest with trusted people.
  5. Think of the times when you deny yourself or do something hard as little gifts to God or to your loved ones. You can even set a timer and say to yourself, “Because I love God, who made my body, I’m going to wait 20 minutes to let this craving pass.” Or write a note, “Dear God, I wanted to demand an apology from my coworker today, but I let it go. That was for you.”

The idea is to integrate your perception of where change comes from. It’s true that your heart needs to change in order for your life to change. That is the unseen world influencing the seen. At the same time, you are continually influenced by the world around you, no matter how strong you are on the inside.

So as you’re seeking out change for this new decade, resist the temptation to boil down your efforts in one realm or the other. You are a whole person. You have the opportunity to love God with your whole self and to share your whole self with others.

Excuses

The time is always right to do what is right. – MLK, Jr.

I’ve been reading a “how to” book called Sacred Rest. One would think it would be a short book. “Put this book down and close your eyes.” End of story. It’s not that short—there are a bunch of chapters and loads of insights to work through.

The author, Saundra Dalton-Smith, is a medical doctor, but more importantly, she is a Type A working machine by nature, as are most doctors, I would assume. After doing a bit of diagnosing on what kind of rest we’re most in need of—physical, emotional, creative, etc.—and prescribing treatment for each type of rest depletion—a calming walk by a lake for sensory overload, for example—she proceeds to wade through some of the common obstacles we face when trying to get adequate rest.

The issue for most of us has to do with our habits. Habits of routine are things we do without being aware of making the choices we’re making. Habits of thought are inward reactions we make without trying. Changing almost any habit is truly challenging.

This goes for all kinds of areas we want to improve: spending less time on our screens, eating better, lashing out in anger less often, etc. Dr. Saundra links all these things to having adequate rest, by the way. Lifestyle choices are both affected by and affect our level of restedness.

My personality is rather Type A, but as I barely passed high school chemistry, I never considered becoming a doctor. Also I get queasy when people describe the medical procedures they’ve endured. Aside from those things, I think I’m plenty Type A to be a doctor.

I’m always thinking about how to improve my life, and in my better moments, I’m also thinking about how to improve others’ lives. Someone once told me bluntly and without compassion that perfectionism is not of God. That’s obviously absurd because God himself is perfect.

What she meant was that my drive to always improve sometimes need to rest in the grace God extends to the imperfect. Okay, fine, but there is something God-ordered in me that wants things to be right.

Yet I often do the wrong thing out of habit.

One paragraph in Dr. Saundra’s book struck me as very to the point. She asks questions which only the best of friends has the care, time, and guts to ask:

  • What excuses do you make for not living the way you know you should?
  • Why are you making these excuses?
  • What are these excuses preventing you from experiencing?
  • How are these excuses limiting your ability to get what you want?
  • Why are you settling for a life of excuses?

Thinking through the answers to these questions cleared out some of the clutter in my mind. Many of my excuses have to do with procrastination: Next time, I’ll get it right. This time, I’m off the hook.

But Dr. King, who seemed to do the right thing to the very end, makes it simple. What I do next time is irrelevant. It’s what I do this time that matters. It’s always the right time to do the right thing.

“Be very careful, then, how you live, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15-16