I realize this morning the discomfort struggle creates for students–both college students and my own younger daughters–when asked to do difficult tasks that require higher level thinking. I see the mind at work: it grapples (my favorite verb), sifts, synthesizes, and mulls. It struggles to find resolution. It seeks harmony and peace and resolution.
And then! A new idea forms!
Some students embrace the struggle. They tilt their chins up to the ceiling, pondering. They know something’s not resolved. They know some idea is coming but hasn’t yet formed. So they throw themselves into the fray of their own mind. It’s exciting and risky and strange.
Other students enter into a state of distress. They actually cry. They can’t figure it out. They hate that they can’t figure it out. They react, wide-eyed with hands wringing and feet shifting, and do everything they can to avoid whatever problem their mind cannot solve–whether a new writing prompt or some complex question. It’s fearful and upsetting and stressful.
Part of teaching and parenting means helping others embrace struggle–to sit with it, let it happen, and wonder over it. It means increasing our tolerance for murky places, unresolved questions with multiple points of view, and complex ideas. It means helping students ask better questions:
What do I need to know more about to help me solve this problem?
What new point of view might I inhabit?
What does this have to do with this other thing?
How can I stay in this unresolved place a little longer?
We can stay in the struggle and see it as an invitation.
Over the years, I’ve learned so much about living well from the oak trees. If you remember, I learned about holding your ground from a little fortune cookie, about our perfect timing compared to others when my oak wouldn’t drop her leaves, about what to do with bitterness from the day we made acorn flour, and about how to reconsider God’s work in your life when it looks like chaos and abandonment.
Recently, I began to wonder about this sign in my neighborhood:
What’s Oak Wilt? Why can’t I prune until November? What does it mean to dress or paint wounds? I conduct a little research, and I learn that one should never prune an oak tree in spring or summer. The sap released when you prune will attract certain beetles that carry a terrible fungus causing the deadly “oak wilt.” This fungus will kill a beautiful oak tree in just one season (and sometimes in just one to two months!).
So you prune in winter. In winter, the beetles stay dormant. In winter, the sap won’t ooze to seal the wound or attract any disease carrying bugs. In winter, the leaves disappear and you can see what you’re doing. You have better vision.
I consider what it means to make big, pruning kinds of decisions in life. I think about waiting for clear vision, about choosing a time and space that’s best, about picking a time where I’m most able to heal from any losses. The oak tree undergoes change best in November.
When do I undergo change best?
I remember that living with flair means waiting for the best time for change.
(And it means having fun as March drags on. Last night graduate students made a giant snow-woman named Phyllis!)
This morning I find that @WritingSisters on Twitter have posted a quote from the poet William Wenthe. Wenthe writes in his poem, “Water Dish,” the following:
“We put on our stories / before our clothes.”
We put on our stories before our clothes. The line deeply resonates as I’ve completed a Bible study of Ephesians that asks readers to carefully consider the stories they tell themselves regarding the seven most important verbs of Ephesians: included, chosen, seated, renewed, filled, strengthened, and proclaiming.
I think about what story I’m telling about who God is, who I am, what I’m doing, why, and even how. I put on these narratives each new day, and I want them to remain the right, true story.
Coming soon! Available for preorder for June 6th delivery! I can’t wait to tell you all about it!
When I find myself critical of someone, I think I’m being discerning. I remember the words of an older mentor: “Discernment is not for the purpose of criticism but for the purpose of prayer.”
I turn the negative thought into prayer: a prayer of love and wisdom and growth. I pray into the situation rather than standing outside of it, criticizing. And I trust that God is either moving or not. I don’t need to worry.
I also remember the words in Acts 5. When people struggled against Peter and the apostles’ activity. They were scared and furious. But a leader said:
“In the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Sometimes, we pray and leave people alone.
This morning, as I read Psalm 80, I note a pattern of God at work.
The psalmist writes in verse 8-11 (and refers to the Israelites as a “vine”):
You transplanted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
and it took root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
Its branches reached as far as the Sea,
its shoots as far as the River.
As I recalled the work of the “vinedresser” in John 15, I consider how I see God tending this vine: He transplants, drives out enemies, sows, clears ground, lets the vine take root, and then enables growth and blessing from this vine.
I remember this pattern when I think about personal growth in my life and what I’m hoping to see God accomplish. To grow best, I’ve learned, God first transplants (moves me somewhere new or into a new position), spends time (often years!) driving out enemies or sin from my own heart, clears ground for the work (the pruning of relationships and obligations to free time and space), and then lets me take root into a new thing.
And then–only then–do I observe fruitfulness and impact.
It takes time. I rush right to impact and fruitfulness without remembering how God cares for vines. There’s always a process and a biblical pattern to note. I think of myself as a little planted Israelite today. And I don’t resist the transplanting, driving out, sowing, and clearing work of God.
It’s a strange March: we count icicles hanging dangerously off rooftops, some three-feet long and growing; we slide on ice and turn back with our chins tight to our chests as we endure bitter wind and drive to school instead; we think about hot chocolate and sleds.
But it’s all wrong. We had already, hadn’t we, seen the Northern Cardinal returning to the winterberry bush to build the annual nest. We had already rejoiced over the crocus and daffodils. We had already packed away snow boots and lined our flip flops up by the door.
I don’t want this gift of winter. Not now! But I also know better than to live in longing, confusion, or anger when life fails to deliver on any kind of expected promise. I know to scan the available landscape for beauty and wonder. I know what to do.
I know that the shadowy artwork in the backyard only comes with this material right here. It’s a stained glass moment, a little place of worship. There’s better light with snow reflecting. Everything shines. And I love it today even more than the green coming.
I recently invited a graduate student to join us for our family dinner. I’m on the phone with the Italian Mama, and I’m telling her how this student asked with astonishment if I prepare family dinner like this every night.
She sounded like I once did when I complained to the Italian Mama about the time commitment and exhaustion of making a family meal every single night. Back then, when my teens were so young, I would wonder, Why am I doing this? I shop for food, prepare this meal, they eat in 10 minutes, and then we’re cleaning up! I’m tired!
Why would I do this? Why would I keep doing this? I once even calculated that, by the time the oldest left for college, I will have prepared over 6,000 meals.
The Italian Mama taught me this all those years ago and reminds me of her wisdom again this morning:
This gift of the family meal–when she surrenders completely to the beauty and symoblism of this task– is the most important thing she does in a day. Not her career? Not her public accomplishments? She talks to me in poetry as she describes the family meal as a miracle, a sacrament, a ministration of love. The Italian Mama explains the communion of it: you prepare this beautiful gift of a meal, gather your family, present it to them, and provide a connection to one another and to God. It’s a powerful, precious gift. We don’t even understand how special it is.
She does it again: The Italian Mama knows how to infuse the sacred into my most mundane tasks. I think again about the tacos I’m making tonight. I think about peeling the garlic and onions for the special rice and beans we make. I think about the chopped tomatoes and lettuce. I think about how I’ll present the meal on the Blue Italian plates I love. I’ll put out an extra plate in case someone pops in to join us. We’ll sip our ice water, crunch our tacos, and talk about the wonder of the day. We’ll nourish our bodies and our souls. We’ll look into one another’s eyes. We’ll rest. And then we’ll push our chairs back and go into the evening having participated in a sacred ritual.
I’m not just cooking. I’m worshipping, rejoicing, communing.
The neighborhood today! We walked everywhere we needed to go.
What my husband and daughter expressed most of all regarding their mission trip was a fresh encounter with God, His love, His power, and His work.
They glowed from it.
I realize the importance of fresh encounters with God. Sometimes, I know we rely on past experience, past emotions, past revelations. Instead, we aim to position ourselves for fresh encounters. We serve radically, off the beaten path, and take risks. We go out far into the unknown to find God there in a new and fresh way.
My husband and oldest daughter return from their mission trip today! Today’s the day! We’ve had no contact except for a 1 minute phone call on his birthday. I’m so excited to reconnect. I’m visiting with my friend who reminds me of this post I wrote last year. I had been worried about what to ask and what to say to bless them most, and she directed me to my own lesson! Enjoy!
My friend sits beside me in church on Sunday, barely awake from her mission trip to the Dominican Republic. “I missed you! How was your trip?” I ask.
This is a terrible question, and I know better. It’s an overwhelming, nonspecific kind of question that makes my friend do all the work. When I returned home from Chicago when I recorded the audiobook for Seated with Christ, my husband didn’t ask, “How was your trip?”
I would have said, “Fine,” and then I would have yawned.
But he asked, “What surprised you the most about the process there?”
What surprised me? Oh, I have so much to say! I want to tell you everything about the technology and my voice and the whole thing!
So this morning as I prepare to meet with other professors for our Bible study, I’m so eager to connect with my friend who just took her whole family on a mission trip. I don’t want to ask, How was your trip? I want to ask a question that will bless her and help her process all that she experienced.
I ask others what they think are the best questions to ask returning friends, and we come up with these that I just love:
- When did you have to be the most flexible?
- How and when did you experience God the most?
- What did you see God do for you as a family?
- What did you learn that you’ll want to incorporate in your life and ministry?
- What are you finding yourself praying for now that you’ve returned?
I’m excited to ask better questions. I love a good question like a love a good verb!