Permission to Take a Break

I’m driving by news vans and reporters, and in the midst of more frenzy, this town feels so tired.   

My students slump over their notebooks, eyes dark and heavy.  They tell me they can’t wait to just go home.  We talk about their favorite Thanksgiving dishes and their family traditions, and we find ourselves smiling for the first time in days.  Go home. Take a break, I tell them.  Sleep well; eat well.

We can’t move on from the scandal around us, but we can rest and refresh for the battle ahead.

It feels wrong to enjoy a light-hearted moment today. As I think about my conflicting emotions, I consider how important it is to refresh during crisis and suffering.

We have permission to take a break.  

I recall Psalm 23 and another Dark Valley.  I notice the importance of resting–of lying down–and refreshing in order to stay strong for the work ahead. 

 1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
 3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
   for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
   through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
   for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
   they comfort me.
 5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Living with flair means you let yourself be led to green pastures and quiet waters when you’re in a Dark Valley. I’m so thankful that God will prepare a good table.

How do you find the “green pastures” when you are in Dark Valley?


A Challenge

I’m listening to the Director of Operations for the International Justice Mission in Southeast Asia.  He makes three statements that can reshape my purpose in my community.

1.  Believe that the strong have a duty to the weak.
2.  Identify the one in need of rescue.
3.  Respond with courage and compassion to confront oppressors (spiritual and physical) and set people free.

I’m not in Southeast Asia, but I am in a neighborhood.  Do I believe I have a duty to help others?  Can I ask, “Where are the weak among us–those suffering, those oppressed by various sources–who God might send me to help?”  And will I have the Spirit-filled courage and compassion to move into lives that need freedom?

Living with flair means going on rescue missions.  Today, the verbs confront and rescue enter my list of actions I want to animate my life.  Lord, give me courage.

Journal:  Who needs to be rescued in your community? 


You Can Go Where Others Cannot

Today my daughter announces that she hates being so short.  “Everyone else my age is taller than I am!”

I want to deny it.  I want to comfort her.  I want to tell her to get over it. 

But she is rather short.  So instead of denying the truth of her statement, I remind her that God has a reason for everything

“Can you think of any reason why a loving God would let you be shorter than everyone else right now?”  I ask her, staring deeply into those little girl eyes that will undoubtedly face a lifetime of the kinds of disappointments and heartbreak that come with the human experience.  She will ask so many why? questions as the years unfold.  

She tilts her head to one side and ponders the thought.  “Well, I can get into places that most people can’t.”

This means she wins hide-n-seek.  This means she has an advantage in finding hiding places that suddenly makes her stature valuable.  What a change of heart! 

All day, this statement resonates in my heart:  “I can get into places that most people can’t.”  I talk to God about this, and I imagine this conversation: 

Yes.  You can go where others cannot.  That’s what this confusion, this disappointment, this heartache is for.  Your experience gives you access.  It’s a portal into a place others cannot–or will not–go. 

I find myself welling up. God speaks to my own heart through my daughter’s answer.  Suffering allows you to “get into places that most people can’t.”  I think about ministry opportunities, writing projects, insights, amazing friendships, communities, and blessing after blessing because I went into beautiful spiritual and physical places I could only enter through the door of suffering. 

Living with flair means knowing that you can go where others cannot because of the things you’ve suffered. 

Journal:  Where has your suffering allowed you to go?


On Watching the News of the Tsunami in Japan

As I grade papers today, I want to ignore the background buzz and flicker of a news channel showing footage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  I watch someone’s home burst into flames and float away.  I watch a cargo ship turn over on its side as simply as a man changing positions in his sleep.  From an aerial vantage point, it seems like someone has poured buckets of black paint over the farmland.   I want to turn away from this news and this reality. 

I see a minivan turn circles in the water like a silver leaf.

Not until the voice behind the footage reminds me that I’m watching a wall of water moving at 500 mph do I suddenly imagine the noise, the wind, and the smell of it.  I look at that minivan and think of a family going about their day.  It’s not a leaf.  It’s a family in a vehicle. 

Just this morning, my youngest daughter hears the radio announce that an earthquake has hit Japan.  Tears well up and she says, “Mama, Aki is in Japan.”  

We leave for school and go about the day with that tsunami in the background of our minds.  I force it to the forefront–choosing to remember, choosing to pray.  It’s too easy to forget.  It’s too easy not to hear that background story of a country in crisis. 

I force myself to write about it.  But I don’t want to think about it.  It’s not happening here.  It’s over there

I go back to grading.  A student has written an analysis of W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”   Auden writes about how, in the face of widespread human suffering, “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster” because we have “somewhere to get to.” 

I don’t want to turn away.  I’m in this, and for me, being in this means I write.  That keeps it in the foreground.  That’s keeps me from turning away today. 

I write and pray for Japan today, and that’s how I’m choosing to live with flair.    

Journal:  How can I stay “in this” today?  Is it important to do this? 


The Detail that Changes Everything

In class today, we read the description of the town of Maycomb in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  As we imagine that beautiful Southern drawl, we hear how “ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” 

That one detail comparing ladies to teacakes sets a mood for this little town.  It’s a comparison worth making. 

The ladies like soft teacakes seem out of place.  It’s a tiny detail, amid the “red slop” of rainy streets and “bony mules” that flick flies away.  There’s even a dog suffering in the background.   I don’t want to live in a town like this. 

But then, the writer introduces the lovely and delicate and transforms sweat to frosting and talcum.  Already, I know something marvelous will happen in the mind of this narrator. 

She’s going to reconstruct a new reality for me. 

As we work on our own personal memoir settings, we think deeply about tiny details that change how we understand our pasts. We are the characters, looking back over our lifetimes, and weaving threads of meaning into our experiences.  Was there a detail that I couldn’t see until this moment that offers a new reality?   Is there a truth I might apply that I only see now?  Back then, I only felt the heat and slop.  But now? 

Can I notice something different–one detail–that might turn sweat to frosting? 


What Can Warm You

A Woodpile

This time of year in Pennsylvania, I can see woodpiles in the side yards of homes.  Folks use wood burning stoves or fireplaces to heat their homes in the cold winter. 

Every time I pass by these wood piles, I experience a particular nostalgia for warm, cozy rooms.  I can hear the crackle of the fire; I dream up the glow in the room.  I let the imagined heat embrace my face and hands. 

Mostly, I think about how secure that family must feel; they’ve stored up fuel for warmth.  They’ve planned ahead.  They’ve prepared for the cold winds.  A wood pile symbolizes a security against that inevitable change of season. 

I’ve passed that wood pile for several weeks now, and even this morning, I can’t help but smile at the warmth it will bring to that family.  The winter will come, and they will not just endure, but they will also have delight over these snowy days inside. 

I think about the change of season in my own heart:  winter.  When will it come?  When will I experience the next bitter thing, the next cold front that puts me inside?   I can’t know, but I can prepare for it.  I can store up all the truth I can; I can build up a pile of beautiful, good things to warm me through the next season of suffering. 

I gather each log–each moment of wonder and worship–and I stack it up for later.  When I need it, that truth can burn bright and warm and help me delight in what I must endure.  

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, / Kallerna)


The Ache You Need

My little one’s molar has been hurting her for months.  She’s already had a root canal (we definitely needed to invoke the Bad Day Mantra on that day), and still, the tooth pain won’t relent.  Yesterday, the dentist prescribed an antibiotic to ward off infection.

“But we can’t pull that tooth,” he explains in his office.  My daughter listens, wide-eyed.  “That tooth is a space-maker, a place-holder.  If you pull it, every other incoming tooth will crowd toward that space, and her mouth will really be in trouble.  Nothing new will come in right.  I’d like to keep that tooth there for as long as we can.”

I nod.  The little one nods.   

“It’s about timing,” he says.  “I can pull it, but then we’d have to design a spacer for her mouth, and it won’t ever be as great as what God made naturally.”

I smile.  He’s talking Dentist Theology now. He tells me it’s often normal for molars to ache while the new teeth underneath emerge.  Just wait.  A good thing is happening. 

The sore molar as a “place holder” to keep everything in line, to make things work as they should, stayed with me the whole day and into the night.  That troubling sore point in my life–whatever it is–might just be the place holder to keep things right until the new thing comes.  Could I begin to see those dark years as space-makers and place-holders that ushered in present joy in the right space, at the right time?  

The ache keeps things aligned.  It makes a space I need.


The Bad Day Mantra

As far as bad days go for a five year old, this one ranks high.  While at her yearly check-up, she discovered she might need glasses, was told her spine might be slightly crooked, and, to make matters worse, endured two shots in both thighs.  My job was to “restrain” her arms and legs as the nurses jabbed the needles in.

Not flair.  No, this was not flair at all today.

We left the doctor’s office right at lunch time.  Dairy Queen was on the way home, so we pulled in.  The whole time, I’m trying to comfort her, but nothing’s working.

As we order food inside, I begin telling our server all about my daughter’s horrible day.  Hopefully, some ice cream will help matters.  A few minutes later, this same server came to our table.  Seeing my daughter still tear-stained and sniffling, I said, “We are just having a really bad day.” 

“Well,” she said as she handed us our food, “there’s a lot of day still left.”

My daughter looked at her and smiled.  The thought of “a lot of day still left,” worked.  The radical concept that the day wasn’t doomed just because of a bad morning transformed this little girl’s world.  There was still time–seconds, minutes, hours even–to redeem the day.  There was still time for flair. 

I wanted to kiss the server.  I told her that her comment would change the course of our whole day.  Once again, language well-timed and well-spoken can create a new reality.  The comment created anticipation.  Something good would come.  And by the time we’d finished lunch, ice-cream, and some laughs in our booth, it already had.

Living with flair means remembering “there’s a lot of day still left.”   Even if we’re down to seconds, there’s still time for flair.