Returning to Normal

While we were still in lockdown, I walked alone to the grocery store. I passed a park with a grassy area — uncharacteristically sloppy, unkempt, and overgrown, making the deserted streets look even more like a ghost town. Looking up, I saw Spanish flags with small, black bows in memory of the ones the virus has taken.

Last week as I was buying groceries, the entire store fell into a hushed stillness as we paused for 60 seconds to remember those no longer here.

A few days ago I spent time with a friend who told me she still feels a bit “messed up” from the seven weeks we spent in our apartments without leaving. No doubt many of us are, in various ways.

With more freedom to move around and gather, funerals are finally being held for the ones that were buried in a hurry. Tens of thousands of people are grieving right now, even as Spain’s street cafes and bars begin to pulse back to life.

While we return to shop and spend and do business and see friends, to return to “normal” after all of this would not be right or healthy. To move along as if nothing happened would be a mistake.

To skip the step of processing and mourning would be a mistake. Although of course we rightly delight in moving around and seeing loved ones and enjoying life, hurriedly returning to superficial happiness and comfort is not the priority here.

Landing in peace and joy after wading through grief, hard conversations, and a good bit of self-examination is more important right now.

I want myself and all of us to meaning out of all of this. This strange virus is not a random biological event. There is meaning and much to learn and we have to mine for it, sift it out, and be okay if that process involves sitting in some discomfort and awkwardness.

I hope we take a uncomfortable moment to think about life and death.

I hope we treat each other more kindly and tenderly than we used to.

I hope we cherish relationships and look into each other’s eyes.

I hope we stop to ask friends how they’re really doing right now, then listen to the answer.

I hope we learn how to be more human and less like our own gods.

I hope we remember for a long time to come that we can’t count on our perfectly-laid plans for the future.

I hope we reflect on how we want to change and ways that this has shaped us.

I hope we cry with those who are crying and rejoice with those who are rejoicing.

I hope we feel our spirit yearning for life and listen to the One who created it.

War

I felt it — the wreckage that selfishness and pride can cause. I was no distant observer. I was stumbling from the blow, a recipient of the trickle-down effects of others’ choices, wincing with the ache.

I saw it, cried over the pain, then declared war — war on my own heart, my own selfishness and pride, realizing the havoc we can wreck on each other’s lives.

We live and leave behind a trail of wreckage from the selfishness and pride in ourselves that we don’t see or haven’t addressed. Darkness we haven’t had the guts to bring to light or that operates like a secret agent, undetected even by the one in whom it lives. It’s not even only the ugliest of ugly — it’s also run-of-the-mill, daily thinking (even subconsciously) that it’s all about me and making decisions accordingly.

I could no longer make friends with my own self-centeredness. I don’t want my darkness to tag along like a wrecking ball, hurting those closest to me as well as others whose names I may never know. If kindness is a ripple effect, so is my own self-centeredness. I will fight that part of my heart to keep you safe.

The battle begins in my heart and it’s fought not by determining to be good — that just leads me to believe that I’m better than those around me who haven’t decided to be better people. That feeds my pride.

No, the battle is fought by turning away from myself and toward the God who sees the blackness I’m warring against (and what I cannot yet see), loves me still, and changes me slowly but surely into something better. I am humbled and raised up at the same time. No false assurance that I’m a perfect person and no shaming in an effort to make me shape up.

I can acknowledge my selfishness and pride without being bound to it or despairing because of it, because I know that I’m loved and being changed into beauty, and I will participate in that change process.

My heart is steadfast, resting in love and begging for more light to expel my darkness.

Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep

Today begins phase one of reopening here in Spain. The first step toward the new normal. And of course every country is doing it differently and everyone has something to say about it.

Is Spain doing it right? Are various states in the USA doing it right? As much as we like to think we know, no one does, and we all have a different perspective.

There’s the idea that we don’t really react to the weight of something until it affects our personal life. An issue doesn’t really take up space in our brains or hearts until it comes knocking at our door or in our neighborhood, affects us or our friends or family. To an extent, it’s true.

Our experience inevitably changes how we approach, see, and handle an issue or situation.

Here in Spain, corona (that’s my favorite name for it) is not far from any of us — both physically and emotionally. I’ve had friends who have been hospitalized with corona, others who have held the hands of those dying alone in nursing homes, one who has worked long long hours in the hospital, another whose mother passed away. And of course the physical health aspect is just one part.

It’s knocking on my friends’ door and affecting their lives.

Feeling certain effects of something doesn’t necessarily mean we know what the right, best, or good course of action is. Likewise, being removed from a situation doesn’t automatically mean we see it more clearly and can make the right call.

Both simply mean we understand different things, feel weight in places other people don’t.

Does anyone know the perfect way to handle shutting down or reopening in any country? No. Is everyone’s opinion influenced by the people they know, where they live, and how they’re affected? Yes.

None of us have the wisdom to know what to do or what is best. But, we can know a few important things to do and I think one of those things is this:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” -Romans 12:15-16

Right now some are weeping and some are rejoicing. And some are trying to rejoice over events that should be commemorated with a celebration but are not.

While I can (and should) think critically and share opinions and look at the big-scale picture, I’m not sure that’s what really matters right now. Humbly supporting and loving — through the good and the bad — the individuals I know and “not being wise in my own eyes” is what I want to focus on.

Empathy?

Here in Spain, the little ones are getting their first taste of this different and unsettling world outside of their home. Four days ago was the first time kids have been allowed outside since coronavirus hit the second week of March.

I’m trying to imagine what an 8-year-old thinks when they’re face-to-face with this for the first time: everyone in face masks, no friends to play with, empty streets, and forbidden playgrounds.

I didn’t have to imagine too long before I got a glimpse of what it might be like for them. On my walk home from the grocery store, I passed a mom with her daughter scooting along on a scooter. When the girl saw me, she hopped off her scooter, whimpered, and grabbed onto her mom’s leg. She could see only my eyes and not the smile I gave her. It must all be so strange and scary for the little ones. It was for me the first couple of weeks, too! I wanted to say to that little scooting girl “I understand! I know what it feels like to see all of this for the first time!”

I’ve been thinking about empathy.

It would seem that we should all have more empathy than ever now, right? Since almost no country is untouched, we are all living through coronavirus and quarantine and we can empathize; we can understand what each other is going through.

We say “I know what you mean…” and launch into how we totally get it because, of course, we are being affected by coronavirus, too.

We understand. Or at least we think we do, and I think that’s the problem.

True, we are all living under the effects of this crazy pandemic. But I think we are empathizing with others when we really have no way of understanding what they’re actually going through.

All of our lives are being dramatically affected by the same virus, but the way it plays out in each of our individual lives is radically different. We can’t even begin to compare one story to another. We can’t empathize as much as we think we can.

Some are working like crazy, others are suddenly jobless. Some are on lockdown, others are social distancing. Some have mental health challenges, others have physical challenges. Some have cancelled weddings, others have cancelled trips. Some have lost loved ones, others have been untouched. Some are barely coping emotionally, others are trucking right along.

I could go on, but you get the point.

We are all living through coronavirus but our lives are quite different and our hurts and struggles are as well. Let’s not pretend they’re very similar.

Less “I know, me too!” and “I know exactly how you feel.”

More “Wow, I’m so sorry, that stinks” and “Tell me what this is like for you.”

Smile Lines

Who knew that I would come to love smile lines?

On Monday I stepped out of my apartment for the second time in 15 days. I slipped on the face mask that was given to us before we started stacking boxes at the food pantry. Four other pairs of gloved hands lifted boxes, handed them to me as we made a human chain. Four other pairs of eyes, smiling at me with their smile lines. I got to know them by their eyes and knew they were grinning when the beautiful wrinkles showed up.

Wearing that same mask, I went to the fruit and veggie store. The sign on the window reads: “Please, only one person inside.” After waiting my turn outside, I backed away as an elderly man, also wearing a face mask, exited. As I let him pass, I lifted my eyes and showed him my best smile lines. His crinkled up, too.

Inside, Julian the fruit man had his own mask. His muffled voice asked how many peppers I wanted and if I was going to eat both of my avocados today or wanted a less-ripe one for later this week.

I can’t wait to see the smiles behind these smile lines, but I also won’t forget to love these wrinkles — every single part of these beautiful faces.

Quick to do good

Recently I set out on a secret helping mission — the kind where you surprise someone with something they need or secretly do something to help. Secret helping missions are fun.

But this time I was on the bus home, frustrated because my mission had failed. I had a great idea, set out to do it, and it just didn’t pan out. I texted another friend, expressing my frustration and she replied, “So what do you think about the adage ‘It’s the thought that counts’?”

I replied: “Not sure. I think it’s dumb I guess.”

person using smartphone(photo by Priscilla Du Preez)

Because it’s not really the thought that counts, is it? That day on the bus home it wasn’t my thought that counted because the idea in my head meant nothing to the friend I was trying to help.

I’ve said it plenty myself. “Oh well, it’s the thought that counts,” I say when I have a great idea, try to do it, and it just doesn’t work out. It’s the thought that counts.

Or is is the trying that counts?

Good thoughts that don’t turn into action don’t count for much. In the end all the good ideas in the world do nothing to bring comfort, to relieve pain, to encourage, to help, to build up.

Thoughts turned into actions are what count, even if the effort isn’t a perfect, raging success. The trying is what counts. The obedience to do the good thing is what counts. My heart is changed and filled and, if all goes well, the people around me are changed as well.

“Every day you can do one thing you you wish you could do for everyone. We will be known for our actual fruits, not the intentions of our imaginations.” – Ann Voskamp

person washing fork(photo by Catt Liu)

It’s about the trying, the showing up, the being there, the doing, the putting thoughts into actions, even if those attempts don’t have a 100% success rate. Sometimes helping is awkward. Sometimes we don’t know what to say. It’s okay. The showing up is what matters.

A few months ago I was thinking and praying a lot about what it would mean for me to be quick to do good. Quick to help. Quick to love. Quick to serve. So that if an idea pops into my head, I won’t spend time thinking about it, coming up with why it’s inconvenient, why I don’t have time, or why it would be awkward (and my selfish heart is very good at that!).

Instead, I want to learn how to jump into action, to get right to the good that God put in my mind to do. I want to learn how to let the love of Jesus quickly compel me into action. I want to be quick to be selfless. Quick to go on lots of fun, secret helping missions.

That’s what counts, isn’t it? Being ready to do good, quick to act, efficient at turning thoughts into actions. Quick to serve and make it fun, even if it’s a little messy.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3-4

 

 

Cheerleaders

A coworker gave me a gift. A fountain pen. Because I’d never had one before. Because I love pens. Because I write. With this gift and his words, he said, “I like what you write. Keep writing.” A simple gift turned into a huge encouragement.

Just like that we can communicate to another human: “I’m cheering you on.”

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What does it look like to be each other’s cheerleaders? To actually show them that we “believe in them”? To effectively and creatively communicate to them that we’re behind them, that we think they should go for it?

Cheering people on is much more than simply telling them that they can do it. It’s equipping them to do it, giving them the tools for their trade, providing them with the space and opportunities they need to develop, stretch, and grow.

I need people

Too much or not enough for other people, that’s what we are, or at least that’s what the little inside voice tells us.

“Tone it down, they think you’re too much,” and later I hear, “Get it together, they think you’re not enough.”

And out of self-protection, we fight that inner-conversation with “No, it doesn’t matter what other people think of me!” That’s partly true, but we’ve made a virtue of not caring about other peoples opinions when the truth is that it does matter what people think and say to us. It’s both-and. It doesn’t matter and it does.

My true identity is not based on another person’s opinion of me. I am who I am — beloved of God, free, secure, and redeemed in Jesus Christ — despite a person’s judgment of me. In that sense, it doesn’t matter what they think of me and it shouldn’t matter. My deep identity, peace, and joy should never be shaken by someone’s opinion of me.

But precisely because my identity is sure, I am free to allow myself to let people speak into my life. If I’m sure of my identity, I can simultaneously heed what other people say to me but not be wholly dependent on their opinions. My secure identity frees me up to calmly and gratefully listen to a dear friend who tells me that I’m in the wrong.

If my identity is secure, the opinions of other people will never wreck me, and their words will be valuable to me.

In fact, I need people whose words do matter to me, I need people who can speak into my life, and I need people to have some kind of authority over me. It matters that I listen to the people I trust. It matters that I show all of myself to a few chosen, close, trusted friends or family, and trust them with some authority in my life.

woman wearing gray jacket
(Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash)

I have to stop being an authority-hog in my own life. So often I live as the queen of my own life — a kingdom in which I make the rules and what I want matters most. We create our own guidelines, based on nothing other than what we want or feel at the moment. No wonder we have fights and abuse and wars.

I need to be changed – deeply, from my guts to my skin, and I need God to do it in me. I need something outside of myself, something objective that I return to and listen to even if, at times, it contradicts my desires and flighty feelings. Otherwise I’m just living as the self-enthroned queen of my own life where I make the rules and standards of right and wrong and change them whenever I want.

I don’t want to be the queen of my own life. I don’t want to because I want to be selfless, I want to love people, and I don’t want to steal glory from my Jesus Christ.

If I don’t want to be queen of my own life, I need other people. Other people will never define me, but I do desperately need them.

I need trustworthy people in my life who are brave enough to speak to me when I’m straying, who remind me of my true identity, who know how to encourage me, and who love me enough to speak truth to me even if it’s hard. I will give them the right to confront me when I err, to cheer me on, to hold me accountable, and to ask me the hard questions.

And only because I rest in my unshakable identity, the things people say are no longer earthquakes that wreck the foundation of my soul. Instead, the words I hear from people will either be life-saving and life-changing or simple opinions that don’t even ruffle my feathers.

When I don’t care what people think, I lose my capacity for connection.
When I don’t care what people think, I miss out on valuable wisdom.
When I am defined by what people think, I lose my willingness to be vulnerable.
When I am defined by what people think, I will never know who I am in Christ.

“If we dismiss all the criticism, we lose out on important feedback, but if we subject ourselves to the hatefulness, our spirits get crushed. It’s a tight rope, shame-resilience is the balance bar, and the safety net below is the one or two people in our lives who can help us reality check the criticism and cynicism.” Brene brown

Reading is like listening

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” – Scout Finch

Reading is like sitting down to listen intently with no intention of immediately responding or contradicting or giving our opinion.

We hear no audible voices but we take part in stories, we listen to opinions, and we learn about experiences. And we grow because we listen, taste, digest, and process what we’ve heard.

In reading we listen to someone, to something that we have not heard before. We’ve largely lost that skill with the people we have in our lives.

What if we treated people more like books? What if we asked them to open their pages as we sit down to listen, without planning to reply, without planning to convince?

I would like to treat people more like books.