Becoming Curious, Finding Grace

Ever since I was small, my favorite question has always been “why?”

Preschoolers love to ask “why?” They are curious to a fault and never tire of taking the conversation to further conclusions with this question. They never tire of it, though parents and caregivers often do.

One way to look at personality types is by asking what question shapes how they understand and interact in the world. So, for example, with the DISC:

  • A high D (dominance) will ask WHAT needs to be done?
  • A high I (influence) will ask WHERE can I have influence?
  • A high S (steadiness) will ask WHO can I care about?
  • A high C (conscientiousness) will ask HOW can this job be done well?

You have to look deeper than the DISC to find the people driven by a WHY. Consider these descriptions of the INFP/J (from the MBTI scale). They “want to understand what motivates people” and “want an external life that is congruent to their values.” It’s not enough for INFJ/P types to have a job to do – their work needs to be connected to a broader purpose in order for it to be meaningful.

Knowing this is true about myself, it was not surprising that Casey Tygrett’s book Becoming Curious (IVP, 2017) resonates so well with me. He reminds his readers that God welcomes our questions, quite unlike the weary parent who tells their 4-year-old “because I said so” to stop the incessant barrage of “why?” In fact, Jesus himself used probing questions throughout his ministry to help those around him look below the surface:  

  • “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36)
  • “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:15)
  • “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” (Luke 10:36)
  • “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)
  • “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17)

Tygrett uses examples from Jesus’ ministry along with his own personal stories to show that curiosity about our circumstances can lead us into deeper faith – that “when we open the door to questions and curiosity, things flow out that we don’t expect” (10). In his book, Tygrett first establishes the importance of questions, connecting curiosity to that childlike faith that asks “why?” He then explores identity, motivation, love and failure, ritual, forgiveness, and change, with a central chapter on how we should interact with others – not with fear, but with hospitality.

In a world where many would prefer to have black and white over gray, clear boundaries and definite margins, we aren’t always comfortable with curiosity.

Curiosity takes time.
Curiosity can be messy.
Curiosity challenges our certainties about who God is, or what we believe.

But curiosity is important because “sometimes our certainties obscure what the good God is working in our story and in our world” (27). God’s story will continue, and God is involved in our world, even when we blindly pass by. When we assume we have “Christ-following” all figured out – that our way is the “right” way – we might miss out on the opportunity to join God in something God is already doing.

I was especially convicted by Tygrett’s chapter on love and failure. He reminds us that “part of our formation as curious children of God is learning how to understand and embrace our failures as part of who we are and at the same time repent of our old ways of seeing failure” (104). Being fully present, being curious about the “why,” and recognizing failure as an opportunity to grow – these are all important to our spiritual formation.

I’ve experienced having someone I love call attention to some less than stellar behavior on my part. He identified words, tone of voice, and even actions that communicated a lack of caring toward someone else. He reminded me that – particularly as someone who claims a call to ministry – I should have shown more empathy and understanding. It was hard to hear – but valuable to reflect upon. In the past, this sort of criticism might have sent me into a downward spiral of shame and unworthiness. But this time, in part because of my willingness to be curious, I was able to observe and correct my behavior and seek restoration.

As Tygrett shared the story of Jesus and Peter in John 21, I was able to see Jesus’ presence as a reminder of his faithful love, and understand that my “failure could actually be a catalyst for great goodness” (112). Even after Peter’s failure, Jesus still says “Feed my sheep.”

I still have much to learn. But in spite of my failure(s) – and maybe even because of my failures –  I still have a purpose and a calling to serve in God’s kingdom work. And sometimes, before we can communicate God’s grace to others, we have to accept and communicate that grace to ourselves.

In Everything, Give Thanks

for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Thanksgiving is upon us along with all the #Gratitude challenges and reminders every day to tell friends what you’re thankful for. It’s a fantastic practice, one that hit me deepest 10 years ago when I read 1000 Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Giving thanks and keeping written reminders of what we’re thankful for is a transformational, spiritual practice; not just a healthy, self-care technique, but a deep and wise rhythm that puts us in the middle of God’s presence.

This morning’s list started as a health update but I’d rather share the #Grateful side of each part of the story as the main attraction. I hope this list calls to mind some of your own “everythings” that you’re thankful for, and draws you closer to the God who gives all good gifts. Also, there are 12 items, so I’m officially caught up to the daily post limit for this November.

  1. I’m thankful that we were able to use our Hamilton tickets on the 28th, and have an amazing dinner out, before having a gallbladder attack. Actually, the dinner might have been one thing that tipped my system over the edge (8 oz steak, amazing homemade ice cream and apple tart!) but today, I have no regrets. It was my last truly full meal, actually, since then. And now I’m glad I have a few more chances for “last meals.”
  2. I’m thankful that I paid attention to chest pains and went to the ER on Halloween night. Sure, we were in a movie theater, and I confess saying to my husband “It’s okay, let’s finish the movie.” (It was “Free Guy” with Ryan Reynolds – and yes, it was really good! I know some of you were wondering) …Nevertheless, for me to take heed and go to the hospital was a big deal. #winning
  3. I’m thankful that the hospital did due diligence and ran all the right “heart” tests, even though I seem fairly low risk. I’m also thankful the tests were inconclusive enough that I went home that night with a list of other symptoms to watch for.
  4. I’m thankful that in the ensuing 5 days, I paid attention to my body and physical needs in ways I hadn’t in months. Maybe years. I know I speak from a place of privilege, but I truly have so many choices about how I live, work, move, and eat. That week gave me an opportunity to make better choices and pay attention to how those choices made me feel and function.
  5. I’m thankful that last Friday, after a small lunch and a half mile walk, I realized that the chest pains were returning and got worse as the day went on. It was only an hour before I realized I needed to call my husband to leave work early and head back to the ER. #FridayDateNight (I’m also thankful for Harold’s empathetic and immediate response, in contrast to my own tendency to feel put out when getting called away from work, or interrupted from plans. #LessonLearned) More about Harold later.
  6. I’m thankful for deep diaphragm breathing techniques learned in choir and voice lessons, and even meditation and focused breath skills learned in yoga class. I used those skills, along with scripture memory, hymn lyrics, and prayer, through my 30 minute visit to the MRI machine. My goodness. That was something. (It’s worth noting that when I was in school, I had to learn algebra and always wondered if I’d use it as an adult. The answer is no. There is no algebra for the patient in an MRI scanner. But I’m sure glad I took choir and yoga, and went to church!)
  7. I’m thankful for the reminders of Isla at the hospital. Even though it’s a bit triggering to be admitted to a hospital room that looks uncannily like the ones she lived in for so long, I actually felt Isla’s strength and bravery holding my hand along the way. She went through WAY more procedures in her short life than I have in my long one.
  8. I’m thankful for breaking into tears on the surgery table waiting for anesthesia before my first procedure. I know, this one takes a bit of unpacking. First, if you know me well, I am a busy woman, I like to accomplish things, and I don’t like to be distracted by pesky emotions. But guess what? When we slow down (I was literally fastened in place with wires and IVs), when we have no control (nope, none), when we recognize that EVERYTHING is out of our hands, we are finally in a place where God can bring the emotions to the surface and say HEY! Pay attention to me!

    So I did.

    The GI doc had not made it to my room in advance to tell me about the procedure, so I’m already stressed, maybe because I’m hearing his updates from a supine position in the OR (again, no control). I had thought this Saturday procedure *might* have eliminated the need for gallbladder surgery later (I knew they were two separate things #thanksGoogle) However, the GI doc casually mentioned “You’re going to have to get your gall bladder out, too.” So I’m trying to ask logical questions like “HOW MANY SURGERIES ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” and calmly, rationally…freaking out.

    The questions are answered, the tears are flowing, and the anesthesiologist finally arrives to send me off to dreamland. In those moments between awake, aware, and asleep, I’m brought to my next point of gratitude.
  9. I’m thankful for the nurses. There were three in that room that saved my (emotional) life that day and showed me the face and hands of Jesus. One checked my IV and patted my arm, saying “we’ll be right here with you.” One gently wiped tears off my face and from behind the oxygen mask, since I was unable to reach for a tissue. Another squeezed my shoulder, leaned close, and looked right into my eyes saying “It’s going to be okay. You’re in good hands.” As I fell asleep, like a stubborn child who finally relaxed after fighting for a toy too long (or a grown up who fought for control too long), I remembered whose hands I was in and let go.
  10. I’m thankful for all the nurses and staff at CHI Lakeside Hospital in Omaha, NE. Seriously, medical professionals deserve a daily gratitude post from all of us. THEY WERE AMAZING. I hope Harold kept a list of names because when I get out from under my surgery fog, I’m writing thank you notes and taking them brownies. Every single person who came in and out of my room was professional, caring, knowledgeable, and kind. The one in the ER who reminded Harold “This doesn’t count as date night!” The one who got me a black cup of coffee at 3 in the morning for my caffeine headache because I was “clear liquids only” after almost 40 hours of NPO. The one who advocated for me to get the surgery (the second procedure) on Sunday instead of Monday. The one who scrubbed my back before surgery and managed to keep my dignity intact. The one who got a heating pad in the middle of the night and an ice pack in the middle of the day. Give thanks for the medical professionals!
  11. I’m thankful for my husband, Harold. Seriously, the guy is a rockstar caregiver. He asked good questions, wrote down notes, kept me entertained with memes and funny animal videos, brought me extra pillows and blankets from home, walked me around the hospital halls, and prayed with me before surgery. Since we’ve been home, he’s planned meals and cooked for both of us, made smoothies when I didn’t feel like eating, kept the bills paid, and worked from home so he was always available to me. All with a great attitude. Find yourself a man who takes the “sickness and health” part seriously. This one’s mine.
  12. Finally, I’m thankful for our family, friends, and community of support. Some of you kept the ministry work moving forward while I was not available. (Reminding me, of course, that each person on the team matters…but the team can and should function beyond the limits of each person. #theBodyofChrist) Some of you live close and helped with groceries or meals. Some of you reached out with texts, flowers, calls, and prayers. Some of you live far away but kept in touch with encouragement via Facebook. Every single post, prayer, and mention was a blessing to me. Thank you.

In everything, give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus
(1 Thessalonians 5:17)

God is faithful – do you believe this?

What is your normal response when God seems late?
There are many Biblical reminders that even when God doesn’t make sense, God is faithful. Even when we have doubts, God is present.

The first reminder is in John 11, where Martha shares an extended discourse with Jesus about her brother’s death. Martha believes in Jesus’ power. She trusts in Jesus’ ability to affect change. She is not an outsider to the life of faith. And even before Jesus speaks, we see that Martha knows several things.

  1. She knows Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death.
  2. She knows that God will give Jesus whatever he asks.
  3. She knows that Lazarus will rise again at the last resurrection.

Yet Jesus still needs to remind her of his power over death, of his existence as both resurrection and life. I imagine Jesus leaning in toward Martha, just to make sure she understands what he’s saying, as he asks Do you believe this?

Martha needed to be reminded that even when God didn’t make sense, God was faithful; that even when God seemed late, God was present.

Another reminder is from Psalm 78. Far more than random personal prayers collected into a unified book, the Psalms were intentional, fixed forms that were used in worshipping communities and transmitted from generation to generation. In fact, the same Psalm notes “we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the lord, the wonders God has done.” With Psalm 78, the Psalmist records dozens of events in the history of Israel where God intervened and met their needs. So as the Israelites gathered to worship, even during the Babylonian captivity, they sang these Psalms to encourage each other. Verse by verse, the Israelites are reminded of God’s faithfulness, and I imagine God leaning toward his people after each reminder to ask Do you believe this?

God divided the sea and led them through – he split the rock and gave them water…But they speak out against God and ask “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”

So the Psalmist replies God rained down manna for them to eat, he gave them all the food they could eat. “Do you believe this?

The Israelites needed to be reminded that even when God didn’t make sense, God was faithful; that even when God seemed late, God was present.

Of course, sometimes I need to be reminded too, and no more frequently than this past year. When a child dies, and God fails to “show up on time for a miracle,” I need to be reminded of God’s faithful presence. I take comfort in knowing that even the disciples who followed Jesus the most closely struggled with this. Remember in Mark 6, when they see Jesus feed a crowd of 5000+ and then TWO CHAPTERS LATER (!) they ask “But where in this remote place can we get enough bread to feed 4000 people???”  The disciples needed a reminder that even when God didn’t make sense, God was faithful; that even when God seems late, God was present.

Finally, the disciples need another reminder in Acts 1. They’ve seen Jesus crucified and raised, and he’s about to ascend to heaven. So the disciples ask “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were still assuming Jesus would be a political savior who would set up an earthly kingdom. But Jesus reminds them “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”

You see, to those disciples, Jesus was late at getting his kingdom established. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual one. So our responsibility as Christians is to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth…

  1. By living into the power of the Holy Spirit and being God’s witnesses in our neighborhoods, in our region, and in our nation.
  2. By breaking down barriers and showing hospitality to strangers because all are welcome at God’s table.
  3. By treating all people as equal in rights and dignity because all are created in God’s image.
  4. By being willing to listen to those with whom we disagree, because dialogue builds community while silence breeds separation.

In this difficult election season, where friends have lashed out against friends, where fear has overtaken faith, and where walls are being erected in place of bridges, we need to cling to each other in solidarity and call out for justice in the face of oppression. We need to continue doing kingdom work whether or not the political system is broken, whether or not our neighborhoods are broken, whether or not our hearts are broken.

We need to be reminded that even when God doesn’t make sense, God is faithful.
We need to be reminded that even when God seems late, God is present.
Do you believe this?

This was originally shared as a communion meditation at Grandview Christian Church, fall 2016

Home is where the heart is…

Home should be where the heart is
Never were words so true
My heart’s far, far away
Home is too.

There’s a map of the United States in my kitchen, with pins marking cities where dear friends and family live. When you make college memories in both Michigan and Arkansas, and move across the country twice in a decade, you leave a trail of memories marked by time and place. Bits and pieces of my heart are left behind in the lives of others.  Imprints from others exist on my own life and heart. I’m a different person than I was when I left home at 18, or even when I left for seminary at 49. For this, I am truly thankful. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can’t go home again” and even if I could, neither home nor I would be the same.

I’m not the first to recognize that sometimes friends are more like family, and sometimes family shapes us as much in their absence as they did with their presence. Who we are is due, in part, to those who invested in us years ago. But “who we are” is also shaped by those who preceded our generation without any intentional investment at all. Their existence shaped us indirectly by the choices they made, the places they lived, and the people they loved. I’ve sometimes been surprised at how easily I found my way “home” in new cities, new churches, new communities. It may be because I’ve offered my heart in new relationships wherever I’ve lived. I’ve always discovered new people and places to treasure – and “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). My map of memories is marked with heart-shaped pins in recognition and celebration of that.

There’s a place called home I can almost see
With a red front door and a roaring fire and a Christmas tree
Yes a place called home…full of love and family
And I’m there at the door watching you come home to me…

My mom died earlier this month after a long illness and the painful effects of separation during COVID while in an assisted living facility in Arizona. I doubt that she thought of that room, however sunny and spacious it was, as “home.” Each time she had to downsize some (3 times in 3 years) it broke her heart to let go of more possessions. She was longing for home – the home she’d curated for years. In her mind, home always included husband and kids (and later, grandkids). Home was family. Home was a kitchen filled with good smells and large quantities of baked goods. Home was being surrounded by family photos, dad’s puzzles, and furnishings she loved. On second thought, maybe she felt a little “at home,” since she did have some favorite furnishings and nearly all the family photos.

Except for a brief, outdoor visit on Mother’s Day, even my brother and sister in law in Phoenix weren’t allowed to visit very often. They would stop by and chat through the window screen. We would call or FaceTime from out of state, but towards the end Mom struggled to hold onto her phone, or understand what to click (or not). Sometimes when we talked, her mental clarity was fading, and she spoke of “going home from work” and “making cookies yesterday.” She thought she was back home in Indiana. I’m sure in these last few months, she was missing family. And in her mind, family was a jumble of those still living, and those who’d passed on. She was longing for home – a different one.

This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

The last year has been a painful season of loss for our family. With our granddaughter’s diagnosis in July 2019, we entered a world of hospitals, chemo, questions, and fear. A few months later, my dad passed unexpectedly after a short illness, weary of life and day to day caregiving. Isla and my mom entered hospice care, miles apart but within days of each other. And after Isla died August 11th, we said our goodbyes to mom only weeks later. The older I get, the more loss I experience, the less I feel “at home” here on earth. The more I long for home.

When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing
It would sure be nice to be back home where there’s love and affection…

We all long for home, even if “home” means something different to you than it does to me. If your parents provided you with “love overflowing” but it seems lacking today, you think longingly of that earlier time. If you were in a relationship that ended painfully, looking back on happier times may be easier than imagining what’s next or what’s new. But to be fair, all of life is a mix of blessings and curses, highlights and dark days. We may look back nostalgically to our memory of home, but we know there were good days and bad then, just like in our current reality. When we were in them, they weren’t necessarily the “good old days.” Our longings are elusive. We’re not really sure what we need. But God knows. God is the only one who can satisfy. You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you… Because your love is better than life… (Ps.63:1–4)

“Sometimes I feel lost,” said the boy.
“Me too,” said the mole, “but we love you, and love brings you home.
I think everyone is just trying to get home.”
“Home isn’t always a place, is it?” *

When all seems lost, when death wins, when chaos reigns, we long for home.
But longing for home will prove insufficient. Home is not a place, but a person.

Only Jesus is a steady rock on which to lean. A home for our longing hearts.
Always, only, Jesus

*from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse (Mackesy, 2019)

A Time for Everything: the Life Cycle of Cosmos and Butterflies

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die… (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Nothing about the death of a child makes sense.

In our limited, logical understanding of life and death, of time and mortality, we expect death to come for the elderly. And as we ourselves grow older, it is always and only those “even older” than us that we identify of as “elderly.” There is a paradox often mentioned that as we age, time seems to pass with even greater voracity and speed. What seems like only a moment ago was my high school graduation. What happened yesterday is often forgotten.

Parts of the last year seem to have taken very long indeed. So much waiting. Such a long winter. Certainly spring will come – but how long? Yet, parts of this last year vanished like a mist with Isla. When I was at the hospital with her in July, we laughed and sang and looked forward to healing and transplant and…life. Now, only 8 weeks later, time is flipped on its head and death leaves us waiting again for spring, for resurrection.

Spring in the Midwest is its own paradox, sending out hyacinths in February only to be blanketed by snow in March. Wednesday’s sunny breeze invites hope, but Friday’s bitter wind confirms a cold reality. But spring eventually came, right? It is possible I missed it this year. But even during COVID, we still had daffodils and 70 degree days and new shoots of green grass.

In the heat of an August afternoon, we forget.

“Teach us to number our days…” (Ps 90).

When I dream of spring, a couple of images come to mind. One is a butterfly, a perpetual reminder of rebirth, transformation, and resurrection. Isla loved reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle did his homework on that one – caterpillars really do eat and eat and eat, multiplying their weight exponentially! How fascinating to see an egg hatch into caterpillar who makes a cocoon, before the stunning metamorphosis into a butterfly! What kind of creator goes to all that trouble for the beauty of a butterfly, whose life cycle ranges only from a week to a few months?

Another image is a flower…in so many shapes and colors that it’s not one picture, but dozens. From the earliest lily of the valley to April lilacs; from June roses to the sunflowers towering overhead in August, here is another species where God simply shows off.  Their fleeting beauty and lasting fragrance are visual reminders that creativity and beauty are part of our heritage as God’s image-bearers. Isla loved flowers too, including the tiny yellow ones she gave me in May, now pressed in my bible.

That same month, just after the kids found out Isla would need the trial drug before transplant, Autumn ordered beautiful matching necklaces with an imprint of a cosmos bloom for herself and Isla. Regarding her choice, she wrote, “Not only is cosmos the flower for her birth month, October, but it represents peace, wholeness and joy in life. Cosmos is a hearty flower than can thrive in a variety of soils and conditions much like Isla.” And Isla did thrive in a variety of conditions, her young personality evolving from shy toddler to courageous preschooler during her year in the hospital. She won the hearts of doctors and nurses, therapists, and friends with her fierce determination and joyful spirit, even in the midst of leukemia treatments.

I wish Cosmos were perennial.

Hope does not disappoint… (Rom 5)

Autumn’s post continues, “It is my hope that her body will find wholeness, our family can find peace, and the years ahead will be filled with joy…” Reading her post again today reminded of the scripture that says  “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:3-5).

I’ve seen suffering produce endurance, character, and hope in our family this year.
But I choke on the phrase hope does not disappoint…

Hope disappointed us this time.
Isla’s body did not find wholeness. Peace is still illusive. Joy seems unimaginable.

And then, I remember the butterfly.

For those of us who believe in the power of metamorphosis, of resurrection, we trust that her body will find wholeness in transformation, in the wonder of a life to come.

We believe that which is sown in weakness is raised in power (1 Cor 15:43).

We believe that the peace of God surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7) even when the death of this child doesn’t make any logical sense.

We believe that the God of hope will fill [us] with all joy and peace (Rom 15:13).

Maybe not today. But there’s a time for everything…