I feel sort of like I’m running down the center of a road; steep ravines on either side, with a semi-truck barreling down on me. The mammoth truck aggressively approaching is…Thanksgiving. It’s nearly upon me and I haven’t even had the time to deeply contemplate my thankfulness. I AM thankful! I promise I’m TRULY thankful! It’s just that I’ve had my head down; pushing on and pressing through the days, the projects, and the housework (through the good and the less than good). It’s life. I’m neck deep in everyday things everyday: happy, silly, ordinary, maddening and mundane things. In spite of all of my life’s busyness, I have this yearning to feel a full-bodied and emotion-packed “thankfulness”. When we’ve gone around the Thanksgiving table, each of us, taking our turns to share what we’re most thankful for (we really do this), I want my thankfulness to wells up within me and (maybe) tearfully spill out. It all sounds a bit theatrical, but there it is…my Thanksgiving wish for my declaration of thankfulness.
In all honesty, I really struggle with laying my heart bare before others, in any form. But around the Thanksgiving table I especially struggle because I’m sharing before an audience. I find myself feeling very naked and exposed. Usually I try to casually chuckle through it, while in actuality I imagine that I appear to bumble around awkwardly.
I didn’t grow up in a family that shared emotions (personal thoughts and feelings) with each other. I grew up in a family of jokers, of cheesers. We endlessly searched for a punch line. We had fun together. But aside from all of our silliness, our conversations consisted of small talk or conveying information and facts or maybe giving direction to one another, followed by a heart felt "I love you". We showed big, fiery emotions from time to time but not sensitive, personal emotions. When we got our feelings hurt, we were a touch passive-aggressive and our deepest, truest feelings would have needed to be tortured out of us. Thankfully all of us have matured quite a lot in our emotional intelligence.
Once a week, I hang out with a group of amazing moms. These girls are uplifting, they're community, there’s yummy food and it’s time away from my little guy/gals. This week, in an effort to help us moms prepare for Thanksgiving, someone spoke on forgiveness. At the time it seemed to me like an odd and burdensome topic to be drudging up right before Thanksgiving. Forgiveness is a rough one for me. Some people really easily forgive and move beyond hurts. Others (like me) find it harder. Forgiving is a constant effort for me. I’ve always found it so irritating to hear people casually say things like “just forgive!”, as if it’s as easy as swallowing a mouth full of food, or “just let it go” or sometimes the hardest: “just give it to God”. So, without fail, every time the topic of forgiveness is discussed, my Pavlovian response is a heavy sigh followed by an instant desire for my ruby red slippers. If only I could speed-click my heels together three times and escape!
This woman from my moms group (the one speaking on forgiveness) asked us some unpleasant questions. Questions like: “What are you dreading about Thanksgiving??” and “Who do you need to forgive?” This wise lady understood how wounds can poison relationships (particularly family relationships) if they aren’t tended to. I pride myself on being self aware, but this silly girl (me) hadn’t ever thought to prepare for family time by forgiving my family for the things they’ve done through the years that I’ve been hurt by.
What a revelation! All the reasons I’ve ever had for not looking forward to seeing a specific person (or persons) have been because of some “thing” I’ve been holding against that person(s). Maybe it started as something kind of minor (some slight insensitivity), but then it happened more than once and maybe it heaped up over time in my heart. Now there’s a persistent feeling of dread when I imagine being in this person's company. These past hurts now poison all my thoughts towards this person and my negative feelings bleed into our family conversations. I’ve always been a terrible liar, so pretending that I’m not struggling when I am is like telling my 2 year old not to touch something. It’s bound to not just get touched, but overly handled.
So maybe my anger is really justified. What then??? Well, the wise woman reminded us girls of a story in the Bible. I grew up with this story and I know it well, but ironically the true meaning of it never really struck me until now.
The story is about a man who owes a lot of money to his boss (lets call him Bob). Bob owes so much money that he's up to his eye balls in debt and can’t afford, nor will he ever be able to pay off his debt. When his boss (Jim) asks that Bob pay back the money he lent him, Bob begs for debt forgiveness . Bob knows he’ll never be able to pay it all back. His debt is massive and crippling. Jim immediately forgives ALL that Bob owes. Soon after having his debt forgiven, Bob finds someone (Pete) who owes him a very small amount of money and demands that it’s paid back immediately. When Pete begs Bob to forgive his small debt, forgiveness is denied, and Bob has Pete thrown into jail for not paying back his loan. Soon Jim hears of Bob's unforgiving attitude and decides to take back his forgiveness and immediately has Bob imprisoned till his debt can be paid off.
It suddenly struck me: when I choose not to forgive my family members for the stupid and insensitive things they do or have done, I become that nasty employee denying forgiveness, even though I’ve been forgiven for mountains more than I could ever repay. And when I choose not to forgive, I end up jailed; held captive by my bitterness. The instant I realized this, all of my anger…it just fell away. I’m sooooo thankful that I’ve been forgiven for everything I’ve done. It humbles me, and I don't want to hold onto the pennies that others owe me. Yes, they did owe me (and maybe they'll continue to rack up debt), but I owed more than I could ever repay. I was forgiven much.
(Dog photo courtesy of kensingtoncafesd.com)
I'm a bit of an online “window shopper”. I have a couple of apps on my phone that were unmistakable designed, and are undoubtedly intended to generate profit…for somebody. I’m a member of a secret society of internet shoppers who get online and don’t actually buy things. I’m pretty certain that my willpower would blow the minds of internet strategists and marketing teams alike. At the very least, my husband is spellbound by my resolve. The shopping apps are definitely visually appealing and enticing, but I use these apps to fulfill a (potentially odd) longing and desire to browse; to peruse (if you will).
I grew up in a rather (let’s call it) “frugal” family. I was taught, and at times forced, to enjoy myself without spending cash. Money was accessible for needs; needs that could be verified with overwhelming amounts of scientific data and statistics. Even though we lived with intentionality, my family didn’t lack adventure. We loved road trips and outdoor excursions. We loved the mountains and we REALLY loved shopping with our eyes. Just as my parents did (all those years ago) and still do, ‘grown-up me’ has perfected the art of browsing.
When I need a little escape, I sometimes electronically whisk myself away and make believe that I’m wandering aimlessly through a charming store full of whimsical things: tea towels with witty words printed on them, unique looking jewelry and maybe something slightly off colored too. It’s my little piece of freedom. And for a minute (or ten), I have no heavy life altering responsibilities, like teaching history, math, spelling, science and character to a 4th grader or toilet training to a 2 year old. When I click on my “shopping” apps, there’s no goal or specific thing I’m searching for, I’m just strolling leisurely through imaginary aisles, picking up interesting objects, enjoying them for a moment and then putting them back in their place.
Every now and then, something really unique and special grabs my attention. Last week I absolutely LOVED this one item I found. It was exceptional! It wasn’t so much visually striking as it was beautifully thought provoking. It gently encouraged me to evaluate the way I approach hardships, struggle and all those minor daily irritations. This "thing" that so impacted me was a simple framed quote that read:
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain”
The sweetness of those words captured me because I’ve always romanticized the imagery of a person dancing joyfully in the rain; carefree and clearly not worried about menial details like messy, knotted hair or runny eye make-up. This girl (as I imagine her) is full of life and fun. She seizes her opportunities to laugh and smile with the people around her. She doesn’t withhold her affection. She’s generous in spirit. She’s affirming and sincere. She’s courageous, honest and wise. She isn’t quick tempered or prone to jealousy, and she’s absolutely NOT plagued by insecurity. She’s dancing wildly in the rain…how could she be bothered by such pointless pettiness?? According to that description, my soaked but still dancing make-believe lass, sounds devastatingly and irritatingly perfect. For those of us ladies who aren’t regular frolickers, we’ve likely longed to harness that degree of carefree abandon.
Sunday evening in the Smith home was aggravating. I sat across our family dining room table from my fellow enforcer, sufferer, favorite person and husband as we exchanged eye rolls while attempting to encourage our four children to maintain civility and class. I felt surrounded by my generally amazing (but in this moment much, much, MUCH less than fantastic) children and an excessive amount of their energy and noise. This particular family supper was essentially food + chaos = my head is about to explode. As the crazies began to settle, and one by one asked to be excused from the table, a few simple words from that sweet quote kept rolling around in my mind, “…learning to dance in the rain”. Grrr! I was so frustrated with the fact that even though I was now sitting in peace and quiet, I couldn’t shake the huge hairy, gnarled ball of stress and fury inside me. The atmosphere in my dining room had shifted, but I still felt emotionally pinned to the ruckus of earlier.
I REALLY want to learn to dance in the rain! I want be capable of shifting from frustration and anger to cheerfulness when it’s time. I want to be lightning fast to forgive, especially when forgiveness is asked for and swift to return to offering warm exchanges. In all honesty, it’s really difficult for me to shift gears after my kids have driven me up the wall and around the house. There’s this one thing that my husband likes to say, particularly when it feels like the sky is falling. He’ll say, “Let the storm rage around us. As long as we have each other, we can get through it.” Those words have always had the same kind of peace ensuing affect on me as that framed quote. He’s always been my dancing in the rain man. And I promise that someday (hopefully real soon) I’ll be there too!
I wasn’t raised in a traditional sort of church. Although it was conservative, it wasn't very traditional. There were hymnals and an organ, but we weren't typically instructed us to sing from them together while the organ accompanied. For the most part, the organ collected dust and hymnals were turned into make-shift tables; a perfect place for children to repurpose church menus into pieces of artwork. Despite my lack of constant hymn exposure, I knew many of them. I’m not sure how or when I learned them. I’m sure my parents taught them to me somewhere along the way, but I don’t recall specific times or occasions where they were introduced to me. Although it's completely impossible, I feel as if they were always there in my heart somehow. To me, hymns have always been a cherished part of my spiritual heritage. One hymn in particular that always captivated me was, “It is well with my soul”.
I think I was in elementary school when I was first introduced to the heartbreaking story behind the lyrics. This is the account: A wealthy businessman named Haratio Spafford, planned a trip to Europe with his family (a wife and 4 daughters). When Haratio got tied up with business, he sent his family ahead of him, with plans to meet them there. During their voyage, his family's ship sank, killing all four of his daughters. After receiving the terrible news, Haratio set sail to meet his wife in Europe. As he crossed over the exact patch of sea where his daughters were said to have drowned, he penned the word to what we know as the hymn, "It is well with my soul".
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul!
As a kid, I marveled at the strength and the unwavering faith of this man. He was my spiritual hero! Even after his children were taken from him, he trusted and honored God. When I was younger I dreamed that someday I too would be a spiritual pillar of strength. I had romantic visions of overcoming unimaginable obstacles and staring down evil without flinching. I imagined that I'd grow up to be bold and fearless. But when I dreamed those romantic dreams, I had no understanding of true pain and I could never have been able to imagine the suffering or loss that people like Haratio Spafford, Corrie ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer endured. All I knew was that I wanted to be as noble and full of faith as they were.
I’m not a little girl anymore with romantic notions of heroism. I’m grown and I’m a mom and a wife and Haratio Spafford's story kills me! I can’t hardly read or sing the lyrics of “It is well with my soul”, without losing it a little. The thought of tragedy touching my family…my husband…my babies; it’s nearly more than I can bear.
Not long ago my family endured a bit of trauma. Nearly in unison to the messiness of my life, a new Bethel song was released. It was an updated version of my old favorite, titled, "It is well". This version left me with a conundrum. The song has been quite revamped. It's entirely beautiful and the bulk of it was strengthening and brought me peace, but there's this one line...so similar to the original, but not exactly. The line says, " It is well with me". Even though only one single word had been adjusted, hearing it left me with an entirely different feeling from hearing "it is well with my soul". It left me with an angry feeling. And each time I hear the words, "It is well with me" sung, a little indignant voice inside of me answers, "It is NOT well with me! And it's never going to be well with me!"
I hear the word "well" all day long. When I'm greeted and when I greet others, the customary response is, "I'm well". Whether we're telling the truth or not, the inference is clear: things are good and I'm good. I couldn't help but impose my understanding of the cheery, casual and broadly used word "well", into the line "It is well with me". The phrase also felt a bit familiar in another context. I've heard it so many times before...in church; in that building where we're supposed to be honest, real and vulnerable and not just socially polite. How many times have I asked a church friend (or maybe even a friend has asked me), "How are you?", only to be presented with or to present a heartbreaking answer, followed up with, "but it's all good...I'm good". It's like we feel this "need" to stick up for God, as if our hardship reduces or devalues him, or maybe it's the fear of possible rejection or judgement that swallows up the fullness of our confession. We minimize the hardship of our lives and opt out of publicly acknowledging that we feel we're about to break in two.
A few Sunday's ago, as I sat in church listening to the worship team sing these words, and as anger rose inside me, I decided to pray. I wanted to understand how God saw my pain. What does, "It is well with me", mean?? Is the song's intention to serenaded and lull me into a sort of hypnosis where I emotionally detach from my pain and declare that it's OK? Does it mean that God wants me to feel OK with it; to deny it or come to terms with it?
Then I heard the part of the song that sings, "So let go, my soul and trust in him. The waves and wind still know his name", and my anger lifted like a storm cloud clearing, and a peace filled me. I was suddenly reminded that the same Jesus who silenced the storm on the sea can also calm the storm in my heart. With his love and mercy and compassion; he stills my storm. I still grieve, but in the midst of my grief, he's there. He doesn't leave me, turn away from me or request that I feel less than I do. He's not intimidated by me.
I remember the day, years ago, when someone shared Psalm 56:8 with me: "You number my wanderings; put my tears in a bottle..." It profoundly shifted my perception of God and how I imagined that he cared for me. No longer could I believe him to be emotionally detached and judgmental. He suddenly became attentive, personal and empathetic. From there I found Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." and Psalm 147:3, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." I know now that he wants to carry my burdens, and he does all of this because he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).
When I can see and feel and know, how deeply God; the God of the whole universe, cares for me I can say, "it is well with my soul". I'm only able to say those words because I know that I have a HUGE God who fights for me and never leaves me and constantly loves me. I still really struggle with merely saying the words "it is well with me". "It" (the unjust thing, the trauma) is just NOT well with me. But what's really comforting to know is that it's also NOT well with God. He's not going to act like it's OK, or insist that I do either. He's going to mourn with me and amaze me by making beauty where I once only saw ashes (Isaiah 61:3).
Who could forget that dreadful day a couple of weeks ago, when I was pathetically conquered (and a little undone) over an enormously overfilled and saggy diaper, followed by a completely heinous attempt to bake a loaf of bread. Then the perfectly placed cherry on the top: my sweet but rather unwilling homeschooler dragging his feet through EVERY single task we attempted. (Click here if you'd like a refresher.)
After that big downer of a day, I became even more resolute: I was determined to find a workable and yummy bread recipe. I had an embarrassingly domestic "Suzy Homemaker" baking vision dragging me onward. I wanted to create my very own soft, spongy, moist, sandwich-style bread from scratch…and I especially wanted my kids and husband to LOVE it. I thought: "No big deal, I’ve got this! It’ll be cheaper, more healthful and I’ll feel SOOO proud of myself!" I tried recipe after recipe, all boasting their ease, quality and ability to please. I mixed and kneaded and w-a-i-t-e-d…and kneaded, and waited, and shaped, and finally baked. The result: disappointing, nasty bread! So much effort and such high hopes with no triumph and absolutely NO victory!
BUT, then I found a recipe for something called “no knead bread” and suddenly I’d created the most beautiful looking artisan style, rounded loaf ever with the softest, spongiest, and moistest (yet fully baked center) texture ever! It was absolutely brilliant! But by this point in the bread attempting process I knew this wasn’t as a result of my brilliance. I’d tried so many other recipes with beautiful, winning photos attached, and in spite of all that, and my hard work, I fell face first, flat onto my flour coated floor (metaphorically speaking, of course).
The trick: do absolutely nothing!! Literally, all I did was put flour, salt, water and yeast in a bowl and mix it briefly and, voila! The bulk of the magic happened while I did anything and everything else; until baking time (which also required little time, effort or skill). I was beside myself; full of disbelief and excitement. I had to make sure my amazing results weren't a 'one time only' deal. I’ve since baked at least 5 batches. All were perfect (on the inside) and rustic on the outside, easy, lovely and most important- tasty. But with all this baking, minus any real effort or skill it got me to thinking... why wasn’t I able to muster a scrumptious home baked loaf of sandwich bread with a whole lot of effort?? The more I pondered, the more analogous to spiritual living my whole bread conundrum was beginning to feel.
So many years of my life have been spent working exhaustingly hard at being “good”. I believed, that my actions were a representation of my heart (which isn't altogether terrible theology, just incomplete theology for another time). So I naturally but wrongfully concluded that all I needed to do was to will my outsides to look the way I desperately desired my insides to look. I compiled all the customary ingredients (I read my Bible, I prayed, I acted kind and I tried not to intentionally sin). Then I added it all to my life thinking it would be the perfect recipe for spiritual success. Eventually it all crumbled…or maybe I crumbled. I looked pretty good (at times) on the outside, but my insides were dry and cavernous. My desire for perfection was exhausting and it left me feeling like a complete failure. I was painfully aware of my imperfections all the time and I began to feel really bitter. I was angry with myself for my inability to be “good enough”. I was angry with God for the absurdly high expectations I believed he had and really angry with all the people who seemed to be enjoying their lives without the element of anal retentive perfectionism. I was miserable!
All those sandwich bread recipes that required so much of my effort and time, they all looked so tidy and orderly on the outside, but like me, they had a hidden mess on the inside. I didn't understand that authentic spirituality wasn't just a mental decision. It didn't look one specific way or take a certain shape. It, like the "no knead bread" recipe required a sort of deep fermentation process, where all the ingredients were forced to just sit with each other (for a LONG time) and just be; not do anything. That extra time is what completely changes the composition of the dough. My composition had stayed the same because my spirituality didn't really involve God; just my recipe of rules. It was really just hollow superstition. I wasn't really spending any time with God and allowing him to change me.
Even after all these years, the resting part (the just "being") isn't easy for me. Sometimes I find myself wishing that I could just muster and shape my own spirituality, real quick and easy. I still struggle a bit with insecurities and perfectionism but after taking my hands off of the process, I'm different. I'm not as tidy or buttoned up as I used to be. I'm a bit rustic...let's call it "artisan" looking. And like my bread, I'm softer on the inside and minus that gaping cavern.
Writer and fellow traveler on the road of life.