What we learn from vacations and hospitals

One of the hardest things about living 1,200 miles from home is knowing which emergencies are worth packing up the kids and the van and starting the drive.

Some situations are obvious, like heart attacks and funerals. But others, like my brother-in-law’s motorcycle accident in February, left me second-guessing myself for days. The emergency room doctor said he was OK. Bruised and scratched, but miraculously OK after being pushed off the road. We already had a trip planned to go home in a week, so we stayed put.

Then, there was the second trip to the emergency room because he wasn’t acting quite right. I started the laundry and had Brian get the suitcases out, just in case. Again, the doctor said he was fine and sent him home.

And he was fine, until my sister had to call the ambulance because he collapsed. She was in tears when she told me that night that the brain injury was more severe than they thought. We started toward Oklahoma the next morning, a few days earlier than we had planned. Along with the usual vacation excitement, we felt nervous. Anxious. Worried.

When we got there, we went to the hospital right away instead of going to get our favorite ice cream or stopping to play at a park. There were several other trips to the hospital and eventually to the rehabilitation center as we watched my brother-in-law gain strength and memory, and all the while I tried to keep vacation feeling like vacation for our boys.

This was our best shot to comfort my brother-in-law and our best shot to enjoy Oklahoma. And we could do both.

It meant that there were plenty of days when I felt like sitting still. Going to bed early. Sleeping in late. But I knew that I had to make time for what we had come for — what we had planned for. I knew I had to make time and space for joy.

So, we went to the aquarium and hiked at Keystone Ancient Forest. We had cheese fries at Eskimo Joe’s and rode an elephant at the circus. We did the fun things that we had planned, even though pain and worry were nearby.

Joy didn’t flee when the tough times came. It stuck around to strengthen us. To let us see the full picture. To remind us of our purpose.

When we loaded the van to come back to New York, I made sure to pack that lesson, too.


The power of one

How you can make a difference even in overwhelming situations

When your birthday falls on the day your country officially recognized women’s right to vote, you feel a particular pull to the 19th Amendment. And this year, I felt a pull to spend my birthday visiting Seneca Falls, NY, where the first convention for women’s rights was held in 1848.

The beautiful town is just an hour from our house, and I had never seen the Women’s Rights National Historical Park or the National Women’s Hall of Fame. I knew the boys might not last long on the tours, but we could at least take a few minutes to honor the women and the men who worked for equality.

We hadn’t even made it inside the national park building when the boys heard the fountain. They raced down the stairs and onto the lawn to see the Declaration of Sentiments etched in stone with water washing over the top.

Nearby was a sign that thanked the men who had worked alongside the suffragists, and we stopped to talk about how smaller, less powerful groups of people always need others to see them as valuable — always need others to speak up on their behalf to people in power.

I told this to the two boys who have the advantage of a strong family, a safe place to live and access to education. And I say it as often as I can.

Then, I turned to Benjamin and I told him how Harry T. Burn, a state legislator in Tennessee, had planned to vote against allowing women to vote, but he received a letter from his mother urging him to change his mind. Benjamin’s eyes grew wide when I told him that Burn voted in favor of the 19th Amendment for his mother and millions of other women.

We walked on, snapped pictures and read story after story of bravery and courage. All the while, I thought of that mother’s letter. I thought of how overwhelming it must have felt to try to amend the Constitution. How frustrating it must have been to know in your heart that you were so much more than property and equal in the eyes of God.

But no matter how complicated the issue, it always comes down to one, doesn’t it? One person sharing her story. One person listening.

Burn could say that women didn’t have a right to vote, but he couldn’t look at his mother’s face and say that she was not worthy of the vote.

It was true in 1920, and it’s true in 2017.

We aren’t facing a constitutional amendment this year, but we are facing plenty of things that tear at the seams of our country. We’ve turned the volume up high on all sides of the political aisles, and we can barely hear ourselves think, much less hear the holy stories of others.

When the issues get large, we should get small. When programs and policies get beyond our comprehension, we should get close enough to remember that God loves us all.

One person talking. One person listening.

It has moved us forward before, and I know it will move us forward now.

The truth about feeling alone

Photo by Abi Buddington

For as long as I can remember, I’ve written to figure out how I feel. When Grandpa Gregory died and I was in elementary school. When I became a parent and faced a different level of responsibility. When questions arose about my faith or when I needed to think through something challenging.

For me, writing brings order to chaos. Once I’m done praying and wrestling the words down on paper, I understand.

It’s a process I trust.

But writing and telling stories at a keyboard is different than spinning tales at a podium. There are people watching, and there is no backspace, no delete key. So, I get nervous speaking to groups of more than 10 or 20 even if I know many in the crowd, even if the subject is something as important to me as women’s education.

In June I fretted and paced and finally walked up on stage to talk about Cottey College, a women’s college in Missouri that’s owned by P.E.O., a group that raises money for scholarships and low-interest loans.

Representatives of P.E.O. chapters from throughout New York — including my own chapter — filled every seat. More than I had even imagined.I told them how Cottey College had changed my life, had made me stronger in the classroom and in the world.

I remember applause and following the other speakers down the aisle into the crowd, and then I remember my friend stepping into the aisle and hugging me. Others from my chapter joined in, their hands on my shoulder and my back. And they held me. Other speakers had to walk around. The business portion of the meeting had to wait.

My body was still physically shaking from having been on stage, but in that moment I remembered I was not alone — and I never had been. Not on stage. Not when my husband lost his job in our first year of marriage. Not when waiting on Mama’s medical tests. Not ever.

It can seem lonely and vulnerable at the podium and in life, but love surrounds us always. Even in the very beginning, God was bringing order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes. And I need to trust the process.


How to be the shelter in the storm

Photo by Gabriele Diwald on Unsplash

One of my earliest memories is of Daddy lifting me out of bed and carrying me through the rain and the wind to the storm shelter in our back yard.

Our shelter was nice by most standards. We had electricity, benches and blankets. And Mama, always the planner, made sure we had fresh food and drinks down there during tornado season.

I’m sure I was scared at times, but mainly I remember the feeling of nervous excitement. Even though the storms were tremendous, I knew I was safe underground. I knew even if a tornado sucked the wheat and the barns from the Oklahoma fields, it would pass over me.

But the truth is, now I know about storms you can’t hide from. Storms you must face in order to make it through.

My friend Carol-Beth Scott faced a storm like that when she discovered her two sons had been sexually assaulted by a teenager in their church youth group. She searched everywhere for an example of a family that had made it safely through the storm — a family that had survived and thrived and could tell her what they had done to heal. But there was nothing she could find.

Today, that all changes.

Today, her book releases.

Today, parents can look through the pages of Not Destroyed Family and find the hope, the courage and the tools they need to help their children.

This book that the two of us worked on together can only help people if they know about it, though, and that’s where we could use your help. Will you tell your friends who are hurting? Could you mention it to your pediatrician or to the police officer at your church?

We would appreciate it — and I have to believe so would all those families looking for shelter in this storm.

Thank you for all that you can do.

How stories of courage and hope change lives

The fourth book in our summer series

My fourth — and final — summer book recommendation is one that you’ll want to take to the beach or sit on the porch and read. You might also want to read it in one quick sitting to find out if Daniel Knight can find the childhood friend he’s been searching more than 70 years for.

Author Melanie Dobson’s novel, Catching the Wind, tells how Knight and Brigitte Berthold escaped the Gestapo agents who arrested both their parents. She describes their harrowing journey from Germany to England and then paints a picture of their heartbreaking separation when they were 13 and 10.

Throughout the years, Knight hires detective after detective, and none can find Berthold. Finally, he hires Quenby Vaughn, an American journalist working in London, to find his friend. Vaughn has a personal investment in a related WWII espionage story and is wrestling her own demons from her past — and she isn’t crazy about working with Knight’s attorney.

As with all good fiction, Dobson’s novel contains many truths. I had a chance to ask Dobson a few questions about those truths. Here are her responses.

  1. We live in a world where “friendship” is sometimes just a digital connection — an easy click of a button. Friendship is treated differently in your book. How can we build friendships to stand the test of time and hardship today? One of my main characters (Daniel Knight) made a promise to a friend seventy years ago, and he is trying desperately throughout Catching the Wind to be faithful in keeping it.  As I wrote this book, I was challenged to invest even more in my own friendships. I think building solid friendships is done through a willingness to sacrifice ourselves as well as extend a tremendous amount of grace to one another. Daniel was gracious and kind to Brigitte even in the hardest of times, and he was willing to put aside what he wanted to rescue her.
  2. Even when we aren’t in times of war, we can feel overpowered and need to make difficult decisions. How can we do that better? And what can we do if we get it wrong? I love to tell the stories of ordinary people throughout history and today who do extraordinary things to help others. Risking our lives for someone else can come at a tremendous cost, and while the risking today may not be as extreme as during war, I think it is always extraordinary to sacrifice ourselves by giving our time, money, and resources to help someone else. When we feel overpowered, I believe the best way to make difficult decisions is by praying for wisdom and a peace that surpasses understanding. Even after prayer and trying to follow the wind of Spirit, we might think we made a wrong choice, but I believe that God works all things together for good for those who love and serve Him. What we perceive to be “wrong” might be exactly what He needed for us to do.
  3. If there is one thing that readers remember from this book, what do you hope that is? The power of sharing stories is a key element in this novel. I would love for readers to remember that God uses the courage and hope in both our stories and the stories of others to change lives.


An easy way to teach kids to pray

The third book in our summer series

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a parent. I knew it would be rewarding, but I had no idea it would be so humbling — that there would be so much I wanted to teach and so little I knew. That’s why I appreciate books like A Spoonful of Grace. In it, author Annette Hubbell has compiled more than 350 prayers and Bible verses that are meant to be shared before a family meal and discussed.

Annette Hubbell

A Spoonful of Grace is also great for grandparents and caregivers, busy people who want to add more Bible reading into their lives, or people who would like to say grace with others but don’t know how or where to begin,” said Hubbell, who came up with the idea for the book after noticing that a friend led grace differently than she did. There must be other prayers she hadn’t heard, Hubbell thought, so she began to ask others about their traditions.

“What I received back surprised me,” she said. “It seems that there are, in fact, only a handful of ‘standard’ graces; most are impromptu, made up according to how the day unfolds. Even more surprising were the responses of those who didn’t regularly say grace but wished they did—and would if they had some structure.”

So, Hubbell earned a certificate in apologetics from Biola University, immersed herself in Bible studies, traveled throughout the Holy Lands and began writing.

The result was a book that could help us all because prayer and family time are both still important.

We are fast becoming a society that communicates more through electronic devices than through the spoken word,” Hubbell said. “Twitter- or texting-sized attention spans and social media interactions don’t lend themselves to developing minds or bonding opportunities, and family time (sans electronic devices) becomes more important than ever.

“I also believe that there is (at least) one thing that kids should see their parents doing every day: praying! What better way to develop a deeper relationship with God and to strengthen family ties than to eat and pray together? With A Spoonful of Grace families have an opportunity to pray together, to say meaningful things to each other, and to get to know one another.

“… I hope this book will help turn mealtimes into fun- and faith-filled conversations about issues that count—like sharing, honesty, friendship, respect—and, of course, God.”

What to do when trusting God doesn’t come easily

The second book in our summer series

Of all the books I read, historical romance has to be my favorite genre. It reminds me that human relationships are messy — that love is much stronger than a greeting card can capture. And when it’s really well written, I also learn more about the past, more about our world’s story.

That’s why “Bread of Angels” is at the top of the stack of books on my porch. Tessa Afshar has won awards and praise for her other novels — all Biblical fiction — so I have high hopes for this book about Lydia, the first in Europe to convert to Christianity.

Here’s what Afshar has to say about her book, which released last week:

Q.: “Bread of Angels” is based on the biblical story of Lydia from the book of Acts. Why did you choose to write a book about her?

A.: Some lives seem to burn with an incandescent light, leaving their inexorable mark on history. Lydia was such a person. The first convert in Europe, she succeeded in the realm of commerce where men dominated and ruled. Her home became the first church in the continent that yielded the greatest influence in the spread of the Gospel for centuries. The world changed, you might say, because of Lydia’s intrepid generosity and leadership. She wasn’t even afraid to host a couple of jailbirds in her home, even though it probably reflected badly on her. If anyone deserved to have her own book, it was Lydia!

Q.: Where does the title “Bread of Angels” come from?

A.: The psalmist Asaph calls manna the bread of the angels. (Psalm 78:25) Being unable to reap or sow in their 40-year wanderings, the Israelites were given this miraculous substance as a daily provision from heaven.

The whole point of manna, besides feeding the people, was to teach trust. To teach them that morning by morning, God would provide for that day. There was no earthly way to control this provision. They could not plan or arrange or manipulate their way into receiving manna. They had to trust that, every day, God would meet them again at the point of their need.

When I thought about Lydia, a woman in a man’s world, a woman bearing the burdens of a lavish business with many dependents, I felt that perhaps more than anything, the weight of responsibility might have pressed her down. She either had to trust her own ability, or rely on a God who would give her the bread of angels.

I liked this concept, because it seems to me that most of us struggle, at least to some degree, with the same choice, especially when it comes to our jobs. The work of our hands has so many complex emotional threads attached to it. We long to be useful. To make a difference. To use our gifting. Add to that the reality that in our world, our stability is attached to work. We can’t pay the rent unless we get paid. There are layers of fear running through our jobs. Layers that are, to some degree, beyond our control.

But God lavishes the bread of angels upon us. Not in the form of manna, but in the shape of what we most need for that day. Emotional, practical, relational strength and provision. Part of the novel deals with this struggle for trust.

Q.: You called Lydia intrepid earlier yet your novel also deals with fear. Tell us a little about those seemingly conflicting themes.

A.: Lydia works alongside men in a world where women are second-class citizens. That takes a lot of courage. And the way she insists on hosting Paul and his friends, even after they land themselves in jail and earn the ire of the whole city, also suggests a persistent kind of audacity. There is no doubt about her courage. And yet I have learned that courage does not mean the disappearance of fear. On the contrary, some of the bravest people I know have terrifying struggles with fear.

I think fear bears profound power in most of our lives. The Prophet Isaiah said, “You shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear” (Isaiah 54:14). In other words, fear causes oppression. In all its iterations: anxiety, worry, agitation, trepidation, dark imaginings, panic, fear of failure, of rejection, of letting people down, of abandonment, of not measuring up… — every manner of fear is a chain that binds. Oppresses. And one day, he says, that oppression shall cease. It shall cease because the Messiah will overcome it.

In “Bread of Angels,” I wanted to show a woman who was at once valiant and fearful. And I wanted to show those fears shifting, paling through the progression of her faith.

Q.: Lydia has a secret. Can you tell us about that?

A.: Secrets have a profound power. They can eat at us. They can birth shame and guilt and lead to self-condemnation. In those hidden places of our hearts that have never seen the light of day, never felt grace applied to them because they have never been spoken, the enemy gains a foothold. At some point, secrets have to be spoken to be healed. I wanted to address this theme in “Bread of Angels” because I come across so many women who tell me: I have never told this to anyone . . .

How to find peace even in unraveled dreams

The first in our summer book series

Each time the calendar flips to summer, my mind turns to sitting on the porch with a good book — hopefully the kind that keeps me up too late reading just one more chapter. So, this month, I’ll share with you four newly released books that I think will make our souls better.

I’ll make some sweet tea and we’ll settle in for a visit with Jerusalem Jackson Greer, author of “At Home in this Life: Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises.” Greer writes about practicing the presence of God through things like solitude, study, prayer and service and how she works that into everyday life with activities like baking, sewing and gardening. But the thing that fascinated me the most was Greer’s idea of how people like me have delusions and spiritual fantasies that get in the way of our growth. That, to me, made her book worth sharing with you.

Jerusalem Jackson Greer

Q.: Do you think most people have delusions and spiritual fantasies? If so, what are the most common ones?

A.: Yes, I do think people have spiritual delusions and fantasies – I know I have, and being human, will probably have again. I think the most common of these delusions and fantasies is that there is somewhere, within the warp and weft of faith, a magic formula to happiness and contentment. That somehow, if we can only can figure out how to believe the right things, say the right prayers, sing the right songs, or read the right text, we will be able to uncover the code to ensure our long-term well-being, finally fixing everything that is broken in our lives.

Q.: How do we begin to move away from fantasies? I know when things don’t measure up the way I expect them to, I sometimes lose perspective and hope. How should I and others get back on track?

A.: The truth is, when it comes to faith 1+1 does not always = 2, and this can be a hard pill to swallow. Especially in a culture that likes certainty and measured results. I mean, we wear expensive devices on our wrist to count our steps. Can you get more measured than that? So we look for assurances even within our faith. We look for a cure-all, get-happy-quick scheme within our spiritual practices. When they don’t deliver, we handle it one of two ways: we are either plunged into disillusionment and cynicism, or we brush it off with Pollyanna-esque optimism, creating a palatable reason for why things didn’t work out, saying things like “Well, when God closes a door, God will open a window!”

I think the thing that gets us in trouble in the first place is our expectations and understanding of what our faith is for.   Do we engage in spiritual practices, and live a life of faith, simply in the pursuit of happiness and comfort? Or, is it for a great purpose? A reason larger than our own well-being? In the Westminster Catechism one of the key questions is “What is the chief end of man?” to which the answer is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” I have always loved this answer because to me it sums up the total need for and benefit of faith; To live a life that is in pursuit of being made whole. Within my faith tradition, to glorify God means to do the things we believe God said to do – love God, love your neighbor, take care of the widows and the orphans, be good stewards of the earth, to honor the dignity of all persons. To enjoy God means to enjoy the things that God has provided – creation, relationships, rest, food, beauty, the pursuit of knowledge and so on.  But most of these things – the glorifying and the enjoying – if we are doing them well, will stretch us and challenge us and grow us. Which I believe is the true purpose of faith – to grow us towards being made whole, which in the end is a beautifully healing thing, and is also the most glorifying thing of all.  So is this process uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.  So, to answer the question – I think we begin to move away from our spiritual fantasies, and the disappointment they bring when we begin reorienting our expectations; When we embrace faith as transformational process, instead of a means to an end (that end being our satisfaction), when we accept that the purpose of living a faith-filled life is to grow, not to be pacified.

Q.: Transformation is uncomfortable. How do we know that we are headed in the right direction — and how can we tell when we have arrived? (Can we tell?)

A.: Transformation is very uncomfortable at times because it is wracked with growing pains. I think it is always helpful to remember that faith is a process, made up of spiritual practices, not “spiritual perfections” or “spiritual guarantees.” They are called practices for a reason: we are choosing to learn, we are attempting to get better, through repetition, over a span of time, in order to become proficient. And like any form of practice – from piano playing, to soccer, to painting – there are going to be parts of the discipline that come more naturally than others. Within a faith practice, some of us might find that our prayer muscle is already well developed, while our hospitality muscle is a little flabby. And of course, the opposite could just as easily be true for someone else. And so we practice. We choose to cooperate with God in our transformation process, and we do work, even when it hurts – even when it causes us to have to die to our desires – in order to love better, give more, and forgive again. And how do we know if it is working? Well, I guess you ask yourself – and those who know you best – things like, “Am I genuinely more loving towards my neighbors today, than last week?” or “Am I becoming a better caretaker of creation?” or “Do I seem more grateful this year, than last?” If the answers are “yes”, then I think you are on the right track. But I don’t think we ever “arrive.” I think transformation is a lifelong process, which I think is a good thing – lots of second-chance opportunities that way!


Why we don’t stop for medals before the finish line

Photo courtesy of Unsplash: Braden Collum

Aside from the running we did in P.E. classes, I’ve never been in a race in the traditional sense of the word. I help with a charity 5K every year, so I’ve seen people stretch their legs across the finish line and then bow their heads to have volunteers place a medal around their necks.

And I run my own sorts of races. The kind where you work hard to finish school and then work hard to prove yourself in your career. The kind where you see others passing you by with better houses and nicer furniture. The kind where you just aren’t sure where you’ll rank at the finish line.

I notice other people’s hurdles — from a distance — look smaller, and sometimes it seems people running the relay are given extra seconds on the clock because their teammates reached them sooner and set them up with better opportunities and better bank accounts.

Because I’m working hard, I expect my medal before I reach the finish line. I want praise and accomplishment at the 1K mark and at 2K and 2.5K.

The funny thing is real-life runners don’t think that way. Of course, they all want to be first to cross the line but they mainly talk of breaking personal records, of doing better than they did last time — of keeping their eyes in their own lane. And they have no interest in stopping every 10 minutes to collect a reward.

A runner will grab water from an outstretched hand and wave to a person holding an encouraging sign, but stopping for a medal would cost time and add weight. Who wants to carry that burden for miles? And who wants to put off reaching the finish line?

Some of the runners at the 5K have a drawer full of medals they’ve earned because they run year after year. Not one of them wears them during the race because it isn’t the medals that help them run faster — it’s their faith in their training. It’s their knowledge that the race may be tough but they are strong enough to finish.

Maybe it shouldn’t be so different for me and my race. Maybe I should have faith that God and I are strong enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe I should be thankful for the encouraging signs and thankful that the medal, the reward, is waiting at the finish line.


Sometimes even the straight and narrow looks different

When you have a 5-year-old who is a train enthusiast, you spend a portion of almost every weekend riding trolleys and visiting model train displays. So, it wasn’t that unusual that we found ourselves at the Arcade & Attica Railroad Depot boarding a steam engine on a sunny afternoon.

The passenger cars were comfortable, but it didn’t take us long to realize that the open-air gondola car at the end offered a much better view of the farmland and of the steam pouring out of the funnel ahead of us. We sat on the hard benches for nearly an hour while we made our way to Curriers Station, where we stopped for pictures and ice cream that melted down our hands.

While other passengers milled around, we boarded early because we knew the steam engine would soon be coupled to the gondola car for our return trip. Moving just the engine was easier than turning the entire train around, the railroad workers explained — and it gave Colt a chance to see it attach in real life, not just with his models.

But when we sat on the hard benches again, it was the front of the engine that moved toward us and attached to our car.Turns out, there’s room at Curriers Station for the engine to move from the front to the back of the train, but no place for the engine itself to turn and shift direction.

It wasn’t a big deal, the workers said. The steam engine would just drive backward on the return trip.

It looked like a big deal, though, as I stared at the front of an engine moving closer and closer to my family. It didn’t look as menacing once it coupled and started pulling us back to where we had started.Still, it had to seem funny to all the people waiting for us to clear the train crossings — a majestic steam engine facing the direction of its passenger cars. But a lot of what happens on the straight and narrow must look funny to the people on the side.

For those of us trying to walk in faith, trying to stay on the rails of love and grace, we don’t have great expanses where we can turn around or make excuses. Our focus is more narrow. We’re called to feed the hungry. To care for people who are often forgotten. To forgive.

Living that out may look different than what we’re used to seeing on the tracks. It may look like peace in the midst of world that is angry. It may look like extending a hand in a culture that buys until it fills houses and storage units. It may look like making room at the table for outcasts and even sinners in a society that focuses on self promotion and self righteousness.

It may look like a train moving down the tracks in reverse. But it is still the best way to get us to our destination.