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.


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.


The story we all share at Easter

A friend of mine owns a travel agency with employees scattered throughout the country. Her crew specializes in Disney-related trips and gets invited to exclusive opening events. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen her beautiful pictures in Italy, in Florida and in amazing resorts.

You’d think, with such obvious success, that it would define her life — that it would be the first thing associated with her name. But she understands that while success may draw others to you, it’s honesty that binds them.

So, like Jesus, she begins by showing her own scars.

She points to the sexual assaults of her two sons, to the ways her family grieved and then began to heal. And every time she shares her story those with scars of their own breathe out and loosened their shoulders. They pull closer. Because even in an airbrushed world, we humans are imperfect. We’re all a bit broken, and we’re all a bit relieved when we know we aren’t alone. When we touch the scars of others, we know that we, too, can find our way toward healing.

This week many of us will hear the story of Easter, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we read further in scripture, it tells us Jesus later appeared to his followers. Of course they were confused, and one man, Thomas, struggled to believe that it could really be Jesus standing before him. So, he made a brave request. Thomas asked to see where the nails had held Jesus to the cross — because he knew the truth was in the scars.

Scars from nails. From depression. From broken relationships. From financial troubles. From giving birth to something new.

They all hold the truth. The truth that we aren’t alone and that pain and hurt can be redeemed and healed.

That’s why my friend unwraps her scars and tells her story to person after person. It would be easier to ignore and push aside and move on. But scars are a testament to overcoming and to resurrection and that makes them worth sharing at Easter and always.


Renew your spirit and your creativity

Sign up today for our free e-mail series

Renew Your SpiritLife can knock you around a bit, leave you sprawled out and dizzy from the pace of it all — and all my soul wants is just a place to refresh. A place to rest. A place to look at the sky and remember my true north.

While I may not be able to take a three-month sabbatical or even spend a week at a retreat center right now, I can spend 30 minutes each day renewing my soul and my creativity.

And you can, too.

Let’s do this together. For you. For me.

We’ll start this one-week online retreat on Sunday, Sept. 18. You’ll get emails that walk you through seven days of spiritual growth — and a tool to help you track your time and evaluate where you can make adjustments.

We want all of us to work through this series at the same time, so we’re closing registration after Sept. 15. We hope you’ll join us!

How to enjoy the view

where to focusI first noticed the direction of the windows in San Diego, and then I saw the same thing when we wandered around the edges of Lake Ontario closer to home.

The windows – the big, beautiful, statement windows – all point in the direction of the water, of the view they value so much. Even the homes that aren’t touching the sand seem to crane their necks and point their windows toward the shore.

Garages and roads are tucked away so as to not interfere, to not interrupt.

It makes perfect sense. Land along the water comes at a steep price, and builders know – even before they lay the foundation – where the focus will be.

I suspect my foundation was designed that way, too. That I was made to see joy and grace. That my soul was created to point toward love.

But often I drag the dirty laundry and the dishes and disheveled baggage and put it right in my line of vision. Troubled relationships and misunderstandings act like dark curtains, and the critics – both imagined and real – seem to pull up lawn chairs and build bonfires on the beach that are hard to miss.

My stunning view begins to get cluttered with self-doubt, with comparison and stress. I’m close enough to see the light sparkle off the water and to hear the crashing waves. Close enough to feel God’s peace and grace and joy. I just need to rearrange the focus.

Critics can go on the street or, if helpful, in the garage for containment and safe storage. Misunderstandings are cleared up and pushed aside to allow light and forgiveness in to do their important work. And baggage can be sorted and put away in its proper place.

Then, nothing stands between me and where my soul was created to point. And I can enjoy the view.

where to focus



SewGreen upcycles fabric and faith


Sometimes it almost doesn’t feel like work when I’m interviewing people. This is one of those times. I pulled together a story for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle on SewGreen, a non-profit that offers low-cost classes — along with a store full of donated fabric, thread, yarn and patterns — and it was an honor to be surrounded by such talented people.

I hope you’re as inspired as I was and that you’ll consider taking a class, shopping or donating. And, just as important, I hope you consider sharing what you are passionate about with others.

Here’s the story.

You can also learn more about SewGreen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.