The Last 5,256,000 Minutes

Ten years is kind of a big deal.

Whether it’s a marriage that has lasted a decade or an object that stands the test of time, when something makes it to the ten-year mark, it’s worth celebrating. And that’s precisely what I’m doing tonight. Wayne is out playing a gig with the Peachtree Jazz Edition, and I’m relaxing in our beautiful home. A fire is crackling in my living room, Debussy is playing on the radio, and I’m curled up in my pajamas, cozy as a cat.

Ten years ago, things weren’t quite so copacetic.

On the evening of January 25, 2004, I was writhing in a hospital bed, suffering from a spinal headache I’d gotten from a spinal tap I’d undergone that afternoon. In the throes of that searing pain, my neurologist came in and told me, “You have MS. It’s not the end of the world. You can find more information on the Internet than I could ever tell you. Good night.” I’m not kidding; that’s all I got from him. After he’d left, we asked the nurse to call him and prescribe a pill for my headache. Both Wayne and I had been too shocked to ask when he was there.

A word of advice—NEVER look up a health question on the web. For Gregory House, M.D., everything inexplicable had to be lupus. For the Internet, it’s cancer and certain death.

Well, we did look it up, and we got the absolute worst case scenario for an MS patient. After an hour of scouring the web looking for a scrap of good news and bawling like babies, Wayne slammed the laptop closed and told me, “That’s enough.” That night, I was convinced that I’d never have a normal life ever again. And in some ways, I was right. I’ve not been the same since that day, and that’s a good thing.

The eight year anniversary, which I wrote about here, was a big milestone for me. It seemed like an unreachable date, and now here I am, two years beyond what once seemed impossible. I’ve since learned to use that word sparingly, if at all. Why? Because, as Matthew 19:26 tells us, “with God all things are possible.” He proves that to me on a daily basis.

The MS was just the first body blow in a five-year boxing match with life. I won’t go into the sad details here, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could go wrong—short of one of us dying—did. But, as the speaker in Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” says, “I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

The Family at Christmas 2012
The Family at Christmas 2012

Today, life isn’t without challenges, but there’s no cause for complaint. It’s not because I’m a saint; I’ve just learned that every difficulty has a reason. I know it because God has used the last ten years in a mighty way and transformed me into a usable vessel. But no matter what hardships happen, I know I’m far more blessed than I deserve. I have a wonderful husband who I adore, a loving family, a comfortable, safe home, an amazing job, and friends out the wazoo. I also recently became an aunt. (See adorable picture below for visual confirmation of the poo-dubber in question.)

Me with the lovely Miss Beatrix
Me with the lovely Miss Beatrix

I didn’t earn these blessings; they were freely given to me by my God. He has bestowed it all on me with a loving, liberal hand, and my life is marked by his loving-kindness. And tonight, as I sit nestled in my home, I can tell you the words of Isaiah 41:10 are true and trustworthy: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” I can say they’re true because I learned to say it when the prognosis wasn’t as good, when the place I called home was a crummy apartment, and when I basically felt like Job sitting on the ash heap. And if he sees fit to take it all away tomorrow, I can say, “Yes, God is still good.”

I recently watched an episode of the BBC’s Call the Midwife in which the narrator says, “Health is the greatest of God’s gifts, but we take it for granted. It hangs on a thread as fine as a spider’s web, and the smallest thing can make it snap, leaving the strongest of us helpless in an instant. And in that instant, hope is our protector and love our panacea.”

Those words resonated with me because I’ve know what it feels like when that gossamer string snaps and you free fall into the unknown. I know what it is like when your body betrays you and you realize death and decay are eager to strip away what they can with their spiny fingers. However, I choose not to dwell on such things and live a life marked by hope and love instead. I count it all joy.

That’s something God made possible, and that’s the reason why I’m looking forward to the next ten years.

Earning the Taste of Raspberries

I always told my students, “I hate the word deserve.” To me, it is a sophomoric word, one that’s grossly assumptive. When someone says, “I deserve your attention” or “I deserve respect,” all I can think is, “Where did you get that idea?” When a person uses the word, they’re basically saying, “It’s my individual merits, my snowflake-perfect uniqueness that makes me worthy of something. Give it to me.”

I do, however, like the word “earn.” I like it a lot. To “earn” something, a person must be willing to put in the time, to work hard, to plan accordingly, and to make smart choices. To “earn” something means it’s yours free and clear. You owe nothing and no one for it.

Image from thunderclap.it. And we all know freelance writers deserve the best, yes?
Image from thunderclap.it. And we all know freelance writers deserve the best, yes?

For instance, I earned my master’s degree through countless hours of study and writing. I earned my good name by doing the right things and making smart choices. I try to earn job security through consistently performing at a high level. Essentially, I want to earn my peace of mind, know where everything is coming from, and take measures to make gains and prevent losses.

But the older I get, the more I realize just how little I can actually control…and how little I actually earn on my own.

In 1 Corinthians 4:7, the apostle Paul writes, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

Image from thequotefactory.com.
Image from thequotefactory.com.

That one scripture undoes everything —“What do you have that you did not receive?” I might have put in the hours in the classroom, but who gave me the brains to earn the degrees? God did. Who made it economically possible for me to go to college in the first place? God did. Who gave me the job I love? God did. Who placed me in a family that taught me what it means to be kind to others? Yep, Him again. Heck, even the very desire to be kind comes from Him, which Romans 3:10-12 makes plain:

“There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become useless. There is none who does good. There is not even one.”

And that’s what makes grace, something more valuable than I can explain, so amazing. There is nothing we can do to earn it; we can’t save up good deeds in some celestial piggy bank to cash in when we hit the pearly gates. It is given to us with open, eager hands by a heavenly Father who sent His Son to pay the debt that should have been ours.

Image of Frederick Buechner from buechnerinstitute.org.
Image of Frederick Buechner from buechnerinstitute.org.

Frederick Buechner, as is his way, says it with style. According to him, “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”

Everything I am or ever will be is a gift. I have always been right for loathing the word “deserve,” but I need to be less laudatory of “earn” as well. Neither one should hold pride of place.

Which word do you find yourself using more often? Why do you think that’s your default setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter as well as how you explain the meaning of grace to others. Tell me in the comments section below!

Compass the City

Happy 2014! Gotta love that new year smell, eh?

I personally love the a new year because it’s a chance to start some things afresh, to renew my commitment to some things I let slide , and to take stock of what I value. One of the things I put on my “to do list” for the year was to post more on this blog, so I’d like to begin with a piece in In Touch Magazine that I’m rather proud of. It’s my first time being in the January issue, and I had a blast putting this one together. (You’ll see why that’s a horrible pun when you read the piece itself.)

Remember, if you’d like to receive our magazine, it’s free of charge, and you can get a subscription of your very own by visiting this site.

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Merry Christmas to you and yours! I’ve really been looking forward to the December 2013 issue of In Touch Magazine to hit homes because it is filled with some super cool stuff. Seriously, we tackled everything from Jesus Christ’s genealogy to the truth about the “War on Christmas.”

As always, you can get our magazine in print free of charge by visiting this page and giving us your mailing address. There are even more wonderful articles and changes in store for 2014, so it’s a great time to start receiving our publication!

Below is my contribution to this issue. I was captivated by the ideas of the moments before the angels appeared before the shepherds. Though they’d looked at the stars countless times before, they were still looking. And that’s exactly what we should be doing today. Let me know what you think in the comments below or–better yet–leave a comment on the In Touch website.

In My Shoes

This week, I will be attending Catalyst Conference for the first time. I’m really excited to be able to get to know a few new people and to put some faces with folks I’ve only “met” via email. Today, we received an interesting email from one of the event’s sponsors, Toms Shoes, asking us to tell them in 200 words or fewer why we would like to go on a Toms giving trip–where they distribute their shoes (free of charge) to kids who are in need.

w-red-canvas-classics-s-su12

I thought, “Hey, a writing challenge! Let’s go for it!” It was fun to consider the issue from a new angle—from the bottom up as it were. My entry read as follows:

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I am a woman with size 11 feet, so finding shoes can be a bit of a struggle. Stores usually stock only one pair that will fit my tootsies, and another gal who’s in the same predicament I am often beats me to them. Either that, or they’re wide width. The problem? My feet are narrow. So, like Goldilocks, I’m on a perpetual hunt for something that fits “just right.”

My frustration, however, is of little consequence compared to what children around the world face. Their shoelessness is not a mild inconvenience, a lack of trendy, comfortable kicks. They’re fighting a battle against disease, and that’s a struggle we can spare them with a few strips of canvas and latex.

I would love to participate in a giving trip, to wash the feet of God’s beautiful creations and watch their faces light up. As they wiggle their toes inside those new shoes—ones that fit and will last—they’ll realize they’re one step closer to a better quality of life. They’ll know that they matter to me and, more importantly, to God. Having size 11 clodhoppers hardly matters in the face of something as grand as that.   

***

I’ve had a lot of little things go wrong this week. Our health insurance was impacted by Obamacare (more on that later), and my car broke down on the way home today. However, when I think about the fact that I have a car to break and the money to fix it again, it makes me much less angry about it. Even in my problems, I am blessed.

What about you all? Has something reminded you to be more grateful lately? What are you thankful for?

Lost In Translation

Ever wonder what the Psalms sounded like? Me, too. Hence, this piece was created for the October issue of In Touch magazine.

If you like this piece, I highly suggest you visit our homepage to read articles by writers much, much, much more talented than I. Better still, get a free subscription to our magazine and it shows up in your mailbox like clockwork, all shiny and whatnot.

 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about this piece. Why not share them with me in the comments section below?! (I’m so serious that I used an interrobang, people! For real.)

A Tempered Faith

After many months, The Missing Persons Project comes to a close with a special report focused on a group we call “The Searchers.” This term applies to those who are seeking faith as well as those who have given up on it and those who are wrestling with doubt. As we went through planning this month, we came to a somewhat surprising “ah ha!” moment (at least for us). In some way, we are all “missing persons.” There are seasons in life where our faith wavers, gets thin, or even abandons us. There are times when it feels like we’re holding on to a gossamer string rather than a secure rope that binds us to eternity.

That’s where this piece comes from—those many moments I felt like I was on a tightrope that was one fragile string away from snapping. I hope that people who read it realize that doubt is not a bad thing because, through doubt, we come to understand what we believe and why. When we ask hard questions of God and honestly seek His face, our faith becomes our own.

This article can be read below or by visiting our super-duper-fancy microsite here. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you click through. There are many inspiring stories told using text, photos, video, and audio. We’ve completed all the special reports and videos (from soup to nuts as they say), and it’s quite humbling to see it in its final form. Also, if you’d like to give us your thoughts on the project, please drop us a line at missingpersons@intouch.org. We’d love to hear your feedback!

Stories Matter

The author and poet Barry Lopez once said, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Over the last eight or so months, the staff of In Touch Magazine has been privileged to tell the stories of many wonderful people who God has used in a mighty way. If you haven’t already checked out our special micro-site, click on the image below and read more about them.

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 9.40.18 AM

We were also able to work with the amazingly talented team of professionals in our ministry’s broadcast department to produce five videos, one for each month of the project. For the folks who aren’t as into words as we are, we thought these were a great way to experience the stories and hear the hearts of the people we featured. I thought I’d collect them together here as well.

The last month’s special report–The Searcher–will be coming out in September, and with it, the project comes to a close. Looking back over it now, I can see just how much I’ve grown–both as a Christian and as a writer, and I know without doubt that none of this would have been possible if God hadn’t been in it from the start. We all had to decrease so He might increase.

Bret Lott writes in his book Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian, “What I saw in [Carver’s] work was that in my own, I had to be the last one heard from in this pile of words I was arranging, and that humility was the most valuable tool I could have, because the people about whom I wanted to write mattered so very much more than the paltry desires of the writer himself. They mattered so very much more than me. My job was to get out of the way.” Here’s to hoping that with these pieces and others I’ll write, I can somehow manage to do just that—get out of the way.

***

Michael and Jessica Beates (June–The Special Needs Community)

Rhonda, Faith, and Hope Slinkosky  (July–The Orphan)

Dot Hutcheson and Howard Webb (June–The Widow and Widower)

James Murray (July–The Prisoner)

Scarlett Rigsby and Truth (August–The Needy)

Decanting the Divine

According to scientists in Sweden, when we sing together, our voices aren’t the only thing that harmonize. Apparently, our heart rates do, too.

According to their research, “as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.” The reason for this is fairly obvious. Directors will indicate where choir members should breathe as well as how quickly and loudly we should be, and when we do these things in unison, our hearts begin beating at relatively similar rates.

But that’s not the most interesting part.

They also found that “the more structured the work [is], the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together. Slow chants, for example, produced the most synchrony. The researchers also found that choral singing had the overall effect of slowing the heart rate.”

I’ve been a musician (both instrumental and vocal) for a large portion of my life, and I can tell you that I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. When everyone is locked in on the conductor, fully focused on making a performance as perfect as it can be, and attentive to details like diction, phrasing, and dynamics, the feeling borders on rapturous.

I feel connected to something larger than myself both physically and emotionally in these moments. I’ve often told people that it’s like catching a wave. As the music develops, it carries me with it from crest to trough as the measures roll blissfully past. There are some pieces I’ve sung (especially in churches built with good natural acoustics) where the last note hangs in the air like a poignant memory. And as we listen to it fade away, I can look around and tell my fellow performers experienced the same thing I did. It’s all silent smiles and faces blushed and beaming. For the briefest of moments, we are transported somewhere else, and I can’t help but think that it’s something approaching heaven.

Image from gracechurchnc.com
Image from gracechurchnc.com

Something similar to it happens in 2 Kings 3, king of Israel, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom all approach the prophet Elisha to inquire of the Lord. He tells them, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, surely were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not look at you, nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” The next verse has long fascinated me. It reads, “Then it happened, when the musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.” By listening to music, he is connected to the divine and is given a prophesy by almighty God Himself.

When we worship God with music, I believe we open ourselves up the same way Elisha did. When we are focused on giving Him the praise that is His due, I think we receive something as well, something we define as a “synchrony” though the term hardly does the sensation justice. I believe we are decanting something of the divine, and the joy we feel is just a heady taste of what awaits us in glory.

In Ezekiel 11:19-20, God speaks through His prophet who says, “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.” As Christians, we have been granted a “heart of flesh” that is sensitive to the still, small voice God uses when He speaks to His children. And worship is one way we can feel the beating of that “one heart,” the one perfectly aligned with His will, and know without doubt who He is and who we are in Him.

In case you’re in the mood to hear something beautiful, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite groups, the Soweto Gospel Choir, singing “Hosanna.”

What do you think about music? Is it something larger than us, something that gives us meaning….or are you of the mind that we give meaning to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.