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Potatoes and Grace

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 103:6

 The year was 2007. In the middle of the produce aisle, I smiled sheepishly at the camera while holding ten bags of potatoes. I wanted to mark this occasion with something tangible. I had just lost one hundred pounds and was the smallest I had ever been in my adult life. Always my willing accomplice, Terry passed me the bags as I held in each hand five ten-pound bags of potatoes.  As the camera clicked, I promised myself I would never again carry these “potatoes”, full of yellow globby fat. But promises to yourself can be broken, and in a few years, ounce by ounce, and later pound by pound, I was carrying those potatoes and more. I don’t remember being aware of gaining weight or when I needed to buy new clothes. I don’t remember ever discussing it with my husband. I just knew that, at one time, I felt thin and then I didn’t. Research has shown that fat cells have memory, and within those yellow fat cells lived years of memories of shame and hopelessness that I didn’t deal with until recently.

Last week, the calendar marked the official start of fall accompanied by a cool breeze blowing in my open windows. Pumpkin Spice has tantalized my taste buds for weeks, and fabric pumpkins and acorns are scattered throughout my home. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know I celebrate each fall with gusto. It is my favorite season where the colors, smells, and sounds combine to form a harmony that makes my world brighter, clearer, and cozier.

 I am in disbelief that 2022 is close to three-quarters of the way done. The year has been a whirlwind of family celebrations: Maggie’s and Will’s wedding with family and friends, birthday parties, and the arrival of a beautiful granddaughter. I can also see some things that I haven’t accomplished. Besides doing research, I have barely touched the memoir I am writing. We still haven’t found a place to move into, which makes my life seem in a holding pattern. I haven’t been spending as much time outside as I had last year. And I haven’t been able to get consistently back into the habits of eating healthy and exercising.

In the past, I’ve discussed the importance of reminding myself I am on a journey and to show myself grace. These are truths that I hold onto and would encourage my friends if they shared similar struggles with me. I have solid reasons as to why some of these things have not been happening. I was consumed with the wedding for the first half of the year. I pushed myself during that season, causing my RA to flare, depleting my energy, and leaving my body struggling to move. I have also been doing a lot of internal work dealing with my past. This has consumed a good portion of my emotional energy. All these reasons are good and plausible explanations.

 But my clothes are tighter, my face is fuller in the mirror, and I am losing some of my strength and flexibility. This reality and my plausible explanations are forcing me to ask myself some hard new questions. When do explanations become excuses, and when does the journey look like I’m turning the wrong direction? When does not recording my food choices and hitting the snooze on my alarm become a sign of avoidance instead of engagement? When does grace look like enabling myself to stay where I am, comfortably eating to soothe myself with hard emotions, and sleeping to avoid doing hard things?

 I’ve learned a lot about myself on this journey to better health. One of the areas I have discovered is that I didn’t have an awareness of my body. I wasn’t aware of the space I took up, often stepping into other’s personal space or bumping into things resulting in unexplained bruises. In the gymnastics unit of PE, I recognized that I couldn’t do anything on the uneven parallel bars. But I wasn’t aware of my awkwardness when channeling my inner “Mary Lou Retton” in the floor exercise routine. For years, I blissfully walked around without any discomfort until my friends pointed out that my socks were sideways on my feet.

After doing some research, I realize this was a result of my childhood. Often when a child experiences trauma, they can cope with the abuse by dissociation. This affects memories, emotional attachment, and, in my case, awareness of your body. I disconnected my mind from my body by not paying attention to signals of pain, discomfort, and fluidity of movement. This coping helped me to not only ignore the painful abuse but also avoid the truth of my morbid obesity.

                By inviting God into this weight-loss journey, and with regular exercise, Pilates, and some deep breathing techniques, I am rediscovering my sense of space. I feel like I move differently, step more lightly, and pay more attention how my socks fit on my feet. Although I still get the unexplained bruises, I am fluid when I work out, feeling less awkward and less unsure of how to move. Along with this self-awareness comes the awareness of the weight slowly creeping back on. I feel the weight clinging to my body, feeling more bloated than I did 150 pounds ago. And that’s a good feeling, one that I am grateful for: a good God who loves me enough to address hard things.

 God doesn’t use shame tactics or feelings of contempt to address any areas in my life. Instead, as I draw closer to Him by indulging in the spiritual disciplines, I will be less inclined to indulge in the bowl of caramels sitting on my counter. When I set my alarm at night, I will ask God to be with me when I work out in the morning. As I eat my meals, I will thank God for the good gift of nourishment and pleasure, trying to be aware of feeling full and satisfied. But all these things involve some movement of mine towards Jesus: I draw closer, I set my alarm, I ask God, I thank God and I pay attention. My movement positions me to receive from Him all I need from Him.

Grace is not just about showing myself kindness when things are hard. As Max Lucado says, “Grace is the voice that calls us to change and then gives us the power to pull it off.” My whole life, not just my healthy journey, is positioning myself to receive from Jesus, to be tapped into His spirit, so that I can change and grow.

Trauma Goosebumps

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

I brushed my fingers across the surface if the pool, the chilly water shooting shivers through my body. The Nebraska sun beat down with the thermometer reading around 98⁰. “Come on Auntie, jump in, we want to splash you!” cried my niece and nephew. I cautiously stepped down the stairs, feeling the coolness of the water against my skin. I knew that once I was in the pool, I would get acclimated and find the water refreshing. So, I took in a deep breath and plunged underneath. As I popped back up, the water felt invigorating. Immediately, I was splashed by my nephew, and an hour of chasing, splashing, and playing ensued.

As an adult, I hesitate before jumping in the pool. I’m usually waist deep when goosebumps cover my body, pausing to take a deep breath. Every single time, I know in my head that my body will acclimate, after all I’m diving into a pool not January’s frigid Lake Michigan. But for some reason, I freeze, not confident that the law of thermodynamics will work. And this moment of hesitation prolongs my uncomfortably, until I take the plunge.

Author and podcast host Jen Hatmaker posted something on Sunday that I have since read to three different people. Two years ago, she went through an unexpected divorce. She posted that its natural to work through your past dysfunctional patterns and to be “hyper-vigilant to relational danger.” But now that she is in a healthy relationship, she posed these questions: “Are you overreacting to something safe because you are remembering something traumatic? Maybe you aren’t in danger anymore. Perhaps you made it to dry land, and you are safe on shore.”

Hyper-vigilance is a place where I have taken up residence in the past year. I recognized some unhealthy patterns in my life, clinging to narratives that kept me in bondage. Messages like “I’m too much”, “I’m not worth the effort”, “it’s my fault when things go wrong”, and “all criticism is valid” have carved deep canyons in my brain. I have been setting up healthy roadblocks in my life, trying to circumvent these patterns. And it’s been hard work. It involves being curious with myself and examining what are the roots of these beliefs. This examination exposes my trauma response, my beliefs about God, and my beliefs about myself. I then create a new path based on the truth of Jesus and who He says I am. My husband has joined me on this journey, doing his own work, rewriting his own messages. But together, we are repairing and restoring our marriage.

But like the twenty-plus pounds that I have found hanging on in the folds of my skin, old habits are hard to change. Sunday, I responded badly to my husband’s simple honest question about pizza. I perceived his question to be full of innuendoes and judgment, and responded viciously, snapping like a rabid dog, attacking his character with the very tone I accused him of using. After taking a step back, acknowledging that I misread his tones, I brokenly asked, “Can you pray with me, I want to stop responding to you with my trauma lens.” Ten minutes later, I saw the Jen Hatmaker post, confirmation that I needed to see things from a different perspective.

I’m in a safe place with my husband. But like the pool, the waters of safety and trust sometimes feel cold, relieving trauma goosebumps of decades old hurt. I hesitate diving in, holding onto patterns that make me want to escape and not swim. But if I remove the trauma lens and dive into the pool, I can move towards my husband with my whole heart.

Maybe this post doesn’t resonate with you, sounding like therapeutic verbiage with esoteric concepts of safety, trauma, and patterns. Four years ago, I would have said the same thing. But current research indicates that trauma affects the brain, that parental attachment affects all future relationships, and how these patterns distort your way of seeing the world. This research is changing how healthy Christian churches are responding to each other as a body of believers and to our neighbors.

In essence, this research affirms how the gospel changes us. Jesus came to save those lost in dysfunctional patterns of sin leading to death. I may not have caused the trauma or wounding, but I am responsible for how I treat others based on that wounding. This salvation costs me nothing, it is a gift offering me freedom and an inheritance. He’s inviting me into a new way of thinking that sets me free. I no longer believe I’m not enough, or its always my fault. Instead, as I identify with my heavenly Father, I can see myself as He sees me.

Summer is over, and warm days by the pool have come to an end. But those memories of playing in the pool remind me that trauma goosebumps don’t have -to last forever. I no longer need to be “hyper-vigilant” in my relationship with God or my marriage. Instead, I can dive into a place of joy and peace. And that’s how the gospel changes everything!

Past, Present, and Future

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16

I have always seen my grandparents as old. Maybe it was the weathered skin from years of working on a farm, or the age spots from sun exposure. Maybe it was the thinning hair or the fact that they had a grandfather clock. But from the time I was a child, they seemed ancient. They both have since passed, but in doing the math, I am older, now, than my grandmother was when I was born, and only a year younger than my grandfather was. Does this make me old? It does, according to one cheeky young student in our church who guessed my age to be six years older than I am.

Age is an interesting paradox in our society. We seem to gravitate towards wood and metal furniture with the patina of age, giving a piece a curated, aged history. Yet, store beauty aisles are filled with serums and moisturizers promising to eliminate wrinkles, giving our skin the supple glow of youth. We honor the elders who are active contributors to our society but stop visiting those who are in the latter stages of dementia. Some of us seem to fight aging by hanging on to our youth, while others embrace it by closing our minds and hearts to the world around us, slowly waiting for death.

I wrestle in the middle space of wanting to stay active and still embrace aging. How do I keep my mind and body active while aging gracefully? How do I embrace my history, stay in the present, and look to the future when my life is probably half over? I found clarity in the lives of three remarkable people who lived into their eighties and beyond. All three have died, recently, and it’s in their later years that I have found inspiration.

David McCullough signing my book!

In early August, I sadly sent out a text to my family reporting that historian and author David McCullough died. This “National Treasure” as some have labeled him, had written thirteen books, inspiring generations about the American spirit through its innovation, leadership, and courage. I have read all his books, some of which have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I even attended one of his book signings and heard him speak about the Wright brothers. McCullough purposefully chose subjects and persons that contributed positively to society. Once he started doing research on Picasso but found his life reprehensible and couldn’t continue in good conscience. Remarkably, McCullough completed six books since he was sixty-eight years old. These were done by engaging in hours of research, typing drafts on his old Royal typewriter, and editing with the help of his wife. History was his passion because he believed it “is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” In knowing my history, I have a better understanding of who I am and why I respond the way I do. This allows me to move forward with clarity and purpose, unhindered by messages of the past.

Photo Credit Allessia Pierdomenico via Shutterstock

My second remarkable person, Queen Elizabeth II, died last week. The beloved queen lived to be ninety-six years old, making her the longest reigning monarch ever. Some would say that Elizabeth was born into privilege, but she recognized that with this privilege came a lot of responsibility. She faithfully carried out her duties with grace and purpose, exemplified by her meeting with the new prime minister two days before her death. She clearly understood her place in history, but it was in the daily living where Queen Elizabeth II shone. She traveled to many different countries on behalf of her subjects, adapted to the new world in which she lived, and chose to live an honorable life. Yes, she wore beautiful jewels and resided in incredible palaces. But she understood that her life was to serve her country and leave it a better place. She once said, “I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else—I can give my heart and my devotion…” I may not have crowns to wear, but like Queen Elizabeth II, I can choose to serve those around me with my whole heart and devotion. I can choose to be represent well the God I serve by sincerely modeling the life and teachings of Jesus.

This portrait of Herbert Kohler was painted by George Weymouth. Terry and I saw it at the Brandywine Art Museum in Pennsylvania a few years ago.

The last person, Herbert Kohler, might only be recognizable to you if you look at the label of your bathroom fixtures. For me, “Herbie” Kohler was a local celebrity in Sheboygan County where I grew up. He died almost two weeks at age eighty-three. Kohler became the president of his father’s bathroom fixture company at young age. He immediately set out to grow his company by focusing on design, rebranding Kohler to be synonymous with high-end bathroom fixtures. This love for design carried over in remodeling the immigrant housing unit in Kohler into a luxury hotel, the American Club. He then developed two world-class golf courses making Sheboygan County one of the top golfing destinations in the world, hosting several major golf tournaments. A writer at the Chicago Tribune commented that only Herb Kohler could turn “rural farmland into a golf mecca and a toilet into a work of art.” His vision was revolutionary and met with a lot of opposition. But Kohler continued to press forward, making his dreams come true. His vision has added economic value to the place I grew up, but more importantly, Kohler has been generous to the community, including supporting the arts, scholarships and helping the needy. He looked to building the future of his company and community by enriching their lives. His example of vision casting is important. It’s not enough for me to know my history and live well today. I need to be helping future generations by enriching their lives through my contributions.

Maybe you’re not a historian, an anglophile, or care about golf in Sheboygan County, but I believe that if you study these three lives, it can inspire you to end your life well. Some might say they were their most productive in the latter half of their lives, continuing to find ways to be contribute to their communities right until the very end. For me, aging is not something I can stop and with that fact, it’s very possible that my grandson and soon-to-arrive granddaughter will always see me as old. But I find comfort in 2 Corinthians 4:16 where Paul says, “So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” I will never win a Pulitzer Prize, be crowned queen, or have my name on a scholarship. Instead, I am woman who is seeking God to learn from my past, to serve well today, and to help build a place where my grandchildren will thrive and grow. The only way I know how to do this well, is to daily come to Jesus and allow His spirit to renew me. This daily renewal will help me age gracefully!

Reconstruction: Phase Two

“And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong… And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;…” Isaiah 58:11-12

On a regular basis, we passed by the white cottage on the corner, overgrown with shrubbery. The house looked tired and weary: chipped paint, loose chimney bricks, a sunken roof, and a dilapidated porch. Even when we drove by at night, the yellow light inside illuminated the flaws, atmospheric of a bygone era. Yet, I found the house appealing. With a fresh coat of paint, window boxes, and new landscaping, I imagined the house would look inviting and cheerful. I loved the house and secretly hoped that someday I would have the opportunity to buy it.

Three weeks ago, my husband startled me with a warning as we headed out for ice cream, “Sherry, I forgot to tell you. The house you loved is gone.” As we approached the house, he went on to explain that construction trucks had demolished the entire house, including the overgrown foliage. He later saw the entire foundation being filled in with a pile of dirt. Although the dream had been retired because we are planning on moving to a different community, sadness still flooded over me. Today, the land has been staked out for a new house.

I don’t know why the house was destroyed. Maybe its foundation was beyond repair, or the inside was full of mold. Maybe, the new owners liked the location and preferred new construction over restoration. Whatever the case, the demolition crew destroyed the house completely, erasing the very footprint of the house. There was no need for caution as they knocked the walls down, lifting the debris into a truck. Nothing was worth salvaging.

Restoring a house is a completely different process. Typically, the owner looks over the property, decides what is valuable and demolishes what they don’t want. This might mean keeping the beautiful wooden banister of the staircase but getting rid of the paneled walls. It might mean replacing a popcorn ceiling with a vaulted ceiling and wooden beams. It might mean gutting the kitchen and changing the layout of the living room. It’s a process full of costs and analysis, carefully studied and implemented.

The reconstructive journey of my faith commenced on a similar pattern. My foundation was shaky, but still centered on this faith experience I had. I started examining my foundation, replacing any loose stones with truth found in God’s word. My basic doctrine stood strong during this examination, but I felt more structurally sound in what I believed. I kept the commandments of God but vaulted it with mercy and grace. When obedience was combined with mercy and grace, it gave me space to really hear others. I still had principles on which I lived my life, but I changed my response to others. No longer was I focusing on trying to convince people that I was right but instead listened to their stories with curiosity. I also made the choice to be more active in hearing views outside of my small circle of influence. It opened me up to understanding and compassion.

Photo Credit William Diller

For me, the root of all this spiritual reconstruction started at the intersection of suffering and humility. I couldn’t fix my life with the old patterns of applying spiritual Band-Aids to my problems. Instead, I gutted out my agenda and need for control, seeking God in true humility. Rebuilding my faith on humility led to knowledge, but not in the sense of being on expert. Instead, it put me at the feet of Jesus as a student. It is a position I remind myself of regularly because my own way never leads to abundant living.

It is also interesting to me that this spiritual awakening of storytelling, vulnerability, and curiosity happened during a divisive period: a global pandemic, racial strife, political upheaval and the #metoo movement within the church. In times past I would have probably echoed some of the political perspectives, adding to the noise and confusion of this period. Instead, I practiced listening to all sides of the debates, asked questions, and prayed about my responses. I sometimes even shut down the noise by choosing to curate my social media feed, minimizing the algorithms that are meant to entice you.

Maybe interesting isn’t the right word. Maybe it is how Jesus wants me to respond. Didn’t he clothe himself in flesh during a time when the religious elite were demanding a political response? Didn’t he do exactly the opposite of what they expected the Messiah to do? They expected a battle to rid them of their oppressors, but instead Jesus communed with the truly oppressed, listened to their stories, and led them to wholeness.

This journey started with losing weight. As I lost weight, I got rid of the clothes that no longer fit, finding freedom in new sizes. I feel like my reconstruction faith journey has been similar. I am ridding myself of all the patterns I used that didn’t align themselves with God and His character. Instead, by engaging in spiritual disciplines, I am discovering who God is and how He wants me to live. I truly have found freedom in this posture.

Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” These verses remind me that my foundation is Jesus Christ only. I need to be careful how I build upon this foundation. It is important to be part of a body of believers that inspire, encourage, and challenge me in my thinking and conclusions. But ultimately, I am responsible for what I believe. And I need to remain in the position of a humble student, not an expert, at the feet of Jesus.

The house I once loved is gone. But the faith on which my life has stood still stands firm, even if it looks different than it did a few years ago. It’s a journey that I didn’t want to take because it started in a place of suffering, vulnerability, and pride. But as writer Rachel Held Evans said in her book Search for Sunday, “sometimes we are closer to truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

This concludes my four-part series on vulnerability. If this is the first one you have read, I encourage you to go back and read the rest. More importantly, I hope it encourages you to be find a safe place to be brave, to share your mistakes, and to be vulnerable enough to grow in your faith. Please feel free to share this post and comment below.

Reconstruction: Phase One

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

I found the story captivating and the characters compelling. I empathized with the mother’s desperation to find a cure for her daughter. I marveled at the sister’s bravery in defending herself. In the last chapter, I was hoping for a satisfying ending when the author, Jodi Picoult, did the unexpected. As my eyes and brain connected with the words on the page, a guttural sound emerged from me as I threw the paperback across the room. I had the urge to step on the book, stamping out the betrayal I felt. Jodi Picoult had lost me with her ending!

A year ago, I heard Jodi Picoult talk about her ending to “My Sister’s Keeper” on a podcast. She shared that even her son had had a strong reaction saying, “You! You did this, how could you!” But Picoult explained her ending in a way that finally made sense. The family had to have something tragic happen to change their world. This moved them towards reconstructing what a family should be.

Four years ago, I woke with a persistent thought, “It’s time.” I recognized God’s voice, not with a harsh condemning tone, but with a tone full of compassion and encouragement. It was time for me to start addressing some hard things in my life, starting with my weight. I was tipping close to four hundred pounds, finding it more challenging to move around. A year previously, I felt the utter humiliation of my surgeon’s concern about whether I would fit in the MRI machine. Additionally, my blood pressure was out of control, filling me with constant fear of dying young. I knew that I wanted to live, and to do so, I had to address my health. Little did I know that my “It’s time” moment had so much more to do with my spiritual life, not just my physical health.

Pounds started dropping regularly as I made better choices both in food and exercise. But within a few months, my world started crashing, revealing that my professed Christianity was built on a shaky foundation. In the past, I ate bagels and bars to soothe hard emotions. I hid the shame of my morbid obesity by being an over-achiever in church work. I prided myself on the principled, family-oriented life I had constructed. But when this was all stripped away, I felt naked and ashamed. And I no longer understood who God really was in my life or how to move forward. For the first time in my adult life, I felt lost, alone, and unsure. And for the second time in my life, I came to God in utter need, completely broken.

The first time I was broken was in my mid-teens. I had just reported the abuse to a counselor, an arrest was made, and I was navigating life while dealing with post-traumatic stress. Soon afterward, I had a life-changing experience with God, where I was ushered into this faith journey as a Christian. A holy peace transformed my life, giving me hope where I had felt none. It was my starting point, and in my latest crisis, I couldn’t explain away that initial experience.  A recent article* I read included a quote from J.J Packer.  He says in Fundamentalism and the Word of God, “Faith first, sight afterwards, is God’s order, not vice versa, and the proof of the sincerity of our faith is our willingness to have it so.” The faith in my experience, in the integrity of God was the center, and I knew I had to build upon that place.

For the next few years, I started to unpack my beliefs. I discovered my shaky foundation had been supported by structures that emphasized the law of God, ignoring His mercy and grace. I believed in a distant God, who did love me but was more interested in my performance not my relationship. I was afraid to tell God and others that I felt lonely, sad, and angry. I didn’t live the abundant life, and joy manifested as a fake smile to convince God and others that I was content. I equated my political leanings with faith, intertwining conservative thinking with the truths of the Bible.

So many of my beliefs contradicted what I was learning about God. But describing this experience was tricky. Many evangelicals are leaving their faith through a process they call deconstruction. I sometimes wondered if that’s what I was doing, but this trendy hashtag didn’t seem to fit my experience because the one thing I was sure of was a faith in God. A friend of mine connected the dots when she shared about her “journey of reconstructing her faith.” She was rebuilding her foundation by examining God, dealing with trauma and truth together.

 Reconstruction resonated with me.  And I realize this was God’s plan all along. In 1 Peter 5:10, Peter says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” Like Jodi Picoult’s ending, this crashing of my world, this persistent urging to deal with hard issues, and this questioning of my faith was to reconstruct my faith. That was the purpose of God’s gentle voice, gently nudging me to wholeness.

 I plan to share with you some more thoughts I have on this reconstruction process in next week’s post. It’s been a journey of discovery, curiosity, and examination. And it is leading me deeper into wholeness and healing.

*The link to the article is included. It is a book review written by Brittany Shields, based on the book Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church.  I have not read the book but will soon.  The article is a good read and helped solidify my position on reconstruction.

Salty Vulnerability

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Colossians 4:6

It was late, yet even in my state of exhaustion, I opened the text message. The second I clicked I recognized my mistake. A message full of accusations and presumptions about how I had mistreated a friend and her family glared on my screen. This was the not the first time this had happened with this person. My faced flushed with frustration, I read the message to my husband with dramatic inflections, adding tones where I felt most attacked. I sat back in bed with tears, not of sadness but of anger, filling my eyes. I blurted indignantly that “hadn’t I been a servant, and I don’t understand where this is coming from.” I thought we had resolved all this, but it felt like we were back to square one. Wisely, my husband told me to hold my tongue, or rather my fingers, to sleep on it, and pray to see where we could reach a point of reconciliation.

Unfortunately, reconciliation was not possible. Other people were brought into the situation, making it even more complicated. I felt like there was a surface-level truce, but honestly, underneath I was seething. Anytime I was called upon to serve that family, I grumpily served, complaining behind their backs. I was angry and tired of being misunderstood. In public, I put a smile on my face. But God knew my heart, where bitterness was taking root.

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It is easier to be transparent when we have been wronged, when someone else has acted in ways that were hurtful to us. Easier, but not easy. Other times, we want to push past the difficult things and move on, not sharing where we have wounded others in our attempts to wipe the slate clean. In my own life, I have been transparent about ways in which someone else’s words have been hurtful and times when I have felt less than. I have also been transparent about the sexual abuse I faced as a child into my teenage years.

It’s harder for me to admit when I’m inflicting wounds. It is hard for me to portray myself in a less favorable light. But I think Jesus recognized that this is a universal human flaw. He warns us not to judge others, otherwise we will be judged. And he asks a question, “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank is in your own eye?” The bitterness that was taking root in me was bearing fruit: rotten, spoiled, and worm-infested. It manifested itself in ways that came off harsh, backbiting, and less than servant like. And the people it affected the most were my family. My husband and children saw a woman who taught about being a servant but acted less than that.

I have discovered in the last few years a love for radishes. I especially love the beauty of watermelon radishes, the colors it adds to my salad. I recently baked a piece of white fish in parchment paper, smothered with radishes, fennel, zucchini, and carrot. With some salt, olive oil, lemon slices, dill, and a pinch of pepper flakes, my fish was balanced, hitting all the different flavor notes inside my mouth. What surprised me was how sweet the radishes tasted. The earthiness of the radishes was still present, but the bitter edge that can be off-putting was gone. And I have since learned that it was the salt that did the trick.

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Salt is probably one of the most important ingredients in a kitchen. It tenderizes meat, balances sweetness, and reduces bitterness in food. Most of us were taught in our home kitchens to use sugar to balance bitterness, but Samin Nosrat says in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, “it turns out that salt masks bitterness much more effectively than sugar.” She continues that if you add a pinch of salt to grapefruit juice, “You’ll be surprised by how much bitterness subsides.”

Salt, both in the Bible and in history, was an important and valuable commodity. Without refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food. In the Bible, salt was a part of the sacrifices, symbolizing that the covenant relationship between God and man would last forever. Later in the Bible, Jesus encourages us to be “salt of the world.” By living the abundant Christian life, we are to enhance the world around us by demonstrating the goodness and mercy of God. Finally, Paul encourages believers, “Let your speech always be with grace seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” I believe this is the property of salt where it reduces bitterness between one another.

With my smile I was trying to use fake sweetness to cover up my bitterness. The result was insincerity and bad fruit. But when I stopped to really examine my own eye and asked God to change my heart, only then did the bitterness subsided. I recognized the goodness and mercy Jesus had towards me, and in applying that salt towards my life, I was able to let my speech and actions to be filled grace.

By no means do I get this right on a regular basis. I am all too human, full of flaws and imperfections. And the beauty of being human is that I don’t always have to get it right. I won’t always get it right. And in those places where I fail or have treated others unkindly, I can go to Jesus. It is His kindness that leads me to repentance. It is His grace that helps me be salt, and not saccharine fakeness.  And if I am humble enough to admit my flaws and imperfections, others can see the work God is doing in me.

The situation with my friend was never restored. But what was restored was my heart towards Jesus and serving others. If I feel frustrated in serving today, I do a heart check and examine myself more honestly. This helps me to set healthy boundaries and lean into Jesus when I need to a keep a right spirit. And I am learning to be more generous with my salt, both literally and spiritually. Today, my pasta water is as salty as the sea, adding taste to otherwise bland pasta. And I am learning to be more generous and merciful towards others. In the hope that this is making me more salt in the world.

Soggy Cereal Dreams

“And he said to her, “Daughter, thy faith has made thee whole; go in peace” Mark 5:34

It was early morning of my eighth-grade year when I crept out of bed, got dressed, and went downstairs. I quickly fixed a bowl of Corn Pops and sat on the lumpy brown couch. It was rather quiet for a house of six people, with the faint heavy breathing of my stepfather, passed out in an alcoholic stupor and my mother sleeping soundly next to him in their bedroom. I turned on the television, frantically turning the volume down to barely audible but loud enough for me to hear CNN broadcast their half-hour news. As I listened, eating quickly to avoid soggy Corn Pops, I thought about my future. Someday, I would be in a foreign country reporting about a natural disaster or humanitarian aid in war-torn country. Someday, my name would be a byline. Someday, I would be important!

I bounded off to school that day, dreams of being a reporter still in the back of my mind as I met with my counselor to set up my freshman schedule. I was excited, anticipating all the new things I would be learning when I saw what I believed to be a misprint: Freshman English. I mumbled something to my counselor like, “Shouldn’t this read Accelerated English?” I had low Bs in my English class, but still believed that my teacher would recommend me for the advanced English class. My counselor told me to follow up with my teacher. Later that day, I asked my teacher why she hadn’t recommended me for that class. Her words, “Sherry, your writing is not good enough, you lack fundamentals and clarity.” I was stunned, feeling like I had just swallowed a lifetime’s supply of soggy Corn Pops, seeing my dreams of journalism crumble before me.

I did eventually get into an accelerated class as a sophomore in high school, but the sting of the words echoed throughout my life. I quickly changed career goals, believing that I was not cut out for journalism. I felt like an imposter all the way through college, even though I graduated with honors, believing that my writing never measured up. I even stopped journaling for years, fearful that, if I died unexpectedly, others would laugh at my choppy sentences and mixed metaphors. I let the impact of one teacher’s words follow me for decades!

There was some truth about my teacher’s conclusions. My fundamentals were lacking. It’s hard to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, and spelling when your goal in reading is to find the happy ending. I believe the trauma I was feeling at home hindered me from seeing and understanding the beauty of words, and how a correctly chosen word paints a picture. Yes, I was a reader, but reading was a form of escape from hide all the ugly words being spoken over me.

 Decades later, I sat at my computer with a need to put my thoughts and voice to paper, or rather, cyberspace. I doubted anyone would want to read my words, confident that it would not come out in clear, well-formed sentences. I wasn’t sure I could paint a picture with words that would resonate with someone or touch their heart. Regardless, I felt a need to put my words out there in the form of a blog. I told myself, and really believed, that this writing might only before me and, if so, that was enough.

 Vulnerability is not always about sharing your story. Sometimes, it’s about taking a risk, believing your future can be different than what an eighth-grade teacher did or did not recommend. To be fair, I think she had to draw a line, and, at the time, I didn’t meet the standard. I could argue that maybe, if she had been more compassionate with me and given me some pointers on how to improve my writing, I could have been inspired. But she didn’t, and I gave power to her words for a large portion of my life.

Recently, a friend of mine reminded me of the bravery the woman with the issue of blood. This was a woman who had spent all her money on doctors looking for a cure, to no avail. Additionally, according to Jewish law, she could be punished for being out in a crowd with her blood disorder because she was “unclean”. Yet, she risked her reputation and her future in one moment of brave vulnerability. She had heard the stories about this man called Jesus who had healed others. He was in her city, on her street, and she thought that if she could only touch the hem of his garment, she might be healed. I can imagine her in her weakened state, maybe stepping outside for the first time in years. The bright sun glaring in her eyes as she moved towards the crowd. I can imagine her cautious steps as she was jostled in the crowd. Suddenly, there he was, she could see him walking by, and in one desperate motion with every ounce of remaining energy, she reached out and touched the hem of his garment, believing she would be whole.

 Jesus responded to this woman by asking who had touched him. The Bible records that he felt virtue flow out of him towards the woman. The Greek word for virtue is “dynamis”, where we get the word dynamite from. The implication was something powerful flowed to the woman, and he told her that her faith had made her whole. Her act of faith, her brave vulnerability, had made her whole. It changed her life, and made her a vibrant, active member of her community. We don’t know the rest of the story, but I can imagine that this woman told others about the goodness of Jesus. She likely reached out to others, sharing with them about her desperate moment and how Jesus responded to her faith.

 I am starting my fourth year of blogging this fall. I believe that some of my posts have touched others’ lives. I have found a place where I can clearly paint pictures of the work God is doing in me. I can share how He is making me whole. I can share ideas and thoughts that God has given me. And it started with me being vulnerably brave.

 Readers, some of you I know and some of you I don’t. Some of you might be in the middle of your life like I am, and others might be starting out in adulthood. But wherever you are, be vulnerable. Brené Brown said in a TED talk, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Our world, individually and collectively, will only be a better place when we are vulnerably brave!

Invasion of the Flies

“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” James 5:16

It was late, we were on our way home after a thirteen-hour day of working and serving. We quietly talked, reminiscing about two famous people who had died that day. Both of us were looking forward to climbing into bed, reading a few chapters, and falling asleep. As Terry unlocked our front door, I glanced to the right, seeing flies darting across the front window. On closer inspection, and to my horror, I realized they were on the inside! We came in and, upon investigation, found over a dozen flies had taken up residence not only that window, but four more windows in my house! These flies were strange, they didn’t fly away as we started swatting. They were in a drunken stupor, and I caught a few with only a piece of paper towel. Within ten minutes, we had annihilated all the flies we could find. We still have no idea how they got in, or why they ignored the bowl of nectarines I had on the table. It was surreal! This mini invasion was fought off, and we still managed to squeeze in a few chapters before falling asleep.

When I woke up this morning, I thought maybe it had been a dream, only to find a few more flies we had missed buzzing around. I am hoping we are now in a fly-free zone. I had intentions of posting a different blog, but as I was praying this morning, I felt like God asked me to share this story. Honestly, I have never wanted to write about houseflies, especially an invasion of my home. Most of you have never met me and might conclude that I’m not a good housekeeper. Others might think, “I would never tell anyone about finding bugs in my cream of wheat as I poured it into the boiling water for my kid’s breakfast.” And still others might think, “I would never talk about hearing a mouse in my garage.” Again, all of these are true stories that have happened to me. And I am sharing them with the potential for others to read and judge my housekeeping skills.

But pests are a natural part of life. Even the best housekeeper living in a brand-new house will occasionally find an unwanted creature in their home. Yet, the pictures of the creatures rarely make Instagram or find their way into Facebook updates. Pests, junk drawers, overflowing closets, and recipe flops don’t quite paint the type of picture we want others to see or know. Yet, at one time or another, all of us have had to face these issues.

As much as we keep our battles with pests quiet, we keep the personal battles we face even more private. We rarely talk about the serious troubles we have had in our marriages, or the times we have been frustrated over our toddler’s spilled milk. We never share about the times others made us feel less than or the times we failed in our professional lives. We don’t discuss our financial struggles or post comments about the vacations we couldn’t plan. We don’t talk about the endings of friendships or the struggles with addictions we face. And for those of us who are Christians, we certainly don’t talk about our faith struggles or ways we have been hurt in a faith-based community. Additionally, we don’t talk about the ways we have failed others by saying spiteful or inconsiderate things.

I wonder, is it easier to keep these things private?  Cliches like “don’t air your dirty laundry in public” or “keep that within the family” have been part of the American lexicon for years. It has even affected how we deal with those in the public eye. I remember naively thinking that Bill Clinton was the first president to have illicit relationships in the White House, but after reading biographies about all past presidents, I learned he wasn’t the first. The difference is that the press no longer decided to hide this information from the American public.

In recent years, thinkers like Brene’ Brown and Curt Thompson have talked about the importance of vulnerability and transparency for us and within groups. Both in their books and their podcasts, they report that vulnerability leads to healing, growth, and connection. Psychologists and doctors are reporting that these private stories where we feel shame, trauma, or loneliness lead to all sorts of psychological and medical issues. It also affects future relationships including our marriages and parenting. It even affects how we relate to God!

 Although the hashtag vulnerability is trendy, the Bible records the importance of vulnerability. Jesus never shied away from addressing hard issues in people’s lives. He addressed Martha’s priorities when she questioned her sister’s unwillingness to help. He addressed Peter’s heart after Peter had denied him at the cross. He addressed the Samaritan woman’s marriage status when asking for water. In all these situations, Jesus never addressed issues to shame or condemn people. Instead, He used their vulnerability to bring them into a deeper relationship with him. Martha now knew what was important, Peter preached salvation on the day of the Pentecost, and the Samaritan woman spread the news of Jesus.

 In the next few blogs, I am going to be vulnerable about some areas in life. I am still praying about what areas to share. I do know I will cover some vulnerability about my faith journey. I hope to share with my readers places where my lack of vulnerability has caused harm to myself and others, and where my vulnerability has led to healing. I am not doing this to get a sympathetic response from my readers, instead I hope it encourages you to grow and heal.

Finally, back to the mini invasion of flies. As I was writing this today, what I thought was a fly-free zone was incorrect. I am still finding these lethargic flies around my house. I will continue to fight them, but I also need to find out how these flies are getting in. Maybe by being transparent, my readers can give me insight, because I truly believe vulnerability leads to answers!

Freezers, Old Towels, and Relief

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Matthew 6:19-20 ESV

It was early morning and I needed chicken thighs for tonight’s dinner. After taking a slug of coffee for strength, I put on my shoes and entered my garage. I stared at the 14.5 cubic feet chest freezer, taking a deep breath as I slowly lifted the lid, reaching my hand into the abyss. I shuffled through my frozen produce, bags of blanched corn, peas, and beans. I pushed aside beets and peppers along with blueberries and strawberries. I dug around my batches of homemade spaghetti sauce and apple sauce, but still no chicken thighs. I slid aside the baskets that held my jars of jams, bags of nuts, and Christmas baking chocolate, to reach the depths of the freezer. I silently thanked God that it wasn’t Christmas, where I would have to shift the containers of cookies and candy made in advance, pulled out for gifts and holiday celebrations. Finally, I found the chicken thighs along with a few bags of unidentifiable leftovers, a loose frozen cranberry, and a few crumbs. I wondered how breadcrumbs end up in the bottom of the freezer. I grabbed my chicken thighs, shifted things around haphazardly, and closed the lid.

For eight years, I repeatedly engaged in this search and rescue pattern to find the items I needed for dinner. Occasionally, I would call one of my unsuspecting teenagers downstairs and say, “Can you help me organize the freezer?” They reluctantly agreed realizing it was more of demand than a request. We would pull everything out, throw out the UFOs (unidentified frozen objects), and scrape some of the ice off, organizing the food in categories of vegetables, meats, fruits, and bread. And then, a few weeks later, the freezer would turn once again into a chaotic abyss!

For eight years, our freezer served us well, the storage for summer abundance in preparation for winter meals. After Maggie’s wedding, we decided that this freezer was too big for only two people. We no longer buy frozen waffles in bulk or eat twenty bags of frozen corn in a year! Terry took a few pictures, we listed it on Facebook Market Place, and it sold within an hour of being listed.

We still haven’t found a new place to move into yet, but I am currently de-cluttering my home in preparation of moving. A friend recommended a book called “The Joy of Less” by Francine Jay. As a self-proclaimed minimalist, she asks some hard questions like, “How many paper clips do you really need?” She then outlines some principles and shows you a path toward ridding your home of all the extras. I believe her approach is similar to the wildly popular “KonMari” method. As I read the book, I find myself feeling anxious and relieved at the same time.

The anxious feelings indicate that maybe I am too attached my stuff. Terry and I went through our coffee mug collection, eliminating the ones we didn’t love due to size, shape or design. I was so excited when we eliminated ten coffee mugs. Feeling proud, I had Terry count how many coffee mugs we had left. He reported he had four, but I still had sixteen! I delight in having a different mug every morning, but maybe sixteen is still a bit excessive. Once again, I am going to pull out my mugs and make some tough decisions.

We all have our “things”, things we believe we can’t live without. Mine might be coffee mugs, serving dishes, and cake plates. My husband’s “things” are office supplies, including his collection of binder clips. Yet, if we take those things aside, I still find we have a pan for Danish pancakes, a broken laptop we haven’t discarded, outdoor Christmas lights we never used, and grapefruit spoons that crowd my utensil drawer. This stuff takes up space in my house that either gets moved around when looking for something else or finds itself on a shelf collecting dust.

Why do I hold on to things I don’t want, need, or use? Let’s take the Danish pancake pan. I bought it over twelve years ago, envisioning making stuffed round pancakes, the name of which I can’t pronounce. I did make one batch, stuffing them with pumpkin butter. They were so much work that, honestly, I don’t even remember how they tasted. Yet, I have held on to the pan because I spent money on it, and occasionally see Bobby Flay making a stuffed pancake on his brunch show and I feel inspired. But after my fleeting fancy, the pan remains in the back of my cabinet, unused and unwanted. Yes, I spent money on it and maybe it was a bit foolish. But the reality, is that I can’t return the pan, and it consumes mental energy and space that should be freed up. So, I am moving the pan to my rummage sale pile, and hopefully it will find a home with someone who wants to make ebelskivers!

The other pile of stuff that I hang onto is the rainy-day pile. A few years ago, Terry and I started to replace our fifteen-year-old bath towels. The new plush bath towels soon were the chosen ones, pushing aside the old, frayed towels. Eventually, I had enough new towels for everyday use, but I still didn’t throw out the old ones. I replay messages in my brain from well-meaning people: old towels are good for cleaning up grease spots and paint spills. First, my husband never changes his own oil or messes around with our car, therefore we have never had grease spills. And as far as paint goes, my husband is a careful painter, and we have never had huge globs of spilled paint. Thus, the old towels need to go, along with any broken appliances and old bedding that hasn’t been used in years.

As I work through my anxiety, I start to feel relieved. Less stuff means less to clean or clean around. It means less to move and store. It also frees me up from needless spending. If I live a more minimalist lifestyle, I am less likely to purchase a book on a whim, instead checking it out at my local library for free. I am less likely to buy another shirt on a clearance, without thinking about what I am willing to give up. And I can’t honestly think of a single small kitchen appliance I still need to get except a spice grinder. It frees my budget up for travel and experiences, which, in this stage of life, are more important to me.

Finally, de-cluttering reminds me that I can’t carry this stuff with me when I am gone. I want to keep the things that are useful, that bring me joy, and help me connect with other people. I think my home is already a comfortable space for family and friends, but I want to keep it uncluttered so that it remains a welcoming place.

Francine Jay sums up a thought in her book that I want to carry with me for all future decisions. She says, “Once we’re warm, safe, and fed, we shouldn’t feel compelled to browse a shopping mall or surf the Internet to find more things to buy. Instead, we could devote that time and energy to other more fulfilling pursuits-such as those of a spiritual, civic, philosophical, artistic, or cultural nature.” When I follow those pursuits, I create memories which cost nothing and don’t require dusting. And so I continue, going room by room, and choosing carefully what I really need!

Starry Night and Year 26

“Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” Psalms 143:8

“If I could handwrite this in a beautiful script or paint a picture of our silhouette as we age with these words, I would. Instead, I am quoting Ann Voskamp, “There’s an old love that sees with a kind of holy double vision — that remembers a young lover in all their seeming infallibility and sees your aged lover in all their beautiful humanity.” That’s what I see in you and in us!” I wrote a few more words, hit send, and the message, bouncing off few satellite towers, reached my husband’s office. I sat pondering Ann Voskamp’s words in her latest book “Waymaker” and how they impacted my marriage. Hope flooded my soul as I recognized that we were safe in God’s loving arms.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, Shutterstck

Terry and I celebrated our 26th Anniversary on Saturday. We went to the Van Gogh immersive exhibit in Washington DC with Indian food for lunch. Walking through the exhibit we learned that Van Gogh saw colors differently than the average person. Some have attributed this to a medication’s side effects, others believe it might have been a rare form of color blindness, and still others believe it was his understanding of color theory mixed with his genius creativity. Whatever the case, Van Gogh’s life was complicated with psychotic episodes, bouts of deep depression, and stays in the psychiatric ward. Despite these major setbacks, Van Gogh manage to paint some of the most vivid, masterful paintings of all time. His series of Sunflower paintings are arguably some of most recognizable art pieces in the world. The juxtaposition of the bright sunflowers in a vase with the ending of his life by suicide seems hard to understand. It is hard to hold all the brightness of the sunflowers with the darkness that was engulfing Van Gogh internally.

As he painted Starry Night, Van Gogh said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” It’s easy to look at darkness and see no color. But if you let your eyes get acclimated to the darkness, shades of dark blues, greys and greens start to stand out. The flicker of any light source illuminates shadows with depth and complexity. Darkness no longer seems scary or flat. But what is even more amazing is when you see the dark fading away, and the morning sun slowly rises, painting the sky in hues of pink, orange, red, and violet. The dark night juxtaposed against the morning sky makes everything magical and full of possibilities.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Shutterstock

All marriages hit points where the bright glow of infatuation wears off. Marriage is two imperfect people with their own pasts and woundings trying to live together and create something new. Sometimes bright colors turn into an ordinary day where you are busy working, getting the dishes done, and crawling into bed, exhausted from child rearing and daily responsibilities. Sometimes marriage hits points of darkness where you can’t grope your way through, and don’t even recognize your hand before your face. These are the times when things seem hopeless.

Four years ago, Terry and I were in a place of darkness. We were still committed to marriage, but both felt hopeless and defeated. It was a place where we allowed our own past wounds to dictate our responses towards each other and towards God. We were tired of trying to fix each other and felt even more hopeless in being able to change our own behavior. The only place we could turn to was God.  It was in the darkness that we had created where God did miracles.

The Bible records miracles during all different times of the day and night. Our God is always available. But it is interesting to note the different miracles that happen in those early morning hours. It was in the early morning hours that God delivered Moses and the Hebrews at the Red Sea. It was in the morning Jesus walked on water during the storm. It was in the early morning hours that the broken body of Jesus left an empty tomb, whole and restored to life. These moments were precipitated by what seemed like impossible situations, and then God sweeps in with parted seas, walking towards his disciples, and resurrection! He leads people towards deliverance, safety, and hope.

Shutterstock

I can look back and cherish our wedding day. Terry’s smile beaming at me as I walked down the aisle made me believe anything was possible. I can look back at the ordinary days of marriage when we were raising children with a smile, despite some mistakes we made. I can look back at the evening hours where we started to drift, where we got into a cycle of hurting each other with our words and deeds, and still smile because we had some real moments of happiness. And I can look back at the dark moments, grateful for God stepping in, healing us individually, and bringing us back together.

But right now, I feel Terry and I have entered a new morning in our marriage. We are still healing, moving towards wholeness. But right now, the morning light is illuminating a future that is full of mercy and goodness. And I see Terry’s great smile looking back at me, loving me completely in all my aged humanity, and I now know anything is possible!