Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Monday, Holy Truth

It is Holy Week, Holy Monday, and I am struggling.

There have been occasions in the past several years that have held dark, difficult places. I remember, one desperate afternoon, sitting across from a coworker in County Seat restaurant, numb.

So numb.

I said, I don't know what I have to offer anymore.

I said, So many people...so much I should be doing. So much I get wrong.

I said, I made a bad decision. I have a position of leadership and I didn't get it right and people got hurt.

I said, I just don't see how I have anything of value to offer. Anywhere.

I was heard, and I got some strong words back that woke me up and gave me reason to climb, to claw the walls of the well and look for rational thought.

I have never been depressed, not clinically as diagnosed by a doctor. But I have had a wild ride these last ten years, and the cycle of life is long and complicated. I think there came a point in time when the adrenalin died down and my body caught up.

My mind and spirit were tired, and my soul sank.

I tackled the malaise with as much gusto as I could summon. I considered counseling (I am a fan) and knew that, at some point, I would go.

I bought a good book, Feeling Good by David Burns, and I put what I read into practice. My controlling tendencies and motivation to achieve served me well, and I pushed through that season into a better place.

So, was I depressed? I think I was.

And today, as I trudged across the parking lot to my car, I felt the depth of the void, the joy-less place that harkens back to a familiar dirge.

There is greater insight now; an ability and a desire to evaluate with some dispassion objectivity. As I drove home, I opened myself up to the bigger picture. I prayed for clarity.

And it didn't take long. I thought that today, after an incredibly busy season of going and doing and traveling and working and no days off, no Sabbath, no true rest - I thought that today, which marked the end of a huge chunk of that check list, would bring relief. Healing. Peace.

What I failed to appreciate at the beginning of this season was that checking items off this massive list would come at a cost, a very real physical and spiritual exhaustion. It is no wonder that I am struggling, that I feel empty. I have expended tons of energy and I survived - but I daresay I have failed to thrive.

It's hard; there is so much to do, and so much of it is for others. I feel responsibility and commitment and a strong desire to show up. And I have; but now, I am tired.

I am not as young as I used to be, and my reserves get depleted quickly. The things I value - the relationships with my family, primarily - take the biggest hit; for when finish my check list and come home, there is very little left.

I will guard my time as best I can this week, this Holy Week marked by suffering. I will thank God for clarity and presence, for a husband who is patient and kind, for children who strain to stay connected, for the deep love wrapped around the hands and feet of my faith community. I will hold my head up as high as I can when I can, and I will hide under the covers when I cannot.

The familiar dirge may pulse its rhythmic cadence underneath every step I take, but I'll be walking. And then, I will rest, and that pulse will lull me into sleep.

There is blessing and freedom in authenticity and vulnerability, even in the parts I'd rather deny. Embrace what's there, let it pass, and trust that seasons change.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Of The Fifth Week Of Lent

 This Lenten journey finds us in the midwest, unexpectedly welcomed to the
spacious and comfortable home of my cousin and his wife. We're not here because of Lent - not exactly - but this season of life has been pointedly focused on things not normally set on our calendar.

We've followed my eldest son on his last trip to the WGI Percussion World Championships, a trip that is simply referred to as DAYTON. Daniel has done DAYTON five times now, and will hopefully be back as a member of an independent group in the future. As his younger brother follows in his footsteps, DAYTON will likely continue be a spring activity for our family over the next few years.

I've never been to this competition; last year, we decided we'd go for this, his senior swan song.

It's been good, in so many ways. This tribe of passionate musicians inhabits a
world all its own; I am an outsider and will always be, but even so, it is an exhilarating glimpse into a singular force of commitment and focus and teamwork and leadership that I appreciate. Greatly.

And so we are here, and we have happily stumbled into the hospitality of my cousin and his wife, and therein I find glimpses of my history; the art of my aunt and uncle is displayed throughout this home. I remember these pieces, some of which hung in my parents' home before the passing of my aunt and uncle. That tenuous connection of family and my own history grounds me, though I can't quite lay claim to anything solid. This is my family. It just is.

And my Lenten journey continues, then, with family and history and new experiences and a glimpse of my son in the element that fuels his passion for life. Five weeks now, living just a bit differently than before. I have been away from Facebook (and ice cream, by the way) for these weeks, setting aside these two things as a "sacrifice", which is laughable, in some contexts. But not for me, not now.

In these weeks away, something has changed. I struggled to find words as I spoke with my friend Bill yesterday; I am not sure I can articulate it.

Perhaps that is because it is not of my doing.

Somehow, in the course of these five weeks, my understanding of and appreciation for the Bible has become magnified. Enhanced. Set afire. All in a completely different, open, expansive way; it is as if I have never read the words before.

I see new things. I hear different stories. Passages that have been taught by countless preachers, emphasized in books and devotional readings, read as part of daily devotional time - they are new. Fresh. Connected with history. Connected with the present.

I am frustrated by my inability to communicate this.

Yesterday, I sent these words to my brother:
I'm reading Rohr and reading the Word and seeing things I've never seen before and I swear, I am in awe. I have NEVER experienced the Bible like this. The power is immense...it is beautiful and intense. I am actually feeling a physical reaction as I read...something primal and gut wrenching. And full of hope.
Things change. Paradigms shift. In weeks to come, the gift of hindsight will allow for more understanding. At this moment, I am grateful and overwhelmed, sinking solidly into the truth that has guided me, woven throughout my being. Thankful for the roots of spiritual possibility, free of the choking tendrils of labels and projects and religion. Thankful for the words of a prophet and teacher, a Son and a Savior, who is somehow alive and present.

It's stunning, some new measure of grace.

One week to go.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wednesday Is My Favorite

I lived in Western Pennsylvania until I was 12 years old. For the first six years of my life we were city folk; we lived in town, within walking distance of Seventh Street School and the library and my best friend's house next to the river. We moved out to the country when I was ready for first grade, and I spent the next several years of my childhood experiencing life alongside my cousins and my grandparents.

Source
My mom worked at Andersons Furniture Store in town, and so my brother and I went to a babysitter's house. Shirley Adams was a good Christian woman; we called her father "Ampsy", who was parked in front of the television most afternoons when I stepped off the bus at her house. My brother spent his days there, and my strongest memories of his presence are wrapped around "cheese toasted" sandwiches.

Wednesdays were special. My mom didn't work on Wednesdays, and so I rode the bus clear to Nicklin Church. I got off and walked the mile - uphill, no kidding - to our house alongside my cousins. Eric was there at home, and Mom would have dinner simmering and be more relaxed than usual.

My mom was blazing a trail for me even then; an independent woman who managed the household along with a full-time job. My dad travelled most weeks, and so she carried the weight of the parenting and everything else.

And Wednesdays were alway my favorite day of the week.

//

We're in that crazy season running up to Easter, with spring exploding and beautiful weather and obvious outside chores screaming for attention. It's the end of regulation drumline season but just a week until the big Worldwide Competition in Dayton, so anticipation is high and practices are long. In our family, birthday madness starts in April, with Shannon and my mom and now Max needing gifts and celebrations, quickly followed by me and my dad and Mother's Day and now wedding showers and on and on we will go. I'll blink soon and it will be August, I'm sure.

//

Because the days are filled to the brim and time off is scarce, I'm carving out space for rest where I can find it. Lately, it's been the blessed emptiness of Wednesday mornings. I've captured the time that seems to escape my grasp lately on these mornings; holding it still and centered, in the quiet of the kitchen in the morning light. Wednesdays have stretched out for me lately, lingering in a visit with family, the time to contemplate a paragraph or two, the luxury of sitting still while my lunch digests.

I'm reading Richard Rohr's Wondrous Encounters for Lent, and yesterday's words struck home. Reading through the story of Jesus's encounter with a man paralyzed "as much in spirit as in his body", Rohr calls him out as a victim; mired in his circumstances, waiting for the mercy of others. I've always read this story as an indictment of the cruel, callous friends who denied help to the paralyzed guy, and seen Jesus as the superhero who helps everybody in need and gets the man a healing, supernaturally. Rohr digs deeper; he says

Jesus mirrors his best self for the man, he empowers him, and gives him back his own power, he "images" him, he gives the man back to himself by giving him His self.

There is this freshness to the gospel that I am feeling - and thinking, and hearing, and reading - these days. There are some who are pointing to a New Awakening, a grand re-working, as the political power of the Evangelical movement is weakened by the shifting sands of culture. There are many who are leaving the church as She is, and working to recreate Her. There are some who are leaving, period. But here, where I sit on a Wednesday morning, there is healing. There is an invitation, an open, expansive horizon of a Kingdom and a Savior who is both more and less than what we have made of Him.

There is Jesus, and what I see with these fresh eyes are what Rohr calls "healing images and courageous people to image us at our best." We are called and we are invited, and the mercy is new and the water is redemptive.

Wednesdays are still my favorite day of the week.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Motivated

I am sitting in Starbucks on my day off, post-workout. I worked out, y'all; I did!
I have been motivated off and on for a few weeks now - a couple full weeks of consistent cardio and getting my sorry, 50-year-old butt to the gym.

But then I skipped an entire week and felt like a loser so I just gave up.

And then I went shopping for wedding shoes with my beautiful, red-headed daughter and we walked through the pretty dress department in Macys and she said Mom when are you going to get your dress for the wedding??? and I realized that the last thing I want to be thinking about on her wedding day is whether or not my arms look fat.

And so came motivation.

Perhaps my arms will still look fat on my daughter's wedding day, but it won't be because I didn't do a darned thing about trying to get myself in shape.

So I've been motivated, and every time I'm in the middle of it, when the sweat is starting to roll into my eyes and my knees start to feel the pressure of the motion of running, it comes; that realization that I really like this. In the moment, once I get there, it feels good.

It's just the getting there.

I am distracted by the warm comfort of my bed, the fact that I have never, not once in my entire life, woken up BRIGHT EYED AND BUSHY TAILED AND READY TO GO. I hate the process of waking up because I so much love love love the comfort of sleeping.

I've thought for a long time that there was something wrong with me.

My mother cheerfully wakes up before dawn every day, and accomplishes more before 10AM than I do by 5PM. She actually likes this; and she's retired and could choose to stay in bed but she doesn't.

Sometimes I feel like a failure.

And then my boss, who says all godly people, including Jesus himself, get up early and get busy; he's working out and working and making all the magic happen before 8AM every stinking day. Sometimes I'm sending emails and headed for bed at the same time he is waking up.

Sigh.

The things we love, that aren't always bad things, sometimes keep us from moving forward, towards other things that we also love. It just takes motion.

MOtivaTION.

I found some, in the guise of an upcoming gathering in which we will celebrate and rejoice and enjoy the presence of family and friends. A day that my daughter and her fiance we commit their future to one another.

I intend to enjoy that day to the fullest, undistracted by the things I can control right now. And so I find myself willing to move.

Would that every day inspired me so.

I'm working on that, too.

Also, my mother and my boss and all the other morning people can just go ahead and gloat about their early morning activity. I like my bed and my lazy mornings and Jesus still loves me. So there.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spouting Ideas On A Snow Day

Perched on a barstool, slowly and painfully realizing that the padding on the seat has seen better days; I am half draped across the island, listening to Coldplay's Magic and enjoying the aural landscape, with a hopeful bouquet of spring flowers six inches from my face.

I'm working.

It's another snowscape Monday, and here we are again on our umpteenth day off from school. I'm laboring from home, because even if I could get out (and honestly, I could; Tony left hours ago and my mother-in-law is out and about as well. Obviously, it's not that bad...) - even if I could, at my heart and soul I'm a teacher. And a mom. "Snow day" means stay home.

I'm fortunate that I can do just that, and thankful for the technology that makes possible virtual meetings and instantaneous communication. So I'm doing laundry and reading and cooking grilled cheese for my boys and listening to potential songs and making phone calls and casting vision for a video shoot and meandering. My brain is wandering from place to place, and I know that these circumstances are the creative ingredients where the soup begins to simmer. It's important, this meandering that looks useless. Things are stirring inside.

Shot from this morning's meeting
We had a short creative retreat this weekend; several of the people with whom I work most closely gathered together to talk and think, learn more about one another and determine how to best serve our community with our partnerships and team efforts. Part of the discussion included a look at Stephen Brewster's take on collaborative teamwork; he advocates characterizing the contributions of individuals to a creative process as FLAVORS, and identifies those he thinks are essential. Incredibly enlightening, I saw myself most clearly as a Conceptualist.

The Conceptualist processes and passes on their ideas and innovative thoughts to others. Conceptualists are dreamers...Conceptualists often are solutions people – problem solvers that excel in think tanks. They have a unique way of making ideas appear out of nowhere. They can walk into a meeting, sit down, and – with little or no notice – begin to spout ideas...They are great at beginning the creative process. Conceptualists make it rain ideas. 

Yeah, that's me. I spout ideas. It's like having an illness or a disease and having the doctor finally take you into the office and say, "Look, this is what you have...you're not going to die, but it is going to complicate your life if you don't manage it well." So finally - after decades - I have learned to embrace this wandering, this pointless moving from room to room, literally and figuratively (you should see inside my brain...), as what I do best. At least in terms of my current work responsibilities, it's functional and makes me a working part of the team I serve. I spout ideas, and they come when synapses fire to connect the dots between the motion of folding underwear, reading news stories on CNN, devouring Esther Emery's latest post and listening to JohnnySwim on the best Spotify playlist ever.

It doesn't look like work, but it is. And it doesn't feel like work, but it is; and boy oh boy, do I realize how fortunate I am.

There are drawbacks to this creative FLAVOR I inhabit:

The downside to a conceptualist is that, as amazing as they are at creating ideas, they really struggle to execute. The process and management of the idea drains them...

Anybody who has ever worked with me, shout hallelujah. And amen.

That's how I function, and recognizing that strength - as well as the weakness - makes me better. It helps me absorb these unstructured moments at home as an incredible privilege and a wide open gift of space, one that I enjoy in the present and appreciate for the good things it will bring to my productivity tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

But hey - for the moment, we have two inches of snow on the ground, it's 28 degrees, and I've got most of the laundry folded. My boys cheered when I handed them perfect grilled cheese sandwiches, and they're playing video games. The house is warm. Our houseguest floats up and down the basement stairs, bringing grace into every room he enters.

Last night I listened to this story from the TED Radio Hour; one segment explored the notion of happiness being only obvious and embraceable when one is in the moment. Multi-tasking, it seems, is the enemy of joy.

Anyone surprised?

I am the queen of multi-tasking, in my daily routine; and yet, as someone who can easily identify as a conceptualist in terms of team and work responsibilities, the spiral of multiple tasks calling for my attention is obviously not a good place to reside.

I need a word for what it means to "multi idea"; to wander around the house with multiple streams of influence, to layer ideas and concepts and creative moments into something that simply is, that needs no "tasking".

Or maybe we have that word already; maybe it's close at hand and perfectly obvious:

snow day


Go listen to that TED Talk - it's excellent.

Find my Spotify playlist - it's called FRESH - by finding and following me on Spotify; I'm bethstoddard, and I give loads of credit to my kids for any hip and cool music.

Find Stephen Brewster here; if you like creative thinking, you'll love what he has to say. 

Have a nice day.

Monday, March 10, 2014

How My Day Was

A  real day; an ordinary Monday. No snow, no disruptions to the schedule.

It felt like grace, all day long. Routine and a full schedule.

We have a houseguest, a friend staying in the basement room while he sorts out some big life changes. He comes in through the back door and often I don't see him until he pads upstairs, into the kitchen for a cup of instant decaf.

"So how was your day, Miz Stoddard?" he'll ask.

Because he's a guest; that's appropriate. I find it interesting that nobody else ever asks - not in that fashion. My husband always supposes the best - "Did you have a good day?" - because usually, I do, and that's an easy answer. At this stage of life, my sons mostly grunt in reply to my queries about their day; they don't have too many questions for me.

But our guest, he asks every day.

And so today, I thought about his questions, my arms in soapy water massaging the grease out of a frying pan.

"My day was....good. Long. Busy. I'm tired."

He went on to talk a bit about his day; the first visit to a new counselor, getting stuck in traffic...but my mind meandered in my own traffic as I worked the sponge in and out of a plastic cup.

I strained for extra sleep this morning, after seeing David out at 6:40. I crawled back into the warmth of the covers and stole another hour of sleep, dreaming fitfully that I'd had a stroke and was paralyzed on one side.

I stumbled through the early hours of the day, forsaking coffee since my first meeting was at Starbucks and I knew I'd get my fill there.

Our team meeting was productive and rejuvenating; we've missed one another and were glad to be back on track. The coffee was good. I spent several hours working; I headed to the high school to play the piano for an hour for the concert choir. I gave a piano student a ride to the music store and wrestled Chopin and Mendelssohn with her.

I listend to my son cough and made a doctor's appointment for tomorrow. I answered email, planned a retreat, managed time logs and wrote reviews.

I bought pizza for dinner.

It was a busy day, and it's yet to be over; David is wrangling algebra problems (with Tony's help) and coughing. There's so much going on, so many productive moments, so many responsibilities.

But there was space today - breathing room - and I'm not sure that I didn't just seek it out after the gentle rhythm of doing things that mattered and refusing to stress over the rest. I filled that space, short as it was, with a 20 minute visit to my parents. They live five minutes away, and I don't hardly ever just drop by to say hello.

Today, I did just that; and at the end of the day, when questioned, I can say My day was good and know that the best part of it wasn't the productivity or the checklist.

It was the coughing boy, learning algebra.

It is twenty minutes on the phone with my brother, enough for a quick update and debrief on his most recent sermon.

It was a ten-minute phone call reminding a beautiful friend if it is within your power, make peace with all people.

It was the husband's favorite Italian dish alongside the pizza.

It was the guest, sipping coffee in his Batman pajamas and praising Jesus.

It was my father, gently rocking the swing on the back porch.

It was my mother, excited to show me the new pattern for Daniel's graduation quilt.

It is the little things, but mostly it's the people, and the space to see them and hear them and acknowledge their value.

We took the time to stop and snap this sunset photo outside of Graceland Baptist Church
on the way home from my parents' house.

***************************
I swear, this Facebook fast is much bigger than I ever imagined. There are so many cracks, and so much light is seeping in...

Friday, March 7, 2014

Our Amazing Capacity For Missing The Point

It pretty much got real up in here tonight. When everything had wound down, the events of a busy day that was supposed to be a Sabbath drizzled to a stop and I had a moment to stand in the kitchen and catch my breath - that's when I felt it.

Like an addict, I yearned for it.

Like an addict, for a brief fleeting moment I wondered if I could just have a taste...just one tiny look. If I reactivated and just slipped in for a quick look, who would know?

Practicing our 'fake smiles'
When that thought slipped through my mind, I knew that this was a good decision.

Hello, my name is Beth, and I have a Facebook problem.

************************************************

In other news, this girl came home tonight and brought light and joy with her on a gloomy, rainy day. In just four months she'll be a married woman; but this evening she walked into the house and into her mama's arms and I held her tight. Extra long. I inhaled the familiar smell of her, my baby girl, my little redhead. I'm glad she's home for a few days.

There is much going on in our community; devastating diagnoses, struggling kids, addictions, family estrangements, suffering marriages, death far too soon. I have sought all week to simply be present as much as possible, for it is in these difficult moments that I find I want to revert to my old ways of trying to force and fix things. It's the control freak in me. It's the fear of intimacy in me; for if I can wave a magic wand and fix you, then I don't have to go to those deeper wells of pain and sorrow, and neither do you, and then we can make everything all better. And I can be a Fix It Hero.

Ironically, the title of today's Lenten Devotional is "Our Amazing Capacity for Missing the Point". It is so easy, so tempting to gravitate toward the attitudes and actions that make us feel better about ourselves, to shore up existing dysfunction in ourselves - even while we serve others. To miss the point of opening ourselves completely.

I have to fight against this; it does not come naturally to me, to serve with humility and openness and complete disregard for whether or not I am doing the right thing. It's so easy to make it all about me.

What I've learned is this: It's not that I'm a uniquely selfish person. I am a human being, and when you get right down to it, we're all selfish. So here's the thing; in dying to our selves, we can learn to live with humility and openness and presence. We can really help one another, and we can do without the pat on the back from ourselves or anyone else. There's a deep resonance in me; I know that I know that I know that this is the miracle of Christ in me. This is the deep hunger, fed. This is the yearning, satisfied. For if I believe that the light of Christ is somehow in me; if I embrace the concept of letting go and trusting God, then there is no effort needed on my part to fix anything at all. If I truly believe, then all I have to do is get there and sit down. There's no spiritual scorecard, nobody checking off whether or not I said or did enough of the right things, pointed somebody in the right direction or quoted enough scripture.

Half the time I think it's just showing up and shutting up. Being willing to listen. Pushing down the surge of ideas and plans and platitudes that would "fix" a situation that, in truth, can't be fixed.

Most of our stuff can't be fixed; it can just be lived, ridden out like a fierce hurricane or a bloated wave. We flex our muscles and flail in the chaos, and then we fall, and then we pick ourselves up and see the grace of another day.

And we keep going, and we hold one another up and pull and push and tug and keep moving, together.

And if you doubt that, ask this guy. He gets it.