Are you struggling with knowing how to deal with #covid19?

Are you tired already of your kids being at home? Your spouse being at home? Being home alone?

Scared about the future?

Feel like you are mountain biking up a mountain (and you don't know how to mountain bike?)

To all of our heavy loads I bring a word of hope: persevere.

Persevere: an undertaking in spite of counter influences, opposition, or discouragement.

For it's true: we are being hit at every side.

We're shifting through mental anguish, physical exhaustion and social isolation. TOO, TOO MUCH.

In light of this, if I see one more motivational tweet about how I'm suppose to rise to my better self during these times: be more, do more, achieve more because the world needs leaders now more now more than ever -- I think I might scream.

We are all doing the best we can.

Without warning or time to prepare, so many of our lives were changed in an instant.

We have less resources for help or self-care.

Thriving is not a realistic goal. Yet, I want to tell you this today: persevering is.

One of my favorite scriptures comes from 2 Corinthians 4 which speaks to what perseverance looks like:

"We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. . . . Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day."

Perseverance reminds us that even in the most difficult of circumstances we can be about the work of hope. Life is so much about both/ and.

But how?

I've heard from friends this week that they've loved doing yoga in the morning or dance parties before dinner or night caps with dear ones over the phone. 

I've heard about friends meeting up over Facetime to play games.

I've been busy trying to create community for my church via Zoom and over on You Tube where we share our weekly worship services.

In my case, I've loved keeping up with friends over the app Marco Polo and taking a mental break alone in my room every afternoon when my daughter "naps."  Even something as simple as sitting in the dark and taking a deep breath in the middle of the day has been a gift. 

Reading Psalms before bedtime has given perspective too. There is truly nothing new under the sun. 

Our family motto is "This is a marathon, not a sprint." And so, my friends, let us keep going.

What's one thing you can look forward to today or tomorrow? Sure, the big picture of all of this looks crazy but that's not the work your mind needs now.

My prayer for you right now is that you're able to keep showing up to whatever life-giving practices you need to make it from one day to the next. And give yourself grace when you have a hard day.

We're all going to have hard days (I had one yesterday!) and need to start all over in the morning. For, making it from morning to night and then doing it all over again is a beautiful accomplishment.

Really. I am so proud of all that you are doing. 

Persevere on my friends! You've got this. 

P.S. It's Holy Week- would you like some encouragement sent to your inbox the next couple of days specifically with these times in mind? Sign up here! 

During the darkest days of our infertility journey, my prayers went like this: “How long O Lord? How long will you keep us childless?”

There’s not a lot of joy in this. Asking for the same thing over and over. Being stuck.

I’ve heard from a lot of couples dealing with infertility the feeling of being “stuck” in an endless process without a lot of hope, and it is frustrating beyond words.

And as I was recently reading, Michelle Obama's new memoir, Becoming, she talks about this very pain in her own journey. Learning this about a very public figure is a good reminder that infertility is more common than we think.

So, no matter what we are waiting for, where do we find inspiration for our "stuck" times?

Simeon and Anna have become two of my waiting heroes in the Bible.  Luke's account tells us that night and day both of these seniors devoted themselves to prayer and waiting for Jesus to arrive in the temple after his birth.

Simeon and Anna waited and waited. And they waited some more.

(If you want the full story, read Luke 2: 36-38). 

Anna's entire purpose after her husband died was to be on this waiting journey—to be that prophetic voice that spoke the truth about baby Jesus who was yet to be born.

And then one day (gasp!) Jesus arrived at the temple with Mary and Joseph. Anna knew immediately! She spoke truth. Jesus was God’s Son. Her waiting was not in vain.

Like Anna, probably felt, a vocation of waiting is not something I would have chosen.

But, the longer I waited too, the more gifts the season of waiting gave.

I learned: who I am right now is ok.

I practiced: what I am doing right now is good (even if it not what I would have chosen).

For, no good waiting season is ever wasted time.

God is a mystery beyond all my understanding.

When my daughter, Amelia found her way into our family through adoption, there's one word to describe the experience of her. And it's JOY.

(And if you've met her, you can testify that this is true).

It's not because as many might think "I got what I always wanted."

Or I finally could feel at home in mom's circles.

Or because I could stop crying so much over my Christmas Eve sermons.

Rather, it was because the soil of my soul was ready. My soul was ready for joy.

I rejoiced in motherhood as I bet Anna rejoiced over Jesus in the temple that day.

I am different kind of mother thanks to infertility. There's no small joy I take for granted. There's no milestone that I don't want to celebrate. There's no happy picture I can't wait to share with family and friends of the fun things we get into (sorry, friends, if I text you too often).

Here's what you need to know: there was a time that I thought I would never have a particular child living in our home.

Adoption seemed too hard, too out of reach. Something we'd tried and had failed at too.

Well, until, it happened.

These days, I still look my daughter eyes with joy as she splashes in the bathtub, asks for more water before bedtime, or exclaims she wants to go to the playground yet again, and I thank God.

I thank God for the gift of growing up with her, learning from her and being HER mother.

My waiting season has brought me this joy.

I pray whatever it is that you're waiting on right now, you'll have the courage to keep waiting on joy too! Somehow, someway, it will come.

You won't be stuck forever.

When you find yourself stuck: what then?

Questions like these are ones that I've tried to teach through the past several years. I even did a email devotional series on this topic recently (which if you haven't checked out, learn more here).

And certainly they are the kind of questions that people seek my input on when I'm their pastor.

But proving the point that pastors or helping types are real people, such has been the quandary of my life over the past several months.

Stuck.

Can't seem to find my way to joy. Feeling overwhelmed and not able to do the tasks I really want to do. Disappointed in so many situations around me including those playing out in the news on a daily basis.

Weeks ago, the Senate confirmation hearings for our newest Supreme Court judge really did me in as I know they did for so many women around the country. I found myself sucked into the news that kept playing hope deflating bites.

To feel unheard, silenced or ignored is a dreadful feeling.

It probably doesn't matter to anyone other than me, but I haven't blogged like this in three months. That's like an eternity for "prolific me" as my friend Dana like to say. Writing is a sign of health and well-being if your name is Elizabeth Hagan.

If I had to guess, I haven't written because I haven't known what to say.

Writing in a public space is a vulnerable task to take on. People are so quick to criticize. And though I've been doing it for years, it's still hard every single time especially now where we tear everyone a part seconds after they show up.

It's all so saddening to me. How afraid of vulnerability we have become! And empathy for another point of view seems to be out of the question.

Let me tell you this: as a mover and shaker and get things done yesterday, it's really terrible for this girl to feel stuck, maybe more than some of you (I'm an enneagram 3).

To pray to ask for help and feel like it's not coming fast enough. Or to realize that hope is present but it's crawling toward you at a snail's pace. Or to wonder when our petty political fights will ever end on Twitter.

Yet, in my personal stuck-ness I'm trying to:

  1. Do the next right thing.
  2. Move toward people and places that inspire joy.
  3. Lean toward people who want to listen and grow together.
  4. Seek to take the long view-- what I see now is not all there is.
  5. Ask for help from spiritual guides, coaches and friends.

Maybe you are practicing these things too.

I could end this post by sugar-coating it all, but I won't.

Children still are crying at our borders wanting to be re-united with their mothers.

Women are still in hiding because they fear no one will believe their stories of sexual assault.

Patriarchy still rules in our churches, board rooms and highest offices of power in the land.

Our black and brown brothers and sisters are being harassed daily on our streets by the police who are suppose to protect them, but don't.

I believe you need to be fully where you are if you want to fully go where's next.

So, I am here. We are here.

Worried. Disappointed. Sad.

Stuck.

Where are you?

Our National Infertility Week series continues today. (Did you miss the post from Chris Thomas earlier? If so, stop now and read it here). I'm so glad to introduce you to Maren McLean Persaud, my new favorite Canadian who tells a story of hope, longing and loss. Here are her beautiful words-

_______________

This past fall, we took all our hope, all our prayer, all our being, and all our money and invested it into the expensive and rigorous fertility treatment known as IVF (in vitro fertilization).

We had been trying to have a baby on our own for almost three years only to find out we had around a 1 to 4 percent chance of that ever happening. IVF was our only option if we wanted to have our own child. 

If you have had personal experience with IVF, I don’t need to tell you anything and I salute you.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, IVF is a medical procedure that drains you emotionally, physically, and financially to “retrieve” your eggs and fertilize them with sperm from your partner, or a donor, to create viable embryos that can be put back into you to hopefully achieve a successful pregnancy and live birth.

The process involves a whole lot of needles, drugs, procedures, anxiously waiting for phone calls and embryo updates (spoiler: not all of them make it) and in the end, you might just end up with nothing to show for it.

So we did all that with the confident attitude that it would work, because, why wouldn’t it? We’re young!

And it did work! We got pregnant and even had one little embryo to tuck away in the freezer for a later date. What a great return on our investment.

Three days before Christmas, on our wedding anniversary, we floated into our fertility clinic for the 8-week ultrasound ready to hear the heart beat and successfully “graduate’ from the clinic.

Not even thirty seconds into the ultrasound our doctor said “I don’t have good news”.

After that it’s all a blur, but essentially our embryo was there and had grown, but there was no heartbeat. I would miscarry soon. That night I slept as though I was playing dead. No dreams, no restlessness, just darkness. The next morning, I woke up to myself sobbing, wishing I hadn’t woken up.

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

My husband turned into our PR guy, messaging family and friends, letting them know what happened and canceling Advent/Christmas events we had planned to host in our home.

My family rushed in to spend Christmas at our house and they let us be the couch potato, tear-filled slobs we had turned into.

They cooked for us, cleaned for us, looked after us and although we had trouble recognizing it in the moment, brought a lot of light to our darkness.

My husband is a minister and in the days after our ultrasound he had to soldier through services that celebrated a special baby being brought into the world.

Being the bad minister’s wife that I am, I didn’t go to those celebrations with him.

The baby has always been my favorite part of the Christmas story. The fact that God chose to enter our world in that new and hopeful form so full of potential has always filled me with wonder and joy, but not this year.

‘Screw you and screw your baby, God!’

I wasn’t having any of it. How could I hear the ‘good news’ when only days before my Doctor told me there was no good news?

I was literally losing my baby as I rang in the new year.

In the days and weeks that followed I threw myself back into work, almost manically making plans and getting things done.

All the while I was haunted by the exact moment when we heard “I don’t have good news”. I would cry almost every night.

By February every night turned into once a week and by March there was even more space between these “episodes”.

With the Christmas story long behind me I felt like Lent was a good place for me at this point in my life. Focus on the depravity of the human condition while contemplating death on a cross? Yes! Let’s get sad, people!

Lent is coming to an end though and I can feel the tension building in my body as we inch closer to Easter. The Lenten focus on depravity of our sinful nature will turn into celebrating the Love God has for us and death on a cross will turn into resurrection. Ugh.

I’m not pregnant and am still grieving our loss, you expect me to sing Hallelujah soon? I feel like the Grinch, “I must stop Easter from coming, but how?”

Currently, there is hope in the little embryo we have tucked away at the clinic, waiting for us.

There is hope in how even though this experience tried to shred our marriage into tatters, my husband and I have become closer and more tightly knit than before.

There is hope in the stories of infertility and loss that others have personally shared with us; there is hope in that every time I see my psychologist I can honestly tell her I’m doing a “bit better” than last time we spoke.

But ultimately, there is hope because 2000 and some years ago God proved that there is no darkness where God isn’t with us. God will bring all things to a good end, and that is where our hope is.

I will reclaim the doctor's words: “I don’t have good news” and hope that the absence of Good News is not real.

I want to live a beautiful story of hope.

Maren McLean Persaud grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada and pursued her studies in music and theology at Mount Allison University and then Knox College, Toronto School of Theology. Most recently, she worked as Director of Camping Ministry for the Anglican Church in New Brunswick, where she currently lives with her husband, Christian. Prior to that, Maren worked as a ministry student intern in Alberta where she studied the ways that summer camp can teach the wider church to be more creative in community building and spiritual formation. Maren is most passionate about ministry with children and youth and incorporates her experiences in camping and her musical training into that work. She loves spending time outdoors, drinking her coffee black and laughing until she cries.

**If you are looking for another story of loss, hope and healing check out Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility wherever books are sold.***

What are you afraid to say?

I've been thinking a lot about the silence spaces that fill so many of our day-to-day conversations and relationships.

We converse with a loved one about something overflowing with authenticity. But then for a multitude of reasons, we don't speak of it again for years. An in between space.

A friend's flippant comment offends us. But there never seems to be time to really talk about it again. An in between space.

A family member shames us with words. But we don't feel the relationship is safe enough to enter the waters of reconciliation.  An in between space.

Bottom line: for right or wrong, in so much of our lives, I believe we're afraid to speak. Our relationships get stuck. We accept the in between space as all we can do. 

But at what cost? Joy? Peace? The contentment of living well?

I just finished Kate Bowler's new book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved-- a memoir about grief, cancer and dying that has recently hit the New York Times Best Seller list. It's full of beautiful prose. Prose I highly recommend to you.

One of the things that impressed me right away about Kate's experience of a terminal illness (a stage 4 cancer sentence nonetheless) was her crushing defiance of any space in between.

As soon as she heard that she had months to live (which has now turned into years thanks to a clinical trial), the bullshit games of her relationships ended.

Coming out of her first post-cancer diagnosis surgery, Kate describes sitting next to a beloved friend saying this:

"Oh my dear one, it's time. It's time to go. You can leave your career! . . If you stay a bitterness is going eat up everything I love about you." 

I can imagine that Kate's directness would not have happened if it weren't for her reality. And, I can imagine sensitivity to her friend's feelings might have held her back. Fear would have gotten the last word.

But it didn't. The space in between the two friends vanished.

So today, I'm wondering this: what does it take for us to live brave like this? 

How can you and I shatter the space in between the keeps us from dear ones in our lives? How can we have more conversations that matter?

I'm writing today not because I have an answer to my question. Only this insight:

It takes two people to tango. 

Reconciliation. New beginnings. Truth-telling. All of these beautiful acts do not happen if two people aren't open and willing people don't show up. AND

Push through the fear.

Bring up the hard stuff.

Listen.

Be willing to say: "I'm wrong."

Make amends if needed.

Lean into love, the kind of love that is patient and kind.

And most of all, value RELATIONSHIPS over being right or doing what we want all of the time.

It's a commitment do our part before we give up. 

In the end, I believe this is gospel work. Showing up like this is good news. Telling the truth is the good news. Abiding with people is the good news.

And it's work I know I'm called to do in this world filled so much fear, so many relationships that need mending. What about you?

____________________

P.S. If you are in the Washington, DC area and would like to get together with a group to discuss Everything Happens for a Reason, join us at The Palisades Community Church on March 14th at 7pm. Let me know you are coming and I'll reserve you a spot.

P.S.S. Are you on Instagram? Let's connect over there. @Elizabethhagan I can't wait to see your pictures.

 

 

 

Someone around you is grieving right now. Even if you don't know his or her name. Even if you don't know why. Even if you'll never know why. So many people grieve on overdrive at this time of year.

Recently, I was teaching at "Attending to the Grief We Don't See" workshop at a congregation and I encouraged them to pay attention to certain times of the year trigger grief.

We all agreed that a season that tops that list are the calendar days from Thanksgiving to New Years. Such was my experience for years as my husband, Kevin and I waited with hope that we'd be parents one day. For a couple expecting but not yet expecting a baby or who have recently lost a baby, Advent can be a miserable time.  (As everything in the culture screams children and babies!)

And for others of us, we're weighed down heavy by--

Hearing our cancer has returned.

A bout of depression which isn't getting better.

A child diagnosed with a learning disability.

An aging parent given months to live.

Enduring a job search with dead-end after dead-end.

Family dynamics that are just weird.

While songs of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” and “joy the world, the Lord has come!” are blasted on the radio, the grieving among us experience December more like Holy Week than Advent.

That first Christmas without mom here . . .

That second Christmas of being a divorced dad sharing custody of your kids . . .

That third Christmas that your son is in jail . . .

And on and on it goes.

Yet, because it is the holiday season many of us want to be happy, regardless. We want to be able to put whatever is bothering us aside and rejoice as the scripture exhorts us too. We want joy—even as much as our life circumstances aren’t naturally joyful.

So how can we be joyful? Is it even possible for the grieving? 

I would love to offer that joy is a formula that can be followed (as many preachers offer: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last).

I would love to suggest that joy is an emotion of the will that we can just pray harder to make happen.

Or, I would love to tell you if you "Sing one more Christmas carol or bake one more sheet of cookies, then joy of the Christmas spirit will find you!"

But I can't.

Maybe you’re better at joy than I . . . but it has been my experience that seeking joy in the midst of waiting does not come through formulas and cookies.

Waiting on joy has looked more like:

Crying until I’ve run out of tears.

Sitting among the rocks and dirt in my backyard.

Drinking too much wine.

Pulling myself out of bed, brush my teeth and go to work without clean socks believing I'm doing the best I can.

And I've done these things on repeat. Then when I've been lucky, others have come to sit with me and done these things with me.

Here is what I most want to tell you: as I've allowed myself to feel what I feel and been honest with others about it, a miracle has happened.

My spirit has began to move just a little. It moved toward hope—that the next day would be brighter than the one before.

It moved toward love—that someone needed me to notice their pain so getting out of bed was, in fact, a really great idea.

And finally it moved toward joy—that though sorrow lasts for the night, in the morning joy comes.

Such is what I'm hoping for you this holiday season.

Your joy might not be bright and showy. You may not be the one in the choir singing the carols loudly.

But you'll be hanging on because of your quiet strength. And you will get through because you're braver than you know.

_____

Did you know I wrote a book for Advent? Check out Seeing a Different World here.

Want to hear more of my grief story? Check out my spiritual memoir about my long season of infertility. You can buy it here. 

Would you like me to come speak with your congregation or community group about sitting with grief during tough times? Contact me. 

It’s Time to Wake Up . . my first sermon preached at The Palisades Community Church on

Romans 13:11-14

There’s something about the pace of the summer that gives us all an excuse to slow down.

We disappear at our favorite vacation spot for as long as our budge allows.

We don’t answer emails right away. Nor do we get as panicked when others follow suit.

We don’t expect as much out of our colleagues at work. We give ourselves permission to give attention to projects that we really want to accomplish. Or maybe clean out that closet.

But of course, come the Tuesday after Labor Day—all the relaxed vibes of summer come to a crashing halt for so many of us.

Traffic, especially in a city like DC, gets ten times worse, as if out of nowhere.

Neighborhoods that felt dead in terms of activity just weeks ago are bustling with life, like our street was this week as the preschool was back in session.

We have to start thinking more strategically about our routes home around 3 pm as school buses full of kids are stopping at every block.

I don’t know about you, but even though I know fall is coming, the week after Labor Day always feels harsh. As exciting as it to look forward to bonfires, pumpkin spice lattes, and Halloween costumes, there’s always a desire in me to savor the slowness of summer . . . to make one last trip to the pool even if the water is freezing cold, as I did on Monday.

Post Labor Day weeks signal one huge wake-up call to us all.

And for us, specifically, change is certainly right here at our doorstep. For today, it’s not only Rally Day—the tradition a part of the Palisades Community where we celebrate the start of a new church year and invite the kids back to Sunday School but on this particular Sunday, you and I begin our ministry with one another for whatever season God gives us to be together.

And with all of this true, our New Testament lectionary reading has a lot to offer us about how this day is not just a seasonal wake-up call, but a spiritual one as well.

As we open our Bibles again to Romans chapter 13 what we find is that Paul is on the homestretch of his action-packed letter to the church at Rome. It’s time to get serious about how he wants the church to receive his message. And he’s ready to be very direct and very clear about his thoughts.

Who’s first receiving these words?

Well, we know this: the church at Rome finds itself in a city where power, status and discrimination was had everything to do with who was in and who was out. But is a place where being a Christian simply wasn’t the “thing to do.”

Remember this was long before the days of Constantine declaring the Roman world to be under the directives of Christian teachings. Signing up for a Christian journey in Rome meant a life of ridicule, second-class citizenship and exile from family members. It was a very brave choice.

And for the many who had clearly made this choice, they’d been walking with a life led by the teachings of Jesus for a while now. Paul knows of the regularity of their worship and gathering together. But Paul fears many of them are going through the motions of worship. He fears they no longer have their eyes or ears open to the power of what God can continue to do in the midst. He fears they’ve lost their spiritual excitement.

So, in response, Paul has one clear message to share with them. It was time to wake-up.

It was time to wake-up.

Look with me at verse 11. “Besides this [CHURCH, he says] you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Commentators help us understand that it’s not a literal sleep but a spiritual sleep he’s referring to. Paul is speaking against the type of spiritual slumber that hangs the word “Christian” on the front door of your house or even your Facebook page but then proceeds in the world forgetting how life is different because Jesus is a part of it.

I can just imagine Paul penning these words with all the strength and conviction he could muster--- thinking about how the church at Rome had everything they needed to be the people of God their neighbors in Rome needed:  they’d previously been baptized, they knew the teachings of Jesus and they had the Holy Spirit to be their constant guide. But they had no urgency. They lacked courage. They lacked bravery. They’d forgotten how to articulate why they were doing what they were doing in the first place.

And it was as if Paul was looking them directly in the face and saying, “Church: See! Believe and Do! The time is now."

. . Be who I’ve called you to be! Feed the hungry. Take care of the sick. Do good to those who hate you. Always make room at your tables for one more, even if they’re here one week and gone the next.”

This waking up business was something that Paul deeply longed for them to do.

What I find most fascinating for what comes next is how Paul seeks to motivate the church. It would have been so easy to use guilt in effort to stir them from their sleep. Any parent or teacher, knows that guilt is a powerful motivator (no matter if we want to admit to it or not).

I’ll be so disappointed in you if you don’t make it home by your curfew at 9.

 I’ll ask only the girls with gold stars by their name to line up to go to recess.

 I’ll cry myself to sleep every night if you don’t plan to come visit me over the holidays.

But Paul does none of this. Rather they’re positive words about the gift that awaits the church if they DO wake up.  He writes that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”

The race wasn’t finished. They were almost there. New life was waiting to crack out of every seam! This great gift, he called it salvation.

Salvation, you see, wasn’t a one and done experience it was lifetime work!

In fact, all of this “waking up” business came with instructions for how to prepare.

So, by time we get to verse 14, we read specific instructions for this kind of preparation. The church was told to “put on the Lord Jesus.” The Greek verb used here is the same one that would be inserted into a conversation about putting on clothes. Which helps us to consider this: when you and I select what type of clothes we are going to wear each day, we’re essentially making a choice about what our public image of ourselves to the world will be. Questions like:

Is it a I really need to impress my 2 o’clock meeting kind of Wednesday suit day?

Is it a dress down Friday meaning flip-flops are ok?

Or it is a I don’t get out of my sweatpants Saturday?

And likewise, Paul was asking the church to spiritually wake-up to the public witness they were putting forth with their actions. They needed to put on the Lord Jesus because

Did anyone know they were a person of faith?

Did they live their lives with hope for the future?

Did they use the moments of their days to bring more of God’s love to their neighbors?

Waking up, you see had everything to do with their next steps forward into the future. A future that was bright and came with freedom, with joy with relief from all the temporary pleasures of this life.

Because in the end, Paul was hoping for the church to see that they only way they could truly “love their neighbor has themselves”  was if they woke up to the reality of God being WITH them. God was with them. And so, they had good news. I mean, really good news to share with others.

A couple of times a week, I make it to a Zumba class at a gym near my house. I enjoy the group exercise experience because it’s one hour of peer pressure to not abandon ship if the routines get too hard or I don’t feel like it.

There’s a couple that always attends the 10 am class. I imagine that they are a husband and wife or at least life partners because they always stand together and are wearing matching jump suits. It’s really cute, I might add. And though I haven’t asked, it’s very clear that the woman of the couple is dragging the man there. While the woman gleefully gets into some of the salsa routines with the rest of us, the man does not.

Some days I wonder why he’s even there for as we’re raising our hands as high as we can get them, he simply keeps his very close to his chest. Often the peer pressure does not even keep him in the room for the whole hour. I walk out the door when class is over and see him with a coffee cup in his hand reading the newspaper.

Nothing about the salsa beats seem to wake him up.

During Friday’s class as the man was doing his small movements and rest of us were doing our larger ones yet again, I couldn’t help but think this is how so many of us approach our spiritual lives.

We show up. We wear church clothes when we’re at church. We might even write the church a check or two. But when it comes to being awake spirituality, weren’t not. We’re simply going through the motions.

There’s a popular slang term these days that you’ll find all over social media or often used in communities of color and it’s “stay woke.”

The urban dictionary defines stay woke as a call to action, or living with intentional mindfulness of issues that are important.

And I can think of no better guiding statement on this day of new beginnings. Stay woke, church. Stay woke.

We, my new friends at Palisades Community Church, are also living in times where we can’t afford being asleep at the wheel when it comes to our faith or our public witness. 

We can’t just keep what we’re doing for the sake of doing it.

We can’t burn our energy out on traditions that no longer shine the hope of our good news as Christian people into those around us that need it the most.

We must wake-up.

We must wake up to the powerful good news of the gospel that God loves us. I mean really loves us. Because I believe if we believe this, then it truly changes everything.

We must wake up to the wonder that is authentic community—given enough of ourselves to our church so that we can be known and cared for when we need it the most and lend a hand to others in this same way.

We must wake up to the amazing calling that God calling that God gave this church over 94 years ago to be a place where all people were welcomed in this neighborhood. Though we’ve been worshipping here for so long the need for the calling to be the church remains the same.

We must wake up.

Good things are in store for us, church good things as people on a journey to be woke.

AMEN

Today, I was at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC offering a group conversation about how you make peace with a life you have but may never have intended to be yours!

I told the group that in my story, in particular the story I tell in my book Birthed, that I found hope for the future by dreaming in the present tense (living in today not five tomorrows from now), opening our hearts up to new communities of support (not every friend can make every journey with you) and most of all to re-dream how our deepest desires can be fulfilled (just maybe not in the ways we first thought). Our "problems" may never be resolved but new life is always possible.

Most of all I wanted to say that HOPE comes as we make room for SURPRISE! 

Do you like surprises?

I know I do (especially if they are parties for birthdays), though I realize not everyone holds this same joy. Surprises can be scary. Details are unknown. Preparing for what comes is out of the picture!

Yet, no matter how you feel about surprises, I think our DNA (as made in the image of the Triune God) invites into giving up control and lean into surprise. None of us is ever the complete author of our story.

Because isn't this the Christian faith?

Christ died. Christ is risen. (What a surprise that was Easter morning!) And Christ will come again (A surprise we anticipate even today).

Our lives paths no matter what stage we find them in aren’t about charts, graphs and what society says we should be doing or experiencing because we are a particular age/ color/ gender/ and on and on. Our lives live and breathe and have their meaning from the One who is ALWAYS in the business of surprises.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a group of new friends and they asked me, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” (This is totally an Washington DC type of question to be asked by the way)

I think I totally shocked them because I simply said, “I don’t know.”

And what I meant by the “I don’t know" is not that I don’t have hopes or dreams or projects I’m working toward. I do. (For, there’s nothing wrong with looking toward the future). But what experiences in life (like infertility) have taught me is that life can never be managed. Rather life lived well is always about being open to the Spirit of God and how the Spirit’s movement blows into lives and takes us where we are to go.

Listening to the Spirit IS how we end up in the places where goodness and peace overflow out of us. And our feet land on the solid paths.

My dear readers, I don't now where in your life you need a surprise-- but I do know it's always possible!

So, for the widow who can’t get out of bed on so many days because life is just too void without her partner by her side; there is hope of healing lament as "God’s faithfulness is new every morning." God can surprise you!

For the family struggling from paycheck to paycheck wondering how the bills are going to be paid this month, there is hope of comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God; trust also in me.” God can surprise you!

For the young adult trying to make sense of life with their first career hitting a dead-end, there is hope of guidance: “I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths.” God can surprise you!

For the high schooler who is already dreading going back to school because math homework is just too hard, there is hope of peace: "I will never leave nor forsake you!" God can surprise you!

Keep your eyes open, my friends. The unexpected can be very good. So very good!

It's National Infertility Awareness week. Welcome to several new readers of Preacher on the Plaza! And I’m happy to use this blog over the next couple of days to give others a platform to share their stories of grief, loss and deferred longing. Even if “infertility” is not your thing and you read my blog for other reasons, I ask you stick with me. Did you read Sarah's and Ronda's stories earlier in the week? Like them, chances are you know someone going through infertility or who has infertility in their story just as I wrote about in Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility. 

Today, I'm glad to introduce you to my friend, Lara. Though you might see her happy family photo at the bottom of this post, there's so much more to her story. So much imagining, re-imagining and tears that went into building her family as it is today.  I was reminded as I read her words that we truly never know what someone is going through (or has been through). I admire her perseverance. 

My below the belt troubles started when I was a teen and by 20 I was flatly told that I would never have children.

It is hard, when you are still a child yourself, to really know what infertility means in practical terms but looking back I cannot recall ever feeling “incomplete.”

Yet, I had a niece and nephews that I adored and a good life, full of travel and access to experiences that many people never get to enjoy.  I felt strong, secure, and confident with my empty belly.  I filled my house with expensive, light-colored furniture and fragile works of art.  I bought sexy and impractical shoes. I researched graduate programs, planned exotic vacations and genuinely enjoyed my life.  I was the Anti-Mommy.

And then, on a blind date in 2002, I met my husband, Jon.  A man born to be a father.

He was a youth mentor, coach, and all around kid-whisperer.  All children loved him and it was mutual.

I never hid my issues and told him on our second date, before he even knew my middle name, that I was incapable of carrying a child.  When he proposed, I was thrilled to say, “Yes!”, but also unambiguously stated, “All you get is me. But, I’m all yours. Forever.”  He said he was okay with this bargain and I believed him.

From where I stood, this was a really good deal.  A few weeks after the honeymoon, the comments started.  “Don’t wait too long, aren’t you thirty?”  People were well-intentioned but relentless.  I started to feel less like a prize and more like a burden.

So I decided, maybe we should at least try. 

I started with the gateway fertility drugs as well as yoga, meditation and, herbs.  And I prayed. Fervently, earnestly, and often while on the toilet holding a pregnancy test pee stick.  After almost a year, I found a specialist.

Our baby chase didn’t always work out so well.  There were losses, and failures that hurt like losses.  I tried to get and stay pregnant for almost eight years.

I succeeded at least five times, possibly more depending on what you mean by “pregnant.” 

If you think you can’t be “a little pregnant” than you have a lot to learn about chemical pregnancies, blighted ovum, and other such novelties.

I tried everything from we will just “not think about it” which is much harder than you’d think, to medications by injection, and procedures that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Physically, the process of miscarriage was the same as early labor, only without the joyous payoff.  No baby to cradle, just more cramping.

My husband and I took the losses very differently, at least in the outward sense.

I’m sure he was as heartbroken as I was.  I cried often, unable to let go of the deep throb of heartache that replaced the baby’s heartbeat.  Each time as I physically recovered, I felt like I had lost my mind and my baby.  My confidence, my sense of purpose and my ability to mother the child I did have all suffered.  But I kept going.

When I look back and ask myself the hard questions, I know I did it because I am stubborn but also because I wanted to make people happy, especially Jon.

On one of my visits I went through the normal drill, I put the cup on the ledge in bathroom and waited in the drafty examination room. I remember shivering with my legs folded under me trying to keep warm and hoping that the nurse would come soon. The walls were so thin that I could clearly hear a doctor giving instructions to patient in the next room.  “Scoot your bottom all the way down. Good. Good. Now let your legs fall open. Great. Now stay right there. You will feel a tiny pinch.”   Frustrated and in a disintegrating paper robe, I wished could just put my clothes back on and leave.  There was something especially humiliating to me about laying naked on a table, scooting, opening, and yet falling short.  But in the balancing of my options, nothing was more humiliating than spending another year having to answer the question, Why don’t you have any children?”

“It’s positive.” I heard the nurse say to someone in the hall.

Unexpected fear like a lead weight landed on my shoulders.  I knew she was talking about me.  My hands covered my face as the door opened and the doctor and the nurse walked in. “Surprise, you are pregnant!” she says.  I forced a smile but inside I screamed, “No!”

I imagine God hearing me, scratching His head and saying, “That ungrateful so and so.  She begs you to give her a child, and then she’s upset when you do it.” 

I was also afraid. I was considered high risk and lived every moment until the baby was born wondering if that day was my last day as a mom.  While pregnant, I did even more fervent toilet praying with every twinge, cramp or pink spot.  But we made it and I gave birth to my first child in 2005. I now am a mother of two.

If I could go back in time, I would tell my heart-sick self to ignore the lie of shame and acknowledge that there are few better ways to guarantee an unhappy life than rejecting contentment, living like someone owes you something. God doesn't. In fact I owe Him more than I will ever be able to repay just for waking me up in my (mostly) right mind today. It has not been easy, but today I honor my losses and rejoice in the knowledge that I have been given exactly the full and beautiful life God intended for me to live.

I’ve come to embrace my children, as well as our infertility journey, as a gift.

This bumpy road is a testament to free and unmerited favor. My children, the living and the lost, are reflections of God's grace and their presence reminds me that their lives, like my own, belong to Him.

Lara is a technology law practitioner and aspiring retiree. She lives in the DC Metro area with her husband and two children who share her love of baking, naps, and old school cartoons.

*SHARE this blog on Facebook or Twitter this week and be entered to win a free copy of Birthed! Tag me on Facebook or Twitter when you post.

34Here we are: Advent week #2. Lighting the candle of peace each day.

Though it's the time of year that we sing "Let there be peace on earth."

Though it's the time of the year when we hear Amy Grant singing about her wish for "No more lives torn apart. And wars would never start."

Though it's the time of year when we  long for and idealize moments of family harmony with everyone being under the same roof.

I'm not sure this is exactly what Advent's peace is all about.

I've been preaching this Advent over at Springfield Christian Church in Springfield, Virginia and I have been struck by the Isaiah lectionary readings that . . .

Peace is often nothing like we expect. 

Consider this: there are places we expect to see beautiful growing things, aren’t there? A greenhouse, a tropical vacation spot, Disney World.

But then there places we wouldn’t expect to find anything new or life-giving.

Such would be the tale of the house that Kevin and I lived in for 5 years before selling the property (thanks be to Jesus) over a year ago.

In a historic neighborhood, large oak trees filled every corner of the street. Sure, these trees were trees were lovely to gaze upon in the spring time, but when it came to this time of year, the trees rained leaves and leaves and leaves.

I’d be raking, blowing and blowing leaves some more often up until nights before the prediction of the first snow.

No matter how hard we worked to remove our yard of them, they never seemed to go away. We always seemed to keep some from fall to fall no matter if we wanted to our not.osu-leaves

We’d ask for input from some great landscapers only to hear each one of them say, “Well, have fun growing moss.”

Of course, we could have cut some of the trees down to solve our problem, but the neighborhood had some rules about that and who had 10,000 of dollars lying around just for “tree removal?”

So . . . with our “throw our hands up in frustration” approach to our yard, I never tried growing anything even though I love flowers and the idea of fresh tomatoes.

I affectionately referred to our yard the Hagan wasteland.

However, I remember one March walking outside in the crisp of the morning in shock.

Before my eyes stood tulips breaking forth from the rocky ground.

I wanted to shout, “How in the world did my desolate yard grow something so beautiful?’

Because let’s review: we did not till the soil. We had not planted any seeds. We didn’t even remove all the leaves from the flower bed months before.

Yet these were gorgeous pink, white and yellow tulips. I couldn’t stop staring at their loveliness.

If you’ve ever had a surprise in your backyard or somewhere you’ve visited, then you’re in the perfect emotional spot to hear this word from Isaiah 11:1:

Isaiah offers this prophetic word, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”

It’s equally unthinkable vision of the future both for the time and place over which it was spoken and the image it presents.

Think about what a dramatic metaphor this is? A branch growing of a stump. There’s nothing more dead than a stump, isn’t there?

For we know, right that a stump the remains in the ground of a tree that has been cut down. It might have been great at one time but is no more. And it’s an unsightly part of any yard or forest patch, isn’t it? So much so that when we do have trees removed from our yards we often ask for the stump to be dug out as well. What good is a stump in the middle of a patch of earth?

Stumps tell stories of death—and who wants to be reminded of that?

I had a neighbor once who told me of her difficulties selling her house because the giant stump in the middle of the yard was perceived as an eye sore. So much so that her real estate agent came and made her plant a flower bed over the top of the stump. And it worked—days later with the disguise in place she finally got an offer.

Yet, Isaiah says this unthinkable word about a stump that has nothing to do with ignoring it or covering it up. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”

But here’s the heart of Isaiah’s message. Death was not the end of the story:  “A branch shall grow out of [the stump’s] roots.”

2638c73644664c2562588eacaaeda804As I was sitting with this text last week, the image that came to mind for me was of a stump with a Charlie Brown like Christmas tree growing out of the top—small, fragile branches with a few leaves on each stem. Can you see it too? Shockingly brilliant in its existence.

Contextually this image is helping us see that God had a plan to reconcile not only Israel, but all of humanity.  A branch would soon be growing out of a dead stump. This plan would also be shockingly brilliant in its existence too.

And in a couple of weeks, we’ll all start talking about  “For unto us a child is born and unto us a Son is given.”

We'll talk about a movement of God that was birthed in a sleepy little town, in disdained tiny stable and attended by some unknown shepherds.

We'll talk about some swaddling clothes.

But we’re not there yet—

I think in the waiting God wants to expand our imagination of what peace looks like. 

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners tells the story about a trip he took to South Africa in 1987. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. Segregated everything was alive and well.

During his trip, he said, "I met a 14-year-old boy who was, like many, organizing in elementary and high schools [toward social change]. I asked him if he was optimistic for the future and he said, 'Yes.' [Then] I asked him if he thought there would be a new, free South Africa someday, and he stated to me matter-of-factly, 'I shall see to it personally.' ...There is simply no other alternative than for each person to see to it personally."

Though we all know in 1994 this boy’s vision became a reality, you can imagine how crazy he sounded in 1987? Reconciliation in South Africa in his lifetime? Release of Nelson Mandela? He had to be kidding, right?

And I believe, the vision of this South African boy is what Isaiah 11 is begging us to see—a world where peace actually happens.

One of my professors from seminary Dr. Portier-Young puts the message of the text like this, “This is the promise, the glorious, abundant resting place where the root of Jesse stands. This is the vision of security. The shoot will grow tall and become a visible sign for the nations. Not a battle standard, but a standard of peace.”

Or simply put- God’s reconciliation work looks as wonderful and as laughable as this. Peace looks like this. New life coming from what is really dead.

So do you have something dead in your life? Then open your heart up to expectation. This is where the peace is going to come.

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Over the next 4 weeks of Advent, I'm thrilled to offer you the voices of some articulate storytellers--- storytellers with wisdom to share about how their experiences of pain or loss is birthing in them something beautiful. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way of course, but in the spirit of what Leonard Cohen once wrote: "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." 

And isn't Advent is all about light shinning in the darkness? 

Today, I'm glad to introduce to my friend, Meredith Holladay who I met this year while attending a writing workshop at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. Sometimes the best we can do is be exactly where we are now. 

_________________

I’m still waiting to get my period. That is something I never thought I’d feel the need to say to strangers, on the internet, by way of introduction.

In October I miscarried, and now we wait until we can “try” again. (A phrase I’ve never entirely understood, but that’s neither here nor there.) And when it finally does come - and flow - and go - we get to wait again. This whole ordeal is such a series of waitings. There is very little either my husband or I can do to affect anything. Even the “trying” is just a shot in the dark (weak pun, weakly intended).

We were pretty surprised that the pregnancy happened as fast and as easy as it did. So surprised, that I took no fewer than 5 pregnancy tests. We both know too many people for whom the journey from trying to parenting was long, difficult, sad, that it just seemed too good to be true.

No one told me (why would they tell me?) that losing a baby - an embryo - would hurt so bad. In retrospect it seems so obvious. I had never felt more like an unwelcome guest in my own body. My own attempts to understand are defied at how we could want something so bad, and my own body turns in on itself. Of course the doctors say all the right things about chromosomal abnormalities and how “this would have happened anyway,” and all the medical stuff to offer comfort. But that did not change the fact that my body had rejected a life it had helped to create and I was the one curled up suffering pain in all the ways I could possibly feel it - physical, emotional, spiritual.

One of the worst parts was the distance I felt from my husband, whom I love more than anything, more than any idea of a child.

As much as he tried to understand and help, he could not be inside me in the ways that the grief seem wrapped up in the cramping and bleeding and hollowness. How could he understand the feeling of his own body rejecting life - rejecting something that is supposed to be good and right? It was, to say the least, hard.

My counselor suggested that we find some way to find closure about the loss. I didn’t know what that looked like. (I still don’t. It seems part of the waiting.)

My husband likes to be outside and likes to work on our yard. He likes to discover new plants, flowers, shrubs.

The idea came to me that we should find some kind of flower that would bloom about the time that baby would have - should have - been born, and something we could plant now. It seemed like a small way to say - here’s this life we lost - we’re putting it in the ground. We’ve turned that life over to the earth, and the seasons. It seems too poetic, but perfect, that the life we meredith-headshotlost, and then planted, must first endure the frozen ground. And then the miracle of sun and rain and warmth will bring blooms into our yard.

The flowers seem enough for now.

But we’re still waiting. I’m still waiting. Hoping, longing, that life that breathes and cries and poops and walks and talks will be birthed from this.

We don't know. Maybe closure will be a much longer wait- A Come, O Come Emmanuel kind of waiting.

Living in the middle is where we are. It's almost too poetic that we continue to wait as we have officially entered the Advent season. I'll try not to overthink that part.

But for now, we are just hoping my period comes back soon.

By day, Meredith teaches 7th grade English in Kansas City, Kansas; by night, she is dog-mom to the two cutest cockapoos around. You can find her reading and laughing alongside her husband, Zach.

advent-quote-818x1024It's the week of hope. Happy first Sunday of Advent, friends!

Advent is one of my observances all year. And it's not about the pretty decorations or the special candle lightings. . . .

Advent is four weeks that slow us down when everything in our culture wants to speed things up.

It's four weeks that remind us that waiting is our work as people of faith. Nobody gets what they want by snapping their fingers.

It's four weeks that tell us the good news of faithful ones who have lived through dark times in their journey so we can too!

I love what theologian Walter Brueggemann says about Advent: “Advent is an abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’ . . . an utterly new year, new time, new life.”

And don't we all need newness these days?

Though not common like many do with Lent, I love the idea of taking on a practice just for Advent.

Maybe its intentionally having more moments of quiet and meditation in your day? This year I'm using Chalice Press's Partners in Prayer as for my readings. (You can order your own copy too over here).

Maybe its intentionally taking on an act of service in your community as there are so many extra opportunities to care for others during the holiday season. From buying Angel Tree toys to taking cookies to shut-ins, to going caroling with your church at a nursing home there's really so much that can be done!

Maybe it's adding an activity to your week that remind you to not give up hope. A couple of years ago my practice was watching episodes of the PBS series, Call the Midwife (which I highly recommend by the way) You might think this is strange. Watching a tv show?  But for me it was really important. For I really found the topic of childbirth painful, especially at Christmas. Yet, by watching these stories of new life unfold it was my way of giving my hopes back to God. It helped me to see the world from a perspective I'd long ignored.

Have an Advent practice that you (or your family) participate in every year? I'd love to hear about it. Share it in an email or comment.

Whatever it is that you decide is your way to make Advent more meaningful this year, do it with full expectation.

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It's what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

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