We All Feel Like Rudderless Boats. So Now What?

We All Feel Like Rudderless Boats. So Now What?

If someone asked me to ‘quick – pick a word to describe the current state of the world,’ I’d choose rudderless.

Right now, it feels like we’re each in a dinghy being tossed around relentlessly on unforgiving seas without any way of directing ourselves toward something firm, stable, and ultimately life-sustaining.

Like land.

We are – collectively and individually – uncertain and uneasy, and we want life to be better, right this very minute.

But that’s not happening.

Our reactions are overly dramatic. Not because we’re bad people, but because we’re human people, and we get tired of being adrift.

We feel rudderless, but we are not.

Let’s think about rudders for a sec…A rudder is a basic tool, a simple, relatively thin slat of wood or metal used to steer a craft. It’s not a motor and it will not propel a boat forward. However, theoretically, a boat will move toward its end goal via the wind or the current if someone strong and steady on board persists in using this plain device. The slat is called a rudder if it’s mounted on the back of a boat or a ship.

But dinghies often don’t have rudders.

Instead, they have oars.

Oars steer a boat. With a little elbow grease, they also move it forward.

Brilliant.

As I stood at the base of the Currituck Lighthouse last week, I thought about this.

Currituck Lighthouse, Corolla, NC.

Built in 1875, the lighthouse is an old version of what mariners refer to as an ‘aid to navigation.’ The brochure I picked up said the light “filled the ‘remaining dark space’ on the North Carolina coast between the Cape Henry light to the north and Bodie Island to the south.” Even today, its automated flashes come on at dusk and cease at dawn, alternating 3 seconds on and 17 seconds off, a burst of 1,000 watts visible for 18 nautical miles.

The light serves as a guidepost.

A promise.

A beacon of hope for seafarers caught in darkness.

What fills your dark space right now?

Are you looking for the light, picking up your oars, and pulling hard to move toward it?

The spiritual life is not idle. If we don’t pay attention to where we’re headed, we drift out to places that stir fear in our hearts.

When you get tired of rowing, are you keeping an oar in the water so you can steer and shift direction?

Are you continually fighting the wind and currents, or are you navigating them with a discerning eye and a hopeful spirit, believing that in time they will carry you closer to where security and peace reside?

When we fill our minds and time with enriching words and activities – moments that redirect us toward the Source of Love and all strength – we are better equipped for the long and unpredictable journey.

No matter what’s happening for us right now, let’s stay ‘oars in.’

And more than anything, let’s trust in the surety of the Light.

I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. – John 8:12

Yes, 2020 Is a Dumpster Fire – We Don’t Need to Toss in the Sofa

Yes, 2020 Is a Dumpster Fire – We Don’t Need to Toss in the Sofa
Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

It’s been said that right now the media world – especially social media – is a dumpster fire – a raging cauldron of junk that entices and mesmerizes onlookers until they too are throwing anything and everything into the bin to see how the flames catch and destroy.

There is a war of ideas being waged, many of which are truly important. Sanctity of life. The inherent value of every person regardless of color, faith, creed, sexual orientation, or any other delineating factor.

But have you noticed the prevalent tone that’s taken hold?

Anger.

We’re seeing a ton of it, and it’s making our hearts pound every time we look at a screen.

A 2014 article for Smithsonian Magazine entitled “Which Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?” said that “Joy moves faster than sadness or disgust, but nothing is speedier than rage.” Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and one of his colleagues analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles published during a three-month period to see which ones were most frequently shared. They “found that users reacted most angrily—and quickly—to reports concerning ‘social problems and diplomatic issues.’”

Makes sense, especially in the current climate.

But if we’re honest, we also know that the problem is not just with reports coming from other people.

Sometimes we want to insert ourselves – maybe throw a big, fat, sofa into the fire – the TRUTH that will smack stuff down and burn for longer than the other arguments.

Right?

Wrong.

A nasty, vituperative quality can invade our words when we start to claim the moral high ground, even if our cause is true and just.

It is possible to have righteous anger, to act out of that space, but it requires a level of self-control that, I would submit, none of us have on our own. The minute I start to argue vociferously, I sense an inner change, a shift away from equilibrium because I was designed by the Creator to rely on His peace. I must remind myself that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) but without Him I can do nothing (John 15:5).

In a time when the world needs loving, kind voices, people of faith have so much to offer. When there’s tumult all around, it’s good to ask, ‘How do we share our concerns honorably and charitably? In ways that aim for unity and understanding? Bringing hope and light into spaces churning wildly with hurtful discourse?’

First – a simple acronym that’s posted in multiple places in my kids’ elementary school. Maybe you’ve seen it:

Before you speak …THINK!

T – is it true?
H – is it helpful?
I – is it inspiring?
N – is it necessary?
K – is it kind?

Pause and speak first to the Spirit, contemplating these things.

And second – let’s consider the fruit of our words to make sure we are consistently moving in accord with God’s will.

St. Paul explained in Galatians 5:22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.” Look at the ‘fruit’ in your life – the relationships that matter most – and see if over time they don’t reflect the efforts of your consultation with God. Our hearts change the more we talk to Him and ask for His guidance.

Why? Because God loves every single one of us as if we were the only human He ever created. His love is unconditional and eternal. There is nothing like it.

Today, we go on, leaning into the goodness of God.

We allow the Spirit living in us to more fully infuse our hearts and minds.

We speak with great, gentle, and tender love.

And we wait for better times with the hope that surpasses all understanding.

Where is Grace in Isolation?

Where is Grace in Isolation?
Photo by Whitney Wright on Unsplash

The daughter was three, sitting crisscrossed in a slim rectangle of sunlight on a patch of hardwood floor next to her parents’ bed. She didn’t know what Mommy had experienced, only that she hadn’t been up for many, many days.

“Mommy?” the child asked, “Do you want bread and butter?”

It was all she knew how to make, the only thing she could give someone who might be hungry.

The mound of covers murmured an assent, a barely audible, “Mmm hmm…nice.”

In the kitchen, the girl placed a slice of wheat bread on a paper towel and smeared margarine on it, tearing gaping holes in the piece with the knife as she committed herself to her work. Chunks of ‘butter’ were everywhere, but she was proud, so proud of her effort, and confident that Mommy would eat it.

In the bedroom, Mommy’s long white, shaking fingers emerged from under the blankets.

“Thank you, honey,” came the nearly inaudible voice. And a few minutes later, “That was delicious.”

The girl returned to her spot on the floor and remained there. For how long, I’m not sure. It happened more than once.

It was 1976 and my mother had just had back surgery to remove a disc she’d ruptured while falling down a flight of stairs, pregnant with my sister. Eight months later, friends cared for my healthy baby sis at their house for awhile and I stayed home with my parents. We had some other help, but there were times when my dad was at work and since I was a quiet, easygoing child, my mom and I were left alone for a couple hours at a time.

I did my part. I kept Mommy company. I made her bread and butter.

Fast forward 44 years to a global pandemic and we’re all like kids making ‘bread and butter’ daily, sitting in one place, tending to the needs of those right next to us, sensing that perhaps something slow and important – like healing – is happening within, while also acknowledging the reality of clashing tensions between an urgency to proceed with life and paralysis to make that happen on acceptable terms.

While healing is usually hidden, there are options with pain. It can be put on display, or concealed until secrecy simply isn’t an option anymore.

Is this time of quarantine highlighting the wounds of your loved ones?

Is it shedding new light on the places where hurt is carried in your home?

How about some harder questions….

In what ways is the past influencing present anxieties?

And your deficiencies? Are your own imperfections and worries glaring too? If you are not a channel of peace to those you love, why not?

Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine,’ said in his Precepts, Part 1, “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”

The Truth is, opportunity presents itself perfectly. As King Solomon wrote 500 years earlier, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens….A time to kill, and a time to heal…” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1,3).

A time has been opened to us for serious reflection.

We can turn the hurt over to the only One who can truly heal.

Now is an occasion to see grace right where it’s being offered.

But how do we do that?

We allow ourselves to soften.

We wonder.

We watch.

We open our hands and look up.

We sit and listen so we’ll know how to serve and to recognize grace as it appears.

Where was grace in 1976 when a mom was in bed, suffering at her literal core, her 3-year old on the floor by her side?

It was everywhere, saturating the room with sunlight, forming a bond between a daughter and her mom, and expressing love in small hands carrying simple gifts.

We can find it again today as we spread butter on bread in a million different ways, again and again.

Put Your Ounce of Faith Into Action Before Today Ends

Put Your Ounce of Faith Into Action Before Today Ends
Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

The small headline caught my eye: “Local food bank need rises 200% – Donations decline under state’s stay-at-home order.”

The story was hidden under the ‘bigger’ one about a couple hundred protesters honking car horns on the capital’s streets, venting anger and frustration, demanding that the state reopen for business.

They’re part same issue, of course – how to handle the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. No one has clear answers.

But the alarming facts about hunger and unemployment have spiraled out of the air like a U.S.-sized tornado. Over the last 5 weeks 26 million Americans have filed jobless claims. The sum of filings may suggest the unemployment rate hovers around 20%.

Translation: too many people have suddenly lost the ability to pay for the necessities.

Of 200 U.S. foodbanks belonging to the nationwide network Feeding America, 98% said this week they have experienced a surge in demand concurrent with the pandemic outbreak, and 59% say their inventory has decreased. As demand increases, what’s been collected and stored to be given out doesn’t meet current needs. What’s more – about 50% of the clients now visiting food banks are new clients – people who didn’t need assistance just a few weeks ago.

Don’t let your eyes glaze over. These people are your neighbors. And mine.

We pray for them, and we have faith that God will provide. But we can’t stop there. The Lord sent manna to feed the hungry Israelites, but today He’s sent you and me.

Scripture tells us,“[F]aith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

God expects us to live out our love for Him in our deeds, and He needs us to do His work in the world. His undying Love is expressed through us – people who allow our faith to shine through our hands and hearts.

So, how can we help?

  • The primary need is funding for food banks, and we can all donate online without ever leaving our couches. Click here on Feeding America to find your local food bank with your state or zipcode. Go to it and contribute $10, $20, $100, or any amount you can. Then, if your budget allows, set a reminder on your phone to make the same donation again in 2 weeks, or monthly, until this crisis ends. Wholesale purchasing amplifies your gift, so your dollar will go farther with an online donation than if you buy groceries and drop them at a food bank in person. At the Anne Arundel County Food Bank near me, every $1 donated equals $7.85 of help.
  • Donate time. Be a driver, package food, or even volunteer virtually by making donor thank-you calls or writing thank-you notes. For example, in Maryland, the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore is looking for volunteers ages 13-60 to sort and box food. Inquire locally to see what’s needed in your area.
  • Check in with your favorite pantry or shelter and offer the team support. One of my favorites is The Father McKenna Center in Washington, DC. Ask if you can drop off blankets, clothes, or other supplies when you are out. They know who needs what; if they can’t use what you’re offering, they’ll know who will.
  • Forward this post to your friends and family. Remind them that we can all do something. Especially right now.

Each person is a reflection of the divine, and Love Himself demands a response. To stand by and do nothing when people are suffering is to look upon God and turn away. So let’s turn our efforts toward the beautiful faces of people in need and do whatever we can to offer our assistance.

Remember Your Word for 2020? It’s Time to Dust It Off

Remember Your Word for 2020? It’s Time to Dust It Off

What’s “your” word for 2020? You know, the one that filled you with fire and passion back in January, a month that feels like 1979 right about now?

Maybe it’s…fearless, fit, organize, progress, whimsy, gratitude, travel, relax, build, integrity, communicate, or feast.

I’ve only been selecting a word of the year for four years running so I don’t have a long history with this, but I’m gradually learning the value of finding a concept to cling to for enhanced focus. In 2017 it was listen. For 2018, believe. And last year, gently. I even wrote a post about that one.

This year, my word is meaningful, and sitting here at home for 5 weeks in the midst of a pandemic, I am more sure than ever that this particular word was not chosen in a vacuum.

Yes, I got lost there for a bit in the panic and tedium of current events….

I’ve read and watched the news too much. Become fearful and then blasé while scrutinizing the numbers nationwide.

I’ve spent hours sewing masks for my family and wondered if they’d even be needed (and they are).

I’ve pulled every undone project I’ve got (scrapbooks, albums, and quilts) out of my closets and spread them around my dining room, exciting myself with the possibility of finishing them and overwhelming myself with work.

I’ve read a few books, mostly novels, and enjoyed them. But I knew I was using them to escape my anxiety. At times, I chose reading over prayer.

And I’ve walked and walked….alone, and with my kids, dogs, and husband. Around my neighborhood and inside my home. Trod circles going nowhere, arriving back to the place I was before to find it much the same.

And the whisper that I heard in the midst of it all on Easter weekend was this…

Your word is meaningful. Remember? Take it to heart.

Nothing goes unnoticed by the One who sees all.

Before I chose my word for 2020, I asked God for guidance in prayer. I asked that my word be significant for me and what lay ahead. And this word popped to mind clearly and vividly, and it was unshakable for many days.

In the early weeks of this pandemic, I almost forgot it. But I’m determined not to forget it now.

I’m hugging my kids more when they walk by. Playing many more rounds of board games with my youngest son. Prioritizing those projects and accepting that what didn’t get done over many years doesn’t need to get done in a couple weeks.

Meaningfulness is about intention. So for me, that’s only doing something with love and for the glory of the One who made me. Or choosing not to do it if I can’t do it in this frame of mind.

Having this kind of focus changes the energy of any activity.

How about “your” word? The choosing of it was not an accident.

God was, and is always, with you. The divine imprint is everywhere.

So pick up your word and dust it off. How can it be applied it in a new way – in a way that will bring joy to your soul amidst the current circumstances?

Ask your Creator for fresh eyes to see. It’s a habit we can all cultivate, worldwide pandemic or not.

No creature is concealed from Him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account. – Hebrews 4:13

Overcoming Fear and Excuses in a Pandemic: The Note I Should Have Written Years Ago

Overcoming Fear and Excuses in a Pandemic: The Note I Should Have Written Years Ago
Photo by Liubov Ilchuk on Unsplash

On March 20th, after just one week home because of the coronavirus, I saw this question on Reddit: “What has the pandemic ruined for you?”

‘Gosh,’ I thought. ‘What a terrible way to look at it. What about the bright side?’

Two weeks later, I understand this person’s mindset somewhat better.

Though most of us are not physically ill, there is tremendous suffering. Fear, anxiety, grief, loneliness, educational concerns, and serious financial distress. For every person who is trying to embrace the benefits of wide avenues of time, there is another who can only think that this time is coming at great cost.

There are blessings, silver linings for sure, but telling anyone, “You should be grateful,” is callous and unfeeling when they are suffering.

That’s what I was thinking as I stared out the window on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. The rain had stopped for a bit and between drops still falling from the roof, I saw my gray-haired neighbor Ed* come out of his house in his sweatpants and slippers and collect his mail. He stood still for a second or two, rifling through the stack, then turned away from his home. My curiosity piqued, I watched him amble across the street and up onto the porch of Walter’s house, where he put some misdelivered letters and catalogs into the red square mailbox under the awning.

‘That’s neighborly.’ I thought, and then warmth filled my heart as I remembered…

This is the same man who’s helped me countless times to track down our belligerent Beagle Luna after she’s jumped our fence and followed her nose into the woods behind his home. A man who, with his wife Carol, has always bought Boy Scout popcorn from our oldest son, is generous at Halloween, and has offered to help my husband with troublesome trees that cascade over our yard.

‘But,’ I considered, as I watched him slowly retrace his steps and open his own front door, ‘I appreciate him most for that tree.’

It’s a 20-foot pine in his front yard that he’s decorated with colored lights all 18 Christmases I’ve lived in this neighborhood, a sight that blesses my entire season every single year. I can see it from my bedroom, so every December night before I close the drapes and put on my pajamas, I stop to look at it – red, blue, green, and gold twinkles in the inky darkness.

I never told Ed and Carol that I appreciated the effort it takes to trim this tree each year, that I have always felt outdoor decorations were somehow meant for the entire community, and that I have accepted this tree as something of a personal gift from them and am immensely grateful for it.

But – I had long felt that I should.

One of my favorite truisms is, “Never ignore a generous impulse,” and yet this was a strong inner nudge I had ignored for far too long. For years in fact, I’d rationalized it away.

‘A note thanking them for their Christmas tree would be just too weird,’ I’d thought. ‘You don’t know them well. You’re so sentimental, Gretchen. It’s too much and it would make them uncomfortable.’

But the nudge never let up, so I finally settled on this excuse: unusual times call for unusual measures.

Three weeks into the pandemic I wrote the note and taped it to their front door. Thanked them for all the things….especially the Christmas tree. Figured they wouldn’t be afraid to read it because Ed carried mail barehanded over to Walter’s.

Within two hours they called. Ed said Carol could hardly stop crying from the shock of it – that the note made them both feel so good, it meant so much to them. After several minutes, Carol got on the line and told me, “I didn’t know people noticed.”

She didn’t know people noticed…the kindness, the consideration, the attempts to be neighborly.

Do you see this around you, too? Is there anyone you have felt nudged to thank?

In a time when gratitude can be hard to muster, it’s helping me to keep my eyes and memory open to see what’s been there all along – loving, good-hearted people, living just a couple houses away.

With an abundance of love and a little precaution, our shared hope is that the pandemic won’t ruin that for any of us.

No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor.
1 Corinthians 10:24 (NAB)

*Names have been changed

Think You Don’t Have a Valentine? Bet You’re Wrong

Think You Don’t Have a Valentine? Bet You’re Wrong
Photo by Emma Styles on Unsplash

“Valentine’s Day is Friday,” said my teenage daughter as we turned into the parking lot of her dance school.

I nodded in agreement and circled the lot’s perimeter so I could let her out at the entrance.

Just then her brother announced from the backseat, “I have a Valentine.”

“Who?” said his sister, her voiced cocked with unnatural interest. I could tell she was hoping he was about to reveal a crush on one of his 4th-grade classmates.

“Mom.”

My eyes softened, a smile spread from the corners of my mouth, and some tiny measure of tension evaporated off my shoulders.

‘Great,’ you might be thinking… ‘Her kid just called her his Valentine. Good for her. What about me?’

Isn’t that the way we all think? ‘What about me?’ I do.

Now if you’re a regular reader, you know I have a Valentine in the traditional sense, my husband of almost 22 years. And I am forever grateful for him and the family we’ve made together.

You also know I write a lot on this blog about goodness, generosity, and how an ounce of faith can make it easier to see where divine light shines through the cracks of everyday life.

But what you might not know is that sometimes that’s hard for me.

It’s hard for me to see grace when I feel uninspired. When world news is bad, very bad, or devastating. When my family members suffer with long-term illnesses. When I pray daily for friends whose kids are struggling. When weeks go by in a blur of activity and every short winter day is actually a long darkness. When I fight my body’s desire to hibernate and drag myself out of bed. The promise of spring lightness seems far off.

So I do what I’m suggesting you do. I look up. I try see beyond…

I’m fairly convinced that some amorous souls were thinking along similar lines as they developed this unsophisticated holiday – Valentine’s Day – over the centuries and then, thankfully, the more winsome among us adopted it with gusto.

To keep us focused on what’s cheerful, and frankly, right.

Love.

Love writ large and small.

Because Love always wins.

Not just for star-gazing couples kissing in the moonlight. But for far-less glamorous and equally important pairs too.

Think you don’t have a Valentine? I’ll bet you’re wrong.

Got a neighbor who always smiles at you?

A colleague who wishes you good day – every darn day?

A clerk at a local store or restaurant who knows you by name and takes an extra second to ask you how you’re doing?

Is there a child in your life – any child – who likes to talk to you? Hold your hand? Play a game? Pet your dog?

And best yet – a friend or loved one who paid you a compliment that sang to your soul because it reinforced a truth you’ve always known about yourself – the substance of who you really are?

Love is always with us. It’s not always dressed up and smelling good. It’s often subtle and understated. But it’s always there.

Essentially, beautifully, Valentines are simple overtures of Love, and they are sometimes expressed by sweet hearts we’ve overlooked.

Somewhere in your life, you have a Valentine.

Ask God to make that person’s presence obvious to you. Give thanks when God does. And then rest in the knowledge that this person is simply one channel of the greater Love that is promised to you – and present to you – now and forever.