Today I Saw God
As I write this, I am sitting in a salon chair with pink dye drizzling down my neck. Once a year, my typically blonde hair is transformed to a new hue of bubble gum, and it tends to lead to raised eyebrows. Because of this, I thought it might be helpful to explain myself.
It started six years ago. A meeting ended and a fellow teacher turned to me and said, "By the way, I have cancer." Some might balk at the bluntness of this delivery, particularly considering the fact that she and I are such close friends that she was in my wedding. However, this is keeping in par with both of our personalities, as we each have a particularly dry and often dark sense of humor. In no way was this funny, but the directness seemed the only way for her to bring a little levity to the situation.
In the weeks that followed, we found that the news was much worse than we could have ever imagined. The hopeful, pink vision we typically have of this disease was quickly darkened as we were informed that it was stage-four cancer, which had spread to her liver, and she had only a few months to live. To say that we were devastated is an understatement. The school I taught in was a very tight-knit community of teachers who spent just as much time together outside of school as we did inside those concrete walls. Shannon was in her early thirties at the time and had been working at the school for more than ten years.
During those initial weeks, she began chemotherapy and the rest of us huddled together in classrooms to brainstorm ways we could help. Often when friends and family members face a life-threatening illness feelings of hopelessness set in as you realize you have literally no control over the cells that are mutating and taking away someone that you love so much. To combat this hopelessness, we began doing anything we could think of to help. We put together care packages for her in the hospital, made meals (that she really didn't need or want), shopped for wigs, made inappropriate cancer jokes and researched different treatments so that we might be able to understand the words that had now become a part of her daily life. Eventually someone had a new idea let's go together as a group to get pink hair extensions.
We made an evening of it with Shannon. First dinner, then we each took turns having a pink extension clipped into our hair. Local salons offer to do this in October, and in turn part of the proceeds are donated to cancer research. Were we saving lives that night? No. But it gave us a moment to simply enjoy one another and feel as though we were a part of something together.
Throughout the next few months we were amazed as Shannon continued teaching, only missing one day a week for chemo. Then more time passed and we realized that the treament was actually working. This gave us a bit more drive and determination to start getting to work. We organized a fundraiser to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. A local restaurant donated their space, my band offered their services and t-shirts were ordered. You will never see an event come together as quickly and efficiently as you will when you have a group of type-A teachers working together for a cause. Before we knew it, there were hundreds of people spilling out the doors and we had raised more than $10,000, all of which went directly to an organization with an A+ charity rating.
Amazingly, the next year Shannon was still responding to treatment, so we loaded in the car and put in another pink extension. We began plans for a second fundraiser and raised an additional $5,000. We watched Shannon as she attacked every day like a boss. Her hair began to grow back, and she continued to serve children in the classroom through every step of this process. It was beautiful.
Six years later, Shannon is still rocking life. In fact, we celebrated her birthday just last week. We witnessed a true miracle at the hands of her doctors at Georgetown University Hospital. However, even though those days seem far behind us, I still continue with the pink hair.
Sadly I learned the hard way that cancer is not always pretty in pink. My first real experience with death came when I was eight years old, when Pam, a beloved family member, passed away from breast cancer at a tragically young age. Pam had a young son and often cared for my sister and me while my parents were at work. She was a tenderhearted soul who cared deeply for her family. It was heartbreaking.
Again in my twenties I was forced to learn that often lives are taken from us too soon by this awful disease. My dear Joanie, a woman who had been like a second mom to me for years, also passed away due to breast cancer. I felt as if a hole had opened up inside of me as this vibrant and passionate women went home to be with God after years of remission.
It might seem odd that I feel as though pink hair honors them. However, what I've found over the years is that when I suddenly change my hair color, it opens the door for a lot of conversations. Children, congregation members, colleagues, people on the elevator, and strangers in a grocery store – it gives me a chance to share the stories of love and loss, of triumph and heartbreak. I can tell others how warm and loving Pam was or that she had the coolest Christmas lights ever. It allows for memories of butterscotch pie, vacations, holidays, and cool iced tea on the back porch with Joan to resurface. I can speak with strangers of the awe I feel every time I think about the grace and dignity I have witnessed from my friend who received a diagnosis much too early. And it helps me remember that you can honor God both in the way you live and the way you die.
Could this money I spend on dying my hair be spent towards more research? Probably. Please be assured, I also see the value of donating to these worthy organizations. However, I also feel as though honoring their stories is important. I have spent my life surrounded by steadfast, strong women, and it is an honor to be able to share their lives with others. This is why my hair is pink.
When my girls were small, they thought I had magical healing powers. I could kiss a scrape or bandage a cut and presto! It would be "all better." They would smile and go back to playing. Today, these girls are young women, and I no longer have that power. They spend their days working hard in places far from home, and when they hurt they're on their own. They're old enough to know that kisses do not work long distance, only in person.
I'm grateful that my girls know that Christ can be such a person, thanks to Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, mentors and pastors. Thank goodness, because the world my kids navigate is very different from the one I grew up in. It's different, even, than the one they knew as children. Today, it seems, there is more shouting and posturing, more blatant hatred and prejudice, and more evident disrespect for persons and planet on a global scale. Nearly everywhere there is rubble, covered in dust.
This is the world my children have inherited from me, and the world I receive today in news, navigation and neighborhood. So many dusty images flood my mind, of collapse and heartbreak, earthquake and explosion, fire and flood, with medics and rescue personnel searching desperately for survivors.
In Mexico City recently, the collapse of buildings brought rescue efforts to the scene of a school. Oh children, especially children the weakest, youngest and most promising among us bid us to pause hoping, waiting, listening, praying.
How in the midst of all of our commotion can we hear a tiny cry, barely a breath? But when together we pause and a hush falls, we do hear it. Then suddenly there is furious digging, hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder, cobbling through earth and stone and rubble to reach the tiny one before it's too late.
Shovelfuls of earth yield to hands which brush away dirt and debris as the small, still form is lifted to safety. Silence doesn't dare hope. But suddenly, there are shouts: "The child is alive!" Oh, such cheering and joy must reach through tear-stained cheeks to the very ears of God. Out of the dust there is life.
Hope is there when brother acknowledges brother, father welcomes son, and foe becomes friend. When we all gather with one cause, one intention, and one mission, our hopes are realized. We do this for our children, for all children.
"Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." (Isaiah 58:12)
The business of rebuilding the ancient foundations falls to us. We will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings. Dwellings where our children can raise their children, with loving care tendered to kiss scraped knees, and all children can play together.
Lord, thank you for the resilience and tenacity of children. Help us to love them well by providing sturdy support and a firm foundation on which they can build.
I am alone the majority of my time and yet I struggle to find silence.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate if I said I struggle toallowsilence.
When I say silence, I am not referring to the complete absence of sound. My house is quiet most of the day, often eerily so. I am defining silence in this case as a refuge from the onslaught of words, images, input from the outside world. I am constantly connected, a slave to the next ping or vibration indicating someone, somewhere has something to say to me.
To be completely honest, I am addicted to my phone.
I don't use the word addiction lightly. I grew up with an addicted parent. Our home was blown apart by the hold alcohol had on my father's life. Addiction is a devil, a slave master, an insidious seducer. But if you define addiction as a "compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences," then my relationship with my phone could be characterized by the word addiction.
In the interest of full disclosure, I get antsy and nervous when I am away from my phone or I haven't checked it lately. I think about wanting to check it when I am in the midst of something else. I reach for it compulsively at stop lights, in the grocery store line, or when my dinner companion steps away from the table at a restaurant. I move it from room to room with me throughout my day, afraid to miss something important.
The greatest consequence of my relationship with my phone is my inability to sit with silence, to rest with my thoughts, to daydream and imagine, to listen for the voice of God. My constant connection to my phone and all the lovely bells and whistles it provides gets in the way of my ability to tune in to my best self, the part of me connected to the Holy Spirit. My constant connection to my phone gets in the way of my ability to hear the voice of God.
On my coaching journey, both my work with my own coach and the time I spend with my clients, I am learning to ask two good questions repeatedly:
- Who do I want to be?
- What will I do differently?
I want to BE a person who is connected to the Holy Spirit, who recognizes the quiet whispers of God, who is in tune with my creativity, imagination and inspiration. I want to be a person who is constantly learning new things, reading good books and connecting with the people I love. I want to be fully present in each moment, neither tethered to the past or worried about the future.
A couple of weeks ago in church, Pastor Tom delivered a beautiful sermon about listening to God. He talked about the value of pursuing silence as a practice and highlighted the Christian traditions of centering prayer as a way to connect with God. He challenged us to spend 20 minutes in silence seeking God and see what happened. After church that Sunday, I took a walk in the woods and put my phone on Do Not Disturb and turned off my music. I resisted the urge to chatter at God, deciding instead to just listen and enjoy the beautiful day. It was alternately difficult and wonderful, but God was gracious with me while I settled down. Since that day, I have been playing with this practice and have become increasingly curious about the gifts to be found in intentionally choosing to pursue silence on a regular basis.
In order to be the person I want to be, I sometimes need to do some things differently. Now the question is this: what am I willing to do to be a person who listens to God?
Can anyone relate? Does anyone else have a less than healthy relationship with their phone, tablet or computer? Is anyone else struggling to find a balance as we enjoy the miracles of twenty-first century communication?
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com
I think prayer may the the most difficult thing for me to practice – not the kind of prayer that thanks God for my blessings, acknowledges the beauty of creation, requests healing or help for others or even prayers of confession but the quiet, silent, listening prayer. As an extrovert meditation and contemplative prayer don't come naturally, I've had to work at it.
It's a little like beginning an exercise program. I knew I needed to develop a practice of weight bearing exercises. I knew that it was critical to my well being; that it would help reduce my cholesterol and strengthen my bones. I also knew that there was no substitute for lifting weights. But none of this "knowing" was going to make it happen until I took the first step. As Jesus said to his disciples, "The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."
Last December I started a regular practice of going to the gym. At first it was awkward. I felt like a novice, like I was doing everything wrong. Eventually I started to see progress. I could lift heavier weights. I began to really see the difference. Then I got my bloodwork back and I had concrete data that said this practice is changing things.
Practicing meditative and centering prayer has been a similar experience for me. I knew in my head that I needed to do it, I just needed to make my body comply. At first I felt silly sitting in silence waiting for something to happen. Inevitably I would fill the void with my words then I would scold myself and feel like a failure. One day someone said to me, "Be nice to yourself. Be patient. It takes practice." With that everything changed.
Like going to the gym, I set aside time every morning to be still. I first read from the Bible then I practice my time of silence. Sometimes I put myself in the story, sometimes I think about a specific verse and sometimes I just sit in silence. At first I did this for about five minutes each day. Eventually as I have become more comfortable, my time has lengthened. Like going to the gym, I was encouraged when I started to see progress. My days are more peaceful and I am more aware of God's presence in my life and the lives of those around me.
I still have much to learn about prayer but the practice of listening is changing things. Like going to the gym regularly for my physical health, I can't imagine not spending time in silence for my spiritual health. Francois Fenelon said it this way, "The more you seek for God, the nearer He will be to you; every step that you take toward Him will bring you peace and consolation."
"If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day. If you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find joy in the Lord" Isaiah 53:13-14a
This scripture has been pervasively showing up over the last few months. My regular reminder that if we focus on God we will be given what we need and be used for God's glory. I am in constant need of this reminder, but I evidently wasn't getting the message.
I have a problem. I don't like to say no. One of the shortest words in the English language and I struggle saying it. My friends, family members, therapists and supervisors over the years have tried desperately to teach me how to say that word. I don't say it because I like to be helpful! I HATE to disappoint! And, truth be told, I impose others' expectations on myself, some of which don't actually exist. I have been this way my whole life. In fact, my college roommate used to tell me that I was the busiest person she knew. She still tells me, "you always were the busiest person I know"; because I never say no, not to myself, not to anyone.
Maybe that is why I acclimated to Northern Virginia culture so easily. In my twenties, I lived in London for a time as well as New York City. I think I felt at home in these places because their pace could keep up with me! Just like those other cities, here in NOVA we are all moving at a million miles a minute, to accomplish a laundry list of tasks that are not ever realistically going to fit into a 24-hour period. And, sleep should fit in there somewhere. Not one of us is the exception. We all do it. We go, go, go all the time and in the busyness things get forgotten or forsaken.
Over my time in ministry, I have developed some pretty solid self-care practices at the urging of my mentors and seasoned clergy who have experienced the consequences of failing to practice consistent self-care. I have faithfully observed the Sabbath, not only for my own good, but because God gives us that example and calls us to a day of rest and worship. I have talked to many others, who likewise manage to take care of themselves faithfully and still conquer the world all in a day's work. But, no matter how well we take care of ourselves with diet, exercise, sleep and spiritual disciplines, when we embrace a busy lifestyle and are immersed in a culture that supports that lifestyle more often than not, the busy wins and we lose sight of the parts of ourselves that are more easily lost. These parts are the hardest to see. You can usually look at someone and tell if they are taking care of themselves or under stress. But so often, the part of us that is screaming to be cared for is the part people don't see because we've gotten very good at smiling, nodding and social niceties.
That's where I found myself a little over 6 months ago; tired, empty, neglected and disconnected because in the daily grind, checklist and even in the fun, I was not allowing my "cup" to be filled. Sure, I was taking my days off each week, I was taking vacation, I was worshipping regularly and exercising regularly but I was still in way over my head. I let some people see but for the most part I kept swimming because if I could keep swimming I could trick myself into being ok. Between a busier schedule than I could manage and navigating a hard life event, I was done.
I had reached that irrational place of done. You know, when you want to quit everything?! So, I pondered what to do to help me get my head back above water.
Thanks to divine inspiration and the gift of a phenomenal benefits package and supervisory staff. I figured it out! I asked to take a 4 week Sabbath, a mini sabbatical if you will, and IT WAS APPROVED!!! As the time for my Sabbath approached people would ask what I intended to do with my time. Where was I going? What fun thing was I going to do? Each time I explained that I was not planning my time. I shared and reminded myself that I am an over scheduler. I knew that if I started filling up the time it would be full and gone before it even began.
But, it was actually a good question to consider, "what am I going to do with my time off"?! I thought about what I was missing, which of my cups were empty, and which parts of me I had lost. I came up with 3 guiding focuses and a challenge for myself. I realized I needed to fill my time by practicing stillness, reconnecting with God and finding joy. It has been my observation that of all these things, joy is usually the first thing to get lost. When we are stressed, tired, grieving, empty, angry, sometimes even busily content, we lose joy. The challenge that I gave myself was a means of accountability. I was going to pursue these 3 things by posting a photo a day that illustrated how I spent that Sabbath day.
So, even though I didn't make specific plans I really did have big dreams for my month. I was going to do all of the things I'd been wanting to do and hadnt't had time for! Berry picking, sleeping in, catching up with friends, laying by the pool for hours each day, reading 15 books, crafting, organizingit was going to be epic! But, as is the case with life, things didn't go like I had planned. I didn't leap tall buildings or climb high mountains each day and in spite of that, each day was full and spent just as I needed to. Here's what's interestingturns out I don't know what I need as well as God does. Even when the day didn't meet my desires or expectations it ended up being exactly what it should be. What I did faithfully was approach each day with a willing spirit to see what the day might bring and how God might show up.
Each day I did manage to find stillness and I embraced it! I didn't fight the stillness and silence. I didn't try to fill it up; instead I reminded myself that stillness is wonderful and necessary and a sign of strength instead of weakness. I told people that I love and care for "no". With that "no" came a shift, in me and in relationships. Bottom line, I woke up every day with an attitude of intentionality. I wanted to make the most out of each day because they were precious gifts of Sabbath. They were MY four weeks and I needed to make the most of them.
When it was all said and done and I began preparing to return back to my daily routine (the one that involves working, homework, taking my niece to school, etc) I found myself thinking about all that I discovered during my Sabbath and all that God showed me. I have this new perspective now. I also have an awareness that this perspective can be far more easily lost than it was gained, but I can draw from it and remember how full my soul was, simply because I was available, flexible and intentional.
Here are five main takeaways from my epic month off:
1- God will surprise you if given the room to do so.
2- We truly must let go of the things that bind and hinder us if we really want to live. Holding on does no one any good.
3- Over ambition is overrated. At the end of our lives what will have mattered most?
4- We must be more willing every day to throw our plans out the window. (I'm a planner and I think a plan is a beautiful thing but, if it rains on a pool day you find a way to make the most of that day if the day is important to you.)
5- "No" really is a powerful word. And, it doesn't have to mean that someone will be hurt if you use it. As it turns out it may actually deepen your relationship.
I don't know the next time I will have a month off. I don't currently have my next vacation planned. But I now have experienced what happens when you intentionally focus your time. We've all heard the saying "yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that's why it's called the present." Well, that's real. In a moment, things can change and we never know when that moment will be or what it will bring. So let's make the most out of what we've got. I will continue to start each day with a desire to connect with God, to find joy in even the small things and to make time to be still. I hope you will join me.