Debbie Macomber, faith

Choosing a Word for 2021

I can’t remember where I heard about the practice of choosing a word for the year, but I’ve done it every year since 2011.

Until 2020, that is. Rereading my journals this weekend, I noted the last time I’d chosen a word for the year was January 7, 2019, when I chose Selah, which means pause. I never did settle on a word for 2020. Maybe because there would be no word for the year we’ve had.

For those who are new to the idea of choosing a word, it is basically a meditative practice. By asking God to reveal the perfect word for the year, we then spend 365 days pondering its meaning in our life, a form of Lectio Divina that we can employ as we study, listen, ponder and pray while also delving into God’s Word.

I take this process seriously, as I have seen the difference in my life since I began the practice. Over the next few days I will be taking time to pray, ponder, and prayerfully discern what word God wants me to concentrate on in 2021.

As part of that process, I re-read Debbie Macomber’s One Perfect Word, taking copious notes.

This wasn’t my first exposure to the book. In fact, I can tell you the exact date I first read it, because I blogged about it on March 8, 2012:

“Yesterday my daughter Elizabeth called her house shortly before noon to inform me that the surgeon had, indeed, found cancer in Jacob’s lung. No bigger than a lima bean, the cancerous growth meant that, just six months after his treatment, Jacob’s Wilms’ tumor had returned. He will now be facing additional treatment that likely involves a stem cell transplant and stronger chemotherapy drugs.

Time stopped as I stood there holding the phone, long after Elizabeth had hung up.  I was startled out of my reverie by a slight movement from the couch. I looked down at the little boy staring up at me; my three-year-old grandson, Jo-Jo, bleary-eyed from having abruptly woken from a nap by the ringing phone. As if in slow motion, I sat down beside him, pulled him close and sobbed quietly into his back. He struggled a little against my tight embrace, and I loosened my grip, kissing the top of his head. “I love you,” I whispered hoarsely, and a little voice whispered back “I love you, too.”  Then he pulled back to look at my face, and I forced a gentle smile, lightening my tone, “So, how about those corn dogs Grandma promised? Should we go get them?”  He nodded his head, jumped from my lap, and ran to get his shoes.

I remember not wanting to face David, knowing how close he and Jacob were. I wanted to give him just a few more minutes of not knowing, to protect him from the news for just a little longer. Instead of heading home, I drove to my sister’s consignment store.

There was a parking space right in front, and I couldn’t see any shoppers through the window. Jo-Jo was quiet as I pulled him from the back seat. Stepping inside the doorway of the store, I saw the two smiling faces of my sisters Denise and Pat as they looked up from their lunch. “Mary!” one of them called out in welcome.

“It’s back. The cancer is back.” I blurted out, and they left their chairs to come hug me. Joseph, clinging to me like a little monkey, was hugged inside their embrace. Joseph, I thought to myself as I buckled him in again. Nearing four years of age, and facing weeks without his mother as she stays in the hospital with his older brother, he’d suddenly become Joseph.  It would forever be the first time he’d told me he loved me. It would also be the last time I called him Jo-Jo.

The library was our next stop. Joe still clung to me, uncharacteristically quiet. The stairway down to the children’s room seemed longer than usual, and I prayed my sister had returned from her lunch. Angie, who had become Angela and my best friend after our mother’s death, came around the corner from her office area. She knew as soon as she saw my face. We hugged, and again I began sobbing; poor Jacob. Poor Elizabeth. Poor Ben. Poor little Joe, who silently observed the adults around him crumple one by one.

Bolstered by the collective strength of my sisters, I was ready to face David. But he must have already known.

My husband stood on the porch. Joe ran ahead of me into the house. David held his arms out to me, and we clung to each other for a few moments.

I don’t remember either one of us saying anything. What could we say? David’s agony was palpable as we embraced, mirroring my own. Having gone through cancer treatment himself, David and Jacob were comrades, sharing a special bond. David retreated to the back yard and began raking. I retreated to the house to watch the children. The sharp pain David began experiencing in his shoulder that night never did abate, and would eventually move to his chest. We would later learn the shoulder pain was likely the first in a series of small heart attacks, not muscle aches we attributed to the yardwork. But we didn’t know that yet.

I just went through the motions the rest of the day, unable to stop thinking of Jacob, Elizabeth and Ben. Katie, at 12, seemed to intuitively know what I needed; she made Joe’s corn dogs and pizza rolls for the girls. Emily kept hugging me. Even Matt, 18, hugged me several times. The girls played as usual, Joe joining them. Several times throughout that afternoon, I picked up a pen and pad of paper to write, but to no avail. Words wouldn’t come. Instead, I picked up a book that had been recommended to me by a friend that very morning. I began reading Debbie Macomber’s “One Perfect Word.” The book pulled me in, despite, or maybe because of, the anguish I was experiencing. In it, Macomber discusses how concentrating on one single word each year has become a tool for God to work in her life. In 1999, her word was BELIEVE. She shared how belief can become a lifeline when grief or tragedy strikes. I read those passages several times. Macomber uses C. S. Lewis as an example. While grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote about belief in the face of fear in his book, “A Grief Observed”:

‘You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it…Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.

I had to ponder this for awhile. If I believe, truly believe, that God has a purpose and a plan for everything, then this trial has to be for a reason. My marriage has never been as good as it has been since David’s cancer, my faith never as strong as it has been since my mother’s death. But to know a child, an innocent child, is facing something that knocks grown men to their knees! What purpose could there be in that? I continued reading, searching for answers.

I found an answer I needed in the story of Annie Beiler, founder of Aunt Annie’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels. Annie had tragically lost her nineteen-month-old daughter in a farming accident.

Anne coped with the loss of her beloved daughter as best she could, but inside, something cold had begun to grow. Depression set in, and with it, a crisis of faith. In an article she wrote, ‘Had it not been for God’s grace and mercy, and the wonderful godly husband who loved me as Christ loves him, I never would have climbed out of depression. I believe Angela was sent to me and my family for many reasons, but a key purpose was for me to become the kind of person that Christ wants me to be.

Even before Elizabeth and Ben returned from Iowa City, e-mails were arriving in my inbox: family and friends asking what they could do.

I think of that rope that C.S. Lewis mentions, the one that Elizabeth and Ben must hang onto in the coming days. I think of the friends, the loved ones and even the strangers who care about this little boy and his family. I think of the little boy himself, who wakes from surgery, pulls out the IV lines, and even amidst his pain, asks when he can buy his sister a toy from the gift shop. This little boy who trusts with a childlike faith, whose life is the epitome of the goodness we all search for. I look to my family for assurance that they will be there, and they protectively circle around me, embracing me. I turn to friends, and their answering prayers are lifted to the heavens. In the darkness of these days, I reach out and feel the rope. It feels thick and strong. I tug tentatively. Why, Lord? Why this little boy? Why?

I step out in faith, and the rope holds.

When I wrote those words in March 2012, I had no idea how much I’d need that rope twenty days later, when I would discover my husband had died sometime during the night, three days after coming home from the hospital following heart stent surgery, or again, in August 2013, when we lost Jacob.

Now, just days before the end of a year that has been tough on everyone, I am reminded of how One Perfect Word was the one perfect book for me to have on my end table that fateful March day when we’d discovered Jacob’s cancer had returned. How it helped tremendously to know parents who had lost a child survived, and eventually thrived. To read words from C. S. Lewis that I would turn to repeatedly in the coming months, that I still turn to when facing tough situations. It was no coincidence that Debbie Macomber’s book was sitting there, waiting for me. It was exactly what I needed.

It is no stretch of the imagination then, to believe that a God who cares enough about me to guide me to the perfect words back in March 2012 can lead me to the perfect WORD for 2021.

faith, pandemic

A Liminal Space

As a writer, I’d been looking for that perfect word to describe these last three months as I’ve worked from home, experiencing social distancing and isolation. The initial fear, the continued anxiety. Heightened loneliness. That pervading sense of uncertainty. I most definitely was not comfortable. I valiantly searched for ways and tools to navigate this unknown: journaling, reading devotionals and inspirational writing, taking walks, keeping busy with work-related tasks, and yes, some unhealthy ways too…binge-watching too much television, imbibing in more comfort food.
But mostly, I’ve been waiting…
Waiting for what? For things to get back to normal? Some days, the uncertainty of that can feel paralyzing.

As a writer, I am used to doing a certain amount of writing- if you count journaling and letters, daily writing. Yet two unfinished essays sat on my desktop for the last three months, and I’ve wondered why.

Oh, I’ve still been writing: Monday morning meditations for my workplace, working with my editor on my upcoming Called to Be Creative… an essay here, a blog post there.
Then a friend casually mentioned how my writing was a break for me, and I recoiled from those words- a break? Everything in me screamed NO…writing is my passion! It’s not a break; it’s my work, work that doesn’t feel like work. My other job. Taking an afternoon walk; now, that’s a break.

Until I suddenly realized she was right. I had been treating writing as a “break” these last three months. And maybe that is okay during a pandemic, but maybe I’m also missing out on the benefits of this period of time, whatever we call it. Maybe I should STOP WAITING for everything to go back to normal, because all indications are that “normal” isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Even with businesses gradually opening up, things are still going to look very different.

So I asked myself then: what am I waiting for? Is someone else going to finish those essays? What can I be getting out of this period of time that I haven’t already?

Then I read about liminal space.

liminal space

I’d never heard of it before, so I looked it up.
Liminal Space: The word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold – a point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.

Yes! That’s exactly what this time is; we don’t know what August or September or October will bring. We have no idea how long we’ll need to wear masks or practice social distancing.

Here’s the thing that fascinated me most about this description of liminal space.
Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we let it form us.

Author and theologian Father Richard Rohr says it like this:
In that space—which is mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—we are destabilized, disoriented. The old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown. We only wish such a time to be over. We may be impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely. . . .
Dwelling in unsettling liminal space, whether we are pushed or we jump, we are led to draw on resources and possibilities we may not have tapped before. In the unknown space between here and there, younger and older, past and future, life happens. And, if we attend, we can feel the Holy Spirit moving with us in a way that we may not be aware of in more settled times.

This is our today, what we are experiencing is our now. Am I going to let a little thing like a pandemic stop me from an opportunity for transformation? Now you know I’m being facetious here…. A pandemic is no little thing, but it is what is happening now, and maybe part of my discomfort has been because I’ve done something I wouldn’t normally do, and let unfinished essays sit on my desktop, mocking me.

Here’s what else Fr. Richard Rohr said “But what if we can choose to experience this liminal space and time, this uncomfortable now, as . . . a place and state of creativity, of construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation.”

This really had me paying attention. What if this can be a place and a state of creativity? Of course it can, and for many of us, it has been; in learning new things like Zoom meetings and using technology in different ways. Maybe we’ve ordered groceries online for the first time or discovered online learning for ourselves or our children. We’ve “made do” when we would have bought new, or read more, played more, prayed more, or taken up walking.

If writing is my passion and my mission, then I have to put in the work. With that in mind, on Saturday I sat in front of my laptop for a good eight hours. I forgot to get dressed. I forgot to eat lunch. I did what makes me come alive, and I wrote. I finished those two essays and submitted them. And while all this creativity was banging around in my head, I went one step further and reworked a poem I’d written months ago and submitted it to an anthology that was looking for religious poetry.

It was, indeed, a transformative process, a feeling of being back to what God created me to do.

What about you? What’s holding you back? What can you take away from this liminal space? What unfinished project can you finish in this pandemic?

Bible verses, faith, grace, prayer

Thrust Into Stillness

Be still.
I wrote those words in my journal in July 2012, four months after my husband died. I’d been writing daily for weeks, frantically and feverishly. I journaled, blogged, wrote articles and essays. I’d sit on the couch, surrounded by piles of papers, pens, notebooks, and dozens of books written by authors who’d walked this path before me. My children called that end of the couch “Mom’s nest.”

Then one morning, I woke up and couldn’t write a word. “Be still,” I heard, and I knew where the prompt had come from. I’d allowed for quiet, contemplative time, but my mind had not been still. Anything but…because as long as I was writing about David, love, and marriage, I could keep him alive. God knew if he took away my writing, I’d have to face my loss. I’d have to turn to Him. “Be still.” But there’s more to that Bible verse. Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.

Know that I am God. I was still discovering how to have a personal relationship with God, was just learning to recognize his voice. God doesn’t shout out commands. He doesn’t force us to follow. No, God is found in the stillness, in a whisper.

1 Kings 19:11-12: The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

– That whisper was God.

Because of this virus, self-isolation and social distancing, many of us have been thrust into a state of stillness. Events have been cancelled, large groups forbidden- we might be experiencing a less hurried and busied lifestyle. Others, like those on the frontlines, working those essential jobs of medical professionals, workers in care centers, grocery store workers, truck-drivers- and God bless each and every one of you- are seeing the opposite; longer hours, a busier schedule.

But if you are one of the many who are self-isolating, staying home, know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. God is right there with you. Be still. Stop everything right now. Breathe in. Breathe out. Listen. Is God speaking to you?

Stillness brings you into the present moment. The Now. If we are so worried about what is going to happen, we will miss the now.

I live on Rush Street, appropriate considering I always seem to be in a hurry…Rushing to accomplish more, do more. Be more. While I’ve learned many lessons in the past eight years, I’d reverted back to my ‘keep busy’ mindset. Working from home the past week, when I needed some fresh air, to get out of the house every day after my work was done, I began taking daily walks. I used to enjoy walking with my husband or sister because it meant time talking to them. When I lived near a store or library, I enjoyed a walk to one of those places. But walking just for the sake of walking without a companion for conversation or a place to head to, or even nature to wander in seemed pointless…a waste of precious time…just another “should” to add to a long list of things I should be doing.

I see other people walking; couples, families, pet owners with their dog…they keep their distance, I keep mine, though I admit, when I’m not crying, I meet their eyes, smile, and search their faces for a human connection.

Yes, I sometimes cry on my walks. I was surprised, and quite irritated, the first time it happened, but those quiet moments away from my house, away from work, and my teen daughter, the tears come unbidden. I cry for those workers on the frontlines, for friends prevented from visiting parents or grandchildren, for my family, myself…loneliness exacerbated by isolation, missing my children, my workplace, co-workers, my uncle’s funeral, my granddaughter’s 7th birthday.

I realized one day, when unwelcome tears threatened to spill down my cheeks yet again, these walks are the perfect time for meditation, and that tears can be a form of prayer, a call out to God. I was kinder to myself then and cried less.

flowers

I began noticing things on my walk; buds of flowers rising from the dirt in yards, beauty I would not have noticed before. Christmas lights that appeared on someone’s house overnight, obviously put back up to brighten dark days, an inspiring message written on a sidewalk with chalk. sidewalk

When I stopped to admire the artwork, a little boy in a nearby yard cried out repeatedly “Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” His mother tried to shush him- to not bother the lady. I called out “No! I feel the same way, getting out. Hi People!” We both laughed. A spot of grace. A soul connection. I smiled all the way home.

Today, it was hearts on the doors of many houses.

Are you seeing hope in the buds of spring? Feeling joy from the boisterous greeting of a little boy across the street? Are you being the hope in writing inspiring messages on the sidewalk, hanging out your Christmas lights? Taping hearts to your door? I see God in you.

Be still. Listen. Do you hear it too? The sewing machines of women creating masks instead of quilts. Factories suspending usual production to make medical equipment. Music and stories being shared, on porches and online. Art being created.

That’s hope you hear, in the background of despair.

Watch my Monday Morning Meditations for my workplace, Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque Iowa.