Every word measured
Every sentence designed
Every thought censured
Every spoken word mine

Open my mouth
words pour out
Dam broken
a tomb unsealed
Tremble inside
at the mercy of a waterfall

Breaking wave rushing
unbidden words
Whence these tears
I do not know
No right to cry
but the right of humankind


1000 Gifts

1000_Gifts_JournalI wanted joy. I wanted something new to fill my mind. So, before One Thousand Gifts became a bestseller, when the recording of thankfulness was only a few blog posts, I opened a beautiful journal and began counting.

The Izmit Earthquake of 1999 rocked my country, leaving 17,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. Buildings turned into heaps of dust, leaned wildly to the side, sank four stories underground. People escaped with nothing but the clothing on their backs—and that wasn’t much. August nights are hot.

Six years later an earthquake storm hit my city. Four significant quakes and innumerable tremors shook the ground for weeks. Buildings cracked. People gave up sleeping inside. Those who could slept on their roofs; others slept in their cars or on the sidewalk—anywhere but the potential casket of concrete apartments.

The ground stopped shaking after a month. Our hearts took longer to settle. The first few nights back in my bed I could not sleep. My every movement was amplified by the springs in my mattress. I kept thinking there was another tremor. Only by staring at the hanging light fixture could I be certain that it was just my mattress, not the world, shaking.

That month left me with a fear of showering—not of the shower itself, but of being caught showering when an earthquake hit. What if I had to run outside with only a towel? I would be mortified! I showered as quickly as possible and spent every awful moment in the shower planning what I would grab and how I would escape if the building were to start shaking.

Several months after the earthquake storm I moved to the other side of the globe, to a region that had no earthquakes in recorded history. That ought to have calmed my fears and allowed me to shower in peace, but my mind was in a rut. I continued to spend showers planning my escape.

When I began counting one thousand gifts, evidences of God’s care, I made a few rules for myself:

  1. The gift must be from today (no stealing from yesterday or borrowing from tomorrow)
  2. The gift must be specific (no “everything in my room”)
  3. The gift must be unique (no writing “my house” every day)

The first days were easy, but after a couple weeks I started running out of gifts. I couldn’t repeat myself, so I had to open my eyes wide and pay attention to life. Each day became a treasure hunt, a search for more of the 1000 gifts.

One day, intent on discovering gifts, I started looking for them while showering. Warm water, good water pressure, soft towel, good-smelling shampoo—I stopped, surprised. I didn’t have to worry about earthquakes in the shower. I could pay attention to the present, to God’s presence in the present.

Later that day I found myself worrying about another remotely possible disaster. I stopped myself. And I started looking for gifts: a green pen, the smell of rain, the chance to share my dinner with a hungry boy . . .

As I crawled into bed more worries crowded my mind. I returned to counting gifts: warm colors in a quilt, bright stars, lentils and rice filling my stomach . . .

1000_gifts_listThe treasure hunt continued. I tried to find at least 10 gifts tucked into each day. Spring turned into summer. On July 6 I counted the one thousandth gift. Then I counted the thousand and first, and the thousand and second. I had not worried about an earthquake in months.

Four and a half years have passed. I no longer number lists, but I still count. After a difficult day, tempted to worry, I begin again: a warm house, steady income, my home in the Church, a friend’s “well done,” Your angels watching over me . . .

The Gift of Despair

Anne: Can’t you even imagine you’re in the depths of despair?
Marilla: No I cannot. To despair is to turn your back on God.

Anne of Green Gables movie (1985)

Marilla expresses a popular Christian understanding of despair. Jesus is our hope, the reasoning goes. Despair is hopelessness. Therefore, despair is a sin.

I believed that, until one life-changing class.

He divided us into groups and gave each group a slip of paper.

“Each paper has a list of six negative emotions,” he told us. “God gave us these emotions for a purpose. Discuss the purpose of each emotion as a group.”

This was a new way to think about emotions. I’d been taught that emotions were useless, usually bothersome, often sinful. But he was saying that emotions—even negative emotions—were created by God for a good purpose.

I read the list:

  1. Anger
  2. Disgust
  3. Fear
  4. Sadness
  5. Shame
  6. Hopeless despair

Now that I had been asked, I could think of a use for most of the emotions. Disgust keeps me from eating rotten food. Fear warns me not to pet a snarling dog. Shame lets me know when I’ve said something inappropriate. But hopeless despair?

I knew despair—knew it well. But I couldn’t see its purpose. Wasn’t I supposed to fight despair? To never give up, always  hope, always keep trying?

In fifth grade, while learning to find the areas of complex geometric figures, I was often stumped. But I wouldn’t give up; I believed I could find the solution. I would try one thing and another. Eventually the teacher would go to the board to explain the solution. I might have been feeling frustration, even despair. But I was not giving up! I would cover my ears and stare at my desk, refusing to admit defeat.

My stubborn determination may have annoyed my teacher, but it impressed most people. I was good at resisting despair—
or, at least, I was good at ignoring it.

As I grew, I continued to respond to despair with stubborn determination. If a job was miserable, I’d try harder; if a relationship felt impossible, I’d bend over backwards to make it work; if I was tired, I’d push myself to collapsing—all in the name of fighting despair. True, I still felt hopeless despair, but I’d been taught that feelings don’t matter. I just had to act in hope and hope would (probably) eventually appear. Stubborn determination was, I thought, acting in hope.

So what was the use of hopeless despair?

As we discussed that emotion, I gradually saw its purpose. Despair is not simply the emotions that cries “I give up!” Despair is the emotion warns: “Stop. This won’t work. Do something different.” If I pay attention to feelings of despair I will

  • Look for a way out of a dead-end job
  • Rest when I’m tired
  • Walk away from a harmful relationship
  • Go to the doctor when I’m sick
  • And listen when my teacher tells me how to solve a problem.

I realized that hopeless despair is not overcome with stubborn determination. In fact, my stubborn determination had never produced hope. Four years into a misfit job, struggling to make impossible relationships work, ready to collapse in exhaustion, my despair was more intense than ever. My initial despair in those situations had been a warning sign: “No Outlet.” The later despair was a cry of death.

That discussion on emotions initiated a change in my life. I began listening to my despair. I finally quit many endeavors in which I had felt hopeless and I looked for different approaches to areas where I had felt stuck.  As I did, my general feelings of despair lessened.

Hope is a Christian virtue. But hope is not the ignoring of despair. Christian hope is certain, founded on the revealed truth of God: it is hope adoption, hope of love, hope of God making all things new. To despair of that hope would be to turn my back on God.

But I might also hope, even pray, that my dog won’t die, that I will be promoted, or that my cousin will marry. Those are human hopes. They may be reasonable; they may be unreasonable. They are not virtuous. And despairing of those hopes—of my dog’s life, a promotion, or my cousin’s marriage—is not sinful. In fact, those feelings of despair are gifts from God signaling that my human hopes may be unreasonable, that I may need to give up or do something different.

still life

Blue. A quiet peacefulness.
Old walls, the paint cracked.
She feels comfortable.

The mirror draws her in, as all mirrors do.
What is in the world of the mirror?
Is that who she is?
Is that her world through another’s eyes?

The still life is sad:
dead candle,
dead butterflies,
dying flowers,
detached pears,
empty plates,
a faded lion over it all.

Yet it is beautiful.

The lion and butterflies capture her imagination.

Shimmering blue and silver,
symbols of transformation and freedom,
stuck, lifeless,
pinned in formation,
enclosed in glass,
on display.
Beauty killed to be enjoyed.
Freedom captured.

And the faded lion.

She’s been the still life,
put together peace and beauty for others to enjoy–
but dead.

Yet, hidden in the shadows, she’s a lion–
fierce, roaring,
roaming free and wild,
chasing her tail,
But no one sees.

Visible is only the tranquil beauty:
old marble
plaster imprint
gold in frames
golden wax
golden pears
petals scattered blue, pink, red, and white.
All quiet. All neat. All placed.

There will be no change but aging. Aging and rotting.
There is no potential:
no ground for seed to fall into,
no person to enjoy the fruit,
no hope–
except that the lion come alive and breathe.

to a friend fearing recovery

Darkness surrounds. The sunset fades. Ahead your path disappears into the dark. You walk a few paces and stumble on a rock. A few more paces and the path turns upward, a mountain looming in the darkness. Thorns tear your skin. Rain pours down. You feel misery and pain you’ve never known.

You look behind. A strip of sunset purple, a glimmer of light is there. The path stretches downhill. The storm seems lighter.

Oh the relief of turning back! The hope of it. The light is back there, drawing you, calling you.

Yet that light is elusive. Run, if you will. Run into the sunset. The sun will still outrun. You will forever chase that last glimmer of light, until you fall to the ground exhausted and deep blackness overtakes you, crushes you.

But as you stand at the base of this mountain, look ahead once more. The sun will rise before you, not behind. Turn your back on the dying light. Rush into the darkness. Press up the mountain. Let your tears flow with the rain. At the end of the night you will stand on the peak and see the glorious sunrise scatter the darkness.

You will find true light.

The Ten Best Ways

Tears pooled in her eyes. “That’s why I need to know the end. That’s why movies are so unsatisfying. They finally get free, and the story stops. I need to know what happens after they are free. I need to know which way to go.”

She picks up a Bible and reads, reads of the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. Salvation, baptism, freedom. She reads and stops.

I continue the story, my hands moving through desert sand.

“After God’s people had passed through the waters into freedom, they were free to go anywhere they wanted. But which was the best way to go?

“God loved his people so much that he showed them the way to go. He led them to Mt. Sinai. . . . He gave them the Ten Best Ways to Live.” *

The Ten Best Ways to Live: The Law.

I had been trained in a deep disregard for The Law. It was the Old Covenant. It was useless for salvation. It revealed guilt. It enslaved. It was outdated, irrelevant.

Yes, there were parts of it we would do well to keep: if Paul had repeated the commandment, then it was for today; if Jesus had repeated the commandment—well, we would have to evaluate whether he was saying that for the Church or for Israel. When it came down to it, all that mattered were the nine commandments. (Paul never did tell us to keep the Sabbath holy.)

But these Ten Best Ways to Live?

I invite the children, one by one, to talk with God about The Ten Best Ways, about this story. Once all the children have settled on their mats, I roll out my own. I choose plain white paper and a few crayons.

What would life be like without these Ten Best Ways? Without The Law? I wonder. What difference did these words make? How did people without these words live?

I draw a line, splitting the paper in half. The Law, the line. One side, life without the law: murder, cheating, lying, child sacrifice, oppression, adultery, usury, chaos. The other side, life according to The Ten Best Ways: respect, honor, justice, order, unity, rest, safety.

Love does not free us to wander lost. Love frees us and shows us the best way. My heart fills with thankfulness for the Law, with love for the Giver of the Law.

Freedom is only the beginning.


*The Ten Best Ways language is from Young Children & Worship by Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman