Life-Giving and True

Life-Giving and True

 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself but must remain in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in Me, and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that passage from John 15. Countless. Dozens. Lots. 😉 It’s one of those that I’ve contemplated before, and I had my takeaway that I always recall when I read it.

For me, the emphasis was always on how we must be pruned by the Father to bear fruit in the Son. That we have to let Him cut away not just what’s dead–sins, bad habits, flaws–but also what will detract from the fruit He wants us to bear. In pruning, perfectly healthy branches are trimmed and cut back, because that’s how the branch can bear bigger, healthier fruit–by focusing all the goodness into a few places instead of many.

That’s a valid lesson, and one I’m dwelling on even now as I contemplate it anew. Because you know, sometimes it feels like God cuts us back to the quick. Sometimes it feels like He’s gone a little overboard on the pruning, right? And regardless, it hurts. Not an easy process! At least, not when it’s in process. No one likes to have something cut from their lives or from their person or from their heart.

But when the fruit begins to grow, we can see how it was necessary. We can rejoice in what we bear for Him. We can appreciate the careful work He’s done.

All that’s just bonus insight today. Because today, I want to focus instead on another side of the passage. It isn’t just about how we are made into healthy branches–it’s about the miracle and archetype of being grafted into Christ. Through our relationship with Him, we not only gain access to, come under the care of the Vinedresser, let’s say…we receive LIFE.

What is a branch before it’s grafted onto the vine? That’s an interesting question. We, as Christians, tend to say, “It’s dead wood! Useless! Worthless! Without the vine, you’re nothing!” Which is sort of true…but not totally. Because you don’t graft a dead branch onto a vine. You graft a healthy, living one FROM ANOTHER VINE. That is what happens when we become Christians–we cut our branch off from the world, which is its own vine, though I’ll go ahead and say an inferior one, and graft it into Christ. This is how we become reborn. Re. We were already born. We existed. We were alive. But if we want to live forever, we need the vine that is eternal. That’s Christ.

And then…He nourishes us. That’s pretty amazing, right? Honestly, it’s amazing just in a horticultural sense. How in the world does it work to take a branch from one vine or tree, attach it to another one, and have it GROW? How does that work?

Interesting question. I’m not an expert, but I know it involves cutting the host tree/vine too, so that all the life inside it can get into the new graft.

We feel only our own pain when God takes the pruners to us. But Jesus was cut so that He could receive us. He bled. He died. So that His precious lifeblood could become our own. We partake of Communion so that His flesh and blood can become our flesh and blood. Because that’s how a graft works–the branch must take on the “blood” (obviously not blood in a plant, but the equivalent) of the vine. If it doesn’t, it dies. It’s pruned away. It’s cast off, into the fire. Jesus feeds us the good things we need to sustain us, and that’s how we flourish. That’s how we grow. That’s how we bear fruit. Through Him and with Him and in Him. He literally gives us life.

This sort of relationship should be pretty natural for us to understand–because it’s also what defines the best earthly ones. Think of your parents…your children…your best friends. The people dearest to us aren’t just there. There aren’t just pleasant. They’re life-giving. Sometimes literally, when you consider parents and children. Sometime spiritually. Emotionally. Mentally.

My family gives me life. They sustain me, body and soul. They give me a reason to be. My best friend does the same. I know that when I need support, encouragement, advice, I can go to her, and she’ll have it. That’s what the Patrons & Peers group has become, and why we all love it so much.

I also know that these Most Important People in my life aren’t just letting me grow wild. They’re checking me. Pruning me. Letting me know when I’m taking on more than I can handle, when I’m losing my focus on what God has really called me to, when I need to cut back on even good things to make room for the Best Things.

In a way, we’re all part of many vines. Our families, our communities. We give life to them, we take it in return. That’s the beauty of the plant analogy. Each branch is working not just to produce fruit, but to return its portion of sunlight and rain to the vine, the trunk, the roots. A tree can survive without any one branch, but not without any. We all play a role, we TOGETHER play a role, in making healthy that to which we belong. This is true in our families, our groups of friends, and the Church itself.

That ought to make us stop and think. What vines are we part of? From what do we take our nourishment and give back to it? Are we planted where we should be, or are we partaking of things that aren’t ultimately good for us? And of course, the truest test:

Are all our little vines rooted in Christ, the True Vine? Because apart from Him, we can do nothing that counts for eternity…and in eternity, that’s all that counts.

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Lessons Learned from My Gamer Son

Lessons Learned from My Gamer Son

My son is a gamer.

The sort who wears brightly colored headphones that match his blue-and-black patterned desk chair. The kind whose computer keyboard flashes colorful lights. Whose mouse does the same. He has a “gamer tag” light with his gamer name etched on it, which can change its LED colors. He could spend all day, every day in front of his computer playing and be perfectly happy.

You know the type. And chances are, unless you are the type, you then judge the type.

We roll our eyes. We sigh. We grumble. We growl. We mutter about bad habits and bad lessons and how socially awkward they’re likely to be, how they’re wasting their time and ruining their eyesight and compromising their moral structure and rotting their brains.

I’ve probably done or thought all those at some point. Then…my perspective changed.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis observes that humanity is incapable of noting a difference without making a judgment. Comparison, by our very nature, turns into preference, and preference soon takes on moral implications in our mind.

Which is to say, if you note that this shirt is red and that one is blue, the next step is to decide which you prefer. And once you decide you prefer red, soon you’re claiming it’s because the red is simply superior. And if red is superior, that means blue is inferior. Which means it’s bad. (Which is a moral judgment.) We then start looking down our noses at anyone who chose the blue shirt instead. We start looking for reasons to dismiss them. To judge their other stances. To decide they are Wrong because we are Right.

Okay, so that’s a super-simplified example, but it illustrates the point. This is a well documented quirk of the human, tribal mind. There’s no point in arguing with it or saying we don’t do that—we do. We simply do. It’s fact.

But once we understand it, once we accept that the human condition does mean making decisions emotionally and then justifying them with logic after the fact—another very well documented quirk of being a person—then we can start to understand ourselves, and our reactions, a little better.

When it comes to my gamer son, I can tell you the exact moment my perspective began to change: when Someone Else judged him.

This was years ago at this point. My son was already pretty obsessed with Minecraft. I indulged it to an extent, and I complained about it after that extent. He’d show me what he built, and I’d say what a great job he did and then mutter under my breath that if he spent half that amount of effort on his school work, he’d be two years ahead. He’d watch YouTube and I’d tell him he should be reading a book or playing outside instead.

Then one day, someone else dared to say the same thing about my son. They said he was wasting his time. Rotting his brain. How she just wished he would get away from that stupid screen, and how he’d regret spending his childhood there someday.

Cue all the Mama Bear instincts. First came the lashing out in my mind: Do you really think watching YouTube is any worse than all the horrible shows you watch on TV all day long? Is his playing games any worse than how you spend YOUR day? What a hypocrite!

Aloud, I reigned myself in and gave some less emotional arguments (though totally fueled from that immediate gut reaction): “Actually, he spends his days building—just like he used to do with Lego, only they don’t break apart if you shift wrong. He’s learning about computers, which is crucial in this day and age. Playing with others online has forced him to learn how to spell and read quickly and efficiently. He often recreates historical landmarks in Minecraft with nothing but a single picture of a thing. You should see his Arc de Triumph! And half of what he watches on YouTube are educational videos. He watches science experiments. Stuff about physics and animals. Every time we open our science book in school, he already knows everything because of the videos he has CHOSEN to watch. On YouTube, you can pick what you see from a virtually endless library, unlike traditional television.”

Did I convince his critic? Probably not. But I convinced me.

And ever since then, I’ve been seeing him and his gaming from a very different perspective. And I’ve learned a lot of life lessons…some taken from the gaming itself, and a whole lot about how our perspectives inform our judgments, and how dangerous that can be.

What do you do for fun? What hobbies can you pursue for endless hours when you have the hours to spare?

For me, as a kid it was reading and playing make believe with my friends. As someone who now supports her family writing novels, I can say, “This was a great thing!” To other people, it might not look that way.

I remember reading L. M. Montgomery’s Emily Series as a kid and being horrified at how Emily’s aunt viewed reading and writing fiction as morally dubious and a waste of time. What?? I cried inside. How can she be so shortsighted and cruel?? I knew that fiction reading was the Best Thing Ever. I knew it because that was what I loved.

In the years since, I’ve learned enough that I could give you Real Reasons—like the fact that reading fiction is scientifically proven to increase empathy and sympathy in the reader, and that following the thread of a novel requires so much cognitive function that it’s one of the top recommendations for maintaining good brain health as we age and fending off dementia. FICTION IS AWESOME!

But detractors will always say otherwise—because they don’t like it. They’ll say it’s a waste of time. That it’s filled with lies. That we could be reading better things. Or better still, be outside. Be in nature. Be talking to people. They might claim that reading is by nature solitary and prohibits good interaction, that we’re not building relationships with the people around us if our noses are stuck in books. That we let our health suffer through lack of activity. That we ruin our eyes.

Those are all arguments I’ve heard. I dismiss them, because I love reading. But you know what? Their points are all valid. It’s just that I’ve decided that those things aren’t what matter to me.

Criticizing gamers or “computer geeks” is easy too, and Hollywood has helped us out with that. We have an image of 40-year-olds still living in their mothers’ basements, a dark cave with only the glow of their nine monitors lighting their sickly, pale face. Discarded chip bags and empty pizza boxes around them. Okay, sure, maybe those people end up hacking a key system for the action hero and helping to save the day, but no one wants to be them. Ew.

We can say it kills their eyes, it rots their brain, it teaches them or at least desensitizes them to violence, it hinders relationship building, negatively impacts health, and so on.

The thing is…the science doesn’t actually bear that out. Sure, backlit screens can be hard on your eyes…but so is reading. Sure, there’s plenty of mindless entertainment and even questionable content on YouTube…but there’s plenty of that on television too, and in their friends’ houses, and in everything else we come across—because there’s plenty of it in our own minds. Violence? Anyone who’s read the Old Testament or classic literature can tell you that humanity has been teaching and desensitizing itself to violence since the dawn of time. We are a violent race. We always will be. That doesn’t mean we should glory in it or approve it…but we do.  Those violent games? They’re used in military training. And we call those who do it in real life heroes.

Interestingly, recent studies also show that online gaming promotes relationship building, even when they’re not talking to each other. Making decisions with other gamers creates neural pathways in the brain that exactly match playground play. When they’re interacting vocally as well, that only grows. Kids who play games with other kids build friendships—doesn’t matter if that’s in a park or on a server. They learn how to problem solve, they learn conflict resolution, they learn how to work together.

And here’s something I’ve learned just watching my son. He’s passionate about what he creates in those imaginary worlds, in the same way that I’m passionate about what I write in my own. He’ll spend hours, days, weeks crafting one building, brick by brick. He builds castles and cathedrals and libraries. He builds ships and airplanes and houses. Brick by brick. He crafts landscapes and cities and worlds and universes and multiverses. Brick by brick.

You know what that is? Dedication. Perseverance. Passion. The same things that make a successful businessman, a successful professional, a successful writer, a successful creative. We don’t apply that dedication to everything. But we apply it to what fascinates us. What we love. And we chase that into our own futures. My son does the same thing. He chases what he loves until he knows it inside out, until he can build it from the ground up, until he can solve problems and rewrite solutions and innovate.

That’s going to serve him well someday. Just as my habit of daydreaming and storytelling and reading has served me.

Here’s the thing—we’re all different. From our families, from our friends, and certainly from other generations. The pastimes you grew up with likely won’t appeal to kids today. And what they grew up with won’t appeal to their own in the future. This is just life in our ever-changing world. And that’s good. That means each generation will adapt and grow from the foundation we’ve built already. That means progress will continue. Understanding will deepen. New things will be discovered and developed. It means medicine, science, literature, leisure, and art will continue to progress at lightning speed as it has for the past couple hundred years.

Maybe, instead of immediately judging the “other” as “bad,” we should instead stop and wonder…what can we learn from them? And how are they more like us than we might first think?

For me, it started from an instinct to defend the boy I love. But from that, it’s grown to a new understanding, a new appreciation…and an excitement to see where this passion and dedication takes him in life, and how I can apply the same lessons to my own.

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Do the Work

Do the Work

Do the work.

That’s my thesis statement for this, so I’m just going to start out saying it. Whatever your work is, in whatever part of your life, that’s how you find success: in doing the work.

I was thinking about this because of something my best friend, Stephanie, came across in an instructional video about running ads for successful book marketing. The instructor said, “Success isn’t random.” That resonated with Stephanie.

It resonates with me, too, and goes right along with some other things I’ve been thinking. Or rather, with other places in life where the same rule applies. It’s something my husband and I teach in our marketing classes…and it’s also something we talk about in our spiritual lives.

We always have to do the work. Always. Day in and day out. In season and out of season. Whether we feel like it or not. Whether we see the results we want or not.

The truth is easiest to see in business examples, so I’m going to start there. We talk a lot about best practices, especially for creative endeavors, where there isn’t a right and a wrong, per se. There are just good things to do that are always good to do. We call those best practices. It’s always good for an author to have a website. It’s always good for them to have a newsletter they send out regularly. It’s always good to be sharing things that will enrich their readers, not just trying to sell a book. It’s always good to be present where they are, both in the physical world and online.

But those are “just” best practices. Following all of that doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a million-copy bestseller on your hands. Doing it all faithfully won’t mean that a book won’t flop now and then, either. What it does guarantee is steady response to steady action. Things will build. They will grow. And as long as you’re doing the work, you’re making that lightning-strike more likely. You’re raising a lightning rod, let’s say, and saying, “Okay, I’m ready! Strike here!”

Often it won’t. Sometimes it will. Either way, you’re doing the work, and results will come.

But you know when it won’t? When you’re doing nothing. Oh, once in a while a breakout bestseller will strike when the author has done little to get it out there…but even then, work was done. They wrote a book. I 100% guarantee you that you’ll never have a successful book if you don’t do that FIRST work of writing and editing and publishing it.

But the same is true of ALL parts of our life.

Want to raise a great family? Obviously first you need the people…but then you have to do the work. Day in and day out. When you’re exhausted. When you’re sick. When you don’t feel like it. I so well remember those days when my kids were little, when I just wanted a break for an hour or a day or (dare I dream it?) a weekend once in a while. I rarely got it. And when I did, it didn’t really do any miracles. But you know what helped? Realizing that I was doing the work. I was building memories for my kids. I was teaching them valuable lessons about life and God and family and themselves. Was I perfect? Ha! Far from it. Would I change things if I could? Absolutely.

But I was there. I did the work. I’m still doing the work.

Marriage. Same thing. Want a successful marriage? Do the work. Be there, day in and day out. Listen, in season and out of season. Make the decision to love them again every morning, every noon, every night. Fix what’s broken. Don’t be lazy. Talk about things that matter. Does that guarantee success 100% of the time? No. Sometimes only one spouse does the work and the other decides to pursue something contradictory. Sometimes people will claim to be perfectly happy without any effort at all. But 98% of the time, healthy relationships come from those same “best practices.” Show up. Be where they are. Communicate. Provide what they need at the deepest heart level.

And then…faith. Maybe we know this is true of faith because it’s true of everything else in life…or maybe it’s true for everything else in life because it’s true in faith. Regardless, you can see where I’m going.

We’re never going to be miracle workers if we’re not praying every day for others’ healing. We’re never going to move mountains if we don’t regularly command them to be tossed into the sea. We’re never going to shake off (metaphorical even) serpents if we don’t do risky things that God asks us to do. We’re never going to win souls for Him if we don’t make it apparent every minute, in deed and in word, that we are His…and if we don’t go where they are. We’re never going to understand Him better if we don’t talk to Him, listen to Him, follow His example, be where He is.

The workers are few. That’s what Jesus said about the harvest. It was true in His day, and it’s still true in ours. Because being lazy is easier. Letting someone else do the work. Sitting back and admiring those fields or eating what people bring you. Most of us would live our lives perfectly content to let the status quo keep on being the status quo.

But that’s not the kind of faith that Jesus died for. He SHOOK THE WORLD with His teaching. Snapped people to attention. Challenged every single preconceived notion and assumption. He may have said His burden is light–but He also told us to pick it up and carry it every…single…day.

Day in and day out. In season and out of season.

Do the work. Because only when you do will you see the fruit of your labors.

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As I’m writing this (a couple weeks before it will post), I’m looking out my window to the view of redbud trees and wisteria in bloom. The world is covered in that fresh, new, bright, lush green of spring. And, yes, the cars are coated in a lovely yellow-green dusting of pollen. Despite the runny nose brought on by that last one, spring is my favorite season. I love all the new life, the blooms, the color reemerging after a long, bleak winter.

And to make it even better, we’re in the Easter season. Oh, you might be frowning and saying, “Um…it’s May. Easter was WEEKS ago!” and that would be true, even from when I’m writing this. But it’s also not. Because the Easter season lasts until Pentecost, fifty days later. We’re still in it. If you listen to the Liturgy of the Hours, you can tell it by the victorious “Allelujah!” that follows every line. You can tell it by the victorious Scriptures, all focused on Christ’s new life and, hence, ours. On the works of the Apostles in those first days. On the Church that sprang from that empty tomb.

I’ve always loved Easter, so stretching it out like this…it speaks to my heart. I brings me joy. It settles my spirit. It’s also, this year, made me think.

If I were to go around town now, I daresay most of the Easter decorations would be down, much like Christmas ones come down by or after New Years. Those same decorations were up weeks before the day. I’m not judging that. I love to see seasonal decorations! But it made me think, as I saw “He Is Risen!” signs more than a week before Easter. It’s true, of course–we live in the world where He is risen, praise God Almighty! But when I saw that sign this year, I was still in the penitential season of Lent. I was still focusing on the trials and tribulations He underwent, on the literal trial that led to His death. I was, in fact, about to spend an entire Friday fasting and praying and remembering the day when a crown of thorns was placed on His head, stripes were lashed into His back, and He was nailed to a cross.

He is risen…but He wasn’t. Not yet. He was still about to die. And the thing I love about all these liturgical seasons is that they invite us to dwell there, with Him and with the world, for a while. In Advent, we put ourselves in the position of a world without a Savior and yearn for His coming, prepare our hearts for His coming. Then there’s Christmas! Praise God, the Savior has arrived! And we rejoice in it not just for a day, not even just for twelve, but all the way until the Baptism of Our Lord, which is at the end of January.

Anticipation…and then dwelling.

The same things happens with Easter. We anticipate what He suffered, we suffer it with Him, because He told us to. He told us to take up our crosses and follow Him. And we do. Every day, yes, but every year, in its season. We walk with Him through His ministry, up to His final days, and we weep with the world as our Savior dies…so that we can REJOICE when He lives again! That rejoicing is HUGE, my friends! So huge it can’t be contained in a day. Not in a week. It needs FIFTY days, and we are still in those. We are still in a season of rejoicing. We are still in the spiritual Spring, when new life has come upon us!

This year, that’s especially poignant for me…because we’re in a new season in our family too. Our oldest, Xoe, is going off to college this fall. This past year was one of finding schools that appealed to her, putting in applications, making visits, getting acceptances…and then making decisions. In a few short months, we’ll be driving our girl to Annapolis and leaving her there. She’ll be starting the transition to full adulthood, taking care of herself, deciding who she wants to be for the rest of her life. And we’ll be deciding the same, in a way. Because in a few short years, her brother will be this age too. And then we’ll be empty nesters, still in our mid-forties. A lot of life still ahead of us, God willing.

The beauty of the changing seasons is that they bring new opportunities, they bring new life, new growth. They also bring times of drought or flood, times of death and dormancy. All in life isn’t redbud blooms and wisteria blossoms…but it isn’t all frozen puddles and brown leaves, either. Life is ever-changing, and enjoying each season–or at least learning from it and growing stronger through it–is what it’s all about.

It’s what the Church teaches me in its cycles–that there are days of self-examination. Days of penitence. Days of anticipation. Days of expectation. There are days of victory. Days of joy. Days of singing and dancing and crying out “Allelujah!” all day long. There are days of learning. Days of teaching. Days of victory and of defeat.

Some of them are going to be hard. Some easy. All designed by our Creator to shape us into people worthy of following after Him.

Spring is going to give way to summer, summer will wane long, Xoe will go off to college, our household will change. Easter will turn to Pentecost, Pentecost will fall into the routine of Ordinary Time, Ordinary Time will eventually lead us back to Advent. The cycle will continue, life will move onward.

We need to recognize the seasons we’re in in life, just as we do in nature. Make sure we’re “dressed” right. That we’re planning our days and setting our expectations accordingly. We need to examine our surroundings, our hearts, our goals. We need to know when to anticipate…and when to dwell in the being of a thing. We need to know when to move forward and when to linger where we are.

And when we do that, we’ll find the beauty in each season. The joy underscoring the sorrow. We’ll feel the pain and the sting and the sorrow…but we’ll know it’s for a purpose. That each seed that falls to the ground is there to spring up again. Every goodbye is also a hello. Every chapter ended is one begun.

Live in the season you’re in. Don’t be looking always to the next–don’t be wishing you were still in what’s behind. Be here. Be now. Be who God wants you to be today.

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Converting to True Conversation

Converting to True Conversation

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about conversation. And the more I think about that, the more aware I am of a word that sounds very similar: conversion.

We today may not realize it, but those two words are from the exact same root. Both combine the Latin con (with, together) and versere (turn). Put those together, and both words mean a turning toward something, living, dwelling, a way of life.

That doesn’t sound much like conversations we have today, does it? When we talk with each other, more often than not we seem to be talking at each other; talking over each other. We’re trying to prove we’re right.

That has nothing to do with dwelling. Nothing to do with turning toward each other or a new life focused on God, which was the primary meaning of conversion in English for its entire history.

Conversation, though, shouldn’t be about right and wrong–it should be about learning from each other.

The first weekend in April, we took our daughter to Accepted Students day at our alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis. St. John’s is known as “The Great Books School,” where for four years students read the foundational texts of western civilization and then…talk about them. That’s where the magic happens–in the conversation. Each class is just twelve to eighteen students gathered around a table with a tutor (professor), talking about what they just read. All conversation starts from the common text–outside material isn’t allowed, to guarantee equality.

That day spent at my old college struck me in my core. It reminded me not only of why I loved this place where I spent four years, this place that shaped me into who I am, but it also made me keenly aware of something our culture today has rather deliberately turned its back on: the importance of true conversation.

At SJC, they call it “the dialectic.” That’s just a Greek version of the same word, “conversation.” It means “relating to the art of reasoning about probabilities.” I emphasis the word art there, because that’s rather crucial. Science, my friend, has right and wrong answers. But art doesn’t. Art isn’t about the solution or the answer or the final product. Art is about the discovery, the emotions stirred, and the enlightenment reached.

In a visit just before we went back to St. John’s, someone said, “We can talk about anything. We might not agree, but we can talk about it.” I of course assured them that agreement isn’t necessary. But as that sentence echoed in my heart for the next several weeks, it made me realize anew that agreement is another way of saying “right and wrong.” If we agree, that means you think I’m right and I think you’re right. We take the same stance, the same position.

And that’s all that matters in society today, isn’t it? Where you stand. What side of the issue you’re on. And if you’re not on my side…well then, I can’t even talk to you.

Oh, my friends. Does this hurt your heart like it hurts mine? Because if we can’t talk to, can’t converse with, people regardless of our stance, then we cannot possibly ever learn. And if we stop learning, we stop growing. And if we stop growing, we stagnate. And if we stagnate, we waste away to nothing.

Part of the “magic” of my college experience was that those eighteen people around the table came from every possible background, religion, and perspective. We had atheists sitting next to Muslims sitting next to Hindus sitting next to Orthodox Jews sitting next to Christians, all discussing the Bible…or Kant…or Thomas Jefferson. And it wasn’t about who was right. It wasn’t about who agreed. Never once do I remember deciding I didn’t like someone because of a position they took in class. Why? Because we all took whatever positions the conversation demanded, and then we adjusted those positions throughout–BECAUSE OF–the conversation.

The only thing that mattered was that we were all willing to engage. We were all willing to be part of the conversation, part of the dialectic. We were all willing to LEARN from each other and the text.

Then I look at the world around me, and I see people unwilling to read a book or article because the author is from the opposite political party, therefore they must be disagreed with on EVERYTHING. I see people demonized because of one opinion they hold. I see conversation shut down in favor of shouting matches or (even worse in my opinion) idle chit-chat that never even tries to touch on things beyond people and events.

My husband and I have been talking a lot about how to restart conversation in our world. We exist in a perpetual state of it in our own home. It’s kinda funny. We start out talking about practical things like who’s going to drive Xoe to ballet, and yet within a few minutes we’re somehow on the philosophy of learning or spiritual awakening or some other abstract idea. Through those conversations, we reach new understandings, ask new questions that send us on new searches, explore our own hearts and souls, and grow ever close to each other.

How do we bring that outside our home though? How do we engage people who don’t seem interested in it? How do you stir a heart that likes to be set in its ways?

I know that the answer is through conversation–through conversion. We all have to be willing to dwell with each other in our words. We have to be willing to turn toward each other and truly engage, truly explore. We have to be willing to learn, not just to prove something.

I want to have real conversations again. Do you? If so, then maybe we can do it together. And then with others, and then with others. We don’t have to be “like minded.” We just have to be willing to engage. And if we do that, we’ll all end up growing. Learning. Discovering. And oh, the “magic” that will happen.

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Mental Congestion

Mental Congestion

I can’t tell you how often it happens.

I close my eyes, nestle in all comfy-cozy in bed…or roll over in the middle of the night, meaning to just find a new position and then keep on sleeping…but I can’t.

My brain turns on. A switch is flipped. And the thoughts…the thoughts start swirling. Buzzing. Clamoring.

I know I’m not the only one to deal with this, right? RIGHT?? LOL

A little while ago, my best friend was the kind of sick that involved a sore throat and stuffy nose. When I asked her how she was feeling, she said she hadn’t slept great because of the congestion–a feeling I certainly know well! And then that she also had trouble turning off her brain. To which I said, “Ah, so mental congestion too.”

“YES!” she said. “That is the perfect phrase for it!”

And it really is, isn’t it? Sometimes our thoughts are just congested. Instead of being orderly and filed in their proper places, they’re all a-jumble, clogging up our minds and tripping over each other. Sometimes they won’t come out…and sometimes they’re just spilling like a faucet we can’t turn off. They keep us from falling asleep. Or from falling back to sleep.

Some days, I don’t mind. This is how I’ve come up with many a story. It’s how I’ve planned out innumerable blog posts. I design book covers with my eyes closed many times, or dream up the next dream I want to pursue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to my husband, “So when I was lying there last night, I came up with this idea…”

I love ideas, whenever they come. But let’s face it–I’d prefer they come in an orderly fashion, between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. Is that so much to ask?? 😉

The same day Stephanie and I were talking about Mental Congestion (I am so laying claim to that phrase–think I should trademark it?? LOL), another friend, Mike Sollom, author of Grief Exposed, sent me an email. He and his wife had recently come across a nightly “examen” meant to help our thoughts settle and center on Christ at the end of each day, and he thought maybe I’d enjoy trying it.

I read over the document he sent and quickly saw that it was in the same vein as many of the spiritual formation exercises Laura Heagy has shared with the Patrons & Peers group, which I’ve then shared here. That made me smile, assuring me that it was one of those God Things we all know and love, when totally different sources all combine to show you something the Father wants you to see. Don’t you love those?

I admit it though: I’ve tried to do this sort of nightly ritual before, and while it’s great, it’s usually only a week or so before I forget one night, and then I’m too tired the next, and then the next thing I know, a month has gone by and I look over and see my notebook and go, “Oh! I totally forgot about that!”

I can’t say for sure that this will be any different. But I hope not. Because the beauty of this little exercise speaks to my soul…and my congested mind could certainly use it. Maybe you can too. Even if we don’t go through it step by step every night, keeping the process in mind as we settle into bed could be rewarding.

The practice of an “examen” goes back centuries and millennia; you can see at a glance the relation of the word to “examine,” right? The idea is simply to examine your day, your conscience, your heart, your mind…all with a focus on the Lord. In this case, it’s been broken down into a few steps or perspectives to consider:


We begin with Enlightenment as a means of bringing the light of Christ into our hearts–pause to see yourself as God sees you. If you’ve done the Beloved Charter, this is a perfect time to revisit it. Remind yourself that you are a precious child of God. That He loves you SO MUCH. As the Holy Spirit to reveal the parts of your day He wants you to think about, especially where God was moving…even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.

Looking back on my day, I can see that God blessed me with the words I needed to write, even though I had a headache. I can see that He was walking with my husband and me in the evening as we chatted about Things That Matter. I can see Him reaching out to me through friends and colleagues when I needed encouragement.

Next comes Thanksgiving. This is pretty self-explanatory, but a practice I daresay we can all do more often. Thank God for His blessings that day. Thank Him for how He spoke to you through nature or friends, through His Word, through all the little things.

It’s spring here in West Virginia, and I can’t glance outside without being astounded by the beauty of His creation. That beauty thrills my soul anew every single year, and it’s a beautiful reminder to thank Him. I am so grateful for the friends and family He’s given me and how they enrich my life. I’m constantly filled with gratitude at the husband he’s given me, who challenges me to go deeper, with whom I can have conversations that matter, who loves me more each day. I’m amazed again each day at the children who have grown into near-adults and who talk to me about everything from the universe (as a scientific thing) to cat jokes. The more I dwell on all those things, the more grateful I am, not just for what God has given, but for who He has made me. For the fact that He wants to be in communion with me. Little me!

Now it’s time to get specific with your Reflection. This is where you should bring to mind some specifics from your day. When did you feel the worst? Physically, mentally, emotionally? When did you feel the best? Why? What did you or can you learn from those moments?

I had an interesting case of this. There was an opportunity I’d been hoping for, and I suddenly realized it may be 100% impossible. As in, not really an opportunity at all, just misinformation. That made my heart sink, and I had to examine why I had so much hope pinned on it. What is it about this that I want so much? What can I do about that if it isn’t possible in the way I first thought? How can I redirect? What has it shown me about my heart and goals? Where is God guiding me?

I also realized that that “realization” had led me to some general frustration. The thought of that being beyond reach made me unhappy with things I’d always been happy with. I was grumbling about not having comfortable chairs on my porch. About all the hours I was spending caring for sick animals. About the fact that I felt under the gun with a deadline, even though I’d planned my time pretty carefully and knew it would be tight.

So then, Response. This is where you acknowledge all those things from your day, from your heart, from your mind. This isn’t about trying to school yourself into the “correct” response. This is just where you embrace what your actual response is. “Lean into it,” as my husband frequently says. “Feel it.” There’s no point in denying your emotional reactions. Embrace them, but in the same way that you embrace an angry toddler–not to coddle, but to soothe. To explore why you feel that way. To turn it over to the Father.

Sometimes, this is going to mean that I shed a few tears. Sometimes, this means that I tell God, “I’m so frustrated right now! I don’t know what to do!” Sometimes I might whisper-shout to Him, “Why did you ignite this yearning in me if nothing’s ever going to come of it? Was it not really from You? But it FELT like it was!” Sometimes I need to confess a sin or a less-than-godly response.

Sometimes I’m just going to worship Him, in awe of what He’s done. Sometimes I’m going to laugh in gratitude. Sometimes I’m just going to bask in the comfort of His presence.

Once we’ve worked through our responses, we say a simple Closing. Renew your commitment to Christ, asking Him to show you how to follow Him in all those things, and into tomorrow. Look ahead to what you know is coming and ask for Him to guide you. Put all your concerns into His capable hands, and ask Him for a restful night.

Of course, this isn’t some magical formula. Going through this process every night won’t guarantee peaceful sleep all the time. But like so many rituals, it will help. Clear out some of the congestion. And show you things about yourself, your heart, and your mind that otherwise might not have filtered to the surface through all that “stuff.”

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