When There's Nothing New Under the Sun

I got on a bush plane yesterday afternoon with my husband and two school officials and flew over Kodiak Island, through fog and thick swaths of clouds, over snowed mountains, a pod of orcas, the whirlpools of Whale Pass . … to a village, a very small village of maybe 50 people surrounded by wilderness and ocean. You cannot get here by road, only by bush plane or boat. It was graduation day. 

Here are the graduates. 

          This morning I get up with a backache that leaves me hobbling around the house while I get ready for a trip to Anchorage for oral surgery tomorrow. After that I make my yearly migration to fish camp, to Harvester Island, when the fog and clouds abate. 

           I am soon to sign a contract for my next book and am writing an article on gender identity, and tomorrow is the last day of school in Kodiak, when I'll go and eat hamburgers and play games with the kids, and I'm gathering all the boxes of things I need for the summer at fish camp, and it all feels ordinary, routine, as though I have done each thing more than a thousand times, though some of these I have done only once. Just once. Others more. 

            Do you know this too, how some nights and weeks our sleep is stolen,  how the mind goes numb sometimes, how the eyes stop seeing, how the body aches when we rise, how nothing can surprise us anymore, how we are surrounded by goodness and we cannot feel it . . . ?? Do you know this condition? Do you know this sickness?


               It is not the disease called Life, or the condition of Aging. Though I have seen many elderly with the lights gone out and the joy fled far, I have seen it also in the young and middle-aged. And I see it sometimes in the mirror. I saw it this morning. I can even quote a Scripture verse to normalize it: "There is nothing new under the sun."


             But I will not let this death have me. Dylan Thomas pleads with us in his famous villanelle, "Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light." He is writing about his father in his last days, but this can be us as well. 

                 I am raging right now, sitting here on a double-cushioned stool to ease my back. I am raging right now writing this, and I raged this morning when I opened my Bible and drank in those words, and I rage every time I pick up my camera. We must find ways to find God in our days, for He is the Maker of every one, the Spinner of every hour, the one who ticks the second hand of the clock, delivering Life to us every  moment, even when we do not see or hear it. 

      And how will we wake up so we don't miss it? We are not left alone, unarmed. Through all these weapons for Life, I find Him again this very day:


And here, in my prayer journal,

In my daily bread, 

    Your eyes? How are they this week? If you have been blind like me, don't stay there. We are not helpless. We can choose to get new eyes. There are so many ways,

          And if we cannot find God in our own lives even then, if we are that exhausted, that ill (and sometimes we are), then look for Him in others' lives, in other places. Here is where I looked today:

This interview with a Christian Iraqi girl, asking for forgiveness of ISIS.

        In Ann Voskamp's call to help our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and the 1 - 9 year old girls sold as slaves to the highest bidder. 

In Christianity Today, the story of Jeanne Bishop, who helps her clients make amends for their crimes, who is now helping her sister's murderer make amends for his. 

And if you still are half-lidded, watch the wonder (and tender-heartedness) of children:

And taste the best medicine I know:  laughter. Even if you already are well.

    Nothing else has changed today----except me. My eyes are open. I am beginning to see again . …  And I pray you as well, dear friends . ...

To Graduates: 9 Reasons to Stop Trying to "Change the World"

This week, I'm fresh off a college graduation. I'm happy to see so many young people excited to get out and "change the world" rather than snagging a 6-figure income and collecting fancy cars. After one ceremony--with one more son to graduate next week---I feel some advice coming on. And why not? Graduations give us "experienced" people an excuse to shamelessly dole out our "wisdom." Here then is mine--short and sweet---to my sons and to all other graduates this spring:

9 Reasons to Stop Trying to "Change the World"

1.     If you grew up in America, recognize how little you know of the world. Get out and experience some of it before you decide to change it. Leave your comfortable bed and safe neighborhood and hang out on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of the world for awhile. Live on $10 a day in India. Volunteer in an orphanage in Indonesia or at a Boy’s Club in El Salvador or a day camp in El Paso.

2.     When you go out into the world don’t call it “missions” and spend all your time convincing people to give you money rather than working and raising your own funds. This is your trip, your travel, and you may indeed help others, but mostly you are the one who will benefit.

3.  Yes, go out and love the stranger, but don't go without loving your own family first. Don’t even think of “the world” unless you can be kind and show gratitude to your siblings, your parents, your teachers, to all who have invested in you and suffered through your growing pains and rebellions. You will not successfully love the stranger without learning to love your real "neighbors" first.

4. Consider your diploma a L.H.M. degree: a degree in Listening, Humility and Mercy. Whatever else you have learned, surely you have learned how little you actually know. And that other people here before you know actually quite a lot. Practice your L.H.M. skills often: Speak to many kinds of people. Read a lot. Keep asking questions. Be kind to all. When you do this, you'll find the world is better and kinder than you knew. 

5.   Don't wait for the perfect job. Nothing is beneath you. Get whatever job you can to start, regardless of anticipated “influence” and “impact.” If you can support yourself and start paying your loans back, you’ll already be helping a bunch of people. 

6.     No matter how obscure or menial your job, invest it with diligence and love, as if you were serving God himself (which you are). Be the kind of worker who honors his boss, who respects his co-workers, who devotes himself to the success of others. You won’t change the world: just maybe your workplace.

7.  Know your own strengths and weaknesses, but resist the culture of self-fascination. I know you've taken several personality tests since they are often required in college. But don't be fooled by the impressive names, numbers and labels every test-taker receives. Don't keep yourself in that box. And don't mistake your "score" for achievement. The purpose of knowing yourself is not to "know yourself" but to "grow yourself" into a better self. Exercise your strengths and please address your weaknesses. If you can change and strengthen yourself, maybe you'll have a shot at some bigger piece of the world later. 

8.     Give up on “greatness.” Yes, a few men and women through the ages have changed the course of history, but the best ones did not consider themselves “great” when they were doing it.  In the moments they are most known for, they mostly tried to do what was good and right. They suffered. And they didn’t give up. Aim for this.

9. Contrary to a well-known graduation speech, you are wonderful and special—and so is everyone else. Your singularity is what you share with the rest of humanity, which entitles you to serve these wondrous others, and to do it as beautifully as only you can. Go to it, then! 

That’s it. If you can do even some of these, dear sons and graduates, you will begin to fulfill what God asks of us all:

"He has shown you, O man, what is good. 
And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?"
                                                                     Micah 6:8

And that will be------enough.

Angelina Jolie's Mastectomy+The Burden of Our Neighbor's Glory

Two days after Mother’s Day we hear about Jolie’s double mastectomy. She did it for her children, writing in the now-famous NY Times article, “I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer. . . .And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.”

My mother-flesh cringes at the procedure and her loss---but my fellow mother-of-six heart understands, and would likely do the same.

Who will not laud Jolie’s courage, and, if nothing else, at least her intent? Only those who have not felt the weight of their neighbor’s glory.

Our neighbor’s glory is heavy, and it presses upon us everywhere, even in the most joyous moments and places.
Last weekend, I felt its weight again. At my son’s college graduation, I nearly could not lift my chest for air, nor could the other thousand parents sitting in graduation finery beneath the California sky. The moment we all feared came at last: his name was read, and his parents walked slowly to the dais, took the offered diploma and stumbled down while we crumpled our programs under his absence. Just months before graduation he was killed in an accident near campus. We could hardly bear the weight of even the thought of such grief, but I saw prayers running down faces beside me, prayers pressed into clenched programs, prayers kneaded into tissues. Every one of us watching carried those parents across the stage.

There is more. The dignified woman calling each graduate’s name with such gravity and care, who had proudly handed diplomas to twenty classes, had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, one of the most terrifying diseases known. This was her last graduation. We lifted her with our eyes and  helped her speak each name.  

And most of us knew that this year the woman’s basketball coach lost her husband to cancer just before the birth of their first child. She birthed her baby, and kept coaching the team, who became her neighbors, her family. (That women’s team, bonded in such loss and love, against every possible calculation of odds, went on to win a NAIA national title.)

Westmont College coach Kirsten Moore and daughter Alexis

This is our daily witness, is it not? Finality and commencement, beginning and ending, sorrow and celebration, risk and sacrifice lock hands over a diploma, a basketball, a surgeon’s knife. 

 We do it for the other. For the many others who live with us and beside us, our neighbors.

After the ceremony, later that day, we met our son and his 6 roommates and all their families at the beach and one hour later, we were building human pyramids in the sand. What a silly thing to do, I thought. What a California cliche, even as I laughed and snapped photos of these young men kneeling on their father’s backs.

 And then the fathers kneeling on their sons’ backs:

 And wait! The mothers were not forgotten. Then we too, pressed our knees into our sons’ backs and held steady in the sand for a moment.

I don ‘t know if we were just having fun---or if we were enacting something more that day.  I think maybe more. 

This is truly how we stand in this world: our knees pressed in the bodies of those who have gone before us, beneath us. Our childrens' knees in our own backs. The Bible talks about this as the “cloud of witnesses” whose words and lives hover over us and form the foundation beneath us.

These silly photos, then, are the truth of our lives. We neither stand nor kneel alone, no matter how much independence and self-reliance we claim, and I have claimed a lot. There are so many beneath us. So many noble, humble, simple, wise people. Even the ones who have hurt us, whose weight and knees have broken our backs, or whose substance has crumbled beneath us, we would not be ourselves without them. We would not be our limping but still kneeling selves without them. And we would not offer our backs to others without even them.

C.S. Lewis writes, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back; a load so heavy that only humility can carry it and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

“Only humility can carry it.”

“And the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I hope I can keep my place, steady. I hope I am not too heavy for those carrying me. I hope I am humble enough to hold strong for those I am bearing.  

I hope all these things for you as well. 

And while we get tired sometimes---yes, often, every day---the photos tell the fuller truth: 

Who is lighter than our children, for whom we would cut off even our flesh? 

Who is lighter than our neighbor?

Whose back and knees are not made exactly for this?