Kari's Blog

Peace in the midst of fear

I read an newsletter article recently that spoke to what many of us are feeling.  The author of the reflection, Dr. Kathie Amidei, spoke of how real and abundant fear is these days.  “The more I look for peace in the world, the more I find some peace, but not enough to allay my deepest fears,” she writes. 

“It doesn’t get at the fear I harbor, that makes me ache for a world in which all children are protected.  Or the fear we will lose the vision for unity of humanity…in a time when it seems divisiveness determines that there must be winners and losers.  Or the deeply personal fear of losing the people I love.”

She goes on to speak of Jesus’ response to fear, and then concludes her article with what I believe is a profound and powerful statement.  “I am so clear about what I can’t do.  Faith is to be a student continually learning what God can do.

With this statement in mind, I am reminded of the many times throughout the Bible and my life that Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid.”  Some of his last words to his disciples were, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not let them be afraid,” (John 14:27).

My question for you today is, do you still believe that Jesus is able to calm storms, like he did for his disciples?  That he can raise you from death to life, daily?  That evil and the power of darkness has not overcome the Light that comes from God?  If so, how are you living out that faith, that trust, in the God who was and is and is to come?  

There are a number of faith practices that can help you do so: sharing highs and lows, keeping a gratitude journal, even taking a few deep breaths while praying, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”  

However you do it, taking a few moments each day to connect with the people you love and the God who loves you most of all will keep you grounded in peace, hope, and love.  It will help you remember that your first calling is as a child of God.  And it will remind you that no matter what your fear may be, God is bigger than that fear and can overcome it.

Finally

Today was the first day since mid-March that I have five hours to myself, in my own home. For someone who needs quiet to be replenished and who cares for others in every other aspect of her life, this is a big deal.

I still have a sermon to write and a funeral to get ready for, so a big chunk of my time will be spent working on those. And I know not everyone has this opportunity and that each family has its own rhythm. But for right now, I am going to simply enjoy this moment and not overthink it.

That’s the rub though, isn’t it? Giving ourselves permission to enjoy what we have, in the moment we have it, to not have to rationalize it or compare it to what other people have or don’t have. To not not let a “should” get in the way, such as, “I should do the laundry…I should go to the store…I shouldn’t be enjoying this as much as I am.”

It’s almost like we think that if we don’t feel bad about having some time to ourselves, time to do whatever we want without having to care for someone else, we should feel guilty for something, so we find something to feel guilty for, which distracts us from the moment and eventually becomes a method of self-sabotage.

That’s why for right now, I’m trying to not think of the things I should be doing; they’ll get done. I’m trying to not think too hard about how to describe how I’m feeling or what I want to say to God; “thank you” is enough. And I’m trying to not compare my situation to anyone else’s, because that too, is a way to zap the joy of a particular moment, fast.

What I’m reminded of right now is how much I need this time. Over the last several months, when it has been in such short supply, I’ve made do, like a whole lot of other parents. I’ve tried to make the best of things and have found small moments of respite to get me through. But I’ve needed more. I’ve needed time to sit. To truly relax. And honestly, to not be needed.

Finally, after a long, long period of pouring out, a little something is going back in. And right now, that feels really, really good.

When it feels like everything is falling apart

I know various traditions view this differently, but the way I look at it, there is some suffering in life that simply does not make sense.  And it likely never will.  We live in a broken world and as a result, there is suffering that is both caused by us and that comes our way for no good reason.  

But instead of trying to make sense of it all, I find there is a sense of peace that comes when we learn to accept this reality, when we are able to give thanks in spite of our circumstances, and when we come to realize that no matter what happens, and whether or not things make sense, God is right there with us.

This is part of what I hear Job saying in Job 28, the part referred to as the “wisdom chapter.”  In this chapter, Job compares searching for wisdom to mining for various kinds of precious metals and stones.  He acknowledges that though there are many things humans can do, there are limits to our understanding, and human beings are wise to accept them and admit that only God knows the way to wisdom. 

“To fear God is wisdom,” Job declares (Job 28:28).  And it’s helpful to know that the Hebrew word for “fear,” used here, literally translates to “awesome.”  That is to say, true wisdom lies in breathless reverence for God’s mystery and expansiveness, in acknowledging God as the Creator and accepting our place as one of God’s created beings.

To me, this is the thing that brings peace.  Because in those times in my life when it has seemed as though everything is falling apart, or when that has been the case for someone I hold dear, the thing I most need to hear isn’t why those things were happening.  It was that I was not alone and that God was there in those times with me and would help me through, especially when I couldn’t see the way.

With this in mind, one of the things I can’t help thinking about when I read Job is how in our modern culture, the concept of being blessed has become synonymous with privilege, wealth, health, and happiness.  

We label everything from the birth of a new baby to finding a close parking spot with the hashtag blessed.  And we talk about the fact that we are blessed with healthy children or a number of grandchildren or some other thing that we can point to, to prove our blessedness, as though it were a state of being.

And although it has variations, there’s a message in a lot of our Christian churches today that if we just do enough of the right things, we will be blessed.  That is, if we pray or believe or try hard enough, good things will come.  Yet in Christ, blessing is not something meant to be equated to material possessions or a particular set of circumstances or even a reward for particular behaviors.  

Certainly, there are benefits that come from putting effort into reading our Bible, praying, making time for God, and participating in worship.  But those benefits are related to a greater sense of purpose and identity and peace, not fortunate circumstances or a life free from struggle.

Certainly, there is something attractive that if we just do things a certain way we will have a good life, one of which is it feeds into us thinking that we have more control than we probably do.  

But problems arise when we start to think that because we are doing those things, no harm will come our way.  Problems also arise if we connect God’s presence in our lives to an absence of suffering.  

After all, the God who has created and claimed us didn’t avoid or demolish or erase suffering by sending Jesus came into the world, but rather entered into it.  And in so doing, showed us what true love and faithfulness and compassion looks like.  

So rather than think about blessed as an answer to “what” we are.  Today, I invite you to turn that around a bit, and to think about blessed as being “who” you are.  And more specifically, it’s who we are, because of who God is.  

To put it another way, blessed is an identity, it is who we are as children of God.  And then out of that identity, no matter who we are or what our circumstances in life may be, we are given a sense of purpose and meaning and intention that gives shape to our lives.

Though we may never know this side of heaven why certain things happen or the answer to the elusive question of why there is undeserved suffering in the world, what I hope you take with you hear today is the reminder that you are have already received the greatest blessing there is: the blessing that says, you are loved, forgiven, and made whole.  You were yesterday.  And you will be tomorrow.

There is a peace that settles us when we are able to look steadily at this truth, and accept that life is not always as we want it to be and stop pretending it is something it is not. 

Yes, there will be times when we do not feel particularly blessed.  And yes, there are times when life is inexplicably hard.  Yet even in those times when everything seems as though it is falling apart, we can be confident that God is with us and will see us through.

Sometimes Life Just Stinks

The other day I took our dog for a walk to a quiet place not far from our house. While I was walking– trying to let go of some stress and worrisome thoughts, to be honest– I started to smell something rather unsavory.  

It wasn’t super strong, so I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but it wouldn’t go away either.  This was sort of in the periphery of my mind, until I turned the corner again (it’s sort of a circular route) and passed by a spot that smelled stronger than others.  This caused me to look down, and sure enough, there was an offering from a dog that had been there for awhile.  

Since I could see it wasn’t a fresh offering, I knew that it on its own should not have been the reason for the smell.  So I looked down, and as you may have guessed, there was evidence of that offering on the bottom of my shoe.  All of a sudden, it made a lot of sense why I hadn’t been able to get away from the smell.  

While I admit this isn’t the most savory example to start off with on a Sunday morning, it does seem to be a pretty good illustration for some of the things that have been happening lately.  Because the reality is that there are things in life that stink.  And sometimes, unlike me being able to wipe off my shoe, you just can’t make that stink go away.

We have plenty of recent examples of this reality related to COVID-19: people unexpectedly losing their jobs, the incredible pressure on healthcare professionals, the vast number of people who have gotten sick and died. There are also plenty of examples related to systemic injustice, political turmoil, and natural disasters. 

There are no easy or simple answers to all that is happening and has happened.  The reality is that there are few areas of our lives that this virus and the tension in our society hasn’t touched.  And often, lives are touched in ways that we don’t necessarily see.

That’s why, in addition to taking necessary steps to protect yourself and those around you, it’s important to take some time each day to breathe deep, to take notice of the things we have to be grateful for, and to allow God’s Spirit to minister to us.

When I am feeling overwhelmed by worry or anxiety related to the uncertainty of these times, I need to get out of my own head to be reminded of God’s truth and God’s goodness.  One of the ways I do that is by listening to uplifting music, and I am often struck by what a difference doing so can make.  

Another thing that often helps– although it does require a bit more intentionality– is surrendering my worries, fear, and anxiety about what I can’t control to God.   Surrendering doesn’t mean that we give up or that we give up hope.  Rather, it means that we accept what we cannot change and focus instead on what we can do to be healthy, manage our emotions, and take the actions that will move us to being calmer and more at peace.  It means, as it says in 1 Peter, to “Cast your cares on God because God cares for you.” 

This is an important verse to keep in mind, because it reminds us that, despite any evidence to the contrary, God is near; God is in control; and God will provide. 

Even for those who are in Christ, there is no getting around the fact that some things in life really stink.  Or that sometimes, there is nothing we can do to make that stink go away.  But it’s in those times, that the promise of the resurrection is most real.  

In fact, sometimes, it’s when we have nothing left to lose that we learn most fully that there really is nothing that can separate us from the love of Jesus, and that our hope in Christ is not in vain.  May that truth hem you in behind and before today.

Looking for the Good in Others

“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” Psalm 150:6

Our kids have enjoyed the PBS Kids show, Wild Kratts, for many years. The cartoon explores the creature powers of all sorts of wildlife, from sea anemones and harpy eagles to orangutans and swamp dragons (the biggest predator of mosquitos). I can’t tell you how much I have personally learned from this show about a variety of creatures I had barely heard of before. I love hearing my kids tell me about something they have learned on the show and the way they are learning to appreciate the vastness and greatness of God’s creation. 

Since we live in a culture of judgment, in the world where it is not uncommon to villainize the “other,” it’s sometimes easy for this mindset to get lost, or overruled. As much as might want to focus on the good, there is so much noise and negativity around us, we can get easily get swept up into it.

On top of that, I recently learned that the amygdala– the part of our brain that holds our fear response– lights up when we think of the “out group,” those people who look, think, or live differently from us. Unless we are intentional about recognizing this and centering ourselves in God’s loving kindness, the temptation is to keep fixing our attention on what makes us different from others, rather than on our shared humanity and what we might be able to learn from one another.

When I think about this, I’m reminded of Martin and Chris Kratt and the way they invite viewers to appreciate the amazing powers of the earth’s creatures, big and small.  As Psalm 150 puts it, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” and the Kratt brothers have a way of helping viewers see the gifts, strengths, and uniqueness of each creature. As we read these words, we are invited to pause and ponder the same.

It’s fitting to me that this psalm is the conclusion of the songs and prayers included in the book of Psalms. In a way, the end is a beginning, an invitation to be on the lookout for and to give thanks for God’s presence in our lives through all of life’s twists and turns. What if we lived our lives in such a way that praise was never far from our lips and the way we ended our day?  

Granted, every interaction and every circumstance is not going to fill us with awe and a sense of wonder that leads us to praise. There are and will be times we are discouraged, upset, and filled with sadness. In those times, it may seem like a stretch to praise God with lute and harp, with tambourine and dance, and with loud clashing cymbals, as Psalm 150 extols.  

Yet in those times, Psalm 150 invites us to look for the goodness in the people and world around us. To turn our attention to the way the bees pollinate our plants, the sound of the crickets chirping (even if one is stuck in our garage), and to the ways the person who seems so different from us is using his or her gifts. As we do, perhaps we’ll be reminded of the psalmist’s words, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” and be inspired to join our song of praise with theirs.

Who You Are

Our neighbor recently loaned our kids a book that I haven’t read in ages.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve read it to them since they were babies.  It’s one that may be familiar to you, but it’s message is one that we probably need to be reminded of daily.

The book is titled You Are Special, written by Max Lucado, and it tells the story of a group of wooden people, called the Wemmicks, who are all carved by a woodcarver named Eli.  No two Wemmicks are the same.  Yet instead of this being celebrated, the Wemmicks give each other stickers based on what they think of one another.  The ones with smooth wood and pretty faces are given star stickers.  Those who are less pretty and rough around the edges are given gray dot stickers.

The same thing happens when it comes to talent.  Some talents are thought of more highly than others, and so the Wemmicks who can do things like lift heavy sticks or sing pretty songs are given stars.   Those whose talents are not as obvious or valued are given gray dots.

Punchinello was one of the Wemmicks who had dots all over him.  When he did something clumsy, or said something silly, the other Wemmicks would give him more dots.  And sometimes they gave him dots for no other reason than the fact that he already had so many.  Because of all the dots, Punchinello didn’t think he was a very good wooden person.

But then, one day, he meets a Wemmick who has no dots nor stars on her at all.  In fact, if one of the Wemmicks tried to give her a dot or star, it simply fell off.  This is so strange to Punchinello that he asks her how she does it, and she tells him simply, “It’s easy.  Every day I go to see Eli.”

Eli is the woodcarver, the one who made each of the Wemmicks in the first place.  And though it takes him awhile, out of curiosity, Punchinello eventually goes to see Eli.  He isn’t sure what he’ll find or what he’ll say when he gets there, but when he arrives, Eli knows exactly who he is right away and greets him by name.

At first Punchinello feels like he has to defend the gray dot stickers that he has all over him, but Eli interrupts, and tells Punchinello that what matters most is what he, Eli, thinks of Punchinello.  “And I think you’re special,” Eli says, “because I made you.”  

Punchinello asks Eli why he matters to him, and Eli replies, “Because you’re mine.”  He then goes on to tell Punchinello that the more Punchinello is able to trust in Eli’s love for him, and what Eli thinks about him, more than anyone else, the less the stickers will stick to him.  Punchinello isn’t really sure about it at first, but as he is leaving Eli’s shop, and thinks in his heart, “I think he means it,” one of his dots falls to the ground.

In my opinion, this is a message we all need to hear.  That we matter to God.  That we belong to God.  That we are beloved, forgiven, made whole and redeemed, because of who God is.  So often, our worries, our fears, and our sense of insecurity keep us from living in and out of this truth.

What’s more, we live in a world where there are numerous messages coming our way every day trying to tell us who we are or what we need to do in order to be important, special, worthy, and enough.  But just as it was for Punchinello, striving for affirmation from external forces or people will never make us feel whole.  Because, it’s what the One who created us thinks about us that matters most.  And it’s who God says we are– and the identity that we have received in Christ– that leads to life.  

The more we trust in this identity and in God’s love for us– the more we turn to God for affirmation and to be reminded of who we are rather than seek affirmation through success or wealth or power– the more we will experience the freedom and the fullness that God desires for us.  It’s there that our hearts are tended, we experience peace, and where we can let go of the pressure we’ve been putting on ourselves to be and do it all.

It’s by being filled up with God’s love for us, warts and all, that allows us to be generous and compassionate in our interactions with others rather than get caught up in competition, comparison, and other things that deteriorate our sense of community and shared humanness.  As God says to each of us through the prophet Isaiah, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)  May this reality be the one in which you live and move and find your being.  

How Are You?

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (Psalm 139:1-3)

How are you? It’s perhaps one of the most frequent questions we ask, but these days it feels like one of the most loaded ones too. Lately, when I ask someone this question or someone asks it of me, more often than not it starts out with some version of, “Well, all things considered…” or “We’re all healthy, but…”  Since many of us know someone who is faring much worse than we are, we may worry we’ll sound ungrateful if we say anything but, “good.”

The other day I asked a friend this question, knowing even as I did that it was incredibly inadequate. This friend’s long-awaited, and much-needed, time away had just been cancelled because of a family member getting sick. I knew how much she had been looking forward to that time, as well as how devastating it can be when the break you thought was coming is eliminated.  

After unpacking all this and talking together for awhile, my friend then asked me how I was and I fumbled through an answer. The best I could do was break my life into parts and share how things were going in each one: family, work, personally.

When someone asks us how we are doing, we don’t always have the time or the desire to break things down for them like this. And granted, not everyone who asks this question is expecting us to do so. Often, “How are you?” is simply part of the greeting that we extend to another.  

I’m not saying that is good or bad, and I’m not saying that we should share intimately with everyone who asks the question. Yet I do think it is important to ask ourselves how we are doing, and what’s more, to be thoughtful in our answer. In fact, the more honest we are in our answer, the more likely we are to make it through this time with a sense of resilience, compassion, and inner peace.  

To that end, I wonder if you will indulge me by letting me ask you…

How are you, physically? Are you getting the rest, exercise, and sleep that you need? Are you eating a balanced diet? If not, what adjustments might you make?

How are you, emotionally? Are you taking time for rejuvenation? Have you connected with a friend recently? Is there an underlying feeling of pain, insecurity, or fear that you need to address? What can you do to help you be as emotionally healthy as possible?

How are you, spiritually? What are you doing to stay connected and grow in relationship with God? If you aren’t, is that the way you want it to be?  

I ask these pointed questions because this pandemic has a way of intensifying just about everything we would “normally” feel and any idiosyncrasies that may exist. So it should not come as a surprise that paying attention to what we feel and examining why we feel that way goes a long way in us making it through this time as healthily as possible– physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

If It Weren’t for Butterflies…

“If it weren’t for change, there wouldn’t be butterflies.”  These were words a camper shared with me when I was a summer camp counselor.  Her home congregation was going through several transitions, and this was wisdom her pastor had shared as a way to encourage them along the way.

To those going through change, however– especially change that they did not seek out or foresee– words like these can sound like little more than the platitude that it is.  Pleasant and true enough, yet devoid of any substance to truly help you in your time of need.

Yet, if we’re willing to sit with whatever discomfort or dis-ease a particular change evokes within us long enough, there is a sense of comfort and peace, and even inspiration and promise, that can emerge related to the words to which that camper had been clinging.  “If it weren’t for change, there wouldn’t be butterflies.”  

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately.  At various times throughout the last few weeks and months, I have reminded myself that with change, comes opportunity.  That doesn’t mean figuring out a new sense of normal, or a different way of moving forward, is easy or simple, but it does mean that there are opportunities to grow, to prune what isn’t working ( read Pastor Ben’s devotion about that here), and to make sure we are living according to the values we profess.

When it comes to seeing the beauty and the sense of possibility in change, our family has had quite the opportunity lately.  Family friends of ours have been on vacation, and while they are gone we have had the chance to care for their chrysalises.  When we got them, several were close to emerging, and it has been an incredible experience to watch this change take place.  So far, we have released ten monarchs, and there are several others on their way.

Seeing the monarch emerge and then releasing it into the world is a sight to behold.  It is also a wonderful reminder that God is the author of all that is good, right, and beautiful and has good things in store for us.  And when we feel unnerved by a lack of control at the changes happening around us, it is also a good reminder that what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 27 holds true: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (So) Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Growing Trust

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10-11

The last several weeks, I have taken great delight in watching my garden grow.  After impatiently waiting for tulips to bloom and the seeds we planted to sprout, it finally looks as though things are taking off and the garden will indeed bear fruit.  I love looking things over and seeing how they are changing.  

I have to be honest and admit that I don’t get to this point effortlessly.  Every year, I eagerly look forward to planting and working in the garden, but I also fret over whether or not the bulbs and plants and vegetables will take off.  I haven’t yet learned to not take it personally when something doesn’t flourish and often question my abilities and methods.  Eventually, I convince myself to take a deep breath and enjoy the process.  And when signs of growth finally become apparent, I am filled with relief, as well as gratitude and thanksgiving. 

It’s not lost on me the connections that this has to my inward spiritual life.  I regularly pray that God will grow me in the fruits of God’s Spirit, help me love as God loves, and be a person of grace in my interactions with others.  Yet it isn’t always easy to see that growth actually taking place.  In fact, the reminders of how frequently I fail to trust God’s provision, to look upon another with friendly eyes, and to turn my concerns over to God are many.  Sometimes I start to wonder if or when I’ll ever change. 

But then, every so often, something will happen that helps me see that I am indeed growing and that God isn’t through with me yet.  And when that happens, I am filled with a deep sense of peace, as well as gratitude and thanksgiving.In thinking of this, I am reminded of the words from Isaiah quoted above.  These words remind us that God is at work in the world, and in us, and that God’s word accomplishes that for which it is sent.  

Although it may not always seem obvious that this is the case, we can trust that God will lead and guide us.  As we ask God to grow us in Christ, we can be confident that our prayers will not return empty.  And when we get frustrated by what seems like slow progress, we can take a deep breath, knowing that God is in control of the process and does not leave us to figure it out on our own.

Searching for Peace

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” –John 14:27

Most days, I get to take our dog for a his midday walk.  It’s not usually a very long one, but especially on those days when I go by myself, I’m grateful for a few moments to be outside and take a few deep breaths without any interruptions.  

My dog and I don’t always take the same route, but regardless of where we go or how long we are out, Blaze is eager to sniff everything he can get his nose on.  The other day, when I thought for sure he was leading me into a grassy area in order to do his business, it turned out he was just sniffing his whole way through.

This reminded me of something a friend reflected on in college.  He said some people, when trying to find their direction in life, decide right away and get to it.  Others, he said, are more like a dog who has to check out several places before finding just the right spot to lie down.  

Lately I’ve been thinking about this analogy not only in relation to Blaze, but in regards to my thoughts and how wandering they have been.  Especially when I think about the words Jesus shares the night before his death in the gospel of John, it’s no wonder that I have a hard time experiencing the peace of God when I I flit from worry to worry or fret about one hypothetical situation after another.  In contrast, when I pause and submit those cares to God, that is when I am more able to rest in the abiding presence of Jesus and trust that no matter what happens, God will provide.

This reminds me of how important it is during these days–when so much uncertainty still exists regarding COVID-19, its long-term effects, and what that means for our daily living– to take some time each day to rest in the promise of God’s love and care– for me, and for all of God’s creation.  When I do, I’m reminded that I don’t need to carry the burdens of the world on my shoulders; I don’t need to have the answers to the many perplexing questions that linger.

There’s no doubt in my mind that God has given each of us a role in caring for our neighbors and serving those in need, but the truth is that none of us is tasked with taking care of all of it on our own.  In John 14, Jesus promises his disciples that he will send them another advocate who will help and guide them.  This means that both Jesus and the Spirit continue to be at work in our lives.  In John 15, he tells them that it is by staying connected to the vine that they can do the work he has entrusted them to do and that their joy will be complete.  He wants them to know that dwelling in his love is what will give the strength they need for all that lies ahead.

Today, Jesus speaks these same promises to us.  He invites each of us to draw close to him, to settle back in his loving arms, and in so doing, to experience the peace of God–something only God can give– and that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7).