A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, July 2021

“Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.” – Frederick Buechner

Well, this is it: my final blog post.

Perched here on the brink between past and future, I am feeling particularly introspective. In the midst of a transition, there is not always time to pause and reflect, but as I sit down to write this last entry, it certainly feels like this may be my opportunity to do just that. So brimming with gratitude, I am holding this experience up to the light, examining how my position at FPC has enriched my life, and expounding upon three of the lessons that I hope to carry forth from this beloved place as gleaned treasures to keep.

There is no denying that this stretch of time has stretched me as an individual. Plainly, it has made me a better person. Spending time surrounded by the most encouraging, faithful, and intentional host of people — people who have devoted their entire lives to honoring the Lord by attending to His flock — has been a gift through and through. I have learned too much from them to catalogue or honor fully here, but I have landed on one unexpected effect our pastors and my colleagues have had on me: they have altered my perception of what it means to “attend” to something. Every moment of every day, the amazing staff members at FPC are attending to people, to missions, to programming, to planning, to grounds-keeping — all for the love of God. To say the least, it has been awe-inspiring to witness.

And it strikes me now as profound to realize that one of the most valuable, malleable, mystifying, and limited assets we each have to give is, indeed, our attention. Where, on whom, and toward what we stretch our attention truly matters, and it begs further investigation. Bear with me. It’s a biggie. But it is, after all, the culminating study of a life-changing experience. Try as I might to edit it down to something more bite-sized and palatable, this reflection has taken on a life of its own. So without further ado, here we go…

I. Attentionem (Latin): “to stretch toward”

Pause and consider these questions if you will:

  • Where does your attention repeatedly return? Why?
  • What are you quickest to notice and then circle back to in your daily life? What emotion, hope, and/or fear may underlie these fixations?

Now consider the differing results based upon what (or whom) you are attending:

  • What claims your attention like a vortex but leaves you feeling depleted and insecure?
  • And what beckons your attention like an invitation and leaves you feeling humbly grateful and more fully alive?

Pondering these questions help elucidate the guiding gravitational pull on our eyes, minds, and therefore our hearts. Whether your answers include daily to-do lists or daily survival, worries over the future or concerns about the well-being of your family, the need for achievement or the fear of failure, people-pleasing or people-comparing, numbing pain or avoiding reality… we all know what it feels like to obsess over something by overspending our limited attention. And regardless of what grabs ahold of our minds with a strong, invisible grip, I have found the following directive to be both deeply edifying and personally convicting as the first of three lessons I have received about attention:

1. By paying attention to what we are paying attention to, we move closer to uncovering the true idols of our hearts.

There is fertile soil to explore just beneath the surface of each focal point in our lives, of course, because there is a rooted reason why we repeatedly stretch our focus toward particular topics. By digging down to that root, we begin to discover why we expend our attentive energies in certain areas of life; thus, we are better able to assess whether it is healthy for our development to exert so much of our brain power on such matters or not. For just as weeds can easily take over a patch of garden and hinder the tender shoots’ growth, selfish or material concerns can easily crowd and interfere with our faith by hampering its deepening progress. This sends us right back to Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Seed from Matthew 13 and beckons us to ask ourselves, is our continual train of thought faithful? Is it fruitful? And is there room for growth?

II. Attention versus Neglect 

I have gratefully acknowledged from the start that one of the most transformative gifts that this Young Adult Families position at FPC has given me is an invitation to be attentive to what matters most — my faith, my family, my community, my church, even my writing. The mere practice of increasing my attentiveness to these fortifying pillars has helped to crystallize another edifying notion, bringing it into my center focus from out of the blurry periphery:

2. Attending to something promotes growth and fruit; neglecting something results in diminishment and a withering away.

It all sounds exceedingly straight forward. Cue the “Captain Obvious” commercial, I know. But why then have I overlooked this twin truth so often that merely stating it now feels revelatory? It beckons further investigation, as well.

  • What do you want to grow, deepen, and thrive in your life?
  • And are you attending to it? Or neglecting it?

I only have to glance up from my computer to see the gaping chasm that exists between attention and neglect…

Sitting mere inches to my right is a relatively new potted plant– a small fiddle leaf fig tree. It makes me happy each time I rest my gaze on it and notice its growth. The florist earnestly warned me how finicky a fiddle leaf can be and how precisely I should care for it with regular water — not too much! — while ensuring that it receives a moderate amount of sunlight. The plant’s large, glossy leaves are presently a deep emerald, and I am already spotting new leaves that are about to unfurl.

In stark juxtaposition is the scene just beyond the window to my left. Serving as a foreboding backdrop that slowly waves to me in the warm morning breeze are the thin limbs of several hanging ferns. Once they too were a vibrant and promising green, but the leaves have now dried into a translucent light brown. Did I know that the ferns needed water, too, in order to thrive and survive in the hot summer sun? Yes, I did. But did I make plans for them to receive this vital water while I was out of town last month? No, I did not. There is now regret, of course; but how could there be any surprise? The same concept may be applied in myriad ways. If I want to grow in my faith… or if I want for the close relationships I cherish with the people I love to thrive… or if I desire to be healthy and strong… do I really have any questions about how to spend my time and attention? Flatly, no, I do not.

III. Intention for Attention

I must admit, however, that far too often I neglect what is most important and most life-giving throughout the busyness of my day. Far too often I squander my time and attention on things that do not promote healthy growth. Why? Perhaps it is selfishness, sin, or even the path of least resistance. When life gets busy, it is all too easy for us to ride the current of our days, putting out the figurative fires that pop up in mundane ways instead of stoking the embers of our faith. This brings me to the final lesson about attention that I have learned:

3. The way we attend to what matters most requires intention.

Pastor Ryan often refers to our precious church as a fueling station — a place to receive, revive, and reorient our focus on what is sustaining. But first we must show up. We must carve out space. We must set our intentions and follow through. Adopting this view, I realize that attending worship, for example, is not simply one of the many items jumbled together on a checklist that I can cross off on a whim or ignore at leisure. Instead I must accept that being active in my faith community is as vital to me as water is to a plant, thus readjusting my priorities and setting my intentions accordingly.

So many mercies are packaged as life lessons, and for all of them, I am forever grateful. I could not have learned these lessons on my own. And so I say thank you again to all of the pastors, the staff, and the congregation at First Pres for bestowing upon me their wisdom about the illuminating power of our attention, for showing me how much growth occurs when we attend to our spiritual lives, and for demonstrating how important it is to claim intentions over where we pour our attentive resources. I may be transitioning into a new professional chapter, but I am stating my intentions here to keep my devoted attention on the Lord and His calling in my life.

Dear Heavenly Father, as I close this sweet chapter of serving the amazing congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, please help me keep my eyes on You. Guide my attention to what is meaningful and sustaining. Help me attend to the growth I desire and not to neglect the vital, life-giving nourishment You offer. And please embolden me to be intentional with the way I spend my attention and time, knowing that these are two commodities that can either be wasted carelessly or used purposefully for Your glorification and for my immeasurable benefit. Thank you for surrounding me with Your faithful servants who have inspired me and who have pushed me to attend to Your word, growing my roots deeper in Your fertile soil all the while. Amen

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, June 2021

Recently, I was talking on the phone with a beloved friend. She had received a troubling diagnosis, and we were hashing through all the details, treatments, and concerns. I was brimming with emotion and fully focused on learning more information from her. For all of these reasons, I naturally averted my gaze when my daughter sat down right beside me on the sofa. I did not wish to communicate availability at that moment or invite distraction into my important conversation. The little girl was marginally patient yet fully undeterred. She did not budge.

When I finally hung up the phone, my daughter’s face was within inches of mine, eyes wide with excitement.

“Mama, did you know that starfish can actually REGROW parts of their body?! Their arms or legs can FALL OFF, but then no problem because BAM, a whole new one starts to grow right back in its place, even if it takes a really, really long time!”

The whiplash of this non-sequitur, unexpectedly rushing in on the heels of an emotional conversation, left me without response.

“Well…? Isn’t that awesome?!” she pressed.

I looked back at her, into the wide-open innocence of her freckled face. The clear blue of her eager eyes. And I thought back to the moment– almost eight years ago to the day– when I promised God I would do anything in the world if He would save her brand new life.

It was an exceptionally hot day in June of 2013 when a neighbor invited me to bring my two babies (a toddling 19-month-old son and a nearly 3-month-old daughter) over to sit by their inflatable pool. My little boy was so excited when he heard this news that he ran out of the door before I could strap on his sandals. As soon as the tender skin of his little feet hit the asphalt’s heat in our driveway, it set a terrible series of events into motion. His anguished screams terrified my soul as I could see the soles of his feet instantly blister. I rushed to crouch next to him and tried to pick him up with my free arm; but as his chubby arms flailed in pain, his little sister got caught in the commotion. She toppled out of my panicked arms and onto the driveway below.

God only knows how the three of us made it to the ER. Truly, God only knows. What I do recall, though, is that once the kind doctors had performed all of the X-rays and run all of the CT scans, they looked achingly apologetic to report that our daughter’s injury was serious. Her tiny skull was fractured in two places, and they were not at all certain that she would be alright.

Oh, how my husband and I prayed. And wept. And then prayed some more.

There will surely be times in all of our lives when prayer is all that exists– continual, pleading, promising, full-body-mind-and-soul prayer. In those moments, God shows us that prayer is all we need, even though healing is all we crave.

Healing. What is healing other than a miracle? For something to be broken… and then whole again. How impossible to comprehend. The miraculous, awe-inspiring, and relieving process of healing is almost beyond belief.

And as too many of us know, of course, physical healing does not always occur in the exact ways we wish. Sometimes the healing that takes place through prayer is something more relational, something more deeply spiritual. How many times have I sustained a physical injury or had my feelings hurt or felt my heart break in one way or another? Too many to count. And how many times have I prayed for something specific and tangible to change in order to ease the pain? Again, the answer is innumerable. To be sure, some of my most fervent prayers have not been answered in the ways I wanted at the time, yet here I am. Whole-hearted and grateful– a human starfish covered in scars but still kicking, learning all the while to lean into God’s grace and provision more fully. The same goes for my dear friend. The same goes for my little girl. The same goes for all of us. Human starfish whom God created to be far more resilient than we could ever humbly predict or boldly imagine in our wildest dreams. Healing abounds in myriad ways, even if it takes a “really, really long time.”

“Wellll??”

The present day eight-year-old girl who sat in front of me persisted. She still wanted to know what I thought about her “awesome” revelation.

Well… how could she know that she had just laid out for me a perfect metaphor of God’s miraculous healing? That she, herself, was as miraculous as a regenerating star of the sea? My heart flooded with hope for my friend and gratitude for my daughter. And as I pulled her little body onto my lap, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to answer just how awesome I found it all to be.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, April 2021

The fish was floating upside down in the glass bowl. It might as well have had a cartoon X over each eye. “Sharky-Sharky,” the fish, was dead.

It was the first pet we had ever bought for our young children, so there was a certain sentimentality we felt for the bright blue Beta that likely surpassed the average distant tolerance most people feel for a fish.

“Well, lovebugs,” I said with a sigh to my then three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, “looks like our pal Sharky-Sharky has gone on to bluer waters.”

Two pairs of eyes looked quizzically back at me.

“Sharky has gone to fish heaven!” I offered more enthusiastically.

Blink. Blink.

Hmm. My children did not appear to understand this part of the life cycle yet. Had I somehow failed in teaching them the basic concept of life and death? Shoot. I looked back at the bowl. It was almost ridiculous how lifeless that fish looked.

“The fish is dead. It is not alive anymore. Bye bye, Sharky-Sharky,” I said more plainly, adding in a waving gesture, hoping to leave no more room for confusion.

“Wha happen to him?” asked the blonde haired boy, head tilting, eyebrows furrowing in efforts to comprehend.

“Well, I believe it may have been so chilly overnight that sadly Sharky’s water became too cold for him to live by our kitchen window. I am so sorry, buddy.” I hugged their little bodies close. “Should we give him a funeral?” I offered.

The two toddlers were suddenly in firm agreement against this idea. Two small heads shook back and forth in a decisive “No way, José” response. “He is NO bye bye!” they insisted.

I instinctively pulled the “well, let’s just wait until Daddy gets home and then figure it out…” card. All seemed appeased.

During naptime, I googled the scene from Finding Nemo where they talk about how all drains go to the ocean. I prepared a small bouquet of dandelions. I pulled up biblical verses to share. I even searched for anything in scripture about animal deaths that might be helpful. Do fish have souls? Do animals go to heaven? I might have even googled these questions, too… I was a new mom, and I was realizing that I had not explained the facts of life and death clearly enough to my young children. So, what can I say? I was trying.

That afternoon, as the sun’s bright rays illumined the walls of our home with its late-day-slant, two rested toddlers arose from their naps. Questions about Sharky promptly began.

How exactly did he die?
What was going to happen to him?
Where was his body going?
He was not going to be in his bowl any more?!?

And then down came the tears. It had taken them a moment, a whole nap-cycle in fact, but both my children had now reached a decision: They were going to miss Sharky-Sharky!

He was our only pet!
How could we have let him get so cold?
Why did he have to die???

Okay, here is my cue, I thought. No time to wait for Daddy to come home because these children needed answers now. I took a deep breath. I felt emboldened by all of my naptime preparations to launch into a perfect moment of parenting where I would explain the facts, as well as the mysteries, of life and death. I suggested we meet in the kitchen for a family meeting.

And as we rounded that corner into the kitchen… and as I took another deep breath to begin my speech… we stopped in our tracks. Dead in our tracks. Pardon the pun.

It was Sharky-Sharky.

Blue as ever.

Small as ever.

And… ALIVE as ever.

Just swimming around his bowl with (could it be?) more fervor than ever, as if it were any other normal day.

“Sharky-Sharkyyyyyy! We knowed you alive!!” the toddlers exclaimed as they ran past their stunned mother, still holding onto the wilting dandelion bouquet in utter befuddlement.

My children delighted that day because the good side won. Life won. Miracles won. And they didn’t even question it. Miracles felt more real and way more right to them on that sunny afternoon than any hard cold fact ever could have.

And I honestly wish I felt that way more often, too. I wish I were less gobsmacked by miracles and more expectant of them. I wish I did not spend time that night googling, “Can beta fish play dead? Can fish freeze and then thaw out?” But what can I say? I was a tired and befuddled new mom whose prepared-parenting-moment had been thwarted by a miracle.

On Easter Sunday, Pastor Ryan expounded upon the stone being rolled away, reminding us that it was not for omnipotent Jesus’ sake, of course, but for ours. The stone was moved out of the way so that the disciples could see the empty tomb. After all, humans can be difficult to convince when it comes to miracles; often, in our faithlessness, we have to see in order to believe. Pastor Ryan then posed a thought-provoking question: what “stone” is blocking our path to believing today? What is standing in the way of us more fully resting in our faith?

I pondered that question for a while. Is it doubt that gets in the way of deeper faith? Pride? A doggedly stubborn reliance on data and facts? Or something more mundane like busy-ness, jadedness, or flat out weariness?

I think sometimes the answer for me can be something as banal as fatigue. When I find myself over-extended by the every-day-ness of life, I can lose sight of many things, including miracles. This life I lead, these people in my midst, this beautiful spring day, the love I witness all around, the promise of heaven– truly, marvels and wonders abound! Perhaps even the small gift of a fish’s unexpected return from the presumed dead belongs in that wondrous category. Perhaps everything does.

Dear God, may the stone be removed from eyes and rolled away from my heart so that I can remain more open and joyfully amazed by Your unceasing, miraculous goodness.  Amen

 

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, March 2021

While waiting for my coffee to brew this morning, my gaze rested on an abstract painting that my son created last week and hung proudly on our kitchen’s wall of fame. As I stared at the pleasing colors and the unusual shapes– at both the positive and negative spaces they created that somehow harmoniously balanced each other– a whisper of a new idea started to form in the hazy outskirts of my mind and travel down to my waiting heartstrings…

Suddenly, a seeming non-sequitur of a memory projected like a movie in front of my tired, pre-caffeinated eyes:

It’s 1986.

A wood-paneled station wagon pulls up to a yellow stucco house. A little girl, hiding inside the house behind a drapery, watches as a middle-aged woman steps out of her station wagon and approaches the front door. The silently crouching girl knows that this kind woman, a neighbor, has come to offer a ride to a birthday party at a miniature golf course way across town. This little girl does. Not. Want. To. Go.

The little girl’s mother answers the door. She has been expecting this woman. Carpool plans, clearly arranged in advance, are now underway.

The little girl’s mother calls out, “Jessie! Time to go to Kate and Wallace’s birthday party! Their mother, Mrs. Stark, is here to take you!”

Silence.

Awkward moments follow as the two women spot the little lurker’s socks poking out from behind the window treatments. Try as they might, they cannot coax the child out of hiding. She doubles down in quiet, concealed resistance. She is incredulous within her private chamber of curtains. Why would anyone want to leave the familiar peace of home and be thrown into sticky, screaming, shoving chaos? she wonders only to herself. The notion is simply preposterous to her young mind. How could these seemingly well-meaning adults subject anyone to such a peculiar form of forced-fun-torture? No, she is not going. She pulls in her socked feet as she hugs her knees more tightly to her chest.

“Oh, is there a birthday party?” 

All eyes quickly turn to another young girl who has entered the foyer. It’s the hiding girl’s older sister. She is bright-eyed and eager. She has the same alert and energetic presence of a puppy anticipating a thrown ball.

“Yes…” says her mother wearily, unsure how to solve the growing inconvenience that her children are creating for this poor carpool-volunteering-friend whose car is still running out front with her birthday children inside, waiting to attend their own party.

“I’ll go!” chirps the freckled-faced older sister, blue eyes twinkling with new excitement.

The two mothers look at each other– one is good-naturedly amused while the other seems exhausted and bewildered.

“No, Annie,” replies her mother. “This party is for 5 year old girls and 7 year old boys. You are 8 and a half.” The older sister blinks blankly back, unfazed by this information.

“Also, sweetie…this is for Jessie’s little friend. You were… not invited.” Again, the older sister does not see the issue. Her steady, undeterred gaze communicates, “And the problem is…?”

In the end, a very patient Mrs. Stark gets back into her car with one of the Palmore sisters. It’s just not the one anyone was expecting. As the station wagon pulls away, the jubilant older sister waves enthusiastically from the car window. The little sister, still curled up behind the drapes, feels her shoulders relax as a joyful relief floods her tiny system.

As I returned to the reality of my waiting coffee cup, I pondered this Stark birthday debacle from ages past. It always amazes me into a chuckle to recall what different children my sister and I were. She craved adventure, outward stimulation, and constant interaction as strongly as I craved peaceful time at home, snuggling my stuffed animals, climbing the tree in our backyard, and maybe doing a craft or two with my mom. Her zest for life burned as brightly as the sun, and my subdued shyness was more of the gentle moon beam variety. Night and day. Or “lion and lamb” as our parents often laughed and called us. You can guess who was who.

But this morning, as I honed in on the opposing forces of the abstract painting, the new idea-turned-feeling I experienced can best be described… as gratitude.

And that gratitude hit me like a growing revelation this morning with several layers to unpack.

The people in our lives (in our families, in our places of work, in our church congregations and neighborhoods…) who are the most different from us are also often our biggest blessings, whether we readily recognize it or not. Sometimes it is all too easy to focus on how tricky it can be to understand others who are wired so differently than we are. But this morning, a swirling compilation of artwork and memory and gratitude finally took shape to show me this:

Just as a bold object in a painting takes up specific space on its canvas, it simultaneously carves out the negative space that can be equally compelling. The diverse elements and opposing colors in a piece of artwork balance each other, create room for each other, and ultimately magnify and more clearly define the strengths of each other as complements. The result is a complex harmony that is full and beautiful. What I realized slowly this morning was that the same is true within human relationships.

My sister stepped forward naturally in her own exuberant strength that day to stand in for me when I was flailing in my own puddle of weakness, and my hiding in the shadows actually allowed her to enjoy the light of a new opportunity. As Annie and I grew older, we continued to grow and change, but we almost always landed on opposite sides of the spectrum from each other. We were not opponents, I now realize, but we were each other’s complement.

As we moved into our teenage years, unpredictably, I became the friendlier one with strangers, always stopping on walks to chat with neighbors, while Annie blazed ahead as the fastest speed-walker you’ve ever seen.

As she became more serious about her career in the corporate world, I became more creative and playful in mine as a teacher.

Whenever one of us was facing stress or hardship, we became a soft place for the other to land.

When in our twenties we lost all of our beloved grandparents, Annie was the pillar of strength while I was a blubbering mess.

Years later in our thirties when we lost a beloved parent, she fell more deeply into her emotional grief while I discovered unexpected peace, perhaps borrowing strength from the model Annie had provided for me over so many years.

We have yin-and-yanged our way through life for 40 years now in innumerably varying ways, and the older I get, the more respect I have for our differences. Indeed, I feel grateful for the balance they have provided us. I know that neither of us would be the people we are today without each other. And of course I feel especially grateful for the one mainstain and connective thread in our relationship throughout: Laughter. We have always, always been able to laugh together.

As I took my coffee to-go this morning for the gorgeous drive in to First Pres, I felt a further sense of appreciation. Here we are now on the verge of spring– which will surely usher in the glorious weather that will allow for friends and families to recommune with each other outside in fellowship– and I feel an eager anticipation for all sorts of reunions. Afterall, when we are in relationships with people who are different from us, our wide-ranging gifts, arrays of flaws, diverse personalities, varying ages, and all other differences combine like distinctive elements of a painting, a magnificent masterpiece designed by God’s infinite creativity. As Romans 12:4-5 asserts, we are better together than we are alone. We fortify each other naturally. And now as I finish writing this rambling reflection, having finished perhaps one too many cups of coffee,  having just reached out to a plethora of young parents to invite them back into the fold this spring at FPC, and having just texted my sister that I love her, I feel deeply grateful all over again.

Dear God, thank you for the blessings of other people. As our pastors say, Your greatest gifts to us are wrapped in flesh and bone. Thank you for the diversity of Your creation and the rich beauty You create through our varied relationships. Help us to delight in each other’s differences, to rejoice as a reunited community again soon, and to give thanks for the masterpiece You create in artfully intertwining our lives with others in unexpected, often mystifying, and deeply enriching ways. Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, February 2021

A stream of consciousness while washing dishes:

Staring out the window at the dark outline of treetops, black against a deeply purple sky. It appears to be later in the evening than it is. I try to guess the time, resisting the urge to turn around and confirm with the oven’s small digital clock display behind me.

My daughter grabs my legs. She has snuck up silently to scare me. She laughs. I breathe. She is supposed to be upstairs getting ready for bed. I decide I have just enough patience left to be a good sport for at least a minute or two while I finish the dishes. I start singing an old Motown song as she hangs on my legs. Instantly, I feel happier. This is actually a much more fun way to complete the daily dreaded task of dishes. Wonder (hope): will this be the type of memory my little girl will recall when she’s in her old age?

Suddenly a vivid memory of my college friend comes to mind. It’s a snapshot of her quietly washing dishes like a real, capable adult when a gaggle of us visited her years (decades?) ago. There was laughter and singing all around, but stolidly she stood in front of the sink by herself, dutifully washing each dish with care. Why do I remember that quick, wordless scene? Her neatly manicured fingers brushing the bubbles off a white plate under the water’s steady stream. Wonder if her sons now marvel over her adept skills in the midst of their own chaos. Wonder if they can tell they have the type of mom who has always been a capable adult, even when she was still a teenager. Wonder if my children can tell that I am still trying to figure out how to be an adult, or that I still sometimes associate more with the teenager that I once was… We are all so different, aren’t we?

Now my little Poppy is singing, too. The weight of her pulling against my legs is starting to bother my knee. Try to remember if I have any memories of my parents washing dishes. Did I ever hang on their legs? Lots of memories pop up of my dad cooking pancakes and singing… “I used to cook pancakes for the Queen!” he would exclaim each time, turning up the clock radio under the cabinets, tuned to an oldies station playing Motown songs. I can clearly envision my mom’s back as she tended to the stove, stirring Brunswick stew with the serious concentration of a pioneer woman preparing a meal.

Strangely, however, no moments register of anyone in my childhood home undertaking the mundane task of washing dishes. I start sorting through memories a little more intently now as if I am holding up film negatives to the light. I cannot even recall anyone in my family at the sink…

Full stop.

Cannot remember my childhood sink. At all.

The sink from which I surely retrieved countless glasses of water from ages 4 to 19. Now I cannot even determine where the sink was positioned in our old kitchen. Okay, think I see the corner now where it was located… but can I imagine the faucet or handles? Or see myself or my parents rinsing a bowl to put in the dishwasher? Only through a dimly lit haze. Slowly I start seeing my mom rinsing peanut butter from a rounded knife and bending to place it in the plastic aqua silverware holster of our dishwasher, but recalling this scene took tremendous mental exertion.

My son is now standing next to me, looking puzzled (or amused?) at my far-off trance as the water continues to flow over the remaining dishes. He wants to know all about my train of thought– Vaughan always wants all the details —  and so I tell him every bit as we walk upstairs together with his sister for bedtime. “My brain does that, too,” he confides once we are alone. “I start thinking about one thing, and then it’s kinda like I am somewhere else in my head thinking and remembering.” Maybe we are not all so different, after all.

I go to bed that night pondering this:

A lot of life happens in the small details of our everyday life, both in the physicality of our movement through each day, and also internally within our own minds. Perhaps remembering the minutia or acknowledging our streams of consciousness is not vital to a life well-lived, though I cannot help but marvel over the illumination that occurs when we hover over the seemingly unremarkable aspects of our thoughts and memories. What remains? What can we, with effort, retrieve or unlock or hold up to the light? And what hidden images and emotions are tucked into the deep recesses of our memories just beyond our stockroom of fully formed stories that we recall from our past?

Can you return to your childhood kitchen in your mind? Can you see any of the details that perhaps you haven’t thought of in quite a while? Do any new moments or memories resurface? Do certain recollections, that have no immediately apparent significance, continue to bubble up? What messages can you glean from them when you pause to consider their offerings? And how does one memory or thought lead to the next if you take the time to tune in and track them?

The notion of these unspoken inner-lives we lead has been at the forefront of my own thoughts this week in particular. One of my best friends has been slowly losing her mother to Alzheimer’s for years, and it seems as though the bittersweet release is now within sight. It is awe-inspiring and excruciating to witness. The memories, the words, the richly beautiful life she lived… all slipping away like sand through a sieve. The pain of this slow and staggered loss breaks my heart for my dear friend. And it also reminds me to remember that remembering is a gift (if you’ll forgive the ridiculous redundancy of that sentence). Even if the memories we recall are painful or confounding or dull, there are insights wrapped up inside each of them. Even if our thoughts wander aimlessly, there is still something remarkable about being able to keep ourselves company through our wildly active minds.

I secretly hope that my children are as hopelessly nostalgic as I am. I hope that they will feel connected to these fleeting years we shared under the same roof, beside the same kitchen sink, even when my memory begins to fade and especially when I am gone. After all, our minds and memories, both miraculous gifts from God, have the power to connect us to others through space and time. Years have passed since I have been in the presence of some of the people and places I treasure, yet God grants me access to revisit and delight in them through my thinking of them.

Thank you, God, for the rich soil you grant us in our innermost thoughts and memories. And thank you for the moments when you remind me that I have a role in creating loving memories for my children that may, with hope and grace, counterbalance the painful ones that will inevitably occur along the way. And mostly, please help draw our thoughts back to You, remembering always that You have been with us all along, at work even in the mundane details, and loving us all the while.

Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, January 2021

Anyone who has held a baby knows this much is true:

Cradling a new life alters every single aspect about that moment in time.

We breathe, think, move, and speak differently when a newborn is in our arms. Whether we claim them as our own or are momentarily watching over someone else’s progeny, we innately treat them as the precious, fragile gifts that they are. It is part of the reason why babies are so easy to love: they are utterly needy, and thus call upon the nurturing and protective instincts that lie deep within us.

And perhaps a human’s unrestricted, uncomplicated love for babies is also tied to the notion of temporality. We know that baby-hood does not keep. Infants seem to change and grow from one moment to the next, thus we feel further beckoned to notice and appreciate each detail of their being.

I have been thinking a lot about babies and the transformative love they inspire. Throughout the Christmas season, I kept envisioning Mary holding her newborn, full of wonder and fear, but surely also full of that whole-body attentiveness that a new life activates within its holder. And I thought — maybe for the first time, or maybe just more seriously than ever before — “Wow. That’s not only how God loves us, but how He allowed us to love Him, in the most vulnerable form possible.”

I had to ask myself, “Is that how I love God?”

And then even more convicting still, “Is that how I love other people? As if they were as precious and miraculous as the newborn babies that they once were?”

Sometimes God puts a new thought in my head that I delight in mulling over for days on end. This notion of loving others as if they were babies has been keeping me good company for weeks now.

Suspend disbelief for a moment to imagine this with me:

What if someone placed into your waiting arms an adult you know but in the form of his or her newborn self?

Can you imagine holding, for instance, your own parent when he or she was a baby?

What about your spouse?

What about yourself?

What about a friend or a neighbor or a foe— all transformed for a moment in time into an infant form of themselves for you to hold with all-consuming wonder and care…?

Somehow, imagining the adult people who populate my life in their earliest form has cracked open in my heart a new way of loving them, of seeing them, of cherishing them with the tenderness that comes from recognizing the fragile, temporal, innocent humanity that is beating within them. I love thinking about it.

I must admit here, however, that this is decidedly not how I love others. I am not nearly as gracious or imaginative in my day-to-day loving as that. But what if I took this unusual, mind-bending thought as an instruction and opportunity to grow?

With all the heartache and misunderstanding that exist among human beings, what if we all started looking at each other with compassionate imagination? Would we be able to, if only for a moment, see even our adversaries as vulnerable, loveable beings? What if we really were granted glimpses of each other as newborns— not as worldly manifestations of frustratingly opposing agendas, but instead needy souls that intrinsically crave the same love and security that we once did and that we still do?

In short, what if we sought out the God spark in each other the way we do when we marvel over babies?

As I linger over this train of thought, these words from Betty Smith’s classic novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, keep floating into my mind: “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

God, please help me look at the people you put into my life and along my path with a fresh perspective, seeing their lives as precious as they are, as wondrous as if it were the first time I were encountering your creation, and as fleeting as if it were also the last. And help me love you, Lord, as the miraculous gift that You are. Then perhaps any pettiness or cold-heartedness would melt and fall heavily away, like ice shelves from an ancient glacier, so that our time on earth would fill with the radiating glory of Christ-like love.

Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, December 2020

If you have ever had the pleasure of crossing paths with Nashville native and longtime First Pres member, Mr. Frank Blair, III (who is affectionately known to many as simply, “Big Frank”), then you will know that he very often answers in the same manner when asked how he is doing:

“Every day is a good day!” he will say with a smile.

And the thing is, he really means it.

On a clear and chilly morning last month, I met Big Frank at Radnor Lake for a brisk hike. As the autumn sun lit the water’s surface ablaze, we walked and talked around the lake’s wooded perimeter, pausing more than once to admire a pair of deer that sauntered alongside us. While our conversation floated from topic to topic, I was not surprised to notice that the undercurrent of his stories swirled around an anchor of gratitude…

He was grateful for his well-being after a health scare earlier this year.

Grateful for the birds’ songs (each note a delight, as he easily identified different species with the skilled ear only a devoted bird-watcher can claim).

Grateful for the friends he had seen that week (everyone who has met Big Frank considers him a friend, after all, knowing that his door is always open and that there it is a pervasively welcoming, “come as you are” nature about his family’s warm home).

Grateful that he married the love of his life, Florence, so early in life; grateful that God gave them that “head start” as young newlyweds, realizing now that they needed all the time they could get together here on Earth (as his beloved Flo returned to her Maker far too soon).

Grateful that his son, daughter, their spouses, and all of his grandchildren are in such close contact with him (as he went on to recount all the sporting events he had attended for his local grandchildren that weekend, and the phone conversations he had enjoyed the day before with his daughter and grandchildren who live 600 miles away in Virginia).

Grateful even that the teenaged boy that he and Flo selflessly took in as an unofficially adopted son so many years ago had stayed in Nashville to create a family of his own– a family that Big Frank also now claims as his own (in turn, my sweet husband, the adopted teenaged boy all grown up, and the rest of my crew consider Big Frank to be a bonus dad and a major win of an additional grandfather. Talk about grateful!).

Every day is a good day.

The sentiment registers in my ears as a truth that I too often ignore. Beneath the tangle of details and stresses, there is goodness abounding every day. And yet, I always marvel at Big Frank’s inspiring ability to find the good and give thanks, regardless of the circumstances. For when reading between the lines of his gratitude, there is plenty of loss to be found. So when he declares that every day is good, it is not necessarily because there is an absence of hardship. No, every day is good because he chooses to see it, to identify it, to hold it up as an undeserved gift which he intends to enjoy. Other charming catch phrases he is known to say with a similar twinkle in his eye (like “You play the hand you’re dealt,” and “It’s all good, honey!”) follow this same vein of surrendering his own will to God’s will, feeling grateful all the while.

As we walked that morning, I began thinking about what kind of catch phrases I use, realizing how revealing our repeated words can be about the thoughts that cycle through our minds, exposing our true hearts. Later that day, I shared this musing with my children:

“You know how Big Frank always says, ‘every day is a good day’ when we ask him how he is doing? It’s kind of like his ‘catch phrase.’ Well, what do you think my catch phrase would be?”

Crickets. No response.

“Think about it– what does mama say all the time?”

Two pairs of eyes continued to blink blankly back at me.

“I mean,” I continued undeterred, “what do I say a lot? What are words you always hear me say?”

After a prolonged moment of recollection, Poppy tilted her head and said, “I guess you say ‘of course’ a lot?”

Hmm… not exactly the telling and poignant moment I was hoping to create! After pressing them further, we finally got to the language of love and kindness I try to pour into them, but the whole exercise really got me thinking about just how powerful the repeated words we push out into the universe can be.

What would your family or friends or colleagues say that your catch phrase is? It is rather telling to investigate! What words or messages do your nearest and dearest associate with you?

In this season of Advent, I cannot help but notice that God seems to have a catch phrase, too. The commanding phrase that surfaces time again throughout the Christmas story is one of loving assuagement:

“Fear not.”

“Fear not, Zacharias” (Luke 1:13).

“Fear not, Mary” (Luke 1:30).

“Fear not” to the shepherds who were “sore afraid” (Luke 2:10).

Again and again, the language of consolation repeats. The angels of the Lord continually offer consolation in the face of human anxiety. God does not want us to be afraid, even though He knows that fear is one of the most instinctual human responses in this world. Humans are full to brimming with fear, with our anxieties spilling over at the slightest disturbance. We may be afraid of the unknown, afraid of pain, afraid of losing our loved ones or losing control. Fear abounds, as well.

And those of us who are parents know that one of the sweetest gifts of parenthood is helping to calm our children’s fears. The act of soothing our little one’s woes is a glowingly contagious moment of love, a beautiful, tangible manifestation of our devotion. How much more then does God long to heal our worried souls through his repeated words of assurance?

In these uncertain times, I find both aforementioned catch phrases extremely helpful. Life is hard. There is plenty to feel nervous and unsettled about at every turn. But yes, there is goodness in each day that God offers for the taking. And no, He does not want us to be afraid as we trust in Him and His loving peace.

Fear not, He says again and again.

Fear not.

And He means it.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, November 2020

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

– Atticus Finch
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 

Atticus Finch: One of my all-time favorite fictional characters, as well as one of the most touching compliments people continue to pay my late father. 

“Oh, how I loved your father,” someone thoughtfully stopped to share with me just the other day. “He truly was an Atticus Finch.” I have heard this sentiment for years, even when my father was still alive, even before I read (let alone taught) the novel, and well before I was able to catch the profound weight of the reference. Words that come to mind when I consider both men? Fair. Humble. Wise. Noble. Good. Both lawyers, both doting fathers, both avid supporters of the underdog, and both masters at seeing the good in everyone, even when “the good” was difficult to spot.

It is an inspiring phenomenon, isn’t it, how the people who see the best in others also seem to bring out the best in others?

When Atticus tells his daughter Scout that the “simple trick” to getting along with “all kinds of folks” is to “consider things from his point of view…[to] climb inside his skin and walk around in it,” he is teaching her that skill of seeing people. It is the quintessential lesson in empathy. And in classic Atticus fashion, he lays out a prescribed order of operations that is both kind and logical for us to follow:

First, we must realize that we do not understand others. The implied warning here is that prematurely assuming that we do know everything about a person is a dangerous and entirely unhelpful misstep. Oh, how enticing that misstep can be, though…

Secondly, we must acknowledge each other as human, as a fully-fledged individual with a beating heart, a wounded soul, and a whole host of past experiences that we cannot see but that intricately influence every aspect of that person’s every day. We must concede that God created each unique person with unfathomable layers of complexity.

And thirdly, we must ignite our imaginations. In order to adopt an empathic attitude toward our fellow human, we must imagine what life might be like from that human’s perspective. What might it feel like to wake up as that person each morning? To exist in that specific set of living conditions? To experience how others react and interact (or do not interact at all) with that individual? What are the emotions that might wordlessly tug at that person’s heart? What hopes, fears, or fixations might continually churn over in that person’s brain? We must rely on divinely-inspired imaginative thought. Only then can we begin appreciating the enormity of each individual’s inner-workings; only then can we scratch the surface of accepting the utterly mysterious and kaleidoscopically varied nature of humankind.

Effectually, Atticus’ sage advice cracks open an entry-way into the empathic space of seeing each other, which then gives way to the lighted path toward loving each other.

There is inherent loss in admitting that we may never truly know another person, however. I am reminded of the sorrow Ralph Waldo Emerson shared in his final collection, Society and Solitude (1870), when he lamented that even “the dearest friends are separated by impassable gulfs.” Because humans are unique, he mused, they are infinitely unknowable and innately separated from one another. Moreover, because humans are divided by “impassable gulfs,” it should come as no wonder that human interaction can be so mercurial, so complex, so fraught with discord. A simple look can be misinterpreted, a lack of reply can feel like an assault, and a word can so easily be taken the wrong way, especially in our current age when words are often jotted down over texts or carelessly posted with no vocal intonation attached. Connection and understanding are what we desire, yet the opportunities for disconnection and disagreement loom like dangerously waiting minefields.

Thus, what a sweet, saving gift of reconciliation we have in Jesus Christ. The peaceful unity we hungrily crave is made possible through His love. As the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, 

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:26-28)

Thanks be to God! 

For in a season when so many well-meaning people simply cannot agree, I am more grateful than ever for the path to reconciliation and understanding that God offers His children. During these times of unrest, I find myself repeating the following words of assurance aloud to myself in my car, in my kitchen, in front of my computer: “God is God over all. And all will be well.” These are some of the wise words that my father, my own personal Atticus Finch, so often spoke over me: “God is God over all, little Jess. And all will be well.” Mercifully, this assurance always helps me land near the same revelation that Scout reaches through her own father’s patient help. It is a revelation that may sound reductive but that ironically allows for the foundational unity that exists underneath our human diversity. In her climactic moment of realization, Scout shares,I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks…” before adding that even unexpected characters are surprisingly, “real nice.” 

Atticus knowingly replies,Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

We may never agree with each other, and perhaps our job is not to agree. Perhaps our job is simply to see each other. Afterall, seeing each other nudges us one step closer to loving each other, if not in feeling, then in action, in service, in listening, in learning, and in growing. 

God is God over all, He is a patient and doting parent to all, and all will be well indeed.

 

Dear Lord,  

We are so grateful that You are our steadfast Father, watching over us and loving us even as we stumble and bicker and misbehave. Draw each and every one of your children near in your loving embrace so that we may feel your strength and peace. Please unveil our eyes so that we may see each other the way You do, acknowledging and celebrating each person as a unique and worthy member of one beloved family. And please ignite our wild imaginations to propel us toward an all-encompassing, reckless love for each other, so that we may delight in generously showering grace and empathy over each other as our own brothers and sisters in Christ.

Amen.

 

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, October 2020

Cold rain drops poured down my sister-in-law’s muddy face, leaving clean tracks behind. “This is miserable!” she exclaimed, half laughing. “I want OUT!”

We were only a quarter of the way into a seventeen-mile bike ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail when the gray sky opened to release its heavy load. Although it had started as a crisp, rather promising morning (with flashes of clear October sunshine breaking through the downy cloud cover, setting the autumnal leaves ablaze), the weather had taken a significant turn for the worse. But what were we to do? We were the stubborn ones, the optimistic ones, the ones who had scoffed at the weather reports and doggedly refused to let the family adventure we had planned for months fall by the wayside. While our original crew of Yanceys had started out as nearly twenty, we had dwindled to half that size with the news of Hurricane Delta’s far-reaching rains. 

So there we were: the self-selected few who smugly smiled when the day began with ideal conditions, and then who soon became the regretful parents with smiles fading as we gazed at the wet backs of our young children pedaling ahead of us on the slippery trail, round drops splashing off their little helmets and trickling down their shivering shoulders. We had a long way to go.

Perhaps the essence of this hapless scene feels familiar. Perhaps you have found yourself in the thick of a foolish escapade before, or, more seriously, in the midst of a waking nightmare. Maybe you are, currently, smack dab in the middle of a season that feels endless, grueling, or inescapable; and maybe you have found yourself searching for an escape route or at least a temporary shelter where you can weather the storm. 

Several memories of this vein now surface in my mind:

…trying moments during the ongoing pandemic when I have felt physically depleted, emotionally discouraged, and more than a little fearful for the well-being of my neighbors.

…helpless, sleepless moments of early motherhood when both of my babies would begin crying at precisely the same moment.

…the complicated dynamics of blending families after marriage, when it seemed challenging to find middle ground between well-meaning though vastly differing sides. 

…the immense pressure I would feel bearing down on my shoulders while studying for an impossibly comprehensive English exam with the midnight fluorescent lights of the library blinking down disapprovingly.

…the twin sensations of panic and despair Steele and I shared as we sat awake all night in hospital chairs, watching doctors tend to our small children who were suffering from various frightening conditions like fractures in her infant skull and second-degree burns covering the majority of his tiny chest…

I shudder now to recall how much I wanted an OUT of those moments. 

Certainly we all can recall finding ourselves in the quagmire of less-than-ideal situations with no end in sight. And I would venture to guess that many of us have experienced that human instinct of wanting “out” in one way or another. 

Left to our own human devices, we can find all sorts of ways to momentarily flee from discomfort and circumnavigate pain. We turn to anger or blame, denial or physical withdrawal, mindless distractions or any number of numbing agents. There are far too many ways for us to slip beneath the surface of our lives and momentarily disconnect. Though as we discover time and again, none of the outs we pursue actually help in lasting, sustaining ways. Blaming only deepens the pain, numbing only delays the inevitable or defers the consequences for later, and quitting merely distances us even further from the present life we are called to live while we are alive.

And we turn to God. We reach for Him in prayer. We plead for His assurance when we do not know how we are going to make it.

Yet in those moments, God does not always grant us that eject or rewind button we so long for, nor does He give us an easy pass. He invites us into something more challenging, oft-times more life-changing, and strangely more life-affirming instead. In those experiences when we most want to coast or quit or sink into self-pity, he calls us instead to engage; to tuck our chins, brace for impact, and Keep. Moving. Forward. No, He does not offer us an “out,” but he does offer us a “through.” 

Back to the muddy trails…

I must admit that when we stopped for a quick break and learned that we were now only half-way through with about eight more miles to go, I started going through a mental rolodex of possible escape options. Could we call one of the family members who had backed out of the trek to come pick us up? Was there a safe space where we could at least dry off and warm up for a bit? Could we just ditch the rented bikes on the side of the trail and explain to the company where they could pretty please pick them up later? None of us actually vocalized these options, but we exchanged knowing glances through the onslaught of rain which communicated clearly enough that at least some of us were thinking the same thing. 

But then– surely in thanks to the Lord above– one of us piped up with, “Okay, team. We’ve got this.” 

And then another younger rider, emboldened by the encouragement, added, “Let’s DO this!”

Finally, even one of the more disgruntled members steeled her gaze and nodded her head resolutely. “Only one way down this mountain,” she said. Then she took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

The trials that God places in our life’s trail, whether trivial or heart-breaking or somewhere in between, always seem to forge the biggest imprint on our lives. It’s in those challenging moments when we choose not to give up hope but to double-down with faithful grit that push us closer to growing into the people God created us to be: people who are awake to the wonders of His world, are engaged with others in meaningful, messy ways, and are fully alive with the strength and capabilities He has given us.

And you know what? When we arrived at the end of that trail hours later, soaked to the bone and covered from head to toe in sooty mud, there were wide, joyful smiles all around. We felt tough, strong, bonded to each other in a new way, and so very grateful. We felt alive.

The “through” can be undeniably brutal, but ultimately life-affirming indeed. God created us to be so much grittier and more resilient than we realize. Moreover, He promises to stick with us as we trudge along whatever trenches we find ourselves in, and He promises that what is waiting for us on the other side is most definitely worth the passage through.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, September 2020

It was within the first hour of the third day of my daughter’s virtual school year…

We had made it through the nervous butterflies and technological glitches that riddled the first day, and we had learned from the multiple user-errors of the second day (like when her soft fingertip mistakenly found the power button, shutting down the computer and all programs mere seconds before class began). I was certain that day three would be smooth sailing. As I set up shop to answer emails in the often overlooked sitting area near our front door that we call “the Welcome Room,” I heard a most un-welcomed hint of sniffles coming from the kitchen nearby. Honestly, I almost ignored it. This was my time. I needed to be productive! I had very little patience left inside my tank. But some little nudge inside prompted me to set my own computer aside and investigate the scene on the other side of the wall. Thank God I did. My poor little girl.

There she was, curled into a ball underneath one of the kitchen chairs, crying silent tears, while her patient 1st grade teacher continued to expound upon mathematic properties to a grid of her young students’ faces on a computer screen. How could the teacher have known that one of her student’s tender hearts had been struck with sudden dread at the mention of an overlooked assignment? How could she have noticed that one of her twenty-two virtual students had quietly slid off the grid and gone into hiding, below the visibility range of the laptop’s camera? Amazingly, her teacher had that sixth sense that I am convinced all elementary teachers must have, and quickly called out, “Poppy? Where did you go, Poppy?” I almost had to laugh at the sheer panic that flashed across my daughter’s face as her thin eyebrows raised, blue eyes widened, and pointer finger raised immediately to her lips with an urgent “SHH!” in my direction. It was almost cinematic. My amused mind started comparing the scene to a prisoner escaping her cell before being spotted by a flood light, or a cartoon Tweety bird tip-toeing away before coming face to face with the sneaky cat.

Perhaps we all know that feeling of wanting desperately to hide and then inevitably being caught or seen or found out. It is the worst. It gives me flutters of anxiety now just thinking about all the similar moments I can recall from my 39 years of life. In keeping with scholarly mishaps, this painful embarrassment comes to mind:

It was the the second half of my first semester studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland…

I had made it through six weeks in my Art History tutorial class without saying One. Single. Word. Not a one. In six weeks! It is hard to believe that is even possible, especially for me who as a student loved engaging in lively class discussion. But this class was entirely different from any I had taken before. First of all, I had never taken a single Art History credit. So there’s that. Secondly, I had unintentionally signed up for an advanced level course, and despite my desperate pleas to the disinterested registrar, I was quite bafflingly not allowed to drop it. Strike two. Thirdly and most significantly, every other student in the class came across to me as legitimate British geniuses, all of whom were casually capable of making the most dazzling cross-references and dizzying analyses in undeniably posh, sophisticated accents. I spent the first quarter of the course attempting to write down every word my brilliant professor and classmates rapidly exchanged. I am surprised my flurry of note-taking did not produce puffs of smoke to waft up from my frantic pencil.

And then…

One day the professor called on me. Just like that. He asked me to get up OUT of my chair, walk to the FRONT of the room, select a SPECIFIC slide of a painting by Fernand Léger, put said slide into an old-fashioned PROJECTOR, and EXPLAIN to the class how Léger utilized the elements of Cubism in said painting. Excuse me, WHAT?!

Shock, terror, and indignation flooded my system. With an immediate face-sweat, hand-tremor, and breath-shortage, I opened my mouth to utter my very first words in front of that class. I can still remember the look of confusion and bemusement on one classmate’s face as she queried, “Oh, she’s an American?!”

These moments of academic panic are surely familiar to many of you. They are the perfect fodder for anxiety nightmares galore, enough to last a lifetime. But far beyond the classroom, this knee-jerk reaction to hide is interesting to me as it stirs up questions about human nature…

Do you ever try to hide? Avert your gaze, silence your voice, or attempt to disappear? Why? When? There are myriad examples that may come to mind: whether in the midst of an awkward social encounter, during a tense work meeting, while waiting in a grocery store line with a crying toddler, when confronted with a probing question, the moment you realize you dropped the ball or are caught in a white lie. The list goes on with too many to catalogue. Can you relate?

What are we trying to accomplish when we freeze, withdraw, or attempt to hide? Is the goal to avoid the pain of appearing foolish? Is it to flee from the shame that we are utterly imperfect? Is it to deny our vulnerability? Or rather to fortify the walls of our prideful façade?

Recently, I listened to a fascinating sermon by Tim Keller called, “False Testimony.” Part of his message focused on Adam and Eve’s instinct to hide after disobeying God, thus establishing one of the earliest human behavioral patterns: failing—> feeling shame —> hiding. But the most powerful conclusion to his sermon is a revisitation of the moment Pilate asks Jesus if he is King. If Jesus answers with the truth, he dies. If he hides, averts his gaze, disappears into half-truths, he lives. And amazingly, at infinite cost to himself and infinite benefit to us, he speaks the truth:

Pilate therefore said to Him, Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” -John 18:37

Jesus pays the ultimate price for us by bravely showing up for us because he delights in us.

Whenever we have that sudden, human, fearful, or prideful inclination to hide, perhaps if we think of His brave and sacrificial truth-telling, we will remember that we already have everything we need. Perhaps then we will feel emboldened to stay put— regardless of the circumstance— stand tall, confess fault, offer a sincere apology when needed, and readily receive the discomfort of losing any momentary approval because we have His everlasting approval.

Because let’s face it: in this ever-changing, unpredictable landscape in which we currently live, we are bound to take an accidental step in the wrong direction at any given moment. Say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, post the wrong thing, agree to the wrong thing, press the wrong thing, forget to complete the wrong thing… There is so much room for error in a world that has never felt less certain. We may now, more than ever, mightily reconnect with that frightened young student we once were who felt the weighty stress of an unpredictable classroom.

Thus, it is of endless comfort to know that God never changes. He is the same today as yesterday as tomorrow. There is no hiding from that truth. And just like that seemingly omniscient 1st grade teacher, God spots us immediately when we try to slip away or avoid our mistakes. He sees us. Like that brilliant professor, He calls on us to step out of the shadows and risk vulnerability. He believes in us. What if we choose to view the flustering moments He offers us in our daily lives as the fertile soil for our spiritual strengthening and character development? Perhaps then we would feel less inclined to curl into a ball to hide and more encouraged to lean into our discomfort with open minds and humble hearts—ready to learn, willing to unfurl, and eager to grow.

Dear God, You call on us to show up, to be truth tellers, to be courageously present even in the midst of all our many, many flaws. Please help us take a deep breath and recenter our focus on You in those moments when we feel weak or embarrassed or inadequate. Please help us remember that we can never hide from You; and in Your ever-present, never-changing love for us, we have every assurance we need.

Amen.

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