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.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, August 2020

Contagion

At the very beginning of my junior year of high school, I caught the most stubborn, demoralizing case of mononucleosis. I had just completed an arduous preseason of field hockey with my tight-knit varsity team, and I was excitedly looking forward to the regular season ahead. I was initially unconcerned when I could barely raise my head off the pillow one morning, chalking it up to overexertion under the hot Virginia sun. But after my mom dragged me to the doctor days later, I was teenage-girl-level-devastated to learn that I had mono. 

My first thoughts: no friends, no homecoming dance, no hockey, no fun. Noooooo!

It is almost comical to recall the petty thrill that momentarily lifted my spirits when I discovered that several of my hockey teammates were also diagnosed with mono later that week. As they say, misery loves company. Apparently the water bottles we had been passing around in the middle of sprints allowed us to share more than hydration. But much to my immature dismay, each of my teammates bounced back almost immediately. I, on the other hand, watched from the sidelines, behind windows, and through heavy eyelids as the world seemed to pass me by that year. My parents were concerned and likely more than a little exasperated as my case worsened over the following six months (which also included two private tutors, one strength trainer, countless tears) before finally subsiding in the springtime. It is mystifying to imagine how the course of that critical, penultimate year of my high school career could have been wholly different if perhaps I had only brought my own water bottle to practice… 

Germs and contagion seem to be on everyone’s mind these days. How long do germs live on surfaces? And once airborne, how far do they travel? The novel coronavirus almost seems to have taken on the status, unpredictability, and omnipresence of a supervillain from a graphic novel. And a snapshot of our current cultural norm appears similarly futuristic and science-fictional. I mean, if you had told any of us last year that we would spend the greater part of 2020 wearing face masks, we certainly would not, could not have believed it! Yet, here we are.

Now back to the simpler days of the late 90s: 

The summer after that fateful junior year (which we refer to as the “mono blur”), I worked in the mailroom of my father’s law firm, sifting letters and delivering bank statements. It was a rather mind-numbing task that I both appreciated for the extra pocket change and loathed for the dress code that required me to purchase my first dreaded pair of pantyhose. But I quickly learned an important lesson about another form of contagion, a work-place phenomenon that exists regardless of the setting. We had two rotating supervisors in the mailroom that summer, one gentleman who was like sunshine incarnate and the other fellow… who was markedly less so. When the “Sunshine” supervisor walked into that cramped office space, he would warm up those overly air-conditioned walls and light up the blinking fluorescent bulbs with his greetings and smiles and songs. In fact, I could not help but smile myself each time I heard his joyful old whistle coming down the hall. In stark juxtaposition, it was quite evident that the complaints and general discontent festered on the days when the “Gray Cloud” supervisor was in charge as he coldly ordered us around, rarely greeting us with more than a derisive nod. Eye rolls, quiet gripes, and passively rude comments ruled the space on those days. 

These twin memories from over two decades ago keep popping up in my mind recently. Both were lessons in contagion. 

How quickly we unintentionally pass on invisible entities to another.

How catching and contagious human interaction can be.

We have all been there when the atmosphere of a room perceptibly alters— for better or for worse— the moment someone enters. We all know what it feels like to “catch” someone else’s mood, and how it affects not only our outlook in that moment but also our inner thoughts and outer actions for many moments afterward.

Perhaps we would do well in this bizarre time of pandemic to focus on what else we are spreading to our children, our spouses, our communities. Are we buoying each other up in life-giving encouragement? Or are we misery seeking company, pulling each other down into our spirals of anxiety like an undertow? Perhaps it is just as socially righteous at this very moment to keep not only our germs tucked harmlessly away behind our masks, but to put our potentially toxic negativity on lockdown, too. 

Time and again, God asks us, His children, to send up our anxieties in prayer to Him and to unshoulder our knapsacks of disappointment at His feet. He can handle it. He is infinitely strong, and He loves us with all His might. May His words of comfort nestle deeply into our souls in the most stubborn, reassuring ways. And may His light shine through each of us like sunshine incarnate, so that we may spread His goodness and be agents of His contagious joy.  

Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, July 2020

It is a peculiar thing to watch my son fish. His focus, patience, and singular determination create an invisible forcefield around his bony frame that seemingly nothing can penetrate or disturb. As soon as his first whirring cast breaks the water’s smooth surface, he is blissfully alone in his hopeful endeavor. Hours pass, the sun beats down, unanswered invitations for meals float by, yet his eyes are set with his heart ablaze. I do not recognize it. These are not traits he inherited from me. Thus, I find them all the more fascinating. And what is perhaps most confounding of all to me is the fact that he is eternally optimistic about fishing, even after long stretches without a single bite. “That’s why they call it ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching,’” he has learned to shrug and say from his wise fisherman of a father. Then he’ll brush the sweat from his brow and train his sight back out on the water’s horizon, on what will surely be his next big catch if only he keeps trying and waits it out.

This image of my son fishing has become my new favorite image of endurance. I am someone who is constantly compiling visual metaphors to help my searching mind sink deeper into understanding concepts that are hard for me to grasp.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about the word endurance lately, ever since I caught up with a dear friend on the phone several weeks ago. She shared that her heart’s greatest prayer—after months of juggling career/children/cheer/anxiety/gratitude/frustration in the world’s new landscape— is for endurance. Now that it is abundantly clear we are in this unpredictable phase of life for the foreseeable future, she is asking God for the grit and strength to stick it out. To withstand. To dig deeply and find hidden deposits of durability as she sifts through the fatigue.

Wow,
I thought. Same here. 

Endurance. This is another trait I do not recognize as my own. I have always preferred a sprint to marathon, a jaunt to a journey, a foray to an encampment. But here we are, thickly in the middle of unknown territory with no shortcut home in sight.

How,
we may ask, can we keep this up? 

God, what lessons in endurance are you teaching us?

In the middle of the afternoon last week, I gratefully stepped inside the cool, air-conditioned walls of my relatives’ century-old fishing lodge to make a late lunch for my family, relieved to have a momentary reprieve from watching my husband and son tend to their catches under the hot summer’ sun. I passed by my daughter and niece who were hours-deep in imaginary play with their dolls on the creaky floors of a sleeping porch. And I was flooded with a wave of grateful disbelief over God’s abundant blessings. It was one of those gifted moments when life suddenly feels so achingly beautiful and pure and good. Since everyone seemed content in their current pursuits, I stole an extended moment to eat a sandwich of my own at the slanted old kitchen counter while reading an essay by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Allison Seay. And in a serendipitous extension of my inner thoughts, I read these words of hers:

“As nature continually instructs… survival in this world requires toughness—a species-particular fortitude, endurance, hardness, grit. Also true: survival sometimes requires brutality. 

But I am grateful, especially, for nature’s other instruction—its long patience, its dormancy begetting transformation, its beauty in decay, its resurrection, its generosity.”

Yes, I thought. Yes.

Fortitude in the face of fear, fatigue, uncertainty, even brutality begets transformation. There is indeed beauty and unexpected resurrection borne out of decay; but first, we must endure. 

In that moment, I felt ignited by God’s generous reminder that He created us to thrive, not only during times of feast but perhaps more importantly during times of famine. We are called to love each other, not only when it is simple but most especially when it is complicated. And we are not rewarded with sustaining joy when we send one carefree cast into wide open waters and easily snag our goal, but when we sweat it out hour after hour, day after day, determinedly trying our best, creatively shifting our techniques when we fail, until finally we connect with moments of hope fulfilled.

Dear Lord, 

Please meet us in the middle of the “trying” times. Fortify us in the depths of our discouragement. Lift us up with generous reminders that You made us of stronger, grittier stuff than we may have previously imagined. Thank you for moments of grace. Thank you for the transformations you are working in our weary hearts, forged by fire and trial. Thank you for encouraging us while we learn to endure. Please help us keep our eyes set on You, hearts ablaze, full of hope, wrapped in forcefields of Your goodness, so that we may continue to learn, grow, and love each other well. 

Amen.

A Note from Josh – College & Covenant Newsletters, July 2020

A Prayer for such a time as this 

God of All Creation, maker of heaven and earth, sustainer of life, we give thanks to you for this day that is wrought with anxiety about this pandemic and sadness over the racial tragedies of our nation. God, if it is not one thing, it is another. It seems the bottom has collapsed from under the certainty of our old rhythms. Our normal has been replaced with more division and hatred. Somehow we always manage to find new ways to divide ourselves. If ever there was a time for a ministry of reconciliation, now is that time. Of course, our apathy and exhaustion seem to be major players in this story. Disappointment has a grand supporting role too. We know your Spirit is always about character development, so Lord, please write an end to all this that honors your name and sanctifies our past, present, and future. We are open, maybe now more than ever, to how we could do better. Do not waste our confessions and vulnerabilities. We know that you accept broken spirits and contrite hearts. Please accept ours. Receive our copper coin efforts, and redeem these ill attempts at listening. If anyone could bring life from all this death, we proclaim that it is Jesus, your son, our Christ. May it be so. Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, June 2020

How are you feeling, friends? How are your souls today? Your hearts and weary minds— I wonder how they are faring in this moment. I wonder how each of us is really doing if we stop, breathe, and consider.

Certainly in the past when someone has asked me how I am doing, my most natural response has been a quick and positive affirmation: Fine! Nothing to see here! All is well! But even beyond that common, oftentimes distancing nicety, I have realized that my knee-jerk reaction to hardships of any kind has typically been of that same vein: It’s okay. I’m okay. It’s all going to be fine!

And I have to be honest with myself here about what’s at the root of my response. Is my insistence that all is well based on my deep faith that God is ultimately at work for good and thus all will indeed be well in the end? Yes, I sincerely hope so. But if I dig a little bit deeper on either side of that root, does my perspective also grow out of fortunate past experiences, having always existed in a place of unfathomable privilege where things truly have turned out fine in most cases? Undeniably, that answer is also yes. I have been uncomfortably sitting with that realization for quite a while now.

During this time of quarantine, I have felt an intermingling of many different emotions, but perhaps none more so than gratitude and guilt. I feel rushes of gratitude every day that I am healthy, that my people are safe, that we have a roof over our heads, that the world is so staggeringly beautiful despite the sickness spreading its way through the masses… Yet right on the heels of that gratitude comes the guilt. I think of all my friends and neighbors, as well as people I have never even met, who are suffering. Why should my family and I be “fine” and relatively unscathed when so many are in the desperate trenches of life?

Even more glaring, during this time of deep civil unrest, tragic racial tension, and widespread injustice, my heart feels further shattered in two.

As I trip humbly through these important, difficult conversations with my children, I am holding up heaps of heavy, prayerful questions to the Lord that have bubbled up from my heart as well as from theirs. And in our attempts to transform those questions into actions by giving and by helping, those efforts— though well-intentioned— can feel like mere drops in the pan.

And yet, we know that God does not call us to despair, even in the bleakest of times. He seeks to encourage each of us, not to discourage. And it is courage indeed that we need to proceed. No, things are not fine right now, and yes, we must be honest about that.

Perhaps God has quieted us all down for a reason over these past several months so that we would be best positioned to listen, to reflect, to accept hard truths, and to learn in order for real growth and real change. Perhaps 2020, the year of unsettling hardships, is also the year that we are all given an opportunity for the clearer vision that this year’s name suggests.

God is up to something, and I am praying for the courage and strength to rise to His call, to move past complacency, and to be part of His mighty force of empathic love in this world.

There is no way to cleanly wrap up these untethered ramblings on such a messy, crucial, ongoing topic, so I’ll leave you with a prayer sonnet I wrote during a recent sleepless night. My most fervent prayer has been for the Lord to help all of us, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to mend the heart-breaking injustices, to rise above divisive mistrusts, and even to move beyond the distancing niceties that hold each of us captive on self-secluding islands. I pray for honesty, for compassion, for reconciliation, and for the Lord’s peace that passes all understanding…

Our Father shared, who calls us each his child,
Breathe into us this day your peace and calm.
Yes, you, who loves us fully— fierce and wild—
Please offer our wrecked souls your saving balm.

These struggles feel too real and cut too deep.
We grieve for all we know not how to say.
We mourn for those who do not wake from sleep,
And those who pray all night for light of day.

We cry out for your help and for your grace,
We long for union and for understanding,
We crave to see the mercy of your face,
To feel the powerful strength of your commanding. 

Make real your promised rest from toiled labors,
That we may freely, boldly love our neighbors. 

Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, May 2020

Four people, in four different flavors of the same bad mood, zoom down a Tennessee highway inside a shared white car. There is no destination in mind, but perhaps each is quietly searching for something.

One is anxious, one is frustrated, one is in the depth of the moody blues, and one Cannot. Stop. Whining. Each gray cloud adds fuel to the other within the confines of four closed windows, yet outside, the car passes smoothly underneath a clear, bluebird sky.

“To dos” and “what ifs” buzz silently around the mind of the anxious one.

Dashed expectations hum inside the chest of the frustrated one.

Boredom and loneliness tug at Mr. Moody Blues’ tender heart in the back seat.

And poor Little Miss Whiny feels powerless and terribly misunderstood as she gazes out her smudged rear window.

And yet, from the perspective of the red-tailed hawk who swoops and floats overhead, there is only the white flash of a fast-moving car, passing more swiftly than the spring breeze, momentarily muting the songbirds’ calls before it rises over a slanting curve then dips out of sight. Peace returns to the roadside fields. Only the slow sway of a low hanging branch holds the fading proof that visitors ever slid beneath its glossy green leaves.

Some invisible urge nudges the anxious driver to roll down his window. To breathe in the cool air wafting up from someone’s freshly mowed farmland. He notices the careful maintenance of an old barn, surely centuries-old but lovingly repainted and dutifully kept over the generations. An unnameable appreciation for a hard-working farmer he will never know settles over him warmly, something close to nostalgia.

Through the now open windows, silos and hay bales and rolling hills slowly lull the frustration from the previously discontented passenger, too, as her eyes land on the flowing manes and swishing tails of horses in the near distance. One old horse is close enough to the field’s split rail fence that the passenger can observe the chestnut colored sheen of its coat and almost detect the knowing gleam of its dark eye. The horse knows nothing of petty disappointments, expects so little beyond its basic needs. A grounded steadiness returns to the passenger’s perspective as she watches the horses diminish from her rear view mirror.

Suddenly, the formerly moody boy with the big blue-green eyes spots an upended tree, toppled over by the powerful gusts the night before. He exclaims out loud about the size of its complex roots! The wide reach of its crown! The sheer magnitude that so narrowly missed the tin roof of a small house! The wind whips his hair as he cranes his neck for a better look. He thinks of all the trees and heavy limbs that could have caused so much more damage to his own home, and he is left breathless, awe-struck, and grateful.

Her brother’s words have shaken some of the gloom out of the littlest passenger’s spirits and helped her forget the “whys” of her whines. She spies her own treasure, waiting up ahead outside her open window. It’s a patch of buttercups, she sees them up close enough now to identify them as such, and eureka! She has made a discovery that it is indeed the buttercup flower— one of her very favorites— that has colored the hillsides in that brilliant yellow! Like an offering, here is the answer to a question that stumped her mere minutes before. This solved mystery makes her feel strong and connected, and soon she is dancing through fields of buttercups in her mind’s eye.

Moods shift as quickly as the car itself. Thank the good Lord for the grace in that. New realities, unexpected scenes, novel ideas, staggering beauty, widening perspectives, and deepening understandings present themselves at every turn. And what a beautiful gift from God above that not one thing is permanent outside of his love. He alone is eternal and unchanging. Nothing else lasts. There is wild freedom in that.

And as our broken, flawed, and utterly human foursome heads home, westward into the dazzling setting of the rose colored sun, a new joy rises in the hearts of four people, experiencing four different flavors of the same restorative grace.

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