Blazing a Trail in Corn and Life

Every fall, my family takes on the challenge of a local corn maze. We are determined to find all of the wooden animals that are stationed throughout the maze. It generally takes us over an hour. We have our strategy as we work together to explore every nook and trail. If we had an aerial view map of the maze, we could go much quicker. But where would the fun be in that?

Life is a maze. If we look into the past, from a higher view, we see where we took “dead end” turns and later think we should have gone right rather than left. When viewing the maze from overhead, it is easy to see that “shorter path” to the finish.

_DSC0586When we look back at our life, we see the maze. But unlike the predetermined maze in the corn field, the maze in our life unfolds along the way. We fail to realize, however, that the maze was not there when we started. We are not created to be a rat in a maze. We blaze the trail as we go.

There is not just one way that your life must unfold. We learn from those “dead ends” and we can find lessons and beauty in the trails that end up going in a circle. If you are going to look backwards, do so with the appreciation of the interesting pattern and patchwork of your life. Then turn forward again and keep creating your amazing journey.

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How Do We Keep Caring in a Broken World of Pain?

On an early Friday evening, my daughters and I sat on an outdoor patio at a local restaurant. I gazed at their expressive faces, delighting in their laughter and conversation. Our peace evaporated as a van pulled up in the parking lot next to us. At first the sounds from the vehicle were fine. Then their two-year old girl started to get out the wrong side of the van. Well, the wrong side according to her father. He yelled at her to go to the other side. She still tried to get out. He grabbed her and yelled louder. She screamed and called him a name. He yelled back and physically moved her to the other side.

I watched, waiting to see if intervention would be needed. Then I turned in time to see tears streaming down my youngest daughter’s face. She had stopped eating, as we all did, as she worried about that little girl.

I said, “She’ll be okay.” My daughter nodded bravely. Of course, I don’t know for sure. In that moment, it appeared the little girl was going to be fine based on the eventual resolution. But what might happen if her father’s anger grows even more violent? How might the harsh language affect her ability to care and love? We live in a dark world where bad things happen. How do we help?

The next day, my daughter walked into my office and glanced at the computer. The headline of the news article on the screen referred to the dead body of Michael Brown lying in the street. I said, “Don’t read it.” I didn’t think she needed the details at that point. But I could tell she already caught the headline. She looked down, eyes filling. I gently told her, “There are a lot of bad things in the world. You know some of them and you will learn more as you get older, but you will also keep learning how to help. We need to focus on how to help.” She nodded. I know I have to help her keep the empathy and sensitivity without being overwhelmed with sadness.

In my research, teaching, and church ministry, I frequently hear the pain of others. I listen to the news and it can get depressing. I survive by focusing on trying to help.

But how do we help? We can get lost in thinking that we have to be present in the current tragedies that fill the news. People wonder, “How do we help a situation like the painful events in Ferguson, MO? How do we help those facing death and torture in countries around the world?” It can be misleading to think those are the places where most of us are going to help. Yes, we need some people there. But most of us are called to help right where we are.

Reach out to your neighbor, a stranger in line with you, an acquaintance, or a friend. Look around your community and see what can be done to foster peace and offer kindness. We strive to prevent tomorrow’s violence by nurturing today’s relationships. Be kind and patient. Listen to others. Let people share their hurt. Be open to tears. Talk to people different from you in order to understand their lives better. Pray for guidance in how to offer love and grace more than judgment.

I know this may sound simplistic. With the complicated struggles in the world, it may feel like the simple acts of kindness are too little. But if we don’t start with the basics, we cannot provide a foundation from which to foster understanding and peaceful resolutions to conflict. I enjoy the story of how the legendary basketball coach John Wooden would start practice with his team. He taught them how to put on socks. He said they had to make sure there were no wrinkles in the socks. Then he showed them how to properly tie the shoes so the socks stayed in place, preventing blisters. He started with the basics. We cannot overlook the simple acts of kindness and the attention to getting wrinkles out of relationships early so that we prevent the blisters later.

When I see the fresh tears streaking my child’s face, I remember how precious, and sometimes scarce, are the gifts of compassion and empathy. We cannot give up caring even when surrounded by news of sad, traumatic, violent events. We need more compassion and kindness.

Feel the tears of empathy. Then focus on what you can do to help someone near you.





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Be the Beauty in Our Broken World

In an earlier post, I wrote about how we have to rethink the definition of beauty in order to find it in brokenness.  In addition to broadening our imagination of what beauty means, we need to expand our awareness of how small acts of kindness can give others great beauty.

We live in a broken world—poverty, discrimination, crime, death, and war. We also continually face natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. We need to stay encouraged in knowing there is beauty and hope in this brokenness—otherwise it gets too depressing and overwhelming to reach out a helping hand.

Anyone can offer moments of encouragement, hope, and beauty to others. And perhaps it is just as important to tell you that anyone around you might become a source of beauty.

Amazing advances in technology and innovation in this digital world have changed the way we live.   However, you will still find more beauty in simple acts of humanity.

In one of my classes, I have crime victims talk to my students about their experiences with crime and the complications that follow.  One year, Samuel, a man in his 70s, shared with my students about abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his parents. As he grew up, he became angry, bitter, and started to hurt others. In high school, a teacher changed his life. The first day of class, she waited at the door when students were leaving in order to shake their hands. He tenderly recalled how she took his hand in both of hers and said “Samuel, I’m looking forward to getting to know you.” He was shocked, and touched, that anyone would want to get to know him. Over 60 years later, that simple act of a teacher shaking his hand and warmly greeting him still brought tears to his eyes.

In that same class, Fred told my students about the pain of losing his son because of a drunk driver. As part of his work doing victim impact panels in prisons, he met another inmate who had nothing to do with his son’s death. Nonetheless, the inmate, who is an artist, drew a portrait of Fred’s son at no cost.  The grieving father said: “Words cannot describe the healing that artwork has provided.”

Acts of kindness can change people’s lives even if you do not see the results.   Anyone can give beauty to others in our broken world.   But you need to be ready.   Look up from your phones. Disconnect from technology more so you can connect with those around you.  Look people in the eyes and listen to their stories.

at lake for blogSometimes you cannot know the misery in one’s life, but you should always work to treat others with compassion and patience. You will add beauty to people’s lives in ways that you’ll never hear about or see.

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Find Beauty in Brokenness

You can find beauty in the midst of brokenness, but you may need to expand your understanding of beauty to recognize it.

Beauty pleases the senses. Often we think about the physical and visual senses for what we find beautiful.   But many other senses connect to beauty, too. A sense of compassion and wonder. A sense of trust in the face of vulnerability. A sense of goodness.

A moment of beauty gives us a glimpse into something better, something nearing perfection; not perfection in terms of human constructions of physical beauty, but a glimpse of creation as it was meant to be.

A moment of beauty connects us to something outside of ourselves.  We become part of something bigger and more important.

There is beauty in the healing of broken relationships.
There is beauty in forgiveness.
There is beauty in hope and in a spirit that refuses to give up.
There is beauty in helping others you don’t even know.
There is beauty in human compassion and generosity.

Look for beauty even in hard times.

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Are you good at comforting others?

My daughter stood in the kitchen with me as I put dishes away.  I turned my head and whacked it hard into the corner of an open cupboard door.  My head throbbed as I cried out in pain.  You know, that cry of agony right before your ability to breathe disappears momentarily.

My daughter cried out, “Mommy!”  After a moment, I managed to say, “I’m okay, honey. It just hurts. But I’ll be fine.”

hugShe stood beside me as I held my head.  She gently patted my arm and gave me a sweet hug.  She just waited with me as the pain slowly receded.

When I could talk better,  I said to her, “You are good at comforting. Where did you learn how to do that?   She says, “From you.”

It was one of those moments when I thought, “I guess I’m doing something right in my parenting.”

We can’t prevent people from hurting.  And we can’t speed the pain along.  But we can offer a gentle presence.  We can wait along side someone who is hurting.   And while offering a calm, quiet presence, we might show others how to comfort, too.

I often see parents brushing off their kids’ injuries or troubles.  Some parents fear that if they “baby” their kids whenever they fall, then they will not grow up “tough.”    For me, I’ve wanted to make sure my kids know their emotions and pain are important. I want them to know they can share their fears and sadness.   I’m far from perfect in doing this.   But when experiencing my daughter comforting me, I realized that she was not afraid to be there with me in my pain.

Don’t avoid people’s sadness and tears or even cries of agony.  We don’t like to see pain in others, but don’t be afraid to step into the hurt with them.   Give them time and space to express sorrow while you stand by as a calming presence.

My head hurt for a few days.   However, my daughter’s gentle and loving care stays with me always.

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Grief and Violence in The Lego Movie (Spoiler Alert)

He is angry towards his father.   Expressing his anger, the boy imagines and then acts out violent attacks: beheadings, explosions, shootings, and pushing people off a cliff. And in the end, he gets what he wants—and wins the girl too.

Am I referring to the life of a boy who recently shot people at a movie theater, school, or mall?    No, I am describing the main character from The Lego Movie.

Yes, the ending softens the story. Yes, I realize the figures are not real.  Yes, I know children’s minds are active.   But let’s go deeper with the themes of this movie.

If a child had written that story in school, there is a good chance he would be suspended.   (I’m not arguing a suspension would be right. In fact, I think that is the wrong way to approach youth who are displaying tendencies towards violence.)  My point, though, is that we question the active imagination of violence in some situations but not in others.  For our entertainment, we often welcome violent scripts and encourage children to watch them again and again.

the-lego-movie10Is violence the only way to tell the story in The Lego Movie?  (Spoiler alert here.)    What is the premise of the story? A boy is frustrated with his dad because he will not let him play with the Lego toys freely.  This is a story of hurt, frustration, and grief.  The boy grieves the distance between him and his dad.  He grieves not having the freedom to play the way that feels right to him. He grieves that his dad does not understand.   The lesson we learn from the movie comes after over 90 minutes of intense and violent attacks all played out with Lego toys.  The attacks are from the boy’s imagination (written by adult men), which is obviously depicted as overflowing with violence and anger.

I’m not against Legos.  My girls love to play with Legos, and I believe they can be wonderful for imagination and creative play.  This is one of the arguments in the movie.   And it is obviously not just The Lego Movie that exploits themes of violence for our entertainment.  (Or pokes fun at consumerism as a way to sell toys, but that is a different post.)

I am not arguing that movies and video games (or violent Lego play) cause our school shootings. However, they do give scripts for how to handle anger and grief.

Boys and men are told again and again in our culture that they shouldn’t cry. They should not show fear.  They should not grieve (or at least very little).   In our culture, we allow men to freely express one main emotion:  Anger.   In many ways, we support the expression of anger through aggression in sports, movies, video games, play, and intimate relationships.

Most boys and men do not go around shooting and assaulting others.  Even for men who do not choose violence, they have to endure the culture that tells them not to be sad or afraid.  The fortunate ones have role models in their lives who show them non-violent ways to express grief and frustration.

In the end of the movie, the dad learns to listen to his son.  That is great.  I love that part.  But in spite of that short moment, it is the 90 minutes of violence that linger.  For some bothered by the violence, the ending may redeem the movie.  For me, it leaves a lot of questions.

Is violence the only way we can keep people’s attention that long? Are there not other ways of telling stories about grief, frustration and anger that do not take explosions, shootings, and beheadings?  And what about those children (or adults) who do not have anyone at the end of their imaginary violent play to help them release anger?

file0001810277257There is a lot of pain, anger, and grief in the world.   We need to learn how to give people freedom to grieve in ways that does not bring harm to others.   I would like to see a version of The Lego Movie that had five minutes of a kid tearing down a Lego set out of frustration and 90 minutes of a parent learning how to help the child through listening and spending time together building a less violent Lego (and real) world.  Would anyone else watch that movie?  I fear that too many people will say no.


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Thirteen Years

On February 2, my family and I remembered our son Zachariah who was stillborn thirteen years ago. The notes, flowers, and words of comfort we continue to receive from friends and family are precious. Thank you. When people are reminded of how long it has been, often they say, “Oh, he would have been a teenager.” Painful words of what is not to be. It is hard to grasp his absence, so I try to find comfort in holding his presence. Words failed me more often than not this weekend. In his memory, I dedicate this poem.

Thirteen Years

Fresh snow covers the earth
Swallowing roads in white.
No need waiting till a path clears
My heart knows the way after thirteen years.
Finding a grave covered in snow
With every step, new footprints show.
Falling to my knees
Breathing tender cold,
Empty arms extending
With only a flower to hold.
Tenderly brushing until his name shows.
Kissing petals of a yellow rose.
Gently quiet
Falls the snow,
Peaceful and still,
Before it’s time to go.
Turning to leave, a look back
“Will my tracks help others,”
I pause to wonder,
“When lives are torn asunder?”
Fresh grief covers the earth.
New tracks will appear.
Your imprints on my heart
Will never disappear.
“I see your footprints, little one.”
Whispering through tears,
“My heart knows your way after thirteen years.”
                               Nancy Berns
                              Zachariah’s Mom
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Learning to Float in Grief

When my children were little, they did not want to put their faces under water. During swimming lessons, I watched as their wonderful coach gently worked with them to get more comfortable. First they blew bubbles and then gradually put their heads further in the water. It took a long time, over several lessons, before they were able to bob up and down freely. Their coach was an experienced swimmer, who competed in college and had been teaching swim lessons for years. He said that 90% of learning to swim is figuring out how to be comfortable with your head under water.

lyd swimI don’t know enough about swimming to comment on the 90%, but I can say that once my children were finally willing to put their heads under, they soon loved the water.

Not everyone takes so long to get comfortable with water. I witness many little kids jumping in the pool with no care in the world (as their parents scramble to get them because they are in over their heads). But the principle holds: most people enjoy swimming more when they are comfortable with their head under water. Until you can get your head down, it is hard to swim or float. If your head comes out, your body goes down and you start to sink. When immersed and relaxed, you begin to realize that you will float, and over time you start to appreciate freedom in the water.

It is similar in learning how to find joy in the midst of grief. Wade into the pain (like getting use to the cold) until you feel some warmth. Face the pain long enough to be able to look around and see that joy and life remain. You can learn to float while immersed in grief.

How do we get comfortable with grief? There is no one right way. Often, time helps, but it does not guarantee complete healing as the cliche suggests. Others choose to face grief head on. But completely hiding from grief tends to be a difficult option. Stephen Colbert agrees.

Famous for his character on The Colbert Report, what many people do not realize about this funny man is how intimately Stephen Colbert knows grief. When he was 10 years old, his father and two brothers were killed in an airplane crash. More recently his mother died. In interviews, Colbert shared his thoughts on grieving: “The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase, ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

Colbert said he learned from his mother lessons about embracing pain: “What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

Susan also knows grief. Her parents, husband, and a son have all died. She maintains that you can have grief and joy at the same time, but you can’t run from the grief. “The secret is you don’t hide from yourself emotionally. I think that if you hide, you’re more dead than you are alive. And you can never ever experience the same level of joy and happiness that you will experience if you don’t fully understand and recognize that when grief comes, you invite it to have coffee.” Laughing, Susan adds, “You might not ask it to stay for lunch, but you invite it to have coffee.”

You need to learn how to keep your head under water to enjoy swimming; but you also need to learn when to come up to breathe, so that you don’t drown. You have to watch out for undertow, waves, rocks, and other people crashing into you. You have to know your limits so you don’t go too deep or too far, tread too long, or get too tired. It is helpful to be with others when swimming so that someone can help if needed.

The same is true for grief. We need to learn how to be comfortable in grief without drowning. Watch out for the undertow. Be careful about other people pulling you under. Learn your limits and know when to come up for air. Moments of laughter and joy help us catch our breath.

ducksImmersing ourselves in grief long enough to discover that we can float gives us more freedom to feel the joy and love that remain. And in both grief and water, it is best not to be alone.

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Gardening for the Soul

One time when away from my office for four weeks, I failed to have anyone water the plants. When I came back, the plants were brown, shriveled up, and almost dead. I did not know if I could bring them back to their former vibrant selves, but I had to try.  Having a tender heart for living things on the verge of death, I was not about to throw them away.

So I watered them.  Then I began cutting.  I cut off the longer parts of the hanging vines.  I knew that the plant would have an easier time recovering when not hanging on to so much. I removed all the dead leaves.  Then I removed the wilted ones that had no green in them.

The plants hung low, limp, and sad.  I watered them some more a few hours later, but not so much that they would drown.  And I made sure the sun could reach the fragile life.

I came back two days later.  They looked a bit better but there were some new brown leaves.  I took those leaves off and gave the plants more water. I put them in the sun and let them rest.  They needed water, sun, and time.

A week later, I came into my office and noticed the plants looked better.  Not whole, but better. The leaves that were left had filled out more.  They were perked up and had energy to reach for the sun.  I gave them more water.  And let them rest.  The plants are shorter and thinner, but alive and growing.

When our souls have wilted, we need to nurture them.  Cut off the dead leaves and step back from the people and things hanging on that are not essential.  Focus on the parts of your life that need your attention the most.

file0001513813049Drink water, eat well, get some sun, and rest.  Give yourself time to heal, not expecting to return immediately to your former vibrant self.   Take it slow.    When you see that new bit of green, take hope and know you are growing.

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Unwrap A Gift for Living From the One Who Died

Forcing her feet to step out of the car, Susan dried her eyes before walking into the country dance hall.  No one there knew that the reason she wanted to dance was also why her tears fell so easily.

Her love for dancing started with the house dances from her childhood. Susan beamed, “I was not any older than five years when my dad taught me to waltz, schottische, polka and two-step. And he loved to dance.” Laughing, Susan recalled, “My dad would act the fool. That was his phrase, ‘Don’t we just love to act the fool, Susie!?’  That was me. I was all in.”

images-2Years later, Susan would find another dancing partner in William. Their marriage was packed full, but tragically short.   “William and I were very much coupled in everything that we did.”  And they danced.  Smiling as her eyes filled, Susan said,  “We were dancers. When we stood up to dance, people sat down to watch.”

Just three years into their marriage, William was diagnosed with cancer.  He died a year later at age 51.

“After William died,”  Susan said,  “I was so empty.  There just wasn’t anything there. Food meant nothing to me. Sleep meant nothing to me. Nothing meant nothing.”  Pausing, she realized, “It was like I had died.”

When asked how she survived, Susan immediately said, “My faith. I would not be sitting here without my faith. “

A few months after her husband died, Susan went back to graduate school.  “I deduced I was there because God wanted me to be there. God kept me alive.  He kept me putting one foot in front of the other.”   God was helping her take one step at a time, but would Susan ever return to the two-step on the dance floor?

A challenge in grieving is learning to move forward in life while fearing that you will leave behind loved ones.  Those who died remain in the old world, and it is scary to move into the new world without them.  For Susan, dancing was something she loved, first with her dad and then with William.  But how would she be able to keep dancing now?  It turns out that William gave her a way.

One evening about a week before William died, they took a walk together.  William turned to Susan and said, “Promise me you’ll keep dancing.”  Susan recalls, “ I said, ‘Damn you, William!’ Because I was thinking, “Who the hell am I going to dance with?”   But I loved to dance and he knew I loved to dance.  And maybe at a very deep level, he knew that would be therapeutic for me.”

Months after his death, his request helped her get out the door. Susan says she doubts she would have kept dancing had he not said that to her.  “I drove by myself,” recalled Susan.  “I would cry all the way to the dance and I’d go home by myself and cry the whole way home.  But I loved it.  In between it was wonderful.”  William had given her a gift for living that she was able to unwrap even after his death.

Our loved ones who die can inspire us to keep living.  The conversations, values, and memories provide a bridge between the two worlds.  Susan kept dancing in large part because it helped her stay connected to William.  Without his requesting her to “promise you’ll keep dancing,” Susan may have felt guilty.  Yes, she was still sad about not having him for a dance partner.  But the dancing was healing for her and he gave her a gift in that brief conversation.    At the time, it made Susan angry because she could not imagine dancing without William.  He was leaving her!  But in the end, while sad, she realized that he was still with her on that dance floor.  Not as she wanted, but at least in a way she needed.

Picture+49Sometimes there are no conversations that leave specific promises with those who survive a loss.  There may be no direct requests to keep dancing.  However, people still can find meaning in how a loved one lived.    We can connect those meanings and values to how we continue to live our lives.   Our loved ones who died gave us gifts to help us move forward while staying connected to our past.   We need to unwrap them.

The joy of Christmas came in an unusual gift of a baby.   For Christians, Jesus is a gift of hope and life in a time of darkness.   We can find other gifts for living from our loved ones, even after death. Their funny stories make us laugh.   Their examples of generosity inspire us to give.  Their quirky traditions live on in younger generations. Their dedication to the community guides our service.   Their faith and hope strengthens us in times of doubt.   Their precious lives, even when short, give us love.

imagesThis Christmas, look for the gifts you have already received from those who died. Unwrap the gift of living even as tears fall.   Promise me you’ll keep dancing.


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