God Will Not Be Distracted


As the Fall semester was winding down, I spent weeks working on a unique project for one of my classes. I was in an independent study called Theology & Ethics of Death and Dying. At my professor’s suggestion, instead of a typical research paper, I crafted a pair of prayer services. One was written for patients with a chronic or terminal illness. The other was written for their caregivers. In addition, I included a short paper on why these services were important and should be a regular fixture in the ministry of the church.  This project started off in early October as a way combining what I was learning with my passion for invisible people while at the same time channeling my creative side. it quickly became so much more. It became a way of addressing what I was experiencing at home.

I’m the main caretaker for my mom, who has advanced congestive heart failure. Some illnesses progress in a roller-coaster with dramatic upswings and sudden drops. CHF is more like a Slinky falling down a flight of stairs. It may pause for awhile, but it never goes back up. Over the last year or so, I’ve found most people don’t understand the progression of the disease unless they’ve been through it with a family member. Over the past few months, I have politely and gently answered the repeated question: “Is she doing better?”  with an explanation that no major improvement is to be expected. But after months of this, I find myself wanting to scream “Didn’t you hear me the first 30 times I answered you?”  On one hand, I try to remind myself that the person asking cared enough to ask but on the other hand, I have reached a point in life where I’ve realized that it’s the not the people who ask that I count as friends. It’s the ones who listen to the answers. It’s also the ones who follow up with a question on how I’m doing and won’t accept my favorite lie, “I’m fine. ”

Working on this project gave me a way to acknowledge the isolation and inherent loneliness that comes with a chronic or terminal illness. I chose scripture readings that acknowledged loss but also conveyed hope in God who sustains all things. I found hymns that brought me strength and prayers that offered comfort. But even as I assembled and wrote, I realized I was struggling far more than I was willing to admit. The emotional impact of trying to be a a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a good employee, a good student, and still maintain enough detachment to be a good caretaker and medical proxy had pushed me to the brink of burnout. Simple everyday things, some days even getting out of bed, became emotionally taxing. Okay – so maybe I was past the brink. But what was I going to do? Everything still needed to get done and some things simply can’t be delegated.

In the midst of this, prayer had become more difficult. In the same way I felt withdrawn or removed from people around me, I also felt withdrawn from God. I simply had nothing to say and quite frankly, I didn’t feel like listening much either. And yet, God was the only one not demanding my time and undivided attention. Our time spent at the beach every morning became the only quiet in my days and yet even there, I couldn’t quite take a deep breath and relax. I showed up anyway because I really didn’t know what else to do.

As Christmas break approached, I had time to read whatever I wanted and I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. My younger son questioned my choice of reading materials. After several conversations, he finally said to me, “Mom, you’re going to get your head stuck. You need to stop reading shop [theology and/or religion] and read something like normal people read. You can’t be a good theologian if you can’t see with fresh eyes and you can’t see with fresh eyes if you can’t look away.” And so for Christmas, he and his brother bought me a light, fluffy non-religious novel. I’ll have to admit that it helped to crawl into a book for a few days and escape for awhile. I bought another by the same author, which I also burned through in a few short days.

By the time break was coming to a close, I went back to reading Bonhoeffer, but as my 16 year-old predicted, I read with fresh eyes. At the end of particularly long, difficult day, I read the following:

“I’ve learnt here especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf:

With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge
Written from Tegel Prison
Christmas Eve 1943

In that moment, after weeks of feeling disconnected, invisible, and often unheard, I suddenly felt very much understood and embraced. While I had been distracted, God was not. God heard every word I hadn’t said, followed every line of thought I’d not dared bring to completion, knew every feeling I’d pushed away and then, ever so gently, God let me know I was not alone.

I’m back in classes as the Spring semester is in full swing. The demands for my time and attention are no less than they were before. I still find myself feeling detached and removed. But my time with God at the beach in the morning has again become the one time and place that I can take a deep breath and relax, even for a little while and I know that I will be heard, even when I have nothing at all to say.

The Cookie Meditation

Something Yummy This Way Comes...

Something Yummy This Way Comes…

It starts as soon as the weather gets cold, sometimes as early as September, definitely by late October.  There’s a chill not only in the air outside but inside too.  Not in the house but in me. The only thing that chases that chill away is to bake and it has to be cookies. I never really paid it much mind until this year.  I felt so lousy for most of the past several years that a batch or two was about all I could pull off and the urge to bake was only another ache to be tolerated.  But this year, even with being back in school and the craziest busy season I’ve ever seen at work, I baked nearly every single weekend with energy to spare.  Batch after batch after batch. Snickerdoodles, Date Bars, Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Snowflakes, Molasses Spice Drops, Scandinavian Butter Cookies and Mini Chocolate Chip cookies filled the cookie tins. I even wore out the old mixer. (In my defense, it was as old as I am.) I baked old school, grinding dates with my Grandma’s 100 year-old cast iron meat grinder and dusting confectioners sugar with Mom’s 60 year-old sifter. I spent my Saturday mornings sipping a strong cup of Irish tea, paging through the bright pink book known around here as simply The Cookie Book, and scoping out new things to try.

But why?  I knew I was looking for something but what? The warmth of the oven? The comforting smells of butter, chocolate, cinnamon, ginger and other spices? The nostalgia of doing what my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had done for years? Maybe another batch would help me figure it out…

The funny part is, I don’t eat most of them. The boys do. Mom does. My sister does. I take them to work. I randomly drop them off to friends or neighbors. I’m in it for the making, not the eating.

I started to pay attention to what I was doing. I’m not a neat cook but I am a logical one. There’s a system to my madness. I have to work left to right and the ingredients go back into the cabinet once I’ve measured out what I need. I’ll only use one set of measuring spoons even though we have two. I have my good cookie sheets that no one else dares to use. My phone is my timer and I know how many cookies I can get on the trays before it’s time to rotate trays from oven to cooling rack.

Cookies are all about precision. Even when I tinker with my nearly-perfected chocolate chip recipe, I know exactly how much extra brown sugar I can sneak in or how much less vanilla I can use. So I was furious with myself when I screwed up a batch of chocolate snowflakes using baking soda instead of baking powder. They were beautiful but they were hard as rocks.  Such a simple thing really.  Most of my cookies use baking soda and I reached for it out of habit.  It wasn’t until after the cookies were done that I realized what I had done wrong.  Mom and I ate them anyway. Chocolate is chocolate after all and, dunked in hot cocoa, they softened up quite nicely.

But that mistake slowed me down a bit.  I paid closer attention to what I reached for, intentionally reading what I needed and not working out of habit. I noticed something else along the way. In seeking out new cookies, I was gravitating towards recipes that were more labor-intensive than my old favorites.  Most needed to be mixed then chilled for a few hours and then rolled into balls, then rolled in sugar, cinnamon or some combination of the two.  It takes time to roll 70 cookies into perfect little balls.

And it finally dawned on me last night, as cookies covered every flat space in the kitchen that this is what I was seeking: the time to slow down and work logically, methodically and precisely when everything at work and school and with the kids was out-of-control crazy.  I need the time to make a huge mess and then bring it back into perfect order.  There are only so many ways I know to pull that off: writing, stitching and baking. If I pull out my stitching or sit down at the kitchen table to write, suddenly everybody needs something from me.  But if I pull out the mixing bowls, the kitchen miraculously empties for a couple of hours.  Left alone in my mess, the crazy burns out in the oven, the stress washes off in the sink and the chill inside dissipates … at least for awhile.

What comes out of this oven is only as good as the combination of what goes into it.  Life is like that too.  It’s okay to have out-of-control crazy but only if there’s a slow down somewhere to balance it.  So if you happen to wander into my kitchen during these colder months and it looks like the cabinets may have exploded, it’s okay. I’m just meditating. And if you leave me be, I promise you, I will bring order from chaos and something sweet will come of it.