I Wonder If It Hurts to Live

I wonder if it hurts to live,

And if they have to try,

And whether, could they choose between,

They would not rather die.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

The fall my daughter Laura started college, a sophomore student climbed to the seventh floor of one of the classroom buildings and leapt from a balcony to his death. Laura went to the impromptu student-led candlelight vigil held in the university’s Brickyard that night. Prayers were said, Psalms read. Students, teachers, and staff alike wondered, Why? Nobody saw it coming, not even his suite mates.

~~~

Every time I go to work at the university food court, I walk through the Brickyard where the vigil was held. From the front windows of the dining area, I can look across the yard and see the building from which the young student fell. I didn’t know him but, after three years, I still feel the loss.

The reasons for suicide are many and complicated. Often a suicide is prompted by mental illness or substance abuse, twin demons that first kidnap the mind and then kill the body. Other people are overwhelmed by perceived failures, lost love, financial ruin. Each individual has his own tangled web of motives for choosing death. And yet if you boil the reasons down to their lowest common denominator, you always find despair.

~~~

It hurts to live. We live in a world of hurt, a place where pain often seems to outweigh pleasure and where all the shades of sadness—everything from small disappointments to unthinkable tragedies—paint the backdrop to our existence. I’ve often thought that even the easiest of lives is hard.

~~~

When the students line up at my cash register, we exchange smiles and a few words of greeting. They appear happy, most of them. But sometimes I wonder what’s really going on in their heads, behind those youthful eyes.

Even as they prepare for the future, I have no doubt the usual existential questions tug at their minds: Why am I here? What’s it all about? I shudder to think of the answers offered to them by the world. Do their professors insist that we are all cosmic accidents, free-floating agents of biology and fate with nothing to tether us to a meaningful purpose? Do their parents goad them to succeed at all costs, because short of success, a person is nothing? Do the media tell them they must be famous, beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and—God forbid—a rock star, when they know instinctively—most of them, anyway—they were born to be common, and that what should be celebrated as a grand thing—living a common life—is met instead with derision and contempt? Do they sense somehow that there is a God, but are these nascent longings crushed by those who mock any mention of the Divine, who view religious faith as, at best, a superstition, at worst, the source of all evil? Do all the world’s messages create such turmoil in the human psyche that finally the only seemingly sensible thing to do is to climb seven flights of stairs with no intention of walking back down?

~~~

Even if you don’t jump, you can be dead while you’re still breathing. Because if you don’t know what you’re living for, you aren’t living.

~~~

There’s the story about the man who found an eagle’s egg and put it into the nest of a prairie chicken. When it hatched, naturally the eagle thought it was a chicken. It didn’t notice that it was different, and no one told him. Once he saw an eagle flying high on a current of wind, and something inside of him identified; he longed to be like that. But one of his chicken-brothers told him to forget it; he was a chicken and that was all he’d ever be. For years he scratched in the dirt for seed and insects like the other chickens. When he flew, he never got more than a few feet off the ground, because that’s how all the other chickens flew. The eagle didn’t know he had wings that were built to take him to great heights. He died without knowing that he could soar.

~~~

I wonder whether it might have made a difference to that young man if he had known he was created in the image of God and born to be in a love relationship with him. That his wings weren’t those of a prairie chicken, so stunted that he couldn’t rise above failures, fears, broken relationships—whatever it was that weighed him down as his feet carried him up the stairwell. I wonder whether it might have changed everything if he had known he was here because God wanted him here, that God loved him desperately and had plans for him far beyond the years that he would wander through this crazy world. That there was a whole eternity of love waiting for him beyond this life, the very love that makes this journey bearable, and at times almost unbearably beautiful.

~~~

Each one of us is here because God wants us here. We sprang from the loving heart of a Father who knew us individually before he laid the foundations of the world. God love us. He wants us to spend our lives loving him.

~~~

And, just to make this perfectly clear, I’m talking to you. The one who is reading this. God loves you. God loves you. He loves you. There are no exceptions. Spread your eagle-wings and live your life as the love story it was created to be. Even in a world of hurt, you were made to soar.

~~~

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.   1 John 4:9, NRSV

Kevin’s Story: Leaves

My friend Kevin Spencer knows what it is to face the daily dreariness, and sometimes horror, of a life behind bars. Beginning in 1987, he spent seven years in the Florida Department of Corrections. From that dark time he has many stories to share, but one sticks out to me as a beautiful example of the profound simplicity of God’s presence in one man’s place of pain. Here is Kevin’s story…

                                                                           ~~~

I stood in a long shuffling line of inmates that slowly approached the prison mail room. The mail room was actually a separate building on the grounds of the Florida Department of Corrections. We were lined up in front of a small window where the officer assigned to handle our mail read, censored, and dispensed our contacts with the outside the world.

I was in prison, a victim of my own stupidity. It was Fall, the season which throughout my life had been my favorite time of year. Now, my spirits were at rock bottom. I had been here a little over a year, and despite my Lord’s promise to me that I would go home, I could see no end to my incarceration. I was stuck here. I missed home. I missed the changing of the seasons.

In central Florida, the seasons don’t change. Okay, that’s unkind. There actually are two seasons in Florida: The brutally hot green leaf season, and the not so warm brown leaf season. Here at the prison, we were currently in the transition between the two. I so missed seeing the leaves change color. It was bad enough seeing the outside world through a double chain-link fence topped with barbed razor wire, but to watch the distant Ocala National Forest just slowly turn from green to olive to brown was even more depressing.

My heart was empty. I didn’t think God was listening to me anymore, but as I stood in the line, I silently prayed again: “Please Father, I just want to go home. Please.”

Finally, I got to the mail window. I was fortunate in that my dad wrote to me almost every day. Sometimes just a couple of lines. Usually some clippings from the local paper about life at home in Raleigh, and later Lincolnton, North Carolina. Dad was great at writing. And the result was that I was in the mail line every day, and the mail officer knew me perhaps better than she knew some of the other inmates.

She looked up as I approached, and I saw something in her face as she saw me. She motioned me to step to the side door. This had never happened before, but I did as I was told.

She opened the side door, and told me: “I can’t let you have this, but I’m going to let you see it.” She handed me a large manila envelope. It was from my dad. When I opened it, out slid a handful of red, yellow, and orange leaves that Dad had evidently picked up in the yard. Knowing how much I missed the seasons, he had decided to send them to me. My eyes welled up as I fingered the leaves for a second, and I smiled at the thought of my dad walking through the yard picking them up like a little boy.

“I’m sorry I can’t let you have them,” the officer said. I struggled to keep back the tears and mumbled something about it being okay. And fingering the leaves one last time, I handed them back.

“Thank you,” I told her.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. And then, as she shut the door, she said, “Watch your feet.”

Glancing down automatically as the door clicked shut, I saw at my feet a bright scarlet Sugar Maple leaf. She had dropped it there for me. A small kindness. I scooped it up and stashed it in my Bible. I didn’t get to go home that day, but God had brought a small piece of home to me. I carried that leaf in my Bible until the day I was finally released. It served as a reminder that God’s love was with me even there in prison, and that He was listening to my prayers always.

Some Drops and Dews

 

And what the men of this world miss,
The drops and dews of future bliss.
~ Henry Vaughan, “The Revival”

~~~

Oswald Chambers was a preacher whose ministry took him around the world in the early part of the 20th century. More than 100 years after his death in 1917, he remains well known for his teaching, as his words were compiled posthumously into some 50 books by his wife, Gertrude. His most popular book is My Utmost for His Highest.

 ~~~

At the outset of his ministry, Oswald Chambers lived through years of spiritual dryness and inner turmoil, an experience he himself described as “dark moods of the mind” and “this dark strife.” Though he was a sought-after preacher as well as a teacher at his alma mater, The Gospel Training College in Dunoon, Scotland, he almost gave up on his faith. But God wouldn’t let him go.

In his inspiring biography of Chambers, author David McCasland tells of three times God spoke to his fledgling servant during this turbulent time.

Once, Chambers was sitting in his room at the college late at night when his dog Tweed jumped in through the open window, put his head on Oswald’s knee, and looked up into his eyes. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone.

A second time Oswald was in his room with the door open when the baby boy of the house padded in barefoot, in his pajamas and ready for sleep. He marched up to the room’s occupant, said, “Mr. Chambers, I loves you,” then turned and went back to his bed.

Finally, while Chambers was teaching at a Christian gathering, a mentally disabled girl walked down the aisle toward him and laid a small bouquet of wilted flowers on the table. With the flowers was a note: “With love from daft Meg.”

As McCasland describes it, “Each event seemed to be a tender touch from the Father conveying His presence and love.” *

Notice the simplicity of these moments, and yet they had a profound impact on Chambers. He was able to move beyond his dark night of the soul and into a place of peace with God and complete trust in him.

I believe God pours into each of our lives evidence of his love, these sometimes small drops and dews of future bliss. I want to be a story collector, one who collects these stories and shares them here with you.

In the weeks ahead, I will begin by sharing the love notes found in an autumn leaf, a child’s words, and the bells of a basilica. I trust these three stories are the first of many. You may send your stories to me at anntatlockblog@gmail.com. They should be somewhere between 500-1,000 words. I can’t guarantee publication, but I do promise to try to read and respond to every story that lands in my mailbox. I enjoy nothing more than reading stories about God’s love.

* McCasland, David. Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1993, p. 84.

Those Who Inspire No Envy

In 2016, God sent me back to school. Not to earn another master’s degree or a doctorate, but to learn what I couldn’t learn in any other way. He placed me as a cashier in the university’s food court.

~~~

I suppose I really began to learn the lesson on the day I went to the dentist. At the end of the checkup he told me I needed two crowns and a root canal. I left the dental office feeling dazed, like I’d been hit on the back of the head. Fixing my teeth would cost many thousands of dollars, and I didn’t have—nor could I ever conceive of having—that amount of money.* What happens, I wondered, when a person doesn’t fix her teeth? Do they just rot and fall out?

From there, I went on to work. The first person to greet me when I walked in was Angelo, one of the men who stocks the packaged food and drinks. He offered me a big smile, and when he did, I noticed what I hadn’t noticed before. Many of his teeth were missing. Those that remained were chipped and broken.

When a person grows up financially secure like I did, she thinks everyone goes to the dentist to have their teeth fixed. But when I looked at Angelo’s smile, I realized—no, not everyone. What was normal to me as a child is to some an unattainable privilege. That day, I didn’t sympathize with Angelo; I empathized. I understood him, because we were in the same place.

~~~

The people I work with at the food court aren’t seeking success. They are mostly trying simply to survive. Many work two jobs; some work three. Some work seven days a week with no days off. Some work day shifts and night shifts both, leaving their night job in the morning to go to their day job. A number are ill with diseases like diabetes and kidney failure. Some are crippled with arthritis. They come to work in pain and go home in pain.

These are the people no one envies and no one aspires to be like. Who dreams of becoming a sixty-year-old cashier whose legs are bowed with rheumatism? Who yearns to be a single mother who works at the food court and at Burger King both, yet still can’t make ends meet? Who hopes to grow up to become a middle-aged stock boy with broken teeth?

~~~

I love these people. Every day they greet me with smiles, with hugs, with enthusiastic cries of “Hi, Miss Ann!” While we work we grab a few minutes here and there to talk, swap stories, laugh. While there are the usual personality conflicts, I more often see kindness and encouragement. Once, to my surprise, Miss Merle threw her big arms around me and gave me a smothering hug. She just wanted to tell me she loves me.

~~~

Merle is one of the kitchen workers. She stands all day at a counter making sandwiches. She isn’t young and she isn’t small, so she’s asking a lot of her feet. One thing I’ve learned about Merle is that she loves Jesus heart and soul. I once went into the ladies bathroom to wash my hands, and as I stood at the sink I heard music coming from one of the stalls. The next thing I knew, Merle burst out of the stall holding her phone and singing along to a gospel song. She shimmied down to the sink where she spent the next few minutes dancing and praising God, singing at the top of her pipes about the day she would be home in glory. I listened happily, delighted to be her captive audience. It was one of the most inspiring concerts I’ve ever attended, performed by a solitary black woman in the bathroom of a university food court. It seemed even a momentarily holy place, filled with joy.

~~~

Kevin is another one of our stockers. He doesn’t talk much. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think he was mute. When I ask him to bring us something from the supply room, he merely nods, one small lift of his head. Though he doesn’t talk about it, the large silver cross he wears around his neck offers an inkling as to his beliefs. Sometimes his apparent reticence gives way to quiet acts of kindness. Last Valentine’s Day he came to work bearing a huge bouquet of roses. It wasn’t meant for anyone, but for everyone. That is, he wanted to make sure all his female co-workers got a flower on Valentine’s Day. No one was to be forgotten. I was touched when he laid a rose—without a word—by my register, though he appeared and disappeared so quickly I couldn’t even thank him.

~~~

Sherrie is one who works two jobs. She spends the week making pizza and pasta and on the weekend she works at Costco. Except for holidays, she has no days off. How, I wondered, does anyone work seven days a week without having a single day of rest to look forward to? I for one would soon drop from physical and mental exhaustion. And so I asked her, “Sherrie, how do you work so much?” And without a moment’s hesitation she told me her secret in two amazing words: “God’s grace.”

~~~

When I’m at the food court, I look around and see the people that most of society deem invisible. They are just too far down on the social stratum even to be noticed. But I know this much is true: In this place of struggle and obscurity where no one wants to be, God is here. Grace is at work. Hope is real. And the love of God elevates even the least of us to a place of glory.

* The Lord later provided the full amount for the root canal, for which I am continually thankful.

Dropping out of the Human Race

Where I am now, almost six years after my father’s final words to me. A continuation of the story begun in my first post, “My Father’s Final Words,” (posted Sept. 22), and further thoughts on loving God over loving success…

Sometimes, when I’m sweeping the floor at the university’s food court, I wonder whether any of the students know that, like them, I went to college once upon a time. That I have both a college degree and a master’s degree. That I worked as a journalist and a novelist and taught creative writing on a university level.  They probably think I barely made it through high school, if they think of me at all. Aren’t most cashiers invisible? Secretly, I’m simply amused. I’m content to be there among them, if not as a professor of literature, then as a sweeper of floors.

~~~

I was 20-something and working as an editor for “Decision” magazine when I first met Brother Lawrence. He was a long-dead Carmelite monk who had spent much of his life toiling in the monastery’s kitchen, but whose letters posthumously ended up in a book titled The Practice of the Presence of God. He was an author but didn’t know it, which would have suited him just fine.

What Brother Lawrence really wanted was to live every moment of his life as a love affair with God. When I read his book I was most struck by these words: “I turn over my little omelet in the frying pan for the love of God…. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have picked up a straw from the ground for the love of God.”*

His seemed to me a noble lifestyle, and I wanted to live like that. But as I looked around I didn’t see many people picking up straw for the love of God. Instead, I saw a massive stampede toward achievement, attainment and success.

~~~

And so one starts running too because everyone else is, and apparently this is what life is all about. Soon, though, one discovers that even doing her best isn’t good enough. A person has to do her best plus be better than everyone else. I may be wrong, but as I looked around, it seemed to me that the human race was indeed in something of a race, with everyone pitted against everyone else, clamoring not toward some finish line but upward to the top of the heap. It was a race to out-smart, out-perform, out-do, and out-wit everyone else to become number one, the winner, the champion of champions.

~~~

I wanted to be a novelist and, after 13 years of effort, I finally did get published. I released 11 novels, got some good reviews, won a few awards. I ran and ran, but I didn’t fully understand why I was running and I always felt a little lost. Somehow I had started out believing that the purpose of literature was to share ideas, to help others make sense of life, to create something beautiful and offer it as a gift. And to a certain extent, it is. But to a greater extent, it’s something else.

~~~

It took me years to understand that the publishing industry is not so much about words as it is about numbers. It has to be. I entered the industry a naïve romanticist (not in the sense of a romance writer, but as one who is a lover of beauty, poetry, art, ideas), and took not a single thought to the fact that the industry has to make money to survive. It is a business for profit before it is a place for the exchange of ideas and the offering of beauty. Because—as much as it hurts my artistic sensibilities—money makes the world go ’round and beauty is a luxury that is secondary to survival.

(And God knows that we all have to be financially successful to a certain extent simply to stay alive. Sadly, though, no matter one’s profession, all human industry bows down to the Almighty Dollar, as opposed to Heaven, where everything bows down to the Almighty Himself.)

So instead of “What words of hope do you have to offer?” and “What ideas do you have to share?” the primary questions in publishing are “How many books have you sold?” and “What’s your ranking on Amazon?”

~~~

Though I was good with words, I was never very good with numbers, and so by industry standards I was not successful. Sales of my books were low, translating into very little money for my publisher, my agent, and myself. After several years of coasting, this lover of words was at length defeated by numbers, and I was at the end of the road.

~~~

But God didn’t leave me there, and maybe it wasn’t so much the end of the road as a shift to a different path. Because right about the time I realized I had fallen hopelessly behind in this human race, God began telling me that the story I’m living is far more important that any story I had written or could ever hope to write because my story was never meant to be a success story in the first place, it was meant to be a love story with him.

That changed everything, and what might have been a soul-crushing encounter with despair became a life-giving encounter with the Lover of my soul.

~~~

In 2016, to help pay our bills, I took the only work I could find at my age which, believe me, is no longer 20-something. Though I tried for professional positions, I was offered only one job: as a cashier. I now work seven hours a day at a university food court—oddly enough, a job not all that different from what Brother Lawrence did in the monastery kitchen—so that even while my mornings are spent freelance editing for a small publishing house, the majority of my day is devoted to ringing up food sales, stocking cups and lids, and sweeping up waffle fries.

And yet, for the first time in my life, I’m at peace about my life. And that’s the amazing thing because joy and peace were largely elusive during those treadmill years of chasing after numbers. But that’s the difference between living for success and living for the love of God.  I finally understand Brother Lawrence and can make his words my own: “I run my little cash register for the love of God…. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough to sweep up waffle fries from the floor for the love of God.”

~~~

I’m dropping out of the human race not because I’m giving up on life, on myself, or my dreams, but because I’m giving in to God’s call to make my life not a success story, but a love story with him.

 

* Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Orleans MA: Paraclete Press, 1985, p. 146.