The letter was three pages long. For weeks, I had waited for it, longingly checking the mailbox, anticipating its arrival as though it were announcing the Queen of England was coming to visit.
The year was 2001. I had graduated from High School and was enrolled in a college-level Creative Writing Course via correspondence with the Christian Writer’s Guild. At 16, I had graduated early and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Except I knew one thing: I wanted to write.
The course arrived in a giant binder. It was split into weekly readings and assignments. I eagerly dove into the first week, quickly wrote a short story, and mailed it off for review by my Instructor, Norman.
The waiting was unlike anything experienced by most people today. 19 years ago, I had no email, no social media, no texting. My only link to my far-off instructor was a mailing address to a P.O. Box. I waited impatiently, filling up pages of a journal with nervous notes about his anticipated response.
And then, it came. The letter with the three pages of feedback.
Feedback that wasn’t great. Feedback that didn’t tell me how awesome my writing skills were. Feedback that hurt.
As I finally came to the end of the missive—dear God, would Norman never be done ripping apart my story?—, he jotted this sentence.
“You have some good lines here.” -Norm
Blinking back tears at the stinging criticism of the prior paragraphs, I folded the letter and went back to my desk to rewrite the story. Norm’s words echoed in my heart. He saw the good lines. He leaned into my potential. He spurred me on with both truth and encouragement.
I only wish he had started his missive with that sentence.
This idea of good lines has haunted my days over the last month. As the pandemic of COVID-19, a new type of virus, has overtaken the world, its effect has been devastating on countries, health care systems, and families. My social media accounts are flooded with statistics of rising deaths across the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Spain…. My email is packed with alerts from restaurants, my local movie theater, and my local gym, informing me of ways to help their laid-off staff. Grocery store workers just look exhausted and pale. Parents are overwhelmed with working from home and homeschooling kids. Travel is cancelled. Concerts postponed. Plans are dashed.
I read an article that blamed President Trump.
I scrolled through a Facebook post that said it was God’s wrath.
I heard about an angry mob who beat up an Asian man because all this started in China.
We are not short on bad news from all sides these days.
The hope for anything good seems to be waning.
One of my verses for 2020 is from Colossians 3:14, from Eugene Patterson’s The Message translation. Saint Paul wrote to persecuted Christians: “And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic all-purpose garment. Never be without it.”
Never be without it. No matter what is going on in your life, let love cover it.
Love hides imperfections.
Love embraces the hurting.
Love includes everyone.
Love lifts us up when we are torn down. Love conquers, protects, and instructs.
Love calms complaints. Love encourages. Love steps up to help when others need it.
Love does the hard work.
Love always brings up good lines.
My husband and I recently completed a 5-week training to become foster care parents. This training was the first step in many to complete a certification process. We spent 6 hours, two nights a week, holed up in a small classroom with about a half-dozen other participants talking about logistics of placing a child, biological parents, trauma and a child’s brain, and sexual abuse. The trainers left no stone unturned. No topic was off-limits. Honesty abounded. One of the issues we discussed was the inner dialogue that children carry around in their heads. The trainers referred to this as a child’s “Invisible Suitcase”. These kids may show up to our door with a trash bag full of their clothes, or they may show up with no clothes or belongings at all. That is heartbreaking all on its own. But under the surface, there exists bulging baggage of beliefs.
“It’s my fault.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“No one loves me.”
“I’m alone. I can only rely on me.”
This hit home because I know what that inner dialogue has looked like in my own head for too long. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 12 years-old, so I have a wealth of inner dialogue. Some of my own snippets on repeat in my head have been:
“Danger lies in thinking you are something when you are nothing”.
“I want to believe I am valued but I know otherwise.”
“I am the only one who is experiencing this pain.”
“Does God really care about me?”
These phrases indicate a deeply rooted belief system that I had built internally over the years. Imagine my surprise when my therapist later told me other truths. Truths like, “God isn’t requiring anything from you” and “You can forgive yourself for all the times you think you have screwed up.” and “Grace is for you too.”
These phrases were better beliefs to carry around with me.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned to build up my environment with pillars of truth on the strong foundation of love. Sure, some days, all I can see is the old script—the one that wants to blare itself loudly in my internal sound system. But mostly, I’m listening to the good lines. These truths are spoken over me by the community I have built up around me. I know there are people around me, full of faith and love, who are willing to text me, call me, or even run across town to pick me up when I’m on the floor in tears.
I’m grateful for them.
As I ponder this in my life, I wonder, now, where I am giving out the good lines. How is my belief system impacting how I respond to the world around me? In this time of crisis, I don’t want to bombard my social media pages with bombastic rhetoric and trite phrases. People need honesty and vulnerability right now, not solutions. I’m not saying words of love will heal someone’s lungs or give medical staff more personal protective equipment. Words alone won’t quell the fear raging across our neighborhoods. Fear of sickness. Fear of job loss. Fear of the unknown. Fear of death. Over the last few weeks, what we have been carrying around in our invisible suitcases now appears visible for everyone to see. Fear brings out our truest selves.
So, how does all this tie together? The words from Norm. Foster care kids out there. COVID-19 ransacking our world.
I’m not sure.
I’m not sure of anything these days.
If love is my basic all-purpose garment, then it calls me to action. Just as Norm’s ill-placed sentence all those years ago sent me back to write, so does Saint Paul’s better-phrased words deploy me to do something. In the midst of the tragedy around me, I’ve seen goodness erupt…
In the form of:
People skilled with sewing machines sewing masks for medical professionals
Gym members still paying dues so gym employees get paid
Hotel rooms provided for medical staff who get sick but can’t go home, lest they infect their families
Teachers learning on the go how to remote teach their students, including students with special needs
My church helping other churches broadcast an Easter sermon
My neighbors saying, “We’ve got toilet paper—do you need some?”
Talk about some good lines to share.
So, here’s what I’m challenging myself to do. I’m going to work on shutting up with the complaints about working from home with slow internet speed and having to homeschool my 5-year-old (who is also hungry every 5 seconds — dear Jesus, help me.) I’m going to temper the frustration of no gym, no movie theater, no coffees with friends, and no church gatherings. All that energy will be channeled into finding good lines in all this madness. I can pray. I can give. I can answer text messages. I can be available instead of hiding away.
I’m not saying I will succeed at this challenge at all.
This is not easy. For any of us.
But I see hope peeking over the shoulder of a dark demon. Hope shaking its fist at fear and saying, “Not on my watch.” Hope stirring me up to something new. Hope rooted in the fact that resurrection morning is coming. It’s not that far away.
Say something good. Do something good. Be tender as our invisible fears are now in full view. Be the one someone else can count on today. Create good lines for the benefit of those around you.
Hold on, dear friends.
P.S. Let me know if you need toilet paper.