What If….

One beautiful byproduct of this horrible pandemic is that the way we meet and gather is changing.

Yes, we all long for the time when the “6 feet apart” rule is ancient history and we once again can sit shoulder to shoulder at concerts, games, church services, etc. But have you noticed that when we’re shoulder to shoulder – we’re not face to face?

We’re doing a different type of gathering right now – and maybe that’s not all bad.

So… the other night I inadvertently conducted an experiment with 5 of us from my church’s small group as we gathered at my apartment community’s clubhouse for a little get-together. The room is so awesome and spacious that it is a “safe place” to gather during this strange COVID-19 pandemic season because there’s plenty of room for social distancing.

Anyway… before the group arrived – I didn’t set the room up in any particular way. I just told my friends, “Make yourselves at home.” One thing I noticed is that the furniture was neatly arranged in square formation sitting areas (barstools lines up at the bar, chairs around cute little square tables, and couches and comfy chairs in seating arrangements at about 90 degrees from each other).

I found it passingly interesting that we did not keep any of the furniture in tidy squares while actually using it. As we moved around the room chatting and enjoying food and drink throughout the evening, we always seemed to end up in loosely formed circles facing each other. It was just natural to do that. It was much easier to connect with each other that way than in the tidy and eye catching square formations throughout the room.

I didn’t think much about until the next morning when I picked up a book (moving it out of the way in my almost daily frantic search for the keys before work ritual). The book is called The Church Comes Home by Robert and Julia Banks. Because books are more interesting to me than searches for keys or commutes to work – I mindlessly flipped through the pages.

Well…. I “happened” to land on pages 36-37 and my eyes were drawn to these diagrams there:

A little backstory on why these pictures and thoughts of my small group gathering from the prior evening became significant to me…. You see, I think my life and the pages of days within it – good, bad, and ugly – has essentially been a quest for authentic community, a Ragamuffin Oasis. (Now you see where my blog’s title comes from).

Perhaps you are not unfamiliar with this longing for authentic community: a community that perhaps seeks not as much to form you as to hold you – as you are.

And…. having spent the largest part of my formative years at some church function or another – I think I automatically assumed that truest form of community and connection could be found at church. However, in my five decades I have not always found that to be the case.

In fact, though I’ve been a part of some incredible churches through the years of all different shapes, sizes, and denominations- I found, at times, that true connection with others was much easier to find in completely non-“churchy” environments.

I’ve been starting to wonder, though, if perhaps church itself isn’t the obstacle to authentic and relevant connection so very necessary for us to thrive. Perhaps our westernized institutionalized version of it is the problem.

When I saw those pictures – the first one

looking like most of the churches in the United States: pews or chairs in tidy front-facing rows with a stage or pulpit up front – I found it interesting that the home church/”early church” pattern of gathering was in natural relational circles.

And, in our informal gathering the other evening and many prior to that outside at a local park (we really have been trying to be good little social distances while trying to create community at the same time), we just naturally formed a circle where we could easily connect with each other. It would have seemed counterintuitive to for one of us to stand in front of the others and everyone else line their chairs up it a neat row facing away from each other and toward the “leader”.

So, why then has our “normal” as churches and other organizations that supposedly have the purpose of creating community been to set up meeting places that automatically take our gazes of each other and toward some stage?

Perhaps this is just one insight and example of why church has become so irrelevant to so many.

Because our current social-distancing circumstances have prevented us from gathering in our normally abnormal traditions, perhaps we are uncovering our true “normal” – our true North of connecting naturally and authentically embedded deeply in our souls by our Maker.

Also, I know a lot of us complain about Zoom meetings and such. But perhaps the reason why all those faces in those “Brady Bunch squares” make us weary and “creep us out” a bit – is that, with the exception of a select few in our inner circles, we haven’t spent a lot of time actually taking in the faces of those around us.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” –Hebrews‬ ‭10:24-25‬ ‭

Perhaps we (church-goer types) have been “assembling” for generations – yet not really together…. All in one auditorium but never really connecting.

Maybe one blessing birthed from this pandemic season will be that we get our “together” back.

A Simple Reminder

Remember…. you simply can’t be strong enough to handle everything you’re going through… everything your community and world is going through.

There is only One who can redeem even the darkest places in us. And, we don’t have to grapple, fight, and wrestle to reach Him. He is constantly and compassionately reaching out for us….

Just be held.

PS: I’m redesigning my blog a bit to hopefully help it be a birthplace for my future book: Ragamuffin Oasis: Finding our places you Just Be.

You can help me fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a writer by clicking that little subscribe button in the corner of your screen so future posts can drop in your email inbox. I have a much better chance of being taken seriously by agents/publishers if my “subscribership” proves that what I write is already being read.

Plus, you can use the comment space on the blog posts to add your thoughts and feedback and join in this ragamuffin journey. We’re all a little raggedy – but have amazing stories to tell.

Hopefully, together we can leave all of our vain striving for perfection in the past and create a safe space for each other to just be.

Thank you so much, Friends!

A Prayer for Empathy from Isolation

A Prayer for Empathy from Isolation
 
By Tracy Mauro
March 24, 2020

A virus -
To our eyes unseen
Holds us under lock and key.
But still we find that we are free
Through purchased connectivity.
But what of those who aren’t so free?
Even in better times than these
Chronic illness, addiction, lack or disease
Makes isolation their constant reality.
Though we can't fully know their pain
Perhaps now we won't turn away
Now that we have had a little taste -
May this strange season birth new grace.

Why can’t we just live there?

Thin placesSo… the other evening I was “breaking bread” (actually it was sushi – but same concept) with a few friends from my faith community.

As we sipped our wine and enjoyed half-priced Sushi night, we began to talk about worship. One of my friends mentioned how very much she enjoyed participating in communion every week and that even watching the others in our congregation being served the Sacraments is such a Holy Moment.

Another friend chimed in that truly Holy Communion is one of those “thin places“. Of course, we all were immediately intrigued and asked him to explain more about “thin places”.

He explained how C.S. Lewis (one of my very favorite thinkers and writers) would write and speak of the thin places – where heaven and earth intermingle. I made the comment that I wish we could just live in that thin place – where not so much divides and keeps us from connecting to God and each other.

It’s just that I’m not always quite sure how to get there – much less stay there. I’ve experienced thin places throughout my life – from early childhood memories of my Mom and church pianist playing beautiful songs about the Blood of Jesus while communion was being served and wondering how wordless moments could be so powerful to breathtaking nature encounters when I’ve been absolutely certain that Maker painted a particular sunrise or sunset just for me.

But, even in the much-mystery that clouds our every day lives and deters us from entering those thin spaces – I will still seek to learn what an abiding life (see John 15) – that sweet communion with the Maker of our souls -truly looks like.

My Healing Place

It’s been a year….

OK, maybe it’s been a few years or a few decades of struggles masked by smiles.

But Maker is faithful to sculpt scarred hearts surrendered to Him into resilient masterpieces.

As I prepare to close this chapter in Atlanta – I am so thankful for the healing that has happened here over the past year-and-a-half.

I am especially thankful for those my Maker has surrounded me with in this season to help the healing happen…. Just to name a few: my North Springs United Methodist Church family – especially the Celebrate Recovery group there, my incredible colleagues who became fast friends at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, my warm and welcoming neighbors here on The Hill ATL, and Hector Pereles at New Living Counseling…. Not to mention the faithful friends and family who have covered me with encouragement and prayers from across the country.

I am so very grateful and more adamant than ever when I say “Don’t do life alone”.

I really don’t think I would have survived had I not reached out for help.

#MyStorysNotOver because it’s part of an #EternalStory. AΩ; #AlphaOmegaSemicolon #SuicidePrevention #Hope #Healing #AbuseSurvivor #CodependencyRecovery #HealingContinues #HealingCommunities

Lessons from Porch Pirates and Speed Walkers

treasLet me begin with a disclaimer: I am not a “Porch Pirate” nor do I in any way endorse snatching packages from anyone’s front door stop (or any other illegal activity, for that matter!).

But the rampant acts of porch piracy occurring as so many of us skip the holiday crowds at the mall for the convenience of online shopping has me thinking….

Those porch pirates don’t know what they have until they take the time to open the package.

Since I order absolutely everything on line, if a pirate dared pillage my porch, she might open the package to discover anything from cat litter to a plumbing tool to de-clog the bathtub drain, to the awesome Surface Pro computer I ordered a couple months ago to use for my writing and graphics.

But what would happen if my fictional pirate stole all 3 of those packages from my porch. Let’s say she opens the cat litter (poor resale value and she’s a dog person), and the drain snake, and decides it’s not even worth her time to open the third package so she tosses it in the trash.

Little does Ms. Pirate know that she just tossed an expensive piece of electronics aside because she assumed from her past negative experiences with the other packages that it wouldn’t be worth her time to open the box.

Now, we may not be porch pirates (I hope not, anyway). But I’m afraid we still have the tendency to leave so many treasures undiscovered.  

Unlike my “porch pirate” illustration, the real treasures are not in packages of factory-made trinkets swiped from a randomly selected doorstep and not even intended for the one who opens it. (Deep down I think we all know that all these things we work so hard for are not treasures at all – though modern culture and advertising tries very hard to make us think so). But the treasures we so often let walk by us undiscovered are people…. so many very amazing people we encounter day to day.

We don’t invest the energy to look beyond the weary smiles, the hi-how-are-you-I’m-fine’s to explore all the amazingness our Maker has put in the story behind the eyes of each person we pass by. 

Many of us on most days walk right by our opportunities to connect with incredible people and their amazing life-stories that our Maker intentionally placed in our path to encourage or teach us.

Instead, we typically move by others quickly missing these many opportunities to connect with our Maker’s fingerprints all over the story of their lives. Perhaps we don’t even see them. Our gaze may be fixed to our phones as we busily “pseudo-connect” with others in our make-believe social media world. Or, we may be working hard to get the-stuff that will someday be dust instead of connecting with people who bear the eternal mark of our Maker on their very souls.

A recent example of a treasure once ignored but now appreciated is a woman I often see walking near my workplace at lunch time. She first captured my attention because she walks like she means it! The main evidence of this is the fact that “typical” women’s uncomfortable, high heeled, pointy-toed work shoes (by the way…. if God meant for our toes to point and our feet to be at our uncomfortable angle – He would have made our feet like that) have been replaced with serious athletic shoes. Also, her walking pace is probably double the speed of my typical running pace. And, she’s typically very-focused – “in her own space” as she walks with earbuds firmly in place. And, she is doing this every single day! (This is probably what had me most impressed since sustaining a disciplined and consistent healthy lifestyle is one of my main – although sometimes illusive – goals in life).

So, I felt Maker prompting me to connect with this lady. I didn’t for days. My excuses were like, “She’s listening to something on those earbuds – I don’t want to disturb her”. The real reason is that I probably didn’t want to interrupt my own lunchtime pursuit of junk food and junk posts on social media (insert eye-roll here) so I don’t have to actually connect with people and face my own insecurities and fears of possible rejection. But I finally gave in to that ever-persistent “still small voice” and was I ever in for a treat!

On the day that I broke both of our strides of our normal lunchtime routines to make eye contact with her and say hello – she wasn’t perturbed with the intrusion at all. Instead she paused her gait, removed her earbuds, and smiled a most fabulous smile at me. I shared with her that I am trying to develop a healthy life-style and get moving more and that seeing her being so consistent with her walking everyday inspires me. She beamed. And then, the treasure of her story was opened to me. She shared that she had at one point weighed close to 600 pounds (and I would guess she is at least a good 400 pounds less than that now). Her persistent and consistent walking was part of what literally saved her life. Now when we pass, I try not to break her awesome stride, but our eyes meet and we smile and greet. Daily I remember and am inspired by her incredible story that I would have completely missed if I had not taken that moment to connect.

I have a feeling we wouldn’t have to binge watch Netflix so much if we took a little more time to enter into the amazing stories behind each other’s eyes.

img_2553I challenge you and I challenge me to take the time to connect with the people God places in our path today. Taking even a few minutes to connect with that cashier, that person on the walking trail, the man behind the counter at the DMV (I mean  – you waited an hour or more to see him – you might as well chat with him a bit) – might unwrap the very story you need to fuel your own journey today.

Calling that friend from church who has missed more than a month of Sundays, or taking the time to chat with your dog-walking neighbor, or calling (not texting) that family member who you’ve not spoken with a while will not only bless them, but you’ll probably unwrap a story in them that is just what your own soul needs, too!

We are designed to connect, so please don’t move through life so quickly that you miss the beauty of another human’s story. I promise you, a real life encounter with someone living and sharing their story is way better than anything we might watch on one of our many glowing screens.

Care for Those Who Care for Your Soul

So October is Pastor Appreciation Month and it has me thinking about why pastors and others in roles of spiritual leader and mentor (from hospital chaplains, to counselors, to that friend who always seems to become the nurturer, prayer warrior, and “spiritual mom” to everyone in her life) might need some extra appreciation and encouragement.

Ok…. so next time you’re around that person, watch how others interact with them. Yes there may be a person or two who walks up to the pastor and genuinely asks “How are you?” (pausing for an answer even). But much of the time, pastors are being approached with needs. “Pastor, can you pray for me about this”…. “Pastor, I just lost my job”…. “Pastor, my Dad’s in the hospital”…. and so on and on and on….

And even if someone doesn’t approach giving a spoken request, those in pastoral roles are strong in the areas of empathy and insight and may sense heaviness and a burden to pray for someone who – to the rest of us – seems to be just passing by Pastor to say hello. And even at times a need hasn’t been mentioned – there is the knowing that there are some people who will not even approach a pastor or darken the doorway of a church unless they are facing a crisis. So pastors are learning of and responding to spoken and unspoken needs during a good percentage of their waking hours. It makes my soul tired just imagining the weight of that!

Some of you may be asking “Well, I thought that was their job! Why should they get extra appreciation?? The rest of us don’t?” …. Well, your vehicle’s job is to drive but it’s not going to do that so well without gas and maintenance, is it? And if your vehicle encounters unique circumstances – like a big tough Jeep encountering extra rugged terrain and a lot of mud – it may need some extra care specific to its task. Like a good realignment and de-mudding. So since pastors are not just giving of their physical time and labor but giving up their very soul and spirit to nurture yours – it’s safe to say they are more than worthy of some extra support and appreciation. Like my “one-day” monster off-roading Jeep will, pastors tackle muddier areas of life than the rest of us. And sometimes it takes a little extra time and attention from the the rest of us to “get the mud off”.

And although there are the obvious forms of appreciation like financial gifts and support and maybe an extra note or kind word during Pastor Appreciation Month – I challenge us to take it a step further. Not just during this designated months or days – but all year long – let’s make a point to remember that “Pastors are people, too” and take time out to send that unexpected note, text, or say “Hello, how are you?” and actually take the time to listen without always adding our own prayer request or personal need to the conversation.

Oh, and let’s all just show up to our church’s events that our pastors work so hard to prepare. (For some of us this means when it’s not Easter, Christmas, a wedding, or a funeral). Believe me, the encouragement and necessary life-strengthening that comes from you attending church goes both ways – to the pulpit and back!

“The elders who lead the church in a good way should receive double honor —in particular, those who do the work of counseling and teaching.” – ‭‭1 Timothy‬ ‭5:17‬ ‭ERV‬‬ (Easy-to-Read Version)

So, if you’re a pastor or spiritual leader, know that you are appreciated even when it’s not Pastor Appreciation Day (and sometimes feels like Pastor Depreciation Day) and those who have entrusted themselves to your spiritual care aren’t so great at showing it.

And if you’re blessed enough to have someone in your life who nurtured and leads you spiritually, don’t forget to care for the one who cares for your soul.

And if you don’t have someone like that in your life – be quick to ask your Good Father God to lead you to where you are to gather to worship. Because, I know I say this a lot – but only because it is so very true and has even been life-saving for me – Don’t do life alone ever!

Let’s continue to become who we already are…. together!


PS…. Of course I can’t end this post without a “shout out” of thanks and appreciation to the pastors and leaders who have poured so much into me. I love my home church, Amazing Church in McKinney, Texas!