The return of an old friend, part 1

Something really precious returned to me a few months ago and I am treasuring it and appreciating it more than ever. It is the gift of the early morning. Treasured as only a morning person could. It has been a good 10+ years or so (possibly even 15 or 16) since I’ve been able to savor the early morning and I think I’m savoring it more than ever and that right there is a gift of grace. Fifteen or so years ago, I would have been able to give some tips to anyone about how to get up early and why that’s such a great idea. Now I realize that I’m just more of a morning person so it will just come naturally to me to be alert and productive in the morning and that’s not something I could give tips on. Years ago, two friends of mine were both piano teachers (Jamie Jam and Dana Little – talking about you!). Jamie was more gifted at flowing with the piano and just had a nack for it where Dana had to work hard at it but was also quite accomplished. They both agreed that Dana was the better teacher because she knew what it felt like to have to work at each step so she can break things down for her students. Whereas Jamie* can try to do that and inspire her students but just doesn’t know what it’s like to have to break everything down into small, simple steps and then struggle with them. I’ve thought about that explanation so many times. It highlights for me the reality that even being a morning person and naturally treasuring the early morning is a grace. Something I actually did nothing to accomplish, it is just a gift. And when we have teenagers who finally get around to talking to us at night, when their mom turns into a pumpkin, their dad’s night-owl wiring will be a great gift.

In college, I loved waking up with the rising sun and spending time in prayer and reading my Bible. I went to Western Washington University for a few years and there is an arboretum on campus and I’d get up early, grab my Bible and hike up through the arboretum to the look-out on top of the hill and spend the morning connecting with God while looking out on Bellingham Bay, the green trees and the beautiful mountains. It was dreamy. When I moved back to Seattle to do an internship at my church and then go on to nursing school, I was already in the habit of the early wake-up and my days got busier so I really treasured that quiet, alone time in the morning. It didn’t hurt that one of my dear roommates worked at Starbucks and got us free coffee to help out those gloomy winter Seattle mornings. Also didn’t hurt that we were just a half mile up the street from Magnuson Park and across the street from the Burke-Gilman trail so when the mornings got lighter, I could pop out for a jog, walk or bike-ride and once again be on the water or in a lush green space. I would have attributed more to my discipline in those days but let’s be honest – those are pretty easy places and contexts to wake up and connect with God in. Surrounded by natural beauty, no full-time job, no kids, no major obligations except studying and making enough money to feed, clothe and shelter your own self. That was before the major tech boom too so my roommates (and dear friends, Molly and Taj) and I had our desktop computers, a land line and a TV with antenna. We didn’t have any tech we needed to afford or constantly upgrade. I resonate so well with what Rachel Jancovich says in “Loving the Little Years”:

“The truth is my Christian life then was like a rock being refined by a slow river in a quiet place. It wasn’t as though I wasn’t growing spiritually, but my word! So easily! And so little! But God took me out of that life and threw me into the rock tumbler. Here, it is not so easy to feel godly, because we spend our days crashing into each other and actually getting our problems addressed. Here there is very little time for quiet reflection.”

Of course, it didn’t feel like that as I started to get tossed around and lose “my mornings.” Nursing school started to shake it up a bit as we had clinicals thrown into a full load of classes and labs. Sometimes we had multiple evening shifts during the week and had to wake up early for class the next day in addition to whatever we did to actually make some money to live. My mornings became shorter as I needed to add in some more schoolwork. I felt guilty about that. But I figured I’d “catch up” once I was actually working and not actually going to school any more. Toward the end of nursing school I got married which ended up being a great decision and I don’t regret the timing in the least. However, trying to figure out how my God-time was supposed to mix with Rees’ God-time left me feeling uneasy. Did I have to give up my separate time now that we were “one”? Hmmm. And I felt some more guilt because I didn’t want to share my bit of quiet time with my new husband who I was supposed to want to share everything with and we couldn’t figure out how to do that regularly anyway. I started to feel a bit distant from God. It felt to me like I had a container of quiet, connecting with God time and it could only stay full if I was putting an hour or so into it every day. Every day I didn’t contribute to it, it would drain and any subsequent time I put into it was only trying to make up a deficit but certainly not moving me into any surplus. But as long as I didn’t empty out completely, I felt like one day I’d be able to move back into the surplus.

Rees and I moved down to Portland once I was done with nursing school and I took my nursing boards down there and pretty quickly found my ideal job: a full-time day shift position in oncology. I remember when I was offered the position and immediately said, “yes!” and my manager, Lee, told me that I didn’t have to answer right away but could take a week to think it over and just get back to her. I tried to insist that I didn’t need a week, but she wanted me to take the time to consider it. Well, I was offered the position on a Friday and called her Monday morning to accept. I spent the next two years with my head spinning, trying to get the hang of being an oncology nurse and getting my oncology certification (which was more difficult than my nursing boards). As anyone can imagine, it was really intense working in oncology. I had the amazing privilege of working in a hospital that had a cancer research center and a really remarkable team of doctors and nurses. But, as we used to say, “we put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!” Between the physiology of what was going on or could happen with our patients, the endless treatments and keeping up on what gets treated with what and what can mix with what, the emergencies and the psychological impact of cancer on a person and their family (or the impact of not having a family or supportive community when you have cancer) – I was wrung out at the end of the day. Brain fried. I had to be at work early and my Bible reading and praying turned into more of a “help me, Lord, today!” and glancing at a verse, trying to get it to somehow sink in. What really horrified me was at the end of my shift, as I’d trudge out to my car, I’d realize that I hadn’t even thought about God that day. I’d only been trying to wrap my brain around what to do next. I felt so unspiritual, and guilty and would again apologize to God for not talking to him during my workday. But one day, after apologizing, a verse filtered up into my thinking:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).

The “with all your mind” part lodged into my heart and I thought, “Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m using my mind to do what you’ve allowed me to do right now – serve people with cancer.” Not being one to try to dodge a self-scolding, but rather wallow in it, I was worried maybe I was letting myself off too easy. Certainly God couldn’t be incredibly pleased with me not even talking to him at work. It seems silly, but to a more works-orientation-wired person, it felt like a big step of faith, like taking a step off a cliff – to trust that He was pleased with me and had grace for me in that season of learning a new, intense career. It felt safer for me to just feel guilty and let that motivate me to “do better.” But that wasn’t working and I certainly didn’t feel any closer to God. A thought started to niggle my mind, that maybe my feeling distant from God was largely or wholly on my side of the relationship. So, I started to fight that guilt at the end of the day by just saying, “I know you were with me today at work. Thank you for helping me.” instead of apologizing. That slowly gave way to more thanksgiving (I dare you to try not to be thankful if you’ve spent all day with cancer patients – you can’t do it). Then I started to ask Him to help me see Him and recognize him at work. A slow work of grace was steeping in me. To focus on Him more and less on my short-comings. To discipline my thoughts when they tried to hang out in the “I’m-a-lousy-believer-and-friend” place and instead say, “thank you for being with me and loving me, even when I didn’t recognize you today and thank you for grace that gives me a fresh chance to see you tomorrow.” Even when I didn’t feel it, I said it and that was grace. I can’t say that my mornings returned to an hour of peaceful communion, but I was more able to thank Him for a single verse and worship Him in the car on my drive to work.

Eventually, I settled into a bit of a rhythm with work. I learned how to delegate better, I learned how to anticipate emergencies and how to prioritize and then keep re-prioritizing as needs changed. My brain didn’t feel as terribly wrung out as it did those first couple years. We moved closer to the hospital and I began to chisel out 20 minutes or so to just be quiet and pray while I drank my coffee before going to work. There were still days that I was too tired to get up earlier than absolutely necessary and I felt guilty about that (surprise, surprise) but overall I felt okay with my routine and was at least 98% convinced that God wasn’t disappointed with me for my lapses.

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