I Do Declare: No one proves the power of words like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights activist who delivered one of the most powerful speeches in history in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.

The speech is a total of 1667 words, every one of them meaningful, and not one of them wasted.

You can hear the speech thanks to this recording from the U.S. Archives.

Learn more here, here, and here about the occasion of the speech, the man, and his legacy.

I’m hard pressed to come up with a favorite part, because all of it is magnificent. However, if I HAD to choose, these two would be among the top contenders:

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

This one too:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I Do Declare: Christmas decorations illustrate how I can go from sentimental to pragmatic at warp speed

The calendar says today is January 4, which means Christmas is over and we’re into a new year. This much we know to be true.

And yet: There are technically a few more days of Christmas left. And by technically, I mean if you follow the church calendar, Christmas keeps on keeping on until Epiphany (January 6). Which is why some people keep their decorations up until then.

Ha! Not me.

Sure, I follow the church calendar too, but when it comes to the trees and lights and garland and elves (whether on shelves or not), it’s high time they all went back to their storage bins and hibernated for about 11 months.

Not that I’m anti-Christmas or anti-holiday or anti-anything. My official policy is that the holidays are delightful. Enchanting. Blessed. And let’s be honest, a season of good cheer and good will to all is a pretty darn good thing, especially in this day and age – and this is only one reason why I celebrate it.

In fact, I’ve mentioned before how I love the magical tranquility of the days before Christmas.

But here’s the thing. It’s a season. Which is to say that it has its moment in the sun, after which it is meant to fade into the background, at least for a while, to be replaced by the next season.

And that next season is known as: Okay, everybody, up and moving, time to get organized. Or, as some call it: the new year.

For me – the consummate organizer – that season can’t come too soon. Almost as soon as the gifts are unwrapped, I’m ready to move on and get the house back in order. That table has been over in that corner making room for the tree for far too long. That garland wrapped around the banister is becoming an eyesore. The candelabras in the picture window are getting on my last nerve.

I need my house back, y’all. My surroundings require a place for everything and everything in its place.

The new year is here. I have a colossal project list, along with a daily planner that, if all holds true, indicates I will have to schedule my headaches. So be it. I’m ready for a substantial to-do list and the work it will take to get it done. I need checklists is what I’m saying.

As we move away from the meandering of the holidays and pick up the pace toward efficiency and productivity, I have a strong urge to enter the new year unfettered by the ghosts of months past.

My breakup letter to the past year notwithstanding, I’m done with excoriating 2020, as if continuing to rake it over the coals would mitigate one millisecond of the angst it caused.

To everything there is a season, so the scriptures tell us. Maybe the time for beating up 2020 is over. You’re forgiven, 2020. Go in peace.

Let bygones be bygones, I say. Let’s start fresh, with no past recriminations, no grudges held, no burdens of regrets and misgivings to carry around.

There’s a year to take hold of and make the most of.

Let’s get on with it.

I Do Declare: It’s not sweet sorrow if it’s 2020 you’re parting with

Dear 2020:

I’ve been thinking about our relationship a lot lately, looking back at all the hopes we once shared, all we’ve been through. It’s quite a bit to mull over: lots of emotions … regrets … tears … hand sanitizer. And in the end I came to a decision.

There really isn’t any easy way to say this, 2020, so I’ll just state it as clearly as I can.

After consulting a few online therapist websites, Dr. Cloud’s “Necessary Endings” book, and a couple of friends over a glass or three of wine, I realized it’s time to make a change.

You and I need to go our separate ways.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all bad. There were happy times, especially in the beginning.

I started the year with high hopes and firm plans for a productive 12 months.

I even made jokes about your name – all in good fun, nothing hurtful, of course – like how we could see our futures so clearly (playing on the “20/20” theme) and the old saw about hindsight and how history would point to this year as a moment of clarity.

It’s weird, but now it seems like more of a joke that I ever thought that way about you.

I know that sounds a bit cold, but let’s be honest, I’m not the only one who’s been cold in this relationship. Clearly your mind has been elsewhere this year. Maybe we should just accept that things have changed and both of us move on. Or if it helps, we can say it’s not you, it’s me.

Wait a minute. I take that back. It is you. All you.

I’m not trying to be cruel, but some things need to be said. And you need to hear them.

I mean, what happened? We met, we were having fun, and then your whole personality changed. Like someone flipped a switch. There we were, moving merrily along in the first few weeks, and then – wham! out of nowhere – you shut me down.

You were so controlling. I hate that. And at the same time, I had to deal with your wildly erratic mood swings. You’d set arbitrary rules over how you thought I should live my life, and then you’d change them the next day. How selfish and inconsiderate! And you never discussed any of that with me beforehand. Did it ever occur to you that I don’t want restrictions like that in my life?

Sometimes it was frightening wondering what the next day would bring. You made me fear for my life, my financial security, and even my toilet paper stock. Seriously, 2020, what kind of relationship is that?

And then you got really dysfunctional. You tried to drive a wedge between me and my family, especially during the holidays. You kept me from gathering with my friends. You barred me from restaurants. You forbid me to go to church. I could hardly go out in public, and when I did, I had to shield my face.

So yeah, I’m over this. I think it’s best to part ways before things get toxic.

And yes, before you ask, I am seeing someone new. It’s serious enough that we’re making plans and dreaming big dreams – far more than you and I did in the last few months. 2021 holds more promise, more hope, and – bonus! – 21 is drinking age. Who wouldn’t be happy with someone who can stop by the wine store on the way home?

By the way, we’re not on a break. This is a breakup. I’ve already returned all your CDs. Please don’t call me again.

Good luck.
Shelia

I Do Declare: Outside God’s birthing room, I ponder what it means to wait

The last few days before Christmas tend toward an almost magical tranquility.

A peace begins to seep into the general holiday milieu. A wispy cloud of serenity settles over the bustle, slowing the frantic pace for all, with the possible exceptions of clergy with unfinished sermons, last-minute shoppers, and travelers whose itineraries have been usurped by weather.

Neck-deep in the season of goodwill, I send them good thoughts and press on with the holiday baking.

It’s a gentle glide into the most silent and holy of nights. All things calm. All things bright. Accompanied by the unhurried tinkling of bells, of course.

At least that’s how it is most years.

This year, though. This year is … well, let’s just say it’s different.

This year my experience is not so much enveloped in magical tranquility as dumped into a hospital waiting room. Sure, it may be a metaphor – and I can’t promise it won’t end up mixed – but it’s still the last place anyone wants to be at the end of an excruciating year of delays and pauses and postponements.

In most waiting rooms, it’s bleak and drab. The passable furnishings and nondescript wall décor fail in their one job to comfort and reassure. And it’s isolating, with interpersonal connections alternating between idle chatter and weighty silence. Worst of all: the exit is nowhere to be found.

The one cheerful exception is the maternity floor, where no one cares about chairs and paintings and intellectual level of chitchat, because joyful anticipation is front and center.

A quick glance around, and I wonder how my normal holiday good nature morphed into an incessant wait-wait-wait. Has all that happened this year conditioned me to see only a lackluster passive waiting area, even in this merry time of year? What am I waiting for now?

Conversations may be shallow, but the question begs to be asked: Is it because the inert activity of waiting cannot generate more depth, or is it because I have switched all rapport to receiving mode? When small talk subsides, do I prefer to flounder in the silence or accept the quiet invitation to reflect?

So many questions, so little patience I have these days to ponder them.

But I can reflect. Reflections lead to observations, which turn to insights, which become discernments – some of them pretty wild, like the one that screams out in answer to my questions:

Girl, you are outside God’s birthing room. Get on your knees.

And here’s how I know this is true: Waiting is a torment – unless you’re outside God’s birthing room. Out here, exasperation and indifference evolve into expectation and hope. Even the relatively quiet actions of meditations and prayer can be energizing if you’re working with God’s playbook.

And inside the birthing room? In there, it’s active and alive and spirited – literally. A great labor is happening, with precise detail. God is creating life – a prerogative that belongs solely to Him – as a deliberate choice.

Amid the pain and blood, with all the preparation and provision happening in that birthing room, we cannot lose sight of the fact that God is doing a new thing for the singular purpose of saving us.

God chooses us. And He keeps choosing us. Every year. Every day, actually.

This insight isn’t new. I’ve always known this as truth.

But maybe my head needed my heart to hear it too.

Maybe that’s what the wait was about.

I Do Declare: COVID makes 12 days seem like 12 years

During the 12 days of Christmas, I’m reflecting on the “gifts” COVID gave to me this year:

12-pack rolls of toilet paper

11y-hundred “experts” giving conflicting advice

10-day quarantine periods

9 months of unemployment

8 take-out meals from local restaurants

7 days of waiting for test results

6 feet apart in line

5,000 IU/day of Vitamin D3

4 phrases I never want to hear again (social distancing, mask mandate, stay-home order, flatten the curve)

3 handmade masks

2 stimulus checks (1 received, 1 promised)

and

1 hopeful shot at freedom with a vaccine

I Do Declare: A WW2 spy thriller is the best way to get past the turkey leftovers

Need a break from political discourse and turkey leftovers?

Well, who doesn’t?

I’ve got you covered right here with an excerpt from my WW2 spy thriller, Turning August.

Before you jump into the chapter, it might help to dig into some background from the back of the book:

===

August Wichmann had been warned.

As a young professor of linguistics at Munich University, he captivated his students with role-playing in the personas and culture of the different languages he was teaching.

It was the perfect skill set for the SS, who recruited him to gather intel on seditious acts.

But he had been warned.

His sister argued against his enlistment. Friends and colleagues encouraged him to reconsider. Brigitte, a vivacious medical student, made a compelling case against working with the regime.

But August was idealistic and dedicated in service to his country. He took on the role of rising SS officer.

Then he witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

His attempts to stop the evil were compromised by threats to those he loved. The Resistance discovered August and wanted to use his skills to ferret out information that could turn the tables on Hitler’s henchmen.

While pretending to be loyal to the SS, he had to feign indifference to the brutality so he could gather intel on Nazi activities and keep his cover safe.

Desperate in this no-win state, the only one who truly understood August’s torment was Brigitte, herself an unwitting pawn in the Nazi schemes. They both faced the haunting question that ever after steered their course:

After you discover the truth, how do you atone for believing the lie?

Set against a tangled web of Abwehr agents and double agents, broken trust and deception, and the earnest hopes and thwarted plans of the Resistance, the story treads a precarious path of conscience in the face of evil.

Many of the characters are based on real people, including seasoned spymaster Admiral Canaris and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – both presenting a fixed star by which August and Brigitte navigate the shifting moral boundaries required to fight the Nazis from within.

===

That should tell you a little bit about the overall story. In this chapter, August has just returned from the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis discussed the “final solution” of the Jews (including their plans for mass murder via gas chambers). August was required to attend because he worked for Heydrich – even though he despised the man and everything he stood for. If he refused, he and his family would be killed. At this point, he realizes how evil the SS is, but he can’t find a way out.

This chapter is the point when he is approached to work with the Resistance by none other than Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr. (He too was pretending to be part of a system he despised.)

===

Chapter 43

The car dropped August off, and he trudged up the steps. His shoulders sagged. Every breath, every movement was an effort. He felt stunned beyond coherent thought. The conference had done that to him. He wasn’t sure how he’d be able to exorcise it from his thoughts.

He went inside and locked the door. First things first. A drink.

He stopped, looked around, listened. He wasn’t alone. He pulled out his weapon and stalked his way into the living room.

Canaris was sitting on the sofa. “We have some things to discuss, so I dropped by. How was Wannsee?”

“The butcher told you? Damn it!”

“Of course he told me. He’s my asset.”

August eyed Canaris, leaning back on the sofa, a glass of scotch in his hand. There was no threat. August put away his weapon, took off his coat, and sat across from Canaris. His movements were slow and thoughtful. By the time he sat he was focused, calm, and collected.

“So you know I went to Wannsee,” he said. “What else do you know? Or want to know?”

“What else do I know? Let’s see…” Canaris took a drink and looked up. “I know your apartment isn’t bugged. We swept it this morning. So we’re free to talk.” He looked back at August. “I know you’re intelligent. And capable. We could use that.”

“We? You mean the Abwehr?”

“I mean the Resistance. A group of us who are committed to restoring honor to Germany.” He studied August. “You’ve already encountered it.”

August leaned forward and studied him. “The men at the SOE house. And the testimony from Dina and Hofer.”

“Yes.”

“This is a lot to reveal. How do you know you can trust me?”

“I don’t know that I can yet. I’m gambling on your sense of moral outrage at what you’ve discovered.” Canaris took another drink before continuing. “And I’m paying you the compliment of not trying to deceive you.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Because you have no choice. Anything you tell Heydrich I can easily prove you withheld from him. And if I have to, I’ll lie about our role in it.”

Canaris watched August take that in.

“But that’s not why you’ll end up working with us,” Canaris said in a cool, matter-of-fact tone. “You will because you want to be part of this. You want to see Germany restored.” Canaris gave a slight grin. “Actually, you’re already working with us.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve kept it all secret.”

“Including that I have a secret.”

“Exactly.”

“You seem to know quite a bit already. What do you not know?”

“What was discussed at Wannsee.”

August looked away. “You don’t want to know.”

“Where can I get the documents?”

“Eichmann has the only copy.”

“We’ll have the butcher get a copy.”

August started to tell him that it would be impossible to get  a copy. But then he realized how many others things Canaris was aware of. Plus the fact that he had found his apartment and gotten in. What was it Canaris had said to him on the train? There isn’t much we don’t know. August thought there wasn’t much that was impossible to this man.

Canaris stood. “Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“To find out about your sister.”

They walked to a car parked down the road. Oster was waiting behind the wheel. August and Canaris got in the back.

August turned to Canaris. Time to set terms.

“Admiral, if I’m going to do this, I want to be sure we can trust each other,” August said.

“I value what you can do, August. But trust costs more.”

“You value what I can do?” August gave a short laugh. “Says one professional liar to another.”

Canaris looked out the window to hide his smile. How many were bold enough to counter his statements? It was refreshing. Yes, he liked this August Wichmann very much. He hid his smile and turned back to look August in the eye.

“I will never deceive you. You have my word,” he said, his voice quiet and firm. “I expect the same courtesy from you.”

August regarded him for a moment and nodded. Terms accepted.

===

Ready for the whole story? It’s available from any bookstore. Or you can pop on to Amazon and grab the ebook and start reading today.

I Do Declare: God doesn’t want us cherry-picking our thanks

This year on Thanksgiving Day, when we have our ritual of going around the table and talking about what we’re thankful for, I will be thinking about the passage from 1 Thessalonians 5:18:

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (NRSV)

Reading that passage, I zero in on the word “all” and the fact that it doesn’t say “all the good.”

Yes, of course I give thanks for all the good – and there has been much, despite 2020’s attempts to bring me (and all of us) to our knees.

But it doesn’t say give thanks for all the good. It’s a directive to give thanks in all circumstances, not just the things that worked out the way I wanted. Everything. Even the things that I could’ve done without, the things that inconvenienced me, the things that hurt.

The passage doesn’t go into why – beyond the fact that this is God’s will (which should be all the “why” I need). I can guess at some of the reasoning, though.

I give thanks for the shutdowns, even though I hated having to do it. (Maybe it brought a greater awareness of the freedoms that I tend to take for granted?)

I give thanks that the case of Covid I got was relatively mild. (Maybe that will remind me to have a more mindful attitude about my health instead of my usual cavalier mindset?)

I give thanks that I was laid off earlier this year. (Maybe it nudged me into reawakening parts of my skill set that the company brushed away when I offered them?)

Yes, I give thanks for all those circumstances – and many others – though I know not why. Discovering that some people I trusted really weren’t my friends after all: Thank you. Having to dodge potshots on social media whenever I express an unpopular opinion: Thank you. Realizing that I’m going to have to endure a season of loneliness and failure and insecurity before I can push through to the other side, without knowing how long said season lasts or where the other side actually is: Thank you.

Truth be told, my show of gratitude doesn’t come without a dash of sarcasm and cynicism. That’s how I can proclaim the part of me that craves reason, the part that must know why, is sooooo grateful. Merci, Gracias. Thenk-ewe-veddy-much. Yeah, sure, thanks a lot.

And in the end, my need to know doesn’t matter. It’s not the point.

The point is that giving thanks in all circumstances is God’s will for me. All those times I cried out to the heavens asking what God wants me to do? Well, here’s my answer. Give thanks. For everything. And He does mean everything.

I’m reminded of a story about Corrie ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about her experiences in a concentration camp. In one of the stories in her book “The Hiding Place,” she talks about how she and her sister, Betsy, smuggled a Bible into the camp, and they held Bible studies with the women in their barracks. And oh yeah, keep in mind, at that time and place, this was an executable offense.

On one occasion, they were studying this same passage from 1 Thessalonians, and Betsy pointed out they must give thanks for everything – being in the camp, the guards, the disgusting food, the fleas.

The fleas? Corrie said no, she would not give thanks for the fleas. What possible purpose did the fleas have? They were a nuisance, a bother, a pain. No need to give thanks for something like that.

Yes, Betsy insisted, give thanks even for the fleas.

Turns out, Corrie writes, the guards were aware of the fleas and this was the reason they stayed away from their barracks. Which allowed Corrie and Betsy to hold the Bible studies in relative peace.

I give thanks for this story too. It reminds me that giving thanks doesn’t have to mean we like the circumstances or want more of them. It simply means we acknowledge that God is bigger than the circumstances, and He is in control, not us.

Thank God.

And I mean that literally.