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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

God is For Me

We met in a basement. Like most little girls attending Sunday school in the 90's, I wore frilly dresses with lace collars and puffed sleeves patterned with flowers. My teacher, Miss Mary Cooley, was impossibly old and wise, a fact I surmised because of the million laugh lines around her eyes and the tight curls of snowy white hair piled on top of her head. I never knew her life story, but as far as I was concerned she had always been a very old, very wise Sunday school teacher. I distinctly remember carrying the strong conviction that she knew literally everything there was to know about God. So when she told us week after week that God loved us, I believed her. She would know. She had spent a lifetime wearing dresses and teaching first grade Sunday school in the basement. So God must love me. 

I'm glad she said it every week, because she knew most of all that we wouldn't always be first graders. I did not stay a little girl in frilly dresses. But in spite of her dedicated reminders, the assurance of her words faded as I grew up. I became a creative sinner, a better hypocrite, a suspicious suspect. Until I reached a point where I no longer believed it at all. If she had been able to speak from her grave, Miss Mary Cooley would have wept. 

God loves you!

No, I could not believe it. I had sunk too low. God was against me. 
For what is love if not to be radically for the other? 
I had no assurance that this Holy God could be for this exhausted pharisee. 
And even if He did love me, how could I know for sure? 

My friend was engaged when she told me how she reveled in the words, "He loves me." She broke down the sentence to see each part as special and spent energy thinking about how her fiancee beautified each petal of the linguistic flower. I follow her pattern for the words of Paul in Romans 8, which inspired this message, which inspired this post. :) 

"If God is for us, who can be against us?"

God- The Trinity living in loving relationship and desiring to be reconciled to the Image Bearers. The Creator of the ends of the earth. The never-weary One. The Burden Bearer. The Covenant Keeper who walked between the carcasses while Abraham slept. The Sinless Savior who alone could be the replacement for Isaac (and for me) on the altar. The worship worthy Lamb whose act in death and resurrection embodies Love.

God is- He exists. He lives. So real I cannot always perceive Him with my finitude. So alive that my eyes cannot yet see Him for preservation of their vision. So complex that my lists of attributes dissolve in the Presence. 

God is for- This God is not against me. He is dedicated to working in my favor. He has worked in my favor already through Christ. He went to great lengths to resolve the distance between us. He always does for me what is best. 

God is for us- Me. A sinner. Weak. Weary. Unwise. Burdened. And Beloved!

Yes! God is for me.
By grace in Christ...for me! 
Maybe the impact would be increased to reorder it and realize my identity without Him before being floored by His grace. But then, it starts as it must always start (and as the Spirit rightly wrote through Paul) with God as the subject and not with me. Believers here find themselves in the proper place as the object of eternal, inescapable affection with the focus on the One who loves.  

God is for us. 

What proof does Paul offer for such a bold declaration? 
Not a perfect record of service offered, nor a life of blessings and sunshine. 
But an unchanging reality: He did not spare even His own Son. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Unresolved

"I need resolution."

She looks at me with desperate eyes, and I understood in the deepest, most wounded places of my heart. She wants what I have asked for. What we all have asked for a thousand times when the gap between "is" and "should be" spans galaxies and eons outside our comprehension. But resolution does not show up. It would be nice to find it like the last Christmas gift accidentally pushed behind the tree and discovered neatly tied up and waiting for you hours after all the others had been opened. A surprise and a comfort. Your favorite uncle did not forget you after all.

I wish it was more like that. I wish I could progress through the stages of my life without dragging the past with me. Can't I leave these bricks behind? No! They are the last remnants of my childhood village burned to the ground! Can't I set these planks on the side of the path? No! Of course, not! They were all that formed the bridge to adolescence! Even when I try to set them down and walk away, I run back to them with tears and gasps of relief. They burden me, but they define me too. They hinder me, but I cherish them. I don't know how to walk without them. And I falsely imagine that resolution would be that one gift worth so much that I would not see the value of these bulky weights anymore. A replacement for the pain. Simple, neat, explained. An answer for the "why" and clarity for the "how."

Instead, I'm left with a tangle of threads chopped off at odd lengths and uncategorized with which I feel a pressure to invent something beautiful. Then I look around me and judge my craft in comparison to all the rest. No wonder I am stressed. No wonder I feel inferior and alone. I have not exchanged my yoke for His.

Life in Christ exists in tensions of un-resolution. I'm chasing Jesus while toying with the idea of sin. I'm loving one brother while I'm hating another. I'm hoping He will come today and wishing He would wait until I've finished a few things. I'm thrilled to walk with Him and hesitant to take another step. I am a self contradiction even as I claim logic to be my teacher. Paul understood. I hopelessly imprison myself unless I have considered Christ. Christ who is the gift most precious. Christ who makes everything beautiful from my tangled threads. Christ who sees exactly what I am in searing specificity and loves me still, so much that He humbled himself to die in my place.
(Thanks, Andrew Peterson, for your exquisite poetry highlighting this truth.)

I cannot wait for resolution before I take the next step. Such would be faithless unbelief in the God who says He is with me "even here." (Psalm 139:10) I want resolution and label it as a need, but God gives me something else. Something better. Because it is not resolution that replaces my burdens with hope. It is Him.   

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Passive Voices: When A Verb Reveals The Heart

"You may not use any 'be' verbs in your paper."

It was a bold statement and I was well aware of how it would affect my students, an expectation that proved correct when their mouths dropped open, their eyes bugged out, and a gasp of dismay filled the room. The senior English class had been shuffled off to me mid-semester in hopes of salvaging their deficient writing skills. Excited about the challenge, but overwhelmed with the task, I spent much of class time teaching them a holy dissatisfaction with their current quality of written expression and demanding that they show me their intelligent, intricate, God-reflecting souls on paper. They had made some progress. But they weren't done yet.

After shuffling through the simpler problems of comma rules and unclear pronoun references, we had come to the issue of strong verbs. No linking verbs. No "is" or "are." No "was" or "were." Their papers must flourish like living gardens full of meaning in which word weeds were not permitted. But they stood on the edge of their plots of land and looked with despair at the tiny, forbidden words. Most of all, they felt the impossibility of removing all passive voice from the papers. It took weeks, but eventually they shifted their language and began to turn "Sally was given a flower by her sister" to "Sally's sister gave her a flower." Which soon, to my extreme delight, became "Sally's sister surprised her with a flower."

Like many first year English majors, I developed my hatred for passive voice in my freshman English class. I chased it out of my papers with fiery passion and guarded every sentence from the deleterious effects of weak syntax. "Live!" I told my words. "Express!" I demanded of myself. I knew subconsciously that passive voice had a place, but it was mostly considered a mistake. I think this phase of my life was necessary. It taught me how the right word matters and makes the difference between communicating and saying.

But the construct of active verbs attracted my already law-driven heart to a form of self worship. Already addicted to the self-righteous arrogance of doing things for God, my obsession for active rather than passive verbs revealed my dysfunctional relationship with him. Nothing was done for me, passive. I did everything, active.

Nowhere is this more evident than my journaled prayers from college.

"God, I will love you."
"God, I will serve you." 
"God, I will go wherever you want." 
"God, I will destroy sin in my life."

These were my frantic efforts to do what I felt I had to do to be loved. I became the source of all my own grace, which is not grace, but self sufficiency and death. I did not realize that the passive "be loved" is not achieved by activity "do." Passive verbs are gifts. They are expressions of what is done and what is given.

The other day I heard a song that struck me for its use of passive voice.
The main line is "stop holding on and just be held."

The linguistic change is minor.
From "hold on" to "be held" you do not change the verb but the position of the action.

I did not know that there would be so much peace and joy in a passive verb.

I did not know that I don't have to hold on, because I am held.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

To Want Joy

I'm often surprised upon self-reflection how what I want and what I really want are contradictory. This is never more true than with suffering. On one level, I want it to be removed. I want eradication of all my pain and the agony that surrounds me in the broken world. I want peace. And I want it immediately without struggle or tension or battle. I just want it to appear magically and envelope me in the safety of the presence of God.

But in another sense, this is not at all what I want.

What I really want is Beauty, which is code for value and worth and essence.  I want the suffering to mean something and to matter to what is ultimately important. I want the pain to increase the glory. That's what I really want. And, by the mystery of grace, that's what Jesus really offers. Not a magic spell to erase the effects of sin, but a strong, faithful hand holding mine in the dark. A friend in the valley. A fellow struggler on the trail. What I want is Emmanuel, who felt and feels my pain. He suffered for me so He can now suffer with me. I'm not exempt from the bitterness of the curse, but I'm not alone in it either. And somehow I know that exemption would cheapen it in the end. So I smile in the company of His presence and take another step.

It's like the summer I went hiking in Alaska. I wanted to climb the mountain more than anything. Ask my fellow camp staffers and they'll tell you how I trembled with excitement. What for most of them was the annual team building exercise was for me an adventure of epic proportions. Nothing in my athletic experience had ever looked so daunting and so inviting at the same time. Of course, my goal was to reach the top, but I didn't want to be transported there by some Star Trek voodoo. I wanted to climb. I wanted to feel every step and touch the trees on the way up. And having reached the top, I wanted to remember the journey as the excellent means to a glorious end.

Without the agony of the climb, the mountain would mean about as much as a stroll to the mailbox on junkmail day.

I do not minimize the longing for restoration. Actually, it is that longing that drives Frodo to Mt. Doom, isn't it? And the metaphor holds true. For the joy set before Him, He endured. For the joy set before us, we endure. What I emphasize here is that suffering does not hinder our longing, but increases it. It galvanizes the experience into something also worthwhile. I wish I spent more of my life remembering that God values the journey.

How could He collect our tears if He did not walk with us each agonizing step up the path?

How could the God who put Himself in the position to give His own Son for our sake remain ignorant to our pain and deaf to our cries?

How could He allow it unless He knew with sovereign certainty that this, too, would bring joy? 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

On Pain of Death

I understand why many Christians embrace some form of evolution.
There's a push for neutrality and tolerance that isn't all bad, as much as conservatives yell about it with their shoes superglued to the marble floors of their ancient temples. We're trying to make sense of a confusing world, accept people without judgment, and fit together theory and faith. All good motivations.

Popular as it was, I felt that the Nye/Ham debate last year was not productive at all, but only served to further misconceptions and raise the tensions of both Christians and Naturalists everywhere. Unlike Ham, my objections to evolution have much more to do with human hearts and logic than any scientific evidence. I do believe there is scientific evidence for Intelligent Design, but I also know that we interpret evidence based on our already-held beliefs.

What is more compelling to me is the universal pain of death.

If we define death as separation (from each other, from physical existence, from all we love), we can connect all pain back to it. Bad breakups are a death of sorts. So are broken families and abandoned children and murders and poverty and disease. Of course, the grief of an actual death bears psychological and spiritual damage for those left behind. All of these deaths are part of Death itself. And I find it interesting that no one likes or desires Death, unless they are categorically psychopathic or else pretending for the sake of hipster counterculturalism. And most people try to avoid it in all of its forms unless they have lost all hope. Death grates on our souls and strikes fear into us. We have the sense that we were not supposed to experience it. It feels so wrong.

We have to wonder where this hatred of Death comes from. If, as evolution theory asserts, death is part of the natural process and has always been part of our world in the blind effort to improve, then why do we hate it? From where do we get the audacity to assert an individuality that wants us (as individuals) to survive even if it's better for the species for us to die? Shouldn't our instincts, trained to value the survival of the species, destroy that tendency? And at what point in the epochal history of time did our ancestral primates begin to value life instead? Especially when all they knew was death? Why do we still fear being forgotten and alone? Why do we spend our lives seeking connection with each other and weep when we are separated?

Naturalistic Evolution has attempted answers to (or avoidance of) these questions without God being part of the picture. These arguments I find to be most unsatisfactory, but are beyond the scope of this post. The problem I have with Theistic Evolution is a refusal to recognize that death is an integral part of the evolutionary process. Whether God started that process going or it started by chance, you still have millions of years without a rational human able to sin thereby bringing death into the world. You still have death as a natural, normal thing, and I suspect we would not feel its effects in the same way that we do if this were so.

Essentially, evolution in all its forms reverses the order. Death is a result of sin, and sin couldn't happen until Adam and Eve had formed into full human beings and could disobey. If evolution formed them, you have a lot of death happening before sin. And it just doesn't work that way. What's more, we would probably feel comfortable here. The fact that we don't says something about what we are and what we were made to be. The sense of trying to escape should give us cause to question from what and why.

Death is wrong. Not in a moral sense, but in a fitness sense. We feel it to be inappropriate. Unbelievable. Shocking. Tragic. Raw. And I think we only feel this way because we know we were never meant to experience it.

Respected scientist Carl Sagan made a revealing statement in his book Cosmos (p.4),
"Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us--there is is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height." 

Why would humanity as a general whole feel this memory if it were not in some way true? From what height was there to fall if we evolved through a process of deaths before sin brought the separation we find so repulsive?

This is also why Christianity is not ultimately about morality or ethics. Hebrews chapter 2 tells us that Jesus came to reverse Death (which inherently means dealing with the sin problem since Death results from sin.)
"...he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death -- that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." Hebrews 2:14-15
There is no measurable, objective way to prove my point other than the affirmation felt strongly in the soul of a person who has just lost someone dear to them. But it is for me another signpost to the One who loved me and gave Himself for me. It is not an argument to convince anybody because it assumes the reality of God's love which not all are willing to receive. In the end, I guess the strongest evidence I have is subjective: the fact that it seems to me inconsistent with the character of the God I know to allow a blind process to produce humans made in His Image, loved relentlessly, and meant to reflect the glory of His grace.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Stumbling with God

My nephew's mobility started overnight from my perspective.

One day he was merely attempting to crawl and it felt like the next time I saw him, he was fully upright and taking sequential, albeit wobbly, steps and crossing entire rooms with a grin on his face stretching the entire surface of his adorable, chubby cheeks.

We brought him over last week for the afternoon while his parents went on a date. I listened to him laugh in the car (a laugh radiating from the exact center of his little body), and as every shard of my soul mysteriously joined in his happiness I thought, "This is the joy that music tries to capture and can't quite reach. The joy that poetry attempts to articulate and falls just short. The joy that doesn't have language or symbol or thought. It just is." It was like falling headlong in love and hoping to drown in his exquisite little light.

When we got out of the car, we had to cross the front lawn to get to the door. Leo likes his independence, so he endeavored to take every painstaking step from the station wagon to the stairs. I held his hand as we navigated the uneven terrain and he raised his tiny shoes into the air one at a time to place them carefully on the next few inches of grass.

Something struck me about how I walked with him. I'm 5'5" and it takes me no more than five seconds to make this trip from the car to the house. Leo is less than two feet tall and it took about 10 times as long for him, even holding my hand. But I didn't feel irritated. I slowed my steps and altered my center of gravity to adjust to his need for support. I watched the path ahead and vigilantly removed obstacles he couldn't handle on his own. When he stumbled, I let him wrestle a bit to find his footing, but I didn't let go of his hand, and I let him know that I wasn't going to leave him alone. I even whispered little words of affirmation to let him know that I noticed his progress and was proud of his efforts. And all this for the simple task of getting to the front door on a summer afternoon.

In that moment, I realized something else in the intricate shards of my being.

This is how God loves me too. 

Be Yourself: Romans 6

In my favorite young adult series, Janner Igiby, a simple son of a farmer, finds out that his real name is Janner Wingfeather, Throne Warden of the Shining Isle. Janner becomes the protector of his brother, the young King Kalmar, whose life circumstances eventually give him due cause to question his true identity as a king, a son, and even a human being. Numerous times throughout the book, Janner must remind his brother of his true identity by calling him by his real name. By reminding him who he really is, Janner is able to bring Kalmar back from the edge of insanity. It's that easy. And that impossibly difficult.

It's popular to hear the phrase, "be yourself." It's a phrase I always imagine being drawn with a colored pencil while flowers and unicorns and sparkles spew from the letters like on a commercial for a laser jet printer. But for all our encouraging each other to do it, few people seem to know how. We are expert turtles of soul skilled in strategies for hiding what we think is our true identity. Some people hide by being loud and hilarious to cover up their insecurities. Others hide by talking less and avoiding people or wearing lots of makeup or insisting on long dresses or making intellectual comments or devising blatant lies. But whatever our cover of choice, our propensity to shield ourselves from others is at least partly rooted in shame. We think we know who we are, and we're afraid of what people will think if they were to find out. We're bad people, after all. We know what we've done. What we used to do. And doesn't the Bible affirm this? We're sinners to the core, even if Jesus saved us. 

Or are we? 

I've been thinking about what my pastor said this past week. If we explain the gospel correctly, it will evoke the question, "Well, wait...doesn't that mean I can do whatever I want?" It's a paraphrase of Paul's "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" Of course, Paul answers with the emphatic, "God forbid!" But the point here is that the question has to be asked and answered as a natural outflow of proper gospel focus. It's one of those necessary mistakes that has to be made in holding the tension of the gospel. And the gospel is dangerous, isn't it? It's so radically grace-based that a coworker of mine responded by saying, "I think it's a beautiful idea, but it can too easily be abused." 

I agree with my friend. It can be horribly abused. But that doesn't make it less true. And what's more, it's not the need for morality or ethics that makes it so. Paul's inspired reasons for tenaciously holding to the gospel are backed up, unbelievably, without laying down the law. He doesn't write a detailed instruction manual or a list of guidelines to prevent people from abusing grace. He does something entirely different and entirely consistent with the character of the God I am coming to know. Paul's imperatives in this chapter have nothing to do with avoiding specific sins or doing specific good works. They are in order: "know," "consider," and "present." What keeps us from sin? What keeps us from abusing this gift of grace? Apparently, it's as simple (but often excruciatingly difficult) as knowing who we are in Christ, believing that we are who He says we are, and living from that reality moment to moment. This is a holy "be yourself." Be who you really are. But not the you that you think you are, whether that's a sniveling sinner or a righteous pharisee. Rather, be who God says you are.
Remember your name.

This goes much deeper than creating a false reality in hopes of changing yourself. God is stating the reality of my identity, and I am agreeing with him that I'm no longer a sinner by identity. I am only a sinner by description when I fail to believe the truth about God and myself. In my innermost being, I am forgiven of all sin and covered in the righteousness of Christ. God sees me the same way He sees Jesus, the One who lived under the Law and died under the Law so that I could die to the flesh and live under grace. 

You can try to modify your behavior. The example one of my pastors mentioned is famous for its scathing mention in James 3: you can attempt to tame your tongue. But since your words, like all other actions, only reveal what's in the heart, you really need a new heart. A new you. And if you have a new you, why are you so afraid of being yourself? Your true self is the one Jesus gave you, so you can be that redeemed child of God in freedom and joy living in righteousness from the heart. That was the point all along, from the very beginning: People who want to be with God. Not people who follow a moral code out of duty. The goodness (misnamed "morality" sometimes) that comes out of this relationship with Him is a byproduct, but by no means the point. 

Practically speaking, we can stop trying to encourage each other with directives to "make Jesus happy" or "keep pursuing God" or anything else that implies a "try harder" mentality. Instead we can exhort each other, like Paul does, to remember our identity in Christ and live out of that grace. Sometimes, like King Kalmar of the Shining Isle, we forget that we are rescued royalty. We just need someone to remind us who we are.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mat Kearney: Just Kids

You will spend the rest of your life recovering (or not recovering) from the loss of innocence. 

No one escapes the brokenness. 

It was a moment that you remember well, because up until that point you didn't have a clue. You weren't aware that the darkness was so dark. You hadn't felt the pressure of being here, in this inescapable coffin of a world. Your disappointments until that day were small and easily solved with a kind word or a lollipop or a hard game of soccer. 
But then it happened. 
And nothing was ever going to be the same. 

Maybe you've been fighting it, and lashing out at a world you rightly hate for the crime and the loss and the death and the pain. Maybe you're pretending that it isn't so bad and grasping at whatever fantasy numbs the searing wounds of your shattered heart. But I know, and you know, we don't belong here ultimately. At least not the here that we can see and feel and taste. And we long for a way to be strong enough to face the abyss with courage and yet be joyful enough to walk away untouched. 

This is the longing I feel when I listen to Mat Kearney's song Just Kids. The imagery of his personal memories make the experience powerful. This is one man's wrestle with the loss, not of his youth, but of the simplicity that made relationships beautiful. The first verse poetically refers to the "wet cement" in the souls of children that catches whatever happens around them. Of course, the cement hardens and can't be changed, whatever was marked there. The first chorus expresses his longing that he could have started this relationship back when things didn't feel broken, back before they even knew about the pain they would cause each other and the messiness of the families they come from. 

After detailing the chaos of their backgrounds, the artist cries out for answers in a second chorus that resonates with anyone who senses the relentless, ubiquitousness of the Fall and the gnawing desire for restoration. 
For crying out loud I wanna know
How the waves keep on crashing down the doors.
Feel the weight of the world and they keep on bringing more.
If it's just you and me on the floor,
Go grab your coat, and I'll drive us home
Like we were just kids. 
Kearney articulates that it will take a return to that innocence and simplicity to make the relationship work.  That return will require the paradox of embracing the brokenness and surrendering it. Without denying or fighting, we can be just kids again.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thinking Gospel: Romans 5

There may come a day when I will not have to be so intentional in my war against the poisonous legalism that my heart loves. But I think not. These scars do not disqualify me from joy. And I'm beginning to understand that the necessity of conscious dependence on the grace of God hardly discounts me from relaxing in it.

This weekend, my pastor led us through the first part of Romans chapter 5. (Listen to it here! It's worth the time.) I realized afresh that legalism is only thinly veiled heresy. It doesn't drive me to Jesus. Instead, it drives me to selfishness. Through it, I want gifts and rewards for good behavior. I cannot accept that He gives freely, and I don't like what He offers. The six gifts of justification by faith laid out in the passage are twisted when I see them through a false lens. When I wrote out these contrasts of how the gifts are received on the basis of law or grace, it helped me to see how devoid of the cross my natural thinking is. I am praying that God will continue to weed out the old, deadly thinking and replace it with the gospel.

Romans 5


Peace with God

The Gospel: Because of Jesus' death and resurrection, I am no longer at war with God; instead He and I are waging war against my sin. But my sin is completely forgiven and He gives me His righteousness.
Legalism: He forgives my sin if I ask correctly, but I have to work for the righteousness. God and I can't be at peace until I have done enough.


Access to God

The Gospel: I am invited to come boldly as His precious child without thought for what I'm interrupting or worry over how I'll be received. I'm already in. I'm accepted. I'm loved and cherished.
Legalism: I can't really talk to God unless I'm performing well. He might love me, but it doesn't change how He interacts with me. I'm a bad person trying hard to be a good person.


Hope

The Gospel: I will see Him! I will be in His presence and I'll finally reflect Him completely as I was created to do. I'm sure of this, because He has promised it.
Legalism: I might be sure of Heaven if I work hard enough, but I am not sure He will be delighted to have me there.


Joy in Suffering

The Gospel: I'm suffering, but it's not because He is angry at me. He is using everything to shape me into a beautiful reflection of His Son. Nothing can destroy me. All I have left to do is rejoice as He works in me.
Legalism: I'm suffering, so I must have done something wrong. I can remove the suffering if I find where I messed up and fix it.


Experience of the Love of God

The Gospel: He loves me. Always. He proved it by living the life I couldn't live and dying the death I deserved. He loved me when I was against Him, so of course He loves me now that I'm reconciled. I didn't do anything to earn His love so I can't do anything to lose it either. He was for me when I was against Him. Now I can experience His love.
Legalism: He loves me when I'm doing a good job. I live in constant terror of His wrath if I make a wrong move.


God Himself

The Gospel: Greater than the gifts of the gospel and more wonderful even than the peace is the gift of God Himself. I get to be with Him! He is the greatest treasure and the One for whom I was created. I love Him!
Legalism: I want safety and dignity and a sense of self righteousness. I'm not really interested in God for who He is, as long as I can have what I want. I love me. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bold Love

It was published in 1992, and the copy I own has passed through many hands evidenced by the broken spine, the numerous underlinings and markings, and the address of someone I don't know stickered to the front inside cover. But I plan to read this book at least once a year because I want it to shape my life.

Bold Love has so radically altered my grasp of God's love for me that I can only worship Him.

The book could be divided into two parts.

The first part emphasizes the two coping mechanisms that we've perfected in response to the fall: lust and anger. God Himself wrestles with us to bring us back to His loving heart. This is what the entire story of Scripture is about. God pursuing sinners to restore them to Edenic beauty.

The second part deals with how to love boldly in relationships. Grace and truth must neither one be compromised if we are to create in others the thirst for God that will lead them back to the reason for their existence: bearing the Image of God. Love is much more complex and redemptive than I could hope and much greater than I am able to live out. Only the Christ life inside me can make this happen.

When I had read the first half, I wrote this pantoum to give shape to the inexpressible weight I felt about it. I don't have anything written about the second half of the book, so you'll just have to read it. :) 

Bold Love

Life is complicated. Things get broken.
Among the wreckage of our human lives
we fall in shock and wonder if You've spoken.
We will rebuild and struggle to survive

among the wreckage of our human lives.
We hurl heavenward our angry shouts
and build instead, in hopes they will survive,
plastic Edens, half-formed, from our doubts.

Heaven, mute, absorbs our angry shouts
and Love gives nothing as a form of aid
to build our plastic Edens. Who can doubt
the debt You owe us, yet have never paid?

You call this Love that You withhold the aid
which would, we think, more quickly soothe the ache?
We scream, "You owe us much!" for we have paid
in human heartache for Your sake.

The Silent God, who does not soothe our ache
with anything but His own blood and death
and takes on human heartache for our sake,
can give no more and will give nothing less.

Since nothing but Your blood paid for our death,
we fall in silent shock and wonder. You have spoken.
We need no more and we would die for less.
Life is complicated. We are broken.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

More Embarrassing than Falling

From the time I was three until just after my 18th birthday, I dreamed of being a doctor. There were a lot of reasons for this, most of them ridiculous. And there were a lot of reasons I should have reconsidered much earlier. Like my severe deficiency of math aptitude and the nausea I experienced during biology dissections. But I was so convinced of my path that I'd managed to convince everybody else too. It's funny now, looking back, because while most teenagers have an inflated sense of assurance about what they think they want, I took it to the extreme. Makes you wonder just who I was trying to assure.

My unsuitability for the medical field was highlighted again recently when my Aunt Nancy came to visit. She's a lovely person, my aunt. She's stylish and funny and intelligent, and moreover she's caught in a perpetual time warp. She'll always be about 34 in my mind. Like Mary Poppins, her visits cause a stir, and often happen unexpectedly since she's also the most spontaneous of my extended family. It would be a lie to say that my mother's youngest sister hasn't always been the favorite among my 17 cousins.

Her last visit coincided with my youngest cousin's graduation from grammar school. I attended with Aunt Nancy and Grandma, though we arrived late. The ceremony was to take place in the gymnasium which had doors situated at the back and chairs set up facing the front. However, when we opened the doors, everyone had turned to applaud some notable figure sitting in the back. If you've ever encountered thunderous applause immediately upon stepping into a large room, you'll understand how awkward this felt. We tried to slip inconspicuously to the seats my uncle had saved for us, but slipping was just what Aunt Nancy was doing a little too well that day.

I had turned to wave at a friend, so I didn't see it happen. That's probably why I reacted the way I did, or to be more clear, did not react at all. When I turned back around to continue following my grandmother and aunt, I found that Aunt Nancy was no longer walking. She wasn't even standing. She was on the gym floor in a crumpled heap of silver necklace, blonde highlights, and white cotton top. So much for stealth.

What happened next proves my inability to respond quickly to emergency situations.
I stared down at her without comprehension.

She's on the floor...?

This question lodged in my brain and no effort on my part could process it through. It was like trying to sip Nutella through a straw. The thought progressed like a kindergarten teacher attempting to explain that the letter "B" always comes after the letter "A."

My aunt was not on the floor, but now my aunt IS on the floor...?

My 75-year-old grandmother, who is no taller than 4'10" and cannot weigh more than 120 pounds, reached down and started pulling at Nancy's right arm. This had little effect. I continued to gaze at the scene without moving, unable to piece together a reasonable cause and effect scenario that my mind would accept.

Why is she on the floor?

From out of nowhere, a dark haired man appeared. His face was full of concern and he knelt on the floor next to my aunt and said in a strong, dramatic voice like a superhero, "I am a physical therapist!"

Maybe he thought his credentials would assure us that his strength and knowledge were equal to the task of assisting someone who has fallen and can't get up. I would have assured him that anyone taller than grandma and less confused than I was would have been an acceptable assistant with or without physical therapist licensure. But in the moment, this new bit of information didn't fit anywhere in my already skewed panorama of the situation and only delayed my acceptance of reality.

He is a physical therapist. My aunt is on the floor? 

The man placed his arm under Aunt Nancy's shoulder and helped her up. She blinked at him and leaned on his elbow as she tried to regain her balance. In another seemingly incongruous comment, my grandma recognized our rescuer and took the opportunity to introduce him to Nancy.

"Oh, it's you! This is Mike's sister Nancy..."

Nancy smiled and tried to brush back her hair. I now admire her for the effort it took to be presentable and hospitable after taking such a spill.

"Hi, nice to meet you."

The man returned the greetings and then left abruptly.
My aunt's eyes found me. I remained frozen for a few seconds before I could croak out the words that had been on loop in my head for the past several minutes.

"Um...you were on the floor."

Someone should have rebuked me. Someone should have said, "Thank you, Captain Obvious. Why don't you tell us what else just happened? Better yet, why don't you DO something next time instead of stand there and drool at it like a week-old puppy?"

Instead my aunt, my dignified, resilient, unsinkable, ladylike Aunt Nancy grinned.
Then she giggled. And then she laughed. We joined her.

"Are you okay?" I gasped through my laughter, while trying to bottle it back up since the ceremony continued at the front of the gym. "What happened!?"

"I'm fine...I just slipped."

We began tiptoeing to our seats. I offered her assistance but she waved me away.

"I really am fine. That gym floor is slippery and my shoes don't have a lot of traction."

Her smile was enough to convince me, and we worked through the rest of the program to avoid looking at each other so that we wouldn't disrupt the audience further. The tale has been added to the annuls of family history to be retold and (perhaps over time) exaggerated. For my part in it, or rather my lack of part in it, I am truly sorry. I shocked myself with my capacity for shock.  

Yes, I used to think I would make a great doctor. I would be there for the trauma and bandage people's wounds and stick IVs in their arms and save their lives.
I didn't count on my brain matter turning to Nutella in the midst of a crisis.

There are some things more embarrassing than falling. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Avalon Calling

Art can infiltrate a season of life until it becomes impossible to think of that time without associating a certain song or book. 

My junior year of high school rushes back when I hear One Republic's song "Apologize." Senior year was tinged with the melancholy of Josh Groban's "Awake." My fellow Higher Ground camp kitchen staffers from 2010 will remember Janice's "Pilgrim Song." I appreciate how music transports me to the past, even if I didn't listen to the song intentionally. ("Apologize" played rambunctiously in every store and waiting room the entire calendar year. It couldn't be escaped.) If music has had that affect, the books I read have been more galvanizing still in producing nostalgia.  

The winter of my 11th year marked an important turning point for my literary life. I'd loved reading before that, but something changed that year. I'd read Anne of Green Gables the previous summer and had spent the fall devouring the rest of the series. I chewed through them one book at a time and halfway through Christmas break I closed the cover of Anne of Ingleside with marked satisfaction. The only way I could describe the feeling is elation. I'd lived Anne's life with her. Though it was, admittedly, idyllic, I felt connected to her world, and I had seen her through to the end. The end. Suddenly, realization crashed down on me. I had finished the series. It was over. Unless I reread them, I would not be returning to Prince Edward Island. The sense of loss I felt was very real and powerful. Especially since this was the first time I'd felt it over book characters. 

Having read many books of even better quality since then, I have, of course, experienced these feelings often. That I have come to expect them has made them only more cherished. This past weekend, I completed Gerald Morris's stunning young adult series The Squire's Tales, which were written with the intent of making Arthurian legend more accessible to a modern audience. Having a predisposition to everything involving my favorite Pendragon, I was thrilled when a friend recommended them, and I binge read all 10 of them in two and a half weeks. (The best part of having surgery is an excuse to read excessively without being questioned.) The effect of having a doctor's orders not to drive in the same week that I discovered the series was chain reading them as if they were going to be torn from my hands in an act of undue violence. 

I do not want to give away any spoilers because I'm commanding all my blog readers to drop everything else and enjoy them immediately. Every book passes the tests of good literature. They satisfy Lewis's demand for windows. They made me love good, hate evil, and long for the opening of the real Avalon, the return of the true Pendragon, and the restoration of the Kingdom glory. (The last book is absolutely devastating!)

I would be far amiss if I did not applaud Morris's preference for real over accurate. He also manages to combine humor and gravity in a clever, thoughtful, beautiful way, and his subtle, but careful gathering of the final darkness artfully intensifies dread and hope. Lastly, his characters both borrowed and invented reveal the complexity of real people. Indeed, I cannot decide if I loved best Gawain or Terence, but Terence gets all the points for wit and charm. However, I can credit Gawain with the most poignant line, "No one understands love, but understanding is much overrated."

In short, the entire series hangs on a truth spoken in conversation between Gawain and Terence that The Word affirms and my soul thrills to remember. 

"Everything falls apart."
"But nothing is ever lost." 


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Crutches: Survival Tips

The word itself sounds painful.

Crutches.

It sounds like crunch got together with the word lunge and formed an appropriate onomatopoeia for what it feels like to walk with crutches. A little bit of a hobble, a lot of pressure in all the wrong muscle groups, and a complete lack of coordination. My hands are sore too.

Nobody warns you about the real setbacks of being on crutches. The nurse taught you how to "use" the crutches, but they really should have an obstacle course that must be passed before leaving the hospital. The change involves so much more than not being able to get up and walk wherever you want as quickly as you want. Using crutches is a full body activity that impairs your ability to carry things and pick things up and use stairs. It will require extreme balance from you in formerly simple tasks like brushing your teeth or opening doors.

I'm not very coordinated anyway. But on crutches, I'm a complete klutz. It's probably more treacherous for me to be walking with crutches than it would be for me just to put weight on the foot that just had surgery. Most dangerous of all is a nighttime bathroom trip. Being half asleep presents problems in getting down the hallway on a normal night. (I've actually run smack into walls before.) On crutches, it feels like I'm trying to walk while standing on a plate that's spinning on the top of a stick in a circus.

Doors are a problem too. If they open by pushing in, you can usually use your body to get through with little to no strain. But if it's a door that opens by pulling, it takes a bit more time and effort. You have to be close enough to the door to release a hand from your crutch, lean with your armpit on that crutch, and open that door while still leaving enough room to get through it and yet open it a distance that gives you enough time get your hand back on your crutch and swiftly crutch through the door before it closes on you and potentially knocks you to the ground from behind. It is no small feat.

My clumsiness notwithstanding, I've gotten really creative about navigating formerly simple and familiar tasks. For example, getting my morning cup of tea used to involve a dash into the kitchen to turn the stove on and a dash back to it when the kettle whistled. Picking out a mug was usually the most time-consuming part of the process, because I have so many favorites. These days, I have to wrestle with a bit more than whether to sip from the cherished Peter Pan mug or the witty "Keep Calm and Drink Tea" mug. The process now, though streamlined over the past two weeks, has a few more steps. The trick is to make as few trips across the kitchen as possible while carrying as much as possible without sacrificing stability. Making good use of every possible flat surface is important as well. Here I present to you some helpful instructions for fellow tea-lovers who will experience the obstacles of making tea on crutches. Take courage, friends! The odds need not be insurmountable with this handy guide.

Making Tea While on Crutches: A Guide
1. Crutch to the kitchen and hope the tea kettle is already filled with water.
2. If it is, turn on the stove and let it start heating up.
3. Crutch carefully to the cabinet.
4. Select a teacup.
5. Choose a tea.
6. Return to the stove carrying the teacup and teabag in your dominant hand clutched between your palm and the crutch handle. Usually, enough time has elapsed that the water is close to boiling. If not, just stand there and wait for it be done. It's not worth the trip back to the chair.
7. Pour the water into the cup. (Also turn the stove off.)
8. Slide the tea across the counter as far as possible, and as gently as possible, until you can't reach it anymore.
9. Crutch a few steps.
10. Repeat steps 8-9 until you reach the place you want to sit down or the end of the counter. Which ever comes first.
11. If the latter is the case, you'll need to artfully complete step 11. (Warning, this takes some practice. Don't give up if you spill scalding tea on yourself the first time around.) Spread your crutches as far apart as they will safely go and use the hand closest to your destination to reach over to the counter and gracefully grasp the handle of the teacup swinging it to the nearest flat surface as you also shift your weight to reach a chair with your good foot at the same time. Obviously, you need a good arrangement of chair and table to do this well. Having a friend situate this the night before will be helpful.
12. Enjoy your tea. If you aren't too exhausted or irritated to do so at this point. And Heaven forbid that you should sit down and then realize that you have to use the restroom.

Another word of advice for crutch-users is to prepare for attention from the public. Really, as you and I know, it's not all that interesting or uncommon to see a person on crutches. At least, I didn't think so. But since my foot surgery I feel the intense gazes of normal people everywhere I go. Some of them try to strike up a conversation. Their level of success engaging with an introvert on crutches varies. Some express sympathy, and I guess that's kind of nice. Others actually ask what happened, and that is not so nice. I find it a bit intrusive. But so far I've managed to handle these conversations with tact and humor. Prepare yourself, though, for those who don't share your appreciation for politeness. Like the guy carrying a bed frame through the store the other day. He held the metal bars vertically and smiled down at me.

"Would you like me pound this on your foot?"

I blinked and tried to step around my shock to mumble something expressing my lack of desire to have my surgically-booted foot thwacked by a stranger with a household item turned weapon.

He laughed. "Come here. I'll take care of that foot for you."

This had turned quickly from awkward to creepy. Still, I tried to smile and let the rudeness of a complete stranger roll off.

"Um...no, I'm good. Thanks." The response was lame, but it was all I could think of. I'm not quick witted off paper. Some shoppers stepped between us, and I tried to crutch away before having to think of anything else to say. I didn't escape in time.

"Well, how about the other one? I could make them match!" He called it after me as I passed.

The strange man thought this was wildly hilarious. While he laughed uproariously, I said a little more loudly, "NO! Really...I'm fine." and crutched away as fast as I could.

One more bit of advice is don't expect to get off your crutches early. I made the mistake of encouraging myself over a span of three days that I was "almost done" based on a passing comment from my doctor that "not everyone needs four weeks to heal." I used that statement, combined with her encouraging first post-op report, to convince myself that I'd be crutch free two weeks after surgery. I am a bit embarrassed to say that when the doctor told me that I was "normal," and that it would take the usual four weeks to get me back to weight bearing status, I burst into tears. Don't fool yourself. Make friends, or at least cooperating enemies, with your crutches and prepare for the long haul. Go to the library beforehand and find a friend who is willing to text you all day.

Lastly, though trials and pitfalls will most certainly arise, do not give up.
The day will come when you will toss aside those torturous aids and walk tall again.
Until then, just keep calm and crutch on.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is Yellow Round or Square?

In 2010 a dear friend passed away. My first response was to ask God, "Why?"

In 2011 I left school mid-semester of my senior year sicker than I'd ever been. Torn from my tight-knit community of friends and my thrilling English literature studies to lay in a bed in horrible pain for weeks on end, my first response was to ask God, "Why?"

In 2012 I wept on the other side of a broken engagement with a fiancee whose very existence I had seen as a direct answer to prayer. My first response was to ask God, "Why?"

In 2013 I spent six months just after graduation jobless and wandering with no direction for my life wondering why I'd gone to college anyway and how it was possible that all the glorious plans I'd made were now so utterly gone that I had not even ashes to collect. My first response was to ask God, "Why?"

In 2014 the teaching job that I'd finally procured and labored at for 70 hours a week for a year was suddenly over. My relationships with my students, whom I loved, my lesson plans, which I'd slaved over, and my financial independence, which I'd never experienced before, all evaporated. My first response was to wonder if maybe God had a plan.

This year He has aptly confirmed that He has. But I begin now to recognize that even these next steps are not ultimate. It's not a "new plan" global picture, large scale. It's just another door. Another block of sidewalk on the winding, surprising journey that He is using to help me know Him more and to understand His love for me.
That's the answer to the "why."

There are two meanings to the word "why." One is "purpose" and the other is "cause." (See Philip Yancey's "Reaching for the Invisible God.)

As an example, the same "why" question can be answered for both "cause" and "purpose."
If a friend asks you, "Why did you refuse to eat dessert?" you could respond with the cause.
"Because my doctor told me to avoid sugar."
This was the motivation, stemming from the past, that caused you to skip the treat.

Or you could answer with the purpose.
"I want to save some calories for the birthday cake my mom made for tomorrow."
This is the purpose. It is future oriented.

When we suffer, we are asking for the "cause" why. We look back and want to know what sin we committed (so that we can confess it and be rid of the suffering) or what person to blame (so that we can take our revenge and correct the wrong) or what series of choices we made (so that we can learn from the mistake so as never to repeat it.) That would be amazing! It would put me in control of my suffering. I could learn how to be suffering free!

Do I need to say this? It's not that simple.

God never gives us a "cause" answer. Search the Bible. Even Job did not get a "cause" answer.
(But he was given the presence of God!)

What we do have are ample purposes.

1 Peter, as one example, talks about necessary trials that happen so (vs.7) "that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

It is, after all, a problem of misaligned agendas. The reason I dislike the purpose answer (even though it well answers my "why") is that I wanted a cause answer. Cause answers give me the illusion of control.

I begin to see the wisdom of God and the limits of my finite mind. He gives no cause answers because there are no cause answers. They don't exist at all. At least not in a realm that my mortal paradigm can assimilate.

Lewis once said that his grief-motivated questions probably sounded to God like, "Is yellow round or square?" When we ask God "why" and expect a cause answer, we're asking a nonsensical question, and God cannot retain His nature and answer it.

When I ask "why" I am taking so much for granted.
I assume that there is an answer to the question,
...that the answer is explainable in human terms,
...that I could understand it if it could be explained in human terms, and
...that it is in my best interest to know that answer.

It is entirely possible that the cause of suffering is so intricately bound up in the mystery of God's sovereignty, our free will, and the limitations of the universe as He rightly made it, that He would have to explain mysteries from before creation and every point of every human decision and divine intervention since Adam to make it plain to me. Something that He is under no obligation to do, and which I am not able to absorb even if I wanted to.

Consider the ripple effect of one seed dropping into the ground, becoming a tree, becoming a backyard haven for a little boy to read under, then a tree house where he writes his first novel, then cut down and turned into the canoe in which he takes a grand adventure which becomes a famous book which inspires a woman to become a doctor and move to Africa and discover the cure for AIDS and save the life of a little girl whose future is to be a mother whose child will...
This would be an explanation of one seed bringing much good. It could have happened a different way, but it did not. And one small strand could have changed it all.
Positivists are quick to point it out.

Perhaps this one is less lovely. A seed falls into the ground. It grows into an ear of corn that saves a dying man from starvation, and that man eventually makes it back to civilization and becomes a dictator of a country and kills millions of people. We are less likely, or less willing, to see the seeds of bad that God allows to grow for the sake of human freedom and the potential for love and the future of redemption which will show Him to be the God of love that He is.

And...He has promised to redeem.

A relationship with God requires faith. And inherent to that faith, like all relationships, is a trust that He is working (as He promised!) everything for good. So even if He did explain the entire complex human history of connected events that led to my personal suffering, it would only reveal that He is in every way completely innocent of ill will towards me and in fact, has worked it out in a wise and good way for my best interest and the best interest of all other humans on the planet. That He has and is taking the broken, twisted world and all its broken twisted events and is busy turning them into good, beautiful things. It would also reveal that God and I are often at odds when it comes to the purpose of my life. Hence the tantrums I throw and the wails of "why!" flung to heaven when I don't get my way.

None of us balk at the idea that the doctor has to hurt us in order to heal us. (I just had surgery, so this truth is vividly burning in my right foot!)

But I think when we ask why, we aren't really asking for the history of the universe or an explanation of the suffering. The real question behind the why is "Don't you love me?"
And to this we can give a resounding yes!

But the doubts are real and that, I think, is why Paul is so adamant in Romans 8 that nothing, no suffering, no calamity, no struggle, no pain, ever separates us from God's love.

But we will not learn this by looking back for the cause answer.

We seldom find meaning in our suffering because we are stubbornly looking behind us waiting for cause answers and refusing to look forward to the solace of the purpose.

It would not be heretical then to say that the true cause of all suffering, the real purpose behind it, the end of it, the future of it, and the solace for it is the love of God.


Friday, April 24, 2015

For the Pioneers

The April day is chilled with the reminder that it is early spring, not early summer, and so the air still carries the last vestiges of winter. Late afternoon sun casts a speckled stage for tree-lit shadows to waver and dance on the deck outside. I'm in Virginia, far from my alma mater in Wisconsin. I'm watching tree seeds whirl from the branches and bury themselves in the fresh-cut grass. I'm marveling at the miracle of how God designed it. Death, burial, rebirth. Like seeds. Like life. Like people. Maybe like schools, too. I can hope.

There were relatives who questioned my decision to attend Northland. And there were winters when I felt my nose hairs freeze and my toes go numb when even I questioned my decision to attend Northland. But I can't deny that God did something in me there. A string of somethings.
If Tennyson is right, "I am a part of all that I have met," and Northland counts in there for five years of direct influence.

When I arrived as a freshman, we were a Bible college. When I graduated, we were an international university. I came with the understanding that I would wear a skirt to class every day. The day before I graduated, I wore jeans to my last exam. The changes weren't just political, though. They were personal too. I registered first as a math major, but my diploma marks me as the owner of a B.S. in English Education. I arrived alone, terrified of leaving my one best friend in Virginia. Today, it would take only a look at my phone history to see the names of a dozen or so girls scattered across the planet with whom I still feel an ongoing sense of community. It was messy and complicated and it shook my foundations in so many good ways. I wouldn't trade my Northland experience for anything.

I've spent the week in part watching the reactions of friends, teachers, current students and fellow alumni through social media. Like children realizing that we've been watched at play this whole time, we all felt a sense of awkwardness, I think. The sense of having security ripped away. We have enjoyed ourselves immensely! There was nothing to be ashamed of. We are glad that it should have been what it was and that it was valuable. And we only want it to go on. Though some of us graduated and moved on, we didn't want it to stop. We wanted the Northland Heart in its diversity and beauty to be a timeless thing. And it is. Though it will appear in different names.

Though it marks the end of a bit of myself, I can't reject the natural grief. It was unique. It really happened, and I'm thankful I got to be part of it. Others will commiserate, be sorry, say nice things (or raise their Pharisaic noses in legalistic "I told you so" arrogance). But they did not walk those dorm hallways in slippers to ask a friend for tea. They did not risk frozen eyebrows and frostbite to hear the next thrilling Romans lecture. They were not around to hear the announcement of a study abroad program. And they won't necessarily understand the weight of the question, "I'm going to town...do you need anything?" Further, they did not sense the spirit of the study body rallying together in crisis, very like a family, the year we heard of Dr. Olson's resignation, reinstatement, and second resignation.

I feel that I have little to add to the conversation that would be constructive. Opinions abound.
We hurt. We wish. We want. We feel. And God will be God, and the world will go on. We have our memories and the sweet fellowship of the friends He gave us there. Nothing is wasted.
The news of Northland's plan to close after this year's commencement shocked us.
We are reeling from the blow. But we are linked together.
Even if we weren't on campus at the same time, we are Pioneers.
Let us live up to the name.

The sun never sets on Northland alumni. 



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Mayonnaise

Michael O'Brien wrote the only book I have read more than twice. Toward the end of his life Josip, the main character, meditates on the odd things we remember while seemingly important things fade from memory altogether. I've thought on this a lot lately. Especially in regard to this little episode:

My high school chemistry teacher stands at the front of the lab wearing a collared shirt and a long khaki skirt that buttons up the front. I'm restless, my legs swinging a from my perch on a lab stool near the back of the room as I try to ignore the ever-present odor of formaldehyde that lingers no matter how well classes clean up after dissections. 

The teacher has been gesticulating about the difference between a suspension and a solution. Though a few of the students have already given up the fight, their foreheads having discovered the solace of the black, slate tables in front of them, I am proving their taunts of my nerdiness to be true with sustained effort to pay attention. Scientific words and categories fly through a complicated thought maze in my head seeking a landing pad. 

Liquid, solid, gas, solution, suspension, colloid, dispersion... 

I am frustrated with the labels. I didn't want everything to have a category.The world is too big. Science too small. Some things are in between. Some things are mysterious. 
A few moments more of fuming until my hand can't be restrained. It shoots up through the fusty air like a tower rising from the fog. 

"You have a question?"

"Yes. I want to know...what about things that don't fit any of these categories? What are they?"

"Um....what do you mean? Do you have an example?"

"Well. What about things like...well...things like...mayonnaise?"

The fragile skin around her eyes squeezes tightly under the weight of her furrowed brow. I'm fascinated by her face. The lines on it scrawl patterns of math and chemistry that look to me like trails to worlds with inhabitants that speak an unknowable language of numbers and data. Though it terrifies me, I respect her as one who has lived among those aliens and learned their ways.
 
"Well...that's called an emulsion." She tosses the word in my direction. It lands sloppily on the table in front of me, oozing and gelatinous, staining my textbook. I grimace. She smiles and continues the lesson, her face cleared having neatly translated one more phrase from the alien tongue for her students. 

"Emulsion..." 
I test it on my tongue. I hate how it drops thick blobs of mush at the back of my throat before squishing forward through my teeth. Emulsion.  Gross. Scientists are probably not linguists. They are certainly not hedonists.  

That was nearly a decade ago. But I am still thinking about mayonnaise. I am still spreading it on the bread of my sandwiches with some measure of contempt. The words "emulsion, suspension, emulsion, suspension..." repeating in my mind, searching endlessly for resolution and waiting for a day when everything is given its proper name. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dirge for an Electric Teapot

Last week, I woke and stumbled groggily to the kitchen to make tea. As I do every morning.
Only instead of reaching out in the gray half-darkness and touching the cold steel of my electric teapot, I felt paper. Once I cleared my eyes, I found a note had been taped to my tea kettle.

Dangerous. Do not use.
Love,
Mom
Devastating.

This was the teapot mom had gifted me my freshman year of college. That teapot is what we call in theological terms "the means of grace" that got me through college! Apparently, six or seven years is double the lifespan of a normal teapot so I should be grateful that we had so long together. How many cups of tea did we share? Mom claims that it almost blew up the other night, so I'm taking it as a sign that it wants to be done serving tea, and I can't make it stay. It served well and faithfully.

I have dedicated the following poem to the girls of Timberside dorm from 2010-2012, and all the girls with whom I was privileged to share tea in those tumultuous years in the tundra. You know who you are. We all enjoyed the brew of that teapot together, and that made it an element of our community. Here's to the memories.

Dirge for an Electric Teapot

None of us in six years of sipping
found a flaw in your essential service.
Dents and scratches on your stainless steel
were merely memories for us
of dorm transitions and
moments when most we needed tea.
We were restless college teacups,
floating flotsam in the ocean after storms.
And the center of your steam became for us
a reference point for
tears about a boy or
giggles for the same.
When was your tonic not the cure for every pain?

You were co-conspirator in
whispers, shouts, and songs,
Mother for our fears and frustrations,
Moderator of our deep discussions and pretentions,
Starter of a hundred, nay! of countless conversations!

You sourced an endless well for study sessions
and our prayers.
Indeed it is impossible in mind
to find a memory without you there.
Forced now to reckon with reality I know at last
you had no soul.
But I believe it's only since you poured it out
cup by draining cup
imbibing our growing pains with grace. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Study Notes: Law and Love in 1 John

My heart is hardwired to see God as a taskmaster. 

I tend to read His love letters as chore lists and interpret His declaratives as imperatives.
As He works grace in me more deeply, I'm surprised and delighted to find deep wells of relief in passages that were previously sources of stress.

1 John is one of those turnarounds for me. In 5 chapters, only 105 verses, a grace-filled reading reveals that most of it John's book is descriptive, not prescriptive. There are surprisingly few imperative statements, and in the greater context of the book they all point to my need for Christ.

LET Commands

  • 2:24- let what you heard from the beginning abide in you
  • 3:7- let no one deceive you 
  • 3:18- let us not love in word, but in deed and truth 
  • 4:7- let us love one another


DO NOT Commands

  • 2:15- do not love the world 
  • 3:13- do not be surprised that the world hates you 
  • 4:1- do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits 


DO Commands

  • 2:27- abide in Him 
  • 3:1- see what kind of love the Father has given us 
  • 3:11- love one another 
  • 3:23- believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ 
  • 3:23- love one another
  • 4:10- whoever loves God must also love his brother 
  • 5:21- keep yourselves from idols

What strikes me is that the commands are all targeted at the heart, not at behaviors.
He commands what to love, what to believe, what to look at.
John (and Jesus!) knows that when the heart loves, the actions follow.
You can't get those out of order. Loves and beliefs can only be changed by God when He gives the new heart under the new covenant. It's not something I can reach in an adjust for myself.

Even putting the commands in categories of what to do and not do, as I did above, just speaks to my tendency to leave my place of dependence on Jesus and try harder to LET, DO NOT, and DO.
For that reason it may be more helpful to categorize them conceptually:

  • Believe in Jesus. 
    • 2:24- let what you heard from the beginning abide in you
    • 2:27- abide in Him 
    • 3:1- see what kind of love the Father has given us 
    • 3:23- believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ 
  • Don't believe anything that isn't Jesus. 
    • 2:15- do not love the world 
    • 3:7- let no one deceive you
    • 3:13- do not be surprised that the world hates you 
    • 4:1- do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits 
    • 5:21- keep yourselves from idols
  • Let His love pour out of you. 
    • 3:18- let us not love in word, but in deed and truth 
    • 4:7- let us love one another 
    • 3:11- love one another
    • 3:23- love one another
    • 4:10- whoever loves God must also love his brother 


As the rest of the book emphatically asserts, the natural, organic keeping of these commands comes out of people who have the Spirit. They don't work for it. They don't try harder. It just happens, because God is doing it in them. They do not spend the day trying to "love one another." They believe. And as result of that, they love one another.

It is not the keeping of the commands, but HOW the commands are kept that makes all the difference. The "how" is why John can make this shocking if/then statement.
5:3:"For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." 
Commandments are burdensome when we try to keep them by willpower and legalism. Commandments are NOT burdensome when the Spirit is working them through us and we have been captivated by the love of God.We can't help but love when we know we've been loved! It's like a spring of water that keeps bubbling up. You'd have to forcibly try to plug it up to make it stop.

Where does it come from? 
4:9-11 "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
This is another of John's cause/effects. God's love in the gospel is Jesus' death on the cross for me, when He became the atoning sacrifice for my sins.

  • If I love God, it's because I believe the Truth that I've been loved by God in the gospel. 
  • If I love God, the Spirit is in me convincing me of the love of God in the gospel. 
  • If the Spirit is in me, He is changing my affections without my help as a result of God's love in the gospel.

How do we love?  It isn't by trying. My heart is far too selfish and sinful to be able to love anything but me. But these commands are self fulfilling in the grace of God.

  • We love Him by obeying the command to believe what Jesus says. 
  • We love Him by not believing what isn't from Him.
  • We love Him by letting Him work His love in us and watching it pour out to others.
What is left for me to do but rest in Him?