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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.