Saturday, December 6, 2014

trusting the story


Thursday morning we said goodbye to Smudge. Quinn said goodbye before he went off to school and then I sat with her a while until it was time to go. I spent the next couple days listless, moody, and weepy. From getting out the carrot peeler (a sound that would being Smudge running from the other side of the house) to passing the dog food isle at the grocery store, I found it hard to keep it together. It wasn't until late yesterday that it registered, "oh yeah, this is grief. I've been here before." It felt so normal.

When Quinn started reading Harry Potter, he wanted confirmation that all his favorite characters would live. He has been known to have an all out melt down because I won't give away the ending. He doesn't deal well with not knowing. He wants assurance that the characters he loves will win and the characters he hates will be punished because he thinks he knows after one book who is good and who is bad. I keep telling him to trust the story and just keep reading, but he gets so mad at me.

For Advent, I've been studying the last week of Jesus life in the gospel of John. Strange, I know, but there's something about remembering his birth that makes me look ahead to the cross. I don't see a sweet little baby in a manger anymore. I see humiliation and separation from the father. I see determination and grit and a terrible purifying love incomprehensibly wrapped in swaddling clothes. I see the cross. 

One of my favorite Advent traditions with Quinn is reading the Jesus Storybook Bible every night. Even though we've moved on to a bigger Bible, we come back to those stories every year at Christmas, and the opening story always gets me right here:
I tear up every time I read this. Seriously. I know so much more about the ending of the story than most of the characters in the Bible. I'm not wandering in the desert following some God who came out of nowhere and told me to trust that he would give me a son. I'm not praying from a balcony in Babylon as part of an exiled Israel longing to return home. I'm not a member of the early church threatened with death, having only a few stories and letters to hold my faith together. I have the promised Holy Spirit and the Word of God. But I still find that, in the face of overwhelming loss, those things sometimes don't feel like enough for me. I have read quite a few chapters of the book and I still don't feel like I can trust this story.

I think I'm beginning to understand why John wrote the book of Revelation. It's always seemed like a strange book to me. I mean, what's the point of writing a book no one really understands, no matter how many fancy terms we use to describe our theories. The reading at our wedding was from Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. he will wipe away every tea from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" 
As I grow older the path of faith requires more discipline and endurance than I expected. The path to the cross became more painful for Jesus as the cross drew near, and I find my life to be following a similar pattern of intensity, and I have trouble trusting the story. So I'm looking at Jesus's final days on this earth, looking for faith to trust in the storyteller even when I cannot seem to trust the story.

Monday, December 1, 2014

smudge


Almost exactly twelve years ago we rescued this sweet little girl who fell asleep in my lap and has been the best dog ever since then. Because we didn't have much money she was our Christmas present to each other the first year we were married. Today we got some bad news about this sweet little girl. She's old. She's a dog. I knew it was coming because the way she'd been acting. When they told me it was a uti a couple weeks ago, I hoped, but also doubted, it was that simple. She's home with us for now. We'll spend the next few days, maybe weeks, saying goodbye. The next time we take her to the vet, she won't be coming home with us. But talk about opening up a can of worms. I don't think I've cried like this since Emmett. It's going to be another hard month here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

wonder and trust

When Quinn picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone last week, it finally stuck. He's tried it a couple times, but he's now knee deep in Hogwarts politics, brewing imaginary polyjuice potions, and may have recently declared to a group of his peers that Harry is his new favorite superhero. I love the wonder of a good story well told, and I remember reading the books for the first time - picking up the first two on a whim the year I lived in England. 

I've been thinking a lot about my time in Oxford recently. A new greenway near our house winds through woods and fields, reminding me of the walking paths near the house that I called home that year - in the Jericho section of town right on the canals. I remember the church services in the dear little Anglican church I attended - the mystery of communion where we actually all drank real wine from the same cup and lived to tell the tale. Uneven cobblestones and life size chess boards and wine served at evening lectures and running along the canal and fresh chips from a street vendor and libraries so big you need a map to get out - these are a few of my favorite things.

My heart is restless with the coming of fall, the passing of Emmett's birthday, and a recent vicious viral infection. I want to change, to move away and start over, to find a new job, a new church, a new life.  But I recognize that in doing any of these things, I will inevitably take with me the only thing I actually want to leave behind - my sinful, stained, corrupted flesh. 

I have many fond memories of Oxford, but the most vivid memory is the weight of transformation pressed upon me by God during my time there. Through pain and loneliness and falling short of many standards despite my intense studying, I was held together by the beauty and the mystery of grace poured out on the weak. My restless heart seems to be learning those lessons anew this fall. My prayer is for a faith to see the wonder in the story unfolding in this moment and trust in the one who is telling it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

injured

The hills were on fire tonight, a vibrant green set aflame with the red of autumn accentuated by the  fiery golden glow of a particularly beautiful sunset. We rounded a corner and were blinded by the red gold blaze on our drive. There is still life and warmth, but it is now impossible to ignore the cold death march of winter. This week, tonight, I feel like these blazing hillsides - deep wounds spilling out over abundant life.

I sat at school this afternoon with a couple of my favorite students long after others had left robot team practice. We talked of nerdy things like math team and favorite words and how awful sponge bob is. Earlier this week I took my advisory group to volunteer and we ended up having an impromptu tea party at my house. I sat and listened to them talk about life and senior year, only asking questions to break up an awkward pause. I can't believe I almost stopped teaching a few years ago. I have the best job in the world, seeing these students on the cusp of adventure, making decisions, just about to really bloom. Despite how much I love my students, I do not envy them their youth. The fire of youth is beautiful, like the first crocuses poking through the snow in early spring. But autumn lends itself to a peculiar kind of beauty, the beauty of a life surrendered and consumed.

Older music has been the soundtrack for my life this week, mostly Chris Rice's Deep Enough to Dream album. As I drove over the hills in Chattanooga last weekend, I couldn't help singing his Hallelujah song, but his song Welcome to our World surprised me again, particularly these words:
So wrap our injured flesh around you
Breathe our air and walk our sod.
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect son of God.
As I've dwelt in Jeremiah this week, I've felt the deep wounds of sin. I have felt myself wrapped in this injured flesh, incapable of obedience. I've felt myself to be stubborn Israel. To be pierced with the tiniest of understanding about what it cost our Lord to walk this earth, though, is not the grief it might seem to be. To be acutely aware of my injured state is to know the tenderness of the Lord, to draw close to the veil and know him who cannot be seen. To be injured is to find peace and love and to be set ablaze with life in the face of so much death.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

teacups and dragons

It has been a rainy week here in Nashville while Quinn has been with the grandparents on fall break. With no home obligations I spent the week catching up on work and catching up with people, emerging from a season of forced isolation. Leaving before the sunrise and returning long after sunset most nights made little difference because the days were filled with clouds and rain and gloom.  Saturday morning I headed out before the sun towards the farm for a wedding and a reunion with my little man. Winding through the mountains just north of Chattanooga, I finally broke through the clouds and rain into a beautiful blue sky that followed me the rest of the way into Georgia. I returned last night over those same mountains, the starless sky dark and heavy with clouds back to the grey skies of Nashville and the chaos of my life.

This week has been characterized by a growing awareness of my crippling self-centeredness. My rest and renewal has relied on routines and rituals rather than the person of Christ. To my great shame I have grown to the place where cup of tea provides more comfort than a psalm, a meal more enjoyment than prayer, and a clean house more peace than the presence of God. I don't entirely blame myself, though. When years of praying and seeking after holiness were answered with loss and pain, pressing further in is not instinctual. There is certainly more safety in my teacup than in my God.

So I've been feeding my heart on stories again. Coming back to Chesterton, ND Wilson, and many other children's writers. For the moment I've put aside theology and doctrine, instead choosing to feed myself on stories. I've been reading Paul's letters too much and the prophets too little.  I've been reading too many books about God and not enough stories of slaying dragons. I need these heavy clouds in my soul to break up and give way to blue sky. I need to be reminded that safety is not really what I want.

If I am to consider all things a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, I need to know Christ's worth and I also need to know that it is possible for him to slay the dragon of my sinful nature. It is not difficult for me to believe there is a great and powerful God. It is very hard though for me to believe that this God conquered my sinful nature once for all on the cross and now sees me as holy. It is easy for me to believe he exists to be known but not easy for me to believe he is leading me through sanctification rather than punishment when I am so terrible at the former and so deserving of the latter.

It was Chesterton who said, "fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed." So I'm going to read these stories and be reminded that hope and love and justice are all real. But the story must necessarily include grief and loss and pain and dragons or it wouldn't really be a very good story, now would it? Good thing I have a cup of tea.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

struggle

I drove home from work Friday, once again surprised that autumn had arrived with a vengeance overnight. The other seasons creep in slowly, distracting you with promises of holidays or flowers or vacation until you hardly notice the change, but not autumn. No, autumn barges in like a wino, vomiting leaves and driving out every last vestige of warmth in your bones. Its shocking arrival leaves me struggling to breathe, like jumping into too cold water. And yet I relish scarves and vests and boots and hot tea all day long and snuggly blankets with good books and the promise of curling up by the fire soon to come.

Despite how much I love my job, now that I'm working more than full time, I seem to have entered a season of divinely appointed loneliness. The shock of finding myself in such a season leaves me as breathless as autumn's arrival, yet it is not without some measure of joy. There is a stigma of shame generally attached to the word loneliness, the stigma of "I'm such a loser no one wants to be my friend." And I suppose sometimes it is healthy to ask if my loneliness is a function of my own bad choices, but I've found an immense freedom in this particular season of divinely appointed loneliness.   Don't misunderstand me, though, I'm not completely hermiting away. I am maintaining friendships and community, but they are somehow absent of the deep satisfaction that I've had in the past.

Maybe loneliness isn't the right word. Perhaps restlessness would be better?

In the harvest season, though, I can't seem to get the image of wine out of my head. I have felt that the image of the winepress may be fitting for this particular season. The winepress in scripture is used as a symbol of judgement, and in many ways I have felt the judgment of God treading over the meager fruits of my labors, pressing sin out of my heart, and setting me aside to rest in a fine oaken barrel. And as I have been led to pray in so many different directions, I wonder perhaps if he is about to crack open that barrel and begin pouring me out in new and different ways. The future is the subject of a thousand vague prayers, though because I feel right now, in each moment, pressed to bursting. I am wrestling with a palpable anxiety so intricately woven into the fabric of my sinful nature, that laying my anxiety at the foot of the cross feels like dying.

I drove home tonight after sharing dinner and a glass of wine with friends. It was dark, but not late, and I marveled again at the abrupt change of season. It is still amazing to me that after decades of living, struggles like this one are still so surprising. I'm trying to let go of the notion that a life without struggle is is achievable or even desirable and rejoice in the struggle.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bringer of the Sabbath

Good morning, Bringer of the Sabbath, I've been waiting for you a long time, especially for this particular morning with the first wave of crisp fall air pouring in through the kitchen window, John Owen on for devotion, a warm cup of tea to hold, and several weeks of intense perseverance behind me.  You offer momentary respite, a brief refuge from the chaos of life if - and only if - I will choose to be still and know you are God in this moment and in all moments.

The chill in your air reminds me that I am entering middle age with its unique challenges of grief and loss. I am not ignorant of death, whose approach lies closer with each coming fall, perhaps closer than even I am aware, but it has been many years since that knowledge has caused me fear, and now I only pray for strength to complete the journey, however long it may be, with grace.

The sunlight reminds me of your enduring faithfulness to your beloved. New mercies spill over into the day, and I am reminded to throw off last week's failures - the unkind thoughts and words, the petty selfishness, and many other transgressions so varied they are impossible to number - and run with perseverance the race ahead of me.

The warm cup of tea, with its aromas of mangoes and honey reminds me of your lavish provision, completely unmerited, and I am humbled that such gifts would be given to a sinner like me. The presence of such luxuries makes me profoundly aware of evil's intent to destroy all that is beautiful and good in the world, and for a moment I am scared until I realize that your hands hold everything in existence, and you have already crushed death under your heel. Yet my heart still breaks for those here who have great need of your hand to defend and uphold them, and though I am comforted, I still cry out, "Come, Abba!"

Shalom, Bringer of the Sabbath, both hello and farewell. I come to this place - a particular, unique point in time and space - and yet must continue on in both, though I would happily rest here for eternity. Yet endurance has given birth to hope, and I know by your gracious spirit that there exists a better place of rest for those who persevere, so let me carry this brief sabbath in my heart as a reminder of a more glorious one to come.

amen.