Sunday, August 31, 2014

out loud

I have a weakness for lonely peaches. Little, lonely, last of the season peaches left at the peach farm over a holiday weekend... They were just begging to be taken home. So tonight, for the first time in several years, I set about canning homemade peach jam. With a frilly apron over the church dress I never took off, I put on the music and set about cooking dinner and jam and cookies and anything else that struck my fancy. There was some dancing involved, some singing off key, and some overdosing my dog on peach peels while Quinn sat in the other room systematically devouring a new stack of books.

It's been a good, hard, beautiful, exhausting start to the school year. With my body fighting off a new blitzkrieg of germs, I've barely been able to keep my head above water this last week, but several days of marathon sleeping have helped me fight the germs back to a dull roar. A new school year brings a new flood of emotions from Quinn and he struggles to adjust to a schedule again. On one particularly nutty afternoon this week, he was falling apart over some imagined failure. This boy has such a virulently strong reaction to shame, even perceived shame where none really exists, that he is quite a handful to parent when he is in the throes of shame.

In that moment with him, I prayed for God to take his shame, like all of it - for his whole life and rescue him from this crazy cycle of insanity - when the Holy Spirit hit me like a chubby, blindfolded kid trying to break open a piƱata. "Do you realize what you're asking?" And the truth of what I was asking him, the most perfect creator of the universe, to do overwhelmed me in an instant. I was asking perfection to become sin, and I was doing it casually, like it was no big deal. My immediate, without time for reflection, response was, "but if you don't, then we have no hope," and I almost lost it right then because I knew it was true.

Consider this thought by none other than John Owen in The Glory of Christ:
The image of God in which it [man's nature] was made, and the dominion over the lower world with which it was interested, made it [man's nature] the seat of excellence, of beauty, and of glory. But of them all it was at once divested and made naked by sin, and laid groveling in the dust form whence it was taken... And all its internal faculties were invaded by deformed lusts, everything that might render the whole unlike to God, whose image it had lost. Hence it [man's nature] became the contempt of angels, the dominion of Satan; who, being the enemy of the whole creation, never had any thing or place to reign in but the debased nature of man. Nothing was now more vile or base; its glory was utterly departed. It had both lost its peculiar nearness to God, which was its honour, and was fallen into the greatest distance from him of all creatures, the devils only excepted.; which was its ignominy and shame. And in this state, as to anything in itself, it was left to perish eternally...
And in this state it was left to perish eternally, but...
In this condition - lost, poor, base, yea, cursed - the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, found our nature.  And upon this, in infinite condescension and compassion, sanctifying a portion of it to himself, he took it to be his own.
I've read these words several times this week, trying to remind myself of the impossibly humbling act of Christ's condescension and of our utter depravity, hoping for a glimpse of the love that would motivate a rescue this crazy, this reckless. I have been overwhelmed this week by work, by germs, by parenting, but mostly I have been overwhelmed with an awesome love, a reckless plan for my salvation, and a fierce battle for my sanctification. And if you're wondering how that conversation with God ended, it was like he responded, "I know, you just needed to say it out loud." As it turned out, he was right. Acknowledging my only hope out loud this week has made all the difference.

Monday, August 18, 2014

the veil

According to Quinn, this is me "doing science." I'd say it's an accurate picture of what I do all day. Look at all that stuff over my head ready to crash down...
With the veil removed by the rending of Jesus' flesh, with nothing on God's side to prevent us from entering, why do we tarry without? Why do we consent to abide all our days just outside the Holy of Holies and never enter at all to look upon God?
The answer usually given, simply that we are "cold," will not explain all the facts. There is something more serious than coldness of heart... What is it? What but the presence of a veil in our hearts? A veil not taken away as the first veil was, but which remains there still shutting out the light and hiding the face of God from us. It is the veil of our fleshly fallen nature living on, unjudged within us, uncrucified and unrepudiated. It is the close woven veil of the self-life which we have never truly acknowledged...
Let us remember: when we talk of the rending of the veil, we are speaking in a figure, and the thought of it is poetical, almost pleasant; but in actuality there is nothing pleasant about it. In human experience, that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and to make us bleed. To say otherwise is to make the cross no cross and death no death at all. It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful, yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free. AW Tozer, The Pursuit of God
I've been teaching long enough that the first day of school doesn't particularly make me nervous. What does fill me with a peculiar sense of dread though is knowing I'm being launched from a season of rest into a season of intense activity. The overwhelming temptation of my busy days is to grow content living just outside the presence of God, allowing my fallen nature to live on uncrucified and unrepudiated, to not even be aware of my change in location. Consider this thought from David Rousset, concerning the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis as quoted in Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt:
The triumph of the S.S. demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. And it is not for nothing. It is not gratuitously, out of sheer sadism, that the S.S. men desire his defeat. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold...is incomparably the best for keeping the whole person in slavery...
The system that succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold...is incomparably the best for keeping the whole person in slavery. Wow.  What a perfect description of sin's deceitfulness, of it's desire to destroy me with my consent and by my own hand without the slightest bit of protesting. It's also a perfect picture of how I live outside the veil, outside the sanctifying presence of God. When I stare down the school calendar at the year ahead, what makes me nervous is my overwhelming capacity for self-deception and self-destruction. And the solution has nothing to do with developing better balance, more sophisticated systems, or just saying "no" more often. The solution is to live inside the veil, but to do so as Tozer describes is deeply painful. read this again:
To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful, yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free.
I have approached that veil in prayer this past week, intentionally seeking the sanctifying presence of God, and often I have wanted to step back outside and ignore him. Sanctification is painful, it is after all a death, but here's to praying God keeps me on the path, despite that ball of chaos hovering just over my head.
Madeline L'Engle, The Weather of the Heart

Sunday, August 10, 2014

the next and the next and the next

If my heart had been a canvas this week, I would have been pictured treading water in the middle of the ocean without land in sight, maybe even throw in a shark fin or two for good measure. Leaving a season of rest and heading into a season full of activity has left me battling anxiety because I struggle to carry the lessons learned in stillness and rest to the crucible of daily life.

Lately I've been noticing an unholy edge to my grief, though I've been struggling to put it into words. There is a fear of engaging with another person's suffering that causes people to confuse grief with holiness, as if the act of suffering and grieving by itself makes you more holy. During a recent chat with a dear friend I realized that over the last year various aspects of my grief have been slipping into mistrust of God's plans for my life.  When you grieve the loss of a person, you also grieve the loss of your future together, and that kind of grief doesn't really end. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of grief it can easily slip into one of the many manifestations of faithlessness: self-pity, mistrust, depression, etc.

And yet, the tenderness of God has engulfed me these past couple months, leading me to repentance with overwhelming gentleness. When I have prayed through fear, he says to me, "What do you need that I haven't provided?' When I cry out to him in loneliness, he asks as if hurt, "Have I not been enough?" And when I lie in bed, wasting away in self-pity, he pesters me until I get up and do something useful. During one of our many exchanges recently, I may have actually said something to him out loud to the effect of, "Would you just stop being so right all the time, please?"

This weekend I picked up a little book by Brennan Manning called The Wisdom of Accepted Tenderness. So. very. good.
...tenderness is what happens when you know that you are deeply and sincerely liked by someone. The experience withers hard-heartedness and self-hatred. It opens up the possibility of self-esteem and wholesome self-love. It banishes fear. Defense mechanisms start to fall and the disguise drops. A measure of self confidence is instilled, allowing you to smile at your own frailty. Tenderness encourages you and enables you to make the journey into the interior of yourself (which is the most dangerous journey of all).
Lest you think the book is all fluffy stuff about self-esteem, Manning goes on to show how living in the tenderness of God's love is the foundation of holiness, social justice, and radical ministry. To see and love Christ at work in others, we must first see and love Christ at work in our own hearts - this is the kind of tenderness of which he speaks. But how do we begin this journey?
One of life's greatest paradoxes is that it is in the crucible of pain and suffering that we become tender. (Certainly not all pain and suffering. If that were the case, the whole world would be tender, since everyone experiences pain and suffering. To these must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, and the willingness to remain vulnerable. Together they lead to wisdom and tenderness.)
Is it beginning to sound like Brene Brown to anyone else out there? To remain vulnerable in the midst of long suffering disappointment is one of the hardest works of faith I've experienced to date. It's nothing compared to what Christians around the world are experiencing right now, but it is the exercise of faith I have been given at this moment. As I look ahead to another school year that seems impossible to manage, I am afraid of sacrificing vulnerability and tenderness just to survive the disappointments that will inevitably come. Yet I am reminded by Manning that walking this path in tenderness is different:
There is a calm, arcane assurance that the grace for the next step in the Spirit is already there, given. Without fear or apprehension the Christian moves (perhaps stumbles) forward knowing that the next and the next and the next steps will take care of themselves. He doesn't worry about tomorrow or even late this afternoon.... Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is an unending adventure in trust and dependence. 
So let the adventure begin with a step of faith tonight as I go to sleep trusting that the faith for the next and the next and the next steps are already provided.

Friday, August 1, 2014

life in color


Whoa oh oh oh
Well this is life in color
Today feels like no other
And the darkest grays
The sun bursts, clouds fade  
Whoa oh oh oh
Well this is life in motion
And just when I could run this race no more
The sun bursts, clouds break
This is life in color
 --One Republic, Life in Color 
Certain artists transport me back to specific points in time. Glen Phillips, the Decembrists, and Matt Wertz send me back to the sumer Quinn was born; Mumford and Sons to the year after Emmett died; Kate Rusby back to the streets and libraries of Oxford. I suspect this song will forever transport me back to the Everglades. It was playing as I left my brother's condo last Friday morning to pick up the rental van, but I never suspected it would stick with me.

On our summer swamp tour, Quinn and I were strangely fortunate to be followed by storm clouds wherever we went. Temperatures that normally soared well above 90 in South Georgia and South Florida lingered in the mid 80s, and the glaring sun was frequently hidden behind storm clouds. I say swamp tour, but the Everglades is actually more of a coastal marshland. It was a vastly different type of ecosystem from the Okefenokee. Instead of lily pads and cypress trees, the Everglades consists of vast plains of marsh grass soaking in shallow water, criss crossed with wide brackish channels lined with mangroves and occasionally opening up into vast shallow lakes.

As we left one of the channels and headed into Bear Lake, the sunshine that had been bearing down on us was quickly swallowed by a typical South Florida summer storm. The world was split into vibrant colors under a blue sky on one side with muted grays and browns below the storm clouds on the other. The picture above hardly does the landscape justice because you can't see how the sky affected even the colors of the land. Under the blue sky, the green foliage glowed like a freshly painted canvas, but underneath the storm clouds the land reflected almost no color from the light.

I've had a few occasions this past week to speak with several friends about experiencing grief in community. We laugh over awkward moments and wonder why we as the body of Christ struggle to grieve together well. Grief bears down like a storm cloud, casting everything in shadow, sucking the life and beauty out of your world, recoloring life in browns and grays. It is no wonder people have trouble responding. Few can enter into such a storm with grace, and it is impossible to drag someone out of such a storm with shallow platitudes, though many people often try. But I have learned that perhaps the best response to grief is to bring a little bit of color into the storm. An orchid, a perfectly ripe piece of fruit, a piece of artwork, or a beautiful teacup -- some of these things I have given to those in grief and some I have received from dear friends. Because I've learned that while you cannot change the weather, you can remind people that there is life in color just waiting for the storm to break.

The view from my brother's condo after a storm.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

delight


From A.W. Tozer's Pursuit of God
Much of our difficulty as seeking Christians stems from our unwillingness to take God as He is and adjust our lives accordingly. We insist upon trying to modify Him and to bring him nearer to our own image. The flesh whimpers against the rigor of God's inexorable sentence and begs like Agag for a little mercy, a little indulgence of its carnal ways. It is no use...
...Let the seeking man reach a place where life and lips join to say continually "Be thou exalted," and a thousand minor problems will be solved at once. His Christian life ceases to become the complicated thing it had been before and becomes the very essence of simplicity.
I snapped this picture about a week ago at Canaveral National Seashore, perhaps my favorite beach in Florida because it's National Park status keeps it relatively pristine. Watching children at the ocean is pretty amazing. Fear, wonder, and excitement mingle together in completely unselfconscious exploration. Quinn wanted to watch the fish swim by, dig for crabs, chase a manatee down the beach, play in the sand and waves and water. I loved how he would pick up even the most ugly, broken bits of shell and carry them cradled in his hands like precious treasure to safety. Quinn's first trip into the water was a combination of awe and excitement. He couldn't keep the grin off his face, but his steps were timid and many tiny waves sent him running back up to shore.

Holiness has been on my mind recently. A lingering awareness of the depth of my sin haunts me right now, and the Spirit seems to be opening my eyes to false motives, impure thoughts, and unkind words, so I spent some time looking over my notes from John Owen's Overcoming Sin and Temptation. When I focus on my sin, I'm overwhelmed by how deeply rooted are the currents of my sinful nature. Not content with just leading me into temptation, my own sinful nature tries to deceive me by covering up and excusing my sin so that I might be lulled into complacency, arrogance, and indifference. Owen's first admonitions for overcoming sin are about getting a clear sense of the danger of sin and its offensiveness that one might cultivate a desire for deliverance.

But if I cultivate any more desire for deliverance, I just might explode. I'm realizing more and more, though, that I often desire deliverance from the consequences of my sin rather than deliverance from my sin. I have been whimpering against the the rigor of God's inexorable sentence, begging for just a little more indulgence. So now I need deliverance from my deliverance. Sheesh. Good thing I'm not alone on this endeavor.

But something about this picture reminds me that if I, a broken sinful human, delight in Quinn's wonder as he plays on the seashore, how much more must God delight in me as I play on the edge of eternity. I may build castles that get swept away, store up treasures of little ugly bits of nothing, flee in terror from the tiniest of waves, and chase the shadows of larger wonders down the beach -- but in all of these things, he delights in me simply because I'm there.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

in love


There is something desperately beautiful about the wilderness. There is so little of it left on earth and almost none in my daily life. Winding my way through the tiniest part of the Okefenokee Swamp this afternoon via boat and tour guide made me long to get out in a kayak with supplies for a week or two and just lose myself in the swamp. 

But people have lost themselves in the swamp, which is the benefit of hiring a guided boat. You get to come out alive and hear the stories of those who barely made it out and others who were not so lucky.  We covered just a tiny part of the 438,000 acres in the reserve, and I was already lost in the endless trails of lily pads, with the cypress and pines trailing spanish moss and the purple bladderwort floating everywhere. Every bend looks the same, and every break hints at a trail that really isn't there. With weather already unusually low in temperature (anything under 90 is unusually low in South Georgia in the summer) and a storm rolling in, we were almost cold as we maneuvered through our tiny slice of swamp prairies. Imagine getting hypothermia in South Georgia in July. Never thought that was possible until today.

Despite the stories of people lost in the swamp, despite the threat of being alone in the dark among alligators and giant snapping turtles, and despite the bugs, I think I'm in love with the Okefenokee. I mean the Grand Canyon was beautiful and all, but she's nothing compared to the swamp.

I keep thinking of a quote from Hinds Feet on High Places. Since I don't have it with me, here's the best I can do:
Love is beautiful, but it is also terrible, terrible in its determination to allow nothing blemished or imperfect to remain in the beloved. 
I think that's why I'm in love with the wilderness. It reminds me of the terrible love of God. God's extravagant beauty is needlessly excessive, intricate in the tiniest of details, like how the flower of the water lily closes up each night, submerging itself at dusk and reemerging each morning. But his love is also harsh and demanding, stripping away sin and building holiness through any means available. And yet, like the call of the swamp, I want to pack my boat full of provisions and paddle off into his presence, even if it kills me. Because despite the devastating shame of sin, despite the grief of loss, and despite the pain of failure, I think I'm in love.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

end


You were taught, with regard to your former  way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4: 23-24

I have a strange love of cemeteries. There's one in Percy Warner Park I stumbled upon in college where I used to sit and read, perched on the wall under a tree near a man named Larken. I always wanted to name a child that, but Emmett was a little horrified that I would fall in love with a name on a gravestone. No idea why he felt that way. I popped into the Christ Church Burial Ground in historic Philadelphia (pictured above) on my trip there last week.  Ben Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried there. American revolutionary history always makes me a little teary eyed and patriotic. 

I had more time than expected to wander historic Philadelphia, and I was struck by how well the city had recreated history through exhibits, museums, storytellers, and actors. One particular exhibit at the National Constitution Center focused on slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, talking about the paradox of freedom in the life of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Upstairs from this exhibit is a round room noting the history of the Constitution and its many changes, including the 13th amendment that ended slavery, but what I'd never considered before was how complex and lengthy this transition was. Even before Jefferson, there was discussion of ending slavery, with the Quakers banning it as early as 1775, and numerous signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution noted the irony in personal correspondence but were unable to reach a consensus to effect meaningful change, despite knowing what was right. The frustration of holding such a passionate desire for change in parallel with the powerlessness to effect such change resonated in my spirit. To know and despise my sinful nature yet be so powerless to put on the new self is my deepest grief.

This week I'm at Carnegie Melon working on educational robotics. Outside my door is the CMU CHIMP robot, part of a multi year robotics competition where students have to create a robot that can negotiate a series of tasks a human might encounter after a natural disaster. This team has created a humanoid like robot that can climb over rubble, open doors, turn valves. It's pretty amazing stuff, but if you've ever worked on robotics or computer programming, you know how painfully tedious the process can be. One misplaced semicolon, one wrong line of code, and instead of opening a door, your robot spins in circles. It can be maddeningly frustrating, and yet this team has been working on this guy for more than a year, patiently testing and retesting, writing and rewriting the code. Such an unassuming display of patience was both humbling an maddening. 

In many ways I had the expectation that being a widow would be difficult, but being a widow is far less difficult than single parenting. Every once in a while I miss Emmett, but almost every day as a single parent brings me to the edge of crazy. This has been a hard year of parenting, with generational sins creeping into my parenting style, relentless work and school pressures causing tension, and bone wearying loneliness when disciplining Quinn. Traveling for work has offered me opportunities to rest, reflect, and pray, also probably saving Quinn from watching his mom experience a complete meltdown. 

These moments of rest have helped me persevere, but they have also deeply convicted me of the stranglehold sin has on my life. Wandering alone through the streets of a strange town, I am hard pressed on all sides with the depth and power of my sinful nature and its devastating effects on the people around me. My spirit has been groaning so loudly as I wait eagerly for my adoption as a daughter of Christ, the redemption of my sinful flesh, that I sometimes wonder if other people can hear it. I'm reminded of John Owen's work, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, and his description of the long, arduous battle that will claim every second of my life until I am made new. I am reminded by history that the fight is long, but it is not eternal. There will be an end. 
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by his Hoy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5: 3-5