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.

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.