Friday, November 27, 2015

better than alcohol

"Mom, this is better than alcohol," were Quinn's exact words to me as he sleepily put down a copy of The Martian that my parents left at my house a few weeks ago.

Um.... You're gong to need to explain that comment, Quinn. Apparently he meant that "alcohol makes you tired and your brain not work well," and this book does that even better. Just as a disclaimer, this little fact about alcohol was not from his vast personal experience, but apparently his brain internalized that particular detail from a recent conversation we had on alcohol and its various uses and abuses.

As Quinn implied above in his Thanksgiving letter, I almost always answer his questions (unless I'm angry, apparently), but clearly I don't always communicate those answers well. It doesn't help that he always asks really hard questions. There was that time when he was four and asked me during breakfast how babies were made. He left that conversation thinking he was pregnant. Then there was the explanation of why we don't use artificial sweeteners, and he told his preschool teacher that he couldn't eat the yogurt because it would kill him. But the most awkward one ever was when he loudly proclaimed to the lady buying lunchables in the grocery store that she was going to get cancer, which was his version of my answer to why I won't buy him lunchables. So it was enlightening to discover what he internalized from our recent conversation on alcohol.

Not being familiar with The Martian, I didn't think much about Quinn reading it until I realized he was half way through it and the pages were filled with cuss words. After willing myself not to overreact, we had what I thought was a great discussion on cussing, why some people do it, and why we do not. I have yet to find out what little nugget he stored away from that conversation, but I'm sure it will be lovely.

Sometimes Quinn will decide that he has better answers than I do, like when he asked me about how to reconcile dinosaurs with the Adam and Eve story. Now, really, I should know better than to start an explanation to an eight year old boy with, "Well, that's an interesting question with a number of viable answers..." This time at least he just cut me off and told me how he thought it happened, which of course made no sense. I have an extensive history of losing arguments to the stubbornness of small children because apparently my explanations are deeply unsatisfying to small children. For example Quinn at the age of three, after hearing my explanation for what caused burping, insisted that pirates in your stomach were a much more reasonable cause of burps and would entertain no other explanations. I have finally learned to just say, "oh that's interesting," and then move on.

I've been reading in Jeremiah this month, and one of the recurring complaints against the people of Judah is not just their rebellion and worship of other Gods, but that they return to God in pretense only. In Jeremiah 3, God even claims that Judah is worse than faithless Israel because they go and play the whore with other gods while simultaneously pretending to have faith in the Lord. The people expect blessing without the cumbersome burdens of repentance, faith, and obedience. They will even offer sacrifices, as long as they aren't too costly.

That is beginning to sound a little too much like my heart. I find myself tempted to distill the beautifully complicated truth of salvation into a generic transactional formula that doesn't require anything so messy as sanctification. Surely heaven forbids I be made uncomfortable or forced to sacrifice my illusions of safety. Surely carrying Jesus's cross was a metaphor for something warm and fuzzy and easy that makes me feel good. Surely that command to do good to the refugee and orphan and poor did not mean I should make myself uncomfortable to do so.

Consider God's words from Jeremiah 17: 9-10
The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.”
How can I be so aware of the deceitfulness of my heart at one moment and so ignorant of it the next? I stand amazed at how pitifully I digest the word of the Lord, distilling its meaning into half truths shaped by the deceitfulness of my own heart.
Then the word of the Lord came to me:  “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
It takes the Lord to give me a new heart capable of knowing him and to returning to him.  I pondered that mystery as I ran yesterday through the neighborhood in which I grew up. Without constant vigilance my brain will slip back into the half-truths and false promises that are comfortable and safe. Living with this new heart, this whole heart, is an answer that I can't quite focus on because my mind won't quite fit around it. It's a question that makes my brain tired and not work very well, so in that sense I guess Quinn would qualify it as "better than alcohol."

Monday, October 19, 2015


October is the month where the season overlaps my schedule so that I drive to school with the sun rising behind me. I watch colors spread across the sky in my rearview mirror until I finally arrive to finish watching the sunrise over the new park across from my school. I am stilled for a moment by the beauty and brought to thanksgiving and praise in the midst of a difficult month.

October is also the season where I just want to quit: quit my job, quit my kid, quit my friends. The season may bring unusual beauty, but it also brings unusual pressure, and this jar of clay begins to crack as familiar sin patterns creep in. During such periods it is not laziness or lack of desire that keeps me out of the word, but rather a great trepidation. For if I know the words of God, the one who created and sustains the universe, and I claim to love them, then what does it say about me that I am so bad at following them? 

Isaiah has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible to read because, though it often come with great sorrow, the book is filled unimaginable hope. Many times I find myself praying Isaiah's words in chapter 6, "Woe is me for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In prayer, I'm always tempted to add the phrase, "and because I have seen you Lord, I should be different, but I am not." Lately he has been pressing into my heart Isaiah 30:15:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, 
In the bustle of fall, the Spirit has pressed on my heart just how unwilling I have been; unwilling to trust, unwilling to be cleansed, unwilling to repent, unwilling to be made new. I told a friend at the end of September that I was coming out of a season of repentance, but in reality that season seems to have been just the prequel. There is a deeper repentance at work, and it is hard, ugly, and yet deeply beautiful. If October has given me anything, it has given me the willingness to die to self, and for that I am thankful.

I am also thankful that this is not the end of the story. Because of the Lord's great love not only are we not consumed, but we will also be restored.

A song you might love by Sandra McCracken here.
We will feast in the house of Zion. We will sing with our hearts restored. He has done great things, we will say together. We will feast, and weep no more. We will not be burned by the fire. He is the lord our God. We are not consumed by the flood, Upheld, protected, gathered up. We will feast in the house of Zion. We will sing with our hearts restored. He has done great things, we will say together. We will feast, and weep no more. In the dark of night, before the dawn, My soul be not afraid. For the promised morning, oh how long. Oh, God of Jacob be my strength. We will feast in the house of Zion. We will sing with our hearts restored. He has done great things, we will say together. We will feast, and weep no more. Every vow we've broken and betrayed You are the faithful one And from the garden to the grave. Bind us together, bring shalom. We will feast in the house of Zion. We will sing with our hearts restored. He has done great things, we will say together. We will feast, and weap no more. He has done great things, we will say together. We will feast, and weap no more.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Tis the season where we leave the windows open, causing me to linger each morning a minute or two longer while I enjoy the contrast of the cool air and warm sheets. Sweat pants with flip flops are the standard loungewear, and a cup of hot tea is my one mandatory accessory. Add a good book and this season is even better than vacation.

During my reading this week I hit the oracles in Isaiah with a resounding crash. The news of the world and the words of Isaiah were too similar to ignore, and the awareness of evil at work to defile creation tempted my heart to despair. Consider Isaiah 21:3-4:
Therefore my loins are filled with anguish; pangs have seized me, like the pangs of a woman in labor; I am bowed down so that I cannot hear; I am dismayed so that I cannot see. My heart staggers; horror has appalled me; the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.
Isaiah brings words of destruction and hope to the people of Israel because he longs for God to be glorified in his people. Yet even Isaiah staggers under the weight of judgment, despite the promise of salvation for a remnant.

I feel the approach of despair as a slow, cold tightening in my chest. My heart flutters like a hummingbird, unable to come to rest for fear of being strangled. Despite the promise of a new creation without sin and suffering, this creation remains in bondage to corruption. Yet in light of so much evil, that there is any goodness or kindness in the world seems to me to be the greatest proof of God's existence.

As I pull out the blankets and favorite sweat shirts in anticipation of the months ahead, I'm pondering the art of hope in a fallen world. I understand the willful blindness, the pursuit of happiness in trivial distractions, the turning away from suffering. When the choice is to face this evil armed only with the promise of sufficient grace and future victory, it is no wonder I am tempted to ignore so much suffering. But facing this evil, mirrored in a thousand sins of my own heart, I find that faith pushes back on the coldness with an inextinguishable warmth. There is joy in the moment, whatever the moment holds. Like the moments of laughter I shared with Quinn at Emmett's funeral or the sweetness of restoration after reconciliation with a friend - I have always found the grace to press forward in the face of evil.

Some seasons though are for lingering under the covers and saying prayers of thanksgiving to God for holding back the darkness. If I am convicted of anything right now, it is of how much mercy he shows me in daily restraining the full power of evil at work in the world and in my own heart. I am humbled by my own failure to recognize the full extent of grace, and sometimes I wonder if my courage is borne more of faith in God's power or from ignorance of the evil lying in wait. Probably both, but today I'm thankful for a truth that surpasses my understanding and a grace that continues to show up despite the looming despair.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

new eyes

My subconscious has been ruminating on a couple recent discussions, one about life changing things we'd read and another about feelings of impotence in the face of the refugee crisis. And I came back to one of the final chapters in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran because it was both a chapter that changed my life and exactly what I needed to be reminded of when facing my own impotence in light of such overwhelming need. 

The memoir is about an illegal book group in Tehran in the early 1980s where young women met to discuss western literature, evil, and the new Islamic regime. In a book about literature and evil, one wouldn't usually think of Jane Austen's novels as the climax of the discussion. But I love what Nafisi says:
Austen's theme is cruelty not under extraordinary circumstances but ordinary ones, committed by people like us. Surely that's more frightening...
...Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me... Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to "see" others, hence to empathize with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert). We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others. Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question...
As I sat in a community group tonight for the first time in a couple years, I thought about this passage and the joy of seeing and being seen by others. It was after all what Christ did for the woman at the well and the rich young ruler and the woman who needed healing but hoped to sneak away unseen after touching him. He saw the disciples fishing and Zacchaeus in the tree and Saul on the road to Damascus and... and... and... he sees me and each and every one of my students and those refugees and every last man and woman swearing allegiance to Isis.

I have been in a particularly fierce battle to mortify the desires of my sinful nature. Sin has flared up so violently in my heart I can hardly sleep at night. I've fled back to John Owen's advice to begin mortification by really understanding the evil and guilt and danger of my sin and then to hold it up to the gospel and realize what it cost Christ. To be seen and loved, despite my sin and silliness and stupidity, should open my eyes to the work God can do in those around me. It should stir me to hope and boldness in life and in prayer for those both near and far. And maybe, just maybe, I'll start to see others with eyes made new by grace.

Monday, September 7, 2015


I love other people's babies. One of my dearest friends was fortunate enough to have twins recently, which is really perfect because whenever you visit, there are always enough babies to share. Currently they are at the stage where it is easy to make them laugh, which is of course irresistible. We hardly even talk to each other any more. I just visit and we play with babies and then I go home. As I was playing with one of them tonight, he grabbed fistfuls of my hair, and, delighted with his own brilliance, set himself to squealing right in my face as he kept a death grip on my head. There aren't many times in your life where it's cool when someone squeals in your face, I suppose, but it was awesome. 

If there were a trophy for worst mom of the year, I'd definitely be in the running for it. This week was a perfect storm of emotional overload that left me washed up Saturday morning with a full to do list and a desperate need to hide under my bed for a day.

But against my better judgment I got out of bed and finished my reading of Jonah over a cup of tea. Had I anticipated my day becoming an object lesson in the sins of Jonah's heart, I would've hopped the first boat to Tarshish and spent the weekend giving a whale indigestion. At least I can say the day ended with Quinn and I having a good discussion of sin and repentance as well as quite a bit of laughter, but the in between hours were brutal. 

So Sunday morning I hesitated before starting the book of Hosea thinking that should the Lord decide to make my life into another object lesson that day, it would be better to pick a different book of the Bible. But I forged ahead because I had recently read this passage from Buechner's Hungering Dark:
If the meaning of life is just a string of theological words, then who cares about it one way or another and what difference does it make and why bother to say the words at all, even if in some sense they are true? But if it is a reality, then words cannot contain it, you can only know it when you experience it, and if life in general has meaning, then every part of life also has meaning and you can experience it perfectly well by watching feathers fall to the ground or seeing the teacher walk away in silence...
If I were an unusually brave man, I would do something like this from the pulpit. First of all, I would stop speaking, and then I would perform some action of the kind that the prophets of Israel used to perform, because... they also got tired of words from time to time and resorted to more direct means of pointing to the reality, for them, of God's judgment  or of God's love.
And what a picture Hosea is of sin and redemption and unfailing love. I have loved the book since I first read it almost two decades ago. Cries of mercy and love and longing break through the passages of condemnation and judgment as if God can't help himself. And this life, this experience even of my own sinful nature, has meaning because God himself lifts me out of it. And some day, when his work in me is complete, I will hold onto my savior with new hands and squeal with delight just like my little friend this evening. Because on that day, even the ugly parts of my story will be known as beautiful because they will find their meaning in his story.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Hungering Dark

I opened a package Thursday to find a book I had ordered a couple weeks ago and forgotten about. Even without remembering why I ordered it, tears sprang to my eyes at the title, clearly an indication I needed to read the book right then. So I sat down and read the first half that night, with a heart so swollen and tender each chapter was like a cup of cold water.

Consider the end to chapter 3:
Jesus said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," and in the end every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the same word, and the word is Christ himself. And in the end that is the vocation, the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers we are called to. That is the vocation, the destiny to which we were all of us called, even before the foundation of the world.
The first day of school this week there were half a dozen students in my room, some studying their summer work for tests in other classes, some robot team students just looking for fellow nerdy introverts, some old students just dropping by to say hello. My heart that had been quietly stirring for weeks, felt like it just might burst from being exactly where it was supposed to be. Ever since my bitter battle with self-doubt a few weeks ago, I've been pondering what it looks like to be Christ where I am and what it means to make Christ the only stumbling block, but it has been a pondering without answers, a storing up of tiny moments in my heart.

This is Buechner's prayer at the end of chapter 3, and I must have read it a dozen times Thursday night, but since then I've been praying it for myself as well as for my students.
O Thou, who art the God no less of those who know thee not than of those who love the well, be present with us at the times of choosing when time stands still and all that lies behind us and all that lies ahead are caught up in the mystery of a moment. Be present especially with the young who must choose between many voices. Help them to know how much an old world needs their youth and gladness. Help them to know that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless they speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless they do them. Help them never to mistake success for victory or failure for defeat. Grant that they may never be entirely content with whatever bounty this world may bestow upon them, but that they may know at last that they were created not for happiness but for joy, and that joy is to him alone who, sometimes with tears in his eyes, commits himself in love to thee and to his brothers. Lead them and all thy world ever deeper into the knowledge that finally all men are one and that there can never really be joy for any until there is joy for all. In Christ's name we ask it and for his sake. Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015


The Old Testament never fails to convince me that we serve a capricious God, or at least capricious from our perspective. When God says in Romans, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion," he really means it. Mired in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles as I am right now, I wonder at how God doles out both his mercy and his wrath. It leaves my head spinning and my spirit trembling and my mind uncomprehending. How does one love such a God as this or come to his altar in worship?

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I have been unusually plagued by thoughts of self-doubt and self-recrimination. Sneaking in under the guise of conviction, such thoughts have stabbed my conscience like a thousand little fleas burrowing into my soul. After days of hearing my worthlessness whispered incessantly in my ears, I finally got fed up with the voices and started answering out loud with a resounding, "You're right, I'm not. But I don't have to be, because Christ was. So shut up." And they did. There followed a quiet in my soul, and I wept over the Psalms as I haven't in a long time.

I read Brendan by Frederick Buechner recently. It's a fictional account of the life of Saint Brendan. Buechner, master story teller that he is, contrasts the grit and obscenity of pagan life with the struggle of a man to live for Christ. Brendan the priest travels the world with his distraught soul, only to realize near the end that "perhaps we've given all but what he truly wants." The adventures, the self-loathing and self-deprivation, the monasteries he built - none of these is truly the work of Christ in him so much as the transformation of his heart from a loud mouthed braggart to a quiet servant of those around him.

Habakkuk is my favorite prophet because he asks for justice and receives faith. I'm beginning to realize that is how God has been answering all my requests, with faith rather than answers. So as I read through the histories this time, I'm seeking less understanding and more faith. Perhaps, just perhaps, that's what he truly wants.

Brendan by Frederick Buechner