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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

here I am

It's July in Nashville. I'm outside in sweats with a cup of hot tea. And I'm freezing. Somehow I can't wrap my mind around those three sentences ever possibly coexisting to form a truth about my life, and yet it seems to be true despite my inability to comprehend it.

I also can't seem to wrap my mind around these verses from Romans 5:
For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved through his life. Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
I memorized the first nine verses of Romans 5 like a pro, and then slammed my head up against the verses above. It's been two weeks and I still can't spit all the words out without sounding like a bad Yoda imitation. Two weeks on two verses? That's pathetic, even for me.

I was recently at the Stallings's farm in Georgia for a few days to visit Emmett's grandmother, pick blueberries, and see some family. I love picking blueberries, patiently hunting for the biggest, fattest berries, passing over inferior berries in a quest for a bucketful of absolutely perfect berries. That's somewhat of a challenge when quite a few of them don't make it past my mouth. If I'm not careful, when I find several together, one of those perfectly round, fat berries just might just roll right down my fingers and off my hand into the grass instead of into my bucket.  And then there's the sadness of picking one that is ever so slightly still pink - oh the awful sourness! Quinn dared me to eat one still green, and the mouth-puckering power of that little dude nearly glued my lips together.

I finished East of Eden by John Steinbeck while at the farm. Steinbeck is a master storyteller, weaving the lives of these amazing characters through a 600 page exploration of the Cain and Abel story. I'll spare you the analytical essay, but the central question of the story hinges on the word timshel, a loose translation of the original Hebrew word God uses in Genesis 4:7 to tell Cain what to do with the sin crouching at his door. Is God telling Cain that he must master the sin or is he promising him that he will be able to master the sin? The nuances here are important because there is little hope for the man who struggles with sin if God is using the imperative case here with Cain. Although people have spent their whole careers on that one word, I found it more interesting how each characters' behavior was dramatically impacted by whether he thought he was loved by his father. Where the father's love was not felt, jealousy and hatred and sin were not far behind. In fact, the ability to master sin seemed to hinge not on the presence of the father's love, but on the perception of the father's love by the son.

Ouch. Talk about a mirror to the soul. My holiness is in direct proportion to my perception of God's love for me. I've been swallowed up by a wide range of sin lately, overwhelmed and feeling generally unloved. Steinbeck's characters made me realize though that I wasn't felling unloved because I was mired in sin. I get myself all mired in sin because I'm feeling unloved. My misperception of God's love is not the effect of my sin, but the cause of it.

Memorizing Romans 5 has been like picking this beautiful cluster of berries only to have them roll out of my hands into the grass. I know there is something amazing there, but I can't seem to lay hold of the truth. It feels so obvious. If God sent his son to die for us while we were still sinners, then once we've been reconciled, he's going to save us through Christ's life too. I mean, duh. He knew what he was getting into. If he went far enough to die for me while I was still a schmuck, he's probably not going to leave the job half finished and give up on me now. And it's not just that he's not going to give up on me - read the passage again - it's how much more will we be saved. The saving isn't an afterthought or happy coincidence to the reconciliation in Christ, it's the whole point of the reconciliation  - so that we can be transformed.

So why can't I wrap my mind around it? Because my sin, God's love, Christ's death, my reconciliation and transformation - these things can't possibly seem to coexist in a coherent truth. It's like being cold outside in July in Nashville. Not possible. And yet here I am.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

disappointed

Sometime around 3 am Monday morning marked exactly three years since we lost Emmett. I've been busy with summer camp, an intentional and effective distraction from the passage of time, and just now starting my summer recovery. The beginning of summer is always a mixed blessing, with time to relax and recover, but always bringing with it a wellspring of memories that seem to pounce on me unexpectedly.

I'm reading Tozer's Pursuit of God (again) for our summer reading at school. From chapter 2:
There can be no doubt that this possessive clinging to things is one of the most harmful habits in life. Because it is so natural, it is rarely recognized for the evil that it is; but it's out workings are tragic.
We are often hindered from giving up our treasures to the Lord out of fear for their safety; this is especially true when those treasures are loved relatives and friends...
The Christian who is alive enough to know himself even slightly will recognize the symptoms of this possession malady and will grieve to find them in his own heart. If the longing after God is strong enough within him, he will want to do something about the matter...
Let us never forget that such a truth as this can never be learned by rote as one would learn the facts of physical science. They must be experienced before we can really know them. We must in our hearts live through Abraham's harsh and bitter experiences if we would know the blessedness which follows them. The ancient curse will not go out painlessly; the tough old miser within us will not lie down and die obedient to our command. He must be torn out of our heart like a plant from the soil; he must be extracted in agony and blood like a tooth from the jaw. He must be expelled from our soul by violence as Christ expelled the money changers from the temple. And we shall need to steel ourselves against his piteous begging, and to recognize it as springing out of self-pity, one of the most reprehensible sins of the human heart.
If we would indeed know God in growing intimacy, we must go this way of renunciation. And if we are set upon the pursuit of God, He will sooner or later bring us to this test.... So we will be brought one by one to the testing place, and we may never know when we are there. At that testing place there will be no dozen possible choices for us; just one and an alternative, but our whole future will be conditioned by the choice we make.
um.  wow.

We may never know we are there.  wow.

Looking back on my journey with Emmett, there were several important moments throughout our relationship, some of them hard or pivotal, but many were factually insignificant. Each of these moments I can remember with stunning clarity even though I experienced them at the time without any recognition of their significance. What marked these moments was not the details of the decision, but the underlying choice to trust God with the very person most precious to me rather than manipulate the circumstances to my satisfaction. These particular crossroads stick out in my memory because they were instances where God stripped away all distractions and captivated my entire attention, making me acutely aware of my choices. From decisions we made while dating to the last week of his life, I can remember a continual, deliberate releasing of my control. Not that I didn't violate my own intentions a thousand times along the way; I certainly struggled with sin in my marriage. I didn't always make the right choices, but God, full of patient mercy, continued to bring me back to a place of trust. Just like Abraham, I stumbled and doubted and tried to figure out how to make it work on my own, but in the end I always trusted.

And yet he chose not to spare Emmett like he chose to spare Isaac.

But I still choose this pursuit. And some days it's a glorious journey full of glimpses into the hope of the glory of God. Other days are just spent holding on to promises that seem long dead even though you feel like an old, cheated fool.

I'm memorizing the beginning of Romans 5 right now:
Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into the grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 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 the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our heart...

I can recall an Elizabeth Elliot quote from her book These Strange Ashes, "It is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives himself." This journey may not be what I wanted or what I would ever choose for myself, and I have not yet reached the point of being able to rejoice in my sufferings, but three years into this latest detour, I still have not been disappointed by hope.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

stuck

Here I am stuck again.

Can you imagine how Abraham and Sarah felt as they wandered in the desert for decades, still childless despite the promise. I can imagine their story felt at first like an epic romance before wandering off into boredom and despair and hopelessness and fear and sin. I can imagine they left their land with high hopes and crazy dreams and were able to keep up their spirits for a while.  But then years turn into decades that turn into... Well, you get the idea. Or do you really? I can imagine myself a good 12 years into that desert wandering with grumbly servants and thirsty camels and the hot, hot, did I mention HOT, sun baking my skin and causing one ferocious headache. And where's that child, God? After all, you promised!

But then there is Hebrews 11:13-16...
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have opportunity to return. Instead they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
So maybe I'm stuck here because I'm a big loser and God hates me. Or maybe I'm stuck here because walking with God is more like slogging through a swamp full of mosquitoes than unwrapping a neat little package in coordinated wrapping paper with a shiny bow on top.  We like stories with shiny bows because they make us clap our hands and jump up and down and wonder when we're going to get our package with a shiny bow on top because, really God, we've been extra good.

But I'm tired, and I'm stuck, and I know there's no shiny bow. So what do I do now? Seems I have a choice to give up and go about my own business doing whatever I want since God didn't deliver on my terms. Or I can heave one foot out of this squelching mud and set it right back down in the muck a little further ahead because I've tasted something better.

Lamentations 3:19-23

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
     The bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
     and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
     and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
     for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
     great is your faithfulness.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

loss

Some days I think I've hit the sweet spot. I love my job, and I'm finally starting to get pretty good at it. Quinn's at an awesome age where he still thinks I'm cool and wants to hang out with me. Somehow projects get done, people get fed, and life happens. We laugh and make plans for the future. Life seems so manageable, even good.

Other days, something happens, often something so insignificant it's hardly worth retelling, and I become immediately aware of how vulnerable we are, just the two of us. Those days I'm reminded why widows and orphans are so dear to the Lord, why he takes care of them. I've had an unusual number of those days recently.

Quinn and I were walking in a parking lot today. I shooed him out of the way of an oncoming car, and his first response was, "Well, if it had hit us, at least it would have hit me first, so I wouldn't be an orphan." Wow. Sometimes I forget how constant his sense of loss is. He's been trying to get me to join the "watch dog" program at his school, but it's a program for dads and he doesn't seem to understand why I can't take him.

A couple days ago I passed by a mom in a wheelchair on the side of the road and her son, about Quinn's age. He was holding a sign that said she had recently been diagnosed with something. I couldn't read what, but by the time I pulled over to help them, someone else had already stopped. Talk about hitting a little too close to home. Considering I had already started bawling, it was probably a good thing someone else was helping them. I drove on home and cried for another hour, barely managing to pull myself together before Quinn got home.

Maybe it's because we're approaching three years, maybe it's because Quinn is older and so much more aware of his dad's absence, but this has been a really difficult season. I joke that one of my only parenting goals is to not become a Flannery O'Connor short story. She has lots of particularly disturbing stories about dysfunctional single moms and their sons. I've taken her off my reading list until Quinn grows up to be a normal functioning adult.

Still, I wonder why this season has been particularly marked by a profound awareness of loss, both for Quinn and me. The only thing I've come up with so far is longing. Rightly experienced grief cultivates a longing for truth, justice, hope, beauty - for life as we were created to live it, in perfect communion with God and each other. And that kind of longing is working changes in my affections that fifteen years of self-discipline and self-effort haven't been able to touch. For that at least, I am thankful.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

almost

I now know why teachers get a summer vacation: post traumatic stress disorder.

The flashbacks are giving me panic attacks, my shoulders have taken up permanent residence just below my earlobes, and on more than one occasion I found my whole class staring at me strangely because I'd been talking to myself in foreign accents while grading papers during a quiz.  It's a bad sign when you hear some address you as Mrs. Stallings and you immediately tighten your grip on the stapler, thinking, "If one more person hands me make up work, I just might throw this stapler at them." But then someone hands you a tea cup they made for you in pottery class for you and suddenly you can make it through one more review session where everyone pretends you never taught them anything.  When you get hired as a teacher, you should get a hard hat, combat boots, and a good therapist as a sign on bonus.

Earlier this year as I sat down with the headmaster in our annual meeting, I recalled a parent meeting ten years ago when I sat in awe of a veteran teacher who managed to perfectly balance holding a student accountable while maintaining a positive, encouraging professionalism. I thought I'd never be that good, and if I ever got there then my teaching life would be easy. Earlier this year as I sat in a parent conference and heard myself talk I realized I had become that teacher, but that my job, rather than being easier, has become harder.

Turns out the better you get at something, the more difficult it becomes. My pastor said something similar about faith in his sermon the other day. Faith, holiness, sanctification - it all gets harder rather than easier. The same could be said of grief.

It's been a dark, dark winter. Aside from being colder than Alaska here at times winter, the intensity of working full time and single parenting nearly drove me over the edge of crazy. But more than the outward intensity, the inward struggle for sanctification has left me tattered, body and soul. I have been warring greatly with what John Owen would call the "habitual disinclination towards obedience and communion with God." The power of sin has manifested itself not so much in great eruptions of sin, but by the persistence of a thousand relentless temptations incessantly gnawing away at my will to obey.

It is a great mystery of grace that I can feel so beaten down by the sinful nature and yet so clearly further along than I was even just a few years ago. One of the greatest tragedies of the sinful nature is how it draws us away from the mystery of grace, transforming mystery into nothing more than a supermarket transaction for our forgiveness. I come and exchange empty words for a candy bar with a golden ticket. But grace truly understood is the mystery of communion that requires a simultaneous emptying of all my self-endeavors to change and a diligent, constant pressing forward into the only one who can remove this fiery poison in my heart.

As I press forward into grace though, the attack of sin redoubles its efforts to distract me, and I find myself overwhelmed. Overwhelmed, but not disheartened. If anything I find myself more inclined to laugh and dance and throw myself on Christ. I am oh so good at failing, and even better at excusing my failures with pathetic complaints about the difficulty of obedience. Because sin must be killed daily. The same sins have to be put to death over and over and over. And nothing is more exhausting than saying no to the familiar comforting, sinful thought patterns that distract me from grief and pain and suffering.

But there is something even more deeply beautiful about running this race, about pressing on with the expectation of grace fulfilled, about waiting for new life in the midst of darkness and death. I just can't quite put it into words yet but I can almost touch it.  almost.