Wednesday, June 26, 2013


When I wrote the last post, I sincerely struggled for words to express grief without expressing a human-focused neediness or a desire to be fixed.  I didn't even really need people to read it, and I almost didn't publish those words because I knew they may be mis-read.  But Emmett and I had always committed to honesty with each other, and when he got cancer, it seemed only appropriate to extend that honesty.  In the last few days, I've been humbled by the notes I've received publicly, privately, first-hand, and sometimes even second- or third-handed about people who are struggling finding comfort in the fact that there is at least one other person out there trudging through the mud of life.

A few weeks ago, on a particularly sinful day, I let my sin nature walk right through the gate of my heart and take over.  Heck, I practically invited it to stay, fed it a meal, and made it a bed.  I ended up saying some downright awful things to a friend and then padding my smug sense of self-righteousness so I wouldn't have to feel the shame of being a grade A jerk.  But the prick of the Holy Spirit sent me on the path to reconciliation, and as we talked things through things a few days later, I was humbled and led to worship by the reminder of the sweetness of reconciliation.

I was reading through The Letters of John Newton this week, and yes, I will probably quote this book as obsessively as I did the last one I read.  One of his letters was subtitled by the editors as "spiritual blindness," but I think a more appropriate subtitle might be, "The distinguishing mark of a believer."  You see, sometimes I get in my head that the distinguishing mark of a believer is a certain level of annoying combination of perkiness and unfailing optimism, usually accompanied by charming good looks, well behaved children, and a casually held coffee cup from Starbucks.  But a comparison Newton made keeps resonating with me - that the highest level of human attainment cannot rival the lowest degrees of grace.


The mere desire of salvation with no actual spiritual enlightenment of grace may flourish for a while but will always waste away in the end.  But even the lowest degree of grace, as granted through divine enlightenment, will be a continually progressive work no matter how small the steps, how slow the progress, or how feeble and weak the person.

I kind of wanted to dance for joy when I read that, and it occurred to me that the distinguishing mark of a believer is someone who always returns to the sweetness of reconciliation in Christ.  I love that when Christ prayed for Peter in the garden, he prayed not that Peter wouldn't sin, but that after he sinned, he would return.  In other words, he prayed that sin wouldn't hold dominion over Peter, but that grace would have the final say over his life.  The mark of a believer is not the absence of sin, but the continual longing for and returning to a relationship with God through his mercy and by his grace - no matter how ugly or broken or feeble the return appears.

I'm finally grasping what Christ meant when he told the pharisees that the woman washing his feet loved much because she had been forgiven much.  When I finally realize the complete worthlessness of my own smug sense of self-importance and seek true reconciliation with Christ, I find myself free to be honest without needing to be fixed, free to love and laugh and dance like Elaine from Seinfeld.  But the best part of reconciliation is the sweetness of not needing to be fixed, of being accepted and loved and welcomed as my broken, repugnant self.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

4 a.m.

I find myself up at four a.m. having another brain dump and knowing I will regret this tomorrow about three in the afternoon when I'm staggering around the house more useless and ornery than a drunk person.  I don't suppose we always get to pick the most convenient times to process our lives.  Sometimes I stay so busy this is the best time for me to hear God and work through my issues, of which there are enough for a lifetime of sleepless nights.

Sitting on my back porch at four a.m. (I'm going to keep saying the time so you'll pity me as you read this) I am overwhelmed by how achingly beautiful this summer has been.  Cooler than normal temperatures, an almost six-year-old boy, and a really terrible year in my rear-view mirror have left me with an achingly beautiful kind of brokenness.  Even now as I sit in the cool night air, the bugs are asleep and the birds are just beginning to wake up somewhere far away from here.  And I feel in love with all of creation.  Except for ticks.  That's where reality hits, and I remember we live in a fallen world.

It was just a few days ago when I realized how awful this year has been.  Just over a year ago I sprained my ankle so bad I thought it was broken.  Two weeks later my refrigerator leaked into my sub-flooring, which led to a year of fixing, replacing, and updating that just ended about three weeks ago.  I had a tough year at school with very little encouragement.  Quinn broke his arm twice in two months. I had a four-month long sinus infection that never really went away.  But the saddest parts of the year have be things like completely losing interest in cooking (seriously, I even dread going to the grocery store... I think I need a culinary intervention), not even wanting to pick up a fiction book for months at a time, and an incredible spiritual and moral lethargy that has left me thoroughly mired in sinful habits.

I'm not whining.  Really, I'm not.  I just need to communicate without exaggerating that, in some ways that are very hard to explain, this year has probably been the worst of my life.  Having lost a child and a husband over the last years, you  might think I'm nuts to say that about a year in which no one close to me has died, so I've just avoided writing lately while I've tried to figure out why I feel this to be true.

In the random Internet wanderings that inevitably precede any middle of the night conscious thought, I came upon this lovely little blog post, entitled "God Does Not Owe Us A Happy Ending."  If you had a choice between reading that blog post and finishing this one, then go ahead and stop reading this and head on over there.  It's that good.

I have watched and fervently prayed for friends as they bring their husbands home from the hospital and children home from the NICU, and thought why didn't I get to do that? I have deeply rejoiced rejoiced with friends who have bought new home and new cars and found new jobs and had more children all the while thinking about how I would have been doing these same things if God had written my story differently.  I've sat in a beautiful barn surrounded by wonderful people watching the sun set over the hills of Tennessee while people played a concert.  And while I loved every minute, I also grieved deeply because this is exactly what Emmett and I had thought our life would look like when we retired to the family farm one day.  Just the other day at the pool I watched Quinn watch as one of his friends saw his dad far away and ran toward him, screaming, "Daddy!" He just sat quietly and watched his friend break off their conversation and run to his dad.  My already mangled heart broke into a thousand more pieces for the happy endings he won't have.

This year I have watched everything I've prayed and hoped and imagined for my family come true when I have prayed it for someone else.  I can honestly say that I have thoroughly and without reservations prayed for and rejoiced with and tried to serve each one of my friends without interjecting my own baggage.

No wonder I'm soul-crushingly exhausted in a way that no amount of rest or vacation can cure.  At 4 a.m. this morning (had to remind you one more time) I finally got it.  I have been a magnet this year for people who want to tell me God is good because he got their kids into a certain school or they found the perfect house or he kept their child/spouse/refrigerator from dying.  And I have smiled and said, "why yes, He must be." But when you tell me that God is good because he did something you wanted to make your life fit your idea of a happy ending, it reinforces the lie in my heart that God is here to make my life easier and I must be doing something wrong because my life is so freaking hard.

I need to be reminded that God is good because he is God and not because he fulfilled the next step in your happy ending, and that being holy is about knowing God instead of putting in your dues to get that happy ending.

And I wonder if my preoccupation to happy endings is really standing in the way to my experience of God.  Okay, I really don't wonder.  I'm pretty sure it is true.  Another blog I stumbled upon recently reminded me that the most satisfying worship comes in the midst of emptiness, not plenty.  But emptiness is so hard and so painful, that I cringe to go there.  In fact, I won't go there, so God has dragged me there kicking and screaming and blogging the whole awful way.  And so help me if another person tells me not to worry because surely I'll get remarried, write a book, watch Quinn live a happy life, and bounce fat grandchildren on my knee, then I might just say something inappropriate.

Because it's not those things I want.

Honestly, I want to stand with Job and Moses and Habakkuk and ask God questions and have him answer me.  I want to face the mystery and power and emptiness and not have the answers and be okay with not having the answers.  I want to find the energy and strength to fight the fights that won't necessarily have happy endings just because they're worth fighting. I want to find other people who don't have happy endings and tell them it's okay and walk life with them.  Because so many of the battles I fight aren't really worth it, and I'm still having a hard time telling the difference.

So I'm raising my cup of tea in salute to the sunrise and praying for fewer happy endings and more fights worth fighting.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Sweat pants on my back porch in June.  Just over two years since Emmett passed.  The big dipper hanging overhead.  A firefly trying to court my computer screen.  My life feels a little surreal at the moment.

A couple dozen elementary school children effectively dulled any sense of loss I might have had last week.  Random stories that made no sense, trips to the bathroom, reminders to wash hands,  dozens of balloons, and the phrase, "Miss Wendy," repeated at an unnaturally high pitch until I was teetering on the edge of crazy was probably the perfect distraction this week.

And then the fireflies came out.  Quinn and I got home this evening and he danced and twirled in the fading light trying to catch fireflies and probably murdering more than he managed to capture alive.  We took a walk and he maintained a continuous stream of chatter that makes me wonder how he has time to breathe sometimes.  His endless chatter ranged from questions about the exact meaning of the word dusk to how to make a firefly rocket by attaching a bottle of diet coke to its rear end and dropping in a mentos (and I'm not making that up).

I'm not exactly sure where the bottom dropped out, but with all the distractions gone, and so many reminders around me, the wave of grief finally crashed down.  In the past few years, I've found that embracing grief somehow makes it easier.  So I caught fireflies, listened to sad songs, cleaned, baked, and somehow came right back around to alright.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

another dead guy named John

After nearly a year, I finally finished Overcoming Sin and Temptation.  The book.  Unfortunately not the actual overcoming of sin and temptation.  That would have been way more awesome. You see the complete ripoff of the book is that you don't actually overcome anything.  In fact, in the last few pages of the book he says that when the law exposes the indwelling sinful nature (see Romans 7), that sin
...finding its rule disturbed, it grows more outrageously oppressive and doubles the bondage of their souls.... yea - It is so far from being conquered that it is only enraged.  The whole work of the law does not only provoke and enrage sin, and cause it, as it has opportunity, to put out its strength with more power, and vigor, and force than formerly.  
So you get through the whole freaking book before he drops the bomb.  Oh by the way, if you try to be holy, you're just going to anger your sinful nature and it's going to lash out like an enraged heroin addict intent only one satisfying his unquenchable lust for more.  Lovely.  The book should come with a warning label acknowledging what you're getting yourself into because that kind of crazy redoubled psychotic attack is not what I signed up for.

I've always read Romans 7: 8-11 with some bewilderment.
For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin was dead.  Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.
It's like when I watch the news giving every detail of how a terrorist attack or school shooting happened, and I'm thinking, "awesome, you've just told a bunch of angry, imbalanced crazy people out there how to carry out their psychotic impulses and become famous."  In a similar manner, it's like the law is an instruction manual on how to sin, and as I read it my sinful nature says, "Oh, wow, I hadn't thought of that yet.  That sounds like a great idea."  And off it runs with even more enthusiasm than before.

Moreover, Owen points out that any attempts to suppress the sinful nature through our own power simply restrain certain types of violent eruptions of sin, diverting the flow of sin to other outlets while leaving the root of sin intact and flourishing.  Not so encouraging really.  Then you get all inspired because there is this great passage about how only grace can change the heart and remove the poison and fierceness put there by the sinful nature.  And then the book ends, and I'm like, "Um. Excuse me, but you can't just end there. That is completely unacceptable."  But apparently he didn't listen to me.

Because how does that grace thing work?  ACK!

Good thing I picked up a copy of The Letters of John Newton.  After following one of those random Facebook rabbit trails (don't judge, you know you do it too), I happened across a mention of Newton's Letters as a great collection of writings on personal holiness.  John Newton, most famous for authoring the hymn Amazing Grace, was a key figure in the Great Awakening in England during the 18th century.  He saw his letter writing as one of his greatest ministries.  I haven't even started the letters, and I'm already hooked by the introduction:
...true Evangelical religion produces intense exercise of soul.  Where the life of God has been implanted in the soul, a warfare begins between the good and the evil, between the new nature and the old.  If there is one thing outstanding in Newton's letters, it is, perhaps, the happy combination between spiritual mourning and spiritual rejoicing...  The purpose of God in showing believers the evil of their own hearts is to make them prize more highly the grace and all-sufficiency of Jesus.  In this way they go through life "sorrowful yet always rejoicing."
Wow.  It couldn't be more perfect.  Somehow the mix of mourning and rejoicing, of sin and holiness, works together for my sanctification.  I'm excited about embarking on this strange quest.  Even though I have no idea where it is headed, I can hear a voice calling my name.  I know that voice, and I'm both terrified and thrilled to follow it.  So here's to eavesdropping on the centuries-old conversations of another dead guy named John.