Sunday, December 28, 2014

stupid grin

Last week, when I was back in my old stomping grounds, I was able to get away for a couple long runs through the neighborhood where I passed my youth. Both times I started my run with this song (Moving Forward by Colony House) and a huge, stupid grin on my face.


From sermons to personal study to advent devotion, so many topics are all converging on the glory of Christ. Perhaps I'm also noticing it more since I'm working through John Owen's The Glory of Christ. There I've confessed that I'm back to reading John Owen again. I tried to take a detour through Charnock, but he just wasn't cutting it. 

I also confess a distinct, sustained season of dryness in my spiritual walk, mostly borne of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Unbeknownst to me, trickles of faith distilled through sparse quiet times and cold prayers, were pooling into a wellspring of joy just waiting to crash down over me. This brief respite, still overfilled with work and home and parenting, has provided much more than physical rest. 

From John Owen:
He himself, out of his infinite love and ineffable condescension, upon the sight and view of his church, and his own graces in her, with which she is adorned, says, 'You have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; you have ravished my heart with one of your eyes, with one chain of your neck' (S of S 4: 9). How much more ought a believing soul, upon a view of the glory of Christ, in whom it is pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, to say, "You have ravished my heart, taken it away from me! O you whom my soul loves, one glance of your glorious beauty upon me has quite overcome me, has left no heart in me to things here below!"
I have indeed been quite overcome, and it is both beautiful and humbling. The demands of the next few months, both personally and professionally, are so intimidating, that I dread them coming. I know I will wash up on the shores of May bruised and bloody, weary and broken. For that reason I am hesitant to leave the comforts of December. But I shall tie my laces, stretch my legs, and set out on this race with open eyes, a stupid grin on my face, and a great song at the top of my playlist:
Sometimes 
life can feel so unkind.
Sorrow won't define me

Sorrow just reminds my soul
My eyes are open,

my heart is beating,

my lungs are full,

and my body's breathing.

I'm moving forward.

I found my freedom.

I know this sorrow.

I know the heartache.

I know with fear comes a tragic heartbreak.

Well I'm moving forward.

I found my freedom.

I found the life that gave the reason to love.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

If only

It's late and I'm tired, but as I sit here looking at the Christmas tree, I can't seem to make myself go to bed. There is something in this moment that is too sacred to let go of easily. When someone you love dies, the first night is the hardest because you think, I don't want it to be tomorrow.  You don't want it to be possible that a day could exist without that person in it. Someone somewhere is feeling that kind of anguish tonight, but there is a similar anguish in stepping away from sacred celebrations and back into the normal rhythm of life. I don't want it to be possible for tomorrow to exist without this same measure of peace and joy.

Yesterday as Quinn and I were making homemade pasta, our Christmas Eve tradition, I couldn't help but see what our family should have been. There should have been Emmett with a couple more kids running around. There should have been a swirling chaos of noise and mess storming through the house. But it was just us, and though we had a great time, it was relatively quiet and clean and predictable. I'm realizing that grief has very little to do with a loss in the past, it's a continual loss of what the present could have been.

But that story isn't to make you cry because I wasn't so much sad as I was struck by what Christ's grief must be like. Luke 19 records Jesus weeping over Jerusalem during his triumphal entry: "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace - but now it is hidden from your eyes" (vs. 42). In this moment, Christ expresses his grief over the loss of what could have been, if only they had known what would bring them peace.

If only they had known, and yet I, who knows and have been known by the very word that created the universe, still struggle to live as if I really know what will bring me peace. I wonder how my present, how this very moment would be different if I really knew what would bring me peace. Sitting by the Christmas tree with a fuzzy blanket, warm cup of tea, and high speed internet makes it easy to pretend I really know. But enter a few relatively minor inconveniences tomorrow morning, like a grouchy seven year old boy, an endless to do list for the house, a mountain of school work - and suddenly my warm, fuzzy peace is looking pretty fragile.

In my travels with grief, I've learned the path to real, deep, belly-aching joy involves embracing grief like an old friend and letting her walk with you. But I never expected her to open my eyes to the if only moments of the present. I'm learning to ask myself what this moment could be like if I really knew what would bring me peace. I still don't really have eyes to see the answer to that question, but at least know I know the question and that gives me courage to face tomorrow morning.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

trusting the story


Thursday morning we said goodbye to Smudge. Quinn said goodbye before he went off to school and then I sat with her a while until it was time to go. I spent the next couple days listless, moody, and weepy. From getting out the carrot peeler (a sound that would being Smudge running from the other side of the house) to passing the dog food isle at the grocery store, I found it hard to keep it together. It wasn't until late yesterday that it registered, "oh yeah, this is grief. I've been here before." It felt so normal.

When Quinn started reading Harry Potter, he wanted confirmation that all his favorite characters would live. He has been known to have an all out melt down because I won't give away the ending. He doesn't deal well with not knowing. He wants assurance that the characters he loves will win and the characters he hates will be punished because he thinks he knows after one book who is good and who is bad. I keep telling him to trust the story and just keep reading, but he gets so mad at me.

For Advent, I've been studying the last week of Jesus life in the gospel of John. Strange, I know, but there's something about remembering his birth that makes me look ahead to the cross. I don't see a sweet little baby in a manger anymore. I see humiliation and separation from the father. I see determination and grit and a terrible purifying love incomprehensibly wrapped in swaddling clothes. I see the cross. 

One of my favorite Advent traditions with Quinn is reading the Jesus Storybook Bible every night. Even though we've moved on to a bigger Bible, we come back to those stories every year at Christmas, and the opening story always gets me right here:
I tear up every time I read this. Seriously. I know so much more about the ending of the story than most of the characters in the Bible. I'm not wandering in the desert following some God who came out of nowhere and told me to trust that he would give me a son. I'm not praying from a balcony in Babylon as part of an exiled Israel longing to return home. I'm not a member of the early church threatened with death, having only a few stories and letters to hold my faith together. I have the promised Holy Spirit and the Word of God. But I still find that, in the face of overwhelming loss, those things sometimes don't feel like enough for me. I have read quite a few chapters of the book and I still don't feel like I can trust this story.

I think I'm beginning to understand why John wrote the book of Revelation. It's always seemed like a strange book to me. I mean, what's the point of writing a book no one really understands, no matter how many fancy terms we use to describe our theories. The reading at our wedding was from Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. he will wipe away every tea from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" 
As I grow older the path of faith requires more discipline and endurance than I expected. The path to the cross became more painful for Jesus as the cross drew near, and I find my life to be following a similar pattern of intensity, and I have trouble trusting the story. So I'm looking at Jesus's final days on this earth, looking for faith to trust in the storyteller even when I cannot seem to trust the story.

Monday, December 1, 2014

smudge


Almost exactly twelve years ago we rescued this sweet little girl who fell asleep in my lap and has been the best dog ever since then. Because we didn't have much money she was our Christmas present to each other the first year we were married. Today we got some bad news about this sweet little girl. She's old. She's a dog. I knew it was coming because the way she'd been acting. When they told me it was a uti a couple weeks ago, I hoped, but also doubted, it was that simple. She's home with us for now. We'll spend the next few days, maybe weeks, saying goodbye. The next time we take her to the vet, she won't be coming home with us. But talk about opening up a can of worms. I don't think I've cried like this since Emmett. It's going to be another hard month here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

wonder and trust

When Quinn picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone last week, it finally stuck. He's tried it a couple times, but he's now knee deep in Hogwarts politics, brewing imaginary polyjuice potions, and may have recently declared to a group of his peers that Harry is his new favorite superhero. I love the wonder of a good story well told, and I remember reading the books for the first time - picking up the first two on a whim the year I lived in England. 

I've been thinking a lot about my time in Oxford recently. A new greenway near our house winds through woods and fields, reminding me of the walking paths near the house that I called home that year - in the Jericho section of town right on the canals. I remember the church services in the dear little Anglican church I attended - the mystery of communion where we actually all drank real wine from the same cup and lived to tell the tale. Uneven cobblestones and life size chess boards and wine served at evening lectures and running along the canal and fresh chips from a street vendor and libraries so big you need a map to get out - these are a few of my favorite things.

My heart is restless with the coming of fall, the passing of Emmett's birthday, and a recent vicious viral infection. I want to change, to move away and start over, to find a new job, a new church, a new life.  But I recognize that in doing any of these things, I will inevitably take with me the only thing I actually want to leave behind - my sinful, stained, corrupted flesh. 

I have many fond memories of Oxford, but the most vivid memory is the weight of transformation pressed upon me by God during my time there. Through pain and loneliness and falling short of many standards despite my intense studying, I was held together by the beauty and the mystery of grace poured out on the weak. My restless heart seems to be learning those lessons anew this fall. My prayer is for a faith to see the wonder in the story unfolding in this moment and trust in the one who is telling it.

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.

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

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.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

cup of tea

If we're all taken up in singing, we can prevent the meeting... too many verbal prayers can hide that we really don't want to meet Jesus, we want to speak to him all the time. To meet him is another cup of tea... Jean Vanier

I'm still waiting for that other cup of tea...

And while I wait in quietness and faith, I laugh and cry and travel and sleep and dance and clean and work and live but somehow cannot write.

Psalm 131
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me. 
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.