Almost a week late … So sue me!

….Although, come to think of it, you’d better not because about all I have to my name are these two snotty-nosed germ habitats:

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Anyway, this is a Valentine’s post about my husband.  I don’t celebrate the day; heck, we didn’t even hardly acknowledge that we missed our second-best excuse to binge on chocolate (being non-celebrators of Halloween, we still purchase Reese’s cups in October in those ridiculous 5 lb. bags … just to have them).  We were quite busy this past Valentine’s day, driving 17 hours back to our snow-covered home after a lovely three-day vacation in icy South Carolina.  Really, we just wanted to make it back before the iPad battery died, lest we ran out of entertainment for the tots.  Gushing my romance out on the internet wasn’t even on my list of things to think about.

However, since then, I have been preparing for what will officially be the most awkward event ever where, this upcoming Saturday, my husband and I will sit in front of a group of couples from a church (not our own church) and speak about marriage.  We are under 30 years old.  We have been married for 4.65 years.  I am a Christian only 5.35 years.   What qualifies us for this?  We have no idea.  Someone thought it was a good idea.

Well, to be completely truthful, we were the second choice.  But still, somebody agreed to this nonsense.

And then, as I began to read and write in preparation, I realized that what qualifies me for this is that I have an extremely blessed marriage.  I’m not putting ourselves up, or putting others down, nothing like that — but looking at my life, my husband, our walks with the Lord, the ministry at our church, the way that our house is held up by duct tape in some places, and yes, even those snotty-nosed kids, we have been given a real gift in even just our sanity alone, never mind our desire to still spend time together at the end of a long week.

We do have something to share.  And while we may not have all the experiences that various couples in our audience might have, nor the wisdom that comes with upwards of 20, 30, 40 years of marriage, we do have something real and that something real is affecting the way we live, the way we see the world, and the way we seek to serve God in it.

This sparks, for me, what I think might be a small reflective series on marriage.  Not sure how many people will come across it and actually take the time to read it, but I do hope that if you do, it’s a blessing to you.

I will begin with what inspired this post in the first place:  and ode* to my husband.

Oh, pale and quite Irish sir!

 You who must believe in such things as the fairy of laundry,

have you yet noticed that your underwear is folded,

every week, stacked and sorted, by color, by frequency of use?

Have you yet noticed your jacket, not left on the coat hanger,

waiting there for you upon your morning departure,

day after day? Must it have climbed up there with it’s own two arms?

Have you yet noticed that shiny toilet?

The stains and drip lines very nearly erased, week after week — I suppose, who would even dare to see these things?

You, with your stylish goatee, admirably busy about the things of the Kingdom,

Your teenage fanclub following close behind as you breathe and sing and share the bread crumbs of Life, transforming souls — encouraging the trading of ashes for beauty.

And did you know how marvelous you would look in your skinny jeans when you got them, with that guitar slung high over your shoulder, that a certain wife of yours in the second row would not be able to praise because she is distracted by her affection?

So the mismatched socks and snow traisped in and papers left about hardly matter;

I’m just glad you’re home.

And if you don’t notice the floor was mopped, and if you don’t notice the bruise above my eye (where the baby head-butted me) because we are catching up after long days softly in the darkness of our sagging mattress and downy comforter, toes touching and breath meeting sweetly halfway,

well, it’s okay; I am free to do it all over again the next day because I love you, because you love me.

How could I even begin to fathom this grace of God, if you had not shown me grace extended over my sloppy hormones and unbrushed hair?

How could I even believe in a forgiving God, had you not shown me such readiness in covering my spills, my holes-in-the-walls?

How could I even know this Love so deep, to death and back, had you not laid aside your own self, died to the things of your desires, to serve me and honor me and love me in the way you know is right, and good?

And when you gather those boys up in your arms, when they are so happy to see you, and when I feel the loneliness in my heart cast out by your presence, I sit and I smile and I wonder at the goodness of this great God we serve,

That He would give me you, to be mine.

*This is not really an ode, structurally speaking.  Creative license.   

true romance

true romance

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Five Minute Friday: Hero

A hero uses his power not for his own end, but for the cause of the greater good.

Something like that.  Have you ever watched the show Heroes?  I have.  That’s about where that comes from, I think.

If there was anything redeeming about the hours I wasted watching the characters on that show discover their capabilities, realize their power toward destruction — realize their power for good — it was this idea that a true hero is one who does not use gifts given entirely selfishly.

A girl, who can regenerate, runs into a burning train wreck on a rescue mission called off; a man who can read minds in the police force, solving haneous crimes; another, who can warp time, trying to save the world …

Anyway, the point is that real heroes aren’t in it for what they can get, but what they can give.

And no, I’m not going to preach this to make “Jesus my hero” (although He is), but just a five minute word of inspiration that a hero is defined not by his power, but by what the rescued, redeemed, saved see in his power.  A hero could be can be just as big as a small boy with five smooth stones, willing to face the giant when no one else was; a hero can be a dad strong enough to throw his boy wildly up in the air, ready to catch him again.

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one thirty nine, for me.

O Lord, you have searched my heart and known my life.

You know my sitting down, my sleeping in past the alarm, my rest in front of the needless TV screen; you know my rising up, my hesitant waking to the demands of “Mommy. Mom. Mama.  Where are you?” and a breakfast unmade, a dishwasher full.

You understand my thoughts, my feelings from afar.  And from the near.

You comprehend my path, this day of duties, my lying down, my need for a cat nap after lunch —  my need for the world to just take an afternoon break.

You are acquainted with my ways:  the impatience, the bad habits — and the good; the routine of it all, the new mercies every morning; the way I grab hold to these offered promises like they could save my life and the way I forget immediately how many ways You’ve already saved.

For there is not a word that comes from my mouth that you haven’t known altogether, not a word of praise for a small tush on a potty nor the sharp lick of anger or frustration escaping in a sigh, a huff.  There is not a thought escaped from your knowledge — not ungratefulness for the messy home, not the awe of sun dancing on white snow, not the love for the man of my dreams breathing deeply in contented sleep beside me, not the expression of frustration in my finite being.

You have hedged me behind and before, known these small souls from the beginning of time and the end, known my ways, yet forged a path, which I unknowingly pursue; and Your hand is upon me.  Your hand is upon them.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, and praise be to You, I cannot attain it. (For if I could, surely, that would make me Your equal and there would be no worse hell for me than that).

Where can I go from Your Spirit? From your presence?  From your holiness? There is not such a place, and so this life — imperfect as it is — can still yet be my refuge.

Adapted from Psalm 139:1-7

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I needed that like a hole in the … wall.

It was a Christmas present, something perfect, exactly what I had wanted.  It was going to epitomize stay-at-home-mom artsiness and it was going to turn my house into the inviting, cozy, humble, lived-in-but-magazine-worthy abode I’ve always wanted.

It was a chalk-board.  And I had visions of fanciful schedules (8 am, everyone sits down nicely for breakfast; 8:30 am, everyone goes and plays nicely by themselves for three hours until lunch), words of encouragement, notes from friends, etc., etc.  My imagination ran wild, and this was going to be something that, flat out, just made my life better.

Obviously, I was anxious to get this thing up on the wall.

And so, one snowy week after the holidays, homebound with cabin fever, I eyed my new chalkboard, unwrapped and waiting in the corner of the living room to be hung with mighty manliness.  I will do it this weekend, the devoted husband had told me.  And always true to his word, I’m not sure why I was tempted to rush.  I blame the sub-zero temperature that had trapped me in the corner of crazy.  I had already given the kids (bad) haircuts, cleaned out drawers, used all the butter I had left to bake things, and tried to fix said haircuts.  I was bored.

I whipped out the power drill, grabbed the handy dandy level, some butterfly-screw-things that we usually use to hang big things on the wall, and my trusty pink pen to mark where to drill.  I am a big DIY-er — I knew what I was doing.

But I should say that while I am a big DIY-er, I am not very good at it.  Most of my make-shifting comes from a place of urgency, a feeling that “if it doesn’t get done right now …” then, actually, I don’t know what.  But it has to get done now.

The first spring we had our chickens in their Taj MaCluck (the coop), I decided they needed a run.  I told my wonderful husband, and he agreed.  But not in the kind of way where he was going to be moved any time soon to do something about it.  So, with a six month old baby in a backpack, literally, I hauled chicken wire, wood (that I purchased myself at Home Depot), a staple gun, and a hand saw and built a chicken run (10 feet by 12 feet by 4 feet tall) off the back of the coop IN ONE DAY.  I even mis-used my husband’s very expensive circular saw to cut a slanted trapezoidal-shaped “doorway” for the chickens to get in and out of their palace and their “yard.”  It is not pretty, but it is still standing.  For the first few months, I embarrassingly told people it was just a “short term” run until we could build the “real” one … But now I have admitted that my makeshift fill job has taken away the chance that anything of worth will ever be built.  When my dad, a carpenter and finisher of many years saw it, he laughed and said, “What?  Did you build that yourself?”

I guess I have kind of a track record in rushing things just to get them done.

So, like I said, I was anxious to get the chalkboard on the wall.

I measured (twice, of course), drew pretty lines in my pink pen (which I was sure would be covered up by the board) and read the instructions on the back of the butterfly screw package at least five times.  I attached the 5/8″ drill bit — it looked big to me, but that’s what it said on the package and drilled, baby, drilled.  The first hole:

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 Oops.

Butterfly screws are tricky, I realized as I went to go screw it into the wall.  They really have to be screwed through something — they aren’t really ideal wall hangers since the hole is made so big that the unfolding-butterfly part can get through to expand beyond the drywall … But the screw itself is just a normal screw, so unless it is screwed through something flush to the wall, it just floats around in the big hole …

I found an old door hinge, and thought maybe, just maybe, I could use the hinge as a plate of sorts to put the screw through … It didn’t work.  And it looked terrible.  And I couldn’t have hung the chalkboard from it because, let’s face it, it was a door hinge.  Nothing about this was turning out to be a good idea.

Panic set in.

And it was 4 o’clock now, maybe enough time to weather the snowfall outside and get myself some kind of spackling paste and off-white paint and paint brushes … If I don’t put jackets and boots on the kids, I can save ten minutes … Can I make it?

Nope.

Resigned.  Epic fail.

So I did what any respectable wife would do.  I texted the man, figuring he’d rather know ahead of time than choke on his meatball when he notices the very precisely drilled hole in the wall during dinner, and told him what I was making for dinner, told him I loved him, then told him the kids did something silly today.

He didn’t write back.  He called instead.

Okay, fine, I confess, it was me.  I did something silly today.

And by silly, I mean kind of stupid.

And by stupid, I mean I drilled a hole in the wall and also, did you know that pink ink doesn’t really wash off the wall?  Ha, ha.  Oh, it’s funny ….

He didn’t think so.  But he mumbled something about leaving work soon, and maybe that he loved me, too.  But he hesitated when he said it.

I waited anxiously for an hour for his arrival.  Made some dessert, washed the floor, put the kids in some cute outfits and trimmed a few of the strays from their botched haircuts.  I nervously reminsced of the door slamming and grumbling exchanges my parents had growing up when someone decided the day of my 10th birthday party was as good a day as any to paint the deck or when someone else tried “fixing” the grill only to result in a small but unruly yard fire … My husband and I never fight, and he never expresses disappointment in me, even when I give myself bruises for chopping wood on my own or even when I get stuck precariously high in young maple trees with a hand saw because I’ve cut all the branches off on my way up …  But I was sure this time, he’d be really mad.

He walked into the house at 5 o’clock sharp, and walked right into the dining room.  I stood in the door way, lips pursed, in wonder.  He grabbed the hammer that was still on the table (I had used it to get the pin out of the door hinge previously in consideration), and from his pocket he pulled a new package of frame hangers, the little kind that had seemed to me like they wouldn’t hold chalk board in 40 year old drywall; the little kind that I wasn’t willing to wait for.

He placed one of the hangers about two inches above the hole, turns to me, his face suddenly soft and gentle, like he’s a regular handy man, and says, “Is this where you want it, Ma’am?”  I smiled in relief.

“That’s perfect.”

And I see briefly that this thing we call love, this thing that Christ calls us to in marriage and in relationship with Him, is that kind of demonstration that covers the multitude of shame and ineptitude.  My husband could have said a million things to me over this thoughtless, impulsive act — most of which were things I had already said to myself!  But he chose, instead, to cover my mistake, literally and physically, with kindness … To make me feel honored in my weakness … To remind me that it will make for a good story later, a good laugh.  I wonder how many “good stories” we will have when we are cozied up with Jesus later, on the eternal side.  How many “good laughs” we will have over the mistakes that we made and the endearment He saw in our foolishness, even when we only saw stupidity and shame.

Here we are, less artsy and chic than I thought, but most perfectly covering the mistake I needed like a hole in the … wall:

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Can I just have Jesus, please?

Ann Voskamp wrote it first:  “Can I just have Jesus, please?”

Yeah, that.

I put the baking sheet of breaded chicken nuggets into the preheated oven.  My fingers trace the residue left in swirls on the countertop, a quick swipe with water really doesn’t seem to clean much in this kitchen these days.  I hear Daniel Tiger giggling from the TV in the other room — yes, the kids are not using their imaginations while I’m not cooking in my un-cleaned kitchen.

It’s 5 pm and I’m wearing sweatpants, just to round out the rest of that description.

And I start to wonder, since when did everything start to feel so much like failure?

Because the truth is, I believe this ominous failure is not such a bad thing; I recognize it as a pre-requisite to following Jesus.  One must know, keenly, his own failure in order to receive — without pride, without boast — this gift of grace that is offered.

But the perfectionist drives hard the pendulum swinging silently inside, this understanding of failure and the desire to avoid it all costs, to work it away; the subsequent masochism must push, push, push up, up, up against nature, gravity, against natural means; then the pent up power unleashed by the laws of physics, this wild swing backwards, the un-doing of all the strength.  I know it well, the wild ride of pressing victory to dangerous chaos, all in one fell swoop.

Earlier this week, there were moments so great and dark and lonely I thought surely nothing could ever be like it was.  Surely, none of the good things or happy things I’ve ever felt were real.  Surely, I confessed, there is no such thing as joy.

And all because I had failed.  At what? I couldn’t tell you.  But I just knew it was there.  I had been pushing the pendulum higher, and higher with all my strength, pressing on, powering up — isn’t that perseverance? — and had hovered momentarily on top of the world before it all came swinging down, weightless.

Can I just have Jesus, please?

And there is no such thing as lonely as that.

But here I am, standing, life intact, on the side of calm.  And if it wasn’t just enough to say that I’m alive — I am alive, take a big breath — I can say that I am renewed.  Not happy, not on top of the world, but paused, catching my wind in the lull of the pendulum coming to rest.

What I had misunderstood for so long is this idea that joy forsakes contemplation; that joy is, somehow, frivolous.  If I experience the things of the deep, then show up the next day giddy and dancing — either one of those experiences can’t possibly be real.  For one who knows the ache of depression knows that giddiness can’t come outside of being induced; and loneliness seems just as foreign to me during seasons of highs.

But I’ve been wrong on both accounts:  contemplative living is not self-absorbed thinking, “woe is me” and “what man am I?” over and over again; and similarly, joy — whose fullness is found in the presence of God — is not giddy or emotional or fleeting.  In fact, both of these things, opposite as they seem, are the result of having hope, the result of choosing to live.  Hope yields truth, and therein are all the workings of satisfaction and unsettledness, light and dark, the eternal earthly struggle.

In Him was light and the light was the life of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it.

And so this choice to live involves some kind of process of contemplation.  We must be beckoned by the dark questions in order to fully weigh what purpose means, what love can be.  We must be engaged somehow in our own doubt in order to make an informed decision against it.  We must see the created in order to believe in a Creator — who looks at a painting and doesn’t wonder what the artist was thinking, feeling, living when he painted it?  What novel is exempt from the experience, emotion, story of the novelist?

I look around the interiors of my life and sometimes, all I can see are remains.  Dead, stinking remnants of experiences and thoughts and words gone awry.  And I look to the exterior of my life and I see people standing nearby, lingering, but seeming miles away; I see thoughtful hearts and faces that I’ll never live up to.   I see children aching to be loved in a way I’m sure will break me if I try.

But I also see this work, this sweeping breeze coming through that changes things, that has changed things.  I see the unforeseen, the unforeseeable, the deliverance and the delivered.  I see spaces remodeled, emotions reconfigured, memories on shelves neatly, of which I am no longer afraid.  I see God, this novelist, this painter, writing something into existence all around me, a great story of art revealing each step of the way His heart, His love, His mighty imagination.  All the while I am, as a friend told me recently, trying to write my very self out of existence.

And I cry at the wonder of it all.

Because therein lies this joy, this peace — not in the lack of ache, but in the midst of it.  I don’t find these two things, the peace and the unsettledness, separately, no, but one in the same, born together, one unable to be fulfilled without the other.

So this place is lonely — we are all lonely.  But yes, can I just have Jesus, please?  It solves the problem.  Because in what feels like eternal silence, there is movement in Christ, there is hope.  In what feels like a loneliness that is worth dying for, there is a relationship worth living for.

And I ask myself again, at what did I fail so much that I would consider scrapping the whole ordeal, and I still don’t know the answer.  The kids and the TV?  The sweatpants?  The un-cleaned house?  No, I know those things are not the root of this.  This failure, it is deep calling out to deep, and it is a gift.  It is the cross I feel I must carry most of my days, but I see now that there is no redemption but for the crosses that we carry.  That is true of Jesus, and it is true of me, too.  He has allowed the struggle, ordained the struggle, perfected the struggle.  And it is how I can know joy.

So now, I take heart in this momentarily still pendulum, full of suspense, poised to be pushed, pulled.  I take heart in finding myself at peace with gravity, not fighting against it, not being possessed by it.  Perhaps I can just enjoy the solitude of standing still with my Maker, my Lord, my Friend and relish — find true delight — in everything I can’t know.

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Errant Toddlerdom

Charlotte Mason wisely wrote, “I think a mother gets to understand many things about the dealings of God that are not plain to others.” (Formation of Character, page unknown because I am reading it on an e-reader????).  Pretty good for someone who never had her own children.  In fact, had she had a brood of unruly toddlers at home, perhaps she never would have gotten around to writing down such a nice-sounding, and true, thought.

When I committed to “blogging” “regularly” about a year ago (Can someone please tell me, what is a “blog” and who defines “regularly”?), one of the forces pushing me from behind was the insight gained during an intense season of child-bearing, -rearing, and -steering.  At the time, I had under my care 2, 4, sometimes 6 children and I lived for months inside many a spiritual metaphor, all of it revealing more of how much God must love someone as rotten as even me.

It’s a shame I was too tired to write most of it down.

But as of late, I have turned the page into a new season where just my two younglings remain, Toddler and Tiddler, for lack of better names.  My Toddler has recently eclipsed the three year mark, propelling him onward into the much welcomed independent-play, imaginative-storytelling, and loving-my-mom-after-those-terrible-twos stage; my Tiddler, at nearly 17 months, however, is a terrorist.

Now, I have adored this baby since he was born.  Something about his face, his features suspiciously similar to my own perhaps, has drawn my eyes since the moment he floated to the top of that birthing tub and into my arms covered in disgusting-ness.  I loved my older son immediately with an everlasting love, too — but something about Thing Two unraveled my heart, melted my parenting rationale into a sticky pool in the back corner of my mind (kind of like that leaking jelly container currently lurking in the back of the refrigerator….).

And maybe this is that tenderness of God’s humor, that He would balance my affections for this child with what will undoubtedly be a life-long war of wills.  Well, 18 years of combat, at least.  Although from what my mom says, it don’t end there these days.

Just to paint the picture, this baby is in the 3rd percentile in both height and weight; he is small.  Additionally, he is cute.  And he knows it.  Most of the compliments I receive when out in public are directed toward his cheekiness, (both his ridiculously adorable cheeks as well as his almost-sarcastic humor that has made many an old lady in the church aisles croon).  People love him:  the mail woman, the doctor, the big kids at church and library, the cashiers at Target.  They all know him as, “Mr.” — almost as if they have assumed he has had authority over me from the get-go.

He does, by the way, have the authority.

Because now as we begin the road of discipline, this baby has cornered me:  not only has he sensed my panic in not knowing what do to or say when he blatantly acts out (if I just wait one minute ’til she turns half-way around … yep, now!  SLAP.  Nice one!  Got that bowl of yogurt right on brother’s face.  Sucker!  Oh no, here she comes.  She looks mad.  I forget, did she tell me not to do that?  Oh well.  RUN!!!!!  ha ha ha…..), but I think it was his plan all along to get me to spend ALL. MY. FREE. TIME. (which isn’t much, since the kids aren’t napping together anymore) reading parenting books and therefore always being one step behind him.

For my second child.  Really?

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat.  Yes, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Isaiah 55:1

I really could use some free wine…

Come to think of it, milk’s not cheap either.

I hate to admit that up until recently, this has been one of those “theoretical” verses for me.  Yeah, yeah, I know grace is “free.”  But what does that mean to someone like me who can always finagle a way to get what I am looking for?

If I can’t afford it, I make it myself or I save for it or I compromise in the budget and get it anyway.  Worst case scenario, we need it now so we put it on the credit card and pay it off over a couple of months.  Even on a very tight income, I do not understand what this verse is getting at.

And praise be to God for that, He has shown mercy on my family and I trust that he has rigged our circumstances — financial and otherwise — perfectly to draw us unto Himself.

But I have come to verses like this and all I can say is, yes, I see how that would be nice if I really had no money.  And in terms of my spiritual poverty, my separation from God but for the blood of Jesus, I do see this as true … But now that I am rich in the Son, I guess I have — or, had — forgotten what this was like, to have nothing, to come with nothing.

Until recently, that is.

Who am I, that a 17 month old soul, utterly ignorant to the depth of his very presence, would draw me to my knees in front of a smoldering fire one chilly morning, hands in my disheveled hair, pajama bottoms covered in ash from the spilled ash bucket (it wasn’t me who spilled it), choking sobs, angry, desolate. Poor?

Really?

It seems as though this unraveling string of my heart, this thing my boy has grabbed and ran away with, it has come to the end of the spool and I have no strength left to wind it back up, to reel him in.  I don’t even know how.

Does this sound overly dramatic?  It may be, but I am not a dramatic person and I can tell you that I literally have nothing left inside of me to love this child.  But for the grace of God, I wake up in the morning and keep him alive, changed, fed, napped (sometimes), and relatively happy.  But when tempers and wills and stubborn prides rise, I cower to my corner of the kitchen, hiding from the emotions rising within that have power to do real damage, to cause real harm.  All because I don’t know what else to do.

I need Jesus.  He says, “come to me” to the little children.  He loves, and laughs, and invites them up onto His lap which miraculously never ran out of room or was cause for envy.  He is patient, kind, and good; He probably had a stash of cookies or bubbles in His tunic pocket.  I am not like Him, and I need Him to do this labor of love for me.  On my behalf.  My nature is not one of sacrificial love.  Is yours?

Any pride I might have had in the first three years of raising Thing One — the puffed-up-ness that I can keep a house clean, keep a child well-behaved, maintain a proper schedule, heck, I can even work on the side! This is easy!  Why can’t everyone do this???? — it has all been stripped away.

Praise God for that.

Parenting is not easy, and it is not a game.  It is not something to “win” at or “be good at.”  It is a vocation — we all know Who, and only Who, is in this business of Creating (I know my husband and I had something to do with it, yes, but had I had more power I promise you I would have chosen the adorable looks and the even-temper).  I suppose that if I am really going to subscribe to this thing called Sovereignty and this other thing that all is grace, well, then I have to admit that God chose me for this challenge.

And I am poor in family economics.  I am buying parenting books (and if you know me you know I don’t buy much of anything), and I am reading them.  I am praying in all the ways I know how to beseech this good and gracious God to cut me some slack.  I am reading the Bible, looking for clues, searching for parenting advice, knowing it must be in there somewhere. I am desperate for instruction, pining for clarity, aching to gain back what has been lost, trampled on.  I wait on the Lord, I wait on deliverance.

I see yet a little more clearly how much more “free” means when you. have. nothing.

Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance…Isaiah 55:2

I seek earthly answers, yeah, but my soul knows I’m digging deeper.  I let myself be drawn anew into this way of metaphorical living, this relationship I have with a child who doesn’t know yet how to love me back.  A child who throws my love away.

God is funny like that.

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The land of the living is messy.

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.   Ps. 27:13

There are times when I come across a Scripture verse and I almost melt.  This was one of those times.

I stood around all morning, zombie-like, receiving demands and accusations from an almost-three-year-old, ignoring cries and babbles and desperate hand signals from a 16 month-old, and not really caring.  I wandered:  to the kitchen to do dishes, but my hands fell limp, discouraged; to the table to tidy, but I had no strength to collect the spilled box of markers or to scrub the week old pizza sauce from the place mats; to the laundry basket, but my eyes welled up at the sight of overflowing clothes, a pair of pants hanging from the hamper like a man stuck inside, upside-down.

You see, we have just gotten back from a four day vacation, the husband and I.  It was blissful, it was romantic, it was blessed beyond measure.  A second honeymoon that, four and a half years later, blew the first one out of the water.  No kids, no daily duties, limited contact with the outside world … I enjoyed myself every minute.

But upon returning, reality has persecuted with the force of a stampede.  I got sick, I am jet-lagged, the kids are clingy, the laundry overflows, undone duties and unpaid bills stack themselves on a wrinkled to-do list…Life overwhelms.

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my messy “land of the living”

So instead of tackling any of these tasks head on as the snowy morning turned slowly into snowy noontime, I lazily wiped my nose with my sleeve, grabbed my cold cup of coffee and shuffled my feet over to the couch, where these two children were arguing nearby over whose turn it was to sit on the small potty (yes, the potty is located in our living room – it’s as good a place as any).  I stared into space as their conflict intensified, then subsided, and they became distracted with something else in the other room.  With the four pieces of the training toilet dismantled and sprawled on the hardwood and a small pool of something (can you guess?) winding its way across the uneven floor boards, I closed my eyes and just wished it all away.

Depressed.

I’ve written before on how, for me, depression comes from discouragement.  And I don’t mean the kind of depression that lasts seasons and seasons and makes me want to hurt myself or others (I’ve been there, though — I’ll save it for another time), but just overall deflation.  Just despondency.  Just a lack of general hope for anything good to come.

And then, I read this verse — it was not even my intention to be reading my Bible, and I’m not quite sure how it came about — but it touched me like warm water on my cold heart.  This is my land of the living:  living things — even the small ones — eat, and make dishes, and poop.  They make messes, and refuse to clean them up.  They voice their demands, and they conveniently forget to say “please” and “thank you.”  They don’t think to ask you how you’re doing, or if there’s anything you need.  Small people, even in their small ways, represent a big world.

And this big world fails to meet many an expectation.

I would have lost heart — in fact, I did lose heart, as recently as half and hour ago — unless I chose to believe that I could see the goodness of God in this land of the living.  That I could see grace in the place of this mess.  That I could see peace in the midst of the overwhelming.  That I could see the ugly-beautiful of aching and growing hearts and souls instead of seeing the mess of emotion and baggage and conflict that I just don’t want to deal with.

What squeezed my discouragement up to the brink earlier was the suffocating of comparison between my “reality” and our recent “vacation.”  I was disappointed that I had to come home.  I was feeling like a failure that I had resorted to yelling at my children within the first few hours of our reunion.  I was sorry for myself, that I have all these responsibilities and wasn’t it just easier to not do them all?

My vacation, however, I see, was not the land of the living.  That doesn’t mean it was a bad thing to have had a break.  But there wasn’t a whole lot of mess, a whole lot of inconvenience.  We were able to see people if we wanted, not see them if we didn’t want.  I didn’t cook a thing, which means I didn’t burn anything or forget to add salt or use more dishes than can fit in the dishwasher.  I spent my free time reading, and praying, and praising God — because you can only do those things when you have free time, of course.  And who, in the land of the living, has any free time?

But my reality, this mess, this dirty trough: this is where life happens.  This is where little boys are kept alive and taught and encouraged and strengthened to become men, God-loving and God-serving husbands, Lord willing.  This is where a pastor, a fisher of men, comes to get his respite, to get his favorite dinners and to be loved on by his wife after a long day of tackling his own set of demands.

It comes into focus briefly, this idea that theology happens wherever we are.  My theology, I suppose, happens when I am sweeping, and also when I don’t have time to sweep because someone wants to read a Bible story.  My theology happens when I have to choose which child to discipline or comfort first in a conflict.  My theology happens when I run into my neighbor while we are both tending our animals in the back woods and I have a choice to say hello, or to pretend I don’t see her.  Theology happens in every decision I make, big or small, to go with my feelings or to go with the Word, to worship or to deny; Christianity is a theology that hinges on what one purposes in her heart.

And so, even today, I would have lost heart had I not believed that I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living.  My heart beats in a new and unprecedented way, beating to this choice I make in how I live, this choice I make in how I can keep from being disappointed.  Because, He promises, His strength is made perfect in my weakness: His goodness is here, no doubt.  I just have to believe it.

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The blessing of the rot

I sat there with the green pen in my hand, liquid ink ready and willing to relieve the pressure of my boiling brain malfunction.

What are the things I do apart from God?

I had just read about how the life I pursue for myself, by myself, produces no eternal value, that it will receive no reward (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). I had closed those pages with trembling hands.  No reward?  As a man saved (again) through a fire?  Could it be, Lord, that this is the life I am building here?

I had this burning desire to jot it all down, to map it out, to make lists and clarify exactly what I do — and do not do — with God’s help, for God’s purpose.  The accountant in me, I suppose.  What are my roles, what are my jobs, who is affected by it, and how do I go about doing it?  Am I right?  Am I wrong?  What, Lord, will burn?  Please, tell me I’m okay and that I won’t come through to Your side of heaven hacking and choking on dry and lifeless smoke …

My hand sketched wildly across the page, matching the spinning momentum of these questions, as brainstorming bubbles popped up here and there, weaving a web of my racing mind.  My English-teaching mama would have been proud; it was a diagram worth a solid thesis and much supporting evidence.  Green circles and lines and words and dots appeared and this beautiful drawing came to life: my life, as I see it; my life as I want to see it.

I put the pen down and sighed.

What I did see, in the end, was a snapshot of a blessed handmade, hand-crafted life:  wife, mother, ministry, freedoms and liberties, callings, responsibilities, time spent, words spent, love spent, music sang, pouring in and pouring out — it was all there, from the diapers changed to the Bible preached to the joyous worship sung and people loved.  And it was art. But still, I could not tell; Lord, what is of You, what of this is for You?  And, with trepidation, what of this is of me, and worse, for me?

Everything on that page could have been either.  And to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell what was what.

I sat and thought, stared a bit at the fire, gazed out the window full of fog and naked trees.  I filled some sippy cups with milk, comforted and consoled my young, then headed back to the easy chair where my Bible and this poem of my life awaited me.  Prayer came and went, small cries within to know and to understand and to rip this murky veil right off the eyes of my heart so I could just plain see what was happening here.

But isn’t that the very thing that got Satan kicked out of heaven, and those firstfruit humans right out of that garden of perfection, to know and to see as God sees?

What if I did know for sure the things that I do in and of and for myself, and the things that God does secretly inside of me?  What if I could see the clear break between my flesh and the Spirit working within?  Would I grapple with this anymore?  Would this tent groan anymore?  Would I see victory anymore?

I’m not so sure.

So maybe this thing we are building here, maybe it is a home that is made up of all kinds of materials — not that one of us builds a house of straw and another a house of gold, but that for different parts, we all use different materials; perhaps at times we are so busy installing that sink of precious stone in the kitchen downstairs that we are not paying attention to the straw insulation that goes behind the flammable drywall upstairs.  Maybe our crossbeams are silver, sturdy and solid and Spirit-filled, but the roof is hay because, hey, we don’t have the time or money right now and a rainy season is coming so we’ll just have to settle for something that might keep us dry.

And then the rain does come (as always) and we realize grudgingly that hay was a silly choice we watch that roof collapse right in on itself. We sorrowfully buck up to make the wiser investment in the morning.  Conviction.

How many times have I come to the parts store of God, and traded in an old piece of something when I see it’s out of order — an old bitterness, an old lie, a bad habit — for something brand-spanking new and much more effective, something full of love instead of hate?  Full of God instead of full of self?

Many times.

And so, God confirms this to me, telling me that has sent His Son to give us:

beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness…and they shall build up the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities… (taken from Isaiah 61:3-4)

Repair.  Repair the ruins — not build them up perfectly the first time around, but repair.

And as for the fear I have of shame, and of seeing all that “I do” burn?  Well, He answers me again, with no condemnation, further down this line I’ve read:

Instead of your shame you shall have double honor, and instead of confusion they shall rejoice in their portion. Therefore in their land, they shall possess double; everlasting joy shall be theirs.” (Isaiah 61:7).

So I stand before the Lord today, because He hears me when I call, and I say that this house I am dwelling in is … well, I’ve made some cheap investments.

But some of it is legit.  The things that I know HE has done, the deliverance from things I tried to kick for years on my own, the love in places where there was no love before, the joy found in things I never dared to care about, peace that surpasses all understanding pausing every once in a while over this soul:  living hope in His Kingdom to come for me … This is the frame of my house, solid and true, already refined by the fires of this world, and standing immovable by any kind of destruction.

So go ahead, Lord, salvage and repair — I don’t need to know what You’re doing, and I don’t care about the bill.  Just fix and bless.  Because You have said that you have come to make the leaning houses stand aright, the houses with weak spots to be strong.  I rejoice in this portion you have given me, this house with rotten parts and springing leaks, because yet my souls sings with the struggle to know You.  Without the blessing of rot, I would have no need for such a wise Master Builder.

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I am fretful in these days over the things unknown:  the changes to be made, the things I don’t understand.  The command remains faithfully to lay my fret aside, but my to-do list is long enough as it is; when did all of these spiritual things grow these empty boxes next door, spaces reminding me of their un-completion?

Where is the resolve? The momentary respite — a good night’s sleep, a break from the cycles of dish-washing — provide no real satisfaction.  What is this thing I am searching for, peace?  No, not just peace with God, the knowledge of my reconciled sins, but a peace that makes my fretful world stop in its wobbly axis tracks?

Or is this all the peace that we can ever know, this recompense of our sins?  Is this the place from which all other treasured things must grow?  Is this the only faith required to experience the fruit of peace, the complete and utter understanding that it is the very thing I need but cannot create?

The greatest peace of all, perhaps, is something so personal that the God who offers it has not let us fathom the words to capture its essence.  What I seek, I suppose, is a kind of peace that comes in being truly known yet wholly loved, something my mind sees as simply impossible.  For the ugliness of this inner man surely cannot gain favor in anyone’s eyes.

Can any soul, then, explain this love that knows no bounds?  This love that acts while I am yet a sinner?  This love that expresses itself to the runaway and not to the righteous?  Can any soul rest here so fully that it knows no other way of life?  That it is no longer tormented by possibility, by the unknown?

My soul faints for Your salvation, but I hope in Your word.

My eyes fail from searching Your word, saying, “when will You comfort me?”

For I have become like a wineskin in smoke, yet I do not forget your statutes.  Ps. 119:81-83

This is not a pity party, nor are you invited.  But I grapple deeply with this list of do’s and don’ts, this anomaly of rest and works, this contradiction of trust with doubts.  I seek to know, to gain, to understand, to rise above — I seek things for myself in the midst of daily losing my life.  Which is it?  For me, or not for me?

And here I lay, on the altar of sacrifice, unsure if what I have to offer will suffice yet convinced that there is no other way.  This deepness within makes a call to the depths of the land of the living, something I cannot even comprehend, and I do believe that comfort will respond.  I stand shriveled, a wineskin in the smoke, and very weary, with too many things undone, but I repeat to myself that I will not forget Your promises.

For this God of mine, His name is Peace.  And it is Him I seek, I see now.  There is no resolve, there is no resounding conclusion; just as quiet as a whisper, softer than my unnoticed breath in and out:  the soft beat of the rhythm of His heart.

 

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Change

It’s so awesome to contemplate how intentional God is with the places He chooses for us to live.

I, for example, live in New England and have realized that God has given me no excuse to hang onto a dry spiritual season any longer than the actual changing seasons around me.

While I concede that New England weather isn’t always ideal, its beauty is found in the fact that it is consistently inconsistent:  all you can ever expect from it is change.  If you don’t like the weather today, just wait until tomorrow.

Sure, those winter days seem long — and the slush that remains after a solid blizzard ain’t pretty. But even when it’s dark by 4:30 p.m. and the upstairs of your un-insulated home is 53 degrees, you always have the option of thinking toward Spring, that in three short months, your same house, your same yard, will be completely transformed and renewed by the forces surrounding it.  You will be playing outside, hanging laundry in the sunshine, pulling small children in a wagon, and watching shoots sprout from the melting earth.  The elements of this life that seem the same will function completely differently.

And I think the spiritual application of this is pretty obvious.  But as I encounter some changing tides in my own walk right now, I have to be sure of this as truth:  there is such a thing as spiritual equinoxes.  We have seasons of certainty, seasons of doubt, seasons of trial, seasons of victory, seasons of calling, and seasons of searching … And they all end, at some point.  Some may seem to last longer than others, but they all end some time, some way.  And maybe not even end, exactly, but change — they meld into something else, a new season, where things are different, new, exciting, or challenging.

All is grace, I say again to myself, and if this is true than even the falling of these dry and browned leaves is grace-full and splashing over:  Grace to know the joy of new life through the relinquishing of the old; grace to let go of something that I never really held in the first place.  Open hands, receiving what comes next, knowing that it too, for better or for worse, shall pass.

 

 

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