Less than Ideal

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It’s been a hard month at our house. I’m not sure when the tone started taking a turn – I think maybe sometime late summer. Life had been moving swiftly down the track, a rhythmic clickety-clacking through each sports event, date night, business meeting, and coffee with friends. Yet the track ahead had a sharp bend – one I didn’t see coming. Clackety-click shifted into an ominous creekety-lurchety screech. It didn’t sound good.

My child who loves and breathes activity developed a sharp pain in his foot that wouldn’t go away. After first dismissing his complaints (with five children, dismissing is a legitimate step in the process), we finally went to the doctor. What had seemed to be a temporary ache was actually more serious. He couldn’t run or jump for any length of time without significant pain. The combination of his intense activity and his rapid growth had contributed to a semi-chronic condition that could last for months. Although stretching and ice should bring eventual relief, time was the only guaranteed remedy. Despite his determined spirit, he wouldn’t be playing basketball this fall. He wouldn’t be playing much of anything this fall. My boy had received his first dose of grief. Sometimes, the world is less than ideal.

The early weeks of school are always bring transition, but this year was different. The simple, quiet life that we’d worked so hard to build could no longer be maintained. Although the shift is appropriate given the children’s ages, I’m grieving the closing of a sweet window in life. One day, I found myself driving the same stretch of road twelve times. Twelve. Times. Thus was my initiation into this next phase of parenting. I’ve been there before with our older kids. I know what to expect. Yet I found myself feeling profoundly depleted – after three days. Driving up and down that street through congested afternoon traffic, Ionging for a jog or a book that were no longer options, I could feel the frustration mounting. I knew the correct spiritual answers to my predicament. They couldn’t tame my discontent. I was bored. I was grouchy. I was irritated.  Life was less than ideal.

The same week that school was off to a hobbling start, we happened to notice that my husband’s ankle looked thick. Not swollen – thick. He’s an avid athlete, complete with all the requisite injuries and strains, so we didn’t give it much thought. Until the next day. A precautionary visit to Urgent Care turned into a concerned visit to the ER. “Nothing serious”, we were told. Probably a twisted ankle. Yet the voice of reason outweighed the ER’s diagnosis, and he learned three days later that indeed, he had a blood clot. “Fresh”, “acute”, and “deep” were the terms that applied. Not good news. The weeks to follow were full of unknowns. They still are. Although grateful for a correct diagnosis and treatment, the athletic options for my active husband have become quite limited. Multiple visits to the doctor and trips to the hematologist lab have replaced long jogs on these beautiful crisp mornings. We’re not sure what the next several months will hold. Not ideal.

In a defiant act of hope, I planted my fall garden. My fingers meandered longingly through the dark, moist earth. The earth that would eventually bloom life. In the still point of that late August afternoon, it dawned on me like the obvious answer to a riddle. It was death that had prepared the soil – hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of decaying plants. Plants that had once been green, soaking in sun, giving the good gift of oxygen, drinking in rain. They had served their temporal purpose on earth. Yet it was through death and decay that their impact would be generative. The process was far from immediate. Yet it would be lasting.

Ancient seeds were planted long, long ago. Hidden deeply away in the darkness, they are germinating. Their soil enriched with the death of convenience, ideals, comfort, security, and preferred agenda. If I readjust my eyes and look closely, I see the beginnings. Small signs of growth. Glimpses of what once flourished in the Garden and will be formed fully again. Unfurling are the tender leaves of thankfulness in my son, contentment in my husband, and patience in me.

Perhaps “less than ideal” is ideal after all.

 

 

 

 



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Why I Need an Editor

“It looks,” (pause… pause… pause) “good.”

Mental note: Not a good sign.

“Most people out there are smarter than I am, so I think they’ll get it.”

Translation:  “It was hard to follow.”

He was right.

—–

David, my husband, was being kind. I’d worked for hours on an article for a newsletter and had finally asked him to review it. It was late. We were tired. But he was willing to take the time to read it – really read it – and give me feedback. And I wanted to hear what he had to say. To some folks, that wouldn’t seem extraordinary. For us, it is.

In the early years of marriage, I was convinced that I could do it (whatever “it” was) myself. I took pride in my ability and independence. Great for career. Not so much for marriage. In our own separate spheres, we were each able to make life work. Successful (whatever that is) careers, friendships, and involvement in meaningful ministries donned our family resume. They say a potential employer scans most resumes in less than thirty seconds before forming an opinion. If you followed the thirty-second principle and didn’t dig too deeply, we were in pretty good shape. We had moved through some difficult seasons, but those turbulent times were behind us. Life had become peaceful. Life had become manageable.

Although David and I hadn’t yet learned how to rely on one another, healing and growth were happening. I started journaling as a way to process and document my own journey. Writing forced me to synthesize longings, fears, discoveries, and a myriad of rambling thoughts into something coherent. It helped me to create a sense of order out of what felt like chaos. Writing gave me a voice. It put words to (my) truth.

As a by-product of working through our own story, I developed a heart for others who were struggling and felt alone. Shame, fear of rejection, and the legitimate need for protection and confidentiality can create a thick hedge between the one in pain and the outside world. Often, folks who are the most vulnerable are also the most isolated and lonely.

One afternoon, as words of pain and despair tumbled out of a friend, I ached for her. I wanted to say, “I know. To some degree, I understand. You are not alone.” But my role that day was simply to listen. To be present. To be safe.

In the following weeks, our conversation came to mind several times. I wanted to find a doorway through the hedge that had grown around her. Although the specifics of our situations were different, there were common themes. Her words had echoed many of my own. The same words that I had arranged, rearranged, and finally put down on paper. I pulled up one of my old journal entries and sent it to her. I had found a door.

That same scenario replayed itself on other occasions with different friends. Slowly, it dawned on me. We are all sustained by the same Hope – a Hope that promises not to disappoint. But along the way, pain, unexpected trials, bad theology, and sheer exhaustion can cause us to lose perspective. Sometimes seeing the life of another, a story that bears resemblance to our own yet is further along the road to redemption, offers a glimmer of what could be. It was at that point of discovery that I began to understand the power of story. Consequently, I committed to write more regularly, more publicly, and as honestly as possible.

Therein entered my need for an editor.

David wouldn’t have been the obvious choice. He spends his days reading documents and computer screens. By the time he has a few minutes for leisure or relaxation, reading for pleasure isn’t at the top of the list – if it’s on the list at all. But I was putting my thoughts out on the world-wide-web for all to see, and I wanted to be responsible with such a privilege. I wanted to be clear and truthful in what I wrote. I needed an editor, and my husband was accessible and willing to play the role.

The first piece I wrote for publication, I spent hours writing and rewriting. Finally, it was ready. David read carefully and scratched notes in margins. When we sat down to discuss, I had anticipated that he’d report a few typos and then congratulate me on a job well done. He did encourage me with his comments and surface a few minor errors, but he suggested a more substantial change as well. On the outside, I smiled and said I’d take his feedback into consideration. On the inside, the once-aspiring attorney in me was constructing an impenetrable case. Really, what did he know about writing, anyway? I was the one who had been writing for years. I had thrived in my rigorous English composition class in college.  My thoughts were well-developed. My syntax correct. Yadayada. You get the picture.

But when I calmed my indignant insides down enough to revisit his comments, I was shocked at what I found.

He was right.

David’s feedback didn’t come from a posture of criticism or competition. He wasn’t trying to control my message or diminish my voice. Quite the opposite. My husband had vision for what my writing could be. More vision than I did. He had suggested that I dare to be more transparent. He wanted me to give the gift of truth, which is often as ugly as it is beautiful, for the purpose of loving others well. Even others I would never meet.

There are times when my writing is too wordy, too full of imagery, too cloaked in symbolism. My words get in the way of what I’m trying to say. David sees with more objective eyes. In being willing to speak truth, he helps me become more of who I was created to be.

There have been occasions when I have disagreed with his feedback. I wrote a short piece of fiction that was outside of my usual comfort zone. David wasn’t crazy about it. It was too much of a stretch, too different. I listened, considered his perspective, and decided to publish it anyway.  In order for us to have a healthy working relationship, I have to respect, consider, and evaluate what he has to say. But just as my perspective is limited, so is his. There have been times when  I’ve chosen to move forward despite his feedback. At the end of the day, I’m the one signing my name. And he’s been graciously supportive. Although David may not have been the obvious editorial choice, it turns out that  he is precisely what I need.

As of this week, we’ve been married for nineteen years. We’re beginning to get a taste of what marriage was designed to be. At least I think we’re closer. I no longer take pride in doing it (whatever “it” happens to be) on my own. Quite the opposite. I’ve found great comfort and delight in relying on my husband. After nineteen years, we’re far more willing to speak truth into each other’s lives. Truth that is fueled by wanting what is best for the other, rather than truth spoken to support our individual agendas. Our separate spheres have merged into one, still giving plenty of room  for individual growth. Actually, more room.

I’m deeply and infinitely grateful for my editor. He encourages and inspires, but that’s not the best thing about him. The best thing about my editor is his willingness and ability to draw out the best in me.

Happy Anniversary, David.
And thank you.
I’m a very different person as the direct result of you being in my life.

—–

 



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Notes From a Toilet Paper Tube

After almost two decades of marriage, we have a problem. It’s not deeply distressing, nor is insurmountable. But the problem has become an irritating reality in our everyday lives.

The toilet paper roll no longer makes it onto the dispenser.

I’m not sure how it happened. For eighteen years, without effort or discussion, every new roll of toilet paper dutifully replaced its predecessor.  When the empty cardboard roll could no longer serve its purpose, it followed the prescribed process and landed in the trash can.

Yet mysteriously, over the last few months, there has been a shift.  Partial rolls of paper, sometimes two to three at a time, have congregated on the bathroom floor. Rarely does the new roll find its way to the dispenser. This unexpected phenomenon raises two obvious questions:

~ After so many years, how did this bad habit develop?

~ Why hasn’t someone corrected the problem?

I’ll tackle the question of origin first. I’m not sure, but I’m assuming that the child who routinely uses our bathroom made the initial move (or lack thereof).  Most likely, it was not premeditated. Rather, a child with much to do and see in life can’t be bothered with such mundane details.  One displaced roll led to another, and the exception became the rule.

The second question is a bit more challenging to answer. In addition to said child, two adults with combined bathroom etiquette experience of almost a century should know better. In my defense, for a while, I tried. Daily, I remedied the recurring problem. Although it hasn’t been verified, I’ll give my husband the benefit of a doubt that he tried as well. Honestly, one day, I got tired of fighting what felt like a losing battle – and I stopped.  It wasn’t a conscious decision.  It just happened.  For no good reason, I simply left the roll on the floor. More quickly accrued. The beginning of the end.  And here we are.

Although trivial for some (unspeakable for others), the abandoned toilet paper rolls collecting on my bathroom floor are representative of so much more. The cultures of our families, churches, marriages, and friendships are rarely defined by lofty one-time experiences or dramatic decisions.  Rather, they are formed over time.  One small choice after another.

Some decisions nourish and build. Those choices are often intentionally-developed habits that come at a cost. Other decisions deplete and destroy. They are often more subtle and seem harmless enough. Over time, however, their collective pressure slowly siphons life from relationships.

If I’m not careful, the occasional exception becomes the rule.

~ When I don’t take that few seconds to look my husband in the eye and greet him when one of us arrives home.

~ When I choose to return emails rather than admiring a Lego creation, playing a game of UNO, or baking dog biscuits (my girlie’s original recipe) with a child.

~ When I chat with a friend about schedules and activities rather than risking the more vulnerable conversations about the state of their (or my) heart.

Whether we admit it or not, we’re all subject to the thermodynamic principle of entropy. The physical world is quietly, dependably eroding away. You can almost hear the haunting gasps for air from a wounded, tired universe (or church, or friendship, or marriage) that seems to be in the final stages of life…

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”  T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

Yet that is not the end of the story. As we age, there are specific ways to counteract the effects of entropy upon the human body.  We fight back. We watch what we eat.  We exercise. The physicist says that in order to do battle with the effects of entropy, energy from outside the system must be infused into the system over a period of time.  There is hope.

The Author of all time and energy has given us a glimpse of the inevitable end. And guess what.  Despite my affinity for Eliot, I’m grateful to assert that it will sound more like a wedding celebration than a whimper. We’re promised a final chapter where all wrongs are made right, all hurts are healed, and death finally dies.

“This world is beautiful but badly broken… I love it as it is, because it is a story, and it isn’t stuck in one place. It is full of conflict and darkness like every good story. And like every good story, there will be an ending. I love the world as it is, because I love what it will be.”  N.D.Wilson Notes From a Tilt-a-Whirl

No, I don’t want to be naive regarding my small, seemingly insignificant choices. Without life and energy breathed back in, the things I take for granted can quickly deteriorate.  Yet I also don’t want to make the exhausting mistake of believing that I have the ability to control my world.

Thankfully, our destiny is not one of exhaustive effort or ultimate defeat, but it is one of promise.  We know the ending and it is good. Rather than living life in denial or despair, we have been invited to live in hope. And it is that very hope which can provide the “energy from outside the system to be infused into the system over time.”

As hope is transfused from our Maker’s heart into the veins of our souls, let us rest and be renewed.  And from that renewal, we find strength to make different choices. To love well, to be vulnerable, to remember the “little things” that matter to others, to live the fully in the life we’ve been given.

And maybe even a new resolve to pick up and throw away the empty toilet paper roll.

 

 

 

 



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The Gospel According to Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn

 “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally.”  Frederick Buechner

At the heart of the gospel is The Story of us all. We are created to live in reliance on the Father, yet we often choose independence over dependence. He is relentless in pursuing his children. We are loved infinitely in the midst of our unloveliness. We need to remind each other. We need to be reminded. Thus, the power of story.

We all have a story to tell. Sometimes, we need others to go first.  Eighteen years ago, I married David, a single father of two young children. Within the span of six months, I became a wife and full-time parent, took a new job, we moved to new city, and took the first tentative steps on the journey called marriage. Eventually, we became part of a small group of folks from our new church. During our first several meetings, we spent time getting to know one another by sharing life stories. I’ll never forget one evening in particular. We were meeting at our house. I burned the spaghetti (yes, I was newly married and figuring the cooking thing out). I asked one of the women if we should make a new pot, or if that one would suffice. She gently said that a new pot may be best. It may seem like an insignificant detail, but such gently honesty became a hallmark of the group.

The most memorable part of that evening, however, was not the culinary near-disaster.  One of the couples was nestled into the love seat in our small family room. These friends were measured, yet generous, when sharing their story. They were open, honest, and genuine. They were warm toward each other and laughed easily. Within a span of minutes, they spoke with consistent cadence and tone about their enjoyment of one another as well as significant struggle. But the wisdom that burrowed into my soul, and still has a home there today, came in the form of a brief, passing comment. The couple, who many of us held out as having the”model” marriage, had been married for eighteen years. She turned to him and said, as casually as if they were reaching agreement upon when the tires were last rotated, “Yes, I think we’ve had five really good years.”  The last five. Out of eighteen.  Oh my.

Immediately, the twin emotions of dread and relief flooded my heart. After one year of a difficult marriage, was it possible that we may need to log in thirteen more before experiencing “really good years?”  Just thinking about it was exhausting. Yet oddly, at the same time, the pressure was off. The cat was out of the bag. Our friends had given words to unspoken truths, and confirmed a sneaking suspicion. Marriage can be really, really hard. There are rarely quick fixes. But there is more.

That night, our friends gave us an invaluable gift. They spoke truth. Without apology or despair, without false hope or empty promises. They put to words what we were feeling, and as a result, we had the courage to speak the “t” truth (life as we experience it).  Marriage, and life for that matter, wasn’t what we thought that it would be. It all seemed to fall quite short of what should have been.  By putting to words the “t” truth of experience,  our friends made it safe for us to struggle with questions of “T” Truth (ultimate Truth):  What had we really been promised? What could we depend upon with complete certainty?  Where were we wrong, or defiant, or just naive in our thinking? They went first, which made it easier for us to speak when our turn rolled around. Yes, our friends entered the darkness with us. For us. When we didn’t quite have the courage to go there ourselves. They gave us hope.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Fast forward sixteen years. David and I had just discovered Andrew Peterson’s music, and friends happened to have two extra tickets to his sold-out Christmas concert. As we took our seats, one glance at the stage proved promising. Several guitars, a cello, violins, and a piano waited silently, pregnant with possibility.  I might add that large cardboard cut-outs of Star Wars characters were dappled among the instruments. Not your typical Christmas show backdrop.

Eventually, without pomp or fanfare, folks filed onto the stage, one by one. Their presence was one of humility. Andrew introduced his friends, and thus began the “music in the round.”  Each took his turn sharing a song or two, along with the story behind it.  Andy stepped forward.  He shared briefly, then sang  Any Other Way – a song written about the hardest day they’d experienced in marriage.

I was stopped.  It had happened again – only rather than being spoken in the family room of our home, the cry of our hearts was being sung from onstage. Andy and Jill shared words of truth. Without apology or despair, without false hope or empty promises. They expressed through music what we had experienced, and doing so, validated the “t” truth about marriage. About life. They went first. Making it easier for others to speak the unspoken truths in their own stories.

When I listen to their music, I’m given the gift of reassurance. Like an intimate conversation with a dear friend who “gets me”, I’m reminded that I’m not alone. In the struggles, joys, challenges and dreams of life. Jill speaks volumes in just the first few lines of A Lot Like Me:

Sometimes I think you hesitate to say the way you really feel
Like there’s no way that I could understand where you are coming from
But if we could tear down these walls of bricks and mortar built with fear
I think we’d be surprised to find how small our differences become

We’re all in the same boat
Sailing on the same old stormy sea
If you look real close
You’ll find you’re a lot like me

So, outside of the fact that they’re two of the most genuine folks I’ve ever met, that is my brief explanation of why I’m so very drawn to and grateful for Andy and Jill. Their music affirms the dignity of struggle, the joy found in “everyday” moments, and the promise that we’re known and loved. They are storytellers who are gracious in sharing their very personal stories with us. In doing so, they invite us to consider our own. And ultimately, they gently redirect our attention to the Author of all Hope. The One who spoke first. The One who knows us intimately. The One who is relentless in pursuing His children. The One who loves us in the midst of our unloveliness. Andy and Jill remind us. At the heart of the gospel is The Story of us all.

~~~~~~~~~~

Andy’s new album, Beyond the Frame, was released today. For a most-excellent review and a bit more on Andy, you can read the review by Jonathan Rogers here. You won’t don’t want to miss this album. Go ahead and buy a few extras for your friends. Available for purchase here at The Rabbit Room.



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For David… Thank you for the last 18 years and all that they’ve held.  Happy Anniversary!

~~~~~~~~~~~

Moments before showing my husband’s “milestone birthday video” to a group of our dear friends, I read the following.  If you listen beyond the words, you’ll hear a faint whisper echoing ancient truths of struggle, redemption, and ultimate rest…

“A picture is worth a thousand words” the saying goes… As we crack open the dusty albums of our memories, we take a few minutes to stroll through the snapshots that comprise our lives. Each picture has a story.  A prologue, a theme, and an afterword. We see frozen moments in time:  the smiling faces, sleeping babies, sandcastles on the beach, and milestones and holidays celebrated.  We are grateful to our God for these joyful moments, and pause to smile and “remember when”.

Yet veiled behind the surface, there is always a deeper story:  The argument that happened hours (or minutes) before the picture was taken, the deeper ache just below the surface of the smile, the unexpected turn of events that was to come just around the corner.  It is in the moments, days, and months between the snapshots that we live our lives.  And it is in this broader narrative that the master storyteller unfolds his greatest epic.  It is a story of redemption and restoration.  A story of hope in the midst of despair.  A theme that never changes and a hero who always shows up to save us.

And so it is in life.  We bring to the Lord and to others what we think is our best.  We work diligently to refine and present our talents, giftedness, and God-given dispositions.  We want these things to be a reflection of God and a blessing to others.  We would like the smiling snapshots to represent the total picture of who we are.  Yet there is more…

“Our brokenness also reveals something about who we are.  Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives;  rather they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality.  The way I am broken tells you something unique about me.  The way you are broken tells me something unique about you. That is the reason for my feeling very privileged when you freely share some of your deep pain with me, and that is why it is an expression of my trust in you when I disclose to you something of my vulnerable side.” Henri Nouwen

So as we pause to reflect on God’s goodness and provision, we do thank him for the smiling faces, the sleeping babies, the sandcastles and cheerful celebrations.  Yet we also give him great thanks for the brokenness, the loss, the despair.  For it is in his constant redemption of these difficult experiences, the smaller stories told by our lives, that the theme of his greater story consistently plays out.  He continues to be the one who does and will continue to “restore the years that the locusts have stolen.”

…and a happy birthday it was


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Valentine’s Day Remixed

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I feel as though I should be sharing our treasured family traditions – perhaps something crafty, clever, nostalgic or at least a good recipe.  I’m so sorry to disappoint.  I don’t have strong feelings about the holiday on either end of the spectrum, and each year, February 14th manifests itself differently around our home.


I do, however, possess some treasured books about the holiday (shocker).  From their pages, we found that St. Valentine’s day is a combination of history, tradition, and myth, all mixed together and baked in the oven of capitalistic opportunity. Historically, it’s believed that there were multiple Saint Valentines, and three were actually martyred for their faith on February 14th.  There are also beautiful myths telling of St. Valentine, while in prison, falling in love with and healing the jail keeper’s daughter.  Notes of love were passed through the jail door, and the legend grew as it was passed through generations.


Our culture’s current knowledge and celebration of Valentine’s Day bears little resemblance to the holiday’s original roots.  Romance, Hallmark cards, and expensive dinners at crowded restaurants have become the icons.  Ironically, most sit-coms on television this year depict couples who are rebelling against the “Valentine’s Day rat race”, and are contentedly choosing to stay at home.  Regardless of which viewpoint you hold, both stray far from the martyred Saints who suffered under oppressive Roman rule. Our perspective has changed, and we’ve forgotten the original intent for the day.  Culture changed the story – but it can’t change the history.


Whether we like it or not, we’re as immersed in our culture as a fish is in water.  We’re often unaware of the powerful impact that our generation, as well pervious generations, has had on the lens through which we view marriage.  Marriage was originally created for great purpose. Far greater, I believe, than most of us would dare to hope.  Culture changed the story – but it can’t change the history.


What would happen if I suspended my own ideas, hopes, dreams, and fears about marriage, and had the opportunity to view it through the eyes of its Creator? How would the shift in my perspective affect the lens through which I view my husband?  I believe that God holds my marriage in much higher esteem than I can begin to imagine – yes, even with the challenges, failures and disappointments that can arise, He sees it as holy.  


In the C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Screwtape (a demon), writes letters to Wormwood (his nephew) educating him on how to secure the eternal damnation of “the patient.”  

“Now comes the joke.  The enemy (God) described the married couple as ‘one flesh.’  He did not say ‘a happily married couple’ or ‘a couple who married because they were in love’, but you can make the humans ignore that… humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of fear, affection, and desire which they call ‘being in love’ is the only thing that makes marriage happy or holy… In other words, humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as a result.”  

How many of us have a distorted picture of marriage?  Remember the fish in water.  It can’t possibly know it’s wet.  So what is this water in which we’re immersed?  Where have we been deceived?


A step to climbing out of the fish bowl and drying off…


God is far more concerned with my holiness than he is with my happiness.  


This is hard, but true, particularly if our hopes were hung on an idealistic picture of what marriage “should be.”  The good news is that if (and when) marriage is hard, we should not despair. The Father is up to something, and if you believe in his promises, He is up to something good.  


The measure of a successful marriage is not happiness and lack of conflict – it’s mutual selflessness and commitment.  


That’s the bad news and the good news.  


More is required of me, but more is promised of Him.


So as we enjoy the Valentine’s Day festivities, don’t despair if yours is less than what you had hoped.  The Author of all hope has written the story, and the story isn’t finished yet.  We don’t know what plot twists may unfold as we forge ahead, but we do know that He is good. He cares deeply for His children, and He’ll use anything, including disappointments and challenges in marriage, to draw us to Him.


As an aside… I don’t think I’ll ever look at a picture of the chubby-cheeked scantily-clad cupid again without wondering if I just caught a glimpse of Wormwood himself.

 



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Of Brick and Straw


You know the story… the three pigs, the three houses, and 2 very different outcomes.  What made the difference?  The materials with which the houses were built.  On the 2 ends of the spectrum are the straw and the brick.  I want a life built out of brick… but never would have thought that the straw would be part of the process.

As a child, like so many others, I grew up in a semi-functioning family.  The stress fractures that had been present throughout my parents’ marriage became too great when a poor economy resulted in a job loss.  This proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back resulted in the ultimate demise of my parents’ marriage and of family life as I knew it.

This week, we received what could have been devastating news.  After 17 years of faithful and productive service, my husband’s lucrative job was to come to an end.  We had had some inclination that as the result of another bank merger, this could be an outcome.  Yet we had little idea what and when the ultimate decision would be made.  Here we are.  With 5 children and little savings left due to the economy, we are more than ok.  We’re grateful.  For life, for family, for health, for a challenging marriage that has withstood the storms (both internally and externally) of 15 years, for friends who have walked through those storms with us, but most of all, for our loving God who wants what is best for us and is relentless in providing it.  In His upside-down economy, what is best is rarely what we would choose, yet it is ultimately what will bring us joy, peace, restoration, and healing.  We are grateful.  This is his best for us.

“The biblical detail about using straw in brick-making is puzzling to some.  How, they ask, could the addition of straw as an ingredient make bricks stronger?  In Egypt the mud-straw combination was commonly used to strengthen building blocks.   It also prevented the bricks from cracking or losing shape.  Modern investigators have run tests to show that when straw is mixed with mud the resulting bricks are three times as strong as those made without straw.  Fluids in the straw release humic acid and harden the bricks.  To this day, after thousands of years, mud-brick monuments still stand in Egypt.” (The Good News)

I’m struck that when we allow the Lord to take the straw of our lives… the hurts, heartaches, disappointments, and yes, our blatant sinfulness, he can mix it in with the mud of the world…  job loss, illness, the end of a significant relationship… and use it all to build something stronger.  Yet it is only after that mixture spends significant time in the refiner’s fire that it becomes strong.  Strong enough to withstand the storms of life.  Strong enough to play a part in giving others temporary shelter when their storms come.

What am I doing with the straw in my life?  Too many years have been spent coddling the hurts, regretting the past, and harboring an unforgiving spirit.  The straw remains not only weak, but highly flammable given the right environment.  My desire is to loosen my grip on the straw and hand it over to the Lord.  Only then is He able to resume His work as the great potter.  Only then will the strengthening and building begin.  I have a choice.

And so it is.  Life is built, brick by brick.   A series of daily choices.  I pray for the faith, strength, and courage to believe that our Lord wants what is best.  That he will take the broken pieces of my life and create something beautiful for His glory and enjoyment.  That the fires of life will not last longer than needed, but long enough to produce strength.  And that eventually, we will not speak in terms of straw, bricks, and fire, but of roads paved in gold.

 

~Written on our 15th wedding anniversary



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I’m Both

Mid-summer in Charlotte. Lungs tire easily while laboring to extract oxygen from the thick, syrupy air.  I’m a fair-weather runner.  I don’t run when it’s too cold, and I don’t run when it’s too hot.  A few days ago, I arose to find that we’d been given an unexpected remission from weeks of incessant heat.  The air was a crisp 56 degrees.  It was an opportunity not to be missed.  I laced up my shoes and stepped out into what felt like the first hints of autumn.  My run was particularly enjoyable.  The air was cool and clean, the paths were peaceful, and the music on my ipod calmed my soul. I had temporarily defied the gravity of my own lethargy, had risen early to challenge my muscles and lungs, and had pushed through the last leg of the run. Upon arriving home, I was tired, but the kind of tired that was deeply rewarding.  I had done something good for my body.  I felt refreshed and healthy.  And then…  I promptly ate a handful of Oreo cookies.

I would like to think of myself as being increasingly health-conscious.   We eat organic foods whenever possible, limit our red meat intake, consume whole-wheat rather than white breads and pastas, and encourage exercise as a life-long habit.  But then there are the Oreos.  My kryptonite.  And sea-salted dark chocolate almonds from Trader Joes.  Against those, I have little power.  I would like to define myself in terms of health, not indulgence, yet both are true.  I am both healthy and indulgent at the same time.  A paradox of sorts… or rather a more complete picture.  I am both forgiving and critical.  I am gracious and demanding.  I am deeply flawed yet wonderfully made.  If I deny either side of the equation, I hold an unrealistic picture of myself.

And if I am both at the same time, then I need to acknowledge that the same is true for others.   Those who I hold closest and in highest regard have the capacity to fail miserably.  And those who I find hard to love, well… there is another side to that equation as well.

During a sermon on forgiveness, Tim Keller used a caricature artist as to illustrate the way we often view difficult people.  The caricature artist takes his subject’s most demonstrative characteristic and exaggerates it.  He then captures it on paper to be frozen in time.  For instance… if the subject has slightly large ears, the artists creates those ears to be far larger than life, then in drawing them, dooms the subject to a likeness that is unchangeable.

We do much the same thing, particularly with someone who is difficult to love.   We tend to look at that person and see the attributes which are most irritating… or most unlikeable… or which cause us great pain.   And then we exaggerate them and freeze in time the picture that we have created.  It works out nicely, you know.  As long as I can convince myself that the person who is causing me pain is primarily evil, or selfish, or suffers from some deep neurosis, then I feel a certain relief from obligation.   But if there were another side to the equation, well that just complicates things.

Many of us go through life rather unaware that we make assumptions about others, draw our own caricatures, and file them neatly away in our mental sketchbooks.  This is particularly true when we’re looking at those closest to us.  We think we have them figured out.  We forget that there is always another side to the equation.  There is no doubt more than we see.   Or unfortunately care to see.

So what is the antidote to assumption?  How can we look beyond the mental caricatures that we have created in order to see the multi-dimensional people who God actually created?  How can we begin to see them as “fearfully and wonderfully” made?   The antidote to assumption is curiosity. 

So if my husband (theoretically, of course) is distant or aloof, I could take his behavior personally (theoretically again), OR could I become curious as to what is going on in his job… or with his friends… or in his heart…

If my relationship with a dear friend becomes strained, do I assume that she’s just being selfish or (fill in the blank with whatever you may assume), OR am I willing to be humble and vulnerable enough to ask if I’m the offending party…  or if there is something else going on in her life that may have nothing to do with me…

Am I willing to be curious about those closest to me?  Those I’ve known for most of my life?  Those who I think I have figured out?

A healthy dose of humility and curiosity does have its con’s.  I may find out that I was wrong.  That there has been more to love in another than I had imagined.  That I’ve lived too much of my life drawing caricatures rather than enjoying whole people.  Yet it is with that revelation that freedom begins.  Freedom from assuming, incorrectly sketching, and missing people for who they actually are.  Freedom to see the whole picture, and freedom to love well.  Oh yes, and freedom to enjoy both my brisk run and my Oreos.



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Measure by Measure

Caroline, my youngest, came into the world dancing, twirling, and humming a happy tune. The baby of five, she plays her role in the family flawlessly.  From the moment we brought her home, we not only loved her, but we loved all that came with her – lots of pink, hair bows, bloomers, baby dolls, and ballet dresses.  As a toddler, she woke up smiling with open arms (literally) looking for hugs.  She spent her days either dancing with poise and grace (as much as a 2 yr old can have), OR chasing her big brothers with a pink cowboy gun.  I’ve learned much from her.  She soaks in every ounce of life and lives each moment to the fullest.  Nothing is boring.  She notices the newest bird that decided to reside in our yard, writes stories for hours (phonetically – reading them can become a game in itself) and has vision for any scrap of yarn or paper.  She’s a living craft tornado, sucking up remnants in her path and leaving a trail of destruction, along with a mighty creative craft project, behind.

We are finally wrapping up the school year.  In the last few weeks, we’ve completed year-end testing, finished (almost) worn out workbooks, scrambled to wrap up the final details and participate in our oldest daughter’s wedding, made it through the dress rehearsal and ballet recital, and have only to complete the piano recital in order to officially wrap up the year.  I’m tired.  And ready to be done.

Will, my 11 year old, spent the last few months preparing to play three piano pieces in his sister’s wedding.  Perfection of his pieces had received priority over the younger ones’ recital preparation.  I generally left the practice schedule of the younger two to their own management.  Even the 7-year old Craft Tornado.  As with most things, our negligence eventually catches up with us.  Two weeks before the recital, I found myself sitting beside my sweet Caroline to listen to her piano recital piece, only to learn that she had quite far to go.  Not to put the final touches on her piece, but to get the basic notes and to play the rhythm correctly.  It was 8pm – her bedtime, and her piano teacher would be coming in the morning.  I was tired.  She was tired.  We needed to make weeks’ worth of progress quickly.  It wasn’t the best set up.

Over time, the most endearing characteristic of another often becomes the most frustrating.  Caroline is highly relational.  Everything can (and does) become fodder for conversation.  How far she sits from the piano.  Which line she should practice.  What she should wear to the recital.  I began our session aware that her lack of preparation was primarily my fault.  I was the adult.  I had neglected directing her for the past weeks due to preparation for the wedding.  She was tired.  But as her attempts to practice continued, impatience began to bubble up within me.  Her talk to play ratio was 3:1.  We weren’t making much progress, and the clock was ticking.

There was one particular measure that she just couldn’t master.  It didn’t help that each time she played it (incorrectly), she would stop and look at me – not at the music.  She was looking to me for affirmation, support, and encouragement.  I was trying to mask my irritation behind a half-hearted smile and the mantra “let’s slow down and work on that one measure”.  My husband entered the scene, cheery and somewhat bewildered at my poorly-masked exasperation.   With his presence bringing a sense of reinforcement (and accountability for me), we pressed through. Eventually, she hit the right notes at the right time.   At this point, we were well past her bedtime, and encroaching upon mine.  The next morning, I held my breath as she played for her teacher.  Would all be forgotten?  Would the prior evening’s work be too little too late?  Then much to my amazement, her teacher removed the sheet music, and Caroline played the piece straight through.  No big deal.  Hmmmm….

I was struck that this is the heart of mothering:  repeatedly coaching, encouraging, nudging… measure by measure.  Until one day, what we have so diligently (and imperfectly) stumbled through, argued over, yet pressed beyond, becomes seemingly effortless.  And I get to be there to see it all.  With much practice, the music had been written onto her heart.   One day, she too will find deep satisfaction and enjoy playing Bach.  That which had once felt insurmountable would seem insignificant.

As I look back upon those few pivotal days last week, I’m reminded that we all trudge through life in much the same manner. We don’t grow and mature by leaps and bounds. Rather, it’s a slow and steady plodding.  Working through every day, conflict, achievement, and disappointment, one by one. In lieu of being irritated by the time and energy that relationship with others costs me, I want to appreciate the privilege I have in getting to be there.  I want to look at my children, my husband, my friends, (and myself) with eyes that see beyond today.  To have vision to look through the bumbling notes and believe that more is possible.   And I want to count it an honor to walk with others through life, measure by measure.

“He who began a good work in you will carry in on to completion
 until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Phillipians 1:6

By the way, she did a beautiful job.


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The BIG POWER of the small question

I’m new to Facebook.  Barely 2 weeks into joining this virtual community, I find myself with over 100 friends.  This new community is buzzing with activity – posts, questions, messages, and shared photos.  There is a constant stream of communication.  Updates, comments, and peeks into family vacations.  Some of the Facebook crowd apparently doesn’t sleep.  Cyberspace pulsates incessantly as folks reach out in desperate attempt to make connection with one another.  Yet beneath the bustling community, I’ve felt an undertone of sadness.  I’ve found myself wondering if those who spend so much time online have counted the cost associated.  The precious currency of time is spent pecking away at the keyboard rather than investing in the family and friends with whom they (we) live?

Lest I become too critical of the online community, I’d suggest that we all have our forms of “misspending” our currency of time and energy.  I often go about my days talking, not listening.  Doing, not being.  Telling, not asking.  When we I take the time to engage another, I often resort to a chronic dialogue.  “How was your day?”… “How are you?”…  “How was the weekend?”…  The questions, though good-intended, do little to stimulate any depth of response from another.  They are too familiar.  Too broad in scope and too easily satisfied with vague answers.

In The Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner tells of his driving desire to learn more about his father, who had died when Buechner was young. He spent years mining the memories of friends and relatives in order to excavate some new nugget of information regarding his father.  He was after something deeper than “he he had been a charming, handsome young man, and everybody liked him.”  Later in life, his daughter told him that he’s was asking in the wrong way.  “If you want to get a big answer, she said, you should ask a little question.  I should ask people if they remembered ever eating a meal with him.  Or playing tennis with him.  Or arguing with him about politics.  Or being with him at a bar, or the movies, or on a subway.  Who could say what one, small concrete memory might jog loose?”

Perhaps we would be well served to take the same advice.  Could we take the time to be intentional and ask small questions?  If we really want to know more of someone, do we have a vision of what “more” could look like?

  • When my husband comes home from tennis with friends, do I ask him, “How was the afternoon?” OR do I dare ask him “How did it feel to be with that group of guys?” (true example from yesterday… and I didn’t)
  • When my children seem unusually fragile, do I take the time to ask what had transpired earlier when their friend had been over?
  •  Do I simply ask my friend, “How was your vacation?” OR do I dare ask what it was like to try and reconnect with her husband?

I can only imagine how my relationships could be transformed and deepened if I frequently gave others time to paint descriptive pictures of the scenes of their life.  What details have I been missing in the rush of the day?  What details have I hurriedly assumed and added in?  Could I slow down and intentionally  ask deliberate “small” questions?

Probably not with my 100 Facebook friends.  But perhaps with a few.



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