When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christmas in the Sand (December 23, 2010)

It still gets me.  I’m still overwhelmed.  I cannot remember the days before I knew the story, and even now the details seem as though they ought to be mundane, they are so familiar.  And yet they are not.  They’re ridiculous.  Amazing.  Brilliant.  Unbelievable. Breath-taking.

Forgive me for my incredulity.  Perhaps the Christmas story sits in its usual December place with you.  Perhaps shepherds and angels and the star waft through the cracks in your hurried soul like the comforting scent of spiced apple cider or gingerbread.  They are the shadows of home that rise up this time of year, the “Christmas Spirit” one is generally expected to feel and share.  It’s a well-worn story, one that has perhaps grown soft and a little threadbare in your mind, like your favorite pair of slippers or long lost childhood teddy.

Perhaps it would gently lap around the edges of my mind, too, summoned by white lights and French horns, fresh-falling snow and children’s choirs, if not for the fact that lately I’ve been reading through the book of Deuteronomy.  For those unfamiliar with Scripture, it’s about as far away from the Christmas story as you can get.  Where Matthew and Luke offer cold crisp nights filled with angelic choruses and green pastures of shepherds and their sheep, Deuteronomy practically has sand spilling from the pages, every word dry and nuanced in thirsty shades of brown and yellow.  It re-caps the story of Moses and the Israelites after the great Red Sea parting and dramatic escape from Egypt.  

What should have been an equally dramatic and subsequent conquering of the Promised Land instead turned into forty years of frustration.  A lack of faith on the Israelites’ part resulted in an opportunity for them to re-think their allegiance: would they depend on themselves, or depend on God? He gave them forty years in a desert to figure it out.

In the meantime, He took care of them.  He gave them food and water and guidelines for behavior.  He spent a lot of time with Moses, discussing matters of state and matters of faith.  He laid out the blueprints for both, avoiding generalizations (“be good”) and dealing in specifics (“Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns.  Pay him his wages each day before sunset” Deut. 24:14-15).  God’s laws were firm, but fair - no one could be sentenced to death for accidental manslaughter,  all debts were forgiven every 50 years, a cloak taken as collateral on a loan must be returned each night to its owner so the cold night air didn’t prevent a good night’s sleep.

It amazes me, the depth of insight He had into human behavior.  He drew the boundary lines for each tribe so that there would be no civil wars.  Those in positions of religious leadership were placed, financially, at the mercy of their congregants so they could not lord religious power over them (amounts allotted them were set, making it impossible to use guilt or charm for extorting more).  If a couple bore no male heir, their daughters had the right to inherit land and flocks in a time when most people groups disregarded women all-together.  New grooms were released from military duty during their first year of marriage so that they might stay home and please their brides.  The social and political genius of it all staggers me each time I read it.  Every need (physical, financial, spiritual and emotional) was accounted for, every human tendency was taken into consideration.  It seems God knew His children very well.

Which is what makes Christmas all the more incredible to me.  We tend to think of Christmas as the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth.  A baby was born, angels sang, shepherds bowed down and everything under the Star shone with a hope the world had not yet known.  God’s presence on earth actually began long before.  It began in the Garden of Eden when the infinite essence of God first walked among men.  He walked among them again in Deuteronomy, speaking with Moses and wandering through the desert camp.  

It was there, I imagine, He faced the human condition.  I’m sure He was aware of it long before, encountered during the shrouded years before Noah’s flood or along Abraham’s trek from Ur to Canaan, but it is in the windswept, temporary dwellings of a fickle nation somewhere amid the sands of the Sinai Desert that it really hits me.  God knew what He was getting Himself into.  

The Creator of protons, neutrons, electrons and distant nebulae witnessed first hand all the best and worst of humanity.  He didn’t just know what we were like in theory - He KNEW us: the sweat and the smells and the cursing and the laughing and the weariness and the joy and the snoring and the arrogance and the utter rawness of grief.  He came face to face with humanity, He was acutely aware of who we are when we are ordinary and who we are when we are bored and angry and irritated, and He still chose to come back at Christmas.  As one of us.

That’s insane!  That’s a level of goodness and perfection and patience I cannot even begin to fathom.  That’s a love deeper and purer than I even know how to know.  That’s a wisdom greater than my feeble soul can even breathe vapors of.  That God should know our reality so intimately and still find us worth the effort of leaving all that is comfortable and defined by perfection to step into time, passing through a birth canal, taking a first breath laced with the stench of manure, bearing rumors of illegitimacy, growing up as a refugee, always ostracized, always different, always misunderstood - that He would know what was coming and come anyway absolutely leaves me speechless.

There’s a line in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, buried somewhere in the second or third verse that has broken me this Christmas: “Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die”.  Born and lived and loved and cried and died clothed with the blessings and cursings of humanity, so that man no more may die.  So that I am not limited to a scant number of years on an earth that is sometimes breath-taking and sometimes heart-breaking. So that I can someday shed the blessings and cursings of humanity myself to step out of time and into His home, defined by perfection.  With eyes fully open, The King of All that Is laid His glory by, willingly born so that we no more might die.

Keep your mistletoe and Santa hats.  Sing carols out of habit, give gifts out of expectation, feel warm and fuzzy until December 26.  If you can.  Or, fall on your knees before the God in whose palm all the oceans of the earth are no more than a drop, who left His rightful and respected place of honor (when He had every right not to) to get rained on and laughed at, to catch the sniffles and go to parties and hang out with men who smelled like fish, so that you and I could dare to believe that such a God exists and that He loves us.

It still gets me.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.  A thrill of hope!  A weary world rejoices! For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Oh, fall on your knees.....”

The Beauty of Dying (November 25, 2011)

His eyes crinkled in the corners as he gazed across her face and looked up. The shadow of a wink passed with a twinkle, belying an ageless soul though he spoke of days more than sixty years back.

“We used to park out in the orchard,” he started, one gray bushy eyebrow barely raised with the saucy implication, “Back when we were dating”.  Her swat on his arm was fully expected but he continued, the softness of memory filling the aged cracks in his voice.

“She didn’t know, but I always turned the car so that the moonlight fell on her face”.  He looked at her, and she at him, the memory so vivid for them both that we who watched nearly saw the moon ourselves, beaming flashes of silver betwixt the golden rays of that late afternoon.  His weathered fingers reached for her arthritic ones, the years in between melting with that touch.  He sighed at the memory.  “It was a little slice of heaven.”

Nearly a year and a half ago she left him, bound for the heaven he saw slivers of in her face.  Last week, he joined her.   Tonight I look up at the silvery moon that kissed them both, hoping for a glimpse of the magic that bound them in their orchard and under every moonlit sky since.

Pop’s passing comes during the season that has long astonished me.  Autumn, for all intents and purposes, is the season of dying.  Trees, flowers, grass - every green and colored thing that once bloomed with freshness and promise in the rites of spring now struggles for breath, leaning into the brittleness of death.  The glorious sweeping boughs of summer now bend barren and bald in chilly November winds.

And yet, there is a loveliness to autumn that no other season possesses.  Showers of golden rain fall beneath those windswept branches, tawny leaves drip like honey down a sweet blue sky.   Other leaves blaze red and rust, carrot and tangerine; a thousand subtle shades span the gap between red and yellow, and the trees of autumn boast them all.  Their fire is quelled now and again by splashes of pine and evergreen, a contrast that only fills the graceful swan song of flaming foliage with greater poignancy.       

I admit that my eyes get hungry this time of year.  Whether the sun slants bold through fiery vistas or the gray of overcast drizzle forces browning leaves to loosen their ever more fragile grasp on trembling branches, I (too aware the coming white of winter), thirst for the sight of it.  It is a crisp elegance, an aching beauty, one that overtakes the senses, toasting the soul though cheeks and nose are reddened by frosty winds.  I am drawn to all manner of windows with a rabid sense of wonder.

Every gilded leaf yielding to its inevitable delicate dive, every breath laced with the scent of scuffled forest paths, the evolution of painted fields from green to blistered gold to earthy shades of emptiness hums the repeated refrain of autumn I cannot escape: even death is beautiful.

The admission of it grates at first on our understanding of life’s mechanisms.  We instinctively fight for life, grasping for even feeble breaths, venerating those who are robust and strong.  Though the doldrums of daily existence may dominate our hours, there beats beneath them a hunger to thrive, a desperate longing for the tangible taste of life, verdant and green, blooming with possibility and hope.  We are jealous of those who posses it and pity those who we suspect never will.  Life, after all, is LIFE and better than the alternative.

Yet, the God who drips gold on dying trees and covers the corpse of last season’s earth with blankets of startling white gives us no indication that any stage of our existence is wasted.  In fact, He speaks of death as a necessary path to life, a loosening of our fragile grasp on meaningless things, forcing the inevitable delicate dive from our trembling sense of self-sufficiency into His all too capable waiting arms.

“We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with Him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him. The death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God.  In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”Romans 6:2-11

It seems, then, that death is a gift.  How fitting that the Author of autumn should hide beauty even in the most feared of experiences.  Truly living is a voluntary dying, a continual turning from myself to Him, a steady replacing of my wandering feet into His footsteps.  Surrendered souls savor the flavor of tangible life and when I strike out on my own, I discover (again) that nothing else can taste as sweet.    

There are days I feel cords of selfishness and foolishness reaching around to bind me, thick strands of pride pulling me down and away from the verdant possibility of hope I know resides in the presence of my God.   Struggling against them is useless; I am weak and feeble on my own.  Although my ears are deafened and I grapple with a sense of being utterly alone, my mind holds tight to God's promises and I know what I cannot always hear - He calls me to Himself.  The challenge at that point is to reorient my soul, to point my heart resolutely in His direction, no matter how loudly the rest of me protests.  It is then I must remember that even death is beautiful – dying to my desires is a fiery process sometimes, but one that proves golden when I find myself breathless and alive again on the other side.

The rhythm of earth echoes the rhythm of life which, in truth, is simply the echo of our souls: the spring of new birth gives way to a summer of growth, culminating in the glorious dying harvest of autumn; the grave of winter melts again into a spring of rebirth.  My life is the continual incarnation of this rhythm, living, growing, reaping, dying, being resurrected from each struggle with temptation.  It is a crisp elegance, an aching beauty, the overtaking of my soul.    

God is the goodness and the strength calling me to Himself.  He reaches out as I strain against the cords of my sin, shattering the brittleness of death when I ask Him to bring me back to life.  It is His to be the life within me, continually making me new.  It is mine to not fear the most feared demise, to let go the trembling branches and die to self, turning with every ounce of spiritual might my soul back to Him.  When I do, His light shines on my face and I am bathed with a beauty not my own.  It’s a little slice of heaven.      

Tickled... (November 1, 2010)

I’ve been told I laugh too loud.  I can’t help it - if something strikes me funny, a bubbling flow of hot laughter lava starts boiling in my gut.  Shoulders and ribcage tremble as mounting mirth nears the surface and eruption spills peals of delight over anyone within earshot.  Am I offended that my all-too-obvious pleasure annoys a percentage of those who get splashed?  No.  I’m not going to change.  The truth is, I don’t know if I can.

My laugh is a part of who I am.  It is sewn into the hem of my being.   I can make attempts at stifling it, I can swallow it down so that only a shoulder tremor gives me away, but in my truest and most honest moments, it rises up and bursts out as involuntarily as breathing.

When I was in high school, a good friend and I discovered that laughter was touted as the best “ab workout” possible.  We would lie under her dining room table (usually at about four in the morning) and fake laugh, trying to whittle down our obliques and tone our midsections.  As one might expect, fake laughter - especially under such silly conditions - lasted for about thirty seconds before surrendering to real laughter.  Her mother would often get up to go to work in the morning and find us laying on the dining room carpet, giggling like fools.

Fake laughter doesn’t always lead to real laughter, however.  It tends to sputter and spit, stale in the absence of authentic delight.  We laugh when we’re nervous.  We laugh when we’re being polite.  We laugh when we’re trying not to cry.  Laughter is captured and looped on tracks then played during sit-coms and game shows to cue an audience when they ought to be amused.  

It’s been occurring to me lately that obedience is a lot like laughter.  That may sound strange, given that most people suspect laughter and obedience don’t run in the same circles.  One is considered a measured expression of self-control, the other a playful celebration of being out of control.  One has a reputation as banner of the righteous, the other as mascot of the rebellious.  Rarely the twain shall meet.

The truth is, both are less about themselves than they are about the thing which causes them.  I laugh with my friends not because I am expected to, but because they delight me.  When I focus on them, on their presence and their wit, joy hops expectantly along my eyelids, amusement dances on my lips.  Any moment, any word, any glance could send the two leaping into one another, leaving me gasping for breath, silenced by a laugh that is too loud.

If I were forced to laugh - guilted into giggles or bullied into chuckles - it would be nothing more than an empty sound, sucked dry of the very thing that gives it purpose.  Laughter is enjoyable because it is secondary; the person, the joke, the circumstance which causes it is the primary object of affection.  Laughter is evidence of that affection.  

Obedience, however, is also secondary, although it often gets pushed onto center stage.  We are told to obey because we ought to obey those we are expected to obey: our parents, our bosses, our government, God.  We are guilted into being good, bullied into right behavior - obedience becomes a chore, sucked dry of the life it actually promises to give us.  When obedience, for its own sake, is the object of our attention, we swing wildly between poles of pride and guilt.  If we have obeyed, we are good.  If we have disobeyed, we are bad.  We place ourselves at the center of a vicious cycle and wonder why we feel dizzy.

Although God is often accused of being a rule-crazed dictator, the Bible sheds a little light on what He actually thinks about obedience: 

“If you love Me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15) 

“I am the Vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

“As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Now remain in My love.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 

You are My friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last...”  (John 15:9-16)

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Obedience doesn’t seem to be much about gritting one’s teeth and miserably submitting to a holy lifestyle.  Instead, it appears to be requested by a friend and prompted by love.  Not only is it prompted by love, it is fed and fueled by God, Himself.  It’s as if He commands us to buy Him an ice cream cone every day, but proceeds to drive us to Dairy Queen, slip us five dollars, and treat us to a chocolate-dipped cone (with sprinkles), as well.  The point is not that we’ve offered God something He demanded but that we’ve enjoyed an ice cream together.

When I focus on God, on His presence and His love, joy hops expectantly through my veins, thankfulness spills from my lips.   His goodness washes over me and I cannot hold it back from splashing onto those around me.  He is the Vine, I am the branch - His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control flowthrough me (not from me) and blossom into petals of obedience.  This obedience becomes enjoyable because it is secondary: God is the object of my affection and the source of my delight.  Worship leaves me gasping for breath, I am silenced by a righteousness I cannot produce.  I can only let it rise up in me and flow out, as natural as laughter. 

Holiness doesn’t always come easy, though.  There are days when I obey only through sheer will.  I have a soft spot for temptation that sweet-talks my heart and often threatens to cripple my resolve.  On those days, I cannot rely on a “laugh track” obedience, one that I maintain purely to be "the example", cueing others on how they should behave.  It’s the fake laugh - the one I force because it’s good for me - I must fall back on, instead.  The more determined I am to exercise muscles of obedience, the sooner I find myself surrendered to real righteousness.  The secret is that I’m not alone; it’s God and I on the carpet under the dining room table.  

My laugh is loud, I pray my actions to glorify God are louder still.  I do not rely on my own strength to produce those actions, just as I do not rely on my own humor to make me laugh. The objects of my affection birth both mirth and holiness in me.  I am grateful for the God who awes me into obedience, and I am grateful for the friends who tickle the joyful places in me, peals of delight raining down on us all.  

Change the way I react to whatever strikes me funny?  Please.  Don’t make me laugh.

Stuck (July 29, 2010)

“And they lived happily ever after....” I’m beginning with the glimpse of an ending, as recommended to me recently by a website I found while suffering from writer’s block. It didn’t help much, and the malady remains. 

The problem with writer’s block is that it leaves you vulnerable to temptations you never thought you’d face (as temptations, anyway) - laundry, dishes, cleaning out the refrigerator. The temporary allure of housework is just a smokescreen, however. The real temptation is to give up. Blank white screens are intimidating. Words that won’t behave are asking to be abandoned. Phrases and intentions may chase each other through my brain, but when I command them to stop, they threaten cliche and refuse to align themselves into any cohesive conclusions. I’m at the end of my rope with them. A need to write presses hard on my spirit, but any actual point remains elusive. Walking away seems easier. Writer’s block is a devil.

Potential writing subjects lay like so many cut calico pieces, feigning the harmony of a quilt. I know better. No common thread stitches them together and as colorful as each of them is, it makes no difference how I turn them - the edges won’t line up. 

I could write about beauty I have found in the corners of the day, when the sun rises fresh and sets sweet, gilding the tips of leaves like pirate’s treasure. Even at mid-afternoon, there’s a blue true dream of sky and a thousand shades of green kissing the rim of it. Vivid pinks and yellows drip from trees whose names I’ve never known. It’s as if Monet himself crested the hill, gazed over suburban America and pulled out his brush. If you asked me in the blush of morning, when each petal and blade is strung with dew and every field yields a crop of diamonds, I would say I liked morning best. Ask me in the evening, when breezes blow golden, drawing out the colors of earth and tree and sky with stark authenticity - I would deny a time more lovely. The sun must move in a million angled increments throughout the day, but try as I might, I cannot pick a favorite. I recognize the priceless elegance of such moments only when they’re upon me, breathing back in the life I so often forget I am granted. The corners of day possess a beauty which incapacitates me to all else but worship; hallelujahs echo in my ears. The King of Heaven walks beside me and every step is praise.

I could write about the lifespan of the moon - how I once saw its birth and death in a single hour. It was on a night slung low and black over pounding surf. The playground of Taurus and Orion lay empty - even the stars flee North Carolina humidity in July. At first, there was nothing but shadowy expanse hovering over the waters. The tide rushed in and out like breathing, clearing away the sand’s remnants of day. I was resigned to the thick unlit swelter, but presently, a delicate rip in the darkness spilled drops of amber where a moon ought to be. The rest of the birth followed slow and easy, without pain or contraction. Whisps of crimson clouds stretched and crowned, teasing the light out of hiding. When the moon finally hung voluminous and round, the full force of sunlight beyond the horizon caught it and all below became visible. Fairy footprints appeared in the sea, glittering from shore to skyline; they flashed and ducked along the warm salty currents. For a few magical moments the world glowed. Then, the fairy path dimmed, the night clouds swelled, and all was swallowed up again by darkness. Hidden waves crashed. They pounded their sobs upon the land, mourning the moon and drawing the sand into wistful upheaval with the rhythm of their dirge. It was as if the moon had never been born.

I could write about the shadows of butterflies on the stones outside my window, or the deer that pauses by our crabapple tree at dusk. I could write about green Romanian roosters or the simple way of dirt roads or the sweat burning my eyes when I run in summer. I could write about how hard it is to hold onto a faith that sometimes seems to make no sense, how wearying it is to love, how futile it often feels to fight for what’s right. I could write about being painfully human, being made of nitrogen and melanin and tears, choking on temptations and on the scars earned battling them. I could write about the lifespan of holiness in me and how often I have seen its birth and death in a single hour. Writing is not easy. Loving is not easy. Living is not easy. 

The inclination is to give up. To throw in the towel. To ignore the blinking cursor and go shopping. To stop caring about people, to stop investing in other lives, to stop trying to carve out a difference in the world. To halt the birth of holiness because its death is so distressing. As if hope had never been born.

When I am tempted to resign myself to such a thick swelter of despair, the only place to find asylum is in a truth which rises fresh and sets sweet and catches me up in the corners of it every time: God is the God Who Doesn’t Give Up.

Ask Adam who still fathered mankind after bringing its downfall into the world; ask Abraham who held his infant son with arthritic hands even after trying to bypass God’s promise. Ask Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Peter the unfaithful friend who was faithful to them. Ask the Hebrews who were without a homeland for nearly two thousand years if God keeps His word. 

The problem with giving in and giving up is that blissful surrender to mediocrity is not an option I have been given. God has earned my trust - earned it, for trust is not something I give lightly. And if He, the God Who Doesn’t Give Up, has asked me to carry on, have I any choice but to persevere? Can I give the One who sets beauty in the corners of day any less? Whatever He asks of me I know He asks in love and though I may not feel aglow, the actual movements of obedience seeming less magical than mundane, I know I must carry on. Someday I will see the purposes behind what seems purposeless now - the quilt will be flipped and I will see the vast masterpiece my random calico offerings lined up with all along. 

Peter knows. He learned. He quit once - threw in the towel on a friendship that was too difficult to maintain. Three times he swore he didn’t even know Jesus - three times Jesus reminded him that was no reason for giving up. The message stuck and Peter passed it down to those he loved: 

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.... And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.... I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” (1 Peter 5:7,10,12)

He will make you strong, firm and steadfast. You may suffer a little while, but that’s all right. That’s the way of life. He cares for you - this is the true grace of God. Stand in it. Cast all your frustrations on the God Who Doesn’t Give Up and follow Him - no matter how many times holiness has been stillborn in you, no matter how many battle scars line your soul, no matter how intimidating an empty screen or empty future may appear. Live, Love, Write. Speak, Give, Embrace. Serve, Suffer, Stand Fast. For the King of Heaven walks beside us and we will, in fact, live happily ever after....

What else is there to write about?

Joy! (March 16, 2010)

There are tufts of green pressing up through the sidewalk cracks. It’s a different shade of green than the lawns which lie beyond it; those are carpeted with blades weary from their triumph over an onslaught of stubborn snow. This is a newborn green, stretching and yawning with enough force to move concrete, hungry for a patch of sky and a sunbeam’s kiss. Along the edges of well-manicured shrubs, daffodils wait breathlessly in the wings, impatient for their cue to release the strips of binding green which have folded them into buds. Soon the shrubs will be bordered with butter, yellow petals throwing back their heads and laughing freely in the wind. For now, the sidewalk stage greens with anticipation. The first scent of earth after a long winter lingers in the air. And there is joy...

I hear the remnants of rain on the streets before I open my eyes. It sprays up on the speeding tires of those who rush to work; I hear it gurgling along the gutters and down into mud already saturated with disintegrating snow. Waking up to rain is nearly as cozy as falling asleep to it. The spattering drizzle shakes free from its cloudy pen well into afternoon, and I go out to greet it in person; it touches light on my face and sprays up on my running shoes. By the time I step back into dry warmth, my clothes and shoes are soaked through, my smile still two miles back and lost in the magic of jogging to an Irish jig in the rain. A hot cup of tea and pajamas in the afternoon are really the only option after moments like that. And there is joy....

The air is thin and it’s hard to breathe. Pike’s Peak rises out of pine-coated foothills, its muscular crags flexing in the sun before disappearing up into layers of long-term snow. My lungs think I must be joking trying to run at such great heights; I push them on as the blue Colorado sky laughs down. It’s in lifting desperate eyes from the mud that I notice the curious posture of trees. A great and mighty wind must have swept through them in the night, a wind carrying shards of ice and sleet. It blew westward, depositing its frosty yield on exactly one half of every tree. Glacial gems partially encase each bough of pine needles; winter and spring kiss each other on the same branch. My breath comes in tatters, but the sun touches briefly on the west face of the Colorado trees, and stars blaze in the afternoon. Where oxygen falls short, beauty abounds. And there is joy... 

I am learning much about joy these days. I am learning that many people consider it an elusive drug - a high sought after, but rarely experienced. We’ve heard rumors of it, known people who have tasted it, brushed past it lightly in moments soaked with sunrise or sunset. It seems we parade joy to the world at Christmas, then relegate it to greeting card storage boxes with other coveted but rarely pursued virtues like hope and peace for the year’s remaining months. Many find it an antiquated word of antiquated promises; a blissful pipe dream of the soul with no actual substance in today’s modern world.

In the absence of a genuine encounter with joy, the temptation is to push back the darkness by accepting a substitute. Success, popularity, wealth, good health, positive self esteem; these advertise circumstantial happiness - elation on demand. Occasionally they even make good on the claim. But, circumstantial happiness is a poor man’s (or a rich man’s) joy, and if the original has ever been tasted, no fraud will satisfy. 

Try as I might, my heart will accept no substitute. I have tasted authentic joy and it has so spoiled my soul that any imitation only piques my thirst for the real deal. The real deal cannot be hunted in the same manner as its counterfeits, however. Pursuing it for its own sake (as one would success or wealth or popularity) will always leave me wanting. Joy is a shy quarry; it occupies center stage only when pushed there by brass instruments and tympani’s and great choruses of “Hallelujah”. The more I seek it, the more it hangs back in the wings, sweetening the corners of life rarely noticed; when I abandon pursuit of it for pursuit of a greater goal, it finds me. 

The truth is, I have only tasted joy when I have indulged my appetite for God. When I am looking for Him, preoccupied with trying to find His hands at work in the world, trying to live out His love, trying to drink in His glory, joy sneaks up on me, trumpeting great “Hallelujahs” in my heart and setting every fiber of my soul aglow. King David experienced the same phenomenon. 

“Splendor and majesty are before Him; 
strength and joy in His dwelling place.” (1 Chronicles 16:27)

“I have set the LORD always before me. 
Because He is at my right hand, 
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; 
my body also will rest secure...
You have made known to me the path of life; 
You will fill me with joy in Your presence, 
with eternal pleasures at Your right hand.” (Psalm 16:8,9,11)

Joy dwells in the place my Savior dwells. In His presence is the fullness of joy. He offers eternal pleasures and my heart is glad. My tongues rejoices. And, the path of life? St. Paul draws a map:

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Joy and thankfulness come by our souls hand in hand. When I see the goodness of my God, joy rises up in me like a slow sweet blush, thankfulness leaps and leaps again out of the depths of my spirit. When I am thankful for God’s provision, for His love, for sparkles on the water and sunsets and swans and the promise of daffodils buttering the edges of spring, joy spills through my veins like champagne, effervescing and ever-lifting my heart to the tips of its toes, throwing back its head and laughing freely in His holy wind.

I have seen that joy is not a destination. It is a by-product of the journey. There are no promises that the journey will be comfortable; that I will not fail at times, that a steady rain will not occasionally fall. Many of my circumstances are beyond my control; if I depend on them to make me happy, I am a gambler and a fool. Bad days will come - God is still good. Sometimes life hurts - God’s love for me remains. Joy does not run from grief; it is not bullied by pain - in fact many times the two kiss each other on the same branch. Any discomfort of mine cannot alter the fact that beauties which are capable of taking my breath away abound. 

In light of such truths, let me then dwell where He dwells, in good days and in bad, in sorrow and in laughter, in solitude and in the company of dear, dear friends. Let me be thankful in every circumstance, praying continually, walking the only path I have ever known to lead me to life. For there is joy....

Blown Away (February 10, 2010)

The wind has come early. My calendar and leftover Valentines tell me that today dawned somewhere in the middle of February, but I see the forces of March bending the trees outside my window. The sun, gathered in a pale blue sky, catches the skin of slowly dying icicles and grants them each a rhinestone swan song, drop after drop streaking down in a blaze of glory. I hear the winds carry them to earth, the winds that whip around the corners of this old house; winds that paint a shadowed kaleidoscope on my white curtains with nothing more than the spindled fingers of barren trees and a determination to make them dance. 

I love the blustery distant roar of winds in late winter. Danger licks the edges of that roar, hints of a wild strength straining for release and being held back. It is the fierceness of the whistling wind which comforts me, the force of clouded lips on branches which draws soft mounds of peace close up under my chin. I enjoy the howling winds mostly because I am protected from them; I sit in my sunlit enclave of warmth, looking out at the frenzied play of light and shadow on diamond-kissed swaths of snow from behind white curtains. The gales that blow are strong - the walls that house me are stronger still.

Standing out in it is a separate thrill. There is something about a great whipping wind that makes me feel alive. My hair takes flight in multi-stranded chaos, pushing against my ears and getting caught up in my eyelashes. The sun and wind fight each other for my cheeks, pink either from solar warmth or frosted tempest, but not admitting which. Breath races into my lungs, a cyclone of oxygen spinning through my veins and leaving me lightheaded. It’s good to be alive.

I am finding, however, that no matter how intoxicating the taste of living is to a heart swept by sun and sky, too much of my life is spent actually trying to stay out of the wind. Danger is inconvenient and wild strength is unpredictable - I’m partial to forces I can control. Echos of far-off gusts stir up a rustling in my own soul, whispers of another sort of life, of a faith stripped of casual conventions. Radical trust in a God who might call me to walk without explanation, love without reservation, or serve without recognition - this sort of faith makes me nervous. Without wide open spaces for it to run, however, the fledgling rebel faith settles into a gentle breeze then returns to stagnant air. I tend to prefer a faith that is safe over the uncontrollable wiles of a holy tempest blustering through my soul.

I find also that too often I prefer a God who is safe. I like the idea of a God I can slip in my pocket, a God who affirms my complaints, fulfills my whims, and stays within the boundaries I have given Him. I rope off the open spaces, allowing Him to rustle my soul at appropriate times and in places I deem acceptable, such as church and on the stage of my pious, self-righteous acts. If He whistles dangerously around the edges of wider, unprotected plains, I shut the windows, draw the curtains and lament that He must not have heard my prayers for if He had, He would surely answer according to the script I had given Him.

This God (the God I think I have tamed) is not the God blowing through the ancient writings of Scripture. They’re not even related. The God who IS will never be a force I can control.

“Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, You are very great; 
You are clothed with splendor and majesty.
He wraps himself in light as with a garment; 
He stretches out the heavens like a tent
And lays the beams of His upper chambers on their waters. 
He makes the clouds His chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds His messengers, flames of fire His servants.
He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
But at Your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of Your thunder they took to flight;
They flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, 
To the place You assigned for them.”

Psalm 104:1-8

I wonder, sometimes, if this God, the One wrapped in light and pulling taut the corners of sunrise, has any free time. After setting the earth on its foundations, does He now have nothing better to do than constantly baby-sit the planet, waiting for us to cue Him in on His lines? Does His existence revolve around creatures whose lives revolve around themselves? Is He ever tempted to take a holiday and leave the reigns of His cloud-borne chariot in angels’ hands?

In preferring a God and a faith that are safe, I err in making God too small. I misinterpret the love He promised would endure from everlasting to everlasting by assuming He is therefore obliged to produce for me a life I approve of. I am not fond of pain and therefore deduce that its presence (for any reason) must indicate the absence of God. I demand comfort and joy, high esteem and good friends, chocolate and Starbucks coffee. A deficiency in any of these and God is again in the hot seat, while I, with arms crossed and toes tapping, await an explanation.

Who am I to think I can capture the wind in my hands? Who am I to tell the gales of late winter to do my bidding, to hush the shouting chorus of winter trees, to critique the dance of a shadowed kaleidoscope on white curtains and whiter snow? Who am I to sulk when the God whose very voice set the force of a thousand tsunamis raging over mountain ranges doesn’t seem to be interested in my suggestions? Only One has ridden on the wings of the wind. Only One has commanded them and they obeyed. “Peace be still” - the howling gusts fell silent.

I am not entitled to the full attention of this God; He listens to me anyway. I have done nothing worthy of His respect; He honors me anyway. I have barely the smallest inkling of the meaning of love. He loves me anyway. I have what I have as an overflow of His goodness; the Divine is not indebted to humanity. We are indebted to Him. He baby-sits us because He chooses to, not because He must.

He is the great whipping wind and He is the sunlit enclave of refuge. He is bigger than my feeble brain can imagine, but He lowers Himself to a place I can find Him; He makes His hands small enough for me to hold. He takes me by the arms and teaches me to walk; He bends down to feed me. It is by His grace I have life and breath and being; by His mercy I have forgiveness, by His affection I have joy. The wide unprotected plains of my soul ought to continually be rustling with unfettered gratitude, a fledgling honest faith taking flight and soaring beneath His cloud-borne chariot. 

He is not safe, and, truthfully, I don’t want Him to be. I want God to know more, see farther, and understand more fully the ramifications of circumstances than I do, even if it means I walk without explanation, love without reservation, and serve without recognition. I know my place. He has proven my trust. Let His love be fierce, the wild strength no longer held back. I will stand in it as long as I can, and when I can stand no longer, I will run for shelter under the shadow of His hands. Let the holy tempest blow - it’s good to be alive.

I Love a Man with Dishpan Hands... (February 5, 2010)

There’s something missing in my kitchen. A hundred years ago, no one would have noticed - fifty years back its presence would have been considered a luxury. Today, people’s eyes widen when I tell them, and they lower their voices with incredulity, “You don’t have a dishwasher?” 

It’s true. I don’t. Well, I take that back - I have two. I’m currently typing with them. They’re a little more chapped and chafed than they were in winters past - winters when the calm of evening was carried along by a soft background hum, the steady pulse of spinning water sterilizing my forks and knives and tableware. I washed dishes occasionally by hand in those days, too. The vestiges of good meals shared were rinsed away before the plates were cradled in their sauna, the ones unable to handle the heat delicately bathed and dried. If I numbered my moments spent elbow deep in suds, the hours could quite possibly stretch into years. 

Washing dishes, at first glance, is a menial task. What I wash today I will wash again tomorrow, and, if I continue eating, next week and the week after that. To alleviate the problem, I could buy paper plates (wasteful), learn to cook or eat without dishes (messy), or give up cooking all-together for restaurants and take-out (tempting).

I used to hate washing dishes. Lately, however, I’ve been coming to terms with my dishwashing demons. A chore I once loathed has now become slightly therapeutic - instead of hurriedly rinsing and tossing utensils into the hotbox, I settle into the task, knowing that a job done quickly will not be a job done well. Each dish, each glass, each mug is acknowledged, gently wiped if the damage is light, scrubbed if the offending scum is a bit more stubborn. Every soapy baptism yields a dish reborn as its sparkling self. It doesn’t matter that I have done this before; nor that in a day or two, I will do it again. The dish must be cleaned in order to be used, and because it is worthy of use, I wash it. Over and over again. And one more time. 

The steady repetition of washing dishes reminds me of so many other cycles in life. A task is completed and set aside, only to be picked up again the next day. And the next. As long as I continue to eat (and can’t afford a lifestyle of restaurant luxury), I will continue to wash dishes.

I often think I would prefer if tasks would stay completed. Almost a year ago I ran 42 kilometers in a marathon. Today my body struggles to run eight. Last week I ate a meal that was so good and so filling I could barely walk. This morning my stomach loudly grumbled its discontent at my pitiful lack of breakfast offerings. I spent all day yesterday drawing oxygen in and out of my lungs, and yet I find myself still breathing today.

The world I live in is prone to deterioration. Without regular maintenance, my car, my body, and my friendships will slide into rust and decay; my dishes will crust over and be useless. Both our vices and our virtues must be fed in order to survive. My relationship with God is no different.

The pages of Scripture are replete with the rhythm of holy maintenance; the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years received only a daily dose of manna, the Law given through Moses drew them to the Temple for feasts and sacrifices that came around every season. Jeremiah reminds us that God’s mercies are new every morning; Jesus tells His disciples to ask for daily bread. Every Spring overthrows every Winter drawn from the frosted breath of every Autumn left in the wake of every Summer. The world turns, and turns again. Dawn breaks, evening falls. Dish soap is whipped into lather in the sink, moments pass and it dribbles feebly down the drain.

Christian theology teaches us that belief in Christ is what sweeps the eternal consequences of our sins into the depths of the sea, building for us a home in Heaven. The moment our faith emerges, a switch is thrown - the old is gone, the new has come. We become creatures of a new sort, brimming with new life, breathing with new hope. Love takes its place in our soul’s repertoire, as do joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We are the good soil these fruits thrive in, they bud and blossom through our hands and feet and the way we use our voices.

And while the task of our salvation is complete, we are tempted to leave beside it the articles of holy maintenance. We survey our circumstances and wish for a switch to be thrown. We want our lives to be fixed, and to never need fixing again. Looking back at the moments we felt most alive, when joy swept through us like a flood, when the light of freedom blazed through every corner of our souls; we now glance at dried up creek beds and crowds of shadows. Under the gaze of our paper plate vision, we reckon we should give up, toss it away and order take-out instead.

Just because joy does not now sing through my veins, does not mean I will not hear its song again. Just because peace eludes these current moments, does not mean it waits for me along heaven’s shores, determined to remain there until my body is laid down and my soul takes flight. I cannot warm my heart today with the fuel of last year’s fire. I must join the holy rhythm, coming back to my God for His daily bread (out of obedience, if nothing else) over and over again. And one more time.

Just a few feet from where I sit, priceless works of art are stacked in a heap. Fiercely lovely in their monochromatic glory, one buries the one beneath it, hundreds more cover them both in the span of a breath. Stunning in simplicity, unpretentious and unique, these icy drops of heaven are scattered two feet deep by a Creator who feels the beauty of a snowflake is important, even if He and the angels are the only ones privy to such intricacies. Great billowing drifts of suds wash over an earth that has been washed before; it will be washed again.

This is the God I return to, the One who sustains me, who feeds my soul, who sets beauty in places sometimes only He can see. He settles into the task, knowing that a job done quickly will not be a job done well. He gently wipes me clean when I am damaged; He scrubs away offending scum when I am stubborn. It doesn’t matter that He has done this before, or that He will do it again. He doesn’t toss me away like yesterday’s paper plate. He never gives up and orders take-out instead. It seems He finds me worth the effort and when I come to Him with my paltry offerings of obedience and praise, He baptizes me anew; I am reborn into my sparkling self. 

I am glad I’m not a task He has completed. Submitting myself to soul maintenance is not often easy; it is rarely fun. Many times I do wish He would fix my life and leave it fixed. If He did, however, I would not witness the steadiness of His love, the rhythm of His hands molding and shaping, cleansing and renewing me over and over again. And one more time. That is something I couldn’t bear missing.

“Remain in Me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” -Jesus (John 15:4-5)

Anchors Away... (January 23, 2010)

“Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.... don’t think about falling” My heart beat out the rhythm of the words as the slight heels of my brown boots teetered on the top wrung. It was the yellow ladder. The tall one. I could see the price tag taunting me from the back corner of the box, just beyond the reach of my scanner gun. The bar code slightly blurred as I contorted and stretched and prayed that my thin red laser beam would capture those stupid black stripes and reward me with its annoying ‘beep’ before my tremulous balance gave way to gravity. Almost..... almost.....

Inventory. Anyone who has ever worked in retail knows the horror of that word. Those who work it are doomed to endless hours of ceaseless counting. Since I am currently employed in a kitchen store and enjoy baking, I thought it would be fun to count the baking items. Silly me. I forgot that the baking section included such joys as sprinkles, measuring spoons, and a million and two paper thin Italian baking cups that, at four a.m., will cross the eyes of any hapless soul who dares to attempt numbering them. I know. I was hapless.

Somewhere between the heights of the yellow ladder and the depths of the cold concrete floor (“fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six... no wait. Is that? Augh! One...two...three...”), I thought about the inventory of my life. From the heights of blessings to the cold depths of trials and discouragements - if I numbered them all, what would I find?

If I let my feelings take stock, the cold concrete would have swallowed me up ten thousand and four Italian baking cups ago. To be honest, a general blueness has settled on my shoulders and when I’m not looking, it soaks right through to my soul. Many days I feel listless, tired, lonely. My heart scrambles to hold onto bright memories of the past, good times with good friends, and I find myself desperately haunting those echoes, trying to live in the vacuum of moments which have faded away.

I think the reason this move has been so different than the others in my life is because I feel like all the anchors of my identity have been removed. My friendships, my responsibilities, my creative outlets, my opportunities to express all my favorite things about myself have not disappeared - they have just been been placed out of my reach, accessible only in small doses, and mostly through ‘skype’. When I look in the mirror, I recognize the hair and chin and eyes, but I don’t know who I am anymore. I feel like everything that defined me is gone. 

There are people I know casually, but they don’t really know me. I hide big chunks of my life because I have been blessed with a remarkable amount of interesting friends, family, and life experiences - so remarkable, in fact, that to speak of them sounds like bragging. I’m not bragging - it’s just my life. I don’t have any other stories to tell. And although the thought of life in the absence of such remarkable people and places feels like a slap of cold, blue concrete, the truth is they are the bits which shine brightest as blessings. 

When I push my temperamental emotions aside and let Truth take stock of my life, building up an inventory of what actually exists (whether I acknowledge it or not), it quickly becomes clear that not all anchors in my life have been displaced. There is one Anchor that remains, one slice of my identity that cannot be stripped, no matter what else crumbles and falls.

But now, this is what the LORD says...
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; 
I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. 
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior... 
You are precious and honored in My sight, and I love you...” (Isaiah 43:1-4) 

“It is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to Him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls.” (Hebrews 6:18-19).

My God is good and He loves me. I have fled to Him for refuge enough times to know this deeper and truer than I know anything else. When every other anchor in my life gives way, this Anchor holds. He will not allow the waves of weariness to sweep over me, the currents of loneliness to pull me away, the fire of my frustration to set me ablaze. Because He, the Holy God, my Savior, loves me. He calls me His Dear One; He reminds me that the core of my identity rests in the hope He has called me to. The hope that calls me by name. The hope that endlessly confirms I am His. The hope that I am precious and loved, because He is the Lord and He only makes high quality goods. This hope pierces through the echoes of my desperate haunting, whispering that through the best of times and through the worst of times, the very best is yet to come. I have seen His goodness - I will see it still.

It’s winter and all the trees are bare. I’m sure I would have known them if they were wearing their leaves, but now only naked branches rake the crisp afternoon sky, one looking no different than the others. Their identities have been shaken, fallen, and leaf-blown away. Yet it is in their humbling nudity that the strength for winds to come is revealed - each twig, each branch grows upward, contorting, stretching, praying to the sun that gives them life. Their new leaves are there, they are but hidden for a season, swallowed up by cold, rough bark. At the proper time, however, the trees will bloom again, and the seemingly weak winter branches will break into a thousand shades of vibrant green.

My new leaves are there. I just can’t see them right now. They are hidden under a cold rough blueness that sometimes soaks into my soul. This season is important - it is revealing my source of strength for winds to come. When all other anchors, all other defining leaves reside in corners of the earth far from the one I live in, when my feelings tell me that the inventory of my life is coming up short on blessings and long on discouragements, I must reach up to the Hope that is a strong and trustworthy anchor for my soul. The Hope which reminds me this season will pass and I will green again; a day will dawn when I look in the mirror and know who I am. 

He, by the way, has never forgotten. He, the Holy God, my Savior is the One who calls me by name and in my tremulous moments of being off-balance whispers, “Fear not; you won’t fall... you won’t fall... I am with you - don’t think I would ever let you fall”.