Weekends are for trips to Grandma's

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Scripture from I Corinthians 13:1-13 (excerpted, emphasis mine).
Photos: baking whole wheat cookies at Grandma Debra's
on a blustery October afternoon.

Waking up is hard to do

At the conference I recently attended, a writing workshop yielded the suggestion that using Wordle might lend insight into our language skills, vocabulary, common overuse of certain words.  This service creates a cloud of your most commonly used words; you do have to click "do not exclude common English words" if you are using it as a tool to see where your writing weaknesses are.

Suffice it to say I was pleased with my word usage...except for one word, that showed up nearly as large as the word "Jesus".

That word was "BED".  Ouch.  How embarrassing - and telling!

I have always had a problem getting out of bed - ever since my heart condition slowed me down at around 16.  It's no different now.  With a tendency to burn the candle late into the night in that blissful quiet that surrounds like a dark starry night, the wee morning hours, now still dark as daylight savings looms still far off, are painful and achy and completely and totally a matter of self-discipline.  Of which I am in incredibly short supply.

My little boy wakes up hard. His cries are the first thing to crack my sleepy lids open, jarring me awake in a flurry of, "What's wrong? Is the house on fire? Did someone try to kill my baby?"  And then, as lucidity returns, I realize that he is just being himself and nothing is wrong and once I help him, he will quiet. He has woken up crying since the first day of his life outside the womb. He just does not like waking up. And his request is always the same.

My son wakes up thirsty. Every. single. morning.

Do I?

The very first thing he wants - the thing he is begging for through a sheet of hot tears and the squalling of his cries - is water. I need drink, Mama! Over and over and over again until his lips are wet, his throat is soothed and cool, he's consumed a few tiny glasses. And when his thirst is quenched, he always rewards me, eyelids squinched in his best and sleepiest smile. And then falls back asleep in my arms.

Some mornings we repeat this drill three or four times before he is actually ready to get up and move out of the bedroom and on to little boy activities of the morning: building a set of train tracks, clocking his sister a time or two just for good measure, and reading one of those annoying books-with-sound that chirps electronically and annoyingly all the way into the kitchen where I fry the eggs.

Do I wake up thirsty?

In hard seasons of life - the time surrounding my cancer diagnosis, when Amelia was in the hospital near death, when I was losing my 5th child to ectopic pregnancy and feared that I was laying myself on a senseless altar to carry that child - in those times, I woke up parched and moaning and begging for a drink.  A drink of the only water that matters, the Living Water.  
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
I want to wake up every morning craving the Word. I have found, in practical terms, that this means I need to be disciplined about reading my Bible when it isn't easy. I've heard it argued that you can supplement with a devotional book when the Bible seems daunting. I would argue that is only true if there is Scripture in that devotional book, right at the top of the page, and it is speaking to you loud and clear every day. There is something about reading more than just 1 or 2 selected topical verses that will speak to your soul deep in ways a pre-selected verse may not.

My accountability? I keep a Bible as a journal for 5 years at a time, pairing my notes and thoughts with the passages of Scripture. When my kids turn 16, they will each get a Bible with a love letter from Mama in the front, and years worth of notes and strugglings and lovings and thrashing about in the margins. I don't want them to see any noticeable span of time when I wasn't keeping notes. Some mornings, that is enough to get me to crack the covers and grab a pen, scribble a few thoughts by some random Psalm, even if inside I am tired, moaning, angry, brutish, dark, unloving. 

On the days I don't get a shower, that Living Water is what washes my soul clean and allows me to sparkle through my dirtiness for my kids through the longest days. Hasn't God chosen the poor (and dirty) in this world to be rich in faith? (James 2:5)

On days when the laundry is piled and the dishes are dirty and the kids want to fingerpaint instead of help me clean, that Living Water is what quietly urges me deep that they are what matters, not the sticky floors or the dining room table piled deep.  Whoever can be trusted with little can be trusted with much (Luke 16:10).  Whoever welcomes a little child such as this welcomes me (Luke 9:48).

On days when Amelia is sick and I am on vomit and poop-scoop duty, the Living Word washes the floors with me and it is Christ's tears of anguish in Gethsemane that pour down my arms and fill the sponge as we scrub together. He whispers, It is okay to beg take this cup.  It is okay to say why have you forsaken me in this?  It is okay to wonder when will rescue come?

On days when I myself barely have the energy to drag cancer with me around my home, when I lie in bed to read stories to the kids, and sleep long through their nap, and the guilt eats worse than cancer over the neglected housewifing and homeschooling, the Living Word flushes it away and the scald lessens as Jesus whispers, Whoever finds her life will lose it, and whoever loses her life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39).

His Living Word is the only water worth searching for in this world.  Find it, read it, memorize it, pray it, believe it, live it, love it.  You will never, ever regret it.

Like newborn infants, thirst for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (I Peter 2:2)

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)

Resources for Bible Study for the Thirsty:

Dying to be beautiful (part II)

The thing about autumn - this season whose hallmark is death - is that it falls short of our expectations. It cuts short our sun-splashed summers, the boating and vacationing; the harvest is over, and whatever food we've stored from our gardens is it. Often it brings a sense of failure: failure to capitalize on a limitless amount of fun we could have had, work we could have done, yard improvements that languished and friendships we left fallow. In his classic book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, author Laurence Gonzales tells us that our survival - eluding death when the moment beckons - depends mostly on our ability to change our expectations.  If you continue to exist in the old reality - "Holy crap! I am about to die! Here it comes!" - then you probably will do just that.  But if you construct a new reality - "Holy crap! This is dangerous! How do I get out of this?" - your chances of surviving are vastly higher.

So consider this your moment of truth.  You watch the world around you spin slower and slower and farther away from the sun, the plants going into hibernation, the animals hungrily feasting on any food they can find to sustain them through the months of hard winter, the people scurrying to and from cars exhaling clouds of cloying exhaust to the stores that breath their exhaust from high stacks into the thin, cold air.  You know, deep inside, that this world is dying.  You know, even truer and closer to the surface, that you are dying, too.

You are the pumpkin plucked at the height of harvest, now shrouded with the fringe of frost and dripping condensation after the last lingering warmth of the 4 o'clock sun.  Your days are numbered.  Someday soon the blackness that even now lies coiled in your cells will explode in a haze of mold all over your beautiful skin.

You are the grass growing ever drier and more yellow as the land leeches it's water deep within, preserving itself - the earth - while it's ornaments die a slow and beatific, colorful death.  Soon you will flutter away into the winter wind, or you will be buried deep in the icy piles of snow crystals where you cannot breath or see the sun, the whole world become a giant prism of white-blue light forever dancing meaningless around your rotting remnant.

Do you accept this fate, this reality?  Do you shut your eyes and sigh and think this is just how it is - dust to dust, perhaps, or maybe (if you're lucky), reincarnation (do it all over again, endlessly, living life forever on repeat) or re-absorption into something greater than yourself?

If this is true, why do little children smile that knowing smile, that smile that knows that life is beautiful and joyful and purposeful and meaningful?  If it is true that life is meaningless, why go on at all?  If life is all about becoming part of a great Spirit, or coming back again to try again, aren't you a little exhausted just contemplating it?

You've got to see yourself, first of all, as the tiny speck of nothing on the grand span of illustrious time.
To know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks.  It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around.  ~Flannery O'Connor
God puts it another way: None is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). Even in the Bible, we hear the echo of the long exhale as one of the grandest men of Scripture concludes that life on this earth is meaningless: Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun--all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)

Okay, you've got the picture in your mind now, right? Kind of like a scene from "Where's Waldo?" Your tiny body in a sea of billions of other bodies, on a planet spinning beyond your control toward a fate you cannot comprehend much less predict or change. It's a depressing picture, isn't it?  Almost makes you want to give in to it, just lay down and give up, and say UNCLE! Everything's upside down anyway, headed toward disaster, and you're just along for the ride. Right?

Wrong!  Here is the moment of decision.  Your moment of truth.  The moment in which you decide whether you expect the reality you've been given - the reality you understand and can casually navigate on a daily basis without even having too many deep thoughts.  Do you want the old reality, the one that has you dying during heart bypass surgery when you're old and wrinkled, or maybe riddled with cancer and begging for pain killers in hospice, or suddenly in a car wreck you never saw coming?

Or are you going to try to change that reality?  With a change of plans, might it be possible to survive death? To become beautiful in death?

One guy did it.

And He says you can do it, too: For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (I John 5:4-5) How does everything end in this world? With death. So if we overcome the world, that's what we overcome. Death.

Now you need to move yourself from one plane of reality - the one where death is inevitable - to the other plane of Truth - where death has been overcome. To do that, you need to know just one thing: Christ modeled this for us and tells us exactly how to accomplish it.

If you don't want to rot back into the soil only to feed the next generation;

If you don't really care to repeat this meaningless life a few thousand times until you get it right and head to Nirvana;

If you don't want to be re-absorbed by a changeable, amorphous Spirit being you've never been able to understand;

If you don't want to try to navigate some class-based or deeds-based hierarchy along with a bunch of other dead folks in an Underworld or Afterlife...

This is what you need to know:

There is a home for you...a nice one, without any hierarchy to navigate, any Spirit to become part of, or rules governing your next go-round on the planet earth.

It's called heaven.

The lights are always on, and Jesus is always sitting by the phone waiting for you to call.

As you call, you need to know a couple of things.
  1. God sent his son, Jesus, to earth to be born of a virgin - fully God and fully man. Jesus never sinned.  Not when he was 2, 12, or 20. Not once.
  2. As a young man, he was persecuted, beaten, and crucified on a cross. During the crucifixion, God poured out the wrath He had stored against the sins of all mankind on the shoulders of his dying son. When Christ died, he descended into hell as payment for the sins of all the world. A curtain was torn that freed men from living by the law (10 commandments) and allowed them instead to live by grace (undeserved favor) because their sins have already been paid for by their Savior's death.
  3. On the 3rd day, Christ rose from the dead. He walked, talked, and ate with his followers and met strangers on the road. A short time later, he ascended into heaven, where he now sits at the right hand of God, hearing our prayers and waiting for the day that he is reunited with all those he loves - yes, even you and me, chief among sinners!
Okay. So pick up your spiritual phone and dial heaven. Admit that you want to overcome death - that you want to be made beautiful in death. Just say four simple words: I believe in You.

He told us himself, to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).

Think you're going to "lose it" - this new paradigm, this new understanding, this new boundless joy - the next time you screw up or are plagued by questions or can't give an answer when someone asks you about your new faith?  Not so. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. The key word here is KNOW. You have a ticket to the greatest dance of all time. It's not a paper ticket you can lose or even an e-mail that maybe won't print right when the concert date gets here. It's a tattoo on your heart called the Holy Spirit, a tattoo that matches the piercings on the hands of your Savior, Jesus. He invited you to the dance, He knows you belong there, and He is never going to turn you away.

Because you are beautiful in death.

Just like He was.

And that is the key to this "dying to be beautiful".  As your die, your colors come through as all you are squeezes the life deep inside - the Holy-Spirit-life - out to the surface, and your skin glows and you are a rose dappled with mist against the hole-bitten green leaves; you are the golden grass in the green field; you are the tree waving her arms in a dance of praise to the gray heavens; you are the aged green-eyed cat queenly...you are the rusty red tines of a well-used spade...you are seeds on the dying wheat.  You are beautiful because death is beautiful...because it will never again be the final moment. Because of Christ, death is no longer extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come (Rabindranath Tagore).

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:13-17)
I will die, Father, a thousand little deaths of cancer - I will lose the strength of my voice, I will lose my youthful vigor, I will give up my early mornings to aches and pains and pleadings at your Throne; I will plod through homeschool, and give up field trip opportunities for my kids and trust that You are feeding them in ways I cannot; I will live in a messy house that I don't have energy to pick up; I will suffer physical pain; I will be quiet when someone tells me they think my cancer is because of my sin; I will humbly accept all the myriad pamphlets, web-links, and mass e-mails about healing and I will never laugh in the face of someone who offers me this help; I will pray every day, all day long, that someday I won't have cancer anymore; I will recant and pray for hours on end that you will take me home via cancer if that is your will; I will spend lots of time I would rather spend elsewhere at the doctor's office, the hospital, and the operating room; I will go on "vacations" for weeks or months at a time because of treatment.

This is my way to the broken/beautiful - the way to which He called me - sharing in the suffering of Christ.  I pray that He makes me more like Him with every day we suffer in this way.  And that He bestows on me a mantle of beauty that overshadows the bruises of life.

Creation brings an offering
As autumn leaves turn to gold
The trees bow down in highest praise
Now made bare before Your throne

The western sky an amber blaze
At the end of the day
In the darkest night of man
we found Your saving hand
For everything must die to rise again

And so we wait in joyful hope
for you to take us home
And so we join beneath the Cross
a suffering from whence we go

Dying to be beautiful

Perichoresis.  "To dance or flow around".  A relatively unpoetical Greek word that describes the poetry of worship, of glorifying, of praising our Creator.  On nearly every page of His book, there is a command, a suggestion, or a mention of our praising God. Unbelievers have time and again labeled this as the ultimate in self-servient pride, proof that God is, indeed (if He exists at all) a megalomaniac sadist who has human puppets dancing in a fiery and comedic tragedy toward their eventual, unwitting and stupid death.

Seen without the lens of Christ, that's exactly what this life is.  A march toward the inevitable grave, the only redeeming value whatever legacy we leave for the next generation, the one after that, the one after that...the gifts we give to the others on this death march a few miles behind us.  Some take comfort in nature, seeing the death and return of the plants as a sort of allegory for our own endless circle of spiritual reincarnation.

Then there is spiritism - the idea that we all flow from and return to a great conglomerate spiritual place that is safe and beautiful.  Kind of like this tree - the sap rising up through the branches and strengthening them, finding eventual release in the leaves at the very tips of the branches, the last to let go in the fall winds.  When they finally let go that tenacious clasp to life, they die in the ground and feed the trees again.

The ancients were like seeds, released from life and lingering in the air, flitting on the autumn breeze for days or months, until that essence was finally carried to a permanent home in the afterlife - whether it be the monarchic underworld of Zoroastrianism, the tiered hell of the Greeks and Romans, or dichotomous Kingdom of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians.

I tried all that on for size, somewhere between the end of high school and the beginning of my career.  But all those tabernacles and churches, places of worship and places of gathering left me begging one question still: why dance?

What about a hierarchy in a Kingdom of the Dead inspires wonder? The pale and resigned hope of reincarnation as a slightly better person so you can do it all over again - what about that inspires praise?  If I simply return to the Great Spirit, why worship?

It dawned on me slowly, as I experimented, and wondered, and searched, and groped in dark places and seethed blindly with the masses when the light was blinding.
And then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. ~J.R.R.Tolkien, The Return of the King
To sleep, perchance to dream.  To die, perchance to be in glory, to glorify, to dance as never before.  There is something about this great big God that has gets my feet moving and my body twirling, even when the dinner dishes are like scattered carcasses on the kitchen island, and the children screech their energetic protestation of bedtime even from behind closed doors, and husband is weary and wife is worn and messes abound and nothing about this house looks redeemed.

In the green and yellow grasses dying at first frost...the last leaves clinging to the tippy-top of the winsome oak tree...the seeds gathering droplets of rain...the cat's one aged green eye glinting in the yellow haze of the first winter storm...the rusty spade in the dead-green grass...the pock-marked red of the last rose blossom against the hole-bitten fade of her dark green leaves...

Death comes to us all, that last final season that brings with it weeping.

For some, it is a season of putting on beauty.  The old, old skin glows pink as every blood vessel within squeezes life to the surface in one final bloom of beauty.  The parchment paper husk of face turns a glowing pink and yellow in the last light of the soul's release.  The lips relax their corners and the wrinkles fade.  The beatific smile forever remembered as a sign of peace.

Crippled by age or infirmity, what we see in those beautiful last moments is the soul dancing away from a body that long forgot how.  If you know where you are going - and perhaps, when you lie quiet in your bed though your family throngs close and tight and twittering, you are already present with Jesus - this is when the real dance begins.
For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory. Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious. (II Corinthians 3:9-11)
Thoughts as a dear great-aunt lies dying.  To be continued, in part II, tomorrow.

Hearing the wild heartbeat in the storm

I didn't have enough hands
to hold the pieces of my brokenness
Didn't have enough tears
to dry out my heart

But on the other side of the storm
where the sunshine is wonderful warmth
I've much to live
and more to give
and laughter comes so easy

A half hour east of Chicago, my eyes were a sand-filled abyss of fatigue and my knuckles ached from clutching the steering wheel, as if I could haul myself out of the drag of slumber if only I pulled hard enough on the faux leather grain of the wheel.

The clouds stacked up for miles, tens of thousands of feet of mist piled in mounding thunderheads all around the city.  At 4 p.m., the last straggling suburbanites filed out of downtown with lights glowing in the gloom of the gathering storm.  A few fingers of cold air funneled up through the mountainous dome of the cloud and the rays of the afternoon sun glinted through in shafts of splendor.

Lighting our way to Chicago.

Keeping my eyes glued on the wet slick of the pavement before me, stopped in traffic, and wishing with all my heart that I were already snug in a hotel bed, I thought to the others who attended the Relevant conference, and wondered if their journeys home were as fraught with difficulty as my own?

It was so comforting there, to be in a large group of women talking openly about their relationship with the Lord, about their call to blogging, about the criticism they received and the late nights hashing things over with husbands and with God.  Yet I also watched women strong for their tasks.  Toting cameras, full-size laptops, with energy to spare.  I carried a small fabric bag, occasionally my HP Mini, some pens, business cards and a small 3"x5" notebook.  I was so exhausted, I fled home between sessions, skipped the evening concerts, and often found quiet corners to curl up in during breaks.

Is it cancer that has me constantly looking for rest?  My heart condition?  Laziness?  A different set of inborn abilities?

Elisabeth Elliot addresses this:
The God who determined the measurements of the foundations of the earth sets limitations to the scope of our work.  It is always tempting to measure ourselves by one another, but this easily leads to boasting or despair.  It is our business to find the sphere of service allotted to us, and do all that He has appointed us to do within that sphere, not "commending ourselves."  Paul said, "We will keep to the limits God has apportioned us" (II Cor. 10:13). Jesus did that - willing to become a helpless, newborn baby, to be a growing child, an adolescent, a man, each stage bounded by its peculiar strictures, yet each offering adequate scope in which to glorify His father.  Lord, glorify Yourself through me and in the place You've set me.  Let me not covet another's place or work or glory.

Sunday melted into Monday, and more long hours of driving stretched before me before I finally fell spent into the red couch in my own front room, surrounded by the buzzing flitting of the children left behind.  Tuesday dawned with work to do and not an ounce of energy to do it.  I longed to stay underneath the warm pile of down feathers I had made myself overnight.  Husband long awake and at work, children crying for breakfast, swimming lessons just an hour off.  I shuddered off the covers and hunched my shoulders to the morning chill in the yellow breakfast nook as I spooned thick yogurt into old china bowls and tried to breath in sustenance from the little beauties of my messy home.

At swim lessons, I look out the foggy window and watch the unceasing wind blow the leaves across the field at the rear of the building.  It struck me how fake this environment is.  Fifty years ago, this first autumn gale - the snow flying in between the sheets of driving rain, the leaves abandoning their perch of the last 6 months, the crackle of the dried earth as all it's seeds are swept before the bracing wind - would send farmers scurrying, housewives tending fires and stacking wood, battening down of hatches before the long winter.  Not housewives and children skittering like dried oak leaves across the few feet of pavement between minivan and pool shelter.

We live in a world that isolates itself from storms.  We go from attached garages to houses magically warmed by silent furnaces burning invisible gas, we swim in bathtub warm water on the coldest days of winter.

How does this affect our spiritual reaction when the storms of suffering engulf our lives?  Do we expect to live forever in warm, climate-controlled spiritual houses as well?  Do we know how to heat our spiritual homes in the dead of winter, or keep them dry in the fierce autumn gales, or protect them from the unrelenting winds and scorching heat of summer?

I walked into cancer with more tools than most women in their 20's.  Already the survivor of a heart condition in my teens and early 20's, I had already made my peace with the possibility of an early death; I knew how to wrestle with God about big questions; there was a time in my past when I took nothing for granted and answered every question I could with Scripture.

There have been days of this cancer-storm when it rained into my house, when I lost some siding to the wind, when I woke to windows buried in snow drifts.  Days when I felt like I was the only one standing out in the storm, while everyone else huddled next to fireplaces and raced to and fro from one heated building to the next.

Do you know the way your hair feels thick after it's whipped by rain?

Do you know the hot, turgid flush of the cheeks when they've been nearly frozen by an icy wind in a blizzard?

Have you ever felt the pins-and-needles sting as your legs come back to life from their thick, stiff gait after a walk after dark in winter?

How do those sensations translate, in your life, to the storms you've suffered spiritually?  

Hair thick on the 3rd day without a shower, as you turn back over to the cool side of your pillow, and realize there is a damp spot there still from the tears you shed two hours ago.  You close your eyes tight against the pain, and slumber washes like relief over your soul.

Cheeks burning as you face your accuser and wonder, deep down where your smallest internal voice lives, if you are right or wrong.  You search that still, small voice for some glimpse of Holy Spirit direction, and you come up empty.  So you turn your eyes down toward your shoes, and your soul screams a question to God as you walk away faster than you walked in.

The pins-and-needles in your legs come and go as you slap hard.  You've been sitting on this rock by the lake for hours and you still don't have an answer.  You watch a cloud sweep past the sun a million miles an hour and thousands feet high and wish you could drift like that, away from problems, towards the Son.

The truth is that there is more than the rain of tears washing you, in those days you cannot get out of bed.  There is something other than the neglected showers cleansing you and refreshing you.  
For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another....but after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.  ~Titus 3:3-7
And when you find no words at the bottom of your soul showing you which way to turn, there is license to lay down there, in that broken and wordless place, and beg for a word from the God who loves you.  The words of Haggai have often comforted me in that bottom-of-the-pit place when words are few: I am with you...Yet now be strong...Work, for I am with you...My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not...in this place I will give peace...the Lord stirreth up the spirit. (from Haggai 1 & 2)

And when you look up at the clouds and wish to skate that close to the Creator, when all your dreams are of the wind, blowing cold and hard and you wake up and you still live in your house of cards (Mary Chapin Carpenter), when everything you long for is escape and freedom and being anywhere but here...

Allow your soul-self to be turned easily by God.  Don't fight Him every step of the way.  I learned the hard way that my success in those times of longing for escape depended on three things I neglected all too often:
  1. Pray without ceasing!
  2. Reach out to your husband (or wife) for help and support.
  3. Seek counsel from an older woman (or man) in the faith.

You have to find a way to experience God in the storm.  IN the storm.  The storm is not something you are surviving, until sweeter days come again.  The storm is simply what is for your life today.  Remember that God says, "Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction."  And the promise that comes with your acceptance of this storm in your life, it is so sweet!  The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:15 & 17 exc.)

Mountains in moonlight

Eight years ago, he was a mountain man and I a curly-headed dreamer hovering between idealism and conservatism.  He kissed me when he got off the plane, in a desolate airport tunnel just outside the gate, the gray carpeted walls dulling the senses as my lips buzzed and my vision blurred.  We hiked through the rough-cut stubble of summer ski runs, legs on fire from the dry weeds, and lungs burning on the relentless climb upward.  That day is the most alive I'd ever felt, to that point.  At the top of Mount Washington, the wind cut a trough through the rustle of grass and we tread doggedly up the wooden planks to the ski lift platform, bare in the summer sun, just a stack of two-by-fours nailed down to make a ramp.  He put his arm around my waist and a shiver down my spine and I knew, again - this man I will marry, if ever he gives me the chance.

I drive through this same expanse of mountain ranges tonight.  Their tree-topped peaks roll like the giant humps of a camel in the blue light of the full moon.  In the valleys, the reservoirs and rivers are lit a glittering silver and snake away under the bridges like a necklace dropped hastily onto the bedstand at night.  A deer stands stock still, parallel with the lines of the road, penned in by the concrete walls erected to keep the cars from hurtling off into the night ravines while the road is rebuilt.  I can't swerve, and just clip his legs with the loaned little black car that has carried us from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania and now carries us haltingly home.  My heart races up, and the pacemaker catches and it slows again, and my vision swims as the blood drops down, down into my shoes while my heart leaps into my throat in a strangled exclamation.  I pull off, survey the damage, drag the cold night air deep into my lungs as I bend over and let the blood ascend again to my brain that screams for oxygen.

We reach the hotel in the wee morning hours, and I know immediately, through two cigarette-burn-holes for eyes, that I will not sleep easy tonight.  Too much suffering in the past years has destroyed that last thing I took for granted...the closing of the eyes, and the numbing wave that comes, and the little wake-dreams flitting like shadows through the hallways of your brain, and then finally, the anesthesia of deep sleep.  It alludes me now, after smashing head against porcelain and leaving the iron deposits of blood in the precious lobular gray of my mind.

Oh, the suffering that has washed over us, big giant 5 foot rollers of surf on this sea of life, relentless, like the waves of wind whipping Mount Washington as we smiled for the camera in 2002.  How much my mountain man has changed, how much have I changed!

A man spoke halting tonight about his deepest wounds as a child, and there was the just-swallowed salad stuck in my throat and suddenly washed in bile as I heard his anguish and the visceral memory of my own flooded over me.  His voice pleading as he spoke of sleeping every night with his rosary, and begging those familiar words from the Lord's prayer - "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us".  I wanted him to know that he can be washed forever clean, forever lavished with the Holy Spirit.  So I hugged the steel of his shoulders and washed his black shirt with my tears, and read Titus 3:3-7 in his shamed, grieving, red-hot ear...
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Another version says that the Holy Spirit is lavished upon us.  All today is redeemed, because I look to the author and finisher of my faith, who for the joy set before endured the Cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 12:2).   The tears shed are redeemed, the vomiting up of salad in shock and pain is redeemed, the quivering hands as I passed a gift on to a friend now still dearer in person than on screen.  The driving through the ghostly moonlit mountains, and the soul conversation with a God who confounds me, leaving my knees weak and my eyes damp and my soul roiling in turmoil.

I asked, back on that mountain in Vermont eight years ago, to be stirred up.

I whispered then, if this man I'm standing next to, God - this mountain man who lights my flames and tends them sweetly - if he is husband, stir me up and keep me with him.

If this life I'm living, God - if this pain that sears deep and scars soul and tearing, surgically changes the heart and keeps me up and typing at 5 a.m., body wracked with exhaustion - if this life is your path, God, stir me up and keep me on it.

Grant me the peace to bury this soul chaos as I close eyes again for sorely needed rest, Lord.  Give me journey mercies tomorrow.  Bring me home safe to keep on living like I'm dying.  Awake me fresh tomorrow to the purpose you've kept me alive another day to fulfill.

Carrying my story

She stood at the back of the room, the ridges of her thin-exposed spine pressed hard against the faint give of the wallpaper, and spoke through tears.  She quoted John 5, through clotted tears in her throat and the pain of 20 years as a pastor's wife:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
He could have left his mat there, she said.  But Jesus told him to take it with him.  And so do we, the broken and crippled, who have languished on our mats and now show the world the mat and the healing through words.  Take up your bed, and walk.  Take up your story, and go into the world telling everyone you meet that you are healed.

I am healed.

And I'm carrying my story - my mat - every day of the week.

An insider for a day

It can wear on your soul, walking as an alien and a stranger (I Peter 2:11). We're told time and again by our God who speaks through Scripture, "do not be confused, unsettled, or conformed because of this" (I Peter 4:12; I John 3:13; Romans 12:2). Yet we still are drawn to these holes of cognitive and spiritual sinking sand...is there something wrong with me? Am I on the wrong track, since I seem to be alone on this path?  Did I really understand God's call, or am I just being stubborn (or weak, or foolish, or misguided)?

As lonely as it is to be a stay-at-home mom, and lonelier still to be battling cancer and raising a child with special needs, the loneliest outpost of my life is my choice to blog about the experience.  You keep walking up the staircase of the unexpected - each step a new level of weird and alone, each step taking you further from what is understood and expected (the cultural mores) and further into the confusing and baffling.  Where once your ideas and activities might have been met with stilted silence, they are now greeted with open stares, frank questions, and even sometimes accusations, misinterpretation, or refutation.

Life begins in the blissful cocoon of family life where all of you - from every crooked first grin to every expulsion of gas - is seen as a joyful occasion of new individuality surging into the bland masses of humanity and infusing the earth with a fresh dose of unique DNA and, with it, new hope for an extraordinary future. Sometime in early childhood you begin jockeying for position amongst siblings, friends, and even rival your parent's authority in an attempt to grasp your place in your world.  But it is still, then, your world.  Many will reminisce with me of the taut, anguished days of preadolescence when a hazy and inarticulate cognition of the scope of the world began to shatter the glass shell of yours.  It wasn't until college, for me, that I began to try on this vast world like a new suit of clothes, struggling to make it my own, make it fit.  And shortly after college, tossing it aside again, comfortable once more in the nakedness of my own personality, wit, sensibilities, and dreams.

The growing pains of the struggle to fit in and the final choice to exclude myself willfully from any of the boxes our society proposes a young woman should live in still has the power to make me wince.

And so I tossed off those shells of boxes - their labels only defining parts of my whole: Revolutionary, Career Woman, Feminine, Doesn't Play Well with Others, Introvert, Poet, Daughter, Drone.  I began to delight in just how the curve of me fit against the curve of others, how we complemented each other, how sometimes our bents twist and reshape and transform the architecture and flow of another's soul.

Instead of fitting into a box, I developed a paradigm of personality...talent...gifts...personhood that rather resembled a Russian nesting doll.  The largest doll - the one that fills up the most space and is most ornate and beautiful and beloved, yet bruised and dinged with scratched paint from the harshness of a sharp world - that one is the one that says "Daughter of the King" across her chest.  A crown on her head.  Jewels on her throat, where a thyroid and some lymph tissue and tumor used to be.

Next comes a red doll, holding a few coins, a lantern, a piece of cloth, the deed to some land, a burp cloth and a pacifier.  This is Wife and Mother, "whose price is far above rubies" - the woman who toils long into the night, who sews, cooks, cleans, tends, loves, soothes, bargains, grieves and welcomes, gives birth and tends death.  (Proverbs 31)

Another doll inside is Daughter and Sister...she holds several nieces and nephews under a strong arm, holds coffee in her cup and conversation in her mouth, and smiles with parted lips...a joyful doll.  A doll that both gives and receives.

Yet another reveals a writer, a poet, a student, a researcher, an ICU nurse, a photographer, a sling-maker, a tax-payer, a counselor of young women, a meal-deliverer and tender of the sick and needy.  This doll carries a laptop and a clipboard, a stethoscope and a camera, and she's all business with the joy hidden deeper, in her heart.

Whether you look at it as hats you are wearing, plates you are spinning, boxes you fit in, labels that fit...we all have them.  Prioritized in a unique way.  The things that make us so different from the rest of the world.

For once, in the past 24 hours, it has been a sheer delight to feel like one of the group.  For once, I am surrounded by people who totally understand why I write this thing called a blog.  I've heard so many times that it is silly, a time-waster, too intimate, dangerous, pointless, or preposterously self-absorbed.  It is a relief to spend a weekend with others who are using online tools for a specific purpose.

Their stories already fascinate me:  Heather, who unabashedly longs for a macro lens and chronicles a life with one child and a dear husband; the statuesque Miriam, Walking in Christ, trying to transition from sensible to the more amorphous faith-full; Jane, a Registered Dietitian striving to help women understand the underlying spiritual connection that must take first place when it comes to the reverence and restriction of food; Jendi, with more cameras and lenses along than I have children, teaches women to use video to reach people via the internet, and scurries to and fro documenting all the proceedings.

And finally, Melissa, who writes about everything from multi-tasking as a mother of teens to managing her own chronic illness and the ramifications it has for the mundane daily grind as well as the inner spiritual grind that daily transforms us and brings us closer to Christ.  This woman understands, in that deep, experiential way, that once your life has been truly threatened, you live each remaining day with new determination, purpose, joy, and gratitude.

This was a peaceful day.  A day of confirmation and rest that yes - it may be out of the ordinary back home - but it is what God is calling me to do right now.  Mark 16:15 commands me to go forth into all the world and preach the Gospel.  Acts 9:25 and Mark 2:1-5 highlight that resourcefulness, creativity, and tenacity are hallmarks of faith.  Instead of riding in dangerous ships, descending walls in baskets, breaking out of prisons thanks to angels, and scratching letters on papyrus scrolls, I was born in an age of computer keyboards and world-wide, instantaneous connection through some magic of airwave physics.  42 million American women now utilize social media - including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other interactive forums - at least weekly (that's a little over half of the population of adult women).  No one seems to know how many women write blogs, although 53% use them to gather information.  Although this would seem to make blogging a mainstream activity in our culture, my conference cohorts echo my own experience: women who write online are few and far between, and still an oddity and somewhat misunderstood.

So, it is with the determination, purpose, joy and gratitude granted by these years of cancer suffering that I send out these missives of faith to a silent world of readers.  And pray that God uses some meager, faltering word of mine to reflect His glory and draw many more sons and daughters to Him.  Make me an instrument, Lord - a furiously typing, ferociously loyal, flagrantly unafraid tool in Your grand plan of redemption, sanctification, glorification.

And thank you, Lord, for these other women using a flat panel of black keys to tap out the Gospel, our modern "basket" with which we send Your hope over the walls of the world.

Cripple at the table

The long red snake of Chicago traffic - a string of transient brake lights, coming and going, miles long before me - started the pressure rising. By the time I reached the Dan Ryan, my pacemaker was firing non-stop and I was in a cold sweat. The rest of the trip, I battled it out with caffeine and a book on tape, the pacemaker going until the stress dropped about 3/4 of the way through the next state - a sedate one: Indiana. The full moon against a pink sunlit reflection of the eastern sky sent a thrill. Walking up and down in a parking lot to soothe a carsick baby was a small pleasure. Trading sarcastic remarks with a blossoming friend throughout the drive was fun.

All along my crippled way, yesterday, all 12 hours of the grueling drive at 80 miles per hour, I was at His table. From the Starbucks in the overpass in Illinois, to the way he lit the gloomy flatness of the middle states with a glorious sunset and the harrowing description of the Khumbu ice fall of Everest ringing in my ears thanks to modern technology...He blessed the way and invited me to the feast.

I've got resurrection down inside my skin
But for all my revealating
I just can't make sense
Of this gravity we're in

Cause I'm a dead man now
With a ghost who lives
Within the confines of
These carbon ribs
And one day when I'm free
I will sit
The cripple at your table
The cripple by your side

A thousand miles of pain I'm sure
Led you to the threshold
Of my hearts screen door
To tell me what it is I'm dying for
Gravity comes
Like a cold cold Rain
To lead me to the rope again
But someone is standing in my place
~from Carbon Ribs, by John Mark McMillan

This is one of those Bible stories that never sunk, simply because of a language barrier.  A name like "Mephibosheth" has no cognitive hooks to hang it's hat on in my brain.  And so the power was lost to me, in the many, many times I've read the Bible through.  Until a modern-day singer for the King - a kind of 2nd century A.D. David - sang it for me in an arena full of sweat and tears condensing into haze about a thousand bodies singing about Jesus.  His best friend dead, the lonely King David asks his courtiers to search for a relative he can honor, to comfort himself.  They find Mephibosheth, dropped by his nurse as a baby, both legs hopelessly crippled.  He had stayed behind when war broke out, and so his life was saved.  David dressed him in robes, and set him at the table, surrounded by the family...a place of honor.  And there he ate for all the days of his life.

So today, like Mephibosheth, I will spend another undeserved day at the feasting table. Another 8 hours of driving stretches forth between our little car and Pennsylvania. We beg prayers for the cripples making way?

Excuse me

It's one of those things you don't talk about, normally.

Body odor.

There, I said it! When my thyroid cancer suppression gets out of balance, it comes and goes. When there's not much going on, and I'm on the hypothyroid side of things...there's not much body odor to speak of. Or body hair, for that matter! I quit wearing deodorant, I quit shaving, I only shower about once or twice a week - and I look and smell fine. It's like my inner hippie went on vacation.  I go to the doctor and report all this, and he ups my meds to get me back to normal, and whoa, baby, that inner hippie is back with a vengeance!  My leg hair has me near tears in the shower, thinking back to the stinging bite of the words flung from the preteen boys warming the bench at Little League when I went over the cliff into puberty four or five years before the rest of the girls on the team.  My usual hippie deodorant does nothing to squelch the stench and by the end of the day I'm embarrassed to crawl into bed with my husband.

Believe it or not, I'm headed toward a spiritual metaphor here.

Yes, I'm going to talk about God in the context of body odor.

{feel free to get the giggles anytime, I won't mind! Or hear you, for that matter!}

Kind of like my spiritual life.  When there's not much going on, there's nothing ugly to see (or should I say, nothing to see in general?).  Everything stays well beneath the surface, and nobody notices that there's anything wrong at all.  And when I'm close to God, and I'm working up a sweat trying to stay on track with His purpose and His glory and His kingdom...well, there's a lot more to notice!  I notice it - in the angry conversations I have with God when I don't understand something, in the tears that won't stop and the hurt as the sand-paper grates on my soul and I wake up less and less me.  When I'm just going along trying to stay in my skin and not grate on anybody and stay comfortable, that's exactly what happens: I slide deeper into a spiritual stupor, and my God-connection goes dormant, and I don't grate on anybody.  I'm soft and mushy and hairless and odorless and tasteless.  The reduced fat, small-portion size version of me.  But when I'm sitting with my Bible in the mornings, and I'm deep in God's word, and I don't care what other people think, and I'm far from dormant...

I guess what I'm trying to say is my inner Christian - just like the inner hippie that shows up when my body is functioning right - can be messy, and abrasive, and maybe sometimes even seem less than pleasant.

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17).  The Prosperity Gospel might have you thinking that walking with Jesus means having lots of friends, laughing all the time, having enough money to go around, an easy marriage, successful kids, or a spic-and-span perfectly decorated domicile.  What if what God really wants is a bunch of stinky hippies shaking up the world?

"Nice" isn't the same as "holy".  "God is love" doesn't mean "God is nice".  (Marilyn McIntyre writes in Christianity Today)

Just like "stinky" doesn't necessarily mean "dirty", and "smells nice" isn't the same as "clean", sometimes "holy" is a lot closer to "righteous anger" than it is to "pleasant words".  Jesus, in Matthew 23, is far from nice, and also underlines the dissection between appearances and reality with His harsh words:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (v. 25-28)
Sometimes we might just have to follow the example of the table-tossing, line-in-the-sand-drawing, righteous anger Jesus instead of the calm, cool and collected man with the flowing locks and perfectly color-coordinated robe.  Be willing to be that kind of Christian.

Just something I've been thinking about...every time I put on deodorant.

Today and tomorrow, I'm traveling by car the 18 hours to the Relevant Conference, accompanied by Jess York and Caleb.  If you wouldn't mind praying for our safety, we'd appreciate it.  And maybe I'll get some new topics at the conference and I'll never talk to you about body odor again! :-)

The last day of summer

Rosy orbs of sunlight and dew
hang heavy in the last weak summer sun

A bite of heaven
or a jar of jewels

The earth harvest-heavy
for the ten-thousandth time

Hands of the thousandth generation scratched and old
and aching for rest in the soil they tend

The sun sends one last beckoning light
and returns to the other side of the earth

turns another world into day
and ours into night.

Letting go and letting God

We weren’t originally designed to keep everything in play all the time. Something got broken in us when we left the Garden of Eden. We stopped trusting that God was good and that we were the apple of His eye. We have this suspicious feeling about letting go and letting God take us through the natural course of things.  ~ from (in)Courage, posted by Bonnie Gray

Sometimes God fills your hands so full, you are forced to realize you cannot juggle everything yourself.  Grief fills up your heart until it finally overflows and you cry embarrassing tears in front of people you would never cry with normally (like, say, your doctor).  And then the cup you thought was full of tears is miraculously overflowing with joy, and the laughter leaps out of you even though your sister-in-law is taking pictures and you normally wouldn't smile like that for the camera.

And you wake up too early and your eyes are scratchy with sleep and your son is crying at the top of his lungs because you pulled his sleeping fingers away from your neck to get up for devotions.  You look out the window and sigh because, even though it's not the way you wanted to wake up, there is a turquoise and gold sunrise outlining your favorite tree anyway...and You know that He knows exactly how you would wake up.  And sent you a visual gift to make it better for a moment.

Need opens your eyes to see when God is sending love and strength your way.  Your fridge is almost empty, and even though there's money in the bank account, your week is busy and you haven't planned a menu and you feel inept and overwhelmed.  And then, in the midst of those swirling thoughts, you put the sausage on the griddle and open the egg carton and you see God is there taking care of the details with the perfect number of eggs left there for breakfast, despite your lack of planning.

And it's seeping in deep...this Truth for the day that you are insufficient and He is sufficient and provisional and perfectly loving.  You turn around from the griddle and sigh as you look at the days work...the mess that extends along the 8 feet of the kitchen island and the clothes still in various stages of the summer-to-winter clothes sorting task piled a foot deep across the 8 feet of your dining room table.  Your mid-week leave-taking nags at the back of your mind and the 5 eggs in the carton are fast disappearing from your consciousness.  But there in the middle of the mess and the work is a dash of beauty that you didn't expect and still takes your breath away.  A "just because" bouquet from two women who know you better than anyone else and sent flowers to tell you you're still important, even when you fail and falter and wail and wallow!

On a day when you suddenly feel adrift in a sea of unfamiliar choices, when the familiar has given way to the unknown, and fellowship to loneliness...you reach evening time and realize that God knew exactly where you would be on this day, too.  And months ago filled your calendar with Family Sunday and your hours with improvised guitar duets, and children twirling to family music, and laughter ringing through the hardwood hallways and your mother's voice calling from the kitchen.  And you realize that He didn't just mean that He would be there, deep in the bottom of your soul when you are alone in the dark, when He said He would never leave you nor forsake you.  He fills your days and fills your cup and wipes your tears and soothes your flailing soul.