These Hibernation Days

I hope your Christmas season has been warm and rich, full of reminders that you're loved and there is so much for you to love. Even in my moments of stark disappointment, when I can easily list out all the ways I've felt overlooked by God or others, I remember, "I have so much and so many to love. Even if [fill in the blank], I have been given much by God to be invested in, to love, to hear, to reconcile, and more."

As we move toward the new year, still plodding through the dark days of winter, I am always reminded of God's good design for winter. The old adage, "Bloom where you're planted," is cute, but nothing blooms all year long. Everything appears to die and some things do die. We know seeds must drop to the ground and die before they can be broken open and begin the process of blooming again. Winter is a fallen seed, before it has sprouted again. It is God's gift to us, to teach us of the value of rest, quiet, hiddenness, and death. 

I began the Seven Ways series a few week ago and want to continue today. I said one of the Ways we practice not a work/life balance, but a work/rest model in order to see God as our Creator, Redeemer, and Joy. 

So much is said about work/life balances, especially in the career world. Stay at home parents or spouses laugh at that though, because work is life and life is work and there is no easy seamless division for what is work and what is just life. In many ways, this is a gift from God though. Life is toil, even the weekends are, and when we make these clear delineation of the two, we can begin to grow frustrated when our "life" time (or me-time) is infringed on by work. So instead, Nate and I try to talk about our weeks, months, and our year in terms of work/rest. 

Work is times of faithfulness, of sometimes going beyond our abilities or preferences to get the job done. To be faithful in small places to provide, prove, refine, care for, and supply. This is most of our week, month, and year. We want to go to bed tired at night, spent from being invested in people, in service, in hospitality, in counsel, in vocation.  

Rest is times of knowing God's faithfulness, of seeing the ways our God is our Creator, Redeemer, and our Joy. It is not about us, although it is a gift from God to us. I've written previously about how we practice Sabbath in our home, but this also applies to things like winter or holidays. These are dim days where we feel our frailty and fragility, and where the light of Christ has come and is coming still. These are the days we intentionally step back from much of the daily grind and, instead, look up. 

I am just as proficient at naval gazing as the best of them. It is so tempting and easy to look down at myself or at the world and try to dissect all the missing parts or broken places. But to rest, for me, means I pick up my eyes, look up to the hills, and know my Helper comes from above. It means intentionally not fixing what Jesus has left unfixed. It means not rushing to be or do or go or see something. It means taking my hands off what I want to control. All of these ought to be regular practices but, for us, it helps to have a regular day where we remember in startling clarity how far we've wandered. Our Father is our all-sufficient hope, Christ is our all-sufficient sacrifice, and the Spirit is our all-sufficient help. We need a period of time to just remember, reflect, and rejoice in these truths. 

We practice our sabbath from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. That might not work for you, but find something that does. We take our cue from the natural seasons, too, and rest more in the winter. We hibernate. No human body is capable of doing all we demand of it all year, we must rest. For many, "rest" waits for vacation days. We've spent all of our vacation this year traveling, driving, seeing family, engaging folks we rarely see, and we come home and need a vacation from our vacation. I don't think God designed rest to be like that.

What would rest look like for you if you simply removed your hands from plowing, planting, sowing, harvesting for a bit this winter? What would it look like for you to rest, not so you can prepare to work again soon, but so you can remember you are the seed and not the farmer? 

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The Membership of the Living: the common anxieties

Before I set aside my phone for the night yesterday, a friend and I were texting. We're two friends who try to be faithful in the life God has given to each of us, in the season in which we find ourselves, to the church to which we've been covenanted, to the people we love and who love us. Anyone looking in from the outside would probably say the same about each of us. They might see a few places we could be righted or nudged forward in, more restrained about and more disciplined in, but I think, overall, most folks would view us as two well-adjusted, acquainted with sorrow, faith-filled women trying to live within the goodness of the gospel day to day. 

Yet most of our conversations are not full of accolades about ourselves or pats on the other's back or lists of how well we're each doing. Mostly they're full of confession of brokenness, fears, anxieties, discomforts. They're usually brimming with the asking of precise questions and then really listening to the answers, rarely giving counsel to one another (although she is by profession one and I am not without plenty to give), but mostly just listening. 

Last night I vaguely confessed some anxiety and she asked me to name my top three and, dear readers, I'm going to share them with you here without regret.

My first is that I will never be a good enough wife (although my husband has never and would never say that to me); my second is that my body will always betray me, no matter how healthily I eat, how faithfully I exercise, and how tenderly I treat it; and my third is that I have peaked in life, ministry, faithfulness, writing, and it's all downhill from here. These are the anxieties that arrest my soul. And then my friend shared hers. They weren't the same as mine, but they were nearly the same; the first having to do with love and marriage, and the want of it, the second having to do with the frailty of the body, and the third having to do with living in light of eternity. 

It occurred to me that most of us, if we're honest, probably struggle with these three main anxieties: the anxiety of being loved, the anxiety of being alive, and the anxiety of being faithful. Fill in the blank of your anxieties and my guess is they will fall somewhere in there somehow. We humans are more alike than we like to pretend in our individualistic world. 

I have been thinking a lot about listening recently. How good and right it is to listen well and how awfully bad we are at it. Most of us are thinking of the next thing to say before the other has said anything at all. Many of us only ask questions to ascertain information for ourselves or to turn a conversation in the direction we want it to go. Some treat conversation as an opportunity to interrupt or monologue or catch the other in a moment of poor logic, frailty, fear, or false theology. 

Recently my husband and I were listening to a friend talk about a hard thing that happened in her life and I wanted to interject counsel or a good idea or to give quick comfort, and my husband only said, "I'm sorry this happened. It must have been hard." And then he was quiet, listening longer, letting our friend speak freely, without caveat, without question, without interruption. I thought to myself, I want to be more like this. Rarely do we stop to consider how alike most of us all are, deeply wanting to be loved (or even liked), deeply desiring the full experience of being alive, and deeply wanting to be found faithful. And how most of us just want the comfort of another person acknowledging the pain of life on this orb, and then simply saying, "I'm sorry. I think I get it a little, but not all the way, but I want to sit here with you in it." 

I just finished rereading Wendell Berry's essay Health is Membership from The Art of the Commonplace again yesterday. It's one of my favorites and it ends with this short illustration from when Berry's brother was in the hospital undergoing a triple-bypass operation. The whole essay is wonderful and should be read by anyone who is alive, but I wanted to share the last few paragraphs with you today: 

The most moving, to me, happened in the waiting room during John's surgery. From time to time a nurse from the operating room would come in to tell Carol what was happening. Carol, from politeness or bravery or both, always stood to receive the news, which always left us somewhat encouraged and somewhat doubtful. Carol's difficulty was that she had to suffer the ordeal not only as a wife but as one who had been a trained nurse. She knew, from her own education and experience, in how limited a sense open-heart surgery could be said to be normal or - routine.

Finally, toward the end of our wait, two nurses came in. The operation, they said, had been a success. They explained again what had been done. And then they said that after the completion of the bypasses, the surgeon had found it necessary to insert a "balloon pump" into the aorta to assist the heart. This possibility had never been mentioned, nobody was prepared for it, and Carol was sorely disappointed and upset. The two young women attempted to reassure her, mainly by repeating things they had already said. And then there was a long moment when they just looked at her. It was such a look as parents sometimes give to a sick or suffering child, when they themselves have begun to need the comfort they are trying to give.

And then one of the nurses said, "Do you need a hug?"
"Yes," Carol said.
And the nurse gave her a hug.
Which brings us to a starting place.

Listening can be a hug. Asking questions can be too. Confession can be. And mirroring confessions can be too. Conversation is an art. It is a commonplace one, but no less worth the attentiveness of a master artist and maybe worth it more than all the canvases of the world hanging in all the museums of the world. 

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Putting Ourselves in the Way of God

I sobbed the night Rich Mullins died. I wasn't a fanatic fan, I was just a 16 year old girl who'd been jostled from a stupor by his lyrics. I still wouldn't awaken fully for another 14 years, but the jostling was powerful still. 

Rich was the first Christian I knew about whose faith—and the wrestle for it—seemed real and not built of principles and precepts and rules and boundaries and all the suffocating things I thought Christianity was. I dreamed about his kind of Christianity for a lot of years, knowing it must be possible to be as jacked up as he was and still as loved as he seemed to think he was. It would be another decade and a half before I'd begin to really understand the way to know the "reckless raging fury that they call the love of God," and that the way to believing we really are that loved is to first admit we really are that jacked up—and to never separate those two confessions from one another ever. 

I sat at a table with a friend last night and we talked, as we have always talked, for as long as I've known her (a few years after the night I cried wet tears with my best friend while we leaned against my bed and listened to the news of Rich Mullins' death on the radio), about the gospel. She has always been a teacher of sorts to me, the one who used the words gospel and grace and predestined and the cross in a way that drew me instead of confused me. She was canning beets and I was drinking water and it has always been that way for her and for me. She, faithful with the work of her hands in a small sustainable farm in upstate New York, parenting her kids, being a wife, listening and sharing sermons, and every day reminding herself and others that the gospel that saved her is the gospel that sustains her and she needs it, oh how she needs it. She's in her 50s and canning beets and telling me again she can't coast by on anything but the kindness of God who draws her to repentance. I want to be like her. 

The thing I love about Rich Mullins, and the thing you do too if you've given any of his lyrics a good hard listen, is that he never let anyone believe he was too big for his britches, too big for a walloping from God, or too important for anyone. I think that's the reason he was barefoot so often, as if to say it's all holy ground, "every common bush afire with God," and yet we're not yet, not yet afire with God. Not all the way through. He wore the garments of sinner and saint well and I want to be like that too. 

I've grown weary of the goodness again, the pretty perfect people. I've grown weary of hearing myself talk or talking at all. The harder I work to be sanctified, the more I despise the person I become, straight-jacketed, self-important, principled, careful, wise, stupid, or naive. I hear more Pharisee in me than Jesus in me. Not because I'm a hypocrite or a white-washed tomb, but because I forget the gospel that saves is the gospel that sustains. 

I read this from Andrew Peterson this morning, the intro to the concert I was a little bit heartbroken to miss. I'm reminded we're all just folks wanting to put ourselves in the way of God, desperate for the kind of affection and attention we think will fix or save or help or reward us. But the thing I think Rich Mullins knew, and my friend who was canning beets knows, and the thing I want to know more than anything is God has put himself in my way.

As a Father he picked up his robes and ran toward our filthy sin-stained rags and our filthy righteous robes. As the Son he became sin. As the Spirit he comes and fills and overflows and empowers us to live today and the next day and the next day and the next, one step in front of another, ragamuffins, but faithful ragamuffins as best as we can understand it. 

There's a wideness in God's mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

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Marriage is as One Long Conversation

The old philosopher said, "Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you're together will be devoted to conversation.” The old philosopher was right, but as with all bits of rightness, it ought to be understood in its place. 

I have always known marriage was not an easy conversation. I am of Scotch-Irish descent; men in my family love their beer and asserting opinions, and as for the women, there's a demure outside but on the inside it's all fire and spit. Most conversations were spent seeing who could talk the loudest the longest without throwing the first punch—even if the punch was merely metaphorical.

When I began to grow outside the incubator of family alone, I saw the long conversation of marriage through a different lens. These marriages were built on the scaffolding of details: who is supposed to be where and when and how, who needs to be picked up, what's for dinner, what should we do about this child or that one. There was an ordinariness to the conversations of marriage, unaccompanied by emotive, defensive jabs at the other. It seemed simplistic. I know now it's because I was not in the middle of those marriages as I was in the middle of the marriages in my family, and when we are in the middle of something all our own, we see all its inconsistencies and broken-places.

As I stepped into adulthood and was able to see my skewed perspective of childhood and adolescence both, I began to see marriage was a long conversation, but the tone of voice could change it from a pleasant one to a violent one. Armed with this newfound knowledge of tone, intention, nuance, and even love, I began to assume all the long conversations of marriage could be blissful. A constant sharing of ideas and delights and hurts and confusions, a true partnership. Whenever I thought of being married it was the long conversation I looked forward to most. 

Marriage has been that for me and Nate. The cusp of our friendship was on deep conversation, leading to dates full of long, easy talks, quiet pauses, intentional listening, and slow responses. This was the long conversation of marriage I wanted, I could see that clearly from our first date. 

The long conversations become subject to the tyranny of the urgent, though, as most things can. A few weeks ago there were twelve decisions that needed to be made and seven of them required quick conversations but the other five required depth, time, focus, and charity. We were short on all of that, though, and so if the conversations were going to be had, they were going to be had on the surface, quickly, while we multi-tasked, and were short with one another. As with most conversations built on bedrocks like that, we needed to repent later to one another. 

The urgent doesn't let up, though, does it? There is always someone who needs an answer or thinks they need an answer, or wants one. There is always something that must be signed up for or paid or responded to or agreed upon. There is always something left unfinished, unsaid, unsealed. I have learned to say to others, "I want to talk to Nate about that first," but the when of talking sometimes comes slowly or is mingled among the other conversations, never finished.

Nate and I practice (and by practice, I mean we are very unproficient at this and must practice) the discipline of saying "No," to ourselves, our minds, our friends, and the tyranny of the urgent. If, in saying no, we find ourselves disappointed or others disappointed by our lack of a quick answer—this is the discipline of the practice. This is the sacrifice, the hurt, the pain. This is where we admit to ourselves and to others that we are not God, as much as we sometimes think we would like to be. 

I think about Jesus in John 16. He says to his disciples and friends, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you." I think about how often we fill conversation simply because we do not want to feel the lack of the incarnate Christ and we do not want to wait for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do. We are uncomfortable with the long silences, afraid the Spirit will not do what He does: move. 

Yesterday morning, in the early hours of our day of rest, Nate mentioned some conversations we've left unfinished this week, answers others expect. And then he said this: I want to pray about these things, ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, humility, and a direction, even more than we simply talk about them. And then, for the rest of the day, we didn't talk about things we could not solve on that day. We left space for the Spirit to enter in, give peace or withhold it. 

Marriage is one long conversation, but it is not, primarily, a conversation between two, but three. If we find the conversation to be focused on just two, it may go the brawling way of my family, or it may go the stoic way of my checklisting friends. But, I think, if we move ourselves away from one another for a moment, stop talking and begin listening, not primarily to one another but to the Holy Spirit, we may find that conversation more robust, full, and gentle than we could have imagined before. We may leave more things unfinished, more things unsaid, more events unattended, and more lists unchecked, but I do not think we will leave less full. 

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If you're married today, what might it look like to still the conversation—even about the rudimentary things or the things that seem pressing and necessary—and begin to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this longest conversation of your life? 

If you're not married today, what might it look like to trust the Spirit is still at work in all the seeming silences of your life? In the lonely places where you long for conversation, how can you exercise listening to the Helper, learning from him, and obeying him as he perhaps prepares you for the long conversation of earthly marriage and definitely prepares you for the long conversation of eternity? 

Living the Whole Life

I am working through two books concurrently (three, if you count fiction, which I do, but not for today's purposes). One is Eugene Peterson's As Kingfishers Catch Fire and the other is Curt Thompson's The Soul of Shame. Both were gifts to me from friends who read them and knew I would need them or love them, or both. 

For many years I thought of myself first as an artist, a spinner of words. I lived in a place full of natural beauty, with never enough words to describe the way the blue heron dipped his head into the quiet riverbed, amidst lily pods and sodden sea grass. Waterfalls and mountains and quiet piney woods and apple orchards were mere minutes away, ripe for inspiration. I drew my cues from poetry and the contemplative. 

Then I moved to the other side of the country and my mind began to be captured by the intellect of theology, ideas, concepts, and I began to think of myself as a thinker, and lost the artist within. I was valued for my mind and ideas, and less valued for art. And I thought myself okay with this because I thought intellect was better than art. 

A friend turned 30 a few weeks ago and felt the things we all feel when we pass a marker in life: fear, anxiety, inadequacy, the question of "Have I wasted my life?" I remember feeling all of those same things on the eve of my 30th and in some ways those feelings have increased, but really it's just that I think myself more aware of their presence and less aware of their power. Turning 30 was hard, but being 30 wasn't. There is hopefully a settling sense of growth, maturity, and the temporality of life that no longer frightens you as much as invigorates you. If being in my 40s or 50s or 60s only brings an increase of that, I await it eagerly. Age brings the disparate pieces back together again, I think, or it should. All the scattered feelings and identities and questions come more into focus with a quiet, settled yes.

So I am reading Peterson and Thompson and both of them wrote about the union of these disparate pieces, namely the body, spirit, heart, and mind. How when we only address one of these, or address it more than the others, we begin to live lopsided lives. I am thinking of a man who skips leg day at the gym, whose body is strong on top and meager on the bottom. Or a comic illustration I saw many years ago of a man who only lifted weights with one arm so it was bulky and disordered from the other which was skinny and limp. We laugh because it's laughable but we also do it more than we like to admit. At least I do. I exercise my mind because it's easier than exercising my body. I engage my spirit because it's easier than engaging my mind. I entreat my body because it's easier than giving my heart. I am lopsided piecemeal. 

The growing awareness of these malnourished pieces came into focus over the past year in the void of anything to feed them (affirmation is such a powerful feast and we are such hungry paupers). We have been trying to begin seeing ourselves as whole creations intended for wholeness, instead of limping along at breakneck speeds without the equal use of our limbs. What does it mean to slow the growth of one part of us, in order to give attention to another? What does it mean to set aside the mind for the flourishing of the spirit, or to prioritize the health of the body when the spirit is strong? Not to neglect the other at its own peril, but to acknowledge that we are more than one appendage and therefore must attend to all of them? 

We are by nature legalists, always adding to the laws of God because we fear he will overlook us otherwise. But what does it mean to trust the Creator made us for wholeness and not half-ness? I cannot answer that for you and most of the time cannot even answer it for me. It takes time and trust and some times are easier than others. But I know I want it. 

I wonder, sometimes, if one of the reasons we're constantly searching for meaning in everything is because we're discontent with our under-exercised limbs. I read this recently and it's funny because it's true: 

"It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear."

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and a girl sat on a park bench alone nearby. For nearly twenty minutes she posed herself with her phone camera, shooting image after image, and deleting, I'm sure, all but one. There were probably wrinkles or glints of light or too much chin or not enough hair or someone in the background or any number of reasons why being a whole person with wrinkles and frizzy hair and among others would not do for her. I don't know her, but I wanted to sit with her, make conversation, distract her from the myth of Narcissist inside her for one moment. Tell her she is not less than a body, but that she is certainly more than one. 

Someone asked me recently how we help young teens not obsess about perfection and I don't know the answer. I think it starts with teaching them they are whole people, whole image bearers, that their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are all made by God and he called all of creation good. I think that's where we start, by not neglecting what God called good—even if it's frightening to engage. I don't know what you'll find there, when you begin to stop counting calories and running incessantly, when you begin to engage your mind instead of only your body. I don't know what will happen when you set aside the books and papers and themes and dig out the painful occurrences of your childhood, ways your spirit was crushed and hasn't ever recovered. 

Yesterday morning I sat on the couch with my husband and confessed some shame I've been feeling about something that happened when I was nine years old. I had wronged and been wronged and couldn't differentiate the shame I felt from doing wrong and being wronged in the same scenario. All I knew is, years later, confessions later, I still feel the clinging shame of those moments. Most of that is because I've neglected that space, have been afraid to enter into it for fear of what I'll find there. It's easier to engage my mind or my body than it is to open the door to my heart. But I must go there, I know I must, because wholeness cannot happen when only half-ness thrives. 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31