Mirages and the Goodness of God

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 11.02.17 AM For the last five springtimes I have lived in a place where it actually did spring into spring. One day it was cold and brown and the next there was green everywhere, leaves growing full-size seemingly overnight. It went from a chilly 45 to a blistering 85 within days and spring had sprung. Texas has her charms, four full seasons are not one. Colorado is her bipolar cousin—albeit less blistering and rarely actually cold, her season changes are like light mirages from the hand of God: now you see it, now you don't.

It wasn't the plan to be living back on the east coast so soon. We still feel so whiplashed and exhausted we lose track of things, times, and memories. I lost a whole day two weeks ago. I saw some charges in our bank account and could not remember ever being at either of those two places. Nate coached me into remembrance, but the memories are still slight, barely there. We are at this point of mental exhaustion. I want this season to be over. I want it to be like a Texas winter: frigid and short. Or a Colorado snowstorm: six inches in the morning and gone by mid afternoon.

I have been keeping an eye on all the bushes, shrubs, and trees around our home here. We moved in less than two weeks ago and they are all coming to life these days. I don't recognize a lot of them so it's a grand mystery for some of them. What color? What shape? When? It's as spring should be I think. Brown and stark for so long you've forgotten how beautiful it can all be—and how slowly it all comes back to life.

Last night we talked on the phone to a spiritual father of ours. He married us, counsels us, and loves us so deep and well I can't imagine ever losing him (or her). Thousands of miles between us makes conversation less often, but more sweet in some ways. It seems every time we've talked in the past six or seven months he spends most of the time reminding us of what we know theologically and have forgotten spiritually.

He tells us sometimes hard things happen because the world is broken and full of sin—and not because we're being punished for what we did or didn't do. He reminds us this is a season—and we are not promised a better one on earth, but we can be assured God is on His throne and knows intimately the length of all seasons. He reminds us to be grateful—for all the swirling difficultly around us, our marriage is solid rock and easy, and that is rare. He papas us. That's the only way I know to describe it. He reminds me of who God is by reminding me what God looks and acts like. It's felt brown and stark for so long, I've forgotten how good God is.

My writing desk is beside a window in our new house and every day the outside changes in small, incremental ways. So small you wouldn't notice unless you were paying attention.

A northeast spring is slow and takes three whole months, the way a season should be. The promise of summer is coming and the reality of autumn is certain to follow, ebbing into winter, and then, again, spring.

To Walk Right Through It

I wake this morning in the still dark hours and breathe deeply, in and out. Deep breaths are a luxury I have found in cities stationed a mile high. Everyone said they would come and this morning they finally did. I have rarely thought to thank God for my physical breath, the act of inhaling and exhaling, but since moving here I do. Before we came here we went on a weekend trip to Austin with two friends. In the car they told us of the steps involved in healthy transition. I think grief was in there somewhere, and ethnocentrism, perhaps there was also difficulty breathing, but I can't remember.

Something akin to fog was in there though and sometimes the fog is so thick in this season I can't see a way around it. I work every muscle to remember names and stories and people and faces, to be faithful with the task in front of me, to remember the time for writing will come again eventually, just not today. Everyone knows the thing about fog is you must just go right through it. You dim your headlights, trust the road ahead, move slowly, and go.

I read Psalm 91 today:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

The shadow of the Almighty is still a shadow, I think to myself, and shadows are something akin to fog. I think of how the Israelites were led by a cloud and Elijah prayed for one and how God created all of them. Shadows don't feel like walking in the light, but they are still evidence of light, and this I remind myself daily these weeks and months. There is a stayed joy and faith in me, a steady, calm peace pulsating through me. We have not taken wrong steps or made poor decisions, but even good steps take work and wise decisions take time, and sometimes the fog must be waded through.

We lay there in the dark this morning and he knows I am thinking hard, "What's on your mind?" he asks, and I can't answer. Too many of these days feel like too much. We wonder aloud together if the fog will lift and when and how. The truth is we have no promise that it will, but we do have a cloud to lead us, and the shadow that falls from it, and we are sheltered in the midst of it, and He is faithful and kind and good.

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The Perfection of Beauty and the Promised Land

It’s not the promised land, but it’s pretty close. I can’t stop telling him all the things I love about here. The river. Autumn’s last pop of the brightest green. The Honey Crisp apples we’ll pick this week. The bookstore whose corners I know better than any department store on earth. And the people. The people. Here I have been more loved and more known than any place on earth. They knew the rawest form of me, the me who still didn’t understand the love of the God and the grace he’d given me if only I’d see it. When I come home here, brimming over now with the most beautiful gifts of the gospel, I hope it makes up for the years of begrudging giving I did here. I know it doesn’t, but I hope it does. I didn’t understand giving could be beautiful, but mostly because I didn’t understand the Giver of all this beauty.

We arrive, road-worn and travel-weary—three almost full days on the road with a busy conference schedule in between. Thank God for audio books and Radio Lab and sitting beside the man I love for 28 hours. In the early morning still dark hours I hear him say in my ear, “I hear water running.” I smile to myself because he thinks it’s a toilet or a sink or some other problem, but I know there’s water falling over the dam less than twenty yards from our open window. I cannot wait to share this place with him.

I think of Psalm 50, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” This place isn’t the promised land and in many ways I felt more taken from than given to in the years I lived here. But I come back here, full of the love of God and the grace I know, and see the heavens proclaiming the work of their God and the trees clapping their hands with praise. The Milky Way last night brighter and brighter as the moon slowly closed its white eye.

I know it has always been here for me to see, the veil just hadn’t been torn. I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish I had known then what I know now about the character of God and my incapable heart. He was telling me in a thousand ways: through the love of people, the beauty of this land, the goodness of the local church, in the corners of bookstores, and the piles of apples that taste sweeter than any sugared candy ever could. Every common bush was aflame with His beauty and wonder, I just didn’t see.

It’s easy to be distracted by all we believe is Zion. The best of what God has given here on earth, the land of milk and honey. It comes through in many forms and ways: idolatry never looks like idolatry until we see it’s just overlaid gold leaf on a wooden form—rotting away from the inside out. All through the scripture God tells his people: All of this points to me but isn’t me. Look up! Look up!

And the promise is true and the same to us today: whatever captures our eyes and keeps our hearts, if it isn’t Him, it isn’t the perfection of beauty. Coming home reminds me of that. It’s beautiful here, and I’m loved and I love, but it all just an exercise in faith. Love calls us to the things of this world by calling us first to see the maker of it.

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All the Questions Without Answers

I stare blankly, my eyes registering her eyes and her story but I can’t remember her name. This happens more often than not right now. I’m shrouded in a gray fog only I can see and sometimes it’s all I can see. The questions are all the same: how is marriage? how is living in Colorado? how is your new job? how is your new house? I’m grateful to be asked at all, but how many times can I reply with ambiguous gratefulness, “God is so good and generous to us!” just so I can avoid thinking through the whole ramifications of the question? How is marriage?

How is Colorado?

How is my new job?

How is our new home?

They are good, but all so tender and new, hardly recognizable in their current form. When does a seed begin to bear fruit? When it drops into the dark earth? When it breaks apart? When it presses through to light? When it blossoms and blooms? Or does it happen back, far back before that, when it is still part of fruit itself? I don’t know.

A friend tells me this morning she feels like she’s walking in a fog and I hear it but it isn’t until I pray for her at the end of our time that I remember God made fog too.

Maybe he made fog so we would slow down, stay home, remember we are dust. Maybe he made it because the earth needed only a mist and not a heavy rain. Maybe he made it because we can’t see through it and we need mystery because we need faith. I don’t know why he made fog or why we spend seasons walking through it, our hands outstretched for some semblance of normalcy, something hard and certain and firm and known.

I think about Elihu, Job’s friend who got it mostly right,

Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? Job 36:26-29

Father, I confess this season is abundant in its blessings and rich in your visible goodness, but I also confess the fog feels suffocating sometimes. I know not why or how you make rain or mist or spread the clouds or cause thunder—and I know even less how to walk with faithfulness when so much of my day feels like groping in the dark for a familiar place. But I also remember with the psalmist, to “Praise you from the earth, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling your word!” I think of Christ on the stormy Galilee and Noah on the boat and Moses on the cusp of the sea and even Jonah in the hot desert and I remember you hold the weather on earth and the weather in my heart and you decree it all and you are great. When the fog clears and I see you face to face, let it be all of you I see and not the faces in the crowd or my identity or calling, but you.

fog

Stumps Growing Shoots

Like the amputee who still feels pain in his phantom limb, I feel the trepidation of misdirection and mis-decision. I made so many poor decisions in the past year and a half that the choice-making part of my brain feels incapable of going straight in any direction. On January 1st I will sit with my journal and Bible and ask myself the list of questions I ask every January 1st. I will take stock and inventory of 2014 and look toward 2015 with a hope-filled eye. (God, make it so.)

A friend sat across from me the other day and asked why I can't just get excited about this new season. Life is about to grow crammed with a new job and classes, plus the things already cramming it full and brimming it over. Yet I feel the phantom pains of the missing limbs: the marriage that didn't happen, the move that didn't happen, the date that didn't happen, the conversation that didn't happen. I have no regrets and I know the gangrene growing on those limbs would have eaten the whole of my body alive. But I feel the loss of them still.

To say those words, right out loud, feels shameful and sinful.

The things for which I am grateful are overwhelming, but they all came at great cost this year. This is perhaps the first time I can look systematically at good and see how it was brought about by death first.

. . .

This morning I read in Isaiah 11, "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse." Tears fill my eyes and I can't keep reading because I see the stump legs and stump arms protruding from my person. All I see is cut off limbs, life interrupted, and it wasn't supposed to be like this.

From that stump, though, comes a shoot. And from that shoot comes fruit.

All week I have been meditating on what it means to be cut from and pruned. I have done the work of pruning before, cutting branches that do not bear fruit so they will bear more and better fruit. I know the difficult work of taking what is live and making it live better. But I cannot bring life from a stump, I cannot make a dead and severed thing live again. This is the work of the Spirit alone.

On that fruit the Spirit of the Lord will rest,

The fruit that is borne in me through Him will be wholly His, not mine.

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

He has ultimate wisdom for every path in my life, and full understanding of the details.

the Spirit of counsel and might,

He is the one with words of comfort and strength. His advice directs me, and his power carries me.

the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

He knows all and is King over all.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see

He will not fret on January 1st at the year to come.

or decide disputes by what his ears hear.

He does not hold the past year against me. He keeps no record of my wrongs.

. . .

I once had a dream in which I arrived at Heaven with no arms and legs. When Christ asked me, "Child, what made you like this?" I answered, "You said, 'If our hand offends you, cut it off.' Every time I looked at my arms and legs, all I could think of was the harm they've done to myself and others, so I either cut them off or served with them until they fell off." I do not know what Christ looks like, but I will never forget the care I saw in his eyes in that dream. It was perhaps the first time I felt the love of a Father. He touched the stumps of my arms and legs and gave to me new ones, but they were not mine and this was clear to me. They were wholly un-of me and wholly of Him.

This is the shoot that comes forth from death. Christ.

God, make it so.

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