Signs of the Times

You might be almost middle-aged…

… if your new glasses prescription includes invisible bifocals so you don’t have to hold your song book at arms length in order to read it in church.

… if you buy a ginormous box of plastic wrap on Amazon, because you now have plenty of dishes that require wider than standard width plastic wrap.

… if you double most recipes so that you have leftovers or extra food for the freezer because the food is always evaporating and the people are always hungry and you have become philosophical about this situation.

…if you become excited about a few hours of lawn mowing to relax and think quiet thoughts in a loud place, and you no longer have to worry about little people spilling milk while you’re mowing.

… if you find yourself debating conundrums such as, ” Why are the Dutch blitz cards on the dryer?” And you can’t figure out why nobody seems to put their things away in the right place, while stumbling over your own shoes at the door.

… If you have bad dreams about looking into a mirror and seeing that you are growing so many chin hairs you could call it a beard.

… if you play a game of softball with the cousins at the family reunion, and every other person either has to have a pinch hitter because of shoulder issues, or a runner because their knees are rickety.

… if you take great pleasure in feeding birds and quietly watching gardens grow and looking at other people’s landscaping.

… if you can’t sleep unless you have the right pillow, not one like the right pillow, but the exact one.

… If you honestly do not get what your children are talking about, and they wonder what century you were born in, and you laugh because it certainly wasn’t this century.

But…If you have learned to squeeze the hilarity out of the weird aches and idiosyncrasies that you used to think went with being old, and you know you’re not actually old yet, that’s kind of funny.

It’s oddly fun to know that you know stuff because you’ve lived it, but you don’t really feel like everybody else has to know it the same way.

It’s liberating to accept your limitations, be comfortable in your own skin, and walk on cheerfully even when you have peasant feet that aren’t cute in flip flops.

It’s wonderful to dust off a dormant dream, and trot it out into the light now that you have a bit of time to pursue it.

It’s nice to relax a little about getting everything done, because you finally understand that you won’t get everything done and it’s more restful this way, doing the next thing and stopping when it’s time to sleep.

It is easier to be faithful with what is right in front of you when you give up the burden of taking care of the whole world.

It is good to use your gifts and no longer care if nobody notices, because you understand a little how insignificant you are in the whole scheme of things, and yet you know that you are required to endure to the end, so you keep going and commit the end results to God.

I like this season. Really.

It’s just a season, but it’s a good one. Mostly.

I could live without the chin hairs.

Life with the Birds

Nature held back and held back until hope had been deferred sufficiently, and then she said, “NOW.” Just like that, we get a week of brilliant sunshine after about 6 months of cold and wet (my family says I exaggerate about this) and the green explodes electrically. That may not be a thing where you live, but it is here. Every day I feel more alive, and just when you thought I wasn’t going to do one of those ecstatic spring posts, you’re getting it.

There’s a Carolina wren that hangs out just outside our bedroom door that opens to a smoker’s deck, only we don’t smoke there. I suppose we could call it our coffee deck, or our tea deck in the evening. This summer I am going to flood it with my house plants and pretty stuff to make it even more pleasant. It has a roof made of clear plastic sheets that need to have the moss pressure washed off them, and there is a persistent Virginia creeper that runs along the house wall. The wren seems to like this atmosphere, because she wants to nest somewhere right close by and sing her liquid song of pure joy. I have no objections.

She’s a little behind the robins who have already raised a brood in the bush that climbs up the railing. They regretted their choice of home site as soon as our children realized there was a nest at eye level, and checked on the babies quietly but with much diligence. Yesterday the babies flew away, and the robins are having to decide whether to risk a second brood in the same spot or to rebuild in a quieter neighborhood.

Gregory installed three nesting boxes for bluebirds when we started to notice them in the yard. I keep seeing them flitting about over the garden, their personal smorgasbord. Then they flit right over the privacy fence and go to the neighbor’s bluebird boxes to feed their babies. It seems a little disloyal, but one can forgive a bluebird almost anything.

There’s a Baltimore oriole who occasionally flaunts his brilliant feathers from the tops of the high oaks down to the arbor. He is so beautiful it takes my breath away. I keep scanning the high tree tops where they like to weave their swinging nests, and since the leaves are only starting to blossom out, I can see that he hasn’t built yet. I wouldn’t choose the shagbark hickory, though it’s so high and breezy, because those branches break off so easily and I have to pick them up all the time before I mow. I’m guessing he’ll try for the tallest cherry tree or maybe the oak once his shy wife shows up to show her approval.

Whenever I hear an especially beautiful bird song, I scan until I can find the artist. Last week I located the mockingbird pair, and I’m so glad they’re sticking around to serenade us while they rejoice over their babies.

(Just as an aside… Have you noticed the ecstacy and wonder of the birds rejoicing over their young, over their domestic triumph? When I see people doing the same, I know it’s right and good. There is glory in it, oh yes! Also a lot of insistent, persistent mouths to feed. But it goes with the glory. There’s your little homily for the day, if you’re an exhausted parent. )

When I was mowing with our z-turn mower that has two levers you have to keep level or you veer off course, I was taking a tight circle under a bush and instinctively reached up to free my hair from a branch. Of course, that instantly turned the circle tightly into the bush, and out fluttered an outraged mourning dove. Sorry friend, I won’t do it again. Go back quickly and give your squabs their pigeon milk.

The cardinals absolutely love all the prickly stuff around here. Because they can fly in such a tight, dipping pattern, they can nest in the most inaccessible places. We have enough multiflora roses for a colony of cardinals, and it’s one of the reasons we aren’t clearing them.

The hummingbirds are back and I really need to get some petunias planted for them. I would rather cultivate the flowers that give them their nectar then try to make sure that their feeder is clean and full all summer. But the girls are begging for a feeder, so we’ll probably do both.

Last but not least, the phoebe that has returned to her nest under the awning at the corner of the sun porch has raised another successful brood. Last year there was a lot of stuff piled in that corner, so that she had a decent sense of privacy right outside the window. I cleared all that stuff away this spring, and it was still very cold when she was sitting on her eggs. As soon as it got warm enough for us to start using the sun porch, she felt the intrusion. But she’s a diligent one and look at her! I haven’t noticed her trying to raise another brood yet, so I hope she’s having a little vacation. That was a lot of bugs being stuffed into mouths.

We have crows, and starlings, and lowly sparrows, and even occasional bald eagles floating on the thermals. There are red winged blackbirds and gold finches and so many more. All of them are just doing what they’re supposed to do day after day. To repeat my little homily, there is glory in that. Bless your heart, and go do what you’re supposed to do today.

Me? I’m supposed to clean my house today, get rid of some loose feathers and tuck in the sticks that aren’t settled quite right. I’m also supposed to make some food, and the nestlings need to learn to make some new recipes, so I’ll be doing a bit of coaching.

What about you?

Peace on Earth

Goodwill to men.

Unless, of course, it’s men who don’t think the way you do.

Or men who see things differently than you do.

Or women, those digital warriors

Who feel called to set the world aright in a most ineffective way,

Attacking their neighbor with little squares of words.

There are meme wars and they are real.

They are not meant to bless or encourage

But to hurt and belittle.

Then it’s outrage on Earth, curses to men.

You are stupid sheep because xyz.

No Way!

OH. MY. WORD.

Can you even believe what she just said?

They are stupid sheep because they think we are stupid sheep.

There are times when nobody is right

Because everybody is reacting wrong.

That’s what my mama said when we yelled and blamed each other.

Wait.

Aren’t we supposed to be sheep?

We have a Shepherd.

He came all this way to Earth to call a ceasefire.

He came to lead us to still waters, green pastures.

Peace on Earth in every heart who follows Him.

It is no surprise that those who refuse the leadership

Of the Shepherd are spreading vitriol and violence.

But the sheep?

They’re listening for the voice of the Beloved Shepherd

Whose birth announcement said,

“Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”

Echo Chambers: The Way I See It

:::Edit: my husband says his shoulders were slumped because he was heading in to night shift more than the dread of what would await him. It’s when he comes home that his shoulders slump from what the shift was like. I thought I should clarify that. He isn’t discouraged to the point of quitting. But he is tired. :::

Tonight my husband went to work, a work he loves, but I saw the slump in his shoulders that indicated his dread for what he would find when he gets to the intensive care unit. All this summer we kept hoping that this new variant would pass over us and our area would be spared, but things are as bad as they were in the thick of the pandemic last year.

When he got back after four long shifts last week, I could tell he was wrung out, physically and emotionally. I asked him how it is going. He is the one who thrives on the adrenaline of life-saving medicine, who enjoys the challenges of critically ill patients, and who has trained tirelessly for his work. “It is awful,” he said. “This week has totally whooped my butt. There is no time to eat, and hardly time to run to the bathroom. Today there were twenty-seven people stacked in the ER, waiting for beds. One woman waited for three days in another ER before being transported to the small-town hospital. And the patients in the ICU are younger, and they are falling apart for no obvious reason, with no other health issues at all.”

Gabe doesn’t talk much about his work, and up until recently he has remained charitable about the spreading of fear and misinformation online. For a while it seemed that mainstream media was whipping the subject into a frenzy, trying to get more mileage out of a very tired idea. The disagreements even seemed a little funny. I showed him a meme that said, “This Awful Vaccine is doing more harm than Covid ever did,” and he chuckled wryly at the obvious fact that there are not 630,000 vaccine deaths, nor are there any hospitals filling up with patients who have reactions, although of course, there are reactions. There always are reactions, just not nearly on the same scale as the disease. “It’s just how they see it,” he would say. “People should have a right to choose what they want to put into their bodies. It’s a basic tenet of medicine.”

The charity runs a little thin when the screaming from the sidelines gets louder. A lot of the people who need acute care are the same ones who have been booing the medical system for this entire long year. Right now the system is overwhelmed. There are not enough resources for the needs. Obviously this results in lapses in care, oversights, people falling through the cracks. It isn’t just the Covid patients; it’s the ruptured appendix and the stroke victims and the heart attacks too. Staff at hospitals are running, running, all day long. Normal care in an Intensive Care Unit is only two patients per nurse. When that number goes up to double the normal care load, things start to feel out of control quickly for their caregivers. Very, very few people come back to say thank-you, and unfortunately the ones in Gabe’s unit… they often die.

They die, despite the careful monitoring, the endless duties that are involved with total care, ensuring the patient is sedated enough that they will not pull out their lines, but not so sedated that they can’t wake up, the washing, the care for bedsores, checking kidney function, making sure their eyes don’t dry out, etc. etc. They die on the shifts of those nurses who saw the fear in their eyes because their worn-out lungs couldn’t maintain oxygen levels. And guess who has to remove the tubes and pull the plugs when that decision has been made that they will not be able to recover? Yes. It’s the ones who have been laboring day and night to help this patient pull through, who have been on the phone communicating with distraught family members, hoping against hope that this one makes a turn for the better. There are thousands and thousands of these stories of bereavement and loss falling through the cracks. Not the famous or important people, or the influencers, but the everyday hard-working ones whose families are devastated by their loss.

“After every shift, we think about what we missed, how we could have given better care, what went wrong,” he said quietly. “This is what haunts us. The worst is when someone who has no clue what it is like is sure that they could fix everything with the help of a few internet memes and some youtube research. As if they obviously know better than all the doctors and researchers who have spent their entire lives studying the human body, and they are baffled by this inscrutable virus. That is just enough to make me angry!” Friends, my husband has never been this frustrated with humanity in general. And he is only one of many nurses who are near breaking point from the tensions. “People tell me if I can’t handle the pressure, I should just quit and get another job,” he said, “but how would that help the situation?”

My heart is sore for these healthcare workers, and for the mistrust and confusion everywhere in our world. They aren’t asking to be lauded as heroes, but they would really appreciate being heard and respected for their sincere efforts to alleviate suffering and help people heal. And honestly, they would like if everybody at least considered the vaccine with an open mind, and if they decide to not get it, to at the very least do everything in their power to not spread the virus and it’s accompanying sensations.

Here’s a quote from an article that I feel articulates very kindly about how many doctors are feeling. “Many of the unvaccinated people I’ve talked with are hard-working, loving individuals struggling to catch a break in a life that hasn’t been fair. They’re unmoored and don’t know what to believe when truth itself has supply-chain problems and the health care system has been letting them down for years.”

I get it with the disillusionment that is felt for our healthcare system. I don’t really trust that the system has only my good in mind either. I don’t think science is a god that can save us. I do believe in respecting the gifts that our Creator has given men in developing their knowledge and honing skills to improve the lives of so many. If I end up getting Covid, I would do everything I could to try to heal at home. But if I need care beyond that, I will have to trust that the doctors care about my health and will do their best for me.

I also strongly believe that things like vaccinations should remain open to free choice, but I do not understand why that has to include reposting fear-mongering stories of dubious origin or news articles that are so heavy with agenda you can see the slant a mile off. And that goes for both sides of the debate! Why can we not ask God how to make our private decisions, and go on our way in faith? Why do we have to yell about it?

“We all have our own echo chambers, where what we already believe swirls around and that is what we hear,” my husband said. I had told him of feeling scalded by an online debate so nasty that if the people would have been Vikings, they would have been pulling hair and gouging out eyes.

I want to say, “We are better than this!” But the truth is, we are not. I know that I can come up with sarcastic zingers with the best of them, but I have asked Jesus to slap my hand before I write them in a comment thread. I am not joking one little bit. I like to be affirmed, that I am right, as does everybody else I know. Can we please just listen to each other’s hearts without vitriol? Please? Can we say, “I may be wrong, but this is the way I see it…” If the only debate we listen to is the narrative that echoes what is already swirling in our heads, we become more and more self-assured and more and more abrasive in our own defense.

I think about my friend Jeanie, whose dad passed away last year, and how clearly she saw it at his deathbed, “Love God; love people. That’s all that matters.” Hmm. Didn’t Jesus say something like that?

I cringe at all the suffering. I loathe Covid. I hate the divisions and strife. Maybe that is our real test, not so much the physical sickness. Maybe our real test is what we do despite the stresses in our very ordinary life, with our neighbors and the people in our house, and at the store or the post office or the mechanics shop. Maybe we are still being called to a very simple rule: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

Last week after reading that nasty comment thread I talked about, I felt sick in my soul, and I went out to my garden. I picked a half dozen ears of corn and walked over to my elderly neighbors to chat. I found out he can’t eat corn because he doesn’t have teeth, but he would be very happy for some tomatoes. He said he fell out of a tree this summer when he was trimming a branch, and had to have surgery on his shoulder. I said I would give him our phone numbers so that he can call the next time he needs to have a branch trimmed. Then I gave the corn to the other neighbor whom I hadn’t met yet. She was nice, but shy, and she said she has lived there nine years and still doesn’t know anybody. And then Dianne walked across the road to say hi, and we had introductions all around. It was a healing transaction for me; I no longer felt besmirched by the state of humanity. This. Right here. Actual people and a few ears of corn.

I want that simplicity of loving kindness. Please tell me, how do you keep the hubbub from destroying your peace? How do you keep your equilibrium?

Ten Years and Text Prayers

Ten years ago I prayed very short prayers, mostly in the form of an S.O.S. “Jesus, help me,” or “Your patience, Lord.” There simply wasn’t time for long, theologically impressive prayers.

One day I went to my bedroom, left the door open so nobody would think I was in there, lay behind the bed out of sight, and this is what I prayed: “Please, don’t let me hurt anybody, Jesus.”

I finally set up our desktop computer this week. Yes, a whole year after we packed it for our move. We can access our photo library now, an endless source of amusement.

This was our family on my husband’s thirtieth birthday. He was in nursing school, working part time to support us. Addy was one week old. Alex was eight. Rita was two, going on twelve. It was a sweaty eyeballs time, as Rachel Jankovic would say. It’s a good thing that breathing can be done without conscious effort, else we both would have gently expired for lack of oxygen at some point.

I thought back to this time last week when we went out to eat for Gabe’s fortieth birthday. We used a gift card Alex gave, and everybody had dressed themselves, including footgear. We ate at a steakhouse, and we didn’t have to clean up any spills, or take anybody to the potty, or even cut up their meat.

I thought about it again a few days ago when we ambitiously planned a full day of cooking for the freezer, seeing as the kitchen redo is coming right up and we will be limited in the kitchen for a while. Rita mixed up a triple batch of bread rolls for VBS, her lifelong fascination with patting and shaping yeast doughs having at last come to fruition. Then she mixed up four pounds of meatloaf, again digging in with no qualms because she loves to knead and stir. Addy made monster cookies, also for the upcoming VBS. For some reason those are always huge batches in the Amish cookbooks, but she nailed it perfectly. Olivia assembled beef and bean burritos for an easy future supper, and Gregory peeled 5 pounds of potatoes in less time than it takes to bake a pan full of tater tots. Then he lit the grill and cooked a bunch of pork, both chops and sausage. I floated on the periphery and did quality control. Olivia had been doing laundry all day, and about the time we put away the clean dishes, she was putting away the stacks of folded clothes.

This level of house help wasn’t even imaginable to me ten years ago. I had help: generous, constant help, and I was grateful for it. I just had to be careful not to trip over anybody, and that can be so, so trying. Many of those days felt like it was one step forward, two steps back.

“Don’t let me hurt anybody.” Somewhere in Elizabeth Elliot’s wise writings, I picked up the concept of communicating with short prayers and I continue the practice even now. They are kind of like texting a friend, not nearly as satisfying as a sit-down conversation, but still a way to stay connected.

These days the most frequent snippet is a simple, “Into Your hands.” I don’t even bother to name the concern/fear. I just verbalize the relinquishing and then I (try to) leave it. Sometimes multiple times in a day.

A friend on Instagram (@heartofthebison) has blessed me with her phrase, “I see You, God,” when her eyes light on a beautiful thing in creation. That perfectly tender cucumber I just picked. The folds and folds of a dahlia opening out of a tight bud. The soft edges of the clouds at sunrise. The coincidental arrival of a note in the mail on the very day I need to read it. “I see You, God, and You see me.”

Do you “text” God?

I Don’t Wanna be an Island

Today a friend of mine is faced with the heartbreak of burying a beautiful little daughter. I try to imagine. I cannot imagine. I can only pray for comfort and the assurance of new life and resurrection to carry them today.

Recently I have heard so many stories of crushing loss: women losing their husbands to bullets, to other women, to mysterious illnesses. I feel so blessed, so unfairly blessed, you might say. I could wait around in suspense for the other shoe to drop. Or I could lift my head and thank God for what is given today and do what He says. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Most of the other translations say “Don’t worry. Don’t be anxious.” One even says, “Don’t be concerned.”

I am really good at being concerned. How about you? I like to think of myself as a trustful person, but after all, one has to be wise and think ahead and make decisions that make sense, yes? But what about all the things over which I have no control? What about accidents and other people’s decisions and how they affect me? What about heartache and grief? Maybe I should just retreat to an insulated fall-out shelter with stores of food and water to keep me safe?

Blessings are a little like slippery soap, I think. The harder I grasp onto the favor, the more frantically I have to grip and struggle to keep it from falling to the floor. But if I open my hands to hold the good thing that has been given, there it is, lying on the palm of my hand. I become a picture of reverence instead of a portrayal of possessiveness.

I like this quote from C.S.Lewis about the heart.

If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

I observed my friend with her gorgeous little girl, her baby whom she knew would not live a long life. I saw her pouring her heart and soul into her child, fully aware of the ache that was coming, yet bravely living life with grace and a rare flair for joy. Today my heart breaks for her and her husband as they pay the price for living with their hearts wide open and vulnerable. The loss is staggering. The gain is staggering.

I want to dare to live like that. It’s not always better to be safe than sorry.

Image

Compassion: desire to relieve the distress of another

We are in the deep freezer again, with quite a few days of frigid temperatures predicted. Like I mentioned before, I am grateful for every piping hot drink, for my coat with omni-heat technology in the lining, for the radiating warmth in the leather seats in our vehicle, for the down comforter on the bed instead of a sleeping bag on the concrete.  After googling “how to live in your car” out of curiosity, I scrolled through the tips with rather horrified fascination.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, I just read a book by John Grisham titled The Street Lawyer. The story follows the ruthless climb of a brilliant young lawyer, Michael Brock, who has lost touch with his conscience in the pursuit of money and partnership in his firm. He is rudely jolted to reality in a violent encounter with a homeless man who had been evicted without notice by the firm’s real estate division. Mr. Brock starts to research homelessness, volunteering time at soup kitchens and shelters. In a short time he decides to ditch the high-power job to be a voice for the homeless community in Washington, D.C. His work gives him the satisfaction of seeing a shred of dignity restored to the least of the people. This book has less intrigue and more heart than any of the other legal thrillers I have read by Grisham. I can’t shake the story.

I think about my life, about the two sets of parents, the seven siblings or in-laws who would open their homes to stand between us and destitution, the whole community at church who would share with us until there was nothing left. It seems so far removed from us, like it could never happen. It seems so unfair; I can’t not care.

Without a Net is the personal story of Michelle Kennedy, raised in a middle class home, college educated, who finds herself where she never thought she would be: without a home, living in a car with three little children. When I read this a few years ago, the impossible suddenly seemed plausible. Homelessness is not just for junkies in the cities. It happens on all levels. I don’t know why these stories grip me so strongly. I wish I could just feel pity and forget about them.

What, you may ask, are you suggesting that we do? For starters, I am calling us all to gratitude. True thankfulness demands a response, a sharing with others in any way we can instead of merely pitying them. Long ago crowds of people asked John the Baptist what they should do to live rightly. The first thing he said was, “If anyone has more than one coat, he should give the extra away.” I think the point is sacrifice of stuff, time, money, effort.

Today the ladies at our church got together to make colorful comforters out of fabric scraps. I stayed home to school my crew, but I have confidence that those blankets will keep shivering people warm, and that it counts just as if they were Jesus. Pity would say, “I am sorry your teeth are chattering and your nose is running.” Compassion hands over a blanket and says, “Here, come in out of the cold. You can have my handkerchief.”

Years ago a group from our church went to Pittsburg for street ministry. One of the men met Homeless John and offered him a place to live. The rest of us thought he was a bit crazy. To our utter disbelief, John rode along home with us, out to the country where everything was strange and scary. As far as I recall, he was honest and respectful, happy for a chance to have a roof over his head. I am sure that the man who took him under his wing will have rewards in heaven the same as if he had sheltered Jesus.

Most times when we see someone with a sign asking for help, it is only change they expect. What if we put in the 20 dollars of grocery money that would have bought cheese and ice cream? What if we didn’t look away in embarrassment from the eyes that are already downcast and the lives already downtrodden, but instead asked them sincerely how they are doing and what they need? What if we actually saw them as deserving so much more than shame and condescension?

I just heard about a condition called “compassion fatigue”.  Apparently it affects those who work constantly with victims of tragedy. I do believe that the vast majority of us are more likely to have compassion deficit. Maybe if we are aware, if we read their stories, if we see through the eyes of a most Compassionate Savior, then when the opportunity comes to change the space someone lives in we will do it instead of simply feeling pity and walking on.

A Place to Stake it All in the New Year

I am really happy about a new year coming up, all unsullied, fresh. I used to think, “Wow, I wonder what all will happen this year? I want to make a difference, be all I should be, reach around to the people who need me and make everybody feel happy and celebrated, etc. etc. I want it to be a good year!” Now it is more like, “Wow, I wonder what all will happen this year? One thing is sure, I am not going to do everything right and very likely there will be really yucky stuff mixed in with all the celebrations.”

This is not the inevitable downer of a weary lady who has lost the sparkle of life. It is just my deeply realistic take on seasons… You want fruitfulness and summertime? Well, you may need bleak midwinter first, with yuck and boredom and mud. The thing is, I have more hope now than I did when I wanted everything to be exciting. I have seen the goodness of God, first hand, in the middle of chaos and I am not afraid. That is the marvel of it, because life can be downright terrifying. Like Peter, when I look at the waves, I sink. I am embarrassed sometimes at the things that have made me sink. “Jesus, save me! There is clutter everywhere and I am so weary of keeping house and doing the same old, same old stuff and the children have terrible attitudes about their chores and I just tripped over the doll stroller for the hundredth time and my hormones are all out of whack. I am sinking here!” If I were Jesus, I would probably think that was a pretty silly thing to be going under about, like you are standing in only two feet of water, lady. But He doesn’t, and I feel His hand pulling me up to walk beside Him again. That is why I am not afraid. If He has been redeeming my soul from destruction all these years, He will continue to do it in the coming year.

I am learning that what makes life sweet is not me, because I am flawed and incapable of making cakes out of mud. Jesus is the One who does that. Instead of a list of resolutions, I am asking Him simply to give me grace to hold up the ingredients of life in the coming year and let Him make them, by some miracle of sheer grace, into a celebration.

Last January I resolved to read the Bible in chronological order this year. It was good discipline for me, having used my babies as an excuse for a long time to just skim for encouragement. The plan got a set back when our iPad with the app I was using was stolen, but I found a similar plan online and kept on. I started this week only 13 days behind, and having gotten so close, I determined to finish. My concluding assignment for today is the book of Revelation. I like this method, linking events in the Scriptures in the order they happened. It builds trust to see the theme of faithfulness all throughout the written record. If God says it, it will happen. I am staking everything on that.

Heb. 6:17  So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever …

December, as it Happens

This month I have been a pen out of ink. I scratched a few paragraphs now and then, deleted the whole works, or left them to moulder in the drafts folder. Even the annual Christmas letter was a chore. I like pens that glide along smoothly without sputters and skips. Anything else is insufferable! So I can only thank the Lord that blogging is for writing when you enjoy it and that I have never imposed deadlines on myself.

All this time I was out of Earl Grey, folks. Two weeks in a row I forgot to go to the tea aisle in the grocery store. I drank coffee, which is a satisfying experience all its own, but sometimes a girl wants. just. tea! I have a whole shelf of boxes of other teas. My husband likes variety, and so does Gregory, my little tea drinking buddy. On Monday morning I was reading in the quiet when I heard Greg stirring around in the kitchen. To my surprise he brought me the steaming mug he had been concocting according to his Greg Standard of Perfect Tea. It was so liberally adorned with cream and sugar as to hardly be recognizable as tea. Later I saw that he had served me detox tea, which struck me as extremely funny, taking into consideration all the “bad stuff” he dumped into it. I walked over to my grocery list and I wrote it down nice and bold: EARL GREY. This week I bought a ginormous box, inhaled deeply the intoxicating scent of Bergamot oil, and was happy.

It is such a joyful season, yet I found myself praying, yearning with my heart in my throat for days as I followed the story of a family who was keeping vigil around a gunshot victim in the hospital. Yesterday he died. As I was wrapping a few small gifts, I kept thinking about what a sad, sad Christmas this will be for that family and for his friends. It took me back five Decembers when a beloved friend of mine, the wife of my cousin, lay on life support in a hospital. Her transport to glory left me with the anguished question, “Why? There are six little children here, Lord! Couldn’t you see that?” I have never faced a more severe attack on my faith. As the questions poured out, I received the beautiful assurance of the solid fact that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. Here in our mess and our hurt and our confusion, He is Prince of Peace. He came to give life, if we can only see that the passing of His friends is the ultimate giving of LIFE. I have seen the triumph of those who embrace this truth, who refuse to let it go in the midst of the most painful times imaginable.

He is with us! “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) That is all we need to know, really. There is a sturdy quality to such faith that confounds even the staunchest unbelievers. I hear my little girl singing her version of a children’s song: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy… down in the guts of my heart!” Her siblings say, “Depths, not guts!” but she is sticking to her version. It reminds me that faith touches us in the visceral regions where logic and reason are no comfort at all. I see the impossible joy and peace blanket the soul and I say,

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!  

“Earth’s Crammed with Heaven…”

My posts on dreams kept veering off in a different direction than I wanted them to go. I am unhappy with that, and I remember now why I scrapped writing about it earlier. The subject is too vast, our lives are so varied… And what if we are just plain lazy, so our dreams stay only in a nebulous section of our lives titled “Impossible”? The more I thought about all these qualifiers, the worse it got, until I was too muddled to remember where I actually wanted to go in the first place. Maybe it was because I wrote in third person. You can blame E.B.White for that. He said it is bad style for writers to constantly refer to themselves. “To air one’s views gratuitously is to imply that the demand for them is brisk…” What would he say to bloggers?

But I have thought about it, and I have come back again to what I really wanted to say. Assuming we are talking about children of God here, those who earnestly wish to please him with their lives, especially those who want to change the world, make a difference, share the Gospel…there is much heartfelt desire behind all the cliches. Most times the grand dreams spring up when we are young, inexperienced, but feeling at our core that we should do something. Many of my friends and I did just enough travel, short term missions, volunteer work, that we could never just comfortably sit and claim blissful ignorance about all the things that need to be done. This is a good thing. We have been richer all our lives for the interaction with other cultures and countries. We cannot live a casual American dream without being pricked in our conscience. We understand better the urgency of living counter-culture in an incredibly selfish society. And almost all of us still live right here in America. What is up with that?

This is where I ran into trouble, comparing the ordinariness of my life (sorry, E.B. White, but here we go again) with what I thought would be a better way/place to live it. I had two little boys when I went through this joyless tunnel. “I just feel so stuck, so unproductive,” I would sob to my husband, as I peered down the vista of years of diapers and interruptions and needy, needy people. It was a little difficult for him to understand why I felt like I wasn’t “doing anything.” (This begs the question, what was I thinking it would be like in an orphanage? Had I so soon forgotten the neediness of my school students?)

Quietly, kindly, God showed me a flaw in my youthful dreams, a streak of self-aggrandizement that was going to produce only ugliness. He showed me that I loved projects, neatly finished up and displayed with a happy, “I made this.” My children were not projects, they were people: real, needy, little people. This life, this very place where I was living was His Best for me, and all He was asking of me was faithfulness, the same as if I lived in Mongolia or Malawi. I learned to offer up each task, no matter how menial, to Jesus. It started to sink in, the amazing truth that no offering is too small to please Him, no place too quiet or hidden for Him to see. I learned to simply “do the next thing” in Elisabeth Elliot’s words, but I also found, to my astonishment, that nothing is wasted.

Guess what, the joy was back in life, the sun was shining again!  The people were still needing diaper changes and clean clothes and food and endless training and every. day. dying. to. self. I was living my dream, not the way I had imagined, but the way God planned.

That teen- age ideal of living like Hudson Taylor, waiting on God to supply our needs? Well, three years of back-to-school for the family bread winner may have qualified for that one. It was very, very good for us. The dream of going to college for writing and English classes? I don’t know whether that will ever happen, but technology has brought us the blog and such nice readers like you. 🙂 Learning to read Greek/Latin? Not going to happen. Ever. I am not going to tell you the rest of my dreams. You might laugh. 😛

I am not very old, but I have enough years under my belt to see the unmistakable traces of God, directing my way. In the words of one of my favorite poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

And only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

 

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