Shaking Things Up

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When I went off to college, they (whoever they is) told us to expect an earthquake anytime. The New Madrid fault hadn’t gone in well over a hundred years. It was due. “They” had all of us midwesterners ready to build quake proof shelters all over campus, except being from Illinois, we had no idea what that even was. Tornadoes we know. Earthquakes, not so much.

Needless to say, we never experienced an earthquake. Missourians haven’t since that time, either. St. Louis remains safe from teetering into the abyss in the foreseeable future, though it remains an active fault.

On a family trip to San Francisco, we stood in an earthquake simulator, however, to see what it would be like. Dizzying, confusing, and yes, terrifying had it been real.

In doing some research on the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I discovered an interesting detail. The quake measured an (assumed) 7.9 on the Richter scale and the maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Shock waves traveled at a rate of 8300 miles per hour.  Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.The event displaced over 75% of the population and killed between 700-3000 people. It permanently removed San Francisco as the leading city of the west, replacing it with Los Angeles.

We assume the most destructive element of that quake was the fire or the falling buildings. Nope.

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Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

Most earthquake damage results from strong shaking. Damage caused by landslides, ground failure, or fire account for a small portion of the total. We remember the 1906 earthquake mainly for the fire damage, yet in most places, it was the shaking on already shaky ground that caused the trouble.

You know what area sustained the worst damage? The Bay Area where ground had been reclaimed from the water. Already soft and easily malleable because of its water and sand content, the ground beneath the bay dissolved during the shaking. Bedrock areas held fast. Unstable ground rocked the buildings above it with ferocity.

In other words, bedrock holds. Shifting ground, soft foundations, things humans created and didn’t use for their intended purpose—all these fall away in an intense shaking. What survived the earthquake? Steel buildings on solid ground.

And that is the message of Hebrews 12.

“You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.

When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”

God tells the Hebrews—I’m going to shake things up. In fact, I’m going to shake all of creation until it’s shaken back into order. I’ll shake until all the unintended, soft shifting mess is taken away and only the solid, perfect rock remains.

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Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

I remember the giant braided rugs my mom used to have in our living room. Occasionally, we had to take the behemoths outside and give them a good shaking. It took two of us. Dirt had gotten in all the crevices of the braid, and it had to be shaken and beat until the seams released all the mess that shouldn’t have been there. It was a job.

Sometimes things need to be shaken into order. They’ve lost their function. Impurities have gotten in the cracks. They need a good clothesline moment with a broom and a strong arm.

In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs he suggests that:

“The Lord takes by its corners this old world

And shakes us forward and shakes us free

To run wild with the hope.”

I love that image. One day, the entire world will be set right. Shaken free of its evil and freed with wild hope. I can’t wait for that day.

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But here’s the thing—sometimes He will do the same to you and me, here and now. What needs to be shaken free in our lives so we can run wild with hope?

God’s shaking in our lives signals his desire for us to be what we were meant to be, unencumbered by dust and dirt.

We don’t often perceive a good shaking up in as joyful freedom and hope. We see it through a lens of fear, assuming the worst of anything that upsets our comfortable status quo.

But the Hebrews writer sets us straight on that. S/he explains that we have come to Mount Zion—not Mount Sinai. We’ve come to a joyful gathering. We’ve come as God’s own heirs. We “have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.”

We have come to hope. To no more fear. To the one who is love and casts out fear. To joy, to the community of his people, to Jesus’ himself speaking for you.

“At the centre of the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, in fact, is the contrast between a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness which is welcoming, cleansing and healing.” NT Wright

If we think of God’s shaking as scary, we’re thinking in the wrong covenant, living in the wrong testament. We need to reframe the shaking up as a restoration of what was lost. It’s more like panning for gold than tearing us apart.

Holiness on the new mountain no longer a terrifying thing. It’s a new way, a better way, a healing, restoring activity. We should welcome it, be excited about it, work toward it not as if we were afraid but as if we rejoice to belong in that city.

The lesson we learn from San Francisco is that shaking doesn’t harm things that are built on bedrock. It destroys only thing that are built where they shouldn’t have been. Only foundations that are unsound. It’s Jesus’ parable about the house on the rock all over again.

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The warning of Hebrews 12 and the warning of 1906 are the same—be mindful of your foundation. What are you building on? What is the bedrock of your faith? What will happen to that faith when the shaking starts?

Many people who have lost their faith in recent years have stated that it happened because a celebrity pastor, worship leader, or other person whom they trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. Their faith rested on a person, and that person wasn’t Jesus. When holiness shook it out, it crumbled.

Others build their foundation on God blessing them—giving them the abundant life He promised. When circumstances reverse and they don’t feel blessed, they no longer feel God, either.

Some build on doctrine, certain that if their answers are right, their faith is solid. Ditto “right behavior.” They go over their mental checklist daily, ensuring that they haven’t missed or compromised anything. Like Javert, their life becomes undone when someone suggests that grace and mercy matter more to a human soul.

Shaking terrifies those who live on foundations they have built themselves with unsteady hands and insufficient knowledge. It doesn’t faze those who know a master craftsman built their foundation, and it will hold.

Our foundation?

“You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.”

That’s it. That’s enough. That will hold.

When God shakes up our world, he wants us to know that only unshakable things will remain. Our response, so difficult and against the human grain, is “so let us be thankful.”

Green Lake Water

IMG_8376Continuing in the memoir/stories that create our lives vein . . .

Green lake water flushed into my nose, hit my gag reflex, and my neck automatically convulsed. My mouth opened—rookie mistake. I swallowed water, algae, and the poop of a thousand fishes, gagged, coughed, sputtered, and coughed again. I raised my head out of the water, eyes unseeing with lake water stunning them shut, legs flailing away trying to keep me afloat.

I wiped the water from my eyes, eyes that still, according to the eye doctor who handed me blue cats eye glasses when I was eight, “needed glasses to see the blackboard and play in the outfield.” Never mind I needed a lot more than glasses to ever play in the outfield.

I could vaguely see the two pier posts that marked the swim test lane, and I knew I’d barely made it halfway across.

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Refusing to put my face back in the water, I swam the rest of the lane using the unauthorized freestyle rather than the mandated crawl, still hacking up lake water as I climbed ignominiously up the ladder at the final pier.

The Girl Scout drill sergeant judging us all gave a loud sigh—louder than it needed to be I thought, though it was hard to know with water clogging my ears and my pride. She pulled her lower lip sideways in contemplation or scorn, pondered her decision a moment, then threw a literal and verbal “red cap” at me.

A red  cap meant humiliation. It meant I could swim, but barely. It was like a no-confidence vote from your camp counselors. A red cap on my dishwater blonde curls signaled to anyone who cared that I had to stay in the boundaries, and preteen girls all cared.

It meant I couldn’t swim out to the raft with all the laughing white and blue capped girls. Of course the caps were patriotic. This was Girl Scouts of America camp. That raft felt a mile away, socially and physically.

A red cap was Girl Scout camp social devastation.

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My best friend stood on the pier a few feet away as I emerged from the water. I heard the disdain in her voice when she tossed her wet hair over her shoulder and said, “They almost made you a non-swimmer. You were that bad.” She, of course, had the coveted white cap on her head. She could take off on the lake with one of the sailboats. I couldn’t. My red cap confined me to the canoes—a thing I loved that had now turned into a tool of embarrassment.

I could swim well enough with my face out of the water. I could have done a half dozen laps on my back. But no—the Girl Scouts of America decreed that the only acceptable way to circumnavigate a lake, or at least a pier, was to crawl with your face in the water. So I failed. Or nearly.

I once went postal on a doctor who threw a heavy towel on my face without warning. I one punched my husband when he leaned in to kiss me goodbye one morning, while sleep still fogged my senses. (He never did it again.) Could I not swim with my face in the water because I’m claustrophobic, or do I carry a terror of anything in my face now because of being forced to crawl across a green lake? I’ll never know, I suppose.

These days I love to snorkel, but the panic of covering my face with a confining rubber mask and submerging it in the water reemerges every time, no matter how many times I’ve done it, and I have to wrestle down the fear.

Maybe I’m replaying girl scout camp in my subconscious memory. I can fight that panic now. Then, I could only cough, sputter, and cry, wondering why a simple backstroke wasn’t proof enough that I could stay above water long enough to survive a swim to the coveted raft.

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My best friend laughed with all those other girls out on that beautiful socially upward island. She went sailing on her own. Occasionally, she got in a canoe with me, and we struck out for parts unknown, at least, unknown to two girls about to enter junior high, possibly the most unknown territory in human experience.

We fished with cafeteria bread we mushed up into dough balls and scrunched onto hooks we tied onto string. To this day, that was the only time I ever caught a fish. We jumped in the water far from the all-seeing eyes of the leaders who would tell me I bore only a red cap and so was not allowed. My friend reminded me I was not allowed, and she was—a reminder I found unnecessarily consistent.

Sherri could glide through the water like a barracuda, and I didn’t know why until one day later that summer. Her neighbors had an in-ground pool, the kind I thought only rich people put in their backyards. She swam there all summer, and she invited me over that July to play a game they played often, apparently.

The game didn’t have a name, but the rules were simple. Let the girls swim half a lap, then the boys jumped in, and if the boys caught the girls, they got to pull down their swim suit. I couldn’t swim fast. That much had been established. Something inside  my stomach flipped over and squirmed at the knowledge that she knew I’d be caught first and still invited me. I didn’t go.

We were ten.

It wasn’t the only time the neighborhood boys free-ranged bad behavior with girls. My friend’s older brother lounged on her woolen green couch with me several times that year, coaxing me to try his joint. She told me later he did it so that I’d get high and he could have sex with me. I didn’t try it.

I was eleven.

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

At eleven, I climbed aboard the school bus on the first day of seventh grade, confident and ready, scanning the back of the bus for my best friend so we could sit together as we had for the entire previous year. She might have lived a rougher life than I, but we were friends forever, through thick and thin. And we always sat in the back, because that’s where the cool kids aways have sat, since school busses have rolled on four wheels.

I reached her seat, met her eyes, and saw her lazily pull her right leg up on the green faux leather seat. “Can’t sit here. It’s taken.” I laughed. First day joke. I shrugged and began to lower my skinny butt and fresh notebooks into the seat, but she didn’t move. “You can’t sit here anymore. We’re not friends this year.” She side-eyed the other cool kids, and they smirked.

I stared. Seventh-grade me had no courage, nor even the facsimile of it in bravado. That was both the reasons for her rejection and the method that ensured it. She knew I wouldn’t fight. She knew I’d slink away, and I did.

I’ve never done the “walk of shame” they talk about in the TV shows. But it’s got nothing on the eternal walk all the way to the front of the bus when you’ve been humiliated and the whole bus knows it.

When the cool kids reject you, there is no middle ground. You don’t go sit in the middle of the bus. For one thing, the middle is full, with all the average kids who never aspired to cool and just want to survive. For another, they know. They may not have aspirations, but they’re not fool enough to go down with you. There is no welcome until you reach the front where the real rejects sit. They’ll take you. They have to. They know they’re a kind of dumping receptacle for the refuse of the socially upward mobile, and they accept it, and you, with a fatalism that a death row inmate would envy.

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Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

I’m swimming laps at the local health club these past couple months. My arms move slowly under the water, my legs waving just enough. No one times me; no one judges my form. Neither do I. I zen on my back, watching the  sun reflect through the tall windows, dozens of suns filling each pane. The water ripples in rainbows, and I relax into it, releasing the fear that my face is going to dunk under. I breathe deeply and push off at each end, not remembering wet wooden piers at the end of a green lake water lane. An elderly Asian couple glides next to me, slowly, graceful as a couple of jellyfish in the sea, moving their tentacle arms in a perfect rhythm only they know.

I still don’t put my face in the water. No one cares.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids?

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.

Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids???

Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion. 

I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.

jesus doesnt want you to be good. Jesus wants uou to be his.

First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.

Rules versus relationship.

According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.

Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?

Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on. 

That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.

So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.

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Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.

According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.

Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.

Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:

“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones

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So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.

Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.

Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.

“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point. 

What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids

Emily: Blatant self-promotion.

Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.

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Photo by dimas aditya on Unsplash

Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.

Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.

Emily:

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Growing With–a Book You Must Know About

Growing With parenting_ A mutual journey of intentional growth for both ourselves and our children that trusts God to transform us all.

As a pastor, I am “in a relationship” with the Fuller Youth Institute. I’m not even shy about it. In a culture that makes it challenging for our kids’ faith to thrive, I have found abundant resources for both parents and church leaders in their publications. I’m even using a number of them for my thesis project.

That’s why, when my email magically notified me they were looking for a book launch team for their next resource–– Growing With––that was one of the few emails I didn’t scroll past or trash with abandon. I applied immediately.

I mean, my tagline you can read above is” Reframed: Picturing faith with the next generation.” It’s kind of important to me.

Growing With’s subtitle– –Every Parent’s Guide To Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future––captures the thing well. The authors, Kara Powell and Steven Argue,  use three verbs to help parents during the three stages of their children’s growth.

Growing alongside our kids requires holding our future snapshots loosely, because our dreams may not end up being theirs

Withing

  • Withing––how do we relearn to actually be with our children, not simply around them?

Faithing

  • Faithing—how do we help our kids navigate the changes in their faith with patience and optimism, realizing that our faith, too, is or should be ever-changing?

Adulting

  • Adulting– –what tools do our kids in need to thrive in their own new life, and what is our role in supplying and them?

As parents, we remember the lyrics to our kids' past dreams and sing them back to them when the timing is right.

I won’t lie ––Growing With can be a tough read if your kids are already in their 20s, as mine are. You can’t help but notice the many things you could have done better. Yet Powell and Argue lace Growing With with grace. They are parents, too. They have made their own mistakes and are not afraid to let the readers know it. The message comes through––

We’re all imperfect humans raising imperfect humans.

We all need some help. Both generations need grace to understand that the other is still growing, learning, and making mistakes. That understanding alone it is worth the price of admission for this book.

The authors talk about the cultural changes that have made growing up in this generation far different than the world their parents knew at their age. They lay down some of the stark facts that might depress us about our children’s faith, but they also debunk some of the myths about the Millennial generation and iGen that keep parents awake at night in fear.

The clear, well-informed, and fact checked understanding of the next generations’ hopes, worries, and beliefs is invaluable to parents, grandparents, and church leaders who wants to understand what is going on in the heads and hearts of these generations.

Teachers, Guides, Resourcers

I love how the authors explain the different roles parents need to take on as their children change. Parents need to evolve from teachers to guides to resources. We can’t hope to parent a 25 -year-old the same way we did a 14-year-old. At least, we can’t hope to do it and retain a good relationship. And genuine relationships are what it’s all about for the next generation.

A guide doesn't carry your pack or do the exploring for you. They walk with you, attending to the novice travelers untested instincts, wrong turns, missed opportunities, and awe-inspiring moments. Thus the parent of

We need to be, as one story puts it, ”A wall they can swim back to”—a firm and sturdy place that will always support them after their forays toward and into adulthood. The writers don’t just leave us with that pithy picture, however. They give readers wonderful ways to be that wall. 

The important words are verbs

I love that the writers, like our scripture writers, know that the important words are verbs. Parents don’t simply ”be with” their kids. They are withing, together. It’s a verb because it is active. We need to intentionally practice withing.

Likewise, faith isn’t a static thing we can hand off to our kids when we think they’re ready. It’s a verb we practice more than we preach. It can’t be given––it can only be lived together. This flows perfectly with the biblical view of faith. Faith is never a thing in scripture––it is always an active, living way of life.

If you’re intrigued, or if you know someone who could benefit from “every parent’s guide to helping teenagers and young adults thrive,” check out Growing With––and preorder yours now (before March 5th) to receive some very special extras as well. I know I’m going to.

Books Have Helped

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Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

In the beginning, the baby bird’s cries sounded not so much plaintive as curious. “Are you my mother?” He didn’t know, as he ran from one being to the next, dog, cow, boat, plane, asking his question. Nearer the end, I’d hear the increasingly frightened baby, fearful of being alone in a giant world of snorting cranes and belching barges.

The turquoise cover with the sparsely-drawn little hatchling always closed on a happy ending, and I didn’t know if it was his safe return to his mother or his adventures in the great wide world I loved the best as a little girl.

Favorite Friends

I can still see my favorite book covers that I pulled open over and over as a tiny girl. Are You My Mother? sat on the shelf near the white polka-dotted Put Me in the Zoo and the Old World deep red of Ferdinand the Bull. They all fell open easily, their bindings creased with jelly-butter hands and little girl adoration.

Now that I review the past, it shouldn’t amaze me that all three have a protagonist who feels mismatched with the world he experiences.

Those are the stories that spoke to a little girl, the last of seven, the one no one in that family of nine quite understood, except perhaps my sister Marilyn who stayed home with me all day, because her wheelchair didn’t allow her the freedom to explore the world as she would have liked. My smallness didn’t, either.

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Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

More Old Friends

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Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

By eight, I rode my hand-me-down teal green bike to the McHenry Library once a week. We lived outside of town, over the one-lane metal Old Bridge, so it felt like riding to the next county. My mother told me it was only a mile—google maps now tells me two. Mom didn’t have google.

At least a couple times a year, I strained high and took a blue book off the shelves in the “big people” section. I knew exactly where it resided on that shelf, a biography of Helen Keller the name of which I don’t remember but the content I don’t forget.

The cover felt worn, partially because I had worn it but mostly because it was old, the blue fabric wearing into strands rough on my small fingers rather than a smooth linen. 

Helen, too, felt alone. Helen, too, had dreams of leaving her confined world. Helen, too, was, as my mother described her last offspring, “stubborn as a mule.” I liked Helen. I loved that she won. I struggled with her every time I read her story, and I read it a lot.

I didn’t know as a little one that my firm standing as an INFJ and a female Enneagram 5 would always ensure I felt not quite “in” anything. Such knowledge comes much later, if at all, and we’re left to navigate the whys of feeling in this world but not of it on our own when we’re small.

I only knew books helped.

It wasn’t even hard to feel countercultural when I became a Christian near the end of high school. I already was.

The hard part was taking “me” out of the center of it all, a struggle I continue every morning when the alarm wails at me.

Books have continued to help.

New Friends

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Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

When I stood beneath the venerable tan archway of Wash U as a new student, looking alternately up at the looming arch and down at the bronzed, scuffed circle beneath me that honored our equally venerable founder, William Greenleaf Eliot, I knew the next four years would involve a lot of books.

I planned a major in political science. Economics stood in the second-place slot, at least until I discovered how much calculus it involved. Third, in what the horses races call “show,” was English. Somehow, by the beginning of sophomore year, that third horse pulled around the outside corner to become the winner, surprising no one but me.

Four years later, with a black flat cap, gold cords, and a three-hundred degree graduation ceremony out in the quad (English majors know the proper use of hyperbole), I held a degree that led me to teach high school literature, not sit at a table learning of amicus curiae, habeas corpus, torts, and writs.

Thank you, Jesus.

Always Friends

Books saved me as a child. They told me there were others out there like me. No one could be completely alone if stories brought into my bedroom nearly-orphaned little birds, not-quite-dogs whose spots led them to seek acceptance in a zoo, or bulls who sniffed flowers and imagined a world in which they didn’t have to be who they weren’t.

Books opened my confined world as a teenager. Sometimes, the discovery left scars, because the world I didn’t know could be brutal, even more than the one I did. That was Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. Darn Steinbeck. 

Sometimes, they left yearning, like half-breaths I didn’t know I was breathing, catching in my throat. That was Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time—books I didn’t even read until I was twenty-two, but that doesn’t matter.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Books have formed me as an adult. I’ve turned from fiction to theology, sociology, biography, history. Non-fiction, well done, still drives the imagination, and that it drives mine toward a better me, a better church, and a better world resonates with me more than fiction these years.

With the tribute to Eugene Peterson last week, I thought perhaps I would continue in a series of books that changed me, in some way, spiritually. In a positive way, that is. We’ve got way too much negative swimming around already.

What works have stuck with me, making me a better version of the small child who wondered if anyone else out there understood what life felt like, real life, the kind that feels everything and wants to know the limits and go beyond them. That child is still there. I hope, believe, she’s less her, more Jesus by now.

Books have helped.

Maybe It’s the Hands

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or read last week’s blog post) know I went to Scotland last month. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.

Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.

Oxford

The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear  without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.

This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?

Not what I saw.

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Handwritten

On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?

I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.

Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.

This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Others of you stand on chairs to see your team score a touchdown. Some, like my husband, go agape at the sight of ancient statues and clay pots. Paintings will transport certain people to realms of imagination and joy.

Handwritten words make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.

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What are we leaving?

I realized, while I inhaled those manuscripts like am addict getting a fix, that we are not leaving written words to other generations. Whoever the great authors of our age are, is anyone going to want to stare at their Messenger notes in a museum one day? Is the sight of their emailed manuscript going to make anyone’s heart beat faster? Will anyone ever stand and peer at their iPad, on which they typed the thrilling battle cry for that climactic scene, and sob with the pure joy of it?

Will anyone cross an ocean to see their laptop?

Nope.

On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when.

The archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully  places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.

It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s taste in food. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.

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Maybe it’s the hands

We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.

Scripture shouts this message.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27

“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8

“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10

“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15

Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.

Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.

But I cry because I know the story, and the storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.

Six Years. The Opioid Crisis Is Real

It’s been six years, yesterday. Six years since I wrote this piece. It’s an anniversary I’d rather not have, but those choices aren’t always ours. I can’t believe it’s been six.

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I’ll Do Anything, God

My “anything” prayer happened in a credit union lobby, viewing security tapes. The image on the tape was shady, in more ways than one. He wore a hoodie pulled low over his brow, not surprising, since having anyone see his face would have been detrimental to his purpose. The tape was grainy, at best. Still, I could identify the vehicle, and its driver.

 Explaining this all to the security woman at the credit union felt like an out-of-body experience. Surely, this was not my pretty, suburban Jesus life. Yes, I said. I do know who the young man in the tape is using my debit card. Yes, I do know he’s a drug addict and what he’ll do with the money. Yes, I know if I don’t press charges you won’t return the money. No, I still don’t want to press charges.

Her look called both my sanity and my intelligence into question. I just shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a pastor. It’s an occupational hazard. I can’t really explain.”

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I didn’t pray “anything” intentionally. It happened to me the day Casey happened to me, and I might well have told God I had other, more pressing business had I any notion of the rough road ahead. Fortunately, God does not give us those notions. He knows my heart that would probably have embraced the fear and the comfort rather than the strange boy in my back hallway.

So I never offered God everything. But by the time he asked it of me, I could do nothing else. God knows, sometimes, that’s the way we work.

No Turning Back When You Tell God “Anything”

Fortunately for Casey, that shock of overgrown cocoa-colored bangs and those huge brown eyes beneath the ever-present hoodie endeared him to people before they knew him. At least they did to me, a sucker for shy smiles and already well aware of my daughter’s penchant for collecting what we could euphemistically term “the least of these.”

 He had nowhere to go, could he maybe sleep in the basement? OK. I guessed that would be fine. For a while.

Two days later, his mom came knocking on the side door, letting us know the reason he had nowhere to go–she had a restraining order on him, because he had stolen from her, again. The same day one of our mutual friends informed us of his past in detail, containing more interactions with law enforcement than Snoop Dogg. “He’s a loser. He’ll never change. You’re out of your mind if you let him in your house. He’ll take you for everything you have.”

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And he tried. I’d never been called to a bank to review security videos, never had someone steal my debit card and use it to buy gas for ten of his closest friends. Never had police bang on my door at random hours. Never sat at the hospital bed of someone who felt so little hope for life he’d OD on heroin, again.

 He progressed to grand theft auto while we were on vacation. Not the video game. The rage I felt when the gift cards I’d saved points for to give our kids for Christmas turned up missing the week before—from my underwear drawer, which feels relentlessly violating—mixed with the sorrow and desolation of knowing that by this time, I loved this kid.

OK, he was no kid; he was 23. But only chronologically.

When Jesus told me to love the least of these, he wasn’t being rhetorical. He didn’t mean sending money to African orphans to satisfy my conscience or buying a pair of shoes so a needy child could have one, too. Yes, those are good things. I do those things. But until Casey, I didn’t understand that real love takes risks, gets personal, gets hideously, nakely messy. Real love looks a messed up kid in the eye and says, “I’m with you for the long haul. What do we have to do?”And sometimes the crapshot you take with love comes up bust. There is no guarantee.

Every time I thought I had had enough and was ready to turn this kid in and wash my hands, I asked God if I could. Well, I kind of begged him. There were some pretty bad days. And every single time, he said, “No. I am not done with Casey. So neither are you. Anything? Really?”

Holy Spirit Leverage

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 As part of our “I’m not turning you in so now I have some power over you” strategy, we “sentenced” Casey to community service at our church. He met people. They loved him, no holds barred. He came to a few services. He went forward to the altar, trying to start over and get out of the iron-bar-less prison he knew he was still in. He got better; he got worse; he got better. I felt the Spirit moving me to go back downstairs to him one night at 2am, long after I had gone to bed but not to sleep.

“Casey, what’s keeping you from turning your life over to God?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to give up the fun I’m having.”

“Really? So, this homeless, jail time, drugs gig is fun? How’s that working out for you?”

He shook his head sheepishly. “Yeah. Not so good.”

 He told us no one in twenty-three years had made him feel so loved. Like the security woman, he shook his head at us and said he could not understand why.

 But eventually, he got it. He got that love beyond all human ability comes from Jesus alone. A tiny bit of comprehension seeped in that, maybe, possibly, it wasn’t too late for someone like him. A God who would die for any sin on the books just because he loved us would love him, too. The Recovery Bible got a used look to it.

Eventually, I got it, too. I got that compassion means so much more than a thoughtful email, and mercy is the greatest inexplicable gift someone might get from me. I wrote my senior seminary thesis on grace. But I don’t think I knew it at all until I knew Casey. I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given. I’ve hugged Jesus in the form of a messed-up, love-bewildered kid. And I’ll never see Him the same.

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Not a Fairytale

You know those stories with bittersweet endings that you hate but know are really more true than the happily ever after ones? This is that kind of story. Casey didn’t make it in this life. He tried hard. He went though recovery and was on the road. But there were too many years of pain and bad choices, and one last time on heroin, after being clean for a while, was the last. I had to find out through Facebook, not the number one choice for devastating your heart.

Sitting looking at the waves of Lake Michigan roll in that week, I cried for the man he might have been and the life that could have been his. But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog. He had no pain, no past, no chains of addiction or scars of abuse. He had no tears of hopelessness or self-hatred. He was free. And I’d never been so happy for someone in my life. Or sad. 

“Anything” prayers may take you no farther than your own back hallway. But they’ll take you much farther than that, once dangerous love sets in.

 

According to our surgeon general’s remarks when I heard him speak this spring, “This is a medical addiction issue, not a moral failure. The only way we’re going to create better opportunities for those we love is by sharing our stories and eliminating the stigma. None of us can do it alone.” Amen. The heroin epidemic is real, and it’s deadly. Someone dies every 12.5 minutes of an opioid overdose. The start of it for someone could be in your own medicine cabinet right now. Please check out some facts and know what you need to know. Don’t lose someone you love.