A Long Obedience, and Other Lessons Learned at Nineteen

christine-mendoza-527612-unsplash
Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Running, Galloping, or Anything with Horses

I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.

Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.

Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.

My history with the equine family is sketchy.

florin-alin-beudean-614033-unsplash
Photo by Florin-Alin Beudean on Unsplash

But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.

Halls of Fame

An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionally  critiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” 

justlisted (1)

We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.

I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.

As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.

A Long Obedience

Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.

Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.

You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.

There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.

I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.

The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.

“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.

But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”

Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?

I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.

Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.

Maybe It’s the Hands

IMG_1905 (4)

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.

IMG_1487 (7)

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.

IMG_0969

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.

IMG_9383

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.

Change Happens

IMG_1500 (1)

While I was spending my time sailing, sunning, and writing pages and pages of thesis proposals that would get rejected and repurposed EVERY OTHER MINUTE in California this June, our front yard got a makeover.

Out with the Old

We called the city because one of the venerable old elm trees in the front yard looked ready to tumble onto our also old (if not equally venerable) house. The trees are technically on city property.

They came. They saw. They said that all three trees were bad and would be meeting the saw blade. (Insert sob emoji here.) A fourth elm sat just inside the property line, and it was in worse shape, so we struck a deal with the contractor to take it down for cheap while he was there.

Upshot—the entire front yard went from shade to full sun in a few hours. I returned home to a driveway I didn’t even recognize.

In with the . . . What?

IMG_9727

I do love light, but unfortunately, my front garden does not. We had planted it as a shade garden and filled it with hostas, coral bells, ferns, and the like. Now, they are baking. Turning yellow and crusty. They are not happy. It’s too hot out there to move them, and so they sit in the sun, as I hope and pray they survive long enough to be set somewhere  more understanding of their needs.

Meanwhile, an interesting thing is occurring in the back yard. There, the trees are growing. The spruce that was as tall as I am (and that’s not very tall) when we moved in now towers over its surroundings. If I wanted to get all mathematical, I’d go out there and measure the hypotenuse and the shadow and tell you exactly how tall it is. But, did I mention it’s hot? And I am not all mathematical as a general rule.

The ornamental pear tree we planted that was supposed to be remain small isn’t. Upshot—things that were planted in full sun, like our rose garden, no longer are. They’re also unhappy about the turn of events.

 

What is my point in all this?

My own back yard tells me that seasons change. Things never remain as planned. What we once thought would be forever isn’t, and what we thought would never be sometimes is. What worked once for us doesn’t work anymore. Usually, we keep trying it anyway, desperately hoping that we will not have to adjust to a new reality.

New Normals

  • Our bodies change or get injured. What was once easy isn’t.
  • Our kids leave home and our marriages turn in toward themselves and find hollow cores where communication and commitment once filled the space.
  • Our kids leave home period, and that’s enough change for any of us who love having their laughter and surprise and support floating through our days.
  • We move from single to two people, from two kids to three, and every addition is a glorious gift but still one we have to adjust to and whose learning curve may be steeper than we think we can climb.
  • We move to a new home, and its exciting and terrifying, adventurous and lonely, all at once.
  • Our faith turns into doubt nibbling away at the corners of our hearts and minds. What were once easy answers don’t come quite so quickly anymore.

Change doesn’t have to be bad to discombobulate our lives. (I love that word.) It just has to be what it is.

Different. New. Unknown.

IMG_9417

It can scorch our days like a July sun or it can shade our nights with extra darkness. It doesn’t matter. It just messes with what we thought we had stable and safe.

If I refuse to adjust to the new normal of our yard, the plants out front will die. They will shrivel and thirst and scorch and wither. They weren’t made for the sun. The plants out back will languish without the light they crave. They, too, will die. They weren’t made for the shade.

If I accept that normal isn’t coming back and I move them? I can create an entire new design out there. I have a chance to start over. I can make beautiful out of a new situation.

Create Beautiful

We can spend our time resisting whatever our new normal is, or we can embrace it. Now, I’m not advocating giving up on something that matters. I wouldn’t hang up my marriage if it changed. I can ( and might) plant a new tree in the front yard. I can opt to fight for those plants and that arrangement, because they’re important. Fighting is an option. It’s one I’d always take if change threatened something that truly mattered.

But, some things have just run their season. It’s time for a new one. Some things are better off for a new season.

IMG_9767

What if, for instance, I embrace this new empty nest that threatens? What if I stop seeing it as a threat? I can sit in my home and mourn the emptiness. (I will, some days.) I can guilt them into not ever moving farther than five miles away. (I have tried.) I can Snapchat my children incessantly until they block me. (I don’t recommend this.)

I can learn new ways to love them like crazy from a distance, pour my heart into other young people here who need someone, and renew career aspirations that have been put aside. I think that may be the better option.

On a larger scale, what if we accepted that “A Christian America” isn’t going to happen? The season of churchgoing as normal is over, and we pastors (and all Christians) have an uphill climb to be relevant or wanted. People aren’t going to beat the door down of my church.

I could demand things go back to the way they were. I could throw up my hands and gnash my teeth about the current state. I could toss blame all over the place and find scapegoats to label and denounce.

I could embrace a different culture and find my way to create God’s image of beauty within it. I know which is the ultimately more productive choice.

What if a new normal has brought something into your life that also brings worry, fear, anxiety, or sadness? How can you grow into that today? How can you look at your new season and find the beauty in it? What do you need to embrace in order to grow in this season rather than wither?

I hope and pray you find it. If I can help, let me know.

The Good Stuff

IMG_8362

My husband has worms in the basement. (He also has bees in the backyard and frogs in the dining room. He’s a odd duck, but he’s my odd duck.)

We faithfully save our table scraps and those items in the crisper drawers that have been there ever so slightly too long. (As in, I really can’t identify that green slime, but I believe it was once related to lettuce. Or parsley. It’s a tough call.)

We toss them in the compost bucket by the sink, and he feeds it to the worms. Worms do what worms do, which is basically absorb and poop, and lo and behold, we have beautiful, fine soil to add to our garden beds in the spring.

It’s a strange process, but it works.

Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

IMG_8372

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the weedy soil that refuses to prioritize and cut out some of the clutter.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Now, the good stuff. The fertile soil.

“Other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”

Someone had worked to clear that soil! The weeds were cut down and their roots pulled. The rocks were thrown to the side. The soil was tilled and turned and dug deep just waiting for the seed.

That heart was ready for God to get to work.

338e4-img_1831

Fertile soil is rich and deep. It’s filled with nutrients. It’s been carefully worked so that it’s not too sandy, not too much clay. In our yard, fertile soil doesn’t just happen. We’ve got solid Midwestern clay. Hence, the worms.

It takes buckets of compost, faithfully saved. A watering system that maintains a careful balance in our seasons of drought and regular gullywashers. (If you don’t live in the Midwest, perhaps you don’t know what a gullywasher is. But it is a rainstorm to behold, let me tell you.) It takes weeding and prepping and care—but when it’s ready?

You should see the crops of beans and peppers.

“The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Matthew 13)

A heart that is ready for God to work is a heart filled with life. Is that who we are?

Fertile soil just aches to grow things. It’s its only reason for being. Fertile soil has no interest in hanging out with nothing to show. Fertile hearts have heard and paid attention to Jesus’ story. They respond. They know you have to make growing good things a priority for it to happen. They’ve done the hard work of softening their hearts in vulnerability, deepening their hearts with commitment, and decluttering their hearts for focus. They’re ready for that seed.

But How Much Fruit?

16055-img_3611

A funny thing happens at this point in the story. The seed sown on good soil yielded different amounts. That’s the way it works when we open our hearts to God. He knows the maximum we are created to produce, and he asks only that we grow to our own best. It’s pretty great that God isn’t standing there in the field saying, “Hey, you grew way more than that other guy. But you—you are such a failure. You only returned ten times what I gave you. Loser.”

Nope. He doesn’t do that. He rejoices over everyone’s return, no matter how much. He knows what we are designed to do, and his only desire is that we bear the fruit we were made for and make it good. We don’t need to worry about how much. We just need to make that fruit so good people will want to taste it.

In fact, when we start to compare our fruit to the person next to us who had a hundred times return on the seed, you know what happens? Those weeds start coming into our plot of land. The rocks end up back under the soil. All the worries we weeded out come right back in, because we took our focus off of producing good fruit and started to compare how much other people were doing to what we were managing.

God is overjoyed at our return. Not the size of it—the fact of it. He celebrates the people who returned ten times as much exactly the same as he celebrates the ones who returned 100 times. He says the same thing to both—the same thing he says to the servants in another of Jesus’ stories.

“Well done good and faithful servant. Come celebrate with me!” (Matthew 25.23)

The hard soil doesn’t get to celebrate. The rocky soil doesn’t get to celebrate. The weedy soil doesn’t get to celebrate.

The fertile soil celebrates like crazy—all together, all celebrating one another’s return. Because that’s how it works in God’s crazy kingdom. He loves when we rejoice over one another’s wins. He rejoices, too.

So here’s the question, after all this.

Will we take the risk to cultivate our soil, digging deep and plowing up? Will we make the sacrifice to change priorities and seek the kingdom first of all? Will we make the commitment to put those roots deep, coming to God in the every day rather than saving him for emotional highs and lows? Will we rejoice over others’ successes?

Will we love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind? Will we tell a good story with our life?

Then we’ll bear fruit worth getting excited about.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

How do we tell a good story?

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

We need to fill our hearts with life to tell a good story.

Are you ready, in this season of the greatest story of all? We’re celebrating the most epic sacrifice ever, God’s willingness—no, his utmost joy— to put our needs first and come to earth. He’s already told the story. What part in it are we going to play?

Comparison Creep

IMG_2842

T. S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month, but I vote for January. Where I live, January is blizzard month. Christmas, with all its cheerful songs and twinkling lights cutting the cold darkness, is over and done. January finds me peeling Christmas lights from the frozen ground, lights that stopped working a couple of weeks ago anyway, and tossing them away like the bright hopes they represented.

We’re staring down the barrel of a new year, with new demands–or old ones depressingly unfinished. Maybe we accomplished what we wanted last year, and now we’re feeling underwhelmed with the results. Or we didn’t, and we feel guilty because perhaps we never will.

Do you ever feel the sneaky pull of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that happens this time of year? Do you wrestle with the comparison creep that keeps you from fully finding joy in January? Join me at The Glorious Table to read more of this post and find out how sharing joy keeps FOMO at bay.

IMG_1427

Running Wild with Hope

So perhaps laughing uncontrollably through a video on ebola may not be appropriate. But appropriate is not always my strong suit.
Let’s be clear—ebola is not a humorous topic. Certainly not one to take lightly, no matter if precious Americans are safe on our soil. Thousands of West Africans are not, and that isn’t forgettable or funny.
But the video I happened upon, and shared with my daughter who appreciates British humor, poked fun at the media’s response to ebola, not the disease itself, and put me in tears. Sometimes, we laugh at things that seem horrible. But I wonder if maybe the reason isn’t so much lack of taste as a desire to laugh at the horrible itself. To pretend we have some control over it and some ability to minimize it if we make fun of it.
Yet, as we move into the Christmas season, I wonder if there isn’t even more to it for Christians. Shouldn’t we be the ones who are perpetually laughing?
Christians should be the first ones laughing. Not at other people, mind you, but laughing. Because we know. We know the truth of Christmas—that God personally interfered in our messy world and gave us the forgiveness, love, and tools to set it right. We know that no matter the ugly, there was a baby whose star of presence was the most beautiful thing to ever hit planet earth.
In fact, I find that the people who get angry the easiest, who get offended at the least bit of humor, are the ones who may, after all, be capable of atrocities against others. It’s the anger that gets offended easily, the dislike of thoughts other than our own, the distrust of laughter we can’t understand that causes a lot of the pain of this world. People who can’t laugh are often quite willing to abuse those who can.
If you don’t know this craziness ends? If you don’t know pain is temporary, and the hurt we do to one another defeatable? OK, I can see how nothing would be funny. Nothing at all. But we know. We know, because of Christmas, the world isn’t going to hell in a handbasket.
So why do we act like it is? Why do so many Christians freak out over threats large and small? Why do we say we believe God is in control and act as if we believe it’s all up to us? Yes, there are horrors beyond our imagination happening right now. Yes, I pray for victims of murderous persecutions and deadly diseases, and I help where I see avenues to help. But I do not duck my head and scream that the sky is falling. Mere men do not hold up the sky.
Some call this naïve. I prefer to call it belief. Belief that, because of Christmas, God wins. Faith that, despite suffering, He has the final say. Trust that yes, things may get rough. Very rough. They may not go the way Christians would like them to go. Nevertheless, His purposes, not mine, finish the story. Victoriously.
We should laugh. We must hope. In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, he sings,
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world

And shakes us forward and shakes us free

To run wild with the hope

To run wild with the hope

The hope that this thirst will not last long

That it will soon drown in the song

Not sung in vain.”

That’s the wild laughter we need to have. The abandon that comes from certainty that we will not always thirst. The joy we need to embrace, not in the absence of fear and horror but in its midst. That is the only place it serves its purpose. Joyous, abandoned, holy laughter only makes sense when it’s in the face of a force that thinks it has won but most definitely has not.
That Christmas baby was born in the midst of some pretty awful circumstances. Circumstances a lot like ours. Slavery, persecution, discrimination, hunger, hatred, and disease. His star shone brighter because it was in that world, because light always shines brighter in darkness. He cried many times in this world, but he also laughed. A lot. I am sure he did it with his whole heart and soul, with abandoned, head back, hiccuping joy. Because he saw the horrors of this world better than we ever have–and he knew the end.

The song is not sung in vain. Run wild with the hope this Christmas. Stifle the sour faces and dire predictions. Stop the endless blaming for this world’s ills. This world has a promise born in a stable. See what kind of peace on earth your wild, laughing hope can bring.