Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance

Two weeks ago, I talked about stories. I’ve been feeling a pull, a call, to write down some stories. To remember, revisit, and reclaim some of my own. This is the first. I have no idea why it came to me first. I don’t question those things much anymore. I hope you like it.

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Photo by Mitchell Gaiser on Unsplash

Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance

The beige rental carpet itched my legs, bare on a rare warm Montana afternoon. Who knew what those fibers were made of or what had made contact with them over years of rental to college students. A newlywed, I figured I had immunity to all of life’s hardship, including infection from dubious rental carpet. Still, I moved to the couch to open my stack of mailbox-warmed envelopes.

I had a new last name and a new home, and the fact that said home sat in the landlady’s basement and had a kitchen so small I couldn’t open the oven and the refrigerator at the same time mattered little to my self-satisfied first months as a bride.

The landlady’s only real intrusion came on random Saturday mornings when the live-in boyfriend decided to practice his elk horn at 4 am. Directly above our bedroom. I don’t know how well he could bow hunt, but his elk horn skills were enthusiastic.

Said new name and home made opening even junk mail in the basement an exciting daily event. Neither age nor experience had yet jaded me to seeing my name and address on an envelope half-way across the country from where I’d grown up and feeling the special adultness of it all.

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Photo by Christian Stahl on Unsplash

The couch’s combo of white polyester and black vinyl squares didn’t treat my thighs much better than the carpet had. My new in-laws had given us the couch when we moved from St. Louis to Bozeman for the first year of medical school, with them ten miles away. I didn’t look gift furniture in . . . what pat of a couch passes for a mouth? Point being, with a recession in Montana and no one hiring an English teacher with one year of experience and only one year of commitment to offer, gratitude seemed the sensible option.

I opened Concerned Women for America’s red, white, and blue envelope third. On our meager income, I’d agreed to send a few dollars when I could. We were in a fight after all, we Christians and “them.” Even then, I wasn’t quite clear on who “them” was. But I knew it was true. I listened to conservative Christian radio and focused on my family every day even though we had no children and wouldn’t until we lived on a lot more than a part-time after school program facilitator’s  salary with generous outstanding student loans.

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Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

Currently, “we” were fighting allowing gays in the military. The slippery slope warnings in the letter, appropriately capitalized, italicized, and red in all the right places, made sense. They had to be true. They came from people that people I trusted  said people they trusted said were to be trusted—so how could they not be?

“They” would cause morale to drop. Trust would fail among the brethren. Real men would flee the military. Troops would decline, we’d embarrass ourselves in every war, America wold lose its status as world leader, and western civilization would end as we know it.

I’d never get those 2.5 children. All because real men didn’t want to shower with not real ones.

Obviously, I had to do my part.

I don’t think it was that day I began to read a bit between the lines, began to see what hadn’t been explicitly written but what surely had. It took time. A few red, white, and blue envelopes opened. A number of appeals that decried “them” as despicable minorities intent on shoving their agenda into my well-ordered, clearly Christian-Right manicured life.

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A few more adjectives that made me pause. It happened one day that year on my scratchy black and white couch. I saw the words and I wondered if Jesus would use them. I wondered whom he would call despicable. Disgusting. Militant. I wondered why I read a lot of words about America and protection and rights and not any at all about Jesus even though all these words in the red, white, and blue envelopes supposedly came straight from his heart.

The discomfort had been trickling in, but I’d ignored it because of all those trusted people. If I couldn’t believe these words, what would happen to my well-ordered, promising future? Who would defend me against “them”? Being young and in love did not protect me from the weary woes of the world—bad carpet or bad policy. I knew this. Who didn’t need a buffer between us and them, me and those who would come for my one-day children, if I didn’t send in my duly-appointed ten dollars?

That day, I didn’t.

Another Couch

Another couch, another day. Many years between, and three children, one of whom sat beside me, sixteen and lovely, but mad as righteous indignation can make an almost-woman.

We could afford a better couch by this time, and I’d bought this one to match my perfect plans for the living room—navy blue plaid, intermingled with forest green and cranberry, shards of gold shot between. The precise colors I’d wanted. Still, perfection is a beast of a slave master, because Pippin the black cat used that couch regularly to sharpen his mouse-catchers on, and all the shouts, claps, and sprays of water in our arsenal had never convinced him to desist.

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I can’t protect my couch, let alone my neat world.

I apologized to the girl-woman, she uncertain if tears or spitting anger fit her mood best, so she alternated the two in amazing synchronicity. I unsure of the words to admit I’d been wrong, because words of apology had always hung somewhere between my heart and my mouth, like a breech baby wanting to come out but not willing, and in the meanwhile showing its worst side to the world.

I’d tried to protect her, really to protect me and the perfect world I’d created as a pastor and a mother. She wanted to support her lesbian friends on the Day of Silence, and I’d refused to let her buy the commemorative T-shirt to wear at school that day. I made up some excuses as to why I didn’t want her wearing it, that kids were cruel and crazy and sometimes even allies got attacked, but we both knew they were flimsy at best. She had friends, and she wanted to love them well, and it seemed an easy choice to her.

But not to me.

All those us’s and them’s came pouring back over me, and I understood as I held her I’d messed up not just in my edict but in showing courage to a girl learning to step into her skin and her world. Though I’d refused that agenda twenty-some years before, I lacked the nerve to do it out loud, at least, to allow her to do it out loud and accept whatever ripple effect it had on me.

I had such potential as a right-wing political activist. Nearly went to law school. Could write a potent protest letter when the need presented itself. Knew all the right causes and defenses.

Until I didn’t.

Until I realized that agendas go both ways. We all have them. That we don’t see our own only creates a wider chasm between us and them.

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Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

I don’t know if I’ve put my agendas down, but I know now that safe isn’t on any of them. I know that if I can’t imagine my words coming out of the Prince of Peace’s mouth, I’d probably better rethink them. I see his agenda, and I see how we, I, have wanted to use it to create my own.

The exercise should frustrate me. The backwardness of it astounds me.

They’re still around, CWA. The website, nonexistent in those days of red, white, and blue envelopes, still touts defense of family, religious liberty, and national sovereignty. I clicked on the “gays in the military” fact card, but I got a 404 message. No more facts to be had, I suppose, and now I understand that there never really were.

Still, the fact card decrying “hate crime” legislation, the quotation marks intentionally delegitimizing the pain and fear of those who don’t find themselves in the beautiful white straight majority, perches unapologetically on the resources page, daring me to argue with its logic and new veneer of grace.

I still don’t see much Jesus.

Whose Face Do You See?

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Photo by Robin Röcker on Unsplash

“What’s the matter, honey?”

I heard her voice before I saw her face. My own face was bent into my hands, covered in tears. A lot was the matter, and I didn’t know how to fix it. But when I looked up into that kind face above mine, I saw Jesus standing there.

The summer after college, I traveled across the country with a music tour. Halfway through, my family called me to come home—Dad might not make it this time, they said.

A week later, after we’d confirmed that Dad would make it, my sister bought me a Greyhound bus ticket to rejoin my tour group. Unfortunately, when I got to Omaha, I discovered they were still four hours away—a geographical miscalculation that left me sitting in the bus station at 10 p.m., imagining what could befall a young woman in a place like that in the seedier part of Omaha.

 

For the rest of the story this week, go here to The Glorious Table For an amazing true story about loving your neighbor.

Stay Angry

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Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

I cant be finished talking about books. Not quite yet.

Childhood Classics in Adulthood

I seem to have developed a habit of reading childhood classics for the first time well after the expected range. This happened, as I mentioned before, with the Chronicles of Narnia. Also Anne of Green Gables (where was she all my lonely childhood???), The Hobbit, and today’s classic—A Wrinkle in Time.

I loved A Wrinkle in Time so much that I went on to devour all of L’Engle’s writing shortly after reading it. I now have one more book of hers on my shelf, and I have just discovered, after beginning to Kondo my books (hold me!), that I actually have two copies. I wanted it so much I forgot I owned it already. (This is not an unusual circumstance for me.)

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This is a photo of only five shelves of one bookcase. I am doomed.

When I heard a movie was in the making, I got that familiar mix of thrill and horror. Would they do it justice? Would it come across as beautiful and longing and intense as L’Engle wrote it? I had seen previous adaptations—and they were less than inspiring.

I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it. Honestly, the acting was meh, and the departures from the book too many. I did love Charles Wallace—incredible acting from someone who was probably only eight at the time. My real love, however, was the costuming, as I decided in that theater last January what I would be for Halloween ten months later. Mrs. Which was stunning, and I needed those eyebrows. (Here’s an fyi—corsets covered in parachute cord are very heavy. And extremely hard to fasten. Now you know.)

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I should never be allowed to apply fake eyelashes. Never.

L’Engle’s ode to sacrificial love has never been so needed. 

TL;DR version: Meg’s father is MIA. Her little brother is an uber-genius. Both kids are ostracized for their oddness, brilliance, and, in Meg’s case, her angry insistence that her father would come home. She did not take well to naysayers.

Meg and her brother journey through the titular “wrinkle” to find their father, and Charles Wallace (said brother) gets ensnared by the evil “IT” that is consuming the universe. Only a rediscovery of the power of her love—the one thing IT does not possess, allows Meg to save her brother and her family. She has to face her fears and her anger to find that love. After all, we know that only a hard-won, bought-with-a-sacrifice kind of love can offer anyone salvation.

It’s not a story without precedent.

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L’Engle’s affirmation that there are some things worth getting, and staying, angry about is a vital corrective to our world. The transformation of Meg from a girl angry at the world to a young woman who understands the power of anger, and not to waste such power on small, self-centered things, informs us well if we let it.

Meg learns some things about anger that release her from her bitterness and propel her into a force that evil need reckon with. That is a change worth noting and emulating, fiction or no.

Too Much Anger?

I don’t need to mention that there are a lot of angry people out there in our world, too. (See last weeks’ post—re toxic.) That there is much to be angry about is as true in our world as it was in Meg’s, where the forces of evil threatened her beloved little brother and their tight relationship. Angry people sometimes sin, but it is not a sin to be angry. Sometimes, it’s downright holy.

Those who cannot handle the anger of others, wishing them to wrap it up in colorful bows of sweet Christian platitudes, confuse anger with bitterness. They fear doing the holy work of hearing the anger of others and the echoes of all the prophets who have gone before.

If you’re uncomfortable with another believer’s anger, you must not read Jeremiah very often.

The beautiful lesson of Meg is that anger is good. Anger is holy. But anger is like a scalpel—best respected for both the healing and the damage it can do.

“Stay angry, little Meg. You will need all your anger now.”

That parting line from one of her helpers defines the transformation Meg needs to make. She must confront the reality that mishandling her anger only fuels IT’s power. Using her anger to defeat IT, by refusing to let hate win and pulling all her love to the surface, brings them all home.

It’s the best line in the book.

I don’t know what you’re angry about, or if you are. I don’t know if you’re uncomfortable with anger and would rather not see it in your newsfeeds. (Good luck with that.) I do know that learning to wield our anger well and for God’s purposes is the difference between destroying ourselves and bringing ourselves home. I know that pulling all our love to the surface is the only way to stare hate in the face and tell it, “not today.”

I wish I had known Meg earlier.

Ode To the Middle-Aged Mama

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We meet her first when she sends a scathing letter to her son—what JK Rowling terms a “howler.” Ron Weasley’s embarrassment makes us roll our eyes at the overbearing mother who scolds her son for all the world to hear.

Whoa, mama. take a step back.

She sends her youngest son and his best friend Christmas sweaters—enormous seeming wastes of yarn that swathe her children in embarrassment, again. (Let’s not even talk about the Yule robes.) We silently (or not so silently) laugh at the middle-aged woman who would create such things and believe they’re beautiful.

Then, we discover–we don’t know Molly Weasley at all.

Favorite Books and Favorite Heroes

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

While discussing books that have meant something to me, I thought a post on one of my favorite heroines might be fun. Mrs. Weasley. The quintessential mother hen. The character we instantly stereotype—a caring but essentially nonessential woman. What many teenage boys think of their mothers, we suppose. But we agree with that teenage boy, Ron. She’s a good heart, wrapped in mom jeans and irrelevant conversation.

Shows what we know.

Many years after reading Harry Potter, and after a dozen or more movie viewings, I’ve learned why Harry and Hermione don’t, after all, end up together. I’ve come to understand what it is about the Weasleys that draws them both into the family orbit.

It all centers on Molly. It always did.

Molly’s sweaters and letters show us something, if we’re really looking. We see in them, and their creator, a fierce loyalty and love for family that doesn’t care about embarrassment or anything else on its quest for insuring her offspring are safe and good people. Her love and loyalty drive everything—and they know nothing on earth that will intimidate them.

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Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

Harry is drawn to something he’s never known. Hermione Is drawn to what she intentionally gave up (in my vote for saddest scene in all eight movies). There’s something about fierce love and loyalty that cannot help but pull in whatever circles it. It’s a black hole of sorts, but in a positive way.

Love and Loyalty for the Win

“Mrs Weasley threw off her cloak as she ran, freeing her arms. Bellatrix spun on the spot, roaring with laughter at the sight of her new challenger.”

Bellatrix never imagined this middle-aged mama could bring her down. To be fair to Bellatrix, neither did anyone else. We deeply underestimated the lady. We simply never saw what drove her to knit. To bake. To open her home to anyone in need. To risk everything when those “bonus kids” she loved were in deep danger. To bolster her husband’s work in defying evil.

We didn’t see that it was a great work of its own in the fight against evil, those clacking knitting needles and that open guest policy. We didn’t realize that what she really knit together was a web so strong it held and protected so many of the “good guys” we lost count.

I’m pretty sure I whooped too loudly in the theater when she made her heroic stand to protect her daughter. I saw, in that moment, what I should have seen before it. Molly Weasley had been saying, “Not my loved one, bitch” to evil for a very, very long time. And her loved ones were many.

We simply hadn’t noticed.

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Our Story, Too

Isn’t this the story of many middle-aged mamas? Isn’t this why we love her? We feel sometimes so mundane, so overlooked and pointless. Then we see someone who feels as we do about it all—and she doesn’t hold back.

She won’t be irrelevant, and maybe, in that moment, we recognize that we refuse to be as well. We realize we never were.

Women, we are knitting those webs, aren’t we? We’re holding the forces of evil at bay, too, but often in an unnoticed way, and the glory goes to the Harrys and not to the Mollys. It always does.

Yet we keep on knitting

Maybe not literally. I can’t knit to save my life. Yarn skills evade me. But without us, women, where would the fight be?

  • What children would not have been raised who are now the good people we imagined and fought for?
  • What injustices would still be occurring if we hadn’t written that letter or volunteered those hours?
  • Who would still be in despair if we hadn’t opened our ears, our hearts, our homes?
  • What life wouldn’t have been redirected if we hadn’t spoken those words, even in a howler, if the need decreed it?
  • What need wouldn’t have been met without our constant watch at the city gates—bringing casseroles, knitting scarves, cleaning toilets, and yes, protesting on the street corners, telling the truth about sexual abuse, and loving the other?

We underestimated women have known this since Shifra and Puah, since Abigail and Ruth. Too often, we don’t believe in our own power, but God affirms it.

God credits them with the saving of lives, these middle-ages mamas of the Hebrew world. He writes boldly what others overlook. Fierce loyalty and love know no force they fear. They are the specialty of the middle-aged mama.

We’ve been saying, “not my loved one, bitch” to evil for a long time. And the older I get, the more loved ones I accumulate. They come in all colors and languages and creeds, nowadays. Maybe I can’t knit a stitch, but I can expand my reach to hold these new loved ones, too, in a fierce, protecting love. It’s our superpower, women.

God continues to affirm when we women use that superpower, that gift of grace, of love and loyalty to continue the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) fight.

It all centers on the Molly Weasleys. It always has.

 

Who is one of your favorite heroes? I’d love to hear!

Extravagant Ideals

Truly He taught us to

(Continuing in the series on books/stories that changed me in some way.)

An Odd Story

I don’t remember where I first read the story, but it was probably in one of my mother’s old Ideals magazines. They had glossy covers, harder than standard paper magazine covers yet still obviously of the genre, sized like a magazine with the same slightly slippery, big pages inside. They were typically a mix of bad poetry, Kincaid-esque photography, and short stories originally designed to lift war-weary spirits.

Until researching for this post, I had no idea Ideals still existed, but in fact it does. At Christmas and Easter, they still publish something that looks remarkably like what I held as a child, though the company has changed hands more often than 20-somethings change jobs. I haven’t read it since I was 8 or 10. Yet this one story stayed with me.

As a child, I read “The Gift of the Magi” in that magazine. I didn’t understand it. First off, I had no idea what magi were. Was that the young couple’s last name? How did one pronounce it? I hadn’t been raised on nativity scenes and Christmas stories read every December. Other than Rudolph, anyway.

It’s possible I had a passing knowledge of the supposed trio of wise men from The Little Drummer Boy, but that story called them kings, not that strange word that didn’t come easily to a little tongue. Magi? What even as that? And was it close to magic?

Living Wisely

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Photo by Joel Overbeck on Unsplash

I was a practical child. A non-dramatic little girl. I preferred to have a few friends, stay far away from emotional frenzy, and make wise decisions about life. Even then, I observed before I acted. It may have looked (and still looks) like a split-second decision to act, but believe me, the undercurrent of always thinking didn’t disappoint me. Safe, smart choices made for a safe, smart life.

I had a decent number of examples of the opposite sort. So I knew to stay the course that naturally came to me anyway.

You might have guessed by now that how we start is usually how we continue. That timid child is still here—she’s the default, without the sanctifying butt-kick of the Holy Spirit.

Why, Jim and Della?

So the story of two very young (he was 22!) people selling their dearest possessions so that they could buy one another Christmas presents did not compute to my logical mind.

Why would you ever sell your family heirloom pocket watch, Mr. James Dillingham Young? Don’t you know you can buy your wife a bigger Christmas present someday when you’re not young and poor? Can’t you just make her something pretty now? Haven’t you ever heard of Walmart, man?

And you, young woman. OK, your hair will grow back. But seriously, you had to have other options for something small and special. Something Enough.

We all know their lives are going to get better. Everyone starts our poor. Relatively, anyway. At least, I know we did.

Probably in an earlier edition of the same magazine, I also read the poem “The Friendly Beasts,” and I fell in love with it. I loved animals. I loved poems. I loved the idea of sacrifice, even though, still, I really didn’t know anything about this Christ child to whom all the animals gave their best gifts. (I also didn’t know it was really a Christmas carol.)

The Same Story

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Animals. Young lovers. The two are the same story. All gave the best they had, and some sacrificed greatly to do so. I didn’t understand the humans; I loved the animals. I memorized that poem.  

O Henry, the man who wrote “Gift of the Magi,” doesn’t appear to have lived as if he understood this story, either. Yet he wrote it, so maybe, like me as a little girl, he longed to understand it, wished for it to be real, more than really knew it to be. Such is, I suspect, the way most good stories are born.

“The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men— who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.”

I thought I was wise as a child, with my careful calculations and safe choices. I’ve thought the same as an adult, prioritizing safety over risk, sensible over extravagant. The truth is, this is usually the case. Most of the time, like Jim and Della, we will do far better to hold off on the crazy impulses and wait for our wiser muses to kick in. We will do better to rein in the immediate gratification and patiently sit, waiting for the greater rewards.

Wise or Smart?

Yet sometimes, wisdom needs a Holy Spirit butt kick. Sometimes, wisdom is too wise for its own good. Sometimes, we need to do the very thing the rest of the world deems unwise indeed in order to live out the Kingdom God has given us in Christ.

Sometimes, our zeal to distance ourselves from risk and cling to safe choices makes us stagnant disciples, people who have observed too much and acted too little.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!” (Matthew 13.44-46)

That sounds a lot like selling your hair or your watch to offer a loved one all you have. Only this time, the loved one is Jesus, and the stakes are so much greater.

No one, least of all Jesus, promises safety in this journey of learning to give like the magi. Not even O Henry did so, however happily most of his stories ended.

As Della analyzes her lost locks and head of shameful tight curls, he rhapsodizes,

“Love and large-hearted giving, when added together, can leave deep marks. It is never easy to cover these marks, dear friends— never easy.”

No, sometimes the marks stay. Generous, risky giving can leave marks of personal hurt, financial loss, or emotional tenderness. Neither the author of my childhood story nor Jesus blanches at the thought.

Jesus’ marks of large-hearted giving were nail scars in the palms of his hands.

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An Old Story

“In this world you will have trouble . . .” Live an abundant, crazy, generous life anyway. Cultivate wisdom, to be sure. Yet be willing to do the even wiser thing—give it all for what is worth infinitely more. Knowing Christ through our sacrifices.

“Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Philippians 3.8-11)

As a child, reading The Gift of the Magi, I didn’t understand extravagant giving, the kind that didn’t make sense, that offers our most important treasures for what appears to be little gain.

To be honest, I’m still not so sure I do. But I’m learning, slowly.

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.

It’s Complicated

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Relationships are complicated. My husband and I were friends for a year before we started to date. Before he finally asked, however, we danced around each other for a few weeks in a confused waltz of unclear intentions.

Does he? Does she? Is this happening? Who’s going to go first?

I lost patience before he did. That has not changed in 32 years.

Love Is Complicated

One of the most complicated relationships in the Bible has to be Peter and Jesus.

Peter. oh, dear, crazy, too-much-like-me Peter. He is the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Also, he’s the first one (the only one) Jesus calls Satan.

He’s the first out of the boat when Jesus gives the invitation to walk on water. He’s also the first to say he never knew Jesus. One moment he’ll die for his friend; the next he wants to get on with his life as if Jesus never happened. The Rock of the church starts as a quivering, frightened boy in the upper room.

Peter is a contradictory mess. Like us.

The question Jesus asks him—the last question Jesus asks anyone—matters. It matters perhaps more than any other question Jesus levels at anyone. He levels it at us, all the time.

Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.

Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.”

“We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.

At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, “Friends, have you caught any fish?”

“No,” they replied.

Then he said, “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it.

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread. (John 21.1-9)

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Once again, Peter is the first in the water. His friends will have to pull in the catch, land the ship, and everything else. He’s gone.

Peter is excited to see Jesus. Then, I imagine that sometime in that water, he begins to remember what he’s repressed. It all comes back. He relives every moment of his denial. The smell of the fire. The particular voice of the woman who asked if he knew Jesus. The sound of Jesus’ being hit and the sight of his face looking back at Peter.

He’s remembering as he swims, and I’m guessing he swims slower and slower, wishing he’d stayed in the boat. That long swim in cold water woke the memory of a complicated relationship.

“Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,” Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn.

“Now come and have some breakfast!” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead.

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. (John 21.10-15)

My idea of a perfect day is a beautiful morning on the beach with a breakfast that someone else cooks. But there’s a nagging issue. Peter may have avoided being alone with Jesus the first two times he appeared to the disciples. Now, because of his impulsiveness, he can’t.

Jesus takes him aside. Have you ever been in that situation? A boss, teacher, parent, takes you aside? You know it can’t be good?

Peter has disobeyed and disowned Jesus. He definitely expected a different question. A talking to. A pink slip. To be voted off the island.

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Do you love me?

It’s not what he thinks is coming.

He dodges at first. He plays the bold face he has used before, the unique Peter bravado.

Of course, you know I love you. I’m here, right? Do I love you more than these other guys? Hey, I’m the one standing here soaking wet, aren’t I?

Except Jesus isn’t speaking Peter’s language. Jesus’ word for love is agape—a word that means sacrificial love. It’s the highest form of love—one that will give of itself for someone else. It’s Good Samaritan love. It’s Christ’s love for us. It only gives.

But Peter chooses phileo love, not agape. Brotherly, friendly, approving love. It’s like giving Jesus a fist bump rather than an embrace.

Jesus, you’re just alright with me.

Yeah Jesus, I love you. Like a brother, man. Just not one I’ll take a bullet for.

Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

Comparison

The second time, Jesus drops the comparison. That’s an easy dodge.

It’s easy for Peter to compare himself to the rest and feel good.

It’s easy for all of us to find someone who will end up farther down the scale. Someone who gives less, obeys less, messes up more, sins worse.

“Someone else” is an easy place to hide.

Do you love me? I imagine Peter’s assurance came a little slower the second time.

A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

Fist Bump Love

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The third time, Peter is genuinely hurt. He’s hurt that Jesus comes down to his level of love—he asks only for phileo this time.

Finally, Peter is broken. The third time, he doesn’t give an easy “you know.” He uses words that imply “you have come to know.” Like, you have come to know the real truth about me, Jesus. I’m still the same sinful man you met in a boat once before, catching fish. 

This time, there is no bravado. He simply looks at Jesus, acknowledging what they both know—that his love is weak, and his passions sometimes overtake him.

And that’s where Jesus can begin. Peter thought he was at end—but his admission signals a beginning.

Do you love me? Then follow me. Start over. Grab a new beginning. Take a second chance. Get out of jail free.

Peter loved Jesus in glorious times of walking on water and feeding 5000 and cutting off ears like a hero—but he didn’t love him in the hard, scary, unknown. Agape love is needed there, and it’s much, much harder. It can’t be done alone.

Do you love me? Love is sacrificial. It goes second. Or last.

We are not supposed to ask if we can afford  it or if it fits our calendar or if we like its political  statement before we ask, do I love him?

Love is not comfortable. It’s hard sometimes. Love goes beyond waving palm branches in glory and sometimes has to march to the cross.

Love goes beyond sending cards to crying with others.

Love goes beyond thoughts and prayers to sacrificing for others.

It’s the difference between fist bumping and footwashing.

Do you love me?

Our answer isn’t always an exuberant agape yes. It’s usually “you know, Lord.” I do love you. But you know my weakness. I’ll need your help. I thought I could do this on my own. I thought I had what it takes. But I don’t. You know, Lord. You know.

That, says Jesus to Peter and to us, is where we can finally begin.