Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nine - Could it be divine?


“We’re just spinning leaves in the flight of a dawn, little girl
Falling through an eternal horizon of time
But I’d like to think as we lie here
that all we’ve got will be ours forever.
Don’t you think we’re forever?” - Roy Harper

“Love is a stranger
And hearts are in danger
On smooth streets paved with gold.
Oh, true love travels on a gravel road.” - Elvis

I was in the throes of fresh matrimony, the stars still sparkling in my eyes while they gazed up to the pedestal upon which I’d placed Steven, his every quirk endlessly endearing, his every utterance rife with coruscating wit and his flatulence odorless. My three co-workers, all late middle-aged and married for twenty years or more, were markedly not trembling in love’s dulcet thrall like I was. Somehow we’d begun a conversation about love and marriage that had deteriorated into me passionately defending love, marriage and love in marriage while they rolled their eyes and muttered things like “just you wait”. My rose-colored glasses were being snatched off, dashed to the ground and soundly stomped upon, and I was not taking it well.

Then one of my co-workers, Alberta, turned to me and stared plainly. “Love doesn’t last,” she said. “It doesn’t last.” My eyes filled with tears and I pushed back from the table and hurried to the bathroom, where I let my tender hypersensitive tears fall and in my head pledged undying love to Steven forever and ever, no matter what these crusty old cranks said. I daubed my eyes and marched back into the meeting.

Later, Alberta gently expounded on her statement: “The infatuation, that doesn’t last,” she said. But her original statement rang in my mind and heart and deeply troubled me. Being newly married is sort of like being newly pregnant in that so many people - including strangers - love to offer opinions, advice, horror stories and admonishments on your condition. But why, I asked. Why were these people so cynical?

At another temp job I’d held before marriage, a middle-aged single co-worker had waxed one afternoon on her ideal romance. “Why can’t I just have a torrid six-month affair with a pilot whose plane tragically goes down in flames?” Beate asked moonily, her eyes glittering with the prospect of a love frozen in time and enshrined by tragedy. Meanwhile, the closest thing to romance in her real life was a longtime close friendship with a man named Patrick, a biker with a ponytail whose image contrasted sharply with Beate’s Iowa farm girl pedigree. She talked about him constantly and I wondered why their obvious attraction hadn’t breached the platonic walls of their friendship yet. It seemed to me that while she dreamt of tempestuous liaisons truncated by aviation disasters - love that never lasts long enough to become real - her best chance at real love languished beside her, relegated to neuter companionship because of fear or timidity or… something.

What is that something? Marriage is a very particular choosing, a narrowing, a decision to go deep and risk everything. There is no guarantee of success or protection from rejection or promise of a plane crash to get us out of the whole thing. While tales of new lovers who meet tragic ends might make for highly sellable 2- hour cinema, our absolute exaltation of the dopamine-riddled phase of fresh love only makes us shallow, and yes, it does end. Sort of.    

I learned eventually that Alberta was telling the truth. But the thing is, she wasn’t telling the whole truth. Maybe she knew it, deep down, but her preference for stark statements and unadorned speech got the best of her. Maybe her long, depleting walk with a husband stricken with Alzheimer’s had obscured it. Maybe she just couldn’t resist knocking me off my high horse (really more a majestic Lisa Frank unicorn). The truth is that the whole story of marriage gives the infatuation its meaning. The acute infatuation doesn’t last, true - but it is subsumed and contained within the story of a marriage.

As a kid, I remember once being dazzled by a rainbow array of shirts on display in a store. But after my mom bought me one and I got home and the lustre of cleverly designed visual marketing wore off, the single color alone seemed - well - kind of boring. And lonely. Once isolated from the full spectrum of color, it wore out. After the first year or so of our marriage, I frantically strove to hold on to the love-high even as it faded. I thought it was everything - love itself - and I didn’t know it was just one season. And it wasn’t gone forever. I wish I had known then that I could trust the story to unfold as it should.

I believe God intended marriage to be a prism, a bedazzlement of colors and phases and seasons, each made beautiful in its time and each intoned in the others, sparkling through in mysterious darting glints and glimmers. That early stage of oceanic infatuation is lovely in its own right, but it only achieves its fullest beauty when it’s framed by the full story of a marriage.

After almost 9 years, I have discovered that when you stay in the story and love when it’s hard and abide when it’s boring and keep your vows even when it hurts (Ps. 15:4), the sweetness of that first infatuation - when no romantic overture is too saccharine and every cliche about love rings so true and L-O-V-E all caps in vivid neon blooms profusely and spills over and saturates the whole spinning world - springs up when and where you least expect it to delight you anew. The person next to you is again a delicious mystery to discover, a revelation made even more resplendent by your shared history: the peaks and valleys, the sickness and health, the pleasure and pain. Because it is really His story, and the dying and rising again that reverberates through this cosmos which lives and moves and has its being in Jesus Christ also echoes throughout and sustains our marriage, if we only let it. Marriage can be a lilting melody in the resurrection song He is always singing.

In many ways, the old romantic in me did die. Marriage did her in. Good riddance, though, for she believed that true love lived only on the mountaintop. She believed love required no sacrifice and asked very little of her while giving continuously. She believed love made ultimatums and kept record of wrongs and bore nothing. She didn’t know that true love could hurt, could fail in major ways and still endure, still be true love. She didn’t see how full of selfishness and arrogance she was. And she believed that a mere mortal (albeit a wonderful, magical, devastatingly handsome and stunningly virile one such as Steven Lande) could bear the burden of being a savior.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus is the mediator of all relationships, whether we acknowledge that reality or not. (God said it first, of course - John 1:3, Colossians 1:16-17) Our failure to acknowledge it is disastrous, while with our acknowledgment of it comes a kind of death - death of pride, of wrong and covetous ownership. But then the relationship is gently handed back to us, fresh and new and illumined from within with a sparkle it didn’t have before when we believed it a closed circuit between us and the other. Our human relationships flag, wilt and ultimately die when the reality of Jesus Christ - and the Christian saturation of God’s cosmos, created through Jesus - is resisted and rejected.  
  
So here I am, after nearly nine years, still a romantic, but of a new breed: one that, by the grace of God, is stepping into an understanding of love’s high cost but also its invaluable worth. I’ve read marriage “experts” smirkingly deride the Beatles’ line “all you need is love”, saying a marriage takes far more than that to survive and thrive. But it’s actually true - all you need is love. Authentic, vulnerable, co-suffering, collaborative, magical, wonderful love. It doesn’t come from you, but from the source of all love, the Trinity. Yes, you also need extraordinary patience, endurance, astute money management, all that practical stuff, the mention of which sends an artist like me into a sweaty-palmed glazed stupor. But what does all that flow from but love? Seek the kingdom first, and all these things will be added to you (including a spouse who actually seems to take pleasure in practical matters such as packing for vacations and budgeting).

I am still a romantic, yes - but I am a chastened, humbled, disillusioned and restored romantic. Could this be something of what it means to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? I remember yet another incident from my temp days. I was working at an engineering firm when Steven and I were very new newlyweds, shortly before the gig I mentioned at the beginning. Making my rounds about the office delivering mail and invoices and various documents, I encountered an older woman who worked there as a structural engineer. She had to be in her fifties but there was something buoyant and young and girlish about her. She was beautiful. I didn’t really know her but I was giddy over my new status and when I mentioned to her that I’d just gotten married, her eyes came alive. “Oh!” she exclaimed, sighing dreamily. She clasped her hands at her heart and looked at me with wide earnest eyes and said “I’ve been married for 35 years. Isn’t marriage wonderful?”

Oh, it is. It really is.   

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Rejection and Redemption

From my embarrassing photo file, which includes any photo taken between the ages of 9-14, none of which, I vowed, should ever see the light of day again. I make this weighty sacrifice for you, dear readers!


“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” - 1 Corinthians 1:26-28

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” - 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

“Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.” - Simon and Garfunkel


He literally couldn’t wait. As soon as I put the car in park, he was gone, leaving the car door open and forgetting to look both ways across the (blessedly small) parking lot in his haste to get inside. “C’mon, mom!” he yelled as he held the door open and waved frantically to his sister and I. As he weaved through the tables, holding his Pokemon card binder excitedly, his eyes searching for an opening, I watched anxiously, wondering if he’d find a spot. His eyes were so eager, his posture so unjaded and hopeful, his zeal palpable and undimmed by any desire to be ‘cool’ and indifferent. I knew I should just go sit down like the other parents who had sunk comfortably into the leather couches or milled around the library with smaller children, but it was difficult to look away. Even though he obviously wasn’t nervous, I was. And I realized deeper questions troubled my heart than whether he’d successfully trade a basic Vullaby for an evolved one*.

No, the real question that lurked beneath as the subtext, the ground of all the others, was this: will he be accepted, or will he be rejected? Can his inherent sense of worth as God’s beloved withstand the gauntlet of social negotiations that is childhood and adolescence? Will his innocence be crushed? Or, if I’m being honest, the real question that I harbor, the one that fills me with dread, is this: when will his innocence be crushed?

I think of Severus Snape and the mosaic of memories contained in his dying tear, the ones that formed and shaped him - particularly the bitter formative ones, the ones of rejection and teasing and relegation to the outer darkness of the social hierarchy, where the pariahs and misfits and not-good-enoughs languish. I was lucky - if it can be called that - to fly under the radar most of my school life. I avoided decampment in that outer ring, but deep down I knew it was where I’d end up were I to actually be myself, let my vulnerabilities show, stop tailoring and censoring my every word and action according to the very avoidance of that rejection. By high school I’d decided to forgo any efforts to fit in and instead intentionally cultivated weirdness and a foreboding reticence to speak, both of which conspired to exude an air of alleged intimidation that was totally incongruent with my inner life and rampant insecurity but hey, I took it happily so long as it pre-emptively staved off the beasts of rejection.

My own agonizing memories of the times I was singled out rise and float like a black miasma on the surface of my own personal Pensieve. Although when I’ve recounted them as an adult I’ve always made a joke of them, the truth is that they still carry an acute sting, a cutting and acid reminder of just how lonesome and desolate rejection feels.

The three worst ones that have stubbornly rooted themselves in my psyche are all from middle school. Ah, the miserable crucible of middle school - when the desperate need for peer affirmation and the scarcity and volatility thereof both peak, it seems. The first: In social studies I was sitting next to my friend, Lauren, who was being badgered as usual by a boy named Cole who had a crush on her and thought the fastest inroad to her heart was relentless pestering and coercion. Today, she’d had enough. “Cole, why do you even like me?” she asked exasperately. “Because you’re cute,” he answered. “If you looked like her” - he pointed to me - “ I wouldn’t bother.” Ouch.

The second: in the same class, but later in the year, if memory serves me right. I was fervently hoping to be accepted within a group of kids who were slightly bad and totally rad. I sat directly behind them and laughed at their jokes and said stuff like “totally, me too” and periodically interjected asides into their conversations. Half the time I wasn’t sure I was even heard, but undeterred, I kept trying and eventually mistook their lack of response or paying attention to me for provisional acceptance. Until one day, when the ringleader turned around abruptly in his seat and half-yelled at me “why are you always trying to talk to us and act like you’re one of us? YOU’RE NOT!” Message received, most pointedly. I slunk down in my seat in horror and made sure never to besmirch their ears with my speech again.

And, the third, the real coup de gras: I spent all of my eighth grade year pining after a boy in gifted class (see how I did that? Subtly made sure you knew I was in gifted class? See?! I am special!). I was obsessed. When he invited me to his birthday party I nearly had an aneurysm from joy but sabotaged my appearance by vomiting from nervousness before my mom even pulled me up to the entrance in our minivan. Anyway, on the last day of school I was feeling bold, feeling like playing fast and loose with my dignity, feeling uncharacteristically courageous, the middle school caste system be damned! So, naturally, I did what any self-respecting 14-year-old would do and I asked my friend Emily to call him and ask him out for me. I gripped the phone in her kitchen, one hand clamped over the receiver, while she dialed him from the upstairs phone. The question was asked… and he laughed. And said no. But let me tell you, it’s really the laughter that sticks with you.

How painful it is to be assessed with a passing glance and found wanting. Perhaps even more painful, for the question of your worthiness to be laughed off as totally ludicrous after a year of pining, a year of fluttering pulse rates whenever he was near, a year of interactions endlessly parsed and analyzed and scoured for any iota of reciprocity. I watch my son’s easy sense of worthiness, his unquestioned belief that he is welcome in the world. He hasn’t learned to hesitate and wonder if acceptance or rejection is coming, and I mourn for the loss of that restful way of being as though it’s inevitable. But what if it’s not? Is there a way to form a child in knowledge of his or her belovedness, to form them in Jesus Christ, so the stings - which perhaps are inevitable - are not as penetrating, not as piquant, not as scarring?

My story is a redemption story and, of course, Snape’s was, too, in the end. I met a man who was the sum of all my crushes over the formative years and who, wonder of all wonders, loved me back. Then I met Jesus and learned I was loved from the start and loved all the more miraculously and steadfastly where human love failed, or, worse, marred. Truly, he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. And I learned that to be sat upon, spat upon, ratted on, to be a lowly thing of the world, is blessed, perhaps because it puts you in a place where you can no longer deny your own weakness and the utter inadequacy of your efforts to earn love. Yet I can’t help but wonder, watching my son’s (usually) easy way of moving through the world, his acceptance of God’s enveloping love as a foregone conclusion, is a taste of what Edenic Kingdom Life is like. And I don’t want it to fade or, worse, be broken by the fickle vicissitudes of human popularity.

Jesus was clear, though, that the kingdom has no exclusivity except repentance and faith in the One He sent. The homecoming court, the socially anointed, the luminous popular, the glitteratti and literati and even the Illuminati are all welcome. But I think inherent in repentance is the ceding of whatever worldly power we hold, the recognition that His power is made perfect only in our weakness. And power is easier to surrender if you don’t really have any. Still, it’s not like being a dork made me sinless in this way. We humans have ingenious ways of inventing our own power where the world gives us none. And maybe in some cases, being powerless in the world makes us grasp more desperately for whatever small tyrannies we can create. But if we allow it, there is truly something blessed in persecution, however mild.

I tend to covet popularity for my children, if subconsciously, the way I also covet a trouble-free, pain-free life for them. I should spend more time praying that the love of Christ takes root in them, that they don’t fall away, that their love endures for the One with whom and through whom they can endure anything. That, like Jesus, they’ll move toward the wounded, the strange, the ugly, the things which are not, in the service of helping the kingdom burst forth. That they’ll be able to say to all forms of death - physical decay, rejection, failure, ‘loserdom’ - where is thy sting?   




* Please don’t think my Pokemon vocab is this advanced, or that I am fluent at all - I am not. I had to go look at his cards so my reference would sound more realistic. Pokemon is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to pretend to be interested in as a parent. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene


Mary Magdalene by Tintoretto.

I wouldn’t have even noticed the display as we hurriedly passed by it, late as usual to one or another of our homeschool co-op engagements. A regimented row of pink-hued covers beckoned, adorned with swirling cursive letters and glittery accents designed to lure the gaze of my five-year-old daughter who now cried out “Mommy, look!”, arresting me in my pursuit of the exit to which I’d been half-dragging her. I’d unwittingly chosen the route out that took us straight through the gauntlet of toys, and now trying to make it out with both her and my son was becoming a prodigious undertaking.

I turned, exasperated, and looked at the display toward which she, flat-footed and smiling, was now pointing.

“A Love Letter to My Princess,” I read, almost silently, from one of the covers. “The Beautiful Princess Bible,” another read. As my eyes lingered over the saccharine designs, so flagrantly pink and so gleefully sparkly, something that felt suspiciously like anger stirred in my belly. It was as though something from some deep calcified stratum in my heart was being piqued and prodded and drudged up into the light and I didn’t like it. So, I ignored it. I dismissed the display with a “hmmph” and tried again to impress a sense of urgency on my children, with little success. (It’s as though they want to just enjoy life and live in the moment or something!) But we left and got to our engagement in our habitually late way and I truly didn’t even think of that display of Bibles again.

A week or two later, I couldn’t sleep one early morning and got up while Steven was still home. He requires a draconian level of silence in the morning, so I did my best to be quiet and we each read and drank our coffee. But as I randomly flipped to the Old Testament and read a passage about God giving away someone’s wives to foreigners, I felt the incipient anger that had been fomenting in me deepen and take a shape and life of its own.

You see, In some distant lock-and-key subbasement of my heart, a false god lived, a hideous phantasmagoric beast that was a Frankensteinian pastiche of my own creation - a compilation of the spectacular failures of human love, the hurts inflicted on me by myself and others, the lie that I was only worth the amount of sexual interest I could garner from men, the times I’d believed all the lies the world tells about sexuality and the emotional devastation that invariably followed. All this I had pasted over God, superimposed it on him instead of surrendering it to him. It was the lens through which I been reading the Old Testament, gleefully exclaiming “a-ha! I knew it!” each time I found apparent confirmation of my bias.

I couldn’t keep quiet. “I don’t understand,” I began. Steven peered up from his reading, valiantly concealing his annoyance, at least for the moment. I continued.

“It says here that God is giving away wives, as though they were property, as though they were so much chattel. Didn’t the wives have some kind of say in this? And why did he routinely allow and, apparently, tacitly condone polygamy anyway? Obviously a crap deal for the ladies. I don’t get it.”

Steven sighed. “ I have no idea,” he said. “But God doesn’t think of women as… chattel? What the heck does that mean? Can’t you just use words people actually know? Why don’t you pray about it?”

“I did!” I insisted. Did I? With a broken and earnestly seeking spirit? Probably not, but I was mired in my rightness now, my conviction that God was a blatant woman-hater. I would not be moved. And then, suddenly, the stagnant sewage of all the false beliefs, all the ossified lies and treasured wounds, all the years of looking for the wrong kind of love (or at least, a stunted, compartmentalized piece of love that became poisonous when excised from its whole) in all the wrong places came gushing forth and met with that dang pink Bible cover.

I wept. And I wept, and wept, and wept.

Steven’s confusion registered through my vale of tears and I choked out, “It says… It says… It says ‘For My Beautiful Princess’, but -” I gulped and a sob arose again - “It doesn’t feel that way!” And he held me and I cried and the snot and tears comingled on the shoulder of his work shirt and he didn’t even say anything, bless him.

“Wow,” I said, when I’d reasonably collected myself. “I didn’t know that was in there.” And I didn’t. But God did.

I love how relentless God is. I love how he doesn’t let us die in sin, in unredeemed pain, in hiding and pretending and shallow, arms-distance relationship. In the days leading up to that early morning death and rebirth, I had become obsessed with a staggeringly beautiful a cappella version of Bon Iver’s “Heavenly Father”. I watched the video over and over again. It has profanity, which I’d prefer wasn’t there, but it’s such a profoundly raw and authentic lament and psalm and prayer and dirge all rolled into one and it was reverberating in the wildest reaches of my soul and giving form to the struggle I couldn’t yet name:

No, I don’t know how you house the sin
I never knew how much of you I could let in

How does he absorb the sin, take it upon himself, bleed for us, lay himself to be disfigured and maligned and humiliated? How does he house the sin? Grace is the most profound, vast, and beautiful mystery that exists. He not only houses it, he forgives it, erases it, makes us whole and new and infused with life and tender as babies with the wonder of that grace.

I never knew how much of you I could let in. I never did, never trusted that something could be that good or that someone could love me that much even as I stumbled through my late teens and early twenties, gorging from the hideous buffet of coping mechanisms that promised oblivion: drunkenness, eating disorders, drugs. I was betrayed and I betrayed; my heart was broken and in my cataracted selfishness I broke hearts. I didn’t believe God’s love existed, yet my restless heart wouldn’t stop looking for it. The dissonance reached an unbearable crescendo as I couldn’t divorce the act of physical intimacy from emotion as it grazed the very crux of my aching heart.

Darkness visible, c. 2007

I’ve been married for almost nine years now, and I thought my grieving over those days was over. But God knew it wasn’t. God knew, somewhere deep down, I still wondered if he loved me, wondered if he cared about women at all, wondered if he could ever truly love a Mary Magdalene. And I cherry-picked passages out of Scripture that buffeted my deepest fears and the lies I still carried with me.

I’ve been up here for [all these] years
Filling up holes with [all these] fears

Well I know about it, darling, I’ve been standing here.

Jesus. He was standing there all along, through the sojourns in hell and the interminable nights when the room spun or flowered in fractals, the mornings of hangovers or unbearable coming-downs when I’d realized I’d gone loping across the cosmos and yet my heart remained unchanged and my wounds grievous.

When I languished in the agony of break-ups that seemed cataclysmic, certain I was unlovable and worthless, He was there.

When I turned away again and again and again to chase some other hologram that promised the world while it siphoned my soul, He was there.

When I’d finally exhausted nearly every other avenue, sprinted down every road that seemed to shine only to return bereft and more broken than before, and found myself one Sunday morning sitting in the backmost pew of a church sobbing during the worship music with my mind straining to explain away this sudden humiliating deluge while simultaneously my heart whispered maybe- just maybe - there was something to this whole “Jesus thing” I’d been hearing so much about.  

And when I look at Jesus, I see the precious and honored place women have in our Creator’s heart. Jesus came into the world through a woman. Mary Magdalene was the first to see him after his resurrection. He revealed his identity plainly to the woman at the well, something he didn’t even do for his disciples. When I read about Jesus and women, all I see is perfect compassion, mercy, and grace. And Jesus is God. As Brian Zahnd says, Jesus is what God looks like and is what he has always looked like - we just haven’t always known it.

I think wrapped up in repentance, inexorable from it, is the full realization of the true gravity of what we’ve done. We have to suffer the full weight of what we’ve done to ourselves and others - how we’ve desecrated these temples and strained gnats and missed the whole point over and over again -  in order to be truly free. It’s not karma. It’s mercy, because compassion can be formed no other way. But with it comes grace - torrential, extravagant, amazing grace - making us new creations in Christ. 

This love isn’t too good to be true- it’s the only thing good enough to be true, and all other truth originates from it.

I have to confess, though I love Mary Mother of God, I’ve always identified more with Mary Magdalene. During a nadir in the midst of my lost years, when it felt as though my very soul was disintegrating and the tenuous center of self could no longer hold, I decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Any one would do, so I picked one and I walked in and immediately felt an agonizing psychological tension as the demons to whom I’d given clearance warred with my primal yearning for healing, for relief, for the name above all names that I simply couldn’t yet utter. I left abruptly after about ten minutes after someone spoke kindly to me during the greeting time. I was so close to the precipice, to having a full-on Damascus style conversion, and I turned and ran. As I listened to a sermon years later about Mary and her seven demons, my heart sighed with relief. Although sin has a high cost, it is also true that where it abounds so does grace, and often when you’ve been forgiven so much, it’s hard to forget you are and always will be, as Brian Zahnd also says, a beggar at the table.  

Something in me still resists the idea of a princess bible. It’s too maudlin, a voice within says, too trite, too reductionistic. But is it? Why is it so hard to rest in God’s radical love? I remember one of my favorite movies as a child, The Little Princess. At one point, the mean girl (don’t remember her name, you know the one) is mocking the idea that Sarah is a princess. “I AM a princess,” Sarah responds with great conviction. “All little girls are!” Well, that’s a little silly, I protest. I mean, I read theology! I’m trying to move on to solid food here! Yet there are these love-malnourished iterations of me - the chubby little girl who sincerely believed if she could just wear her sister’s Calvin Klein logo t-shirt, she would finally be among the anointed in the social hierarchy at school; the acne-ridden, still chubby, too-tall teenager who was always left on the wall at the school dance (that is, the few she mustered up the courage to attend), the rudderless and desperate young woman; - they all just want to be a princess. 

They - she - just wants to rest under the gaze of a Creator who is pleased with her, whose love is pure and adoring and free of exploitative desire and in fact embodies the opposite - love that is assured, sacrificial and unfailing, love that knows how to mend the deepest wounds, love that calls the sinners chosen and the last first and the cross worth it. So I’ll let the grown 33-year-old woman be that princess, sometimes. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Velveteen Mother



“My mom ALWAYS cries when she reads this story to us,” my son loudly proclaimed to the librarian as we stepped up to the desk with a movie adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit. The librarian nodded and looked at me with a knowing smile. “Yep, it gets you right in the feels, doesn’t it?” she asked.

Oh, does it ever. We get about three pages in, to the part where the Velveteen Rabbit is learning about becoming real from the wise old Skin Horse, and I’m gulping and sniffling and struggling to keep reading while the tears blur my eyes and my kids are patting my back and saying “mom, it’s okay! It’s okay!”

Whenever I cry in front of my children, my daughter always asks, “Mommy, are you crying because you’re sad or because you’re happy?” And when she asks in the midst of one of my Velveteen Rabbit meltdowns, I never know how to answer. Well, am I happy? Or am I sad? I’m just not sure. The answer is… both. It feels like a polyphonic deluge of feeling with the beauty and the sadness so intimately intertwined as to be inseparable; two sides of a single emotion. All I know is, it’s real.

I think the story pricks so many tender emotions because it tells our story, or rather the story God wants to tell in our lives. For us to become “real” and embrace an even more majestic future, something must be lost, often something precious but something whose time has passed. Loss and gain, surrender and persistence, nostalgia and hope - these pairs can’t be divorced. But we resist. 

I told a friend once that when I’m feeling pessimistic and overwhelmed by the bigness and ruthlessness and sometimes outright badness of this world and I gauge it against the tenderness and vulnerability I see in my children, I wish I could just fold them back into myself. “Oh, well, THAT’S healthy,” my friend sarcastically exclaimed, and we laughed. But it’s true. The tension is real. When my kids were really tiny, I remember spending entire days feeling filled with dread about the passing of time, days when the cliche “the days are long, but the years are short” rang so true and I’d project years ahead and my heart would cry “no!” and ache at how everything changes.

In those moods, it felt like everything was being irrevocably lost. Gone, gone. When I tried to stay on top of the flow of time rather than let myself be subsumed by it, panic and melancholia and a feeling of things constantly and irretrievably tumbling into the chasm of the past, despite my desperate efforts to hold on, poisoned my days. Memories of hazy spring days spent at the park, memories once lucid, grew faint as they receded. My children’s limbs kept lengthening and those baby fat creases kept fading and time kept rolling on like a river, like water over the palm. And I finally learned that if you clench your fists and try to stanch the river, it seeps through your fingers and pummels your knuckles with its relentless onslaught. You drown. But over an open, receptive palm it flows untrammeled, pooling for a moment before being replaced by new streams. It’s living water, not a stagnant pool.

Seasons crest and ebb. We are always feeding out more rope to the tether that binds us to our children. One day it will become gossamer-thin as we watch them eagerly venture out into the world alone. And we’ll still be able to see the baby, the toddler, the child echoed in features and mannerisms and we’ll feel terrified and accomplished and nostalgic and fulfilled and emptied all at once. So I hear.

We can’t stop the flow of time. We can’t predict the future. We can’t, by force of will, keep things the way they are forever. Our children will grow. Things will change. But we have a good God who holds it all. He has made and is making everything beautiful in its time, and we are being invited into greater trust with every passing moment.  

Will it hurt? Yes, it will. It’s bittersweet, this mothering business. There’s no point pretending it isn’t. The delight of witnessing them learn and grow and become is tempered by the yearning for days gone by, for sweet kissable baby cheeks and quiet moments in the still of night when the whole spinning world seems to revolve around the silent, sacred sanctuary that is you and your baby. It will hurt, the constant letting go that motherhood demands. But the fruit of letting go, of holding the flow of time in an open palm and trusting God - is joy: magical, flowering, overflowing joy. And joy isn’t pain-free. It isn’t safe. It isn’t shallow. It’s not a one-dimensional kind of happiness but a prismatic bounty full of texture and complexity that nourishes the wild wordless places of your soul. And it makes you real, and draws you into a life more deep, more rich and more lush than a life clutching to any illusory sense of control ever could.

And when you’re real, as the Skin Horse so wisely says, you don’t mind being hurt.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Well, I NEVER...

From the scene of the infamous Santa-Cali-Gon incident recounted in the postscript.

Fun facts:

On our first date, Steven asked to use the bathroom in my apartment before we went out. He spied a small cardboard box in my bathroom trash can and he told me years later that my thoughtless disposal of a fully recyclable item gave him serious pause about asking me out again.

Well into our 1.5 month engagement, I learned that Steven had in his possession a book he’d checked out from the library and kept because, well, he wanted it and it was out of print and it cost too much to buy. Aghast, I momentarily considered breaking off our engagement.

To both of us, the other had committed an unpardonable sin worthy of excommunication. Yet love  (or, perhaps for Steven at that early juncture, more just physical attraction) transcended and made us question our most dearly held “rules”. The ways we divided people into categories - good versus bad; wanton, styrofoam-burning earth destroyer versus pious recycler; evil saboteur of the magical institutions known as libraries which are designed to benefit the commonwealth and provide literary education and pleasure to all which only works if EVERYONE FOLLOWS THE RULES versus respectful library patron - suddenly didn’t hold up to the reality and complexity of another human being. (To be honest, it’s probably for the best that the library book revelation occurred late as it did in our courtship. I was in way too deep by that point).

Relationships in general, and marriage in particular, have a way of composting our most dearly held “rules”: our absolutes - our can’ts, won’ts, don’ts and nevers. As the rules we use to delineate, to divide, to map our world into clear-cut categories collide with the reality of a flesh-and-blood, sinful, broken human being with whom we’re desperately in love, we can either save our rules and shrink our world and calcify our hearts more and more, or surrender our rules and stay and love. Before I met Steven, I would say that I never wanted to get married or have kids and furthermore I didn’t understand what compelled people to want to do either (yes, I was totally insufferable and out of touch with my own yearnings).

Then suddenly, here was this magical man who was convex in all the places I was concave and concave in all the places I was convex: who just fit me. He loved order when I tended toward chaos. He was brave when I was scared. He knew just what to say and how to say it in the way I needed when I was stammering and wordless.

And then, when he invited me to his family’s picnic on our third date (we move fast), I witnessed the way he interacted with his niece and it was so beautiful and touching that it began to excavate some deeply buried longing of my heart that had been tamped down with cynicism and fear. As I watched him play with her and heard her darling toddler giggles, the thought popped into my head, startling and unbidden: “he’d make a really good father”. It both terrified and exhilarated me, striking out into this particular uncharted territory of daydreaming. I didn’t even know how to hold a baby, and yet some of the oldest magic in the book was enchanting me and beginning to erode my nevers.

I remember our courtship and the way I was entranced by his laugh - so uninhibited and earnest and real - the easy way he moved, the way he made up little limericks on the spot and made me laugh more often than anyone I’d ever met, his complete lack of pretense and how he knew how to push the boundaries of decorum just as far as they needed to go to disarm and charm people. In short, he was perfect. Except when he wasn’t, and my can’ts and won’ts and alwayses and nevers butt up against this person I loved, this person I was covenanted to, and I had to choose.

God delights in surprise, in subverting our manmade kingdoms and our dimmed expectations. I’ll never have a baby, said Sarah. I always outwit everyone, Jacob thought (I imagine). And then there’s one of my favorite moments in the book of Acts: when God asks Ananias to go see Saul, lay hands on him and restore his vision. Ananias’ response was quite measured and contained, and he didn’t even ask God to repeat himself or exclaim “say WHAT? You want me to go see WHO?” He did, however, essentially say “Lord, you do know who this guy is and what he’s been doing… right?” Of course, this moment doesn’t represent so much the dismantling or an absolute as the presentation of a command that is so outrageous, so far out of the realm of plausibility that I doubt Ananias had even ever given it the consideration that would lead to the formation of a “won’t” or a “never”. Inasmuch as he thought of Saul it was probably to grieve the violence and loss of life that Saul perpetrated and assiduously avoid running into him. And now God is asking Ananias to intentionally seek him out! 

Recently I was thinking about Paul and his murderous, Christ-hating past and I laughed out loud, wondering “who would hire that guy?! God would!” God would, because he didn’t look at Saul and only see an enemy and someone who was venomously and diametrically opposed to his purposes. He didn’t see the lost cause of all lost causes, like we would. Instead (I believe), he saw a passion for God gone horribly awry under the jurisdiction of human terms and rules, but a passion which, once brought under the ownership of Jesus Christ, could yield fruit 100 times what was sown - fruit of hope in the boundless redemptive promise of Him.

God delights in showing us how far his mercy and grace and redemption goes - and it’s always way beyond our human boundaries. We say things like “I could never forgive someone if they ____”. God says he would rather sacrifice everything than not forgive or follow the “rules” of karma or retaliation. We say perfectly reasonable things like “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget,” a not-so-clever ruse to actually not forgive and instead continue to remind our trespasser of his trespass. God says crazy stuff like “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) and “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17) and "love keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor 13). We crucified Love Himself, we denied Him three times, we held people’s coats while they stoned one of His anointed, and yet still God delights in pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible. We, the prodigal sons, come home to a lavish banquet. What a preposterously unfair equation! What an outrageously unbalanced scale! What a scandal! But even more: what a beautiful, great God.

Is it wrong to say that I understand the Pharisees? I do. I can see in them my own anxious attachment to the rules as they gape at Jesus’s flagrant disregard of them. “But you can’t just --- !” “Who do you think you are? We have rules around here!” I had rules around here, too, once. Big ones. I was pret-ty proud of them and they made me feel awfully self-righteous. But God is dismantling them one by one as He pulls me more deeply into trust and obedience and faith that following His Son is enough. More than enough. It’s everything. The yoke of my rules, my absolutes, my self-righteousness, my hypervigilance is hard. Cumbersome. His is easy.

God is not safe. He will take us far beyond our self-imposed brackets and the circles we’ve drawn around the things we think we can control. He’ll never lead us into sin, but He will take us past our man-made rules. Sometimes He’ll take us to a place where it feels like the bottom is dropping out and the center will not hold and where our white-knuckle grip yields nothing but greater and greater pain until we just let go. And there, watching our kingdoms fall and our once dearly-held rules demolish, we’ll realize they were no treasure at all. He is our treasure. And He chooses us. Miraculous.



P.S. God has a delightful sense of humor. The best ever, you might say. In addition to the “nevers” and “won’ts” I am also cautious these days about strong declarative statements concerning things that I dislike, I.e. “I HATE (insert band, food, etc.).” I find whenever I do this I have to eat my words or end up in curious situations such as one autumn evening when Steven and I were riding one of those rickety, jerky traveling carnival rides where the veil between life and death is thin and bolts seem to be working themselves looser with every turn and I thought as I listened to the Nickelback song blaring over the tinny loudspeakers “You know, they’re really not so bad!” True story. Be careful out there. God loves a joke!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Genesis of Hope


The run-of-the-mill childhood illness had given his sister only a fever for three days and an itinerant rash on her torso. But in him, it bypassed the fever entirely and poured all its virulence into an angry rash that distended his cheeks, swelled his eyelids and pilled his smooth skin to a swath of angry red bumps. He sat on the sink, his feet in the basin, and stared sadly at his reflection in the mirror. Then he hung his head. The words were flat, his voice weak and downcast, and I barely heard him, but I did. Oh, I did.

“God didn’t answer my prayer. Instead he just gave me a silly face.”

The night before when the rash had first appeared, creeping its way up his cheek, he’d prayed so simply and directly, in his blithe and innocent way, to be healed. Hands clasped and eyes squinted tightly shut, he offered up his request, so sweetly and earnestly. He had been so sure in the asking, and so certain of the deliverance. And now, here we were. God didn’t answer my prayer.

My heart broke, hearing it. My hand went to my mouth and my eyes started to sting. Not now, I thought. Not this weighty theological dilemma that is way too complex even for me to understand, let alone simplify and codify into some teachable moment for my child. And the timing, oh, the timing. My frustration in prayer had crescendoed to a huffy resignation just the week prior. My prayers, it seemed, had been fluttering to the ground like forlorn confetti at a wedding where the groom had gotten cold feet; my words falling unheard into a formless void. Hearts were getting harder (mine included) and people were getting divorced and getting sicker anyway. I didn’t feel like running any race. I felt like sitting down in the middle of the road. When I did try to pray, it felt hollow, as if the bitterness on my tongue poisoned the words before they even left my mouth. Maybe there isn’t even anyone there to hear, I thought, which seemed an even more incredible and terrifying alternative to the idea that God was indeed there but silent. And in the space between doubt and nihilism, I languished, feeling like a fool: a fool to believe and a fool to disbelieve. Instead he just gave me a silly face.    

So I just held my son and stroked his calloused cheeks while I let the tears come down my own. “I know. I know. It feels that way, doesn’t it?” I said. And in saying those words I remembered the last time they were spoken to me, and I was back there again, pulled over on the side of a remote country highway, desperately trying to make it to my parents’ house 300 miles away in a state of almost complete disintegration. Darkness closed in on the periphery of my very being and threatened to swallow me whole. I was pretty sure my marriage was over and now a terrible misunderstanding blunderingly handled by me meant that my husband might lose his job. It’s a long story, for another time, of how I arrived at the side of that road, sobbing into my phone to one of my dearest friends, clinging for dear life to her words as though they were my last remaining tether to hope above the pit of chaos that loomed beneath me, belching meaninglessness from its rotten belly. And truly, they were just that. “Everything’s falling apart,” I cried out in between the convulsive sobs that held my body in thrall.

“Yes,” Stephanie said. “I know. Yes, it feels that way.” That was the medicine I needed. In that moment I didn’t need platitudes, I didn’t need facile reassurance, I didn’t need someone lying and saying it was okay when it so obviously wasn’t at all. I desperately needed hope, yes, but I needed that validation first. I needed my lamentation to be real to someone else.  

I think sometimes before we can authentically hope, lamentation must come first. When our story doesn’t turn out how we wanted or expected, the temptation to meaninglessness, cruel opportunist that it is, slithers in and taunts us with its blackened barbs. We start to wonder if this is it, if this is where our story ends. We start to wonder if there is a story being told at all, or rather if the welter of disintegration that swirls around us is the truth: that there is none, that entropy reigns. The most profound refrain of despair resonates in our bones: Why? Why have you forsaken me?

Out on that lonely road, I cried harder. But my friend wasn’t finished: “But it’s not true. And it won’t always feel that way,” she said firmly. I couldn’t believe her in that moment, but I let her hope for me, even though it seemed so distant and so absurd. I couldn’t believe it then, though I came to in time. In the midst of pain, it seems untenable, even ludicrous to see beyond the pain, to believe that dry bones can come alive again. But they can. I’ve seen it, and tasted it, and known it with my own eyes and tongue and heart.

A couple days after my son despaired over his reflection, the swelling receded and his face began to return to the handsome little boy I knew. I was fearful, though, fearful that the incident had planted a seed of doubt that would now grow unchecked until he’d eventually abandon any semblance of faith at all. I thought just because he was little, my son’s faith was fragile. Deep down, I condescendingly thought his hope was sweet but quaint and naive. And I thought it had been crushed. I was so wrong. He smiled at his face in the mirror now, and turned toward me. “See, mom? God healed me. It’s a miracle!”

Tears stung my eyes again, at his untarnished wonder. Hope isn’t always just a specific wish for something to happen or not to happen - it’s also an unwavering belief in an ultimate good ending and a sense of awe at the beautiful, bewildering gift of life. Because if we allow it, if we want it, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God infuses everything with meaning. Every thing. Sometimes we have to pass through meaninglessness to get to the meaning, but it’s there. There are (or at least there will be) no meaningless or profitless dangling threads, none at all, in the end. No ultimate tragedy. Death, in any of its forms, does not have the last word.

That’s the genesis of hope. And so we hope, even when everything seems to point toward the chasm of chaos, even when the collective voices of cynicism and despair growl “don’t bother”. We hope when it’s irrational, when it doesn’t make a lick of sense, when the void of meaninglessness yawns before us and the storm assails us. And when we can’t hope, we let someone else hope for us. My husband didn’t lose his job after all and eventually, after months of the hard work and pure grace of healing, our marriage was restored. But even when this or that leg of your story doesn’t end the way it should because our world is broken - even when hearts harden and the sick don’t get better - it’s not over yet. Your story - our story - is good, and it isn’t over. 


This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 MOPS Magazine.