Friday, December 29, 2017

The valley.

Lamentation of Christ, Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

“When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ 
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm; 
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.”
– Psalm 30: 6-7

“My tears have been my food day and night, 
while people say to me all day long,
‘Where is your God?’
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.”
-Psalm 42: 3-4

“When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?” – Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

Turns out I don’t control grief any more than I control God, which is exactly not at all.

Several years ago a dear friend who lost a child to leukemia told me that her mother had told her that grief was like a bowl of soup, and some people sip while others gulp. Although I love analogies and often find them helpful, this one planted itself in my memory and when my sister died suddenly and unexpectedly and the terrible time of its blooming arrived, I tried to wrangle it and formulize it and shunt the amorphous, vaporous yet black-hole-heavy beast of grief into its proportions. I’ll gulp that bowl, I told myself. I’ll prodigiously glut myself on it, hand myself over to it, let death reign in my body, and then I’ll be done and new life and hope and beauty and all good things will flower forth again. More than anything, things will make sense again.

And glut myself I did. In those stuporous first weeks I gulped down grief, or it gulped down me, and when dawn seemed to rise after the first month of catatonia I exhaled with relief. It’s mostly over, I told myself. Life can resume. And it did, for a time. And then it turned out to be merely an artificial dawn, a ruse of a spacious place, because the wave was retreating merely to gather its strength and pound the shore again and subsume any semblance of resurrection. 

The more I try to wrest new life from the wasteland, the more I try to wrangle the whole mess and piece together a mosaic from the shattered pieces of an invulnerable life, the more I try to wrangle a good story out of sorrow, the more I try to forcefully glue a neat little bow on the mire… the more my woeful inability to do so trumpets itself until it’s unavoidable. And I’m defeated. Is this where God wants me? 

There is nothing to do but wait for the miracle. There’s nothing to do but trudge joylessly through a valley of indeterminate length for an interminable amount of time. The glass-half-full non-Goth interpretation of this would be something like “God only gives you enough light to find the next step”. But I grow weary of covering things with platitudes, even true ones. Something in me begs to concede defeat, to have my full measure of wallowing. Is this faithlessness? Or is it surrender? I’m not sure anymore. 

The only thing I can wager is perhaps there is something valuable in sinking into the sorrow completely. Before the most meaningful Easter I ever had, I took Good Friday seriously. I didn’t flick it away as a minor temporary setback, a mere illusory obstacle. I didn’t quell it with promises or whitewash it with wishes. I dwelled in it and I let it dwell in me. I sat down in it. I fasted. I flirted with maybes – maybe death won. Maybe empire won. Maybe violence and power and all the coercive ways of the world are just the way it has to be. I imagined how the disciples felt as they scattered and struggled to hold on to Jesus’ prophecies and promises in the stark apparent reality of total defeat, or perhaps lost themselves entirely in doubt and fear. I imagined how Peter felt knowing that he had failed in the one way he had sworn he would never fail, the suffocating tide of shame that must have overcome him. It was too much to bear. Yes, I had heard the promises of Easter, but they were hollowed out by Good Friday, distant. Good Friday had leeched the power from their whispers, now just a faint, tuneless polyphony of the careless wind blowing around so many empty husks. Yeah, it got dark. 

But somewhere in that near-nihilistic silence, a defiant note sounded. No. NO. That’s not how the story ends. There is a power greater, a power that, unlike the world’s power, can’t be owned, can’t be tamed, and can’t be usurped. Its beauty is unmatched and in fact it is beauty itself, the wellspring from which all created beauty unfurls. I know my God. I know my God, and he is not a God of naughts. Or knots, for that matter. He is not a God of vain striving, of dead ends, of dead things at all. It all gets untangled in the end. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20:38). 

After Jesus, Leonard Cohen said it best:

God was ruler
Though his funeral lengthened
Though his mourners thickened
Magic never fled
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
Though his words were twisted
The naked magic thrived
Though his death was published
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

The heart did not believe. Because the heart was a quixotic dimwit, unacquainted with the ways of the world and living in a saccharine Hallmark movie hologram? No. The heart did not believe because it wasn’t true. The story doesn’t end in pain, in death, in destruction. But it’s hard to see that now, when there is only death, dying, barrenness and pain visible. There aren’t even any pleasant distractions if I choose to fix my eyes on what is seen rather than what is unseen. I’m mad that Lia won’t be here when my dad, who is in stage 4 COPD, dies. Or when mom dies, for that matter. She won’t be here if we (ever) have another baby. She won’t be here for a whole litany of things. She’s just… gone. To me. And it hurts like hell. But to him all are alive. This can’t be the end of the story, and somehow the resurrection, the new life, in whatever stunning manifestations it comes, will be richer, ever more miraculous, ever more dazzling because of – not merely in spite of, cause God’s much better than that – the 2.5 day wait. 

There’s part of me that still resists. God, in his sovereign goodness, in his light in which there is no darkness at all, left two and a half days between death and resurrection. Why? Why would Good Friday be needed? Why does that have to be part of the story at all? Why does the valley have to be borne? I don’t know. And I’m not going to glue a bow or pull out my Bedazzler on this one. But I do know that when I started writing this I felt like a sewing machine who had just finished sewing a turd on a trash can lid - a sentiment I borrow from Richard Brautigan and one which is the best characterization of utter futility I’ve ever come across – and now I feel a little bit better. So I’ll be that sewing machine, if God will still be God. And he will. And so I wait. Sometimes because I can muster genuine hope, and sometimes just because there’s nothing else to do. Either way, he is faithful.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Steppin' Out

Why this picture of this particular chicken (known as Bloomis Chaffee) to accompany this particular post? Because... what an audacious creation! Who would dare to create such a delightfully ludicrous flightless bird? GOD, that's who!

"Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold." - 2 Corinthians 3:12

One of my all-time favorite cinematic scenes comes toward the end of Finding Nemo. Marlin and the lovably daffy, amnesiac Dory, his happenstance companion, are desperately clinging to the ridges of a whale’s massive tongue as it rears backward, tilting Marlin and Dory nearly vertical, and perilously close to dropping into the whale’s digestive system. Dory had earlier claimed to speak whale, yet another of her dubious but authoritatively stated claims to knowledge. And now, as they dangle just above imminent death, Dory makes yet another outrageous claim after harkening her ear to the lilting, sea-muted melody of the whale’s latest communique: the whale is telling them to let go. This is simply too much for practical, skittish, eminently reasonable Marlin. “He wants me to let go?” he asks, balking at the request. Dory insists and Marlin balks still at this wildly irrational command, which directly opposes exactly every single last facet of his current seen reality. “But how do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” he yells, anguish twisting his features. Dory stares back, wide-eyed. Her answer? “I don’t!”

I don’t. I don’t know. For years, this has been my place of wrestling. And if I’m being honest, “I don’t know” are the words I am most loathe to utter, and “let go” the command I least want to obey. Yet often our fullest surrender precedes the miraculous. When Marlin and Dory let go, instead of tumbling into the oblivion of digestive acids, they’re borne aloft on the whale’s spray and catapulted back into the ocean, where they can finally breathe again.
Faith is by nature unreasonable. Often it seems more than unreasonable – it  looks like madness, like dropping into the abyss. Forgiveness, at first, can feel that way – like tossing our standards of justice into the black unknown. It can feel like tossing a lot of standards into the black unknown. It can feel reckless. I admit there have been seasons in the past few years where I’ve been able to muster faith only on the basis that the alternative – not believing in a transcendent God who holds it all – is just too horrifyingly bleak.

But I feel God calling me, calling us all, to a different kind of faith, one that emboldens and enlivens and reorients our whole reality. A faith that is based not on tepid, tentative hope and cliched platitudes, but a deep confidence, an unassailable knowledge, of the radical goodness of God. It is a goodness so pure and radiant and powerful that the grave can never suppress it, a goodness so suffused with light and life that it is somehow both itself, yet it’s never needed the darkness for its definition. It is knowing that kind of goodness that makes us brazenly, joyously, unreasonably brave. We can be bold because God is that good. And when we finally believe that, when we obey the whispered refrain of ‘let go’, we are buoyed against all odds on a refreshing spray of freedom and surrender and blessed bewilderment.

We can be bold because, when God is for us, there is seriously nothing to lose. Just think about that! Can you believe it?! We can be gutsy because our guts are not at stake – instead, our gutsiness is staked in his eternal goodness. We are free indeed.

One of my favorite scenes in the Bible is when God tells a man named Ananias to go lay hands on Saul of Tarsus and restore his sight after Saul has been struck with blindness. Saul was basically a homicidal maniac single-mindedly bent on eliminating the Jesus movement, and now God was planning on him becoming the most famous evangelist in all history. (Talk about bold! Would you hire that guy?!) I imagine Ananias balked a bit, because he proceeds to give God a summary of exactly who Saul of Tarsus is and what he’s been up to, you know, just in case God was unawares or a little confused (God is never either of these things). And, of course, God says yes, that’s the one. Now go. And Ananias goes. He goes because although it seems absolutely nutty from his perspective at first, he knows his God – the one who is eternal and unchanging yet always moving in new and fresh and delightfully surprising ways, forging life in dead places and springs in the desert – is good. Immutably, unwaveringly, inescapably good. Can we believe that? Imagine what we could accomplish if we did, all the time!

What could possibly go wrong? Oh, a million and one things, from our earthly perspective. We will hurt, yes. We will suffer and know sorrow. One of my most ingrained mental hobbies is straining to concoct the worst possible scenario in a given circumstance. But God’s purposes will never fail, and, with surrender and faith and perseverance, nothing will ever be pointless. It is safe to trust, safe to let go of our white-knuckle hold on the gritty whale tongue or the illusion of control or fear or whatever it is for you. It is safe to crack open in Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking lately of the maxim ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ and how I don’t really care for it. I think we should dance like everybody is watching, but we’re going to freestyle and move like a lunatic anyway, because our freedom can inspire others to bust out of their buttoned-down, arms-at-the-side subdued sway. I think we should live out our faith that way, too, because people will know God by how we move in the world, spilling over with joy in spite of it all, safe in the promise of his redemption and able to love with abandon as he has loved us. Be bold and dance in his embrace. It doesn’t depend on you – it depends on him.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Longing.

For years, it was the longing that had no name, the longing that I wouldn’t allow myself to name. Denied and suppressed, it took on ugly shapes. She must be completely worn out, I would think when I saw a woman with three or more children. Thank goodness we stopped at two! As I watched older siblings lovingly dote on baby brothers and sisters, my heart leapt but my mind - knowing nothing but a bolted door waited at the end of that dream and therefore resolved to not take so much as a wistful step toward it - tamped it back down. Are you crazy? Don’t you remember how giving birth feels? It screamed. What is wrong with these people? Aren’t they concerned about overpopulation? (I told you it got ugly).

I remember one evening at church when I held a intermittently fussing baby for two hours. When I finally handed him back to his mother, my arms hurt and I made sure to make some joke about my occasional yen for another baby being “cured” by babysitting because - ha ha! - my arms hurt! See? my brain muttered smugly. Babies are a pain. They’re an inconvenience. Babies hurt. Aren’t you glad you’re done with babies?

But as I walked home that night, tears rolled down my cheeks. My heart was sick and tired of being trampled by cynicism masquerading as practicality. Yes, babies hurt, I thought. But they’re magical and wonderful and delightful in every way and worth all the hurt and more and I want another one so badly that my womb aches, I want another precious little soul to love and adore, another set of sweet kissable cheeks and rolls upon rolls and downy skin and pure unencumbered smiles and I even want the oceanic pain of birth and its afterglow of sheer bewilderment, when you feel like you’ve been destroyed and reassembled and everything is new, most of all this perfect fresh little creature in your arms, at once so deeply known, so deeply kin, and still so yet-to-be-known, a tiny galaxy of glorious potential in the most tender vessel imaginable, I want it ALL! my heart shrieked, in one epic cathartic run-on sentence.

I thought two was a reasonable place to stop. My husband did, too, and all of our family. We couldn’t afford any more, we decided; and besides, two was plenty. We should stop there and call it good, we told ourselves. Arrow, our daughter, had been a surprise, and we were resolved to have no more surprises. I was just beginning to emerge from the early haze of caring for a newborn and a toddler when I dropped my husband off at his vasectomy appointment. It became a joke - he was practically sprinting to the urologist! Oh, we are done. Sooooo done! I emphatically responded to any inquiries as to whether we were having more children.

And yet, my heart wasn’t buying it. it wasn’t buying the jokes and the cynicism and my desperate vie to redirect, co-opt and rebrand the yearning that still smoldered somewhere deep within. But I absolutely refused to give myself permission to dream. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism - we’d slammed that door shut, and I believed dreaming would bring nothing but heartache.

And it did, for two long years. When I finally admitted to myself that I wanted more children, and announced it to my husband one tearful night, he was mortified. And for the next two years I cajoled and begged and pleaded, and when all that failed I pestered and prodded and screamed and threw tantrums. I pounced on any millimeter of apparent yielding with such violence that I only hardened his resolve even more. Finally, one night when he firmly stated again that he didn’t want any more children, it felt strangely final. I wept. And I told God how sad I was, and that I wasn’t okay, but I trusted that he would make me okay in time. And I became silent on the whole topic of babies, so much so and so ominously so that my husband started randomly asking “Aren’t you going to say something about babies?” Nope, I replied each time, perhaps a bit too curtly. The sadness lingered, and I waited for God to make me okay. But then one day my husband sat me down to tell me that he felt called to get his vasectomy reversed. I shrieked with joy and threw my arms around him and marveled at the miraculous: hope glittering from the grave of gutted dreams.

I really felt like since I’d been waiting for so long, I was entitled to get pregnant immediately after the surgery. Four cycles went by and it didn’t happen and I poured out my woes to a wise friend and mentor, who gently shared the lessons God had taught her through her unsuccessful tubal ligation reversal. I knew there was truth in her words. Yes, I nodded begrudgingly, I will learn contentment. There will be so many rich, faith-enhancing lessons I will learn if I don’t get another baby, I thought, with my fists and jaw clenched. I thought I was fooling nearly everyone with my forced holiness, including myself. But not God.

I was driving a couple of days later when the welling that had started deep down in my belly reached my throat and erupted. I pulled over on a gravel road and wept violently, gasping and heaving like my sensitive son after he takes a hard fall. I tried to breathe deeply and stop crying repeatedly, even forging forward a quarter mile on the road, thinking my composure would follow, before pulling over again and giving myself permission to weep from my core. And there, on that quiet country road, as I cried and pounded on the steering wheel, the truth came out. “I don’t want to learn any more lessons!” I yelled. “I just want a baby!” And instantly, I felt relieved. Lighter. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. And God smiled, because I was finally being honest.

It’s so easy to forget that before God, we have permission to be real. It’s even more than permission - it’s a requirement for true relationship. God doesn’t want a gritted-teeth resolution to be good, which is destined to fail anyway.

So here I am, not yet pregnant. And so I wait, and give myself permission to hope, and hope desperately, and dream wildly. I give myself permission to cry out to God and I continue to ask for what I want instead of pretending to be okay with not getting it. Will he make me okay, no matter what, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now? Yes. But I still want a baby.


Monday, September 11, 2017


“Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” - Genesis 4:13-14

“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” - Hebrews 12:22 & 24

“Sometimes I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true /
And there are no truths outside the gates of Eden.” - Bob Dylan

I hate butterfly season. Why would one hate butterfly season, you ask, when these fragile, colorful creatures emerge in abundance and, borne aloft on gentle zephyrs, christen all manner of flora with their ethereal osculations? I hate it because I have to watch one after another of them flutter innocently unawares across the highway only to be violently sucked into the slipstream of my vehicle, hurtling forward at 70 MPH toward some fool’s errand (okay, usually I have a pretense of purpose; I just like the phrase ‘fool’s errand’), and (presumably, I never see because, you know, 70 MPH) spat back out again, mutilated and destroyed, in a millisecond. For me, it’s just a particularly stark illustration of how things are not as they are supposed to be between humans and creation. Our command was to rule and subdue; we ransack and pillage. God help us.

This season also happens to coincide with my much-hailed annual beginning-of-the-homeschool-year freak out. As the almost grotesquely immense array of curriculum options unfurls before me, my thoughts become increasingly hysterical in pitch and projection: “oh my gosh, look at all this STUFF available! We’re not doing nearly enough!” and “we need to do EVERYTHING or my children’s education will be woefully deficient and they’ll be consigned to a life of chronic ne’erdowellitude and it will be all my fault!” “Israel is in second grade and I haven’t read Shakespeare out loud to him yet! Oh, forget it, it’s too late, I’ve blown it. Just call the whole thing off!” God help us.

And there’s always the world at large: natural disasters, dueling despotic rulers with bloated egos sheathed in the impenetrable armor of pride, hatred blooming blackly in a thousand demonic forms. So much profligacy. So much waste. So much futile hurtling towards nothingness. God help us.

Yet in the midst of it all, beckoning to me in the stillness I too rarely seek, He is asking: What matters? And he is whispering: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The thing is, left to my own faculties, I have no idea what matters. Out in the hinterlands of Nod, I will frenetically sprint after a thousand holograms, each more glittering and more vapid than the next. I’ll almost gleefully cannonball into a bottomless quagmire of deliberation over even trivial decisions. I’ll project every possible negative scenario with the superstition that certain possibilities can be staved off by the very fact of my anticipation. I’ll Google things like “how large is a nuclear fallout zone?” followed by “where would…” after which two words Google conveniently and perceptively fills in “North Korea bomb?” for me. Thanks, Google, for anticipating our neuroses like an obsequious servant.

My pattern - the one I still revert to more often than I care to admit and the one which has ingrained in my very DNA since Adam and Eve befouled the primordial soup, is self-reliance. The only catch is that I am wildly, utterly, incorrigibly unreliable. My recidivism rate is exactly 100 percent with a 0 percent margin of error. In my flesh, I am dead.

I still remember the first intimations I heard of another Way. Another way than frantically straining to save myself, to control, to shim and jostle things into a coherent pattern, to wrest meaning from what I believed was a godless (or, later, impersonally God-ed) universe. It was a maddeningly circuitous venture. My self-inflicted punishment was more than I could bear, and I was a restless wanderer on the earth, riddled with paranoia and fear.

Jesus is always whispering of a better way. A way of rest. A way of surrender. A way of trust. A way of faith that rests on His goodness and His faithfulness. 

It means listening. It means stillness. It means biting my tongue when I’m itching to enter the fray. It means believing that He is my father, my creator, and that he has etched me on the palms of His hands. It means saying I don’t understand but I trust anyway. It means luxuriating in instead of fighting against bewilderment at the riotously undeserved gift of grace. It means joyfully becoming a fool, joyfully ceding my claims on power and knowledge and dominion, joyfully turning away from that impulse to glut myself on the tree of good and evil and turning towards Jesus, in whom I am made alive and in whom this restless wanderer can finally rest from her endless vigilance. It means watching and waiting and preparing to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

It also means trusting that God will accomplish his purposes, as he always has, since the first Garden, and my fretting and hand-wringing and cataclysmic projecting are absolutely non-essential (and in fact inimical) to the cause.  

My dear friend, Evan, commented recently that she suspects her father thinks she’s lazy. Like me, he is prone to that fretting and hand-wringing over uncertainty, while Evan is pretty darn good at trusting that God is God, and good and faithful beyond even our rosiest, but still sin-dimmed, reveries.

I think people thought Jesus was pretty lazy, too. He knew the Father. He knew Him. He was with him since the beginning. And so there Jesus was, napping in the midst of the maelstrom, and I think he was even a little annoyed that his disciples thought it warranted interrupting that nap. Once he calmed the seas, Matthew says they were amazed. Mark says they were terrified. I think both sentiments fall under the umbrella of bewilderment.

We have extreme difficulty trusting something unless we can cram it into the narrow margins of our own understanding, own it, classify it and, in the end, desacralize it. When we decided to go our own way and call it another lonely day, we started trying to do that to God. Hopefully I don’t need to tell you that’s impossible.

Yet we’ve been trying for a long time, and we still try. Formulas, methods, procedures, ceremonies, appeasing sacrifices. Any desperate scrambling to try and circumvent the nakedness of relationship and yet, still, the Spirit blows where it pleases. I even try, subconsciously, to turn Bible-reading into a formula. It’s just so hard for us to cede control.    
But when I go and sit in our garden to just be with Jesus, I remember. It is this simple, and this ineffably majestic. My poor garden - it is long-suffering due to my neglect. Every spring I am inflamed with gusto and a deep conviction that this season will be different… and then around mid-July I give up again. And yet, in spite of my negligence, beauty blooms, utterly undeserved. The green onions that the previous owner planted everywhere are yielding their tiny six-petaled white flowers, little nebulas perched atop tall green stems. Delicate lavender-colored flowers dapple the tops of the sedum and a rose bush I forgot to fertilize in the spring is blooming again and here I am, reaping where I did not sow. Deep mystery, deep majesty. Oh, and there are butterflies - butterflies en masse alighting on the sedum flowers.

“Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new!” said Augustine. I am always late, because I first revert to the hand-wringing, the fretting, the negativity, the anguish of self-reliance and paranoiac wandering. And then when I finally give up, often more from fatigue and the attrition of every last resource of my own power, Jesus is there. And I remember. Oh yes, You again. Home again. The sum of my yearnings, the arms in which I was always meant to rest. Just me and Jesus in the garden and my utter found-ness in this person, fully God and fully human, who waits for me at the center of the spinning universe. That which is worth everything, the kingdom buried in a field, the pearl of great price.

And, miracle of miracles, he thinks of me in the same way - worth everything, even death on a cross. Oh, blessed, blessed bewilderment.

He is always there, waiting for me to quieten my hysterical pitch. And, ultimately, at the crux of any circumstance, he always asks: Do you believe that I am good? Do you believe that I can be trusted? Do you believe that I can do immeasurably more than you can ask for or imagine? And our work, the work of belief, is to answer yes, even when all appearances contradict it, even when our flesh cries “panic!”, even when our millennia-old patterns scream no. 

Because He is, and He can. 


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.