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.