Joy Comes In the Mourning

“It is pleasing to the dear God whenever thou rejoicest or laughest from the bottom of thy heart.” –Martin Luther

“The size of a man’s understanding might be justly measured by his mirth.” -Samuel Johnson

Light shines on the righteous, and joy on the upright in heart. Psalm 97:11

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Her favorite question to ask is, “What’s your most embarrassing story?” or, if you see her more often, “Any embarrassing moments lately?” I’m perpetually lacking in such stories–the fear of mortification keeps me in the shallow end of life’s pool–so when the question comes to me, I shake my head. I have no such stories to offer.  Unfazed, she goes down the line of strangers or friends, until she’s found a juicy one.

As the teller divulges their most awkward moments, pink-faced and hesitant, looking as if they have no idea how they were persuaded to do so but doing it all the same, Annie sits in rapt attention. She asks questions, squeezes out every uncomfortable detail, until finally, the storyteller is warmly congratulated with hearty laughs and exclamations, and given thanks but also sympathy, because inevitably Annie’s got a similar story, and oftener than not, one that’s infinitely worse.

If stories were duels, Annie’s would be left standing. Every. Time.

And she has hundreds.

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They are told with relish, fanfare, and sometimes props. Like fine wine, they ripen and better with age. I’ve heard some dozens of times; others pop out of the clear blue air like bumblebees on the wind, spreading their pollen of laughter, snorting, and tears. For these, a How come I’ve never heard that one? will hobble and hiccup out of my mouth, where it’s met with a spritely twinkle of the eye, a mischievous grin, a squeal of glee. There are tales you’d swear must be a fiction–if it weren’t for the person doing the telling. Annie’s no liar; an embellisher, maybe, but her embellishments are never false, only the mark of a true artist. She knows how to spotlight the right facial expressions, sound effects, and reenactments for optimal effect. The result is brilliant.  And after every story I’m left to ponder just this: that if I am wading in life’s shallow end, floaties securely fastened, then Annie’s doing flips off the diving board.

Neatly put, if it’s equally amazing and embarrassing, it’s happened to her. Gloriously.

Surely not, you may think. Has she–oh, I don’t know–set her arm on fire in a crowded restaurant?

Why, yes. Yes she has. And if you’re wondering if goose-down coats smell rancid when burnt, the answer is yes. Also, if you forget to stop, drop, and roll, snow banks make excellent fire retardant.

I rest my case.

But that’s not all. Annie’s pool of mirth runs deep. She’ll take any dare:

“Dare me to do a handstand in the 40 degree lake with my clothes on?”

“Well, of course.”IMG_9409
“Hey, go chase the girls with that washed-up dead fish.”

“Okay!”IMG_9293
“Eat a bean out of the sink trap.”

“Do you dare me?”

“Triple. Dog.”

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Children flock to her. Women trip over themselves to get a word with her. Our husbands shake their heads in mock-bewilderment at her, but turn to hide their smiles.

I’ve seen cashiers and waiters grin, homeless teenagers laugh, strippers giggle, even the stodgiest, most stoic faces crack smiles in her presence.

If there is one word to sum up Annie, it is:

Joy.                                  IMG_9414

It’s a joy that’s contagious. For in a world that looks for happiness under every rock and tree, chases fleeting moments of pleasure only to be left empty-handed when the purse has worn out, the relationship has ended, the accolade given to another,

True joy is electric.

It shimmers. It shocks. It is lightning to weary souls. It is sunbeam and star-shine; glitter and spotlight. We are drawn to it, like the moth to the flame, not knowing its power, only struck by its presence.

Wholly apart from silliness for the sake of silliness, temporary pleasure, or that hard-to-pin definition of happiness, joy finds its stores in a deeper well, one that many times has tapped into a spring that finds both joy and sorrow intermixed. As with all God’s many ironies, joy is often found hand-in-hand with sorrow, because it is with sorrow that joy can be seen in relief.

Sorrow is the purifying fire; joy is the gold.

Annie’s joy is just that, precisely because she’s been through the furnace of mourning. Been through, and come out, filled up with the solid gold of her Father’s joy. For, for all of her embarrassing, gut-splitting stories, she has just as many heart-breaking ones. Stories of substance abuse, and insecurity. Stories of absent and abusive fathers.  The tragic death of her brother. Abortion. A prodigal child. A failed marriage. Molestation. Rape.

Any one of these stories has the ability to eat away, to strip off every last layer of joy, and yet, they have done quite the opposite. Once placed in the able hands of her God, He did for Annie what He did for David: “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent…” (Psalm 30:11-12). God did for her what He promises all of us: his bestowal of “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Is. 61:3).

God took the spotlight off the ashes, the mourning, the despair, and He placed it on joy. He placed it on…

Himself.

Not even Elisa Morgan can resist a good joy-fest.

Joy is a three-ring circus, and God himself is the opening act, the main event, the grand finale.

As Margaret Feinberg points out in her new book, Fight Back With Joy, in which she chronicles her quest to find joy in the midst of a terrifying battle with cancer, from the very beginning of time, from the start of the show, God has taken joy in his handiwork. He saw that his creation was good, and he “delighted” in it. In Psalm 65:8, the psalmist sings, “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.”

Unbelievably, “for the joy set before him,” Jesus, the main attraction, endured the cross (Heb. 12:2).

And, so too will it be in the grand finale, when the final act is finished and the curtain of eternity is drawn for the encore. “Yet we have this assurance: Those who belong to God shall live again. Their bodies shall rise again! Those who dwell in the dust shall awake and sing for joy! For God’s light of life will fall like dew upon them!” (Is. 26:19).

He is joy. And joy is our “heritage, purpose, and destiny,” for, as Margaret says, “we are created for joy.”

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Joy–it’s a three-ring circus, and God is every act. Like Annie, God spotlights the right places in His story–those amazing feats; His death-defying act–making it one you never tire of hearing, brilliant and glorious. Under His circus tent of joy, light shines on the gold, and the rest is swallowed up in darkness.

My spectacular friend, Annie, knows this, just as she knows Him. She skips under His tents and signs up for the high dive. She splashes and jumps, kicks and flips, gives not one thought to whether she strikes a figure in her bathing suit, or whether mascara is running down her face. She delights. If God has provided a pool of joy, she’s diving in. No swim cap, no floaties.

Maybe it’s about time I took a lap in the deep end.


You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11

VIDEOSLIDE

The Heaven-Holders

I was the van lady.

The ridiculous-looking blonde careening down the highway in a 15-passenger van like a bullet.  Then twisting, turning, double-backing through the confusing streets of a city where every ramshackle house looks like the next and a panhandler for every corner.

Each day, every day, I picked up my precious cargo:

The refugees.  Thirteen of them.

Endless booster seats.  Buckling and unbuckling.  Four different languages spoken at breakneck speed at the highest pitch known to man.

This is heaven.

Landscape #116

I’m convinced of it, convinced it’s heaven, though it doesn’t look it-

I suppose it depends on where you look.

I’ll admit, the first few days felt more like hell.  The endless gray.  Broken furniture and mattresses full of bedbugs slung out to the curb of every other house.  Lines spilling out of the can depository.  A rail-thin woman with sunken, dead eyes needs fifty cents, she says.  Two prostitutes tumble down the middle of the street on heels not made for potholes.

People of every nationality speckle the streets with a rainbow of color.  The deepest midnight skin of three Sudanese teenagers.  Latino.  African-American.  White.   A Buddhist monk.  The family of Muslims always crossing the street at the same time for prayers.

Thirty minutes away from my safe suburban home lies another world.

This world is one in which the lake we pass twice a day is pronounced a “swimming poo!” fifty times over, and the sight of evening gowns in dress shop windows take on the excitement of Christmas morning.  A world where the “safety” of drug infested streets is accepted with gladness over the bloody streets from where they’ve come, and broken windows and sagging gutters are still a blessing.

And I’m humbled.

This is heaven.

Heaven is thankfulness for used mattresses, years old, spotted with stains but lacking in bugs.  Heaven is a discarded plastic bag filled with broken and mismatched toys that finds new life in eager little hands.  Heaven is the trust of parents, who after attempting niceties with me over a language barrier like a brick wall, put their children in my hands, never truly knowing from whence we go, only tickled that their kids get the chance to- to leave, to dream.

Heaven is the smiles that greet me as I pull up to their houses, the shouts of “Miss!  Miss!  She took off her seat belt again!” or “Miss!  Miss!  She stole my snack!” (for the eleventh time).

I look at them, these children, and think,

I’m not worthy.

I know now more deeply what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).

These little ones, they’re the Heaven-holders.

Clear as day I see the kingdom of God in Senjana’s quiet eyes and Srijana’s boisterous cries.  It’s in Olivie’s soft and searching heart and the way Pragya’s hugs me tight around the waist though only moments before I’ve scolded her for stealing someone’s snack once again.  I find it in Tibborah’s, Sister’s, and Nu-Nu’s sweet songs that rise from the back seat straight to God.

I watch as my own children interact with these kingdom-keepers and I thank Him for giving us this opportunity.  The opportunity to pray for the quiet Ruth and Onole, that they would find friendship in You.  The opportunity to ask that Flower would blossom into all that You would have her be; that the beautiful Prena would find her worth in You; that Arthur’s rascally yet charming way would be used mightily.

I thank Him for the opportunity, the privilege, to give thanks for Thank You.

Most people think that Heaven’s all pearly gates and angel song.

I can tell you it’s not.

Heaven is thirteen kids in a church van.

And trust me…

you won’t want to miss it.

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Attack of the Killer Quail

It was only a hike.

Down the humpbacked road and past a few miles of cornfields, past the groves of blueberry bushes swollen with their late July bounty- the same bushes we’d just plucked two buckets full- lies our family’s favorite haunt: a small state park full of walking trails and wildlife, meadows and trees, and a picturesque lake that begs to be admired.

We visit all year round: in the fall when it seems like someone’s colored over the place with every shade of orange, yellow, and crimson; come winter when the lake is frozen over and through binoculars we’ve spied bald eagles having their supper on the ice; in the spring when the mud is thigh high, the buds are just peeking out, and you have to be careful not to hit one of the last patches of ice on a downward slope for fear of tumbling into a patch of trees or a mud pit; and always in summer, just as the sun is low in the sky, sending that other-worldly light sideways, across the tips of the grasses in the meadows and in shafts through the canopy of leaves that slip straight to the mossy forest floor. That’s our favorite time: the summer gloaming, the eventide, when all is quiet except for the sounds of flip-flopping, bird chatter, and the voices of the children as they exclaim over every new discovery.  When our would-be fellow hikers have gone home to their dinners, and the animals have come out to play.

That day, with bellies full of blueberries and the blackberries we’d found at the beginning of the trail, we set out, adventurers of our own course.  We startled a bunny who froze until we’d crept up far enough to warrant his great escape.  We caught sight of the rounded bottom of a very large woodchuck who was none too pleased we’d found his hiking trail and disappeared into the overgrowth before we could get a proper look.  Farther down the path, two bucks with fuzzy antlers and two does, not five feet away, went about their business munching the leaves from spindly trees.  We stopped and stared and marveled, as we always do, at how beautiful they are, and wondered if they wouldn’t like to be petted.

You almost expected a fairy to fly by or a hobbit to bumble around a corner.  The light was magic, the animals friendly, the meandering peaceful.

That was before we met the quail.

We spotted him just off the path in a particularly wooded area, dark with shadows.  If he hadn’t moved he would have blended in with his surroundings, his speckled feathers a perfect match with the wood chips and dirt.  But he did move, followed us in fact.  He kept pace just off to the side and soon grew brazen enough to take the trail along with us.  We laughed and stopped to admire his fat little body, and when we bent down to get closer, he didn’t run off like we thought he might.  Instead, he toddled over to us, curious.  We spoke to him and he replied in his soft murmurs; somewhere in the trees we could hear the just as soft peeping of his chicks, invisible, though we tried hard to spot them.

Q is for ...

We pulled out our phones, Honey Bun and I, wanting to capture our perceived knack for being “one” with nature.  Mr. Quail stepped up for his photograph and posed dapperly as I got in close for his head shots.

And then it happened…

The Sour Patch Kid stuck out a hand.

The quail rushed forward, quick on his short, stumpy legs.

CHOMP.

“Ow!”

The Sour Patch Kid was most offended.

Honey Bun rushed forward (being the only one  wearing something other than shorts and flip flops, it was his duty after all- our naked feet and legs were quail bait).

I, being the ever-protective parent, jumped behind all three children and cowered.

Honey Bun threw the Strawberry over his shoulders and tried to scare the bird off.  He rushed, he stomped, he yelled.  The most that blasted quail would do was flutter out of the way for a split second, off to the side where he could reward Honey Bun with a bite to the pant leg.

The quail and our family- we were no longer friends.

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Honey Bun walked quick down the trail, hoping to lead the man-eating quail away; this was wilderness survival now and a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do to protect his family.

The quail chased after, pecking his ankles the whole way.

I suggested turning around.  “Let’s just go back the way we came,” I whined.

Honey Bun wouldn’t hear of it.  He was in battle mode now and he wasn’t going to let the quail get the better of him.

The children took my side.

“I don’t want him to bite meeeeeeeeeee.”

“Yeah, let’s just go back!”

No one wanted to lose a toe that day.

But Honey Bun was firm.  He managed to corner the quail, looking death in the face, lifting a leg and be-booted foot when necessary to keep the bird down.

I knew the window of time was limited, so I ran for it… leaving my two young sons in the dust and flying wood chips.

Nutty Buddy followed, but the Sour Patch Kid stood firmly planted- he knew the wrath of this killer quail and was hesitant to face its fury once more.

After much coaxing, we managed to convince him to make a run for it.  He did, and the boys and I made a break for it down the hilly path, leaving Honey Bun and the Strawberry to fend for themselves.

Tippi Hedren, "The Birds", 1963

They caught up to us a half mile ahead (okay, not really) and Honey Bun and I laughed at the adventure we’d had, while trying desperately to convince the Sour Patch Kid that this was still a safe world, despite its run-ins with quail.

“You know, as long as I faced it and looked it straight in the eye, it didn’t bite me,” Honey Bun mused, “It was only when I turned away and had my back to him that he attacked me.”

And then he said it:  “There must be a spiritual lesson in there somewhere.”

And I knew.

I knew that, yes, there was a spiritual lesson in there- a spiritual lesson I knew all too well.

All this heaving and sighing on my part lately.  This anxiety, these fears.  For the million times a day that I feel inadequate and listen to the questions rattling around in my brain- Did You really say that I should…, But I don’t have what it takes- if only I was more equipped, then I’d be able…, God, I really don’t see how this is all going to work out.  It’s just not possible, I mean, who do I think I am?

But if I’m honest, and I listen close, it’s not my own voice that I hear.

Did He really say that you should…

But you don’t have what it takes- if only you were more equipped, then you’d be able…

I really don’t see how this is all going to work out.  It’s just not possible, I mean, who do you think you are?

It’s not my voice, but it’s funny how fear’s voice can sound a lot like your own.  Sometimes fear impersonates reason; other times it tries on the voice of responsibility.  It can even masquerade as humility.

But when you’ve heard another Voice, and you remind yourself of this, each time, every time, fear looses its sneering tongue, you begin to realize how much fear sounds like a schoolyard bully.

Overcompensating for something it lacks, fear taunts.

You can let him hurl his insults, let him cut you down to his size.  You can try to turn away, ignore him, but he keeps right at it.

Fear is a sniveling little liar.

But my God is the creator of the universe.

And the only way to deal with a bully is to look him in the face and take a stand:

My God says He’ll make his ways known to me…

Of course I don’t have what it takes, if I did, I wouldn’t need a helping Hand…

I’m able if He tells me I’m able…

It doesn’t matter if I can’t see how this will turn out because God’s in charge of my tomorrows.  I can trust Him. 

And besides, with Him all things are possible…

Who I am, is His child… 

And my Dad’s bigger than your dad.

Sometimes you just have to tell fear like it is, stop cowering in the corner as fear pins you to the wall with his bullying lies.

Turn around.

See.

Fear’s a puny little bird.

Now stand up to that bloody quail and show him who’s boss.

Tell him he’d look great with a side of rice.

Quail with barley, chorizo and almonds

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Trees and Pharisees

I’m losing my tree.  After a night of howling storm, I woke this morning to a mound of spongy wood chips scattered like confetti around its base, and a hollow in its trunk. IMG_1109

The signs have been there for a few years now- chipping bark, withering branches, small holes you could play connect the dots on.  Some sort of insect had made my tree its home base, and for a while now, their army has eaten it away- my tree, my one and only tree.

I have .73 of an acre, but only one tree.  For the naturalist/mystic that I am, it’s saying something to say that I’m losing my tree.  Honey Bun has been wanting to get rid that tree for years- but he’s a rationalist/worrywart.  I’m a tree-lover, shell-collector, sunset-admirer.  To lose my tree is to lose something substantial.

I imagine this space without it.  The orange glow of the streetlamps seem all the more intrusive.  The blinking light on the corner, now yellow, now red, all the more irksome.  Three ramshackle houses on three separate corners, tired and worn, now ever more a blight from my window.  And I tell Honey Bun we need to move, I’ll no longer have my tree.

He rolls his eyes at my drama and calls a smattering of tree-killers, insurance providers, and the list of manly, adventurous friends he has who may be looking for their next Everest in the cutting down of my tree.  I can just see their congratulatory barbeque in my backyard, celebrating their conquest once it’s gone.

My tree and I, we’ve not much time.

Even now I feel the tears burning.  The open, crumbling mouth of that hole taunts me, laughs, as if my one ally has now switched allegiances.

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You think I’m crazy, I know you do.  It’s only a tree, you say, Trees don’t have feelings and they certainly don’t choose sides, and anyway, there are far more complicated, heart-ripping, back-breaking burdens to bear than the death of a tree.

Yet here I am, mourning a sugar maple.

But, sometimes a tree means more than a tree.IMG_1110

It’s that tree that provides an ounce of shade on an otherwise sun-beaten home.  It’s the bud of spring, the rustle of leaves, the pile of rusty autumn decay that might as well be bottled up into a perfume to wear for as much as I love it.

It’s the one stately thing that’s lived long and hard on a lot that’s been bulldozed and built upon with concrete and the antiseptic wood of a lumber store.

I can’t plant another, for many reasons.  No tree will grow to its height, its maturity in the small amount of time we have left here.  Not to mention, on all .73 of an acre, there’s not one space in the whole lot that’s not been claimed by some mile of pipe, tank, or well that cannot be tampered with by the meddling roots of an aging tree.

To take away my tree is to take away time, and beauty.

There’s a passage in Mark that speaks of a tree, a dead tree, cursed, by Jesus himself.  The words that spoke it into being at the beginning of time, now cursing it, withering it, putting the last nail in its coffin…

for a fig tree that bears no figs is no fig tree at all- it’s a farce.

But sometimes a tree means more than a tree.  In the next few verses, Jesus leaves that cursed tree for another.  He goes to Jerusalem, to the temple, where he finds it “a den of robbers” instead of a “house of prayer for all nations.”  He tears the temple apart, overturning tables, scattering the merchandise.  Not in words this time, but in action, he curses this once fruitful temple.IMG_1134

Long before that day, it was written in Jeremiah 17:5, 7-8,

This is what the Lord says:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”

Yes, sometimes a tree is more than a tree.

Am I like that Pharisaical tree, all green and leafy, exhibiting a measure of life, but offering no fruit to the passerby?  I wonder.

In any case, I’d rather be the tree by the stream.  I’d rather be alive.

My tree, which depends on the sun, the rain, good soil, and the absence of life-devouring pestilence, doesn’t in and of itself have what it takes to live.  It’s entirely dependent, whether it likes it or not.  And as it’s dependent, it gives life, fruit: that robin’s nest high up in its branches, the sweet sap stored in its trunk.

In a dying tree those branches fall, the sap dries up, its bark slips off as easily as the peel of a banana, and its pockmarked  trunk crumbles to dust.  It’s no longer fruitful.  Eventually all the beauty is stripped away.  And if something is not done about that tree, not only will it not be life-giving, it may even be life-taking.

It must come down.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). 

It was Jesus talking.  To the Pharisees.  They never got it, and Jesus went on to curse their exorbitantly-priced yet cheap religion at the temple later on.

He came for life.  Full life.

And my perfect, story-telling God brought it, in death.  His death.  Death for life.

Sometimes, it’s in the dying that we truly live.  When we die to religiosity and live in His freedom; when we die to worry and live in peace; when we cut down the mighty forests we’ve planted in the soil of our own abilities, weak strengths, and limited wisdom- it’s only then that we’re able to plant, grow, flourish in that full life He paid such a price for.

Whether I cling to the last branch of a dying tree or not, one thing is certain:  dying trees eventually come down.  There’s grace in that.  He’ll never let us hang on to a crumbling stick forever.  He allows those trees to wizen under our fingers so that when our tree has finally fallen, we have hands free to grasp onto the only Tree worth clinging to: the Cross.

Sometimes a Tree is more than a tree.IMG_1131

Basement of Horrors

It’s that time of year.  The basement is busting at the seams with toppling furniture, stuffed storage bins, and ephemera of every sort.  The snow has finally melted beyond the basement door and the almost-dry grass beckons for its yearly spread of broken toys, mismatched dishes, and too-small articles of clothing.  The time is ripe for spring cleaning, as am I.

NE yard sale

For months- and let’s be honest, years- I’ve groaned at the sight of this basement of horrors.  My husband ever more.  I hate the clutter, the mess, the overabundance of stuff, and yet it lingers- with a fine caking of dust.

I have excuses galore:

It runs in the family.

It’s called “being frugal.”

You just never know when you might need another whatsit or dinglehopper.

I’d like to think they’re pretty good excuses.  It does run in the family- but we like to call ourselves “pack-rats” rather than that other term that has television shows dedicated to such “disease.” And I freely admit that I’m cheap: never met a clearance section I didn’t like; love me some thrift stores.  Life with three kids on a teacher’s salary necessitates such frugality and there’s wisdom in thrift.  If it ain’t broken, ripped, stained, or otherwise obliterated, you can bet the next kid will be wearing it in a year.

So why do I feel so heavy laden?  Why does it feel such a burdensome load to hold onto?

It hit me this morning as I was reading in Judges, one of my favorite stories: the story of Gideon.  God comes to him, pronouncing him a “mighty warrior.”  Gideon, so quick to correct,  argues that his clan “is the weakest,” and “I am the least in my family” (Jud. 6:15).  I like this Gideon, he’s relatable.

Gideon again and again asks for a sign, then another, and still another- to make certain, of course, that God is truly with him.  Back and forth the two of them go, this timid, mighty warrior and the God of the universe.

And that’s when I heard myself in Gideon’s questioning.

Are you sure you said…?

Did you really mean…?

But what about…?

In a story about a battle between Gideon’s whittled-down army of 300 men and a legion of fierce fighters, I find my battle of the basement.

Are you sure You said You’d take care of us?

Did You really mean we’d lack nothing?

But I’m a pack-rat.  But I’m just being frugal.  But I’d like to be sure that next year we won’t be in dire financial straights, thank-you-very-much, and can I have a side of total control to go with that?

This sickness over the cellar isn’t about the mess.

It’s about the control issue.

If I can have more, make more, save more, then there’s little I need to depend on Him for.  Nevermind that He’s always given far beyond what we’ve ever needed.  Nevermind that He’s promised to provide as we honor Him with our tithes and gifts.  Nevermind that He commands me not to worry.

This angst over my arsenal isn’t about me taking care of my family and the worry that ensues.

It’s about my lack of trust.

For every stained baby bib (because you never know), copy of Lord Jim Cliff Notes (what if I do decide to teach?), and yet another fondue pot that I keep (you can never have too many), I’m telling Him, “I don’t trust you.”

“I don’t trust that tomorrow You’ll provide if I find myself in need.”

“Trust Me.”

“I don’t believe You when You say,

‘So I tell you, don’t worry about the food or drink you need to live, or about the clothes you need for your body. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothes. Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, but your heavenly Father feeds them. And you know that you are worth much more than the birds. You cannot add any time to your life by worrying about it.

‘And why do you worry about clothes? Look at how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that even Solomon with his riches was not dressed as beautifully as one of these flowers. God clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today but tomorrow is thrown into the fire. So you can be even more sure that God will clothe you. Don’t have so little faith! Don’t worry and say, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well. So don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’  (Matthew 6:25-34)”

“Believe Me.”

“You may lead Gideon and his 300 men into victory against an enemy encamped “as thick as locusts” in the valley, but surely, You can’t take care of me.”

“Watch Me.”

We go back and forth, Him and I, me being Gideon, Him being His ever-patient, loving Self.  I sense His smile, the twinkle in His eye.  He’s just waiting to be taken at His Word.  And I’m like a child, dangling from a tree branch, unsure of whether or not her Daddy will catch her.

His arms are spread wide.

I close my eyes, grit my teeth, and jump.

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The Race Well Run

What is it about marathons? Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few friends who adhere to this particular form of torture. For some, I’d swear it was their job to run these races for as much as I see their posts and pictures of them. For others, it starts out as hobby and then morphs into a sort of drug; they dabble in their 5Ks and 10Ks until they work their way up to the hard stuff, the stuff of Iron Men and marathon runners, always looking for the next high, that sense of accomplishment, that race well run.

Go

I’m no runner, never will be. My lungs won’t hack it. There was a brief stint with long-distance track in high school (I did poorly and there was a lot of phlegm involved) but other than that, I’ve tried to stay as far away from the sport as possible.

I admit I don’t understand these people- runners, I mean. I will also admit that there has been some inward rolling of the eyes as I’ve been caught between conversations that delve into no greater depth than the topics of carbo-loading and chafing.

The tipping point, I think, was one particular conversation about the incontinence of the bowels whilst running. My reaction was along the lines of, “Hold on, wait, what? Did you just say they poop their pants?!!”

From then on I sat in smug judgment. If one is willing to debase oneself to such an extent for the sake of some addictive high, be my guest- but I reserve the right to think you drank the crazy-juice.

You runners- I confess, I’ve judged you. Maybe a part of me always will; it’s hard to get over the pooping thing.

But something changed this morning.

I was listening to more of the on-going coverage of the bombing in Boston. Being somewhat of a news junkie, I’ve listened to a lot of it. Much is the same- the horror, consternation, speculation, and the cold, hard reality of it all.

It was an interview with the photographer who had taken some of the most memorable shots of the day. He’d been there; he’d covered the Boston Marathon for years as a photographer for the Boston Globe. His voice was a little far away, days later still taking in the bloody mess and muddle of what he’d seen. He was commenting on the man we can get out of our minds- the wiry, distinguished-looking man who stumbled, fell, and then sat there in what? Was it shock; confusion; pain; was it terror, his race savagely interrupted so close to the finish? We all felt a little like him, which is why we embrace him. We too were stunned and paralyzed.

After the chaos of that first day, the photographer had gotten a chance to talk to this runner, a man by the name of Bill Iffrig. They were meeting up that afternoon- fellow eyewitnesses, fellow survivors. The reporter badgered the photographer for details, as reporters do, and this photographer, this man who sees life through a different lens, said this about Bill Iffrig,

“He crossed the finish line.”

It caught my breath- this metaphor, so often used for life, and death, so cruel, yet so fitting, ironically so.

Bill Iffrig, the fallen runner, did not cross his metaphorical finish line of course.

But Martin Richard did.

Krystle Campbell did.

Lingzi Lu did.

Sean Collier did.

And with those five words, I understood these runners.

I see Him, this life, my journey, through –among other things- words, imagery, and yes, metaphors. John Tlumacki, the photographer, he sees it all through the lens of a camera as he tries to capture it before it slips through his fingers into the forgotten, unaccounted-for pages of history. Bill Iffrig, he sees this life through the race, the pounding of feet, the burning of lungs, the cramping of muscle; he sees it in the endurance, the finish line.

Solomon saw it in words and metaphors, as I do:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom…The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:10-11

And I’ve long thought Paul did too; he was after all the one that coined the metaphor.  But something tells me that it was more than just words for Paul. Since Paul’s conversion on a road to Damascus, he never really left the road. He was a traveling man- always passing from one town to the next, always running from imprisonment and torture, and toward the lost souls of this world and God’s beckoning call. If anyone’s life or living was a marathon, Paul’s was, and he sprinted to the finish with every last breath he had.

Words. Photographs. Marathons. They are small glimpses into the wonder and pain of this life and expose the inner longing for something more- that promise beyond.

Poets, having word-painted the perfect setting, or crafted a piece of dialogue or a soul-stirring ending as strong as a punch in the gut, feel instinctively this calling from outside themselves.

Photographs are visual proof of the best and worst this life has to offer. Their horror and beauty- transcendent.

The sight of small Kim Phac running naked with skin afire with napalm, is to hate war and the injustice of this life.

The Terror of War

The image of one unknown man standing up to a line of four iron tanks in Tiananmen Square, is to marvel at the tenacity and bravery of the human spirit.

Tiananmen Square Tanks Protest

Images sent from the Hubble telescope nag us, reminding us that this world is but a speck. We are small, we see only what is in front of our eyes…but there’s more.

Close Encounter with the Tarantula

And Bill Iffrig and his fellow marathon runners remind us that there is an end to the race, a finish line, and none of us escapes it.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdm/366676021/

Describing the moment before Bill crossed, John Tlumacki said, “…he had his eyes set on the finish line…” Will we cross the finish victoriously with our eyes set ahead or will we be pushed across by time and chance, never realizing we were in a race to be won? Will we say like Paul did in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

I get these runners now. For them, to run is their metaphor for life. It is to say as Eric Liddell did in the film Chariots of Fire, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

Runners hope to finish their race well. They hope for victory. The race is fraught with pains, aches, chafing, and yes, it may be messy, but the finish line waits, it calls, and we’ll end there no matter what…

So let’s run.

She Runs and Shine

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me- the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
-Paul (Acts 20:22-24)

Graham Crackers and God Wonder

IMG_0266The Strawberry Shortcake and I, we sit on the small side step- her with a plate of carefully divided graham crackers and a glass of milk, me with another form of food: the bread of words.  We enjoy each others company over our little meal.  She dips her crackers and gobbles them down, and I digest thoughts, metaphors.

The Christmas tree twinkles from the window as the low winter sun, pale and white, shines dully, but shines yet, on our upturned faces.  Strawberry drinks her milk and we both drink in the sunshine on this, the last warm day of the year.  67 degrees in December, in New York- a bit of magic for all of us northerly inhabitants.  One last kiss of warmth before we hunker down for the months of layered snowflakes measured in feet, pointy icicles, bone-chilling cold.  We take this warm day for what it is -a gift- and we soak up every last bit of it, a little like Strawberry’s milk-laden graham crackers.

She’s dunking and I’m previewing a bit of an as-yet-unreleased book by one of my favorite authors, Margaret Feinberg.  It comes out on Christmas, a detail I’m sure was not overlooked, and one that seems appropriate given that her books are like gift-wrapped presents, crisply folded, beautifully decorated, and  ready to be unpacked of their goods.  They should come supplied with ribbons and bows, I think.

Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck (Photo credit: jesstjohnson)

I was sent these few chapters of Wonderstruck weeks ago, yet took until now to pick them up.  Truth is, I’ve been avoiding them- I haven’t felt so “wonderstruck” lately.

Normally it doesn’t take much.  A warm, grassy breeze might send me into hallelujahs; the colors of fall- the rusty reds and burnt oranges, the deep purple of the mums that sit, fat and proud, outside my door- bring whispers of thanks.  The sunshine, a sunset drunk with pastels- both have caused me to lift my hands to the sky, to the Master Artist, in praise.  And that mysterious yellow field of flowers that’s set afire every spring on a hillside near our home never fails to cause me to gasp and wonder, certain it must be seen from space- a strange yellow dot on a green continent expanse.

And these are just His handiwork.  They speak nothing of the wonder-full ways in which He inserts Himself into my story through even the most mundane of circumstances that play out each day, or the way that His Word never fails to cut straight to the bone, slicing into the raw marrow of life, bringing not pain, but healing.  It’s all wonder.

But lately, I’ve felt underwhelmed, under-struck.  Not because He’s underwhelming, but because life has seemed overwhelming, heavy.  For weeks now I’ve steeped myself in a cup brimming with headlines and deadlines.  The newspaper’s always good for a good gut-twisting, and for as many things as I’ve “liked” on my Facebook page, most, I realize, are not the tickled little pictures of fuzzy kittens pages, but the heart-breaking headlines of a world so desperate for a Savior that they look to this, that, and the next crazy thing to fill the emptiness, embracing it heartily though it’s not only void of lasting goodness, but often logic as well.

Then there’s the busyness, the absence of quiet. For every one thing I check off a list, I add two in its place.  A deadline looms- a deadline that has the potential to change the entire course of my life. (No pressure there).  Christmas creeps up the calendar; the shopping list expands.

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I’ve spent time with Him- I have- but it’s the rushed variety.  The kind that sits a bit, reads from a couple devotionals, scans a quick few chapters, and then scoots to the next thing on the list.  There’s no time for listening, being.  I’m busy, doing.

In all the doing I haven’t found the quiet place of thankfulness and silent awe -of wonder- in a little while now, and my soul feels its absence.  More troubling, I haven’t heard His still voice breaking through the words on the page and breathing life into my spirit, telling me which way to go; to take courage; or simply washing me in the reassuring love of a Father.  And so I’ve felt less than wonderstruck.  I’ve felt heavy and burdened; I’m one of those who’ve “misplaced the marvel of a life lived with God.”

So I sit, with my red and gold-headed girl, and unconsciously try to find where I lost it.  It’s only an introduction and two chapters- hardly a taste.  But as I read, wiping sandy crumbs from a Strawberry’s mouth and  laughing at the sun-kissed milk mustache that clings to the baby hairs of her lip, I find.

I find His beauty as I walk the emerald stretch of forest in the Scottish Highlands with Margaret and her cadre of fellow sojourners.  IMG_0289I find His omnipresence, His uncanny providence, in the seemingly little things that turn into divine appointments, like their starting of this Highland trip with a bit of Scripture in Genesis and meditating on it, through woods and over rocks, and then, on the last day, finding His “pixie dust:” these very words etched on the walls of an off-beaten French restaurant in Edinburgh, and then again, carved into the doors of an old library just outside (because He works that way- doubly, triply, astounding us).

I find Him as Margaret recounts the time He told her what would seem like a silly bit of nonsense, and had she not been quiet enough to listen and obey, she would have missed it.  And I laugh, because how often does He speak to me in such ways, in ways that destroy the wisdom of the wise and frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent, as He says in 1 Corinthians, or in ways that turn a Pharisaic heart like mine inside out, proving time and time again that “…the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:25)- the nonsense of virgins giving birth and Saviors strapping on human flesh, of two widow’s coins being greater than a treasure trove, or of fearful, fallible fisherman going out and changing the world.

I find Him, because He’s waiting to be found, if only I be still and wait.

If only I put aside the lists, and listen.

If only I open my ears, my eyes, my heart, and look- for wonder.

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“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you…”

Jeremiah 29:11-14