Today I'm posting at Fulfilling Your Vows,
a new website designed to encourage and support couples in their marriages. This month's topic is faithfulness, and just like me, I decided to take a less than conventional approach. My advice about how to pursue faithfulness in marriage? "Be true to yourself." Here's a selection:One of the saddest parts of the drama is watching as a spouse walks away, truly believing that the only way they will ever be happy is if they free themselves from the duties and responsibilities of this marriage. They believe that in freeing themselves, they will finally find themselves.
So here’s a piece of unconventional advice: in order to remain faithful to your spouse, in order to remain faithful to your marriage vows, you must be true to yourself.
You must not be faithful out of duty or obligation or martyrdom. You must not work on your marriage just for the sake of working on your marriage. You must not follow a three-point plan or adopt a “just do it” attitude. In order to be faithful, in order to be happy, you must be authentic to yourself.
But–-pay attention-–not your superficial self.
You must be true to your deeper self–-the real you–-the you that is made in the image of God and has been restored and redeemed in Christ. You must be authentic to your core identity and the core values that flow out of this identity–-values of truth and sacrifice and thankfulness and love.
You can read the rest here:
This past week, news broke that a Mississippi pediatrician has found a “functional cure” for AIDS. When I first saw it in my Twitter feed late one night, I wasn't sure what to think.
My generation has never known a world without AIDS. The first officially recognized case in the United States occurred in 1980, and it has been a growing part of our consciousness ever since. I remember learning about it at 10 when I watched a made-for-TV movie about Ryan White
, a young teenager who eventually died after he contracted it through a blood transfusion.
But because it is a sexually transmitted disease, AIDS has also been a highly controversial one. For a long time—and even today—those infected with the virus were stigmatized and misunderstood. After all, AIDS is God’s judgment against drug use and sexual promiscuity, right?
A judgment that has often fallen on the heads of millions of innocent victims worldwide.
Because of this, no other health concern has marked my generation like the AIDS epidemic. When we think of AIDS, we don’t associate it with promiscuity alone; instead, we associate it with the 16 million orphans who have lost parents because of it; we associate it with the millions of women who have unknowingly contracted it from faithless husbands; we associate it with the current 34 million cases—of which 3.5 million of are children. We associate it with the 2 million people who will die this year alone. In response, we host benefits to raise both funds and awareness. We wear red ribbons on the first of December, and we buy coffee
in the hope that a few extra cents might just turn the tide.
So last week, when I read that Dr. Hannah Gay of the University of Mississippi Medical Center had successfully treated an infant known to have been born with HIV, I could help but think, “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”
And yet, as the details emerged, it got even better. For me, at least, the most surprising part of the story isn’t that someone may have finally found a cure for AIDS, it’s how it happened. For me, the significant thing is the story behind the story
—a story that only a generation steeped in irony can truly appreciate.
The funny thing about us Millennials is that despite hearts of largess toward the less fortunate, despite our desire to see peace and justice reign in society, despite our commitment to find a cure for AIDS, we are also some of the first to draw up battle lines and construct paradigms. And the wonderful thing about Dr. Hannah Gay is that she doesn’t fit any of them. The wonderful thing is that God used a person that none of us would expect in order to find the cure that we all were looking for.
We thought that the cure would come from the halls of academia, from a research scientist who finally conceived and executed the perfect experiment in the perfect petri dish. In God’s wisdom, it came from a pediatrician loving her patients well and having the guts to try something out of the ordinary.
We thought that the cure would come from the places where we had invested vast amounts of money, places of prestige and knowledge, somewhere like New York or Washington D.C. In God’s wisdom, it came from Mississippi, the state with the lowest math and science scores in the nation.
We thought that the cure couldn’t come from a person of religious values because we all know that those
kind of people are close-minded, judgmental, and don’t care for the less fortunate. In God’s wisdom, it came through the hands of a woman motivated by her faith—a conservative faith that propelled her to teach children to memorize Scripture, be an overseas missionary, and attend a church that unabashedly proclaims that Christ is the way to God.
We thought that the cure would come from someone who would dedicate themselves exclusively to their career--who if she were a woman, would have (as statistics predict
) no more than 1.67 children. In God’s wisdom, it came through the hands of a woman who is the mother of four.
And some of us thought that the cure couldn’t possible come from a mother because being a mother meant never working outside the home. In God’s wisdom, it came through the hands of working mother who worked to save the life of a child who wasn’t even her own.
The irony of Hannah Gay is that she didn’t feel compelled to leave the church to work for the good of society. The irony of Hannah Gay is that she didn’t leave her work to focus exclusively on her children. The irony of Hannah Gay is that she didn’t abandon motherhood to pursue her career. The irony of Hannah Gay is that she didn’t care about the spotlight and was simply faithful to what God had called her to do.
As human beings, we tend to live in categories, to compartmentalize ourselves, to line up behind ideologies and lob invectives against anyone who doesn’t fit our paradigm. But it is just like God to come along and knock them all down.
He slashes through our presuppositions; He destroys our established notions; He brings to nothing the wisdom of the world.
Of course, there is still a long road ahead as other men and women build on this breakthrough. It will require long hours in the laboratory; it will require more funding. As Dr. Gay said of her work recently, ‘It may take a long time, but I hope it will point us in the right direction to come up with a cure we can consistently apply to other babies worldwide."
But for this moment, while the world is basking in the hope that we might just beat this terrible disease after all, I want to bask in the wisdom of a God who uses the foolishness of men to praise Him
. I want to bask in the power of a God who works outside established paradigms. And I want to bask in the good nature of a God who might just be more ironic than the hippest hipster among us.
To see it on the calendar, this week appears all innocence and grace. Seven days lined up in a row, neatly strung together by mornings and evenings, full of expectation and promise. Little did I realize that it was a malevolent beast waiting to pounce and wreak havoc on my simple, easy life.
Not that I was completely unaware. I knew this week was going to be busy with organizing and executing a church dinner. I expected trips to Sam’s Club and late nights of baking and centerpieces. What I did not expect were missed writing deadlines, late nights of pastoral care, and the ache of being far from family when I most needed to be close. And what I certainly did not expect was my husband's having to conduct a funeral for a mother whose children will grow up without her. Children the same ages as ours.
How deceptively simple that calendar looked last week. How benign.
On weeks like these, it’s easy to fall back on truisms--“You never know what the future holds” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” and “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”—all in some half-hearted attempt to make sense of the chaos swirling around us. But I want to tell you that they are all lies. Dreadful, terrible, sugar-coated lies.
Because while I didn’t know that the future held, God did. And He let it come anyway. And I’m not so sure that grace means that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. In fact, I’m pretty sure that God does routinely give us more than we can handle; and I’m pretty sure that, more often than not, it does break us--if not physically from the sheer exhaustion of living, then emotionally from the sheer exhaustion of feeling.
So that on weeks like these, you find yourself longing for a better place and a better time. You find yourself longing for Home and Him. And I wonder if that wasn’t what He had in mind all along. In giving us more than we can handle, He forces us to turn to Him. In allowing things that break us, He ensures that only He can bind us back together. In our weakness, we find His strength. In our brokenness, we find His healing. And in our dying, we find His resurrection.
I’m beginning to believe that this is where faith starts. Faith starts at the tomb, not at the manger; faith starts with the dying, not with the living; and faith starts with seeds falling into the ground
, not with the final fruit. So that for all the joy, all the beauty, all the wonder that this life holds, it is the pain that makes space for faith. The pain makes space for us to long for something better; the pain makes space for us to cry out for something greater. And we find that something—we find Him--not by avoiding the grave but by walking right through it.
I can’t predict that next week will be any less chaotic or that all the brokenness will suddenly disappear with the turn of the calendar. Time does not heal all wounds. But I have hope in Someone who does. It's a hope that doesn’t always see and a hope that doesn’t always understand, but it is a hope that is real and beautiful and life-giving. And it is a hope that ultimately rests, not in my ability to endure the pain, but in His power to bring me back to life when I cannot.
Every year, an ironic thing happens during the third week of January. During this third week of January, Sanctity of Human Life Sunday immediately precedes Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The day dedicated to the Right to Life Movement that was formed in response to Roe vs. Wade falls one day before the day dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement that was formed in response to countless similarly unjust rulings. And every year, these first two days of the third week of January pack an emotional punch.
Because even as we are celebrating the self-evident truth that all men are created equal; even as we continue to dream the dream that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers;” we also mourn the fact that many of those little children never even had the chance to live. And to make it all the more poignant, this year, these two days—Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day—happened in coordination with the inauguration of the first black President… who just also happens to be staunchly pro-abortion.
It’s been a very confusing week.
And like many of you, I find myself trying to parent through it all. Because as much as I’d like, I cannot shield my children from the world they live in. Within a matter of day, they have been confronted with our history of slavery; they’ve learned about the racism that up until fifty years ago was institutionalized in our governments, schools, and churches; and they’ve heard about a society that allows women to kill their unborn children. (And just to round things out, we also had a conversation about the restaurant Hooters this week too.)
This past Sunday as we celebrated the sanctity of human life, I finally began to fit the pieces together. Our history of racism, our present struggle against abortion. And I began to wonder if it wasn’t time that we needed to recognize that we
created this. As much as we like to believe that abortion is simply the fallout of the sexual revolution, as much as we like to blame radical feminists, it’s not that simple. Because when--for over two hundred years--we chose to see minorities as less than human, we created a culture that would one day allow us to view our own children the same way. When we refused to see the image of God in our African-American brothers and sisters, we lost the ability to see the image of God in our unborn sons and daughters.
We have sown the wind and we are now reaping the whirlwind.
When we speak about the sanctity of human life, we must remember that we are not simply speaking about abortion. We are not simply speaking about euthanasia. Honoring the sanctity of human life means embracing God’s image bearers where ever they may be and whatever they may look like. True sanctity of human life means understanding that all human life--every man, every woman, every boy, every girl—is precious to God and should also be precious to us.
So that when we take a stand for the sanctity of human life, we are also taking a stand against all racism, all sexism, all elitism, all sectarianism—any ideology, any prejudice that would say that another human being is somehow inferior or somehow unworthy of our love, somehow unworthy of Christ’s love. When we celebrate the sanctity of human life, we are saying that because of Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female."
There is no born or unborn.
The work of fighting abortion doesn’t begin with legislation. It doesn’t begin with marches or protests, and it doesn’t even begin with crisis pregnancy centers. The fight to sanctify human life begins in our own hearts; it begins as we root out the vestiges of pride and hatred and selfishness. It begins as we accept the fact that young minority women (who are disproportionately affected by abortion) will be hesitant to trust us when we offer them alternatives to abortion because for the last two centuries we have judged them simply by the color of their skin. It begins when we recognize that our own daughters chose abortion because they didn’t believe they could come to us without feeling this same weight of judgment.
The fight to end abortion must begin with grace. The grace to believe that all of us are made in God’s likeness. The grace to believe that none of us have any righteousness apart from Him. And the grace to believe that no matter what we have done—whether our sin is racism or promiscuity—that the power of Christ is great enough and the love of Christ is strong enough to reconcile each of us to Himself and to each other.
Recently, I shared
with you that I’ve been given the opportunity to write a book. I’ll be doing this over the next several months and engaging in a period that I’ve heard authors refer to as a sort of pregnancy—the time when your ideas are privately taking shape, growing unseen, and are eventually birthed to a waiting world. So I suppose, taking this perspective and given the length of the gestation period (the book’s due to release in spring 2014), it looks like I’m expecting a baby elephant.
I also shared with you my firm conviction that the dreams that we hold dearest are often the very ones that God intends to use, that they are in our hearts precisely because He
placed them there. I realize that this could have come across as overly simplistic--that it could have sounded a little too “Pollyanna/Mary Poppins/Climb every mountain”-ish—especially to those of you who are struggling through a low point right now. And yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the path of dreaming “never did run smooth.”
There are days when things are not working out as you planned, when you feel less than enthusiastic about the dreams stirring inside of you, when you want to pitch the whole thing and walk away. There are days when all you want is to escape your calling, and to do so, you wish that you could become someone else entirely.
There are days when you feel like Jeremiah.
The opening chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a beautiful text that confirms that God sovereignly plans and ordains our callings. When God comes to Jeremiah, He assures him of that, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (ESV)
And yet, twenty chapters later, Jeremiah curses the day he was born. The very thing that gave him comfort at the beginning of his ministry was the very thing that he wishes had never happened.
Jeremiah feels like God has tricked him—that by making him the way He did, by appointing him a prophet from birth and placing that “burning fire” deep inside of him, He has doomed him to a life of misery. So that as much as Jeremiah wants to escape his calling, for all the trouble that it has caused him, he simply can’t because God had made him that way. The very thing he is resisting is the very thing that he can’t stop doing.
He calls it a “burning fire shut up in [his] bones.”
When I was in college, I attended a church whose pastor routinely gave this piece of advice to anyone considering vocational ministry: “Only do it if you can’t do anything else.” He wasn’t denigrating the value of ministry so much as emphasizing that ministry (like any other calling) is fraught with hardship, discouragement, and heartbreak. And in those moments, the only thing that will keep you going is the sure knowledge that God has made you for this—that there is nothing else you can do because you have that “burning fire shut up in your bones.” It is so much a part of you that it is knit it into the very fabric of your being.
And if it is, there will be plenty of times that you will find yourself precisely in Jeremiah’s position—both hating the struggle and knowing that you can’t escape it because God Himself formed you this way. There will be plenty of times when it feels like a burden, times when you want to walk away, times when you will shake your fist at Him and say, “I didn’t ask for this. Why have you made me like this?”
For me, the “burning fire” has been a combination of being analytic and outspoken. It is both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. It is the very thing that drives me to write, but it is also the very thing that leads me to be overly critical, noisy, and self-righteous. And I’ve hated myself for it. I’ve always wanted to be the quiet, demure one—the girl at the party whose very presence lends an air of sophistication and elegance–and yet, I always end up being the girl animatedly arguing some political or theological point. I inevitably wake up the next morning with a mental hangover and mountains of regret. “Why did I have to do that? Why couldn’t I have just kept my mouth shut?”
Ultimately though, it’s not about keeping my mouth shut. And it isn’t about achieving some mystical balance between the extremes of not caring and caring too much. Instead, it’s about finding a way forward, about transcending that type of one-dimensional thinking, so that you can pursue a greater reality--the reality that despite your frustration with yourself and despite your disappointed dreams, you know that God has “made you thus”
for a reason. You know that He is shepherding and guiding you, that His Spirit is actively maturing you, and that even in the darkest valley, He is walking beside you and will bring you back into the light.
And this is requires faith. Not faith in your dreams or yourself, but faith in His providence and faith in His goodness. This requires believing that He has made you fearfully and wonderfully
, that He did knit you together in your mother’s womb to fulfill a specific purpose, and that everything about you–even your dreams--are ultimately from His hand. So that in your darkest moments, this faith will manifest itself in obedience; an obedience that some days will simply mean putting one foot in front of the other and continuing down the path that He Himself has laid for you.
Every year during the first few days of January, my husband and I have a meeting in which we attempt to set goals for the coming year. I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions
, never been one to go in for all that guilt and self-reliance. (Truth be told, it’s probably because I know that I could never accomplish them. In my case, it wouldn’t be so much a question of self-control as general absentmindedness—I’d simply wake up one morning and forget about my resolution entirely.) But while I’m not one to make resolutions, I am one to dream. So that’s what we do—this husband of eleven years and me—we sit and dream and plan and reach for the stars on cold January evenings well after our children are tucked in bed.
Several weeks ago, I stumbled across a yellow legal pad that has been at the center of those meetings. On it, we’ve chronicled our goals for the past eleven years. On it, we’ve strategized and organized and neatly categorized them into 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans. Some have been eerily prophetic; others, hilariously naïve. Our first year's goals included eventually owning “forty acres of land” (because as my father-in-law says, “They’re not making any more of it.”) and having “a couple kids.” Today, we own ½ acre and don’t “have
kids” but we are
a family that includes three marvelously creative and unique individuals, none of whom I could have imagined ten years ago.
Looking over that legal pad reminded me of two things---
1) how foolish we are to think we can plan our own paths
2) how kind and wise God is to give us dreams that He wants to fulfill
I grew up in a church tradition that, while perhaps unintentionally, was often suspicious of personal dreams and ambition. We had just two choices on the shelf, after all—pleasing God or pleasing self. And while I don’t really believe it was intended to be that simplistic, to an impressionable teenager, this often presented itself as the need to choose between doing what God wanted and doing what I loved. What no one seemed to clarify was that a life well-lived would undoubtedly involve both.
My parents believed in dreams though. And they believed in Providence--the kind of Providence that made each of their five children unique and would ultimately lead each to very different callings from finance to design to music. They never pressed the false dichotomy that I felt but instead taught us that all of life was to be lived with joy and faith, all of life was to be lived for His glory regardless of what we ended up doing. Still I don’t think it really sunk in for me until adulthood. I remember privately agonizing through high school, desperate to prove to God and myself that I would follow “His will” if only He would reveal it to me. All the while never realizing that He already had and I already was.
In fact, as I look back, I realize that I was doing His will every time I followed in obedience, every time I loved another person, every time I longed to see His glory. I also realize that I was doing His will every time I sat down to write, every time I read and reread books that stretched my thinking, every time I reveled in and pursued the dreams that He had already placed inside of me.
Eighteen months ago, I began blogging
, in part to finally prove or disprove this theory. I wanted to fully commit myself to a dream in order to see what He would do with it. I guess, in a way, I wanted to put my big toe in the Jordan to see if the waters would part. To that point, I had been writing bits and pieces but only as a hobby. I think it was my way of not having to commit, a way of inoculating myself from disappointment. What if my dreams weren’t God’s dreams for me? What if I failed?
I would just play it safe; and while that meant that I may never know what God could have done, I would also never have to face the possibility of seeing my dreams crushed.
But I soon found that I couldn’t play it safe. Every article I wrote and every query I sent flamed the passion that was burning inside of me.
And slowly I realized that God Himself was the one nurturing and cultivating my dreams. He faithfully sent the right people to encourage me and faithfully sent the right rejections to keep me in my place; until one day, He finally gave me the courage to accept that as much as I loved writing, He loved me writing as well.
Back to the yellow legal pad. One of those silly goals that my husband and I wrote down over ten years ago was that I would write a book. Shortly before Christmas, in large part due to blogging, I signed a contract with Moody Publishers
to write that book. I signed a contract that will enable me to do what I love at the same time that it will serve His people on a broader scale. I signed a contract that will enable my thoughts to be embodied in paper and ink and type and give me a chance to truly earn the appellation of “writer.”
I am humbled. I am grateful. I am scared. And I have never before so strongly believed in Providence.
The next several months of writing will probably be similar to the last several years—I expect to wrestle through fears, doubt, and discouragement, to swing from heights of elation to depths of despair. And while I have plenty more that I want to share about this unbelievable opportunity, at this point, I just want to sit in awe. To publicly acknowledge the kindness and wisdom of God and to remind myself that the God who gives dreams doesn’t abandon His children in the middle of them.
Each of us has different dreams; and each of our yellow legal pads should have different goals on them because He was made us distinct. Writing may not be your passion, but it is essential that you pursue whatever is. It is essential that you surrender not only to what you love but to the fact that God wants to use what you love for His kingdom. It may not end up being your profession, but it will be your calling. It will be something that only you can do--something that only you can contribute.
So this year--in this brave new world of 2013--find what you love to do, surrender to His hand, and know that a kind, sovereign God put those dreams inside of you in the first place. And because He has, this same kind, sovereign God will, in His own way and in His own time, bring them to pass. Not simply for your joy, but for the joy of His people, and I’m convinced, for His own joy—for His own secret delight in watching His sons and daughters become all that He has created them to be.
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(Hungarian National Gallery)
On Monday, Britain’s Royal Family announced that Prince William and his Princess Kate are expecting their first child. Apparently the announcement
came sooner than planned because Kate had to be hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion–simply put, she is in the throes of severe morning sickness and is puking her guts out. And suddenly we realize that all it takes to shatter the illusion of a fairy tale life is a bit of hyperemesis gravidarum
Ironically enough, the royal announcement came on the first Monday of Advent
, the season of the Christian calendar that marks a time of preparation for the coming Christ Child. Traditionally Advent is spent (much like Lent) in quiet reflection, fasting, penitence, and longing for not only Christ’s birth but for his return to earth. We know folks who strictly observe these weeks—meaning no sweets, no parties, no early Christmas presents… until Christmas Day when all heaven breaks lose. Feasting in abundance and presents every day for the next twelve days (yes, those twelve days of Christmas
) until everything culminates in the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
But this level of devotion is rare, and Advent is usually reduced to simply a time of busyness and holiday preparation--a seasonal nesting syndrome if you will. Still, even in secular society, there are remnants of the expectation and longing. There are still the Advent calendars dispensing their tiny bits of chocolate each day and what child can’t help but be filled with anticipation at the promise of coming gifts.
This year, the juxtaposition of these two events—the beginning of Advent and the hospitalization of a princess for morning sickness--once again reminded me of how very earthy, how very real this whole season is. So rather than feeling compelled to create some spiritually serene, mystically enchanted Christmas season, maybe it’s time that we remember the realities of the first Advent. For Mary at least, the weeks prior to Christ’s birth were anything but peaceful or silent. For her, the coming of the Savior was marked by swollen ankles and the longing to be delivered—not only from sin but from the weight of pregnancy itself.
It’s been over three years since my last pregnancy so I dug out my What to Expect When You're Expecting
in order to remember what those weeks prior to Christ’s birth would have been like. They would have included:
>Changes in fetal activity (more squirming and less kicking, as the baby has less room to move around)
>Heartburn, indigestion, bloating
>Occasional headaches, faintness, dizziness,
>Nasal congestion and occasional nosebleeds; ear stuffiness
>Leg cramps at night
>Increased backache and heaviness
>Pelvic discomfort and achiness
>Increased swelling of ankles and feet, and occasionally of hands and face
>Itchy abdomen, protruding navel
>Varicose veins of the legs
>Easier breathing after baby drops
>Increased pressure on bladder after baby drops
>Increased difficulty sleeping
>More frequent and more intense Braxton-Hicks contractions
>Increasing clumsiness and difficult getting around
>Fatigue or nesting syndrome
(Oh yeah and an 80 mile walking trip. And a stable.)
So often during the Christmas season, we’re looking for some kind of transcendent experience; we’re looking for some deep mystical truth; and we become so fixated with finding the wonder that we end up missing the reality. We end up missing the wonder of the reality, we miss the joy of the mundane.
By sanitizing Advent in our minds (and our practices), we miss the beauty that God used a bloated, tired, moody, helpless, pregnant woman to bring His Son to this earth.
And suddenly there's hope for us--especially when you remember that (according to What to Expect
) Mary's emotional state would have included
>More excitement, more anxiety, more apprehension, more absent mindedness
>Relief that you’re almost there
>Irritability and oversensitivity
>Impatience and restlessness
Now we begin to recognize ourselves. Now we see the true emotions of Advent. Because as any woman can tell you, this is exactly what prepping a family for the holidays feels like. The same excitement mixed with anxiety, the same irritability mixed with joy. And yet remarkably, in His wisdom, these may be the very emotions that we need to experience in order to truly desire the coming of the Christ Child.
Because when you find yourself exhausted in the preparation, when all the baking and the buying and the cleaning and the visiting and the wrapping and the decorating suck the last of your energy and you find yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained; when you reach this point—here in your weakness, in your inability, in your desperation, in your limitations, in your longing to be delivered from it all--you’ll finally experience Advent as Mary once did. And here, you will finally understand why we long for Emmanuel to come,
why we long for Him to deliver us, why we need Him to give rest to our weary bodies and our even wearier souls. And maybe it's here, in the longing and the expectation that comes only from human weakness and from having spent our last reserves, that we can truly find meaning in the birth of our Savior.
Every time our family moves, which to date has been eight times in the last eleven years, we run into the same problem. We own too many books. While we easily cull the rest of our accumulated baggage (“Do we really need more than one towel per person?” my husband asks as he packs the linen closet), we have a very hard time separating ourselves from such old friends as Lewis
. This last move, we even jettisoned our kitchen chairs because they wouldn’t fit onto the moving truck despite the fact that over thirty boxes of books had.
Six months later, we’re still sitting on folding chairs at dinner time.
When we arrive in a new area, one of the first things we do is apply for local library cards. Before finding a family doctor, before changing our voter registration, before transferring our drivers’ licenses, we find a source of cheap, sustainable books (preferably that have a four week lending period). Because as problematic as it may be to be pulled over and have to explain why you’re driving with a Indiana license when you reside in Virginia, nothing compares to the panic that grips my soul at the thought of not having bedtime stories or a pile of books waiting patiently for me on my nightstand.
For me, this love affair with books (which I suppose also meets the clinical definition of certain addictions) began when I was young. My mother was (and is still) an insatiable reader who was rarely seen without a book in hand—everything from Dickens to Horace to Austen–this woman taught me that while it’s fine for a girl to be pretty, it’s essential that she read. And do so often. My husband, on the other hand, didn’t discover reading until his sophomore year of college when his American Lit professor captured his imagination with an excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
(Consider this a plug for required college English classes—you never know what they may ignite.)
And yet, I really don’t count myself among the literati. There are lots of books that I haven’t read, lots that I should have, and probably even more that I shouldn’t have. I always feel slightly inferior whenever I see my friends’ Goodreads’ lists or overhear them discussing the latest, most significant, most groundbreaking new release—the one that I didn’t even know existed. And to be perfectly honest, I find myself projecting these insecurities as I smugly pass the Amish fiction section in the local Christian bookstore--all the while secretly wondering what I’m missing.
Still, according to Karen Swallow Prior
, Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University, this isn’t a problem. In this interview
spotlighting her recently released memoir, Booked! Literature in the Soul of Me
, Prior suggests that it’s not so much what we read—although I’m sure she’d have a some recommendations—as it is that we read,
that we allow the process to shape our souls as it has hers. In doing so she echoes the words of G.K. Chesterton who argues in “The Ethics of Elfland”
that his faith began in the nursery where he acquired a “certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by mere facts.”
Simply put, what we acquire through literature is what we need to live in reality. When a story stretches our capacity to understand situations and characters, it is in effect teaching us how to “read” life. And through the process, we discover more about ourselves, our God, and others. Through His good gift of the book, our souls expand and we are given the opportunity to live beyond ourselves in order to gain perspective on ourselves. If only in those moments, if only through the slimmest of volumes, we are ushered into a “laboratory of life” in which we can experiment and dream, in which we can see the world as it should be or discover the tragic consequences when it is not.
It is no coincidence that Christians should be, not only people of “The Book,” but people of books. In His wisdom, our God has ordained that His words not simply be spoken by the prophets but that they also be written and preserved by the scribe. And perhaps more significantly, in His wisdom, our God has deigned to call His Son the incarnate Word—a living, breathing, walking… story. A Story within a story. The
Story on which all others rest.
We should not be surprised then if our souls, the very souls that were formed after His, resonate and thrill at stories. We should not be surprised if despite ourselves we love what He loves. And we should not be surprised, that as much as we like to think that we own our books, we often find—thirty boxes and eight moving trucks later—that we are owned by them instead.
This Thanksgiving, my family is smack in the middle of a time of peace and abundance so, in many ways, it’s been relatively easy to count my blessings. This year has brought us our first house, a fantastic job, the chance to live close to family, and multiple opportunities to use and develop our gifts.
It hasn’t always been this way. Quite frankly, we’ve had years when we simply didn’t feel like celebrating. Like the Thanksgiving that my husband was unemployed
and we had to be out of our house by the end of November with no idea of where we were going next. Or the following year, when he was employed but working an entry level job that kept us home for the holidays and far from family. Or any of the times our Thanksgiving dinner was bought with food stamps because despite having three college degrees between us, working hard, living frugally, and carrying no debt, you simply can't raise a family of five on $9-11/hr.
Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned through those lean times, it’s the necessity of celebrating when you don’t feel like it and the importance of feasting when you think you can’t afford to. And to celebrate, not in spite of the difficulties or by tricking yourself into forgetting the struggles; but to celebrate precisely because of them
Throughout human history, feasting has been the privilege of the rich, to be enjoyed by those who could afford it while fasting was the daily existence of the masses. Even today feasting and fasting are often little more than economic realities applied to the dinner table. But in his wisdom, our God turns even economic realities on their head--in his divine wisdom, he actually commands us to do both.
For those of us who are rich in this world, fasting becomes a way to remind ourselves of our spiritual poverty, of our dependence on Him for our daily bread. But for those who are poor in this world—whether in spirit or pocket book—it is the feast that requires more faith and is ultimately more instructive. For in the feast, in those fleeting moments of abundance, we remind ourselves that through His generous grace, we are indeed rich.
When Moses was instructing the fledgling nation of Israel about how to celebrate the riches of the harvest, he said this:
Before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you…then you shall turn it into money… and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire…whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy 14:22-26)
So celebrate--use your money for luxury instead of frugality--because in doing so you dedicate it in praise to the One who ultimately cares for you. You show your dependence on him by consuming it instead of saving it. You show your thankfulness for his provision by receiving it and rejoicing in it. And as you do, you remind yourself that all the budgeting, all the couponing, all the thrift in the world means nothing to a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills.
So while this is probably not Dave Ramsey approved, here’s a piece of unconventional holiday advice: even if you think you can’t afford to celebrate this Thanksgiving, you really can’t afford not to.
You must find a way--whether small or great—to mark this coming Thursday as a day distinct, as a day of thankfulness and dependence. And one way to do that is to dedicate yourself to the spiritual discipline of feasting. Roast the turkey, mash the potatoes, and heap massive gobs of real whipped cream on top of that pumpkin pie. And then sit down and delight. For one day, for one moment, feel no guilt, no worry, no fear about what tomorrow holds. And rejoice. Because in your poverty, in your loneliness, this is your sacrifice. Your sacrifice is letting go of the pain, letting go of the weight in your soul and reminding yourself through the briefest moment of luxury that your God cares for you and that he always will.
Last Friday night found me and my family (along with several dozen other folks) sitting in Miss Kay’s proper parlor singing at the top of our lungs.
We almost missed it. Like the classic “big picture” person that I am, I had mixed up my dates, double-booked house guests, and created the very distinct possibility that we would be absent from a mainstay of the church’s yearly calendar. File this one under “How NOT to Be a Good Pastor’s Wife.”
Fortunately we didn't miss it. A little rearranging and a couple blushing conversations later, we ended up at Miss Kay’s front door promptly at 7:00. (Okay, not promptly… but we did get there.) The evening began like any other social gathering—food and small talk—but then about forty minutes in, something happened. A whisper spread through the house and with the enthusiasm of children, this eclectic group aged 17 months to 77 years assembled themselves in the front parlor (yes, I do mean parlor). Out came the guitars; next a mandolin; and before you knew it, someone was seated at the piano, running gospel scales up and down.
Then it began.
And with the initial chord, with the first blend, I knew that I was witnessing something special. I was witnessing what is fast becoming one of the rarest (and soon to be extinct) forms of social interaction in our culture—communal singing. Now this wasn’t the embarrassed-national-anthem-mumbling type of singing that happens at ballgames and graduations. No, this was classic “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor”
and everyone instinctively did seem to know how to “join right in there.” Song after song, voices called out favorites and all of us--from the boy soprano to the bass who in a another life had traveled with a gospel group—sang with abandon. At times, a soloist would take over and the rest of us would simply drop back without a word. We repeated choruses and elongated final lines all via a silent understanding that only exists between people who have lived a lifetime together.
For my part, I joined in when I could although I was raised more Watts
. Mostly though, I just sat in awe—in awe of the secret that I had been entrusted. A secret best kept in mountain hollers, family reunions, and small country churches—the secret of singing as community.
We are people who are quickly losing the capacity to live together in peace. We are consumed by our private issues and personal angst; so much so that we can’t even elect a president in civility. At the same time, we are losing the ability to sing together; and as this piece
notes, even when we want to, we don’t know what to sing. And as we lose the music, I’m afraid we’re losing something more. We’re losing a metaphor for life, for how to live and engage in community, how to be silent when the soloist is singing, how to support the melody with our harmonies, how to not need the spotlight. Because as we lose the ability to sing together, we also are losing an opportunity to learn how to work together to reach larger goals.
What’s saddest to me is that we’re losing this in our churches as well. After decades of projecting lyrics onto overhead screens, the gradual disappearance of hymnals, and the repetition of simple melodies, we may have just raised an entire generation that never once encountered the beauty and wonder of singing in parts. (To quote Church Curmudgeon
: “Worship team practice is canceled. Use the four chords from last week.") This is not a rant against contemporary music—our family has been part of communities that have been exclusively contemporary and those that have been strictly traditional. And in every case, there’s been good... and otherwise. This is simply a call to not forget that corporate singing must be corporate.
It must be more than simply singing in unison because our congregations are not uniform. They represent people of different backgrounds, giftings, personalities, and ages; and what better way to embody that than through music that lets you find your place and sing at the top of your lungs.
Because honestly, corporate worship was never intended to be--nor can it ever truly be—simply a collection of individuals expressing their private worship to the Lord. No, we must sing in parts. We must embrace the unique callings that we each represent and then combine our voices in harmony to praise a God who can orchestrate the motliest crew into a beautiful chorus. And we must teach our children this—it is as necessary as any other educational experience or process of socialization. We must teach them the magic of harmonizing and the joy of not having to be the soloist; we must teach them the wonder of singing as a group.
And along the way, we might just learn a little something about life in community as well.